Credit to MandTeKad who is serving as co-author on this story (along with working in the backroom for my other series).

As always, this chapter was released at least 2 weeks ago to my supporters (with every level above tier 1 having seen a draft version, and the highest level seeing the redrafted form, around 2 months ago) and on the story's Discord server (in GDoc form) about a week ago. Hopefully, all the little mistakes have been found and removed.

33: Raiding the Whores Part 2

… …

(Circa 297AC)

I stood on the quarterdeck of the Red Kraken as she sailed out of port. Behind us, the first embers of fire were rising in the final port on the fourth island of The Whores. Like every port before it that we'd attacked, the place had fallen disappointingly quickly. The defenders hadn't been expecting an overwhelming attack from an external party. Also, like with the others, one ship that didn't belong was burning in the bay. The colours of the Bloodhawk floated nearby, drifting in the water so they'd survive the fire and be there whenever men under the command of Lucian Koros arrived to determine what had happened to the port.

Those two Pirate Lords were the main players on The Shrouded Isle. This attack, along with others that I'd blamed on The Bloodhawk, should, I hoped, incite the pair to have larger skirmishes over the attacks. Battles that would ideally take place both here and on The Shrouded Isle.

With this island now cleared, only three remained for me to attack. Those were the central, northernmost, and easternmost islands in the group. Most of the ports on those three islands were controlled by Aeron Indarys from Bloodstone, with The Blood Serpent, who was also based on Bloodstone, Alequo Ryndoon from Grey Gallows, and Lucian Koros controlling the other ports.

While I could continue attacking as I had been, I knew the time for such slow, port-to-port attacks was running out. Smoke from the first two islands – which were the westernmost and southernmost islands – had risen high enough that I could see them from the northern edge of the fourth island, though I did need the Myrish Eye to do so. Still, if I could see them from here, then those on the central island would be able to see them without any aid. Because of that, I'd altered my plan of attack for the three ports there.

The majority of my enlarged fleet, led by the Red Kraken and another war galley – the Coral Howl – and escorted by six galleys, would sail directly to the northern port, under the control of Aeron Indarys, on the central island. That was the largest port present, and one built for controlling the waters between it and the remaining two islands.

My remaining ships, consisting of four galleys and two longboats, had set sail earlier today. They were banking around the island we'd just razed and would strike at the central island from the southwest. There, a small port controlled by Lucian Koros would be attacked, which, if all went to plan, would occur just as my fleet was ready to move from the main port to strike at the eastern port of the island.

With the last port taken, Cayde's forces, including what they could grab and whoever bent the knee, would meet us there and we'd sail for the easternmost island. From there I expected to sail back to Northpoint, leaving the northernmost island undamaged. With luck, that would have the Pirate Lords of The Shrouded Isle, Grey Gallows, and beyond think the attacks on the rest of The Whores had been arranged by one or both of the Pirate Lords of Bloodstone. From there, the others would return in force to retake their territory – to not do so would leave them weak to challengers from inside and outside of their ranks, and send the northern and eastern sections of the Stepstones into war between the Pirate Lords here.

Ideally, that would then draw in other nearby Pirate Lords from Obsidian Sands, Misthaven and, ideally, Redwater. With the Pirate Lords then thrown into chaos, or more of it as the Stepstones weren't exactly lawful before I took Dustspear, it would open the path for me to attack Redwater with minimal threat of an attack from any of the Pirate Lords to my north.

Though for now, my focus remained on the central island of The Whores, and I offered a prayer to the Old Gods for fair winds and good luck as my fleet pulled away from the now-cleansed fourth island.

… …

… …

"I have something you might want to see."

I lifted my head from looking at the map of the Stepstones that I'd laid out on the table in the main cabin of the Red Kraken, at Bronn's words. He was standing in the doorframe – I'd left the door open so he and others could enter without worrying about disturbing me – with a slight hint of concern on his face.

"What?" I asked as I leaned back.

"Best you see for yer'self," he replied.

Nodding, I ensured the map was securely anchored to the table, preventing it from rolling away with objects in each corner. While still vague, I anticipated gathering more information after the campaign in The Whores, enabling me to enhance details, particularly for The Shrouded Isle and Bloodstone. Though not immediately actionable, additional intelligence on enemy strength and locations would be invaluable. While aware of the main fortresses of the Pirate Lords on those islands and Grey Gallows, details such as their other ports and the status of minor Pirate Lords remained elusive.

I followed Bronn out onto the deck, bringing the main deck. The sails were unfurled, taking advantage of a steady, though not very strong, breeze from astern. The men were at the oars, and several looked up at me. The drummer – who was maintaining their speed with steady beats – nodded, but I didn't give him or the others much attention as Bronn turned toward the flight of stairs to the quarterdeck.

Ascending the steps, I furrowed my brow as the view astern revealed distant objects in the water. Despite the challenge in discerning details, even with my vision aided by my bond with Rian – whom I sorely missed on this campaign – I could discern approximately half a dozen ships trailing behind us.

"Have a look."

I took the Myrish Eye that Bronn offered, and after moving the rear railing, lifted it to my eye. "Shit." The curse flowed freely as I confirmed that there were ships behind us. Though the curse was brought on less by that – as we outnumbered that fleet and were far enough away that if we wanted to turn to engage we could – but by the sigil on the mainsails of several of those vessels.

"Aye, that was my feeling when I was told about them," Bronn commented as I continued to observe the pirate fleet.

They weren't directly behind us, laying more northerly than the path we'd sailed along. That suggested they; come from the northernmost island of The Whore. The one I'd decided to avoid so I could attack the central island of the chain. Their path meant they were heading in roughly the same direction as we were, which meant they were one of a resupply fleet for Aeron's holdings, a raiding fleet like ours, or the beginnings of a trap Aeron had set for this section of The Whores.

With smoke from the fourth island visible to me through the Myrish Eye, why they were here was less important as to their intent. Odds were that having seen that smoke, they'd rightly assume that we were responsible for the attack on that port, and would be out for revenge. Now, they'd not rush to do so, as we outnumbered them, but it meant our attack on the central island would have to be swift as fuck or we'd risk those ships crashing into our rear before we'd taken the port.

"What do you want to do?"

Lowering the Eye, I turned to Bronn. "Not sure. We could turn and engage them, but beyond not being sure if the newer men would stand and fight such a battle, it would delay us from attacking the port. That could place Cayde and Irraro in danger."

"Aye, that is true. But I dislike leaving those buggers on our arse when we attack the port."

"I know, but for now we just have to wait and see." I didn't like that idea or the growing sense that the appearance of this fleet was no accident, but without further intel, I wasn't ready to alter course. Once more, the absence of Rian weighed on my mind, though I understood his priorities lay elsewhere, attending to the needs of his mate and their imminent hatchling.

According to the Maester's tomes on Sunfyre eagles, the gestation period for their eggs spanned roughly two moons, with the chick requiring an additional two to four moons before fledging. Yet, with Ari and others providing support, and Rian's mystical influence nurturing the chick, I pondered the possibility of accelerated growth, akin to Rian's own development. Another speculation loomed: whether the fledgling or its mother, Riona, might form a bond with one of the Stark children, a notion destined for confirmation only after several lunar cycles.

Setting aside these musings, I redirected my thoughts to Aeron's fleet. The majority of his former loyalists, now sworn to me, sailed under Cayde and Irraro's command. Betrayal seemed unlikely, as Bronn aptly put it, with those men doggedly trailing our every move.

"Captain! Call from the Coral Howl!" The shout from a crewmember who'd come close to the quarterdeck cut me off from giving the order to turn and engage. The former pirate was gesturing to port, and turning that way I could make out Daemon standing on the quarterdeck of that war galley.

Beside him, one of the crew was using flags to signal what Daemon wanted to relay.

"Got a bad feeling about this," Bronn muttered as I watched the flags, getting the message. Initially, it seemed they were simply reporting the fleet astern, but then Daemon turned, lifted a Myrish Eye he had – one liberated during our campaign – and looked southward.

"Shit!" I cursed before I'd finished lifting my Eye. "Fuck!" I cursed again as I made out another fleet, again of six vessels, sailing northward from the central island. While not in our path, they were cutting off an avenue of escape to the south that would take us around the central island and close to the islands we'd already razed. To make matters worse, like those behind, these ships bore the sigil or Aeron Indarys on their sails.

"A fucking trap," I muttered as I lowered the telescope.

"Prefer to be the one springing those," Bronn offered, his voice harsh as understanding sank in for him.


I looked at the fleet behind us, reconsidering my options, and then back at the southern fleet. Neither was bound directly for us, but it wouldn't take much for the two fleets to angle their approaches to either attack together or herd us deeper into the trap.

I wasn't sure how, but it appeared that Aeron had not only worked out the pattern of attacks on the other islands in The Whores, but prepared a response when the attacking fleet – my ships – entered the gaps between the central and northernmost islands.

Now, it might be that this trap was one designed to catch any fleet sailing through this gap, be that forces from another Pirate Lord or traders risking a shortcut to shave time off their journey, but I couldn't be certain of that. Regardless of how or why this trap existed, in my rush to swarm the next island, we'd sailed directly into it.

With our lead, it should be possible to keep our distance as we sailed eastward, however, there was a fair chance Aeron would have something else waiting for us if we pushed forward. We could turn to engage either fleet, but some quick calculations suggested that even if the fleet we turned to engage simply stopped – to say nothing or turning tail – we'd not be able to wipe them out before the other fleet crashed into us from astern.

Now, even though we were outnumbered in overall vessels and men, I knew we could prevail against both fleets, but the victory would be extremely costly. Perhaps to the point of making it, and this entire campaign, nothing more than a pyrrhic victory.

With those being the only two options, I made my choice. "Order the fleet to accelerate slightly." The crewmember on the stairs nodded and turned to relay the orders to the drummer on the Red Kraken and those manning the flags for intra-fleet communications.

"You know they want us to do that?"

"Aye, I know," I replied as I turned to Bronn. "and we both know they will have something waiting for us once we sail deeper into the trap."

"Aye, they will." He paused and scratched his chin, the stumble there having grown thicker since we'd set sail from Northpoint. "Plan for that?"

"Working on one, but I am not going to commit until we know what awaits us."

He grumbled at my reply. "Fair enough," he said, devoid of his usual confidence, revealing his grasp of the looming danger. "Think I will go and check my armour and weapons. Got a feeling I will need them soon."

I nodded in agreement and planned to do the same. Though before I followed him off the quarterdeck, I gazed at each of the pursuing fleets. If Rian was here we'd have known about the trap, or at the very least, be able to know what lay ahead of us. He wasn't, which meant I was flying blind so all I could do was hope that the trap was one we could break through without major losses.

… …

… …

"I hate to tell you I told you so, but…"

Bronn let his words trail off as we stood on the foredeck of the Red Kraken – which, if we survived this campaign, would be getting renamed once we were back in Northpoint – as we looked forward.

In the distance, the easternmost island of The Whores was jutting out from the horizon, however our focus wasn't on it, or the central island to our starboard. It was on the small fleet of six ships that lay northeast of us; blocking the wider, clearer, path out of the middle of The Whores and into the Stepstones at large.

The two fleets that had appeared earlier were behind us, at roughly the four and seven o'clock positions, meaning this was the next stage of Aeron's trap. The trick now was to work out what it was he wanted us to do, and then do the opposite without losing most of the ships in our fleet.

"I was the one who said it was a trap, you just agreed with me," I replied to the sellsword and one of the senior commanders of my forces.

"Maybe, but that does not mean I was not right," he retorted. Despite the grimness of the situation, his retort elicited a smirk from me. "Damn well wish I had been wrong, though."

"You and me both."

This third fleet was stationary – oars up and sails furled – but it was enough to make going northward difficult. It was clear that their intent was for us to go south, taking a narrow passageway between the central and easternmost islands: right between two ports controlled by Aeron. It didn't take a genius to know that was a death alley, and I'd not find a single man in my fleet willing to wager that the narrow channel wasn't lined with scorpions, pirates, and Gods knew what else to force any ships entering to surrender.

The only upside I could find was that this trap didn't appear to be one designed specifically for us. If it was, then each fleet would've been slightly larger to discourage even the idea of attacking either of the two chasing fleets before we were pushed deeper into the trap. I wondered how many pirates or traders the trap caught, but I could give Aeron credit for a well-designed funnel for anyone who slipped into his grasp.

Beyond heading north or south in the water, options existed to beach the fleet on the islands to our east and south. Either one was fraught with danger, as we'd be close to at least one port controlled by Aeron, if not one of the other Pirate Lords still active in The Whores. Beaching would also remove the advantage given to us by the greater firepower of the war galleys which each carried six scorpions to a standard galley's two. The two war galleys also had hardened bows, being lined with metal to strengthen the damage they'd do when they rammed an enemy vessel.

The scorpions in my fleet were our biggest advantage, and not just because of numbers. Each port we'd raided had held reserve bolts for the weapons, and since we'd not needed to use them so far in the campaign, the war galleys carried nearly three hundred bolts and each galley a hundred. When captured, no galley had even a third of that number, suggesting that when faced with odds not firmly in their favour, the pirates preferred to withdraw. That made perfect sense given the nature of pirates and the number of enemies in The Whores.

Additionally, we had a lot of liberated weapons, enough that every man in the fleet could carry two swords if they wished, and about half could be armed with bows. All that meant that, if we had the room, we could fight a battle of distance and attrition. Sadly, neither was going to be possible here.

For ship-to-ship warfare, Daemon, Bronn, I, and a few others had an advantage in armour, though not the full plate Daemon and I had as knights. Neither of us had brought every part of our full armour with us, as the concern of going overboard while wearing it was there. Still, at least for my senior fighters, we had an advantage in armour and weapons, if not numbers.

Considering all that, I reached a decision and offered a cheerful smile to Bronn. "Well, since we know it is a trap, let us spring it!"

There was a moment where Bronn regarded me as if I had transformed into a dragon, though the moment, and the expression it brought forth, swiftly dissipated. "Eh, what the hell," he muttered. "I mean, there was this lovely girl from YiTi I met in Sunspear that I would like to fuck again, but where is the enjoyment in fleeing." My smile widened as I surmised the identity of the girl he referred to. "Got a plan yet?"

"Sail eastwards as if confused about what to do, and then when closer, swing north. If we time it right, we should be able to shatter their lines before the other fleets reach us."

Bronn grinned. "Aye, fuck them before they fuck us."

"Not how I would put it," I responded with a chuckle, "but accurate. We need not defeat them to a man, and I want no attempt to make them bend the knee. We just need to smash through them."

"Aye, and we have to get the timing right. If we turn too early, those on our arse will be on us before we can break through." Bronn snorted after saying that. "Which you already know, I know, but it bears stating."

"I do, aye. And we need to do what we can to ensure that they don't realise we're readying to turn and attack. Need supplies for the scorpions and bows readied quietly, but if we can catch them with their pants down, we should take out some, if not most, of their ability to return fire."

"Ballsy, but given your plans before this and who you fuck, about what I expect." Bronn's words had me grinning like a madman.

"Let the other ships know and I will begin moving supplies around here." I stepped forward and clasped his shoulder. "And if at all possible, try not to get yourself killed."

"Same, though only because if you die I may have trouble getting paid for this."

I laughed as he moved away. While I'd only known Bronn for barely half a year, he was a decent man to have around. Oh, he was motivated by coin and his heart was black as coal, and the idea that someone might pay him more to betray me was always there, but otherwise, he was great to have around. Perhaps in time, I could find a way to assure his loyalty wasn't linked to coin, but that was a thought for another day. For today, and certainly the next few hours, my focus was on surviving the trap Aeron had laid, and ensuring that as many of my men did so as well.

… …

… …

I pulled my arm back, Red Rain sliding gently from the gut of one pirate. The qualities of the blade ensured the cut was clean, and brought forth remains of some of his internal organs. The man fell to his knees, shock at how quickly he'd died clear on his face as a flick of my wrist had the tip of the Valyrian Steel blade sever his throat.

Turning, I already put that fool out of my mind, as I'd done for the half-dozen who'd also fallen to my blade since we'd engaged the third fleets. Each of the men had gotten a look in their eye when they'd seen the colour of my blade and thought I'd be an easy mark, but all they'd earned was a quick, and I hoped painful, death.

Red Rain swung around, a hard block clattering against the blade of the next pirate to dare attack me. Unlike with some of the earlier pirates, the man's blade didn't buckle or break as soon as it faced Valyrian steel, but it was for nought. While my swing pushed his blade his blade down and out, my axe swiftly found its mark at the edge of his neck.

A squirt of blood accompanied the axe as I pulled it free. The man stumbled back, one hand going to the wound though he soon had more to worry about as my blade came around on a backswing to finish relieving him of his head.

A howl of delight from somewhere behind me mixed with a cry of terror, and even without feeling Ymir's joy at his kill, I knew he'd taken down another pirate. Since this was going to be a quick and brutal battle, I'd had him wait near the door to my cabin until the battle was underway, before emerging. That had put a fear of the Gods into the pirates and turned the engagement from a skirmish into a rout.

Seeing I had a moment's peace in the battle – no pirate or crewmember nearby – I considered how this battle had gone. My fleet had turned into Aeron's third fleet once we were nearer, the Red Kraken and Coral Howl bearing down suddenly toward the centre of the other fleet's line.

As we'd turned, every scorpion, and about half the men, had opened fire with bolts and arrows. Our fire had concentrated on four of the six ships not directly in our way before the scorpions on the war galleys switched to the remaining two vessels – which were the central ones in Aeron's fleet – after the initial volleys.

With my weirwood bow, and the gift of enhanced sight due to my bond with Rian – who I sorely missed – I'd been able to target specific men on the pirate vessels. At first, those had been men manning scorpions, but as we moved closer, I'd taken aim at the helmsman and any near them on the various quarterdecks. Not long after that, with Aeron's fleet in chaos due to the unexpected barrage – at least in how coordinated and targeted it was – the Red Kraken had crashed into the forward hull of one of the central ships; the Coral Howl doing the same to the other.

We'd struck the pirates well; our metal ram piercing their hull. While half the men worked to row us back, Bronn, me, Ymir, and others secured our deck against any pirate dumb enough to try and board us.

Before we could fully pull back, another galley had pulled alongside. Quick work by Lazo, who was one of the first men to bend the knee during this campaign, ensured the oars on our port weren't shattered, while I and some of the other men moved to fight off the boarders. During the battle – which was still ongoing – the Kraken had managed to pull back, separating us from the first of Aeron's galleys. That ship was slowly sinking, her crew either moving to try and board us in the hope of survival or jumping overboard to escape the stricken vessel.

The only issue was that it was listing toward us, and we'd need to get moving quickly to ensure it didn't come down on us, and trap us here before Aeron's other fleets arrived. To push through we needed the second galley pushed back as well, though with how quickly its crew were falling around me, that wouldn't take long to achieve.

With the rout - calling it a battle was a disservice - looking like it would soon be over, I looked beyond the pirate galley on our starboard. The remaining pirate galley there was being swarmed by three of my galleys. While one looked like it was entangled with the pirates, the other two were free and helping their cohorts by pulling alongside on the other side of the pirate vessel or peppering the deck with arrows and bolts.

I looked to starboard and saw the side of the Coral Howl. Battle was raging on her decks as well, but I couldn't see where the other vessels – be they pirate or mine – were as the higher deck of the war galley, and the chaos on its deck made it difficult to see much beyond.

While the battles were going well, time was a factor and we needed to be clear of this battle soon otherwise the entire campaign would be for nought. Wanting a clearer picture of the status of the other half of my fleet, and needing to know how close Aeron's other fleets were, I moved toward the quarterdeck. However, I only got a half-dozen steps before another pirate tried to accost me.

In contrast to the others, this figure loomed larger and broader than myself, brandishing a massive war axe. The sight of mutilated bodies nearby, dripping blood, emphasised its lethal nature. With a swift roll of his arms, the giant swung the axe in my direction. I jumped back, observing its speed with mild surprise. Yet, my years of futile attempts to spar with Oberyn using a spear left me feeling as if the gigantic weapon moved through thick quicksand.

The war axe came around again – the pirate knowing how to turn it without losing velocity – though this time I only slid back one foot. The edge of the axe missed my chest plate by a scant few centimetres, and as it passed, I countered. Lunging forward, I drove Red Rain into the man's stomach, the armour there doing little to stop the tip of my blade.

The large pirate grunted as the blade sunk in, and in the corner of my eye, I saw the axe swiftly – for a weapon of its size – turning. I, however, was quicker, and before he could swing the axe around again, I was beside him. Red Rain had remained inside his stomach as I moved, only emerging as I stepped beyond the man; blood and guts gushing from the cut that half bisected his stomach.

A pivot brought my blade around high, and the blade bit into the man's flesh again. This time at his neck, and when I finished my move, once more looking toward the stern of my ship, the giant pirate's head clattered to the deck. The body slumped, the axe embedding itself in my deck, even as I resumed my path to the quarterdeck.

Near the stairs, I saw Bronn and Ymir engaged in battle. The sellsword gracefully holding off two pirates without surrendering any ground. The direwolf readying himself to pounce against another pirate who'd made the mistake of turning his back on the black terror.

Bronn's blade flicked out with speed and finesse that most knights I knew would struggle to match, and he drove the pair he was fighting back. A deft cut of the blade caught one pirate on the arm, the other getting slashed across the face on the backswing before they could even consider attacking.

At the same time, Ymir crashed into the pirate he'd been eying. His massive maw opened wide, and a scream ripped through the ship as the pirate's shoulder disappeared into the direwolf's mouth. A twist of his head was all Ymir needed for his teeth to sever flesh and rip the shoulder and arm from the body. the pirate collapsed, blood spurting out and covering Ymir's snout. Yet the direwolf didn't stay with his kill.

The arm was dropped, and Ymir leapt again, his front paws clattering onto the back of a pirate that was trying to sneak up on Bronn. The man screamed as Ymir's claws sunk into his back, though it ended when his head smashed off the deck with a pleasantly sickening thud.

Bronn turned at the ruckus, the two men he'd been fighting dead at his feet, ready to strike. As I neared him, I saw a faint shiver of his shoulders. While he was glad Ymir was on our side, the visceral nature of the direwolf's fighting still unnerved him. As it did for every one of my men.

"Never used to that," I heard the sellsword mutter as I raced past him, bounding up the fleet of steps to the quarterdeck three at a time. I gave the helmsman a nod, the man still near his wheel along with two of the three men I'd assigned to protect him. Yet, as I looked astern, the relief at seeing Miltar was alive faded rapidly.

The two chasing fleets were closing rapidly, perhaps no more than a mile from us. Men were moving at the front of all twelve ships, readying their scorpions. I knew they'd not care about protecting their cohorts in the third fleet as it was being overwhelmed, and by the time they arrived would be all but decimated. The only good piece of news was that both were sailing separately, suggesting the commanders were competing for who could attack us first.

Putting concern about those fleets to one side, I looked to starboard, now having the sightline to see beyond the Coral Howl. The war galley was quieter now, the pirates they'd been battling seemingly all but defeated. I couldn't see the galley to their starboard, but the other two were further afield.

Those two were engaged by the three remaining galleys in my fleet. There it was hard to tell what was going on, bar the fact all three vessels were fully engaged in combat, but picking out some of the faces, I felt the vast majority of men fighting were mine. Hopefully, that meant they were nearing the point where they could work on pulling free of Aeron's vessels.

A glance to port showed the battle there was all but over; my three galleys had overrun Aeron's vessel. Two of the ships were clear of that galley, the last looked like it was working on it, and none looked damaged enough that they couldn't sail on. Yet for all it felt like my forces were winning, I knew this was just the opening act of the performance, and if we hung around for the main section of the show, we'd be massacred.

That point was driven home as the lead galley of the portside chasing fleet launched a bolt from their scorpion. It landed in the water, though far closer than I'd have liked. That bolt was nothing more than a rangefinder and I knew it wouldn't be long until we came under fire.

I thought about going back for my bow, to see if I could perhaps return fire, but knew that by the time I collected it from its secured location, and gathered some arrows, Aeron's fleets would be in range to attack us. Therefore, after moving to the wheel, I reached down and removed the vessel's Myrish Eye. It was kept secured there in a small, padded compartment the former owner of the ship had used and was always handy when I or others wanted to scan the horizons.

"Get us moving!" I said to Miltar as I removed the telescope from its housing. "And send the order to the other vessels," I added as I extended it and gazed at the closer of the two chasing fleets.

The scorpions at the front of the lead vessel of that fleet were being aimed upward in a clear attempt to gain distance while still outside optimal range. The other ships in that fleet weren't doing the same, but once the lead vessel found its range, the rest would follow. A quick shift in stance let me see the other fleet.

The gap between was larger than I'd initially thought, the lead vessel of that fleet also readying their ranged weaponry. That made it clear that the commanders were competing to see who could reach us first, which was something I might be able to use. This fleet – the one that had sailed from the northern island controlled by Aeron – was further back, so they were currently focused more on speed than judging distance.

Each fleet was sailing in a standard wedge formation, the command vessel – or what I assumed was the command vessel – taking the point of the wedge. The tactic was the same one I'd used for my fleet, though both war galleys had formed a shared point when we'd crashed into the third fleet.

I returned my focus to the closer vessel just in time to see another bolt be fired. Leaning back from the Myrish Eye, I quickly picked the inbound shot and watched as, like the first attempt, it impacted the water. It was, however, far closer, and their next shot had the potential to fly true.

"Damnit!" I cursed as I lowered the Eye. Looking at the state of the vessels in my fleet, it became clear that most wouldn't get clear before our pursuers reached us. I needed a plan to either delay Aeron's forces or help my forces slip free of this trap faster. however, any idea that raced through my head was dismissed quickly as their chance of success was slim to non-existent. "Yeah, not doing that," I muttered as one insane, downright mad idea came to the forefront of my thoughts. I wasn't desperate enough to consider attempting that, never mind crazy enough.

I knew I could've had my fleet angle for the edge of Aeron's third fleet instead of for its centre, but hindsight, as they say, was a bitch. Other little mistakes I'd made were becoming apparent, but I didn't and couldn't focus on those just now. What I needed was a plan or one that wasn't fucking insane, that would buy time for my fleet to escape the battle before the reinforcements reached us.

A third bolt came flying in, and even before it finished its arc, I knew it would strike the Kraken. The only upside, if one could call it that, was that it didn't reach the quarterdeck. Instead, it impaled itself against the stern. A glance over the railing removed a concern that the bolt had hit the rudder, though I grumbled at seeing that if it's been half a metre to the right it'd have ended up landing in my cabin. While the windows lacked glass – as that was far too expensive for a warship in the Stepstones – it had a cover but, searching my memories, I knew that had been left open before the battle.

"Keep down as much as you can," I said to Miltar as I moved toward the steps leading down to the main deck. "Bronn!" The sellsword turned at my call. "Get the men to the oars and be careful! We have sailed in range of their bolts!"

I turned back before he could reply, now able to pick out the scorpion crews on the closer fleet without the need for the Eye. The lead vessel fired both scorpions as I moved back to the stern railing, and I slid down behind it. One bolt landed between me and Miltar, the other landing over our port bow.

I placed the Eye on the railing, keeping low as I scanned the closer of the approaching fleets once more. The other vessels were readying to fire, so we'd soon be under attack. The question of how many bolts the pirates had, and what other ranged weaponry they had, came to mind, but they wouldn't need them for long. They just had to keep us, and my men on the other ships, pinned down long enough that we couldn't escape before they reached us.

Even with my bow, I'd not be able to do enough damage to all six vessels to have any effect on their approach. And that was even if they somehow fired all their scorpions in a single volley. A better target would be the helmsman, but as I shifted my gaze to that position on the lead vessel, I knew just using a bow wouldn't work. That helmsman, along with many of the others, wasn't alone on the quarterdeck. The minute the man at the wheel one of those with him would take the position and the scorpions would zero in on my position.

I needed a better plan, and my thoughts returned to the insane idea from earlier. It was deranged that I was even considering it, but given the situation, and that I was under a clock – something reinforced by a series of bolts flying over the quarterdeck, drawing a scream of pain from further forward – it was the only option I had open to me.

Focusing the Eye on the helmsman of the lead vessel, I locked onto my target and closed my eyes.

When I skinchanged into an animal that I wasn't bonded to, I felt my thoughts slam into the mind of another. This mind, however, was vastly different from any beast I'd ever tried to take over. The pure, animalistic nature of a beast's mind was replaced by something that was both less and more.

This mind was less instinctual and bestial than what I'd faced before, though it was far more layered, focused, and familiar. Given I was trying to force my way into the mind of another human that made sense, though it was still unnerving. Knowing I didn't have time to gently ease the worries of the target mind – if I could even do that with a human – and that every second I dallied, more of my men might die, I attacked the mind my thoughts had crashed into.

The outer barrier that all minds had fell away rapidly, something that happened with every mind I tried to merge with or control, yet this barrier felt easier. The familiarity and lack of ferocity of a creature made finding the paths inward simpler.

With that barrier falling, the target's mind reacted. It didn't know what was happening and didn't understand the foreign presence, but it reacted as it should. New blocks appeared, paths deeper into the target's mind shifted, trying to stop me, yet still I pushed forward. My knowledge of skinchanging meant I had ideas of where to push forward, of how to shatter any blockages.

Suddenly the mental war shifted, and everything shifted.

I was in his/my home, a hut somewhere mild. A man stepped forward, dwarfing him/me. An arm pulled back, and he/I stepped back, quivering. A female stepped forward, grasping the man's arm. He/I knew her. Or did I? The man turned, pushing the woman away. His/my hand grasped at something beside him/me as the man turned back to him/me.

In a flash, the man stepped forward, only to stop as something caught the light. He/I looked down at the man, seeing a blade in the man's chest. He/I had done that, hadn't he/I? The man's face twisted, an arm came around, and he/I was sent flying.

The images, the memory, faded as I realised it wasn't what I wanted. Whether it came from the pirate's psyche or was a trap desperately created to stop me, it didn't matter. Whatever it was I pushed aside and cast out. All that mattered was shattering the pirate's mind, taking control of his body, and doing what I had to protect my men.

Shouts erupted as he/I ran away, an apple in his/my grasp. Diving between people, carts, and animals, he/I raced through the various streets. A hand stabbed out, trying to grasp him/me, but he/I slipped away, disappearing down an alley, and fading into the shadows.

I pushed this trap, this memory away, reducing it to atoms as I pushed deeper into my target's thoughts. I could sense the mind I was attacking panicking. I swore I could smell their fear. They didn't know how, but they understood they were being attacked. Being ripped apart by something greater, something stronger than them.

More memories emerged, either by intent or accident, but I didn't focus on any. The moment they appeared, they turned to ash; dispatched into the void between our minds. The pirate battled frantically, futilely to keep me out, but as the memories grew fresher, newer, I knew I'd soon have won the battle and taken control of the mind.

This man, this fool might've begun life in pitiful conditions and endured much, but the fleeting, flashing images of their later deeds removed all remorse I felt for shredding everything that made them who they were today. They didn't deserve to live, not at the expense of my life, or that of Ymir, or any of my men.

… …

I shuddered back, adjusting to not just a new mind but the sensation of being in another human body. my hands remained tight around what I was gripping, and I blinked, adjusting to the new location.

"The fuck's wrong with you?"

After another few blinks, I looked to my left, trying to sort through the handful of memories that had been shredded to determine who the man next to me was. "N-nothin," I replied, my accent placing the body from somewhere in the Stormlands. "Just off for a moment," I added as I tightened my grip on the wheel.

The man beside me, who, based on his clothing, was likely the captain, grunted but that was all he did and as I looked forward, I watched the galley's scorpions fire another pair of bolts at my fleet. In the distance, now maybe six hundred yards away, I could see the chaos of my fleet racing to slip free of the pirate fleet they'd overpowered. A slight shake of my head didn't fix the apparent blurred vision, though I soon realised that it wasn't blurred; I just had to deal with weaker, normal vision as this body didn't share the boosted sight I gained from Rian.

A glance at the captain of this vessel, and leader of this fleet, confirmed his attention had returned to the battle raging ahead and the preparations being undertaken by the few crewmembers not manning the oars. Beyond him I saw some of the fleet under his command, the rest, I confirmed, was to my other side. When I returned my gaze to the wheel, I saw it was similar to those on my captured galleys.

A single wheel connected to a reasonably thick and tarred rope that was wound tightly around the spoke coming from the wheel. While I could hack at it with an axe, to do so I'd have to move around the wheel, which would be seen from the main deck. That meant I'd have to saw at it with a blade; the cutlass at this body's waist being the logical choice.

Finally settled in this body, and aware of the situation, I acted. First, my hand slipped from the wheel, heading to my belt. The captain didn't react to the movement, nor when the hand grasped a dagger. The first he did react was when the dagger rushed toward him, but before he could do much more than widen his eyes, the blade was deep in his gut. A guttural grunt slipped from his lips as I removed the blade. It then thrust upward, catching the captain in his throat as he doubled over from my first attack.

That ensured he couldn't call out about my betrayal, and a pull on the hilt of the dagger had the captain stumble behind me. The sound of his body hitting the deck was lost to under the beating of the drums regulating the oarsmen aboard; those crew thankfully too occupied with their work to spot the sudden, unexpected movement on the quarterdeck.

The cutlass was pulled free and slipped through the spokes of the wheel. A few test slices confirmed the rope was tarred, so I pulled the blade back. Making sure first that no one was looking my way, I pulled the wheel hard to one side.

The galley banked sharply to port; the wind catching the sails wasn't enough to stop the movement. Oars on the starboard side rose high from the water while those on the portside sunk low. Many of the men manning the oars fell over, those closest to the portside falling into the water; some crashing against the very oars they'd been manning. The men at the scorpions and the drummer also fell over, and I smirked as the bags holding the bolts fell over, sending the ammunition scattering over the deck and falling into the sea.

As the galley turned sharply, the cutlass went through the spoke, and I started sawing at a section of rope leading down to the rudder. Panicked screams came from the ship to our port, and a glance there confirmed they were turning hard to port as well to avoid a collision. That ship was half a length back and a full length away, but the sudden movement I'd brought on meant we crashed into their starboard oars before they could react properly.

Wood cracked as the second galley turned, sending many of its crew tumbling, possibly even into the water. However, I couldn't be sure of that as the angle they were at prevented a clear view, as did my focus being on the rope I was trying to cut.

The process was slow going, the tar covering and protecting the rope doing a good job of delaying me from reaching the rope properly. Just as I felt the blade bite into the tightly bound rope, shouts came from the main deck. Looking there, I saw some of the crew recovering. Those that weren't helping others, were looking my way, shouting in confusion at what I'd done.

A clunk to my side drew my focus and I saw the captain's body slide down the stairs to the main deck. That removed any confusion from the crew, and several drew their blades and moved toward me. Others frantically scavenged, I assumed, for bows, though if any had been loose on the deck, they'd likely be on their way to the bottom of the sea.

One hand kept the wheel turned, preventing the rudder from rightening, and shifting the section of rope I was attacking from moving. As the first men reached the base of the stairs to the quarterdeck, my cutlass reached about halfway through the rope. A few more sawing motions ensured most of the rope was cut and I pulled the blade back.

As the first pirate reached the quarterdeck from one side, I rushed to the other. As my feet reached the top of the stairs, I leapt into the air, tossing my blade at a random pirate on the deck. As the leap began to fail, I slipped from the man's body, getting clear as some of the pirate crew readied their bows.

… …

As I slipped back into my mind, my arse hit the deck. The transition wasn't anywhere near as fluid or comfortable as when I slid from the minds of a bonded companion, but that was to be expected. Feeling hot, a hand wiped my brow and lifting the metal gauntlet down, I saw it covered in sweat. That suggested taking over the pirate's mind was more strenuous than I'd expected, yet as I risked a peek over the rear railing, I saw it had been worth it.

The fleets were closer than before, but the southern fleet was in chaos. Four of the six vessels had banked to port, with three – including the flagship – having crashed into each other. The two unaffected vessels had slowed: confusion the likely cause. The fourth vessel that had turned to port hadn't taken any damage, but it was now angled toward the other fleet.

While it and the other two unaffected ships would soon resume their advance, the other three were going to take time to recover and advance. The last one to be hit would need to shift oars around to ensure equal thrust before resuming its attack. The flagship and the one it had banked into were out of the fight as the bow of the flagship had crossed the bow of the other galley and it was still turning, meaning if the third vessel didn't move soon, it would be trapped as well.

Yet, in the time it took me to smirk at the chaos I'd unleashed, the two starboard-side galleys started pushing on, the moment of confusion gone. The galley far to port was also sailing away hard, but they had to adjust their sails and alter course to resume their advance, and a quick calculation had assured me they'd not reach the battle before most if not all of my vessels were free.

Looking around the battle, I saw it was over, or close to it. The Red Krakenwas free of the two galleys on either side of it, with one already slipping below the water. The Coral Howl was almost clear as well, though there was still some fighting going on as Daemon and a few others dealt with the remaining pirates from the galley they'd engaged.

The three galleys beyond the Cowl were still fighting, though one was pulling away while another appeared to be working to push a defeated galley away. To starboard, the three galleys there were all slipping away. The galley under Aeron's flag that they'd engaged was listless and lifeless behind them.

While that was an improvement, the second of Aeron's chasing fleets was almost upon us and had angled toward the three galleys still working to free themselves from the battle. With the pirates there still fighting to delay two of my vessels, I knew I had to do something or risk losing both.

Leaning forward, I placed the Myrish Eye on the railing and looked at the still fully active chasing fleet. My eyes quickly picked out the helmsman of the lead vessel, though, unlike the other fleet, there were two men with him on the quarterdeck. That would make things difficult, but not impossible.

With my target in sight, I closed my eyes and reached out. As before, the mind I slammed into was familiar and far easier to breach. The lack of instinctual behaviour was possibly a reason for that, but not something I was dwelling on. The moment the barrier around the mind was broken, I began destroying the memories. I had no interest in knowing the life of this pirate; it wouldn't change my actions.

Each memory destroyed resulted in temporary barriers being thrown up, and with the knowledge from the first mind I'd overwhelmed, I knew how to shatter those. Whereas the first time I'd been slightly cautious about how I entered, this time I went for the jugular from the get-go, and the mind fractured rapidly under my assault.

… …

"Decran!" A voice screamed as someone grabbed his – my – arm. "What the fuck is wrong with you?" The same voice asked in an angry, bastardised form of Valyrian.

I blinked, processing the change. One man was grabbing my arm, shaking me and I was several steps from the wheel. Another man was there, but I knew I should be there. "I… I dun know," I replied in broken Valyrian, glad both for Maester Caleotte's lessons in High Valyrian, and Oberyn ensuring I understood Trade Talk used by sailors and the bastardised forms Valyrian used in many of the Free Cities.

I moved forward, pushing the hand away, and headed toward the wheel. This body, this Decran, was the helmsman and if I wanted to take out this fleet like I had the other, I needed to be at the helm. As I moved forward, I wondered if entering the man's mind more aggressively had resulted in him having a more obvious reaction. One that caused him to stumble back, and possibly call out.

"Hey!" The man I'd pushed away grabbed my wrist. "You not be getting the wheel until you tell me what the fuck you were muttering about," he added as he spun me around.

His face was older than the one manning the helm, and his clothing was of a higher quality as well, so this man must be the captain. However, unlike the previous mind, I'd not bothered to even learn cursory information about the situation before shredding the memories. That left me at a disadvantage, one I'd have to work around before I could take the wheel and enact my plans.

"Dun fucking know," I shout back, shaking free of the grip. Perhaps it was out of character for Decran, but I knew he'd not back down when challenged. "I just felt sick for a moment."

The Captain's eyes narrowed, and the hand that hadn't been holding me slipped to his wrist. "Since when did you talk like a Westerosi?" he asked, which had me mentally cursing.

I'd used bastardised Valyrian when speaking, but in my haste to reply, or possibly because Decran was somehow still resisting, I'd not sounded as he would. That was an issue and forced me to adapt on the fly.

"I," the word was muttered as I raised a hand to my head as if suddenly feeling faint. Yet, as the hand rose, I suddenly thrust it forward. The now clenched fist crashed into the captain's chest, just into the solar plexus, and drove inward.

The air was driven from his lungs, preventing him from shouting out. The blow forced him back, doubling over, and my hand slipped down, pulling the blade at his hip from its sheath. Any words he might have said after recovering from the blow were ended before they could form as I thrust his blade forward, slamming it into the same area I'd just punched.

What air remained in his lungs was driven out by the attack, and as panic spread in his eyes, I pulled the blade up and out. I turned just as his stomach plopped out the wound, and as I brought the blade around toward the man at the wheel, I heard the captain's knees strike the ground.

That made the other pirate turn slightly, which exposed his neck. My attack didn't miss, the blade flashing across the exposed flesh severing his vocal cords and windpipe. His hands went to his neck, and he stumbled back from the wheel. Before he could do anything else, I'd unsheathed Decran's blade and driven it into the pirate's back, severing his spine about two-thirds of the way down his back.

The body slumped to the floor, only delayed from falling by the grasp I had on Decran's blade. Gargled sounds slipped from his throat as I let the blade and body fall. The sounds barely reached my ears, never mind those of the rest of the crew, and I stepped over the body, taking the helm.

As my free hand grasped the wheel, I saw movement on the main deck. Several of the crew had seen the commotion and were moving toward me, shouting out questions about what was going on. Knowing time was against me, I dropped the other blade and used both hands to turn the galley hard to starboard.

As with the other galley, this one lurched to the side. Men on the deck were sent tumbling, oars dropping deep into the sea or rising like flagpoles into the air. The ship shuddered, and my chest crashed against the wheel followed a moment later by many of the starboard-side oars shattering.

As wood and men were sent flying, many striking pirates and sending more tumbling into the sea, I realised the oars had dropped low enough to catch a reef beneath us.

My feet struggled to keep me upright as the unexpected collision turned the galley harder to starboard than I'd expected, though it did have an upside. Beyond the crew being tossed around more, the galley to our starboard was closer than in the last fleet. They screamed in panic and the helmsman spun the wheel; however, he wasn't fast enough and then we crashed into their oars.

Those then rose into the air, smashing the deck of the galley I was manning, knocking even more men from their positions and taking them to what I hoped was a watery grave. One of this galley's scorpions came loose as a man crashed into it, sending both him and it into the sea.

Re-finding my feet, I moved a hand to my waist, wanting to at least damage the rudder rope on this galley, though as I grasped nothing I remembered I'd left the blade in the captain's chest and dropped the other blade I'd held. Cursing, I looked around, hoping to find a dagger or axe I could use, only to grunt as something stabbed into my thigh.

My leg buckled, but I kept my grasp on the wheel, and looking down I saw the captain snarling up at me, his hand pulling a dagger from my leg. Blood gushed from the wound, and I knew this body wouldn't last long as he'd caught the main artery there. Yet I knew this vessel wasn't yet disabled.

As the captain thrust the dagger forward again, aiming for my other leg, I blocked him with my free hand. "Aaghh!" I screamed as the blade pierced the flesh and poked out of the back of my palm. The body slowed as if something was trying to force me from it, yet I remained in control.

After pushing the wounded hand down the blade, I did my best to ignore the pain as I grasped the hilt and the captain's hand. Then, with what remained of the strength in the body, I pushed the arm through one of the spokes of the wheel, dragging the captain's arm as well.

Before I could think about what I was about to do, I spun the wheel with my good hand. At that, I slipped from Decran's mind, a scream from his mouth along with one from the captain echoing in my head along with the sound of bones shattering.

… …

Just as happened the first time, when I slipped back into my mind, I ended up on my arse on the quarterdeck of the Red Kraken. Yet my focus wasn't on that, or the trailing fleets, but on my arm. My other hand came over, trailing my fingers over the armour there as my eyes inspected for any damage and I twisted and turned the limb and wiggled my fingers.

Everything was fine, yet I'd felt the arm break, shatter when the spokes twisted it to an ungainly angle. Logically, I knew that it wasn't my arm that had broken, but I'd still experienced it and that meant my mind was acting like I had even if my body wasn't. The memory of what had happened, the pain the action had caused, was there, yet there was no physical sign I'd experienced the injury. Or been fatally stabbed in the thigh.

I closed my eyes, trying to centre myself, to push the feelings and memory of what I'd felt while controlling the pirate away. It would always be with me, thanks to Emotionless Recall, but I wasn't going to dwell on it. Bar perhaps, as a warning of why not to repeat my actions today.


The voice startled me, and my hand shifted to the hilt of Red Rain before I realised the speaker was the helmsman of the Kraken, Miltar. He was glancing back at me even as he stayed low and sailed the war galley in a north-easterly direction, away from the battle. Though as a flurry of bolts flew overhead, one impacting the still furled sails, I knew we weren't entirely out of the woods yet.

Looking at Miltar, I could see fear in his eyes, though I couldn't be certain if that was because I'd gone unnaturally still while skinchanging into the pirates, or simply because of how close we were to losing. At guess, it was the former, as me being so unreactive would've confused anyone unaware of what I could do, and made them afraid.

Knowing I couldn't dwell on the phantom feeling of a broken arm and wounded thigh, I shook my head and then moved toward Miltar. He tensed as I approached, keeping low to avoid the incoming fire. After giving him a reassuring squeeze of his shoulder, I slipped forward more and took in the main deck of the Kraken.

Most of the oars were manned, making it easy to see we'd come through the battle generally unscathed. About five per cent of the seats were empty, though given I saw Bronn and others manning the oars, that suggested our losses were higher than just the vacant spots.

Moving to the starboard railing, I kept low and looked around. About half a length back was the Coral Howl, and I could just make out the bow of two galleys beyond that, so they at least had broken free of the last vestiges of battle.

From the port railing, I saw all three of the galleys there moving freely, though one vessel had a good number of oars unmoving. Still, it and the rest of my fleet – or at least seven of the eight vessels – were clear of the fighting. Yes, we were coming under fire from the pursuer's scorpions, but the ones still chasing would soon have to turn to go around their allied fleet or slow to pass through it. That would give us the time and unfurl our sails and escape.

Of course, we'd only be escaping The Whores and Aeron's forces, not entering safe waters, but it was better than being caught still fighting when those chasing fleets reached their allies.

The only downside was that, as I slowly calmed down, I saw more ways we might've attacked the third fleet. Ways that, if they'd gone well, would've saved me from having to skinchange into humans. I was sure other things I could've done would become clear in the following days and weeks, but hindsight was, as they said, a bitch.

… …

… …

Later that day, as the sun slowly set, I found myself lying on the bed in my cabin. The ceiling wasn't anything impressive, but I wasn't staring at it as my focus was directed inward.

It had been about half a day since we'd broken through the trap, with only one of my eight vessels not managing to escape. That last vessel had broken free of Aeron's third fleet, but as it was damaged, it had been run down by Aeron's other fleets. While the men onboard knew I'd come from Northpoint, none had come from Sunspear with me, so there was a chance the truth of who and what I was wouldn't reach Aeron Indarys on Bloodstone.

Regardless, I knew that when I attacked Redwater, I'd do so not as the Rogue Viper, but as the Bloody Wolf. Sailing under the sigil Ari and Alysanne had made for me would confuse others, as the banner wouldn't be one known to anyone outside the palace of Sunspear. Yet, for all that I could consider that campaign, my focus was on the battle we'd recently escaped. Or more accurately, what I'd done to ensure the vast majority of my forces escaped.

The handful of memories I'd viewed from the destroyed minds of the pirates were already tossed aside. While I couldn't get rid of them, or the sensation of willingly shattering my arm, I wouldn't be concerning myself with them. nothing of value was in them, and like the men I'd taken over, they were, ultimately irrelevant in the schemes of the Stepstones, to say nothing of the wider world.

That said, what I'd done was something that I shouldn't. No matter how grand it felt to not just challenge the mind of another, but to shatter it so completely that nothing was left felt, I knew it wasn't something I should've done. There was a rush knowing that I had proven myself superior to them in a way few could ever attempt, but it was tempered by concern over how my actions would affect me.

I looked at Ymir as he snoozed on the carpet in the cabin. The blood of battle still marked his fur, giving him an almost demonic look with the dark red splashes around his maw, though he seemed to know and enjoy this. I'd have to wash him once the campaign was over, but until then, he'd retain his unnerving – for others – visage.

However, when I looked at him, and with thoughts of what I'd done in battle, my mind wandered back to when I'd been him when he'd killed a human. Since then, my sense of taste had diminished. Not to the point that all food lost flavour, but enough that bar food with pungent scents smelt and tasted bland. That was, so far, the only penalty I'd experienced from sharing his thoughts as he killed, and thankfully it only extended to food and drink, and not to other things I might enjoy sampling, but it had confirmed Old Nan's stories about the rules of skinchanging.

My sense of taste was, I felt, slowly returning, but I doubted it would ever recover fully. Certainly not if I repeated the experience. Because of that, I was wondering how I would change because of my actions in battle. So far, I wasn't seeing any change, but I knew how Bran had become in the later years of the show.

While I was reluctant to take anything there as accurate – and not just because no one here looked like they did in the show – it was the only point of reference I had for what happened when a Skinchanger entered the mind of another regularly. Hodor was a different case than the pirates, as he was a simpleton – something that was true here already when I couldn't be certain Bran's fate would be the same – but by the end of things, Bran was an emotionless pale of a human. That was something I'd not want, not least as it would ruin my desire to live and deny me the pleasures of battle and the company of others.

Yet, whereas Brann had simply controlled Hodor, allowing him to retain his personality after returning control, I'd obliterated the minds of the pirates. Even if they survived the battle, they'd be nothing but drooling idiots. That was a worse violation, I was sure, but I didn't regret my choice. I'd done what I must to ensure the survival of myself, Ymir, and others.

However, I also swore to myself that, unless there was no other choice, I'd not repeat my actions. Whatever the penalty for breaking the rule would be wasn't one I wanted to flaunt, but it also wasn't one I was going to allow myself to be concerned over any longer.

With that decision reached, I stood. Ymir lifted his head and watched as I walked toward the door, though instead of following me, he leapt onto the bed and settled down on the blankets. I'd have to remove him when I returned, but before then I wanted to check on my men and ensure they were ready for whatever came next.

… …

… …

"You decided what to do yet?"

I looked up as Bronn entered my cabin. It was the morning after the battle, and I'd left the door open meaning I was free to visit. Not that Bronn would've cared. The sellsword normally entered without knocking when we were away from Sunspear. Though when we were there I was often with company – or at least different company than just Ymir – as was he, though his company wasn't inside the palace.

While the direwolf was still caked in dried blood, I'd used some water to wash away some from his maw and paws, or at least enough that I'd not have to wake to find my bunk covered in dried blood flakes and matted fur. He'd not enjoyed the wash, as per normal, though afterwards, he'd let me inspect him for wounds. I'd only found a handful of minor scratches, so in the chaos of ship-bound combat, he'd avoided all the blades swirling around.

The map I'd been looking at was the same one I'd been looking at throughout the campaign, though I'd been focusing this morning on the battle yesterday, seeing what other tactics I could've used. I didn't regret my choices, but I knew I could and would learn from the experience. Several strategies had come to mind in the cool, morning air, and if faced with such a situation again, I had options in mind that I could use, and all those didn't revolve around Rian and having his sight to recon a battlefield before reaching it.

"Has there been any sight of Cayde's fleet, or smoke from the port they were to target?" I replied with a question of my own. During the night we'd sailed around the easternmost island of The Whores, and passed south of the central island, granting clear sight toward where Cayde was meant to attack.


"Then we sail on to the relay point. Even if Cayde did succeed in attacking his port, when he fails to see smoke from our target, he knows to fall back to the south. He is no fool who would try and attack without support."

Bronn snorted. "Cayde's many things, but a fool he is not." A heavy sigh escaped from him. "I will let Miltar know to continue southward."

He turned and left, the door staying open behind him, and I returned to the map. With Cayde's forces either defeated or withdrawn, we had no choice but to fall back to the first island we attacked. The three uncleared islands stared back challengingly whenever I looked at them, especially those controlled by Aeron Indarys. If this was the end of my campaign, then he'd come out of it, like me, a winner.

He retained all his ports, and from the central island could, in theory, move to secure several of those I'd raided if he so wished. However, he'd not have it all his own way. The Blood Serpent controlled three ports on the northernmost and easternmost islands, meaning he controlled the quickest route from Bloodstone to The Whores.

The passageway between those two islands was the one my fleet had taken after breaking free of Aeron's trap, though we'd sailed clear of the islands as I wanted to avoid another battle until we knew of Cayde's fate.

Lucian Koros should if Cayde hadn't managed to raze it, retain control of one port on the southern side of the central island, and Alequo Ryndoon of Grey Gallows had a solitary port on the easternmost island. They and The Bloodhawk would contest any attempt by Aeron to assume full control of The Whores, which would, as I'd planned for before this campaign began, draw those five major players into greater conflict.

Well, unless Aeron was able to convince the other Pirate Lords that I was the true source of the attacks and they allied up to attack Dustspear, however, the chances of that were slim. From the more recent men who'd bent the knee that I'd talked to since the ambush, there were long-running and unlikely-to-be-cast-aside easily, feuds between Aeron and the Blood Serpent, Lucian and The Bloodhawk, the Blood Serpent and the Bloodhawk, and Alequo and Aeron.

Because of that, I could consider this campaign a successful one, though not to the level I'd hoped for. I'd arrived in The Whores with two hundred men spread through five vessels: the Windchaser and four longships. Even if Cayde's fleet was gone, then I was leaving with two war galleys, five regular galleys, as well as two cogs that should be on their way to Northpoint, along with the Windchaser. I also had at a rough estimate four hundred men on my warships, with another hundred between the others, and that was without counting the roughly hundred slaves we'd freed, of which several dozen had expressed an interest in signing on with me for revenge.

The cogs would be useful for trading with Sunspear and the other keeps and settlements along the Broken Arm from Spottswood in the north to Lemonwood about a day's sail south of Sunspear. I had the manpower now to push for Redwater, but I first wanted to return to Sunspear.

Getting new men for the campaign, along with lowborn willing to move to Northpoint and help expand the settlement, I wanted to check in on everyone in the palace. I'd not stay long, perhaps a half-moon, which would mean Bronn, Jaeronos, or whoever else remained in Northpoint would have time to whip the men into something approaching a useful fighting force while I discovered if any more sellswords were willing to sign on with me.

There was always the small chance that Smalljon, Harrold Hardyng, and Donovar Royce might arrive to help as well. I'd sent letters to them telling them of my plans just before sailing for Dustspear, and while I couldn't say that the Vale men would be interested, I knew the Smalljon would. He'd made clear I had to tell him if I next sought battle, though I doubted he'd come. He was heir to Last Hearth and a prominent trueborn figure in the North. For him, or the others, to fight under the banner of a bastard would be seen by some as an insult, though perhaps not in The North as I was the acknowledged, if not legitimized, son of Brandon Stark.

What I hoped would come from The North and The Vale were men the nobles had gathered who were interested in fighting in the Stepstones. That said, I didn't expect any help – if there was to be some – to arrive until after I'd attacked, and hopefully taken Redwater. If not even later on.

Leaning back, I sighed. The campaign through The Whores appeared over, and while it would end on a sour note, I could consider it a success. Hells, if Cayde and his fleet were mainly intact, then it might not be over as I could return and target the easternmost island, or at least Aeron's port there as payback. That, however, would have to wait until we reached the southernmost island and learnt the fate of Cadye and his fleet.

… …

… …

A knock at the door to my cabin was unexpected. As normal, it was open, and thus free for others to enter. Looking toward it, I saw one of the newer men, Stalleo, standing there, looking slightly nervous.

We were back at the first island port we'd assaulted in The Whores, and had been for two days now. Simple repairs were being made to the vessels to ensure they'd be sea-worthy for the journey to Northpoint, and I was grateful that nothing major – at least nothing that would require scrapping a warship – had been found.

The men had been separated into five groups. While one rested, the next worked on the ships carrying out repairs, the third watched for approaching vessels, another trained with Bronn, while the fifth searched the island, looking for anything of use. So far, the search teams – and Ymir who was enjoying the exploring – hadn't found much, but it at least gave the men something to do and keep their minds distracted. While it was unlikely any were already regretting their decision to bend the knee, it was something I'd have to keep an eye on going forward.

"Ships approaching the port, mi'lord," Stalleo added when he saw me looking his way. His accent placed him as Essosi, possibly from Myr, and the use of 'mi'lord' made clear he was lowborn and never worked for a family. All that barely mattered though as I'd already seen him in battle and while not the greatest, he was decent with a blade in hand, which was all I wanted from those who'd sworn allegiance to me.

"How many and from which direction?" I asked, moving toward the door.

"Two, mi'lord, from the west."

"Thank you."

Stalleo left in a hurry as if being in my presence frightened him. Given that Miltar had likely talked about my behaviour on the quarterdeck of the Krakenduring the battle, whatever he'd said had disseminated through the men, which was the probable source of the fear. Daemon and Bronn had both spoken with me, asking if I'd had something to do with the odd behaviour of the pirate fleets, and while I'd not denied it, I'd made clear that such discussions would wait until we were back in Northpoint.

I blinked as I stepped onto the deck. The sun was rising, behind to the east and as I reached the quarterdeck, I looked westward seeing the approaching ships. Thanks to my enhanced sight, I saw that they bore the sail of The Bloodhawk, but that meant little as we'd taken everything he'd held in The Whores.

Pulling the Myrish Eye from its secure resting place, I looked through it at the vessels. At the bow of the lead vessel, I saw Cayde, so I finally had confirmation of his fate. I didn't see Irraro though, nor any hint of the other ships that had sailed with them in the second fleet. Still, given we'd have left a little after midday, it was a relief that any of that fleet made it here.

Assuming they were at least decently crewed, then that was another hundred men and two galleys for my fleet. It did, however, mean, the raids on The Whores were over, but I swore that, when the time came, I'd return with a greater force and wipe Aeron and the other Pirate Lords from the islands. As well as their holdings in more major locations in the Stepstones. For now, though, we'd be returning to Dustspear to prepare for the true second phase of my plans for the Stepstones.

… …

… …

A/N: Yeah, Cregan broke another of those unwritten rules of skinchanging. We'll have to see how this changes him going forward.
That's the Raiding of the Whores over. The next major target, once Cregan's ready, will be Redwater. (For those not able to see the map, that's the biggest of the southern islands in the Stepstones lying about halfway between Westeros and Essos.)

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