"Sail ho!"


            Hauwyrd Mahkneel looked up sharply at the lookout's announcement.


            "Five sail — no, at least seven sail — bearing nor'-nor'west!"


            "Seven?" The captain shook his head. "Seven?"


            "Something must have gone wrong, Sir." Mahkneel hadn't realized he'd spoken aloud until Lieutenant Gahrmyn responded to him. He turned and looked at the other man, and Gahrmyn shrugged. "I don't know what it might have been, Sir, but obviously something did. If I had to guess, I'd wager something tipped Sir Vyk's hand early and these are the ones who managed to make sail and avoid the boat parties."


            Mahkneel grunted. Gahrmyn's explanation was almost certainly the right one, but that didn't help him very much. Seven ships would be almost a quarter of the total number of Charisian galleons in Ferayd when Arrowhead departed for her part in this operation, and he had exactly one galley with which to stop them.


            And if any of them get away, someone's going to want my arse fried on a spit, and never mind the fact that I can only intercept one of them at a time!


            "Clear for action, Master Gahrmyn," he said crisply.


            "Aye, aye, Sir."


            Gahrmyn touched his shoulder in salute, turned away, and began shouting orders of his own. Bosun's whistles blew, the deep-voiced drums began to roll, and feet pattered wildly as Arrowhead's crew responded to the summons to battle.


            "Deck, there! I can see at least nine of 'em now!" the lookout shouted, and Mahkneel grimaced.


            The numbers weren't getting any better, but at least these were merchant ships, not war galleons. Arrowhead's broadside armament might be little more than a joke compared to what King Cayleb's galleons were reported to mount, but eight falcons, each throwing an eight-pound shot, ought to be sufficient to deal with any mere merchantman. And, if it wasn't, the forecastle's chase armament — one fifty-pound doomwhale and a flanking pair of thirty-pounder krakens, mounted to fire straight ahead — certainly would. The problem wasn't whether or not he could stop any galleon with which he managed to come to grips, but the fact that he didn't see any way a single galley could "come to grips" with nine of them before most of them at least, sailed right past him.


            Well, the Writ says Langhorne knows when a man's done the best he can. I'm just going to have to hope Mother Church and the King are equally understanding.


            "Do you want to use the chase guns or the falcons, Sir?" Lieutenant Gahrmyn asked.


            "A single shot from the doomwhale would turn one of these people inside out," Mahkneel said.


            "Yes, Sir. I know."


            "On the other hand . . . "


            Mahkneel rubbed his chin thoughtfully. What he'd just said to Gahrmyn was undoubtedly true. The chasers were far more gun than would be needed to stop any merchantman ever built . . . but they would certainly be more impressive than his falcons. And he could use the chase armament to plug away at them from astern if they decided to keep running, as well. Under these sea conditions, his gunners' accuracy wouldn't be anything to brag about. In fact, they'd be lucky to hit their target at all at any range much above sixty or seventy yards. But they might get lucky, and even if they didn't, merchant seamen faced with the prospect of fifty-pound shot pitching into their hulls might just decide against tempting fate.


            "Have the Gunner go ahead and load the chasers," he said after moment. "And tell him I'll want the warning shot fired from the doomwhale." Gahrmyn's eyebrows rose, and Mahkneel chuckled sourly. "I don't much like heretics, Rahnyld, but I'd just as soon not kill anyone I don't have to. And if you were a merchant seaman, how would you feel about having a doomwhale fired across your bow?"


            "Actually, Sir," the first lieutenant said with the first genuine smile Mahkneel had seen out of him since they'd received their orders, "I think that after I got done pissing myself, I'd probably strike my colors as quickly as humanly possible!"


* * * * * * * * * *


            "What do you think he's going to do, Sir?" Kevyn Edwyrds asked quietly as the Delfarahkan galley came plowing through the strengthening whitecaps towards them.


            The low-slung galley was making heavier going of it than the galleons, but there was an undeniable rakish gracefulness to her, compared to the high-sided, round-bowed galleons. She was a coastal design, far smaller and with a much shallower draft than any Charisian galley. She couldn't have displaced much more than a third of Kraken's thousand tons, and she had much lower and sleeker castles fore and aft than a Charisian galley would have shown. That smaller size made her faster under oars in calm conditions, but it also left her at a greater disadvantage in a lively seaway. Bursts of spray exploded over her sharply raked bow, and green water swept back on either side to cream whitely over the angularity of her rowing frame. It must, Fyshyr thought, be . . . lively aboard her. Which wasn't going to do a thing for her gunnery.


            "From the looks of things, he's planning to put a shot across our bows from one of the chasers," the captain said out loud. "If he fires at anything over a hundred yards, we'd be safer if he were shooting at us, I think."


            "He might just get lucky, Sir."


            "He might. Still, I'm thinking he'll probably want to get closer than that before he fires the first shot. It's going to take him a good ten minutes to reload an old-style gun under these conditions, maybe longer. So, if he fires one shot — probably from the main chase, although he might use one of the flankers — and we don't stop, he'll want to be close enough to make sure he's got at least a decent chance of hitting us with the other two."


            "So how do you want to handle it, Sir?"


            Fyshyr kept his eyes on the oncoming galley while he considered Edwyrds' question. Kraken's carronades were loaded and ready, although her camouflaged gun ports were still closed. The question in his mind was whether or not that camouflage would hold up.


            Part of him was tempted to fire as soon as the galley entered his effective range. Which, he admitted to himself, wasn't going to be much above a hundred yards, maximum, under these conditions even for his gunners. But in order to fire, they'd have to open the ports and run out the guns, and that was going to take at least a few seconds. Long enough for an alert galley's gun crews to get off their own shots first. Of course, there was always the question of just how accurate and effective those shots might be, especially if they were rushed, wasn't there? Still . . . .


            "We'll hold our course for now," he said. "If we can, I want to encourage him to waste at least one of the shots from those chasers of his."


* * * * * * * * * *


            Mahkneel glowered at the untidy gaggle of galleons.


            They showed no sign of stopping, despite the fact that only a drooling idiot could have misunderstood his own intentions, but at least they hadn't done the one thing he'd been most afraid of. If they'd scattered, tried to evade Arrowhead independently, the galley could never have caught more than one or two of them at most, under these conditions. But they hadn't done that. Instead, they'd stayed huddled together like frightened sheep, which suited him just fine.


            "That one, I think," he said to Gahrmyn, pointing at the leading galleon. It was bigger than most of the others, and it had drawn a good quarter mile in front of its fellows. And while the others were crowding up to windward, staying as far from Arrowhead as they could, the leader had actually fallen off the wind a bit, which was going to bring him closer to Mahkneel's guns.


            "Aye, aye, Sir."


            The lieutenant saluted, then made his way forward to personally pass the word to the gunner, and Mahkneel nodded in satisfaction. That sort of thoroughness was typical of Gahrmyn.


* * * * * * * * * *


            "That's right," Fyshyr half-crooned to himself, watching the Delfarahkan closing on Kraken. "Just a little closer . . . "