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The First Voyage of the Seawolf [A Novella of the Horde]
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Let me know what you think. If there's any interest, I'll post the rest of the chapters. Please be patient with the multiple posts as each chapter exceeds the 25,000 character limit.
The following story takes place shortly after the events of the Frozen Throne.
Pebble felt the planks of the ship shudder beneath his feet. Splinters flew into the air as a sound like an enormous dull hammer boomed across the deck. Still the two writhing orcs kept their struggle, squeezing the life from one another, just as when Pebble first saw them moments before, aloft on the yardarm.
“Get up, you !@#$%-loving mongrels!” Bounding down from the quarterdeck, Pebble laid the flat of his broadsword to each sailor in turn, reaping a harvest of groans and curses even through their leathery skin and layered muscles. The opponents never turned their flaring eyes, as if they were gazing into some howling abyss instead of a squirming, tusked face that grew a lighter shade of green with each passing second.
“I said 'Get up!'” cried Pebble, levering his sword to pry a hair's breadth between them. “Can't you see our quarry is showing us his heels?”
The deck of the Seawolf filled with fresh figures. From the hold below and the rigging above, the sailors came to the aid of their captain. Orc and troll hands found purchase at every angle of the two fighters. Soon there were two parties at starboard and port, holding the still-struggling orcs from rejoining their dance.
“He shook the yardarm!” shouted Corpora, spittle heralding his words to Pebble's ear.
“Liar!” screamed Ariak. “The wind is blowing! Don't blame me if your arms are weak.”
“Enough!” Pebble hauled himself onto a nearby barrel and shot his arm over the heads of the crew. “Have you no eyes? Can't you see that the freebooter scum are escaping?” Every face followed Pebble's finger across the rolling waves, to the dusky sails that were speeding toward the horizon.
“Now to your stations!” Pebble landed on the deck with a deep thud. “The next one to break ranks will swim back to Ratchet!”
Two months before, Pebble had found himself in another battle, one not so noisy.
“Problems with the crew, Captain Pebble?” The slow, mewing voice seemed to come from the bowels of the Earth.
“Not at all, Captain Seahorn.” Pebble hoisted what he hoped was a convincing smile over his tusks. “They are taking to life at sea like murlocs.”
“Good.” Seahorn loved to drag his words out slowly, the one trait he shared with other tauren Pebble had known. “When Thrall decided to recruit his navy from the different clans, I feared for the success of your venture.”
“No need.” Pebble wondered how much the clever old bull had heard. Ratchet was full of spies, especially for those in league with the Trade Princes.
“Excellent.” Seahorn sat on a stool, his hooves propped on the railing that protected drunk patrons of the inn from tumbling down the cliff. He quaffed from a tankard of grog, lazily watching the shimmering sea as if it held nothing to interest him, though they both knew better.
Two ships idled before them like tame beasts. On one side, a blood red deck rolled with the waves, crowned by two sets of scarlet and black sail. On the other, an earthen brown collection of planks and nails stood sentry, it's bow to the wind, still and content. A canine face was carved over the prow, as if straining at the ship's moorings, burning to race across the waters. With three masts of crimson sail, the Horde ship seemed to look down in pity at the smaller vessel.
“Gazlowe's shipwrights know their business,” Seahorn said, scratching the snowy fur of his arms. “The Seawolf's a fine ship.”
“Thank you,” said Pebble. “I'd pay a compliment to your ship, if I thought I could do it justice. The Harbinger doesn't need me to add to it's fame.”
“Bah!” To Pebble's surprise, Seahorn spat out a draught of his grog. “That ungrateful hag has taxed me for thirty long years! I'll be well rid of her.”
“Never!” Pebble gasped. “The South Seas without old Captain Seahorn and the Harbinger? Unthinkable!”
“Get used to it,” said Seahorn, unmoved. “My patrons on Kezan have finally agreed. Soon I'll make my living with proper dry land under my hooves, far away from that ^&*!@ of a ship.”
“You can't mean that,” Pebble said, startled. “I've heard stories of you since I was a boy. Even in ports where they never heard of a tauren, they know Captain Seahorn. You are a legend. After all these years, you can't. . .”
“Rot your stories, and rot all legends,” grumbled Seahorn. “You're very young, Captain Pebble. I admit, I was like you once. The plains of Mulgore stretch for miles, but for me they were like a prison. I left when I was calf. There were no roads in the Barrens in those days. Just hungry centaurs and raptors, but still I didn't turn back. I wandered through the steppe until I knew every inch of grass.
“Then came the day I finally found the ocean. My people had no word for it, you know. It was something they never thought about. Something they did not understand. I took my first whiff of salt air and knew I was home.”
Pebble looked over the railing, studying the swells of the sea, amber in the sunset. “And now?”
“Now I am old. Now I am ready to stop wandering.” He sat up, stretching his massive legs, adjusting the pistol that lay slung in his belt. “You too will tire of the sea one day, Captain Pebble. Make sure you preserve your health, so you are in as good a shape as I am when it's time to retire.”
Tipping his tankard to his lips, Pebble suppressed a chuckle. The grog had an extra acid taste as it slipped down his throat. “As always, Captain Seahorn, I'll mark your advice down. I have it in a special section of my log book, so I can pour over it every night, before I douse my lantern.”
“See that you do.” Sighing like a great, gray bellows, Seahorn took a long look at the orc beside him, from his boots to his headscarf. A stiff silence passed between them. “You've no conception of the course you've charted, boy.”
“Watch your tongue, sir!” Pebble's tone was still respectful, but rage was flooding his body, tightening his muscles until his jaw jutted like a rock. “I'll take any words you give me as a fellow seafarer, but I'll swallow none of your disdain!”
The braided beard at Seahorn's chin shot upwards as a strange laugh broke from his lungs. “The Titans grant me patience with you, captain. I'm trying to help you.”
“Spare me, captain.” Pebble chortled through his nose. “You wish no good fortune, for me, or the Seawolf. You're still angry that Thrall rejected the Blackwater Raiders bid to act as the Horde's navy.”
“Not angry, Captain Pebble.” Seahorn settled back into his chair. “Just disappointed. Our proposal would have profited all of us. Thrall was foolish to listen to you.”
“Damn your insolence!” Pebble fumed. “Hiring your fleet would have put us at the mercy of the Trade Princes.”
“Aye,” Seahorn rumbled, unimpressed by Pebble's anger. “But as long as it suited the goblins' purposes, you would have had a fleet. A real one, with trained sailors, and experienced officers, and with more than one ship.” He gestured to the Seawolf without looking at it. “Pride made Thrall commission his own navy. Pride's the tack you're sailing on, Captain Pebble. I fear where it will lead you.”
“It's more than pride, Captain Seahorn.” Pebble ground his tusks. “It will take time to build us a proper navy, I grant you, but when we do, at least it will be a navy with honor!”
“Honor, eh?” Seahorn winced. “How does honor taste when your stores are spent because the Freebooters have shot off your mast and you've been two months at sea? How many cannonballs will honor fire when the night elves decide you're coasting a little too close to Darkshore? How much honor can you hide behind when the naga are crawling over your decks some moonless night? Keep your honor. I'll keep to the Blackwaters.”
“I will keep my honor, Captain Seahorn,” said Pebble. “You can trust in that. Just as I trust you will keep to your shipmates, and your goblin masters. It's certain you kept with them, safe in Kezan, while the rest of us were fighting the Burning Legion. Curse their cowardly hides, and curse you!”
The butt of Seahorn's tankard snapped to the table like a hunter's trap. His eyes were bright with fury.
Pebble measured the distance between his dangling hand and the hilt of the broadsword that was strapped to his back. The two of them sat like that for a good long while.
“Mr. O'Breen!” Seahorn called loud enough for half of Ratchet to hear.
“Aye, captain!” came a human voice from inside the inn.
“Gather the ship's company!” bellowed Seahorn. “This berth no longer suits me.”
With difficulty, the old tauren brought his frame to a standing position. Pebble relaxed his hand, sensing the danger was over.
“Don't ever ask to come aboard my ship again, Captain Pebble.”
“I wouldn't think of it, Captain Seahorn,” the orc said with a mocking chuckle, “though it sounds as if you won't have a ship much longer.”
“Mark me one more time, Captain Pebble,” Seahorn said, his eyes fixing past the bare railing, onto the unforgiving horizon that waited for them both. “You may curse me if you like, but one day, you'll curse your own pride even more.”
Chapter 1 (continued)
As Pebble stood upon the Seawolf's quarterdeck, he wondered if Seahorn's day had come.
“We'll lose them if they make it past those rocks.” Ma'grek, the second mate, clutched the steering wheel with two quivering arms. Up and down his skin were etched dozens of runes and twisting designs whose meaning the grim orc never volunteered to share. “The wind at our back is at theirs, too. There's no catching up.”
Pebble stretched his spyglass over the seething waters. He was annoyed with Ma'grek for uttering defeatist thoughts, informing him of their approaching failure with no more emotion than if he was inquiring after the morning meal, but it was no use disputing the substance of his officer's report. An experienced shaman, Ma'grek knew the weather as if the clouds took him into their confidence.
“Why go for the rocks?” Pebble peeled his glass over to the craggy peaks that rose above the ocean like giant teeth. “If they get too close, they'll be bashed to bits.”
Ma'grek shrugged. “Freebooters aren't brave. Maybe they're so afraid of us, they're panicking.”
“Not likely.” Lowering his spyglass, Pebble turned to look at his crew. Dozens of sailors were about their work, fastening sail and stowing gear with gangly slips of rope. They moved cleanly enough, but there was a hollowness to them that grated on Pebble's eye. Few of these orcs and trolls had ever been at sea until adulthood. Most of them knew little of the skills that kept a ship afloat until they'd begun their training six months before. Though competent, this crew had never been in combat together before today, and they were showing the strain.
Not bothering to replace the spyglass, Pebble turned again to look over the Seawolf's side. Fixed in the same spot it had held for hours was a pair of billowing sail above a solid deck that boasted “Heedless” from it's stern.
“They sail well for pirate scum,” Ma'grek commented, turning the wheel slightly to correct for some shift in the wind.
“Baron Longshore is a Gilneas man,” Pebble said without much thought. “Getting through the Bite at Keel Harbor requires a skilled hand.”
Scratching at his scraggly goatee, the second mate seemed to reflect on their situation for the first time. “Perhaps he's scouted those rocks? Then he'd trust himself to make it through while we get wrecked trying to follow.”
“Maybe.” Pebble squeezed his fist over the hilt of the sword at his back, praying his anxiety did not show. “But why not just turn and fight? Longshore has outfought the Blackwaters in the past. Why. . .”
Pebble's voice became lost in a cry like a banshee that rose up from the stairs to the main deck.
“Captain!” Orsha, the third mate, climbed the rungs two at a time. “This is intolerable!” The female's bright yellow eyes did not blink as she approached. Pebble was tall for an orc, but Orsha showed no fear as she jutted her chin to his chest.
“I've just spoken with Corpora,” she snapped. “He told me that Warsong mudsucker nearly. . .”
“I know what he said, lieutenant.” Pebble impressed even himself with how even and commanding his voice had become. “I'm not convinced that either Corpora or Ariak are without fault. We will sort the matter out later, and,” he took a step forward, almost pressing himself against her, “you will reframe from disparaging another clan while you're aboard my ship.”
“Respectfully, Captain Pebble,” Orsha growled, “this incident is just another example of why the Warsong are not fit for service in this navy.”
Pebble heard a hushed rumble escape from Ma'grek.
“I want my opinion noted in the log,” said Orsha. “When these traitors stick knives in our backs, I want posterity to know that not all the Seawolf's crew was taken in by their lies!”
“Don't push your luck, harpy.” Ma'grek broke in, using a tone of voice much harsher than was his custom. “We Warsong are faithful to the Warchief! We joined this navy to prove ourselves!”
“And you have, maggot!” Orsha pressed her thumb into her waist belt, a playful flourish for a pretty orc girl in the fashionable districts of Orgrimmar, but a deadly threat for a huntress with a small axe at her hip in the middle of the South Sea. “You've proved how subtle you demonlovers can be!”
Before Ma'grek could answer, Pebble staked his broadsword into the deck between them. “Quiet! The two of you can yap about politics when we're back in Ratchet! There's a battle about to be joined!”
Orsha relaxed her arm, biting her lip to contain the anger. “I will include this in my own report to the Warchief.”
“As will I,” Ma'grek promised through gritted tusks.
“Do that!” shouted Pebble, prying his weapon from the planks. “But both of you remember that those precious reports are there for more that your little gladiator games. This navy's charter is set to expire at the end of this voyage. After that, Thrall will decide whether to commission new ships, or to give Orgrimmar a nice new fruit stand with Seawolf written on the side. Just keep that in mind before you expound eloquently in print on the shortcomings of your fellow officers.”
The sword hissed as Pebble slid it back into it's scabbard. Orsha and Ma'grek looked sullenly at one another.
“Sail ho!” came a cry from the crow's nest. All three officers immediately gazed at the horizon.
“They've lost the rigging on the mizzen,” Orsha said. “They're losing speed.”
“We'll be upon them in two hours,” Ma'grek said. “If the wind holds.”
“Then there's no time to lose.” Pebble strode over to the stairs. “I need two officers on the quarterdeck while I prepare the ship for action. I'll trust you both to do your duty.”
Lowering himself onto the main deck, Pebble watched his second and third mates standing stiffly side by side. “Do see to your ship, captain,” Orsha called after him. “And see to your first mate as well. The last I saw him, he was trailing us in a rowboat, dangling his fishing pole in the water.”
Pebble stopped his descent and cocked an eye. “You didn't warn him that we sighted the enemy?”
Orsha laughed. “Warn him? He was the one who sighted them first. He gave out the cry even before the sailors in the crow's nest. You see, captain, the first mate was just getting some nibbles. He said he'd be in when he was finished.”
Without giving Orsha the satisfaction of seeing his frustrations, Pebble dropped the rest of the way to the main deck.
Belowdecks, Pebble inspected the eight cannons that peeked out of the ship's starboard side, lecturing the gunners one last time on how to adjust their aim if they missed and reminding them to shoot just below the other vessel's waterline. Satisfied, he continued his tour of the hold, checking to see if the provisions were stowed properly. Loose cargo would make the ship a chaos of flying barrels and crates in battle, and shifting ballast would make it difficult to steer just when control of the Seawolf would be crucial.
A dark figure fell in beside Pebble as he paced.
“Captain?” said the lurching shape. “A word?”
“No, Thrak,” Pebble said without pausing. “Back to your station.”
“Just a moment, sir.” The tauren's eyes were gaping with what appeared to be sadness. “For pity's sake.”
Pebble sighed, but resigned himself. “Go ahead.”
“I need a weapon. A real one. Not the trinkets you let me carry.”
“No.” Sunlight swamped the hold as Pebble lifted the hatch.
“But we're flying towards a battle,” said Thrak. “If we're boarded. . .”
“Then you'll take your chances,” Pebble said. “As I took a chance with you when you rode into Ratchet on a half-dead riding kodo.”
Thrak did not blink. “I've honored our arrangement, captain. I drilled your crew, taught them everything I know about powder and shot, and I'll be here when the fight is on. I only ask a little consideration.”
Pebble pulled on a line of lashing ropes, making sure the knots were tight. “You know, Thrak, in the Horde today, there are few with a better reputation for resolving disputes than Cairne Bloodhoof. Perhaps, when we return to port, we should ask his opinion on this little disagreement.” Every rope proved to be fast in place. “While we have him, we may ask his policy on fugitives, and, if there's time, he can call for medicines to treat your wounds.”
With a deft hand, Pebble snatched Thrak's wrist and held it in the air. Two ugly rings, like the outline of shackles, marked the tauren's skin.
“I've met some cruel souls in my travels, Captain Pebble.” Thrak drew back his arm. “You're a rival for the worst of them.”
“I'm just a simple orc about his duties, brother tauren,” said Pebble. “See to those guns. The ship's fate may rest on their performance, and yours definitely does.”
After finishing his rounds, Pebble climbed the forecastle and gazed past the prow. The rocks jutted so high that they seemed to challenge the sun, shedding an enormous shadow over the waves. Just before the gloom, Pebble saw the sail of the Heedless, so close that he could count the ropes on the yardarm. In his imagination, the rippling canvas was daring him to come closer.
“Steady now, warriors!” Pebble roared so that even the sailors in the highest rigging could hear. “Today, the Horde conquers the sea! Lok tar, ogar!”
Looks promising. If there's one aspect of the Warcraft universe that hasn't been explored enough, it's the seas. I'm looking forward to more.
Well, one person wants to read more. I guess that's counts.
Apologies to whoever thought some of my language was inappropriate. I thought I was within the lines of network TV. I'm sorry if I offended anyone.
From the quarterdeck, Pebble scanned the ocean around the Heedless's fast approaching hull. A part of their sail was still hanging uselessly off the yardarm. Pebble tried to spot the reason for the distress, but could find nothing. The rock had given way to a cliff, with vines and crooked trees growing from shattered crevices.
“It's an island, captain,” said Ma'grek, still at the wheel. “This was their destination all along. There's no record of this place. Not in Seahorn's logs, or in Proudmoore's. Baron Longshore's been doing some exploring.”
“We'll add his charts to our collection.” Pebble looked out across the Seawolf's deck. He could feel the trembling muscles of the warriors who watched him, waiting to be put to use. Though his sailors were unused to the sea, they were no strangers to combat. Their nervous energy coursed through the ship as surely as the blood through their bulging veins.
Pebble's heart beat the time until they were upon the Heedless. He hated the quiet moment right before a battle. Like an overpowered engine, Pebble's mind sputtered and shifted in ways he couldn't control. Despite himself, old memories began to seep into his brain.
Sunrise breathed fire on the ocean at Pebble's feet. A salty breeze kissed his cheeks. The prow on which he sat split the water into twin sheets of foam. For the first time in many months, all Pebble's thoughts were peaceful.
“Greetings, warrior.” The voice fell on him like a winged beast that had been waiting for it's moment.
“Warchief!” Pebble scrambled up the strips of rope that hung from the forward mast, groping for dignity as well as balance. “I didn't know there was an inspection. I'm ready, master!”
“No inspection.” Thrall had traded his heavy black armor for a simple shirt and tanned breeches. Pebble was amazed how different he looked. Someone once told Pebble that the Warchief was only five years older than he was, but he never believed that until now. “I'm just out for a stroll.”
“Of course, master,” Pebble floundered. “A stroll on the deck. Brilliant idea, master.” The words made him curse himself inside.
“Calm down, Pebble,” said Thrall. With unnerving carelessness, the Warchief slid beside him on the edge of the hull. “You've earned a little rest.”
“I am getting rest, master,” Pebble vowed. “Lack of rest's a killer aboard ship. I sleep at my post, one hour for every five I'm on duty.”
“More like every ten,” Thrall corrected. “You're pushing yourself too hard.”
“I don't mean to, master.” Pebble looked down at his boots. “It's just that there's so much to do.”
“And many hands to do it.” Reaching back, Thrall lifted his arm and began rubbing. For the first time, Pebble noticed the Warchief's riding wolf, lowering her snout as obediently as any pup. “The captain of this ship can manage without you for a while.”
To his dismay, Pebble felt weeks of frustration come crashing around his shoulders. He'd long since learned to restrain those feelings before they reached his face, but this time his skills failed him. Thrall spied the change in his eyes.
“You've some opinion to share in regards to the captain?”
“No sir!” Pebble sensed the Warchief was not satisfied. Stammering for a moment, he searched for an answer in the twisting grain of the ship's wooden hull. “It's just. . . the fleet, you see. . . not that I would speak against my betters. . .”
“Talk freely,” Thrall commanded softly.
Wringing his hands, Pebble forced himself to look the Warchief in the eye. “It's the sailors around Chieftan Hellscream. They're good warriors, and brave souls, but they're giving bad advice. The Horde Navy in the Second War was what the humans call a green water force. It never traveled far from land. The veterans of that war just don't have the skills for a voyage like this.”
“So you've been pitching in where their advice has been failing us.” Thrall scratched his chin. “Working to correct their shortcomings. I know you spend time on every ship in the flotilla, when you can find an excuse.”
Pebble could not hold Thrall's gaze anymore. “I beg you to excuse me if you think I am vain, master, but, in truth, I'm the only real sailor you have. If I let up for too long, we'll steer straight into the Maelstrom, or worse, damage all our sail and spend the rest of our lives adrift on the Great Sea. I want the Horde to reach Kalimdor, master. I don't trust Grom and his officers to get us there.”
Pebble half expected to be beaten for insolence, but when the Warchief's hand fell, it was only to pat him on the shoulder.
“Get some rest, warrior. The Horde needs you.”
The orange sun seemed brighter to Pebble's eyes. “I won't fail you, master.”
His reverie had lasted less than a second, but Pebble cursed himself anyway for weakness.
“Enemy to starboard!” Orsha cried from the rigging. Below her crouched the ship's complement of archers. The masts were like trees ripe with their deadly fruit.
“Hold your fire!” Pebble yelled. Just as Orsha said, the Heedless was coming about. It's dragging sail prevented them from reaching full speed, but they would still be ready to fire a broadside in just a few seconds.
“Come about, sir?” Ma'grek pleaded with Pebble from behind. A direct hit from a raking shot would tear the Seawolf apart.
“Maintain your course!” the captain ordered. “Brace for impact!”
The ropes in the rigging made a clacking sound as they were tossed by the wind. Soon their sound would be blasted away.
Five sibling white clouds puffed from Heedless's hull. Burning iron sang through the air. Pebble watched as two of the cannonballs pounded into his precious ship. Splinters sprang from the prow and just below the main deck, but both shots glanced off the hull at slight angles. The face of the ship gave the freebooter gunners little to aim at.
“Hard to port!” Pebble barked.
Ma'grek pulled the wheel like he'd strike an enemy. The Seawolf hove to, stretching itself parallel with the Heedless. Pebble waited for the ship to stop shifting, then leaned over the side to the gun crews belowdecks.
Eight explosions of water sprayed the lower planks of the Heedless, sending pretty rainbows into the air.
“Damn!” Pebble roared.
Ma'grek pulled at his goatee. “We're still at the edge of cannon range, sir.”
“And the freebooter scum are better shots than we are,” Pebble fumed. “We'll have to get closer.”
Instead of coming around for another pass, as Pebble expected, the Heedless doubled back and resumed it's original course. The sails that had fallen limply from the mast were taut and proud. A stone outcropping extended from the island, creating a perfect curtain that would cover over the pirate ship in a few seconds.
“They've deceived us!” Ma'grek cried.
“Get on them, lieutenant!” Pebble ordered. “Don't let 'em get away.”
Bitter grumbling rose from the ship as the crew realized there'd be another delay. The Heedless slipped behind the outcropping, out of sight. Ma'grek turned out to sea, just a little, then eased the prow around the corner. A tiger never stalked it's prey with more care.
“Any sail?” Pebble cried to the rigging.
“Not yet,” shouted Orsha. The huntress had unstrung her bow and already placed an arrow along the string.
Drumming the rail with his fingers, Pebble watched as a new ribbon of rocky cliffs came into view. “We should be able to see her,” he mused aloud. Too late, he understood the reason. “Come about!”
They'd assumed this part of the island was like the rest, but now all could see that the outcropping hid a deep, winding bay, just wide enough for the Heedless to come about and bring it's guns to bare.
“Brace for imp. . .”
The cannonballs shot high into the Seawolf's rigging. Ariak, the big orc sailor, had his stomach shorn from his torso. The mainmast snapped like a twig, most of it pulled backwards by the sails.
“Jump, warriors!” Orsha called as the wood bent toward the sea. “Save yourselves!”
Trolls and orcs tumbled onto the deck like rain. The mast doubled over, dragging with it any warrior not fast enough to react before disappearing into a chasm of bubbling foam.
“Weigh anchor!” Pebble cried, helping Ma'grek tie a knot that would hold the steering wheel in place. Even if they couldn't sail, they could at least keep from drifting.
Ma'grek yanked the wooden pin that secured one of the Seawolf's iron anchors. “Damn,” he spat. “The mechanism's jammed.”
“What?” Pebble cried. “The spool is supposed to be oiled every day!”
“I'm sorry, sir,” Ma'grek said. “Since we left port, I didn't think. . .”
“Sail!” cried a watchman from one of the two remaining masts. “Sail to stern!”
Pebble turned and saw a sight as terrifying as any of the demons he'd faced. A pair of full canvas sheets had emerged as if from the rock face. They'd been making good time while the Seawolf had sparred with the Heedless, and now they were ready to pounce.
“The Tide Razor!” the captain growled. “All hands on deck! Prepare to be boarded!”
“Why don't they just blast us?” said Ma'grek, still fumbling with the chain that would free the anchor. “They have us in their sights.”
“They don't want to destroy us,” Pebble said. The spikes of the pirate ship's bow were about to connect with the quarterdeck on which they were standing. “They want the Seawolf for a prize.”
The whole ship shook as the Tide Razor crashed into the hull. Ma'grek and Pebble grasped the steering wheel to keep their feet. The planks of the Seawolf mewed in agony as the spikes burrowed deeper. Jumping on the railing so the crew could see him, Pebble unsheathed his sword and howled a challenge to the pitiless attacker.
The first freebooters came from the rigging, swinging on ropes like monkeys. A thick-limbed dwarf lead the way, his sun-ravaged skin as brown as his leather jerkin. Pebble charged, but two powerful arms were already aiming a rifle so big it was like the offspring of one of the ship's cannons.
The bullet cut a path through Pebble's shoulder. The tall orc felt his flesh fly apart, but his sword never wavered. His strike sent the gun flying into the sea. The dwarf was quick, though, pulling a dagger from his boot and leaping at Pebble's throat. The blade was out just in time for Pebble's second blow to send it tumbling backward, along with the severed arm that clasped it, onto the feet of a horrified human pirate.
Pebble's third cut dispatched the dwarf through his bowels. Another howl split the air as the enraged orc lunged for the human. The man's mustachioed face would be forever frozen in it's disgusted countenance. The pirate's head plopped from his shoulders and rolled across the deck.
Two furry hands descended on Pebble from above, blocking his mouth and his nose. A skinny forest troll was trying to smother his life way. Pebble was stronger, but his wound was taxing his muscles. Every time he twisted his sword to swat the attacker, it landed with less force than before. Two more pirates were stalking him like vultures, their cutlasses ready to swoop in as soon as he faltered.
More and more freebooters were landing aboard the Seawolf, screaming furious curses as they lashed iron grapplers to the deck. Soon the two ships were pressed together like a two-headed ogre, dumbly lurching side to side in unison. The pirates poured over the railing, knowing instinctively that their best chance of overpowering the crew was to attack the quarterdeck while it was still lightly defended.
Just as Pebble felt his lungs failing, a familiar hiss carried on the wind. The troll winced from some unseen impact. Inspired by the slackened grip of his enemy, Pebble grabbed his heavy sword like a quarterstaff and began beating the troll with all his might. Finally, the pirate screamed as a second lightning ball sent him flying over the railing.
Ma'grek had finally set the anchor loose. Brandishing a shield and a long club, he was daring
the freebooters to come for him, the primal energies of a shaman snapping from his eyes and fists.
The Tide Razor was so secure now that the pirates could cross the moorings to the Seawolf as safely as if it were a bridge over a stream. Pebble's sword swung an arc through which nothing could pass without being cleaved in two, but dozens of freebooters managed to slip around, onto the main deck. At the foot of the stairs, Orsha hacked at a wild-eyed human with her short, shiny axe. Bits of the man's skin tore away until he collapsed in a wet, red heap. The whole crew was on deck now, slashing with swords and lunging with polearms, shepherding the attackers from vulnerable parts of the ship. Limbs and split blades piled over the planks like litter at one of Orgrimmar's street festivals.
Chapter 2 (continued)
The crew of the Seawolf felt the battle turning in their favor, but then a new shadow scuttled along the ship's deck. The Heedless had come about, and now it was cruising along the starboard side, shedding it's sails so that it could ease into place. Fresh waves of pirates began vaulting over the railing, carrying their own grapplers, lashing the ropes wherever they would hold. Squeezed between the two ships, the Seawolf was becoming a fly caught in a hemp spiderweb.
“We can't fight them both,” Pebble growled to Ma'grek. “And rope cuts easier than flesh. Cover me.”
“Wait,” the second mate gasped. Clasping his hand to Pebble's shoulder, Ma'grek whispered a few words below his breath. The trickle of blood where the bullet had entered slowed then became dry.
“Thanks.” Pebble pulled away as soon as he felt able, then leapt down to the main deck. Crying for his crewmates to follow, he cut a path through the invaders to the starboard side. As freebooters fell on them from above, Ma'grek's blue fireballs struck from the quarterdeck, preventing the pirates from rallying into any kind of order. Clearing a perimeter where they could operate freely, Pebble and his band began beating at the grapplers and fouling the mooring lines, freeing the hull of the Seawolf from the pirates' grasp.
Reaching the bow at last, Pebble looked back at their work and saw teams of freebooters already tying new snares that would hold them close. As he leaned on his sword to catch his breathe, Pebble realized if he didn't dredge up a new plan from his brain soon, the crew would be overrun.
“You there! You have the bearing of a captain.”
Pebble lifted his chin, following the regal human voice. Upon the Heedless's quarterdeck, just out of arrow shot, stood a tall man in a gaudy red and gold uniform, beaming a toothy smile down onto the Seawolf.
“Hail,” the human shouted through a sable beard. “You'll excuse the effrontery of my men. They would have asked permission to come aboard, but circumstances prevented them. I am Baron Longshore.”
Pebble faked a grin wide enough to be seen from the distance. “Hail! I am Captain Pebble of the Horde Navy!”
“I know the name.” Apparently in imitation of Pebble's pose, Longshore stuck his saber into the deck and leaned on it like a cane-carrying dandy. “Not a famous name, though. Not like mine.”
“Few are as famous as Baron Longshore.” Pebble was cool on the outside, but inside he was groping for new ideas, desperate for a way to buy time. A little banter might goad the human into making a mistake.
“True,” said Longshore. “Though you have had a few successes that get talked about round the taverns. They say you had some luck against Old Stiffbreeches, the Grand Honorable Redoubtable and Unpleasable Admiral Daelin Proudmoore, may his soul rot.”
“More than luck, baron,” Pebble said haughtily.
“Perhaps.” Longshore ran a finger through his black mustache. “Tell you what, captain. In honor of your gallant deeds, I'll rename your ship the Fearless. Even better, in tribute to your courage and consummate skill, I'll stuff your carcass and display it in my quarters. Sound good?”
A dozen pirates around Longshore shook with laughter.
Pebble heard the whistle of an arcanely charged arrow sing overhead. Orsha had materialized beside him from some distant corner of the battle, and now she was glaring at Longshore with a bitterness Pebble thought she reserved for her captain. If hatred could propel a dart, then the arrow would have split the human's skull instead of bouncing harmlessly off the Heedless's hull.
In the constant din of anger and terror that floods the ear on a battlefield, the sound of cheers is carried like a leaf on a tortuous brook. Pebble turned and saw his crew waving and pointing even as they carried on the fight. Tracing their movements, Pebble found his first mate at long last.
Somehow, the clever rogue had made his way across the deck of the Heedless without raising an alarm. A dagger was between his teeth and his long trollmane was gathered into a stubby topknot. The freebooters had a few sailors stationed in the rigging, but they were so buried in their work that they didn't see the danger that was climbing their own rope ladders.
“Yo'jin!” Orsha whispered. “What's that mad buzzard playing at?”
Pebble smiled, this time for real. “Back to the grapplers!”
Orsha spat. “We'll never strike enough of them to. . .”
“I say to the grapplers, damn you!” Pebble raised his heavy sword once again. “The Heedless is about to declare for our cause!”
The pegs and the railings were lashed with even more ropes than before, but Pebble set about his work like a demon, pausing only to meet some brave pirate who'd marked him as a rich kill. Another bullet grazed the skin of his flank, but passed to the other side without finding purchase. A familiar figure stood waiting for him at the stern.
“Glad to see you making do, brother tauren.”
Thrak's fist was studded with misshapen metal, a gold band covering one set of knuckles, a trio of iron spikes on the other. Both were speckled with crimson droplets. “I'd still prefer a nice polearm, captain.”
Pebble shredded a thick bunch of strands with one blow. “Just keep your fists moving, or you'll end up a throw rug under Baron Longhshore's armchair.”
Looking up, Pebble beheld a beautiful sight. The last pirate sailor was already falling from the masthead. Yo'jin began to cut the bits of cord that kept the canvas furled. In a moment, a red and black sail was opening like a dragon's wing. Leaping from the yardarm, Yo'jin backflipped onto the rigging one level below. Never pausing, the wily troll began fastening the sail to it's moorings as carefully as if he were one of the Heedless's own crew.
The ropes that held the two ships together tightened as if they were afraid. As Yo'jin's sail caught the wind, the pirate ship lurched forward, pulling at it's bonds.
“We must cut the ropes and the grapplers!” Pebble screamed at his crew. “Every hand! Forget fighting the scum. The Seawolf needs you!”
Yo'jin worked quickly. Now both sails of the aft mast were billowing in the breeze. The Heedless roared as it's hull ground against the Seawolf. Spurred by Longshore's frantic orders, every freebooter still on the ship began climbing the rigging. Soon they were surrounding Yo'jin on all sides. Several lunged for him, but the troll was too fast. He shimmied up a connecting rope, making for the forward mast.
“Come on, you crazy dog!” Pebble muttered to himself. Though the freebooters' moorings were weakened, the ropes held, so tight they practically cried out in pain.
A human female, quicker and smarter than her shipmates, was waiting for Yo'jin when he reached the forward mast. She slashed at his belly with her cutlass, steadying herself on the yardarm. Yo'jin was trapped on his rope, unable to go backwards or forwards. The distance to the deck stretched beneath his feet like the maw of some giant beast. Still only armed with his dagger, Yojin twisted and spun to avoid the woman's thrusts.
All around, tired sailors had stopped their dueling and were cheering their champion in the Heedless's rigging. The pirates crowed louder as Yo'jin seemed about to lose his grip. Pebble shielded his eyes from the sun, watching the sailors on the opposite mast begin the process of taking down the sails again, praying his first mate had just one more trick left.
Groans and cheers mingled as Yo'jin's hands gave way. The woman was already wailing in triumph, not noticing that her adversary had found a hold with his feet. Hanging upside down, the troll shook his head back and forth, swinging from the line like a pendulum, the dagger now firmly in his hand. Frayed bits of hemp appeared where he cut the rope, sending him falling, clutching the severed line in one hand.
The freebooter had noticed that her fight was not over. She lowered herself along the mast as Yo'jin flew wildly in whatever direction his momentum fancied. An impressive array of gymnastics were all that kept him aloft instead of colliding with the wooden pylon. One good strike of the pirate's cutlass on Yo'jin's rope, and the crews of all three ships would watch the first mate launch into the hazard, all hope for the Seawolf falling with him.
It was not a graceful maneuver but a sort of jerking, tucking motion, that brought Yojin up in a crooked arc onto the yardarm. Catching himself on a piece of rigging, the troll was still struggling for balance when the pirate scrambled toward him. Pebble heard the whole ship gasp as the freebooter's sword flew straight in the air.
But the sharpest eyes among them noticed the rope still in Yo'jin's hand. Deftly ducking the blade, he let himself fall once again, but this time, he'd managed to loop a bit of slack along the woman's ankle. The sudden force yanked her off her perch, sending her tightly toned rear end into the air and the rest of her body gliding downwards.
Even the orcs, who hated all humans and found nothing in them that was not grotesque, shuddered as the woman's spine crunched onto the deck of the Heedless.
High above, on the formerly contested yardarm, Yo'jin was testing the balance of the cutlass that he'd somehow snatched from the tumbling pirate.
“Yo'jin!” Pebble cried through cupped hands. “Damn your powder blue hide! Cut the cables already!”
Annoyed at the interruption, the troll nevertheless crossed the sword with his dagger and snipped the fasteners of the nearest sail. This was the largest canvas the Heedless carried. Even without being tied down to the lower yardarm, it stretched taut and pulled forward with a force that all three ships could feel.
Pebble's warcry was echoed in the throats of all his warriors. More grapplers gave way, then all gave way without help. Yo'jin dove into the ocean as the Heedless pulled from the Seawolf like a scolded cur.
From every part of the ship, the freebooters panicked and fled. Some rushed for the safety of the Tide Razor while others dared to throw themselves under the mercy of the foamy ocean. Sensing victory, the Horde's warriors hunted for untouched flesh to feed their hungry weapons, racing the pirates onto the very precipice of the Seawolf's hull.
Longshore was visible on the Heedless's quarterdeck, desperately struggling with the steering wheel, but there was precious little room to maneuver. The ship's single bow spike cracked the Tide Razor in the stern with such force that it freed the Seawolf once and for all from it's captors. The two pirate vessels fell side by side, turning on each other like lovers dancing to the music of shouting, crying men and women from a dozen races.
Pebble tapped Thrak on the shoulder. “You're the strongest one here. Haul in that mad troll before we lose him again.”
The Seawolf's quarterdeck was a wasteland of blood and torn bodies. Pebble freed the steering wheel from the pilot ropes and began guiding the ship. Batting the wheel in both directions in turn, he slid the Seawolf onto a strong, white-tipped current.
Orsha slipped beside him. “We can't get far without a mainmast.”
“I know,” said Pebble. “We'll just have to hope this island has a beach somewhere.”
“You want to follow the cliffs?” said Orsha. “It'll be dangerous. We don't know this coastline. If there's a reef, it'll gut the ship like a fish.”
As if they mistook her warning for a hail, dark, stony shapes peered up from around the curve of the island. Scattered waves shook the Seawolf as it hurled toward the jagged rocks.
Pebble pulled himself closer to the wheel. “Go make sure every member of the crew has something to hang on to.”
In his mind, Pebble was wrestling with the heavy rungs of another steering wheel. Through waves as thick as foothills and a night as black as a crow feather, except when lightning spilled into his eyes, he guided another proud ship as best as he knew how.
“This storm isn't dying!” Thrall cried beside him. “It's down to you, Pebble.”
The whole fleet was behind them, arrayed in a staggered formation to keep in sight of one another. Pebble led the way, pushing his bow so that it cut the waves in half, showing the best angle to all the other ships. A slight misjudgment would swamp the decks and send them to the bottom.
The whole ocean seemed to give way at once. The ship plowed through the trough without slowing.
“Brace yourselves!” Pebble's shout was drowned by the winds. The pitiless crest of the next wave pressed the hull like a gigantic, squeezing fist.
The retreating water had swept Thrall into the inky vastness of the sea. “Up, you lazy scum! The Warchief is fallen overboard!”
No one answered Pebble's cry. He was alone on the deck, clutching his wheel, watching hope itself disappear into a twisting chaos of brine and foam.
Probably as good a time as any to let everyone know there are five chapters plus a brief epilogue.
The Seawolf lay across the golden sand like a slain behemoth. Wounds from the Tide Razor's spikes gaped from her stern. The keel rumbled while a dozen freshly-cut logs rolled underneath. Exhausted from hours of work and fighting and being tossed on a bitter sea, the crew moaned as one while the ship slid into place behind a wall of black rock. Every sailor was strapped to a tightly-wound harness.
Suddenly the ropes seemed to jerk back against the struggling limbs, halting the line in place. The moans turned to pitiful, unorclike wailing.
Thrak trotted to the bow, carrying a stripped-down log across his shoulders. “It won't take anymore, captain,” said the tauren, releasing his burden to the ground. “The sand is starting to slope.”
“All right then.” Pebble cast aside his harness. “Branches, warriors! As leafy as you can gather!”
When the rope and tackle hit the ground, an eerie silence came upon the crew. The distant calls of seagulls were the only sound that punctured the air. Every eye was fixed on Pebble with a loathing he'd never felt before.
“Now, you human-spawn! Strike your captain down or follow his orders!”
No one was in a hurry to choose between Pebble's options.
“Come on, brothers and sisters.” Ma'grek emerged from his place at the rear of the line. “The thickest brush is up this way. Follow me.”
The crew dispersed at last. Pebble felt the chilly disdain from their backs as surely as he had the hatred from their eyes. Grabbing his sword from it's resting place, he hacked down a scraggly tree that was growing out of the rocks. The skinny twigs could be nailed onto one of the Seawolf's two remaining masts. It was an obvious ruse up close, but good enough camouflage to fool a spyglass out at sea.
In his mind, Pebble was already sorting the crew, creating the different teams that would be needed to make repairs. Walking along the beach, he felt a hard object through the toe of his boot. A tiny smoothed-over stone raced in front of him, drawing a path through the sand. The captain of the Seawolf should have been immersed in his preparations, but he couldn't help but take a second look at that pebble.
“More beer!” Captain Blackspar held his belly as he called into the cabin. “Be quick about it, now. Don't make a Bronzebeard wait for his grog.”
The two dwarves laughed to the rafters as Pebble maneuvered his pitcher across the room.
“No one doubts your hospitality, captain.” Muradin lowered his tankard so Pebble could reach it more easily.
“Just my maps, eh Mr Ambassador?” Blackspar kept an eager grin through his dark whiskers, but even though Pebble was little more than a child, he could sense a sharper edge beneath the surface.
“Don't be daft, Ethan.” Muradin quaffed his beer. “Every member of the League recognizes your skills.”
Blackspar chortled. “Recognizes them like a mistress. In private, when no one else can see.”
“Come now. I went over this in my last letter.” Lounging in his chair, Muradin examined the captain's quarters with a slightly bored air. “Our friends could not support you in public. The Alliance just doesn't have the will right now to fund expeditions of exploration. The League needs to be patient.”
“Patient?” Blackspar muttered, straightening his buckled top hat. “You convinced your brother and your buddy, the King of Lordaeron, to build this harbor.” He gestured out a porthole, where lights from the wharf seethed through a gray mist. “That meathead Menethil even got this town named for him.”
“You don't understand politics, my friend,” Muradin said. “Building this port took years of wrangling, and at least it was a profitable venture. A voyage like the one you're describing might not yield anything of value.”
Blackspar stared sourly. “You know there are more important goals of exploration than finding resources.”
“Damn your eyes, Ethan!” Muradin slammed his tankard on the table, spilling bits of froth on his fiery beard. “Don't talk down to me. My name's on the League's charter, right next to yours. On my oath, we will continue our work, but slowly. Our ancestors had ten centuries to bury their secrets. You can't expect to unearth them all in a few years.”
“Why not!” Blackspar snapped. Pebble inched back to his place by the wall, hoping he wouldn't be noticed. “I've already sketched the outlines of Northrend. I've found currents and wind that will make the trip faster.”
“It's taken fifteen years to rebuild from the last war,” Muradin said, his eyes narrow. “The smoke from the fires have barely left the skies over Stormwind. People of all nations just want to live in peace.”
“Hang your peace!” Blackspar lifted himself from the chair, his wooden leg banging on the ship's deck as he made his way to Muradin's side of the table. “Pebble! Get the charts!”
“Don't trouble your slave, Ethan,” said Muradin. “I've seen your maps before.”
“Not this one.” Blackspar reached out without looking. Pebble placed a roll of parchment in his hand. “It's from the captain of an elven fishing vessel. His people don't make the voyage often, but they know the place well. Look!” The dwarf's bony finger traced a wavy shape. “They call it Daggercap Bay. See those depth markers? You could moor a whole fleet there, safe from the storms.”
“That's not a map,” shot Muradin, clearly uncomfortable to have Blackspar looming over him. “That's an afterthought. You can't launch an expedition based on that.”
“Don't you think I know,” Blackspar grumbled. “If I chart a better map, will you support a real expedition?”
Muradin's eyes gaped. “Ethan! What are you thinking?”
“Damn your sanctimony, Bronzebeard,” Blackspar spat. “Answer the question!”
“No, Captain Blackspar.” Muradin stood up, his whiskers bristling with deadly fury. The two dwarves locked their visages. “You want to make an unauthorized journey to Northrend. Well put it out of your thoughts. Curse you! You'd still be an admiral, if you weren't so damn rash!”
“Daggercap Bay, Mr Ambassador,” Blackspar said simply. “Doesn't it even sound like a place to find glory?”
“You are an officer in the Alliance Fleet,” warned Muradin. “This is desertion! The penalty is death!”
“Bah!” Blackspar clapped. “Unless there's an uprising among the oysters, there'll be no work for the Fleet to do for a long time. The Wind Thief is the fastest ship crewed by mortals. We'll be there and back before Old Stiffbreeches Proudmoore knows we're gone.”
“You'll ruin the League!” Muradin gasped. “If you're caught, there'll be a scandal.”
“My crew is loyal,” Blackspar said. “I'll send Pebble to the headquarters in Ironforge with my charts. You'll have everything you need to convince the Alliance to send a second expedition, and no one will ever know that ignominious Captain Blackspar had anything to do with it.”
“You're mad, Ethan.”
“That's not an answer, Mr Ambassador.” Blackspar straightened his top hat again while he waited. For a moment, it seemed as if Muradin had been turned to stone.
“Well,” he said at last, “I guess there's no point in trying to convince you, you crazy cur.”
Blackspar grinned bigger than ever. “I guess that's how a Bronzebeard says 'yes.'”
Soon Pebble was pouring more beer, then more, then refilling his pitcher from the barrels in the Wind Thief's hold. When Muradin and Blackspar started singing, Pebble knew he'd be going to bed late.
“Where did you get your slave, Ethan?” Muradin said as Pebble sponged up a spot of beer that had been spilled. “He's a sharp lad, not like those dull layabouts you usually see among the orcs nowadays.”
“I raised him from a pup,” said Blackspar. “Found him along a rocky beach just south of here, actually, back when the Wetlands were howling wild. A band of the Dragonmaw had slapped together a few cutters and were using them to raid the gentle folk of Southshore. We chased them to their settlement, burned their vessels, cut down any of them big enough to carry a weapon, and shipped the children up to the internment camps.
“My crew was taking a little fresh water from the swamps when they found him. Someone, his mother, I suppose, had stashed him under a blanket a little ways up the beach. I didn't feel like calling back the boats that were bound for the camps. It was late in the season, and I was in no mood for a delay. So I suckled the little green-skinned beast through a hole in one of my old gloves, and he's been with me ever since.”
“A lucky catch,” said Muradin. “You called him 'Pebble' because of the rocky beach where you found him?”
“The crew did that,” Blackspar said, sloshing his tankard to see how much beer he had left. “I mostly called him 'Scumball,' but 'Pebble' is what caught on.”
“I see,” said Muradin. “He's dash useful, I must say.”
“You don't know the half of it,” said Blackspar. “He swims like a fish, scampers through the rigging like a monkey, and ties a goblin's fist knot faster than most can cross their fingers. A good secretary, too. My logs and charts would be chaos without him.”
Muradin rolled his eyes. “Ethan! It's against the law to teach an orc how to read.”
“Again with your tiresome rules, Muradin!” Blackspar belched to emphasize his point. “I'm master of this ship, and on it I'll use my slaves as I please.”
“But giving the beast access to all your papers,” said Muradin. “If he ever turned on you, he could captain a pirate ship, or worse, link up with some of the outlaw clans!”
Blackspar's laughter shook the room. “Pebble! Attention!”
With pounding steps, Pebble came forward and stood stiff as a masthead.
“State your name!” Blackspar shouted.
“Seaman Pebble, sir!” As much as he tried to deepen it, the voice still carried the hollow notes of childhood.
“The Wind Thief, sir!”
“And your oath?”
“To serve the Alliance!” Pebble's lungs nearly burst through his ribcage. “To give it my life, if need be. To always protect it with courage and honor!”
“Stand to, Mr Pebble.”
After stamping his foot twice to acknowledge an order by an officer, Pebble turned on his heel and returned to his station by the beer pitcher.
“You see, Muradin.” Blackspar was beaming with pride. “You can count on Pebble.”
The crew spent hours inventing new kinds of camouflage until most of the Seawolf's planks were covered with branches and seaweed. Even a few boulders found their way on board.
Satisfied at last, Pebble ordered all hands belowdecks, where they piled into their hammocks. As the sun disappeared behind the brooding forest, Pebble made himself a nest where he could watch the ocean from behind the concealing arms of two uprooted trees. There he laid his sword upon his lap, jabbing his thumb into his shoulder wound to fight off sleep.
Before he knew it, though, Pebble was trapped by familiar bad dreams. The sun across his eyelids caused him to stir again. “Damn!”
“Salve your injured pride, captain.” Orsha sat beside him, her spyglass pressed to her eyes. “You stayed up most of the night. You were awake, but not alert, when I came up two hours ago to relieve your watch.”
“Relieve me?” Pebble pulled himself up by his knees. “Who told you to relieve me?”
“You are fortunate, sir, to have officers who know what your orders should be as well as what they are.” Orsha's telescope clapped shut, but her gaze did not move from the ocean. A golden sheet from the sunrise covered her face. “The freebooters have fallen for our trick.”
Pebble looked for himself. Silhouetted against the orange curtain on the horizon were two brother black shapes, slipping gently in the morning breeze. They'd long since past the best point to observe the Seawolf's hiding spot.
“They're both still afloat,” Pebble said. “After their collision, I'd hoped at least one would be too damaged to pursue us.”
“They were delayed, at least.” Orsha shook her head. “I'm not used to being hunted.”
“We are as circumstances make us.” Pebble said, slinging his sword across his back. “Cheer yourself up. Take your archers into the woods. Explore as much as you can and bring us back some fresh meat before midday.”
“Yes, sir.” Orsha still sounded disappointed, but Pebble had no time to discuss it further.
The crew was not happy to be roused, but the strength had returned to their limbs. Pebble quickly divided them and set their tasks. Some cut more trees for timber. Some began mending the damaged parts of the hull. Ma'grek gathered a team to go searching for a suitable replacement for the lost mast. Already Pebble was pacing the Seawolf, inspecting the progress of his sailors.
Chapter 3 (continued)
“Excuse me, sir.” Thrak dumped an armful of wood onto the ground in front of one of the repair teams. He had to run to catch up with Pebble's purposeful stride. “Just a word, captain.”
“Now's not the day for one of your shirking schemes.” Pebble did not slow his gait. “In case you haven't noticed, we're not in Ratchet now.”
“Of course not, sir.” Thrak was never easily deterred. “But I was thinking. You have Lieutenant Orsha exploring the woods, and that's all well and good, but what about the beach all around us? I doubt many were paying attention when we landed. Who knows what opportunities we may be missing, or what dangers. . .”
“No,” Pebble interrupted. “Back to work.”
“It's just that my long legs will carry me faster than the first mate,” said Thrak. “And I couldn't help but notice that he's already begun his own exploration.”
Pebble stopped. “What?”
“Lieutenant Yo'jin, sir. He went off an hour ago. No one's heard from him since. If I could be allowed to track in the opposite direction, I could. . .”
“Could sun yourself and gorge on shellfish,” Pebble balked. “There's plenty of wood that needs to get on board, Mr Thrak. You can try reasoning with it, as you are so fond of reasoning with me, but, failing that, I suggest you start hauling.”
The tauren mumbled under his breath as Pebble stormed away. After a short journey down the beach, he spied a familiar gaunt figure, lounging on one of the ship's folding chairs, holding aloft a fishing pole so it could dangle in the surf. Yo'jin's eyes were invisible beneath the brim of an ancient straw hat.
“Lieutenant,” Pebble barked when he was close enough to be heard. “I need you at the ship.”
“I'm no good at carpentry, captain.” Yo'jin could never manage to address him by rank without a healthy draught of mockery in his voice, though his pronunciation of the orcish language was perfect. At Pebble's insistence, the two of them had spent years learning one another's languages, and Yo'jin had become so proficient he didn't even need the pidgin grammar that most trolls used when they spoke a foreign tongue. “Call for me when we're ready to put out to sea again.”
Pebble sighed and sat on a nearby stretch of driftwood. “You're setting a bad example. I can't have a disciplined crew if my first mate comes and goes like he's on an angling day cruise.”
“I know I'm not on a cruise,” said Yo'jin. “The refreshments aren't near good enough.”
“Be serious,” Pebble pleaded.
“No.” Two beady eyes shot from under the hat. “Being serious has been my downfall, Pebble. I was serious the day you hauled me off my fishing raft and told me the Darkspear Tribe was leaving their home. I was serious on the day you told me I had to leave my new fishing boat to fight the Burning Legion. I was serious when I let you pull me off the dock at Ratchet to go chasing freebiters.” “Freebooters,” Pebble corrected.
“Whatever they call themselves.” Yo'jin sat up and started reeling his line. “I went to Ratchet to help you teach this sorry lot how to sail.”
“And you spent most of your time fishing off that damned dock.”
“Well blackmouth are all over those waters, and we never see them in the Echoes.” Yo'jin seized a squirming mackerel from his hook, snapping it's neck without hesitation. Wiping the scales from his hands, he pulled up a pouch from his side. “That reminds me.” He tossed an empty white bottle in Pebble's direction. “You owe me a flask of blackmouth oil and a sprig of strangelkelp.”
“A water breathing potion?” Pebble had to lunge to catch the bottle. He also had to fumble with Yo'jin's riddle before he understood the implication. “That's how you got aboard the Heedless.”
“That's right.” Yo'jin cast his line again. “No help from you.”
Pebble kicked away an advancing party of sand crabs. “What's that supposed to mean?”
“I was the first to see the pirate ship. I watched you turn to follow her.”
“From your rowboat towed behind us,” said Pebble. “We have to talk about that, too.”
“Anyway,” Yo'jin said impatiently. “As soon as you gave chase, the Heedless tacked to starboard. She gave up the weather gauge, deliberately putting herself at a disadvantage.”
“The wind was stronger there,” said Pebble. “I thought that Longshore was trying to outrace us.”
“Outrace us my blue backside,” Yo'jin spat. “No fighting sailor gives up the weather gauge without reason. He was leading you into a trap, and you should have known it.”
Pebble scratched his black mane. “You could have warned me.”
Yo'jin blew a raspberry. “You were already piling on sail, ready to bag your first prize. There was nothing I could have said to stop you.”
“So you took your potion and stayed out of sight underwater.” Pebble knew he was defeated. “When Longshore sprung his trap, you were ready.”
“I learned a thing or two fighting demons,” said Yo'jin. “I saw my opening, and I struck.”
Pebble frowned at a retreating sheet of seaweed. “You saved us all.”
“I shouldn't have had to.” Despite the bouncing fishing pole in his hand, Yo'jin looked very serious indeed. “I'm done, Pebble. When I joined you on this journey, I promised myself I'd perform two tasks. First, I would cast my line in a different ocean. Second, I would protect my only friend from his own foolish pride. Now I'm done with the first task, and I think the second one is going to get me killed.”
The waves marked the seconds, or Pebble would have felt like they had been sitting there for hours. “So what will you do?”
“Go back to Ratchet as soon as I can.” Yo'jin pulled on his rod, but he didn't seem to be paying much attention to the motion of the line. “Get back on that dock and pull in some more blackmouth. Maybe I'll build a new fishing boat, if I can summon the energy.”
Carrying a new weight upon his shoulders, Pebble stood up.
“I'll get you back to your dock, my friend. I owe you that much.”
The trip back to the Seawolf seemed longer than before. Lost in sad thoughts, Pebble did not notice the heap of discarded clothing until he tripped over it. Peering closer, he recognized Orsha's leather vest and leggings, along with her arrows and quiver a few feet away. Further up the beach, arrayed in a line pointing to the water, was a shirt, hair clasp, and loincloth.
The sheer beauty of the vision beyond the waves took his breath away. Pulsing water covered and uncovered Orsha's green limbs. As she dove into the fizzing surf, her muscles strained against her skin, so tight that Pebble could almost feel the friction. Emerging after an interval Pebble found tormenting, Orsha glistened with a thousand shining droplets. She stretched and twisted her body in a dozen different ways, washing bubbling foam everywhere she had skin. Finally, the proud warrior whipped her orange locks and retraced her footprints in the dry sand.
As his third mate approached, Pebble stuck the point of his broadsword on the ground in front of his feet and stood in a pose like the ancient human statues. He wondered if the men in those stones were hiding the same embarrassment he was.
“Work up a sweat, did you, lieutenant?”
Orsha replaced her shirt and loincloth, but wet as she was, they did little to help Pebble's
condition. “We penetrated deep into the forest, sir.” They locked eyes, both determined not to admit that anything unusual was passing between them. “Found a few old boar. The meat is tough and hard, but if we take our time in the preparation, it should prove to be most. . . savory.”
“Good work.” Pebble tried to blink, but couldn't quite manage. “Tell me something, lieutenant. About yourself. There's a curiosity I've wanted to satisfy for a long, long time.”
Orsha strung a tuft of her red hair and squeezed it dry, slowly. Her eyes softened as she let her fingers relax. “What is it, captain?”
“Before the Battle of Mount Hyjal, is it true you fought with the night elves?”
Pebble recognized a face wounded by old memories. “Yes, sir. I was sent into Ashenvale as a messenger. I didn't rejoin the Horde for many months.”
“You were captured by the Warsong,” Pebble said. “Don't look ashamed, lieutenant. From the reports I read, there was nothing you could have done.”
“That's true, captain.” Orsha's eyes had taken on their familiar icy stare. “They were already under the demon's spell when I found them. They tried to make me drink Mannoroth's blood. When I refused, they tortured me for information, and when they were finished they. . .”
She broke his gaze. Suddenly, it seemed, Orsha had found something worth examining in the far horizon.
“Then they tortured you for no reason at all,” Pebble offered, suppressing a shudder as he remembered his own experience during those days. “The Sentinels rescued you?”
“Yes.” Orsha blinked herself back to the present. “They distrusted me at first, but they needed all the help they could find, so they let me fight alongside them. The Sisters taught me to use the bow, and to hunt, and to kill demons. We made war on the Burning Legion, and the Warsong, all over Kalimdor.”
“I've heard stories of the battles you fought,” Pebble said. “You should be proud.”
Orsha bent to pick up the rest of her belongings, as casually as if she hadn't heard him.
“Tell me,” said Pebble, lifting his sword. “Is it true that sometimes the night elves would distract their enemies by having some of their women appear naked before them?”
The leather vest completed Orsha's metamorphosis into a pitiless officer of the Horde. She met his gaze again.
“I find that fascinating,” said Pebble, stepping so close that they were practically touching. “From a purely military perspective. That a naked woman could be beautiful enough to beguile even a hell-spawned demon.”
“It didn't always work,” Orsha said dryly. “Some fiends are beyond the reach of us mortals.”
“Tell me, lieutenant,” Pebble breathed softly. “Am I really no better in your eyes than one of the Burning Legion?”
“You are not my enemy, captain.” Pebble already sensed her cool demeanor melting away by the heat of the passion that burned beneath the surface. “You're just infuriatingly naïve. You, and the Warchief. You want to make friends of the Warsong, so you can make friends of the tauren, so you can make friends with Theramore, so you can make friends with the Alliance. If we stay on this beach long enough, you'll want to make a treaty with the clams.”
Pebble's heavy shoulders shook with laughter. He loosened the grip on his sword, no longer afraid of what Orsha might see. “I guess you'd rather make a chowder out of the Warsong, then. Forget about trade and treaties. Forget about the sea altogether, then. You'd have the orcs make a giant burrow out of Durotar and never leave it.”
“I'd have us venture out for war,” Orsha spat. “Past that, what is there that should interest us? Why should we seek out new lands and new oppressors?”
“It isn't only oppressors that await us, Orsha.” It was Pebble's turn to let his passion show. “This world is vast, and most of it is filled with peoples just like us, who desire nothing more than peace and prosperity. If we engage them, we can forge a new order. Disputes settled through arbitration. Resources shared by trade. Unity in the face of scourges like the Burning Legion. That's the whole point of this navy.”
“That's a child's dream,” Orsha grumbled. “May I be dismissed?”
Pebble gestured her away, but called to her back. “Lieutenant! If you weren't part of my crew, I'd have slapped your rump and carried you into the trees!”
Orsha pirouetted on her heel, facing him without slowing her pace. “They still find pieces of the last male who slapped my rump, captain.”
Pebble sighed as he watched her go, sliding his sword back into it's scabbard. Scanning the treeline, he found a party of sailors hauling a long trunk on their shoulders.
“That'll make a fine mast,” he called. “Where's Ma'grek?”
“Still in the trees,” said the squat orc who led the procession. For the first time, Pebble noticed a strained, worried aspect to the members of the team. “He said he sensed something.”
“Terrific,” Pebble muttered. “Take this tree to the ship and begin work on it immediately. Lieutenant Orsha will be happy to supervise.”
Bounding into the brush, Pebble followed the path made by the enormous log as it was pulled through the jungle. Less and less light was finding it's way past the leaves. Monkeys and strange birds mocked him from the canopy. At last, Pebble found a trail that split off, one that was punctuated by signs that Ma'grek had left for him.
The white coat of an orc materialized amidst the tree trunks. Ma'grek did not turn, but Pebble knew his approach had already been noted in ways no one but a shaman could understand.
“What is it?”
“I don't know.” Kneeling on the ground, Ma'grek was concentrating on the space past the trees, where normal vision could not reach. “Something dark.”
Pebble waited patiently as Ma'grek clutched a piece of soil and let the wind take it from him. Somewhere in the distance, the sea roared a warning in their direction.
Chapter 3 (continued again)
“We should get back to the ship,” said Pebble.
“Not yet.” Ma'grek leapt to his feet and ran into the jungle, pushing the branches like a burrowing rodent. Pebble, though he was taller and his legs much longer, struggled to keep up.
“I've walked into one trap already this voyage.”
Unmoved, the second mate did not stop until they reached a long, winding creek. Scrambling up a square boulder, Ma'grek folded his legs beneath his rump and closed his eyes.
Knowing better than to disturb a shaman's meditations, Pebble leaned against a tree and collected his strength. The near constant activity of the last two days was wearing on him.
“We need to return to Ratchet,” Ma'grek said suddenly.
“The dirt tell you that?” Pebble said, not bothering to hide his annoyance.
“No one needed to tell me that.” Slow breaths were pulsing through Ma'grek's lungs. Otherwise he was still as the rock on which he sat. “This voyage was a mistake.”
“We've had a run of bad luck is all.” Pebble pushed off his tree and paced back and forth. “As soon as we repair the ship, we'll go looking for the freebooters. Maybe we'll circumnavigate this island. You can have a new chart to play with. That'll cheer you up.”
“When you asked me to be your second mate, you said you needed my senses,” said Ma'grek.
“Not right now,” said Pebble. “I can find rocks and trees by myself.”
“Not just for the weather.” Ma'grek opened his eyes at last. “You said you needed me to keep the humor of the crew. I can tell you that easily. Their ship is beached, their third mate is tainted by the stink of the night elves, their first mate won't stop fishing, and their captain pushes them as if nothing has changed. They feel beaten.”
Pebble waved him away. “They are Horde warriors! They will rise to the challenge.”
“On land,” said Ma'grek. “Not on the sea. It scares them.”
“All true sailors are scared of the sea,” said Pebble. “They'll learn.”
“You don't know that.” Ma'grek's eyes sunk to the earth. “This voyage was hubris. You're blinded by your mad vision of a Horde Fleet.”
“It's not a mad vision!” Pebble tried to control his fury.
“A dozen shipyards? Squadrons of juggernauts and war sloops mixed with frigates like the Seawolf? Zepplins built for war?”
“It's all possible!” Pebble said firmly.
“Gazlowe doesn't think so,” said Ma'grek.
“He's under pressure from the other goblins,” said Pebble. “The Alliance is already a sea power. If we want to counter them, we have to be more versatile.”
“You're living in a fantasy.” Ma'grek shook his head in frustration. “Getting beat by the freebooters just showed us what we've known all along.”
“I don't accept that,” Pebble growled. “The Horde will have a navy!”
Shaking his head, the shaman skipped off his boulder and waded through the creek. He kept Pebble in his eyes as he walked. “Don't let your pride blind you, my friend.” Without looking down, Ma'grek reached into the stream and pulled out a bleached white shape.
Pebble was glad for a new topic of conversation. “Are there sheep in this jungle?”
Ma'grek shook his head, turning over the long skull in his hand. Spiral horns rose from it's sides. “This has been boiled. There's only one kind of magic that uses this kind of talisman.”
Watching the melancholy expression on his friend's face, Pebble understood. “That's the real reason you're in such a dark mood.” Somehow, Ma'grek looked bitter and relieved at the same time. “You think the crew will never follow an officer who was once a warlock.”
The skull seemed to grow heavy in his hands. “I thought being at sea would change their minds, but it's only getting worse. Even the other Warsong look at me differently.”
“They were corrupted too,” Pebble said. “They've no right to judge you.”
A sad, sick smile stretched across Ma'grek's lips. “I danced with infernals, sang with satyrs, diced with pit lords, and did things with succubi for which there are no words. I was the worst of the worst. Grom broke the curse, but he didn't erase the memories.”
Pebble wanted to join him in the creek, to offer his hand, or his arm, anything to help, but something told him Ma'grek needed to find his own way out. “It's not just the crew, is it? You're afraid you couldn't resist the temptation if it were offered again.”
Ma'grek rubbed his arms, pressing the runes and signs that marred his skin. Pebble dismissed it as his imagination, but the designs seemed brighter than usual, almost glowing. “Most of the Warsong shaman are dead. For some of them, the loss of the demon power was so great, they killed themselves rather than live without it. Am I so different?”
“You've fought the cravings this long.”
“But forever?” Ma'grek shook his head. “Who can say?”
The sun had retreated to some hole past the trees. Long, curious shadows shrouded them as they stood silently wondering at their fates.
“Fears are a mortal thing,” Pebble declared in a pithy tone. “They die in time. The crew will learn to have faith in you.”
“We'll see.” Ma'grek seemed to be muttering to the skull.
“You'll learn to have faith in yourself as well.”
The two of them stared into the bubbling stream, afraid of what they would find in each other's eyes.
The sound of lacerated tree branches broke their reverie.
A ball of stubby limbs came tumbling furiously down the creek bank, splashing into the water. Pebble and Ma'grek drew their weapons, instinctively moving closer so they could support one another, but not so close that they would be vulnerable to the same attack. A crackling lightning ball was already gathering in Ma'grek's fist.
The surface of the stream exploded in a plume of water. Dripping droplets like rain, an orc face with light hair and amber eyes lunged upwards. The mouth was gulping down air as if he'd been drowning.
“Run!” The voice had a high pitch that confirmed what Pebble and Ma'grek had been too shocked to realize until now.
“Where did you come from, boy!” Pebble cried.
The newcomer was no more than ten years old. “Run, I say!” Crawling along the floor of the creek, the boy struggled towards them. “Run or be lost!”
Passing between the stunned warriors, the orc child scurried up the opposite bank and plunged into the brush again. Ma'grek and Pebble were left alone to puzzle over what just happened.
“Impossible,” said Ma'grek. “I climbed a tree on a hill and got a good look of this island. It's not large enough to support a settlement. There's no way for a child that young. . .” Suddenly the shaman stopped. His pointy beard raised in the direction of the crude path the boy had cut through the trees. The darkening woods seemed to stare down at them.
Pebble tried to spy what Ma'grek sensed, but his efforts were interrupted by a pitiful sound, like air escaping from a cut throat. It seemed to come from no fixed direction. Rather it echoed through the trees, rumbling at them from every angle. Beneath the low screeching beat the unmistakable sound of pounding feet against the black earth.
“The lad's no fool,” Pebble breathed. “Let's heed his advice.”
The orcs led a good chase, retracing the route from which they'd come. The boy's little legs had not carried him far, so Pebble scooped him up and slung him on his back beside his broadsword. Twice they rested, glad for the cackling of monkeys that greeted their ears, but each time the terrible noises caught up with them.
The chorus of shrill crying and advancing footfalls had apparently overtaken them. Orsha was already drawing the crew into a skirmish line to defend the Seawolf. Pebble dropped to his knees and lowered the boy to the ground.
“What is it?” he gasped. “What is coming for us?”
A shaking little hand grasped Orsha's breeches. He scanned the treeline with wild eyes.
“Ghosts,” the boy said over and over again. “Ghosts!”
“Did you see anything?” Orsha demanded.
“No,” said Pebble. “But by the sound of it, there are more of them than there are of us.” Gauging the echoes as they grew louder, he knew there was little time to lose. Pebble thrust back his shoulders and called in the voice he used to give orders on the Seawolf. “We'll make a stand on that hill, but we'll withdraw in stages, bleeding them inch by inch. Orsha! Take your archers to the treetops. Ma'grek and Yo'jin! Take the flanks.”
The screeching cries joined into a single long howl that drew every pair of eyes into the dark void beneath the canopy.
“Damn it, where's Thrak!”
One by one, each member of the crew turned to meet Pebble's gaze. The rote obedience they'd been taught on the shoals near Ratchet had been replaced by the anger of desperate animals. His commands sounded like insolence to their ears. With each bitter face, Pebble fell further and further from his shipmates, until he felt as if he were the captain of a ship without a crew.
The sailors of the Wind Thief were arranged on deck in full parade formation. Everyone was staring at Captain Blackspar's tussled black hair. Though the old dwarf inspected his ship daily, he never once appeared without his buckled top hat. It was like seeing him without his skin.
“Step forward, captain.” Daelin Proudmoore, King of Kul Tiras and Grand Admiral of the Alliance Fleet, sat in front of a long table. A dozen sheafs of paper were spread before him. “Your presence is required here. . . briefly.”
Hobbling on his wooden leg, Blackspar made his way across the planks, face set as if he were going into battle. On his flanks stood two dwarf marines, their rifles loaded and ready at their shoulders. The crew of the Wind Thief watched helplessly behind a wall of more green-coated warriors.
“I trust you found my cabin agreeable, admiral.” Blackspar spoke very quietly when he was enraged.
Proudmoore did not look up. “It furnished me with what I needed.” The lanky human was studying the documents on his table, sorting them one by one into several piles. At last, he held up a gloved hand and waved a clutch of papers in the air. “These will tell the other kings all they need to know about your little jaunt to that wasteland in the north. It seems you made copies, though. Perhaps some distinguished member at court already knows all about it?”
The admiral's wide-brimmed hat cocked slightly as he waited for an answer. Blackspar did not oblige him.
“No matter,” said Proudmoore. “We have your originals. And the testimony of your slave, of course.” A bored wave was all the acknowledgement the human made to Pebble.
Blackspar sighed before turning his head for the first time in the direction of the two armored marines that held Pebble's arms.
“I'm sorry, master.” Though he'd long stopped struggling against his bonds, Pebble flinched from his captain's gaze. He wished he had something to cover his face. A broken nose and a swollen, distorted jaw were not presentable in a proper seaman.
“The Ironforge guards plucked him off the street,” Proudmoore said as he continued his sorting. “We can't have unattended orcs roaming an Alliance capital, can we? As luck would have it, one of my captains was arranging a shipment of gunpowder at the time. He was consulted when the guards discovered the wretch's clothes smelled of sea salt. The dwarves were afraid he was a pirate. My man didn't know of any pirate crews that hired orcs, but he thought it was prudent to stay and make sure the guards wrung the whole story out. As you can see, the dwarves were very determined to do just that.”
Blackspar turned away from Pebble and drew a blast of air into his mighty lungs. “We should all be proud of our admiral, shipmates!” he called so the whole assembly could hear. “No obstacle makes him pause! Not even a foolish boy, who had the silly notion that a sailor should be loyal to his captain!”
At last Proudmoore lost his composure. With a violent thrust, he pulled himself to his full height and shook a bundle of crinkled paper at Blackspar. “A naval officer may not leave home waters without the permission of his admiral! Failure to comply is desertion! The punishment is death!”
The dark dwarf's eyes flashed with anger, but his dignity did not waver. “I'm ready to leave now, admiral. Will you lead the way, or should I?”
Beneath his bushy mustache, the human turned red. He barked at the marines. “Move out!” Proudmoore stormed over the plank, toward the wharf of Menethil Harbor. Behind him, the company of marines drew up a somber procession. Blackspar limped along in the center, his bearing so straight that his height rivaled many of the humans.
Pebble wanted to cry out one last time, but something inside, something he did not understand, stayed his voice. The scene was unfurling apart from him somehow, like a play on whose stage he'd unwittingly found himself.
“What do we do with this one, sir?” One of the marines held Pebble aloft by the ear.
“We have what the admiral wants,” said an officer. “Give him to Blackmoor.”
“No!” Pebble cried at last. “Not the internment camps! They're filled with orcs!”
Roars of laughter spewed from the remaining marines. Even the crew of the Wind Thief, some of whom were Pebble's friends, snickered at the sight, glad for some relief of the tension.
“No!” Pebble screamed. “Please! I'm a sailor! I'm a servant of the Alliance!”
“Put him in here,” grumbled a sergeant, holding up a sack.
“I'm a sailor! This ship is my home!”
Stinking canvas blacked out Pebble's world.
The round of posts after this one will be the last. I really thought my portrayal of some of the in game characters would be more controversial. Maybe this chapter will shake loose the outrage.
The rolls of canvas over the archway tickled Pebble's hair as he passed the threshold. Inside, orange spires danced with ebony shadows and the smell of burning charcoal met intruders like a sentry. Pebble took one more deep breathe, then stood at attention, waiting to be called.
Six stately figures ringed a square-topped table in the center of the tent. Some stroked tussled beards or matted fur. Others pressed and twisted their hands, massaging their tired sinews. In the center, one lone individual was dragging his fingers along a parchment, wrestling with the mysteries he found in the craggly lines that made a map.
At last, Thrall looked up. Pebble thought he noticed a sign of recognition in the Warchief's eyes, but soon it sank beneath a somber brow.
“Come in, Pebble. Stand easy.”
“Yes, master.” Pebble tried to relax his chest muscles, but still found himself uncomfortably rigid.
“Is this the exploding fellow, or the catapult-maker?” asked a creaky voice somewhere in the darkness.
“No, Drek'thar,” said another, younger voice. Pebble could just make out Naz'grel, the Captain of the Guard, arms folded into his chest, studying him with an impatient expression. “They'll be in later. This is the sailor.”
“A sailor!” The old orc snorted unpleasantly. “Haven't we all had enough of the sea?”
“Maybe we have.” A heavy troll voice split the gloom. Pebble peered to the back of the tent and saw Vol'jin, the Darkspear chief, leaning carelessly back in his chair. “But the Kul Tiras haven't. Their supply ships arrive daily, and they raid the coast where they please. We have to spread our lines thin as swamp reeds to guard against ambushes.”
A slow groan seemed to come from the center of the Earth, but Pebble traced it to a figure sitting beside Vol'jin. “A sad fact, I agree,” said Cairne Bloodhoof, chieftan of the taurens, “but a fact nonetheless. Proudmoore and his cursed followers are sea peoples, and we are not.”
“Perhaps,” said a voice Pebble had never heard before. A strange face appeared next to Thrall's shoulder. The top was covered by a mask. The chin that jutted forward was similar to an orc's, but darker and broader. The stranger was taller even than Pebble. “Let's hear what this warrior has to say.”
“Don't get your hopes up, Rexxar.” Naz'grel shook his head with a sneer. “There's a reason you don't recognize this wretch. He was the pilot for our fleet when we first came to Kalimdor. Many noble souls lay on the reefs of the Great Sea because of him.”
“It was a difficult task,” Thrall said sternly. “Pebble was not dishonored by what happened.”
“Maybe not,” said Naz'grel. “But he did not win any honor by it, either. Where's he been ever since? Lives like a hermit, so they say. Sulks over his failure. It's clear he blames himself, so I'm not inclined to argue with him. Like as not, he's only here because the Warchief called for warriors, then he'll slink back away, just as he did after the Battle of Mount Hyjal.”
“A hermit and a warrior?” Rexxar smiled under his mask. “I like him already. Speak up, then. What's your plan to break this stalemate?”
Pebble tried to clear his throat, but the phlegm tumbled clumsily down his mouth until he finally had to cough, then swallow. “Masters,” he addressed them gravely. “Give me workers and I will build a shipyard, then two warships, then enough transports to ferry a landing party up to the Kul Tiras base.”
Drek'thar guffawed. “I can see far, but I can't see to the end of the Alliance fleet. Proudmoore will swallow your ships without a belch.”
“He won't, master.” Much to his own surprise, Pebble did not stammer as he corrected the oldest, wisest orc in the Horde. “Admiral Proudmoore is a great sailor, but he's an arrogant man. He doesn't believe we would dare attack him by sea. He's planned for a land assault, and all his defenses are vulnerable because of it.”
Thrall cut off anyone who thought of objecting. “Explain.”
Pebble felt a knot in his stomach, as if he was going into battle. “Last night, my friend Yo'jin and I took soundings off Tidefury Cove under cover of darkness. It's a good harbor, but it's very shallow. Proudmoore can't bring his big battleships in to support the beach defenses.”
“Even if that's true, he can still bring in his smaller vessels,” said Rexxar. “They'll rip your ships apart like a wolf pack.”
“Not if we keep between the mainland and the rocky island, the one with all the turtles on it.” Pebble felt his feet bringing him closer inside the circle. “The channel is very narrow there. They can't fit more than two frigates into the opening. If they challenge us, it'll have to be on even terms. I've designed a new type of sloop that's sleek and fast. It'll be a tough fight, but worth it. Proudmoore hasn't even fortified his base from the seaward side. An attack there will send him reeling.”
“While we attack from the front,” Thrall commented, studying his map again. “Sound strategy.”
“If our boats don't bash one another to pieces before they reach the enemy,” Naz'grel yawned. “It's too big a risk.”
Thrall turned to Rexxar. “You'll be leading the attack. What do you think?”
The strange creature rubbed his chin. At last, he spread both arms in the air, resigning himself to a distasteful decision. “Even if it is a fool's errand, Proudmoore won't be able to risk his rear. He'll have to siphon off soldiers to defend it. If this orc reaches the beaches, we'll crack their defenses like an egg. If he fails, we'll have a better chance in the frontal assault.”
“You'll still have to find someone to lead this sorry bunch,” Naz'grel spat. “None of my officers will do it.”
“We'd be honored to command the ships, Warchief,” Pebble practically shouted. “My friend and I.”
Vol'jin hissed. “His friend is half insane. He was raised by a family of fisherfolk who lived on their boats. I'll wager than Yo'jin never stepped on dry land until he'd seen twenty summers.”
“It's a job for sailors, master,” Pebble said with an iron tone. “Yo'jin and I are the only ones you have.”
The assembly was stunned by this outburst, but Rexxar was not easily distracted. “Very well,” he said. “There's a shaman who's been accompanying me on my travels. Another hermit. Ma'grek's his name. He'll command the warriors who make the landing.”
“It's settled then,” Thrall said confidently, then grew a smile unlike his usual grimace. “Who knows? Maybe at the end of this battle, we'll have the beginnings of our own Horde Navy.”
Amidst much laughter and back-slapping, Pebble grit his tusks.
The Seawolf's crew crouched along a rocky hilltop, arrayed in two lines stacked in a semicircle. Pebble stood at the center, staring, with everyone else, at the jet black ribbon of trees. The howling had stopped just a few feet beyond the visible brush. Now the twilight had come and gone, and everyone in the company knew something was about to begin.
Cicadas argued in the night air, but there was no other sound. Twice a low rumbling laughter arose from the left flank, where Yo'jin had command. Pebble wished the irascible troll would quit his joking, but he knew his friend's clever jibes had a way of calming his warriors, so he said nothing. Ma'grek, by contrast, stood still and oddly serene on the right flank. If not for the staff and shield held at the ready in his hands, he would have looked like a picket on an ordinary night's guard duty.
Pebble lifted his head and cried into the nearby treetops. To preserve the company's night vision, he had ordered that no torches be lit. The solitary orange dots that struck up over their heads cast a fiery glow. Orsha's archers had readied their burning arrows. Pebble imagined their bows trembling in their hands.
Fifteen shooting flames traced an arc in the night. They did not touch the earth, but lodged into tree trunks, where their fires crackled into bands of flickering light. The crew of the Seawolf strained their eyes, but could see nothing but the twisting wood and drooping vines of the jungle.
“For crying out loud!” called Pebble. “Swallow us up, or go away! Your sloth offends us!”
Even the cicadas hushed. The still tropical air bathed them like a flood.
When the first thoughts of rest were forming in the warriors heads, the howl came again. It was perfect in it's shrill obscenity, splitting the indifferent night with it's hungry rage.
“For the Horde!” cried Pebble. “Lok tar Ogar!”
Through their legs, they felt the pulsing of hundreds of footfalls. Howls were met by howls as the nameless things hurled themselves toward the lines of warriors.
The patches of light made by the searing arrows gave way to an ocean of shadow. Pebble could just discern thick pairs of shoulders topped by sharp-pointed horns.
Orsha's first true volley hissed in the branches above. Pebble listened for the telltale sound of tumbling wounded warriors, but heard none.
The fastest of the attackers broke over the crew like a wave over a seawall. The first line checked them with shields and polearms, the enemy's gnashing teeth and dull axes slashing at mostly empty air. The second line made the counterattack. Blades of every description flew in killing blows any place there was an opening, pushing back against the endless stream of horrors.
“It can't be,” Pebble said to himself as a metal and wood vessel fell at his feet. The horns were not part of the attackers as he had supposed, but ornaments on broad helmets of a familiar design. Pebble's amazement slowed the progress of his sword, but only a little. He thrust the thick blade forwards and up, prying the head of one of the things from it's very shoulders. Catching it with his free hand, Pebble held it into the dim light and studied it quickly.
To his amazement, an orc skull with empty sockets stared back at him. “Undead!” the captain called to his crew. “Forget their guts! Take away their limbs, then hack them to as many pieces as you can manage!”
The skull in his hand tried to bite him, but he punted it into the forest with his boot. For an experiment, Pebble brought his broadsword down on a nearby attacker, splitting it's helmet in two and clearing a swathe down to the orc ghost's spine. The skeletal trunk just kept coming.
“Orsha!” cried Pebble as he leveraged his blade into the attacker's collar bone until the ribcage popped into two pieces. “Come down! Your arrows are no use here!”
Shimmying on vines to slow their fall, the archers leapt into the melee with axe and knife. They plugged the holes that formed as members of the crew fell to infernal hands. The center was in a desperate state. The undead orcs seemed to replace themselves from a bottomless well of shrieking skeletons. Pebble shored up the gaps in the lines as fast as he could, but it was clear they would not hold for long.
“Close formation!” he commanded. “Begin the withdraw!”
As Orsha drew up beside Pebble, Yo'jin and Ma'grek led their lines backward until the flanks met. The whole crew was in a tight circle, stumbling and crashing into each other, but supporting one another's attacks and sealing their backs in an unbroken wall of armor and muscle. In the center, Pebble and the rest of the officers shouted and pushed, trying as best they could to keep order. Sometimes they marched slowly over the uneven rocky ground in the direction of the Seawolf. Sometimes they stopped to close the gaps that inevitably broke in the circle. Haltingly, clumsily they made their way until they felt sand and shells beneath their feet again.
The crew was taking no more casualties, but their arms were getting heavier and their cries of challenge were now accompanied by frothy white streams of spittle. Though falling by the dozens, the undead orcs found fresh recruits from the darkness. Pebble knew they'd be overrun if the battle kept on this way.
Ma'grek's bright blue bolts were flashing against the night sky. The bones of screaming undead warriors singed into nothing, carpeting the ground with a thick layer of ash. Even with his victories, the shaman looked ready to flee. “This is worse than I feared,” he cried when Pebble was close enough to hear. “I sense there is some great evil at the root of this.”
“There'll be time to talk about that later,” Pebble rumbled. “Your magic is our best weapon right now. Use it to cut a hole to the Seawolf. It's just a dash across the beach. Take Orsha's team and move as fast you can. Yo'jin and I will follow in the rear.”
Ma'grek's eyes were filled with blue flame, but Pebble could still read his expression. “Don't argue,” the captain growled. “Go!” He left his second mate to organize his party, charging to the far end of the circle.
The undead were close to breaching the lines of warriors. Crossing his old dagger against his new cutlass, Yo'jin make a crude pair of shears and began cutting down the legs of howling skeletons. The ghost orcs kept up their racket, but instead of attacking, they could only flail their stumps. “This is inconvenient,” the troll muttered.
Orsha was having less success adapting her tactics. The huntress used two axes when arrows failed her, but the short weapons allowed the skeletons to get closer than she would have liked. “We'll be overrun if this keeps. . .”
“Go with Ma'grek!” Pebble called, joining the fray. “Follow the blue lights.”
“The Seawolf's no shelter from this!” Orsha answered. “These demons will hack a hole in the hull as if it were made of butter.”
“Obey your captain!” Pebble snapped. Reluctantly, Orsha rallied her team. She conferred with Ma'grek, addressing him with only a little of her customary disgust.
Chapter 4 (continued)
Yo'jin's light blades were getting chipped and dulled by frequent clashes with the undead's battle axes. “Do you know how I'm coping with the prospect of almost certain doom, captain?”
Pebble shredded two skeletons with one swipe of his sword. “I can't wait to hear.”
“I'm thinking of my dock,” said Yo'jin, parrying another blow. “My nice, quiet dock and all it's fish and sunshine and. . .” with a deft counterstroke, he sheered off a skeleton's hand and kicked it's axe across the ground, “and, to my admittedly imperfect recollection, not one flesh-hungry ghoul.”
“I admit,” said Pebble, caving in a bony face with the butt of his broadsword. “That sounds pretty good about now.”
The sounds of battle faded behind their backs. Pebble counted to ten inside his head, then called to the warriors who were left. “Follow me!” A rough wedge formed through the undead ranks with Pebble at it's tip. In the distance, Ma'grek's energy blasts marked their path, as if a small, blue sunrise came and went every few seconds. The Seawolf's planks seemed to scowl at them from it's far off resting place.
Pivoting on his heels, Pebble raised his sword over his head and roared a warning to any ghost who hoped for easy prey. The flood of skeleton orcs charged him from every angle. Spinning as quickly as his tall frame could manage, Pebble never let his sword stop moving. The thick steel blade twisted in his wrists, tracing a compass around it's owner, sending pieces of bone and armor in every direction. He kept his momentum until he thought his head would fail, then he kept it just a little more. At last, as dizziness overcame him, Pebble felt himself careening to the earth. Letting himself bounce off the sand, he rolled back onto his feet.
Axes and teeth found homes in Pebble's flesh, but he kept running. Two of the undead orcs clutched at his hair and tried to anchor him so the others could catch up, but Pebble managed to rend their limbs with his sword. The chaotic chase ran on and on until finally the sounds of breaking waves signaled that Pebble was almost home.
Orsha, bleeding from her forearms, had reformed the crew into a half circle around the Seawolf's hull. All of them carried a heavy aspect on their faces, but they cheered Pebble as he breached the line. Once again, the tidal wave of howling undead crashed into the crew, and the frantic dueling continued as if it had never been interrupted.
Ma'grek balanced himself on the ship's railing like a circus performer, hurling tumbling lightning balls into the masses below. The black shapes of the numberless skeleton army filled the beach. If the Seawolf could sail on darkness alone, it would have risen on that tide.
Yo'jin was guiding a handful of warriors up the gangplank, where they sought healing potions or built defenses along the deck. For the first time, Pebble noticed that the whole crew was crowding around that point, waiting to race up to the Seawolf when the time was right.
“Strike the plank!” Pebble called, still panting from his chase across the beach. “Bring it down, Yo'jin! Don't let any more up!”
The crew knew the ship would offer only a little safety, but the beach offered none. “You heard the order,” Yo'jin barked. Pebble hoped he was the only one who saw that the troll was draped in false confidence. As the party filed down, they pulled their collars high or their caps low so the rest of the company wouldn't see how pale they'd become. Like a dying beast, the gangplank hit the sand in a puff of dust. The crew drew their line to plug the holes.
Ma'grek collapsed on the railing. He still gave orders to the few, mostly wounded warriors on the deck, but he was too exhausted for more thunder bolts.
“Orsha!” Pebble cried. “Light your arrow!”
The third mate's face contorted in equal parts confusion and despair.
“Do it! And your archers too!”
The crescent of green and blue flesh bulged inwards where the undead horde was thickest. Arms too tired to strike back anymore clasped nearby shoulders to hold the line. A chorus of pitiful groans echoed off the Seawolf's hull.
Poor flickering tongues licked lamely at a dozen arrowheads.
Pebble shrieked as if addressing the stars behind the clouds. “Thrak! Let fly!”
A strange mewing sound fell on them as, from some unseen perch, unguessed at by any but Pebble, thick tauren muscles uncoiled and pushed a heavy burden into the air. A piece of the sky broke off against the struggling moonlight. Orsha, roused by some battle instinct, sent her fiery bolt into the air. The arrowhead clapped onto a wooden surface and both came tumbling to the earth.
The powder keg shattered when it connected with the ground. Flame and bone shards challenged the masts for height. A swathe of upturned sand stretched where a battalion of ghost warriors once stood.
“Again, Thrak!” Pebble cried. “Don't let them rest!”
Apparently more confident in himself, Thrak shot two more barrels out in quick succession. Multiple arrows lodged their heads into the round planks. Twin plumes of fire tore through the skeleton ranks.
“Push back, now!” Pebble held his sword in weary hands like a quarterstaff, beating back axe after axe. “Rally on me! Follow, you limp-tongued dogs!”
At first, the crew was still. Many of them only stood at all because they leaned on their fellows. But as they watched Pebble claw his way into the flailing skeletons, the fires of the powder blazing over his head, the strongest among them found the will to lurch forward. Soon the crescent became another wedge with Pebble at it's tip.
The shrieking ghouls were still ferocious, but now their mass was hollow in places. The wedge tore through the fray like the prow of a ship. Ma'grek's blue flame flashed again behind their backs. After a few seconds, Pebble turned their progress back towards the Seawolf. Yo'jin had restored the gangplank and organized the rest of the warriors into a fresh line. Pebble's team joined them like a hammer against an anvil.
More skeletons had fallen in a few seconds than in the entire battle on the hill or the flight to the ship. Thrak and Orsha had fallen into a rhythm that sent crashing fireballs into the air every few seconds. The crew had finally lost their fear of the enemy, and with the joy only a warrior can feel, they swung their weapons in arcs as wide as their arms could stretch, crunching piles of bone beneath their feet as they went.
The ocean pulled at Pebble like a desperate lover as he climbed the pylons onto the dock. His pores were giddy with saltwater, save for the streaks on his back where a Kul Tiras marine had struck him. Only a loincloth covered his body now that the fine leather armor he once wore was beneath the bright, tropical waves. The heavy folds would have exhausted Pebble had he'd tried to carry it through his long swim. His return to the shipyard seemed to require a celebratory “whoop,” which startled the few goblins who were in earshot.
“Lower those booms,” Pebble called to the foreman. “The invasion of Theramore depends on this battle. Rexxar, Champion of the Horde is fighting for his life over that horizon. You'll answer to your masters if he dies for lack of ships.”
He did not pause to see how the workers reacted. A makeshift armory stood at the end of the dock. The next leg of his journey would begin there.
“Are you the grunt they call Pebble?”
Two female eyes flashed before him, holding themselves high and defiant. To Pebble's amusement, they also strained obviously against the temptation to fall on his mostly naked body.
“They call me 'Captain' here,” Pebble said, wrapping a bandage around his wounds. “It's not official, but Rexxar allows it.”
A fleeting look of contempt crossed the female's face before she could suppress it. “Naz'grel sent me with these reinforcements,” she said, gesturing to a troop of wolf riders who sat on the shore. “I am Orsha.”
“Glad to have you with us,” said Pebble, already choosing from among a rack of hand weapons. “We've been fighting for hours with no help. Rexxar's been hiring mercenaries from the islands to steel the ranks.”
Orsha became noticeably relieved as he pulled a new jerkin over his torso. “May I ask after the situation at the front?”
“Better than expected,” Pebble said, gauging the balance of a curved polearm. “Proudmoore's learned nothing from Tidefury Cove. For some reason, Old Starchbreeches is keeping his ships dispersed between the islands. The Alliance scum fight like devils, but we can beat them as long as they stay scattered.”
“How are our forces deployed?”
Pebble snapped a belt in place and gathered his new arms. “Their dwarves have artillery everywhere there's dry land, and their ships stay close to the cannon towers, so they can support one another. Our vessels overwhelm the sea powers in detail, then the warriors storm the beaches to clear out the land powers. Rexxar calls it 'island hopping.'”
“Somehow that's not a name that inspires confidence.” Orsha strode beside him along the dock. “I've never heard of this strategy before.”
“This battle is unlike any that's been fought before,” said Pebble. “We don't have many sailors, so we can only stand up a single squadron. When a ship is sunk, every member of the crew has to make their own way back to this shipyard. As soon as possible, we board the next ship to disembark. Here.”
Pebble reached down at a pile of rucksacks and tossed it to her. The canvas sang with jingling glass.
“What is it?”
“Healing potions. Speed elixirs. A few other goodies.” Pebble loaded his own pockets with bottles. “Break them out after your first shipwreck.”
Orsha winced. “First?”
“I've been in seven ships since this battle began,” said Pebble. “Load your warriors on one of the transports. I'll be taking command of one of those cursed juggernauts. Awkward beasts, but they get the job done.”
“I've never been in command of a ship,” Orsha said shyly.
“When we make the passage, stick close to your escort,” said Pebble. “If there's trouble, you'll do fine. It's just like a land battle, when you get the hang of it.”
Breaking into a run, Pebble left her to contemplate her uncertain fate. At the new juggernaut, he vaulted over the railing. The smell of welded metal still filled the air. All over the ship, sailors fresh from the sea were clamoring to their stations, stowing equipment and checking their weapons. Their faces were stretched like masks, etched by the lines of battle after battle. By now, they were confident in their abilities. The preparations had become routine, but still the crew waited patiently on the inevitable inspection of their captain.
“What is this?” Pebble roared.
The ship was suddenly still. Warriors' hands clenched around sword hilts and machine handles, ready for action. They all knew life and death might follow on their captain's next words.
Hearty, guttural laughter filled the hull, from the hold to the upper decks. A clipped, rasping orc ballad echoed off the juggernaut's rounded steel.
Soon the goblin builders were ready. The clumsy ship plodded through the water, barely keeping upright in the waves. Orsha's transport fell in behind.
Pebble stood on the bridge, wedged between two goblin helmsmen. The ocean lay under his feet, beckoning his weary limbs over the horizon. All around he could hear the buzz of a brave, confident crew, all of them thirsty like desert beasts, ready to slake themselves on victory.
Chapter 4 (continued again)
When the sun finally rose over the whispering waves of the South Sea, crabs and gulls were picking through the chalky remains of the ghost army.
“Remember the day we met, Orsha?” Pebble sat cross-legged on the sand, munching on a slice of bread. The rest of the crew was splayed beside him, waiting patiently for Ma'grek to work on them with his healing magics. Everyone was strangely tranquil, considering the last of the gruesome host had been dispatched only an hour before.
Orsha, though still in her light armor, was sunning herself on a fallen log. “That was a good day,” she purred. “I remember leading my riders off the boat, trying to chase down a mortar team before they blew us to the next life. We came through the clearing, and there we saw the dwarves already torn to shreds by this raging, furry monster. I thought that the Burning Legion had returned.”
Pebble chuckled. “Misha was a sight to see.”
“A sight and a half,” Orsha agreed. “Rexxar said he encountered her in Ashenvale, but I never saw a bear that big in all my time there.”
Throwing away a moldy bit of crust, Pebble reached into a bag that had been left by Yo'jin and pulled out a bottle of blue liquid. With a whistle, he tossed it to Ma'grek. The shaman was visibly tired, but he still saluted his captain with the mouth of the bottle before turning it upside down and gulping it empty.
“Of course I remember you taking command of the last sloop.” Orsha sat up and studied Pebble. “I'd seen the spikes along the deck, but I never dreamed they could actually be used to ram an enemy ship. It seems a rash decision when I think of it. I think I'd disobey your orders now if you told me to gather the crew in a transport and leave you alone.”
“Careful,” the captain said sternly. “You know what the punishment will be for disobeying orders in the new Horde Navy?”
Orsha gave him a mocking scowl. “Dragged into the trees and forty slaps to the rump?”
“How'd you guess?” asked Pebble. “Though I shudder at the day I have to do it to Thrak.”
Orsha's laughter had a musical quality that Pebble enjoyed.
“We defeated the greatest navy in the world that day,” he drawled, lowering his head to the sand. “We were proud warriors, bringing honor to ourselves and to the Horde.”
Orsha grinned. “It was your inspiring words, captain. 'Like fighting on the land, when you get used to it.'”
“You were a land-bound wolf tick back then,” said Pebble, prodding her with his foot. “I had to say something to build your confidence.”
“You misremember,” said Orsha. “I was perfectly at ease from my first hour at sea.”
The crew couldn't help overhear, and those who were at the Battle of Theramore laughed at the joke.
“Seriously,” said Pebble. “What happened to us since that day?”
“Thrill of battle, captain,” Orsha said. “Just like being drunk on Pandaren brew. Now we're awake and rubbing away our headaches.”
“Maybe so.” Pebble looked gloomily at the glowing waters of the ocean, still orange from sunrise. “Enough reverie. We have work to do.”
“Why not let the company rest awhile?” said Orsha. “There's still pig meat from yesterday. The repairs to the ship will wait until after lunch.”
Pebble mulled the suggestion, then finally grunted his assent. Resting his neck against an empty leather pouch, he stretched his weary muscles and was ready for a doze when a shadow fell over his face.
Yo'jin stood somberly above him. “I'm doing my best,” Pebble growled. “Your dock is not growing legs. It will not race off to the Barrens to join the gazelle if I rest awhile.”
“My dock is further away then you know, captain.” The skinny troll reached behind his back and pulled forward the orc child from the day before. “This varmint sprang from the hold at sunup. I chased him half a league down the beach before I caught him.”
Orsha hissed between her teeth. “Stupid child! Can't you see the skeletons are all gone.”
“Let me go!” the boy cried, beating his free hand against Yo'jin's grip. “We have to be away from here. No time to lose.”
“Shush, child.” Pebble stood up and pulled the boy lightly by the arm. Squatting so they could be eye to eye, he searched for signs of panic or lack of reason. Young as he was, the boy seemed to be in command of his faculties.
“I am Captain Pebble. What's your name?”
“Corda,” said the boy. “Son of Krek'sos.”
“It's a good name,” Pebble said. “Where did you come from?”
“From a goblin ship,” said Corda. “My mother was a mercenary sailor. We lived in Kezan.”
Behind the child, Pebble noticed Ma'grek. His face long and drawn from the magic, the second mate cocked his head, listening keenly.
“How came you to this island?”
“We were shipwrecked, captain,” said Corda. “Our ship was the Maiden's Charm. We were outbound from Steamwheedle Port with a shipment of gold when we struck the rocks.”
“Where is your ship's crew?”
“All dead.” Tears peeled in the corners of Corda's eyes. “Even my mother.”
Pebble released his hold, sensing the boy would not run. “By the ghosts?”
“No,” screamed Corda. “It was the orcs! Live ones, much worse than the ghosts you fought last night.”
Ma'grek turned pale.
“They were waiting on the shore,” Corda said, more calmly. “We were ambushed as we came out of the ocean. The beach was full of fire pits and dark altars and cauldrons where they kept the heads. They slaughtered us one by one.”
Ma'grek could contain himself no longer. “What magics did they use? What spells? What incantations? Think boy!”
“I don't know,” Corda said pitifully. “I did not hear their words. I hid under a pile of seaweed.”
“Did they have talismans!” Ma'grek demanded. “Wands? Rattles? Anything you can remember!”
“There was a blue banner in the center of them all.” Corda's eyes became perfectly round. He stared as if he could see through Pebble, the crew, even the Seawolf's hull. “A moon with lightning, and a shape underneath.”
“Like a wave,” Ma'grek said. No anchors of doubt weighed upon his voice.
Orsha had risen from her log and was scowling at the second mate.
“Yes,” said Corda. “Ever since that night, I've been living off of toads and roots. The blood of my friends gave the orcs terrible powers. When the sun goes down, they come out of their caves on the other side of the island. Any living thing they can catch becomes their victim. Monkeys. Pigs. Birds. It doesn't matter. They feed on them, burn them, torment them. Some they sacrifice like they did my mother. Some they just use to amuse themselves. They're the masters of those skeletons. They make them come and go whenever they please.”
The crew had surrounded them, listening quietly. Pebble studied their worried looks and knew he had to stop Corda's stories.
“Thrak!” he called into the crowd. “Get the boy some meat. A full stomach will calm him down.”
“Grand idea, captain.” The tauren materialized beside him and cheerfully greeted his new charge. “Of course, if you let me take out one of the launch boats, I could see if I could catch him some fresh fish.”
“You're staying with the rest of us,” Pebble said dryly. As casually as possible, he paced away from the crew. The officers instinctively filed in beside him. “What do you know, Ma'grek?”
“I've seen that banner in books the demons carried.” The shaman scratched his goatee. “This island is far from the Tomb of Sargeras, but who knows how the trade winds blow. The orcs the boy saw are warlocks from the Stormreaver clan.”
“Orgrim wiped out all the Stormreavers,” said Orsha. “The warlocks especially.”
“A few must have escaped,” said Ma'grek. “The rituals Corda described are unmistakable. They must be using their own comrades' bones for a ghost army.”
“Why haven't we seen any warlocks?” said Yo'jin. “The skeletons were tough, but they were dumb. Wouldn't they want to lead their army, to make sure it vanquishes us?”
Ma'grek shook his head. “If they sacrificed a whole crew, they must be very powerful. They can always reanimate the ghosts.”
“Then last night was just an experiment,” said Orsha. “The warlocks watched us from afar to learn how we fight. If they come tonight, likely they'll have some new tricks for us.”
“We've just cut the beast's tail,” Yo'jin spat. “The head can still reel on us.”
“What a loathsome wretch it must take to make a warlock,” Orsha said icily. Ma'grek seemed on the verge of answering her, but could only shake his head and look to the ground. “So how do we fight them this time?”
“We don't.” Pebble wrung his hands together. “Gather the crew. We can repair the ship and be off before sunset. No one rests today!”
Well, we're close to the end. Hope you had fun!
The twisted, moldy knots of the ship's walls became a road in Pebble's mind. He explored the highways and byways, marking his progress by the black marks where seawater seeped through the creaking wood. Memorizing the tangled lines helped him forget the pain.
A sneering, mustachioed human counted the blows, but only for the sake of the sailors who passed off the bloody barbed chain before the striker's arm became tired. A sheet of thick orc blood covered the floor. The machine that stretched Pebble's arms apart shook each time the chain fell. Much to the humans' amusement, a bold rat had begun to feast on his trapped fingers, his timid brethren sniffing at the putrid air just a few feet behind.
“This is getting boring,” mumbled the shirtless human who held the chain, wiping sweat from his eyes. “An hour and no screams.”
“We're still just softening him up,” said the man with the mustache. “Soon we'll grab a bucket of salt from the hold. Then we'll have a little orc music to wile away the time.”
A low rumbling silenced them. The heavy hatch over their heads gaped open, and sunlight like dragon's breathe flooded the room.
“Release the prisoner,” said a dark-haired elf. He wore an embroidered robe and spoke with impatient authority.
“Damn your pointy ears,” cried one of Pebble's captors. “We're not beholden to you! Five good men went down trying to pin this beast. He'll pay us our debt before you get to question him.”
The elf looked the men over with an expression that suggested he'd just encountered an unpleasant odor. “The Captain General himself has ordered this prisoner be brought to Theramore. Do as you wish, but remember his signature on your letter of marque is all that separates this wretched pirate ship from the guns of the towers. I, for one, would be rather glad if you refused the order.”
The humans seemed frozen in place. Finally, the shirtless one pulled a lever and Pebble felt his arms fall to his sides. He was still in pain, but on his feet at last. Two of the humans drew up the shackles to bind his hands behind his back.
The elf led the way to the upper deck. Pebble followed, his pride clamped on his jaw to keep the moans as quiet as possible. Though the sudden shock of daylight was painful, he was able to spy a lighter moored to the side of the ship. Before he could study further, a sharp boot sent Pebble face down onto the little boat's planks.
“Shameful,” said a familiar voice from the stern. “Like watching remora pick at a proud reef shark.”
Astonishment flushed Pebble's pain away. After an embarrassing struggle, he managed to turn on his side and lift his head up.
A few white whiskers had settled like snowflakes on the black beard, but otherwise Blackspar was unchanged.
“Release his bonds.” A smoking pipe bobbed up and down as the dwarf spoke.
“You can't be serious, sir,” said the elf as he climbed down a rope ladder. Human and dwarf sailors began to untie the lighter's moorings.
“Don't dawdle, chaplain.” Blackspar never shouted when he gave orders. He merely bore his coal black eyes into subordinates until he was obeyed. “And close his wounds. Show me why you priests are good for more than just standing around looking pretty.”
The elf narrowed his glowing eyes, but Pebble soon felt his pain withering. As soon as the shackles fell, he pulled himself to his feet.
“Hail, Captain Blackspar.” Pebble spoke proudly and clearly. “Permission to come aboard?”
The elf sneered at the absurd scene, but the others in the boat all knew that protocol demands a sailor always ask permission to come aboard, even in an extraordinary set of circumstances where the sailor is already aboard.
“Granted,” Blackspar said, obviously pleased by the gesture. “But I am a captain general now. I will forgive your breach of etiquette, as you have no doubt never heard of a captain general. It's an old rank, and an ill-defined one, but it suits me. Those overgrown barnacles that call themselves the Theramore Assembly will never make me an admiral. That title implies too much power. Sit down, please.”
Still conscious he was surrounded by enemies, Pebble slowly lowered himself onto one of the benches. As the lighter's oars moaned to life and the boat pulled into open water, he looked up at the ship and saw a score of screwed faces staring malevolently down on him.
“Pirate scum.” Blackspar shook his head. “I give them letters of marque and call them 'privateers.' Then they go out and kill other pirate scum, if the grog hasn't got hold of them. They collect my bounty and I shake their hands, but I'd hang the lot of them if I could. They're cheaper than training a crew of regular sailors, and Theramore's treasury does not rank among it's glories.”
The lighter glided over the smooth surface of what Pebble could finally see was a mud-filled bay with Alliance ships anchored all around.
“Thrall and Rexxar staged their invasion over there, if you're curious.” Blackspar jabbed the mouth of his pipe at the swampy shore. “Split themselves into three divisions. I'm told it was quite a sight.”
Pebble hid his desperate, burning desire to know more beneath cool, hooded eyes. “What was the outcome of the battle?”
“Your friends won,” Blackspar said without changing expression. “Didn't stay long, though. Jaina and Thrall made sure of that.”
Blackspar stamped his wooden leg on the planks. “Dead as my big toe. In case you were wondering, Old Starchbreeches kept his ships dispersed over the archipelago because I assured him the Theramore Navy was rushing to reinforce him.” A little smile pushed through the whiskers. “Guess I was too late.”
Pebble did not blink. “What happened to my warriors?”
Blackspar shrugged. “They all fought well, I can tell you. The idea of a Horde Navy, even a green water force, caused quite a stir among my men. I didn't believe the reports at first. Neither did most of my officers, but then we toured the islands and saw the wrecks of the Kul Tiras. I gather most of your warriors made it back to shore, just like you wanted them to. It was a foolish choice, by the way, piloting a vessel on your own directly into the enemy, even if it was one of those new fangled Horde spike ships. Self-sacrifice might seem noble, but it's usually an act of selfish pride. If I hadn't saved you, your navy would be without it's best commander, and then where would they be?” The old dwarf puffed a few rings over the side of the lighter.
The oblong teeth of Theramore's towers were gleaming at them in the distance. “Am I still a prisoner, sir?” Pebble asked gravely.
“Gracious me.” Blackspar's face lit up with a cruel grin. “You honor me to call me 'sir.' The Alliance has strict regulations forbidding its officers from extending the courtesies and privileges of rank to persons or things in the employ of a foreign power, but from now on, I shall waive those orders and chance the consequences.”
As Pebble's strength returned, his patience disappeared. “You did not answer my question, sir.”
“No, Captain Pebble,” Blackspar said patiently. “You are not my prisoner. Jaina's explicit instructions. All captured members of your service are to be returned to the Horde as soon as is practical.”
“Then why are we rowing towards Theramore?” Pebble calculated whether he could swim to shore, but his strength had not returned completely, and marines with rifles were stationed throughout the lighter.
“You'll see when we get there, captain.” Blackspar settled his back against the bench. “You wouldn't believe me if I told you, at any rate.”
Wary, Pebble resolved to wait, partly to see if a better escape route presented itself. In any case, there was one more question he needed answered. “Where have you been all these years, sir?”
“Thought I was dead, did you?” Blackspar chuckled. “Nearly was. Old Starchbreeches had a very smart bunch of marines done up in a line, rifles cocked and at the ready. The Bronzebeards don't forget their friends, though. Not completely. Muradin leaned on old Magni, who leaned on the other kings of the Alliance, and after the confabs were all done, I ended up with a commuted sentence. Life in a dungeon in the Alterac Mountains. When you were in the camps, very likely we were neighbors.”
Blackspar fidgeted with his top hat as he spoke. “I spent many long years in my cell. I used to beg the jailers for just a little salt, so I could put it in my water. A sailor in a place like that needs something, anything to remind him of the sea. I'd be there still, if not for Jaina. She's a good egg, that one. When she had the crazy idea to take her few thousand followers across the ocean from which no ship had returned, no respectable sailor would listen. Sea captains are a hard-headed lot, as you know, Captain Pebble.
“Eventually, Jaina was in despair. Her people were encamped outside of Southshore, provisioned and equipped, with a pile of cash from a few wealthy donors, but no one competent to pilot their ships. Like a girl on the Solstice with no young man to escort her to the ball. Against all odds, they rattled around the deepest recesses of their memories, and someone thought of crazy old Captain Blackspar, rotting away in his prison cell. Jaina bribed my guards to let me out. She was willing to hide me away in Southshore, but no one in the Alliance even bothered to check up on my captivity. Even my enemies had forgotten me.
“The leaders of the expedition slapped a few charts in my hands and pointed west. A handful of trained sailors were poor or stupid enough to sign on, but mostly we had to make due with land-lubbing soldiers and starry-eyed spellbookworms. I was very unpopular for the first few weeks, as you can imagine, but, at last, I brought them discipline and spirit, the things that every navy needs. We were a fair bunch of seadogs when Kalimdor finally came into view. By the Titans, that was a happy day. There was so much hollering and celebrating, it was all I could do to keep them at their stations. Luckily, we hit the coast before sundown, and in fair weather. With all those rocks along the rim, the whole fleet could easily have been wrecked.”
“I understand,” Pebble said sadly, looking down at the water. “I am glad to see you well, sir.”
“And I you, Captain Pebble.” A strange look fell across Blackspar's face. Pebble was sure he'd never seen the expression before.
Two thunderous booms sounded from the starboard. The mouth of the bay was in full view now. Seven Alliance ships waited idly between the lighter and the open ocean. They were all different sizes, some carrying the long, thick ram of a battleship. Each was prickly with cannon, their muzzles pouring out plumes of smoke.
“Yes, yes.” Blackspar's look turned sour as he waved at the ships. “I see you! Damned Commodore Grondy. That human would greet a mutton sandwich with a twenty gun salute.”
“You're sending your ships away?”
“Just a single squadron,” said Blackspar. “I have enough ships for my home waters.”
“Where are they going?”
The old dwarf brushed a bit of seagull feather from his shoulder. “To Auderbine.”
Pebble made his own face blank, like a gambler's. “I've never heard of it.”
“It's a port,” said Blackspar. Now his expression looked as pleased as when Pebble used to fill his tankard with grog. “A night elf city. I was there last year, negotiating the use of the docks. Odd folk, the night elves, but good seafarers. Their capitol is on an island, you know.”
“They must have a good fleet,” said Pebble, masking his interest as best he could.
“First rate,” said Blackspar. “Not very large, but with experienced sailors, and excellent officers. They'll need them now, of course.”
Pebble swallowed, and he knew that Blackspar noticed. “Why will they need them now?”
The old dwarf grinned triumphantly. “To protect the trade routes, Captain Pebble. Jaina and I have been in contact with King Magni, and with the court in Stormwind. The Alliance will have two great ports on both continents. Merchants on all sides are chomping at the bit to do business. In a few years, the Great Sea will be nothing more than an Alliance pond.”
The towers of the city were almost overhead. Pebble watched them approach with melancholy eyes. “That sounds like a grand enterprise, sir. Congratulations.”
“Thank you, captain,” Blackspar smirked. “You know, it almost didn't happen. Can you believe the goblins had the effrontery to suggest the Alliance outsource our sea trade to them? The Trade Princes wanted us to pay them protection. As if the ocean were some shady alley in Stormwind's Old Quarter. Not bloody likely!”
Chapter 5 (continued)
As Pebble digested all the new information he'd learned, a shadow swallowed the lighter. For the first time, Pebble noticed the lines of a five-masted behemoth, rigged like a battleship, but with a reptilian snout where usually the Alliance shipbuilders put the head of an eagle or a lion.
“Do you like her?” asked Blackspar. “She's my flagship. Not as spritely as the Wind Thief, but beautiful, no? I call her the Dragonfire. Had Jaina build her for me as soon as the towers were finished.”
Three decks loomed over their heads. Petty officers' whistles sounded on board as the lighter's crew began preparing the mooring cables.
“She's glorious, sir.”
“I agree,” Blackspar said with a jolly grin. “Maybe some day, you'll get to see her in action.”
Pebble's heart was quivering, but he stayed still. Knowing he was being searched for weakness, the tall orc pivoted on his heel and offered his host a placid smile. “I'll look forward to that.”
They studied one another a good long time. Blackspar broke his gaze first. “Still,” he said, as cheery as ever, “I'm glad to have any ship at all. I can be cavalier about it now, but I confess that my confinement did not agree with me. Even this dingy under my feet is a joy I cannot describe. Having my freedom stripped was. . . there's no words that can describe what it did to me.”
“Well, your confinement is over.” Though there was a time when Pebble had cursed his name, he felt pity when he heard the pain in Blackspar's voice. Some impulse he did not understand compelled him to try and comfort the dwarf. “You're a commander again, just like the good old days.”
“Yes.” The strange look came again to Blackspar's face. Something alien, like a creature from primeval times, found it's way onto Pebble's shoulder. Seconds passed before he understood it was Blackspar's warm, gentle hand. “Though not everything was good in the old days, was it Captain Pebble?”
For a while, the orc was speechless. Finally, he managed to force saliva back into his mouth. “Decidedly not, sir. Who knows, though. Maybe there are even better days ahead.”
“Maybe,” Blackspar said, his face deep in shadow. “I doubt it, though.”
A dozen ropes rained from the Dragonfire's deck. The rowers moved efficiently to stow their oars and tie the lines to hooks on the lighter's sides. Soon a score of unseen hands was lifting the boat out of the water, pulling them all to their destiny on top of the giant ship.
A sudden wave of sound made Pebble bolt upright, even though the movement made the lighter swing awkwardly in the air. A band was playing a fanfare, blasting their drums and trumpets over the deck, a clash that probably carried for miles over the gently rolling ocean. The center of the Dragonfire's main deck was split by a pristine red carpet. Lines of armored humans saluted with their broadswords. Rows of dwarves held their rifles at attention. A column of tan-skinned sailors stood erect and proud, as if daring the newcomers to find any part of the ship less than proper.
The crew of the lighter disembarked first, filing into various positions in the formation. The elf shook his head as he walked out of sight.
Blackspar strode onto the deck as regally as his one leg would allow. When all the company could see him, he removed his top hat, revealing for the first time that the thick sable hair had given way to a freckled scalp. At a sign from him, the band fell silent.
Still on the lighter, Pebble felt the ocean gape beneath him. With all the enemy guns arrayed on the other end of the ship, escape was a real possibility for the first time since he'd been captured.
Pressing a hand to his neck, Blackspar cleared his throat. “Under the witness of the crew of the Alliance Fighting Ship Dragonfire, I, Ethan Blackspar, Captain General of the Theramore Navy, request the honor. . . and the privilege. . . of the presence of Pebble, Captain of the Horde Navy, as his guest for dinner.”
The wood creaked as Pebble took his first step. Not a single muscle stirred among the crew as he traced the path of the red carpet. With a gentle sweep of his legs, Pebble lowered his heavy frame into a low bow, touching his palm to his chest in his own salute.
Every timber of the ship shook under the howling cheers.
The Seawolf shuddered as the logs rolled under her keel. Pebble stood by the steering wheel, watching the waves of the surf break over the teams of pullers and wedgers and fasteners as they jerked the ship forward. Soon the water would be deep enough to support the Seawolf's bulk. Yo'jin was aloft the newly risen mainmast, which was still green in places where moss had clung to the living tree. Ma'grek was on the quarterdeck, spyglass trained toward the horizon, just in case the Freebooters returned while they were vulnerable.
“You've gone quiet again,” Pebble commented. “You should be celebrating. We're about to quit this island.”
“I'll celebrate when we're over the horizon,” Ma'grek said. His telescope did not waver from it's vantage over the hovering sun, yellow as a bad tooth.
“Try to lighten your load,” said Pebble. “If not for the crew, then at least for the sake of the boy. He's more nervous than ever.”
Corda sat on a barrel below the quarterdeck, constantly fidgeting and wringing his fingers.
“The crew will need some rest as soon as possible,” said Yo'jin from his perch. “Some of them haven't slept since yesterday.”
“It doesn't take many to keep the Seawolf afloat.” Pebble called upwards. “As soon as we're off, we'll send most of the crew to their bunks.”
They had already unfurled the canvas from the cross spars. The sails were whistling in the breeze, anxious to push into the ocean.
Corda hopped off his makeshift chair. Like a sputtering machine, he paced back and forth along the deck, whispering frantically words that only he could hear. Pebble wondered if he could do something to comfort the boy, but suddenly the ship bucked forward, ripping him off his own feet.
Laughing at his clumsiness, Pebble shouted so the crew could hear him. “Board ship! Prepare to raise the gangplank! Get the stores and ballast below! The Seawolf is howling for her cubs!”
Cheers from exhausted lungs rose from the beach. Calloused, beaten hands grabbed the boxes and crates that held food and water. Guttural sounds of satisfaction escaped their fangs every time a new load was lowered beneath the planks and lashed to the walls.
Pebble felt the activity but watched it from under closed eyelids. Still on his feet, his arm braced on the railing, he drifted in and out of half sleep. He would need his strength for the first watch, the one where he would take the helm and set the course for Ratchet and Captain Seahorn's clucking, triumphant tongue.
An odd buzzing sound roused Pebble from his thoughts. Corda had climbed the stairs. Standing just beside Pebble, the child was bobbing up and down, his whole body possessed by some furious energy. A steady drumming beat from his lips.
“Easy now boy,” Pebble said softly. “Won't be long now.”
Corda looked up at him. His whole body trembled, and by his eyes he seemed not to have heard Pebble's words. The buzzing from his mouth became broken by a wild, giddy cackling.
Pebble shook his head, wondering if perhaps he could find some home for the boy among the farmers in Durotar, somewhere quiet where the horrors of his life might be forgotten.
The crew were mostly piled on deck by now. Pebble called down to them. “Every warrior who goes into the rigging, draw a health potion from Yo'jin. You're no good to your shipmates if you're too weary to hold the ropes.”
The gangplank slid into place along the hull. Pebble ordered just enough sail to pull the Seawolf into deep water without making the ship so fast it would tear itself apart on the stray patches of rock that jutted underneath the surface. When they were far from the beach, he would order full sail and speed them on their way.
Corda's fits were so intense now that the boy had to bury his face in his hands to keep the strange laughter under control. Pebble figured the child would prefer privacy until his nerves calmed, so he descended from the quarterdeck and began giving orders, singling out nonessential sailors with orders to go to their hammocks.
Orsha sat on the forward deck, staring into the approaching horizon. Pebble sauntered behind her, anxious to solicit her thoughts now that their voyage was essentially over, but a familiar howl drew all his attention back the way he came.
Shreds of lightning peeled off the quarterdeck. Every sailor collapsed into a crouch, hoping to avoid the tumbling bolts of energy. Atop the ship's railing, about where Pebble last addressed the Seawolf's company, was the slight frame of Corda.
“Crew of the Seawolf!” The voice that reverberated around the ship was old and hoarse, but stately, almost regal. Indeed, Corda's little arms jutted from his sides as he surveyed Pebble's ship like a king at his court. “Hear me!”
With Orsha at his heels, Pebble rushed to the foot of the quarterdeck. When he was close enough, he knew that the thing he knew as Corda wore a child's face to conceal it's true nature.
“You are all doomed,” it said, dispensing the bad news like a merchant casting aside a flawed trinket. “Your course is finished, but, in my infinite compassion, I will allow you to abandon your folly and taste of the sweet nectar of victory. Step forward, warriors, and swear fealty to the Blackrock Clan!”
A troll sailor answered from the rigging. “What be this farce?”
“No farce!” The thing did not like being questioned. “I am Warcheif Rend's councilor, Corda, son of Krek'sos. I will confer membership into the Blackrock to any who join with me.”
A shimmering arrow found it's way onto Corda's stubby chest. Orsha, for one, was not so bewildered by this odd twist of events that she did not know an enemy when she saw one. Even so, the bolt clearly had little effect.
“Do not tax you precious energy, my friends. Corda the Flayer will not be brought down by feeble charms.” He plucked the arrow by the shaft and let it fall to the deck. “The same magics that reversed my age will mend my flesh faster than you can defile it.”
Corda held aloft his little hands in a gesture of grand defiance. “The Warchief compelled every warlock in the Dark Horde to bless me with fell enchantments. With every sacrifice I reap, my powers grow stronger! The fetid souls of an entire goblin ship's crew feeds my veins! I was not powerful enough to raise the Eye of Sargeras, but I was able to subdue the ghosts of the Stormreavers. Behold! Even now, they heed their master's call!”
Pebble looked back to the beach, where the orc bones were pressing themselves together and rising from the sand. Swarms of skeleton warriors were already wading into the surf, grasping at the Seawolf as if they could traverse the distance by the force of their hate.
“You needed a ship.” Pebble's proud, confident voice rose high for all to hear. “You were arrogant enough to think you could make the journey back to Azeroth without the goblins' mercenaries, but those walking wind chimes were lousy sailors. They stranded you on this island until you could find another ship to steal.”
Corda smirked above him. “And a crew, Captain. I needed proper sailors to put my ship in order. You will all have as many riches as the Dark Horde can offer if you follow me!”
Another arrow shot impudently at Corda's forehead. Without looking back, Pebble knew Orsha was grinning.
Again Corda ripped the arrow away and threw it over his shoulder. Sparks of white flame crackled in his fists. “My Stormreavers will make you regret your insolence! You will obey me, or you will burn!”
Pebble's sword seemed to fall into his hands. In seconds, he was up the steps and running across the quarterdeck. Lifting the heavy blade above his head, he focused on a spot in the center of Corda's skull. Just before Pebble could strike, the warlock jumped down and sent a blast of flame at the captain's stomach. The impact sent him spinning over the railing. The main deck exploded in splinters when Pebble's body crashed at the foot of the stairs.
Through bleary vision, Pebble could just make out a dozen shapes falling on Corda from above. The sailors in the masts, fresh after Yo'jin's potions, were all attacking at once, swinging on pieces of rigging. The assault was spirited, but uncoordinated. Each warrior was repulsed in turn, either by the magic energy bursts or by Corda's surprisingly strong fists.
A wave of legs hopped over Pebble's fallen body. The rest of the crew was advancing on Corda in one solid mass, climbing the stairs on both flanks, even scaling the face of the quarterdeck by whatever handholds presented themselves. Exhausted fists grew pale as their owners used their last shreds of strength, gripping swords, axes, and polearms, each one desperate to be the lucky warrior that robbed the life from the evil creature in front of them.
From some hidden pocket, Corda had uncovered a vial of blue liquid. He drowned his tongue in a quick motion, then leapt high over the railing, filling the air with angry fire as he flew. A river of hissing flame pushed down a swathe of orcs and trolls. Pebble had to roll to avoid the tumbling unfortunates, including Orsha, who fell badly on her back and lay on the deck, still as a dead fish.
Landing softly on the main deck, Corda ran forward, putting distance between himself and the crew. “You shaman dirt-worshippers! Can't you see the truth before your eyes!”
A new blast of fire tore a hole in the stairs. The crew flew in everything direction.
“Very well.” Corda clearly thought he was being very agreeable. “I'll wait for another ship.”
The Seawolf began to shake, as if some giant had it between his hands. Rope and tackle descended from the topmasts. Feeling for his lost sword, Pebble covered his head to deflect any more blows to his already addled skull.
“Cower, you worthless humanspawn,” howled Corda. “If you will not follow me in life, you will all be my slaves in death!”
Horrid cries rose from the sea. The Stormreavers were getting closer. The planks of the ship roared as the invisible magic pressed on all sides.
Chapter 5 (continued again)
Steadying himself against the mizzenmast, Pebble looked over Corda's head. High in the rigging spars, Yo'ijn was stalking the warlock. Still weaponless, the captain made a last desperate bid for his ship. Bracing in case of another burst of fel magic, he ran forward as hard as he could, his shoulder down like a battering ram.
The fireball came, caving in two of Pebble's ribs. With what senses were left alive in the pain, he looked up at Yo'jin to see if his distraction had worked. Graceful as a bird, the troll fell headfirst at Corda, dagger and cutlass in hand. The blades were just about to connect when the warlock twisted, sending Yo'jin bouncing across the deck in a ball of flailing, broken limbs.
“That one will be my first slave,” Corda gloated. “He will carry my standard.”
Pebble felt his wounded side. He tried to lift himself, but failed. The last able-bodied members of the crew were charging across the deck, but their numbers were not enough to overwhelm the warlock, who had just guzzled another dose of blue serum.
When the inevitable leveling bolt of flame came, though, it flared not from Corda, but from the quarterdeck. Confused, Pebble craned his neck to see this new danger.
The voice belonged to Ma'grek, but Pebble heard a brittle, pitiless aspect to it that he'd never known before.
“The Horde is lost! Our path is clear!”
Lowering himself to the main deck, Ma'grek strode towards the piles of his fallen shipmates. Instead of the blue fire he'd used to defend the Seawolf, his hands were now covered in the same red flame that Corda wielded. Black orbs shone through the former shaman's eye sockets. With a flourish, Ma'grek brandished his staff, now topped with the sheep skull he'd found in the creek.
“My life for the Dark Horde!”
Corda's regal voice shattered into bitter laughter. The two of them made short work of the handful of crew members who could still resist. Even Thrak made a lunge for Ma'grek before being shot down.
A series of dull thuds rang along the Seawolf's deck. The first of the Stormreaver skeletons were climbing over the side, using their axes and bony toes to scale the hull. The eery army rallied behind Corda's beaming face.
With a strength that he himself would not have imagined, Pebble pulled himself up yet again. Hiding behind a spool of rope, he slid over to Yo'jin's lifeless body. Inside his friend's pouch, Pebble found a bottle of red-hued liquid.
“Tell me,” said the child-thing. “Why, my new disciple, did you decide to join me?”
Ma'grek shook his melancholy head. “I am tired of lying to myself. I know who I am, and I know that my shaman powers could never defeat you.”
“Quite right,” Corda cackled. “Now let's dispatch these wretches and be back to the island. I weary of this game.”
“Wait!” Ma'grek shouted. “We can still sail this ship with just you and I and the Stormreavers.”
Corda grimaced. “With these new sacrifices, I will live a hundred years. I can wait for a more agreeable bunch of wharf rats to serve me.”
“But who knows what's happening on Azeroth,” said Ma'grek. “Without your strength and wisdom, how long can Warchief Rend keep his enemies at bay?”
“True,” said Corda thoughtfully. “Very well. What do we need to do?”
Ma'grek lowered his staff and picked up a heavy chain. “First we need to secure this. Can the Stormreavers help?”
“Don't bother,” Corda spat. The orc ghosts swayed behind him. With no one to fight, they just stood there, their decaying jaws agape. “Give it to me.”
With the help of Corda's small but unnaturally powerful hands, Ma'grek quickly ran the chain out of the nook where it was stowed. Clenching his teeth, Pebble watched as they attached the end to a round hook. For the first time, the captain noticed that the rune tattoos on Ma'grek's arm were glowing and the flesh around them was darker, like ashen wood.
“Curious,” Corda said, perplexed. “I've spent much time at sea, and I've never seen a chain like this used for anything important.”
Ma'grek gathered the metal links in two loops along his arm. Appearing as casual as if he were in port at Ratchet, he led Corda down the ship, away from the Stormreavers.
“Here?” demanded the imperious voice, waving around the bare section of planking. “What do we need to do here?”
Ma'grek looked down at the man in a child's body. Demonic power oozed from his eyes, but some deeper intelligence danced behind the darkness. “My shaman powers couldn't defeat you. . . but maybe you can be beaten by a sailor!”
The chain fell around Corda's waist. With hands like spiders, Ma'grek tied the links into a proper sailor's knot.
A fresh surge of evil fire blew Ma'grek off his feet, but left the chain in place. “Seize him!”
The skeletons jostled each other, racing to their master. Pebble threw himself at the pounding legs, tripping the clumsy warriors into bony heaps. With bare fists, he beat his way toward Ma'grek, who was nearly on his feet despite the smoking holes in his clothes. The two orcs found themselves in the center of a storm of howling skulls and slashing axes.
“You bore me with you insolence!” Corda cried. “You try me with your trifling defiance.”
Pebble managed to put up his head long enough to glare at the warlock. “And you didn't ask for permission to come aboard!”
A wooden lever snapped into place under Pebble's hand. The chain around Corda's waist sang a jangling tune as it pulled taut.
The child-thing's scream as it was pulled backwards was not a horrible cry like before but instead nothing but a shrill, pathetic whimper. Corda's claws dug harmlessly into the planks of the Seawolf until the anchor yanked him over the side and down into the sparkling depths.
It was Pebble's turn to laugh as the Stormreavers clamored over one another, each struggling to be the first to follow their disappearing master.
Orange flame from the setting sun kissed the still water that lapped upon the shore of the Merchant Coast. Pebble gazed at the rolling hills in the distance, one hand on the Seawolf's steering wheel.
Orsha steadied a sextant between her hands, guiding the wooden triangle into place with slim fingers. “I make it six o'clock, captain. We'll be at Ratchet just after dark.”
Pebble could taste the tangy sand of the Barrens on the wind. The land breeze was strong, as if it dreaded their return, but with the right sail, it would push them even faster towards their goal.
“I'll have to strike out for Orgrimmar as soon as we're landed,” Pebble said. “The Warchief will want to hear from me in person.”
Orsha flashed a serpentine smile the likes of which Pebble had never seen before this voyage. “We'll muddle through our disembarkation duties without your shining leadership, sir.”
Pebble tried to hide his own smile. “Call the crew to the main deck.”
After the battle with Corda there were few sailors well enough to work, most of them quick-healing trolls. Pebble organized them into teams that tended the rigging and let the rest sink into a deep sleep, cradled by the waves. When they awoke the next day, they were all strangely bright and refreshed, as if the troubles of the last few weeks was a dream they all shared, one washed away by the noonday sun. Even the sea was calm and generous for their trek home.
The crew stood smartly on the main deck, their jerkins and tunics straight and clean. Pebble inspected them from the quarterdeck, appraising them with the steely, merciless eye he knew they expected. Orsha, standing beside her archers, had veiled her smirk in a perfect scowl. Yo'jin was in the back of the lines, absently watching a seagull just to show he could defy protocol if he so chose. Thrak tried to duck his enormous bulk into place as Pebble pretended not to notice he was late, likely because he'd been dozing belowdecks again and would have missed the formation entirely if his fellow cannoneers hadn't covered for him.
Ma'grek was the last to arrive, but no one thought about reproaching him. A sailor on the sick list was not expected to attend the Captain's Muster at all. A heavy blanket shrouded his shoulders and his hair and goatee flew in every direction as if it were caught in a gale. Red lightning shot across his pupils. Black singe marks spread from his rune tattoos. Since the battle with Corda, no one in the crew had heard Ma'grek speak. Only Yo'jin had any contact with him, and that was just to leave food and potions to help in his recovery. The Seawolf's company couldn't help staring as Ma'grek shuffled out of his cabin and toward his customary spot at the head of the parade.
Pebble waited, then took in a deep breathe. “This is the last time I shall address you on this voyage. You all know where we are, and where we are going. Tomorrow you'll all be in Ratchet, giving the goblin bruisers headaches, and the brewmaster a heavy purse.”
General laughter floated throughout the ship. “I will be in Orgrimmar, letting Thrall know all about our little adventure. I will have to tell him that we failed. Baron Longshore still roams the South Seas, free to take whatever booty he fancies. Our voyage, though eventful, uncovered no resources or intelligence useful for our further endeavors. Ten good comrades perished since we set sail from Ratchet. This is all unfortunate for more than just the wounds to our pride. The Warchief does not confide in me, but I have no doubt his decision on whether to extend the mission of the Horde Navy rests with the outcome of our meeting. One week from now, you may all be sent back to the land bases we got you from.”
Uncertain grumblings echoed all around until Orsha called for “Silence!”
“I also expect the Warchief will inquire after the humor of the crew.” Pebble locked eyes with each sailor, one after another. “What should I tell him?”
Never before had the crew been invited to speak at the Captain's Muster. They stole glances at each other rather than meet Pebble's gaze.
“Come come!” Pebble stamped his foot. “Don't keep your captain waiting for an answer! You there! Stonefist!”
The broad-chested orc shuffled his weight. “Me, sir?”
“Yes, you,” said Pebble. “Where did you serve before joining the navy?”
“I was an outrider in Ashenvale,” said Stonefist. “I patrolled near the bridge over the Southfury.”
“And if you had the chance, warrior?” Pebble kept his voice low. “Would you return to the woods?”
Stonefist looked confused, but his answer was crisp and certain. “No, sir.”
“Are you sure?” said Pebble. “No orc ever drowned in the dirt.”
“I won't go back, sir.” Stonefist's face was contorted, as if he were surprised by his own words. “I'll quit the service and be a fisherorc, or join the Blackwaters. I'll never leave the sea again, sir. Not as long as I live.”
Pebble nodded as cooly as he was able. “Thank you, Stonefist. Who else? You! Hatchet.”
An orc female looked up at him, stunned. “Sir?”
“I knew you before,” said Pebble. “You were a guard in the Valley of Strength. Would you go back there if there were no more navy?”
If Hatchet tried to move, she would likely have stumbled on her own feet. “I suppose I would, sir, though I wouldn't want to.”
“Why not?” said Pebble. “You'd have boar ribs and fresh fruit for your supper instead of salted mackerel and crusty bread.”
“Orgrimmar's a fine city, sir,” Hatchet said. “But I'd be sad to leave the Seawolf. I've scrubbed her, sanded her, pounded half her planks back into place after they've been torn out. This ship is my home, sir. Orgrimmar's just a vacation spot now.”
“Don't make me go back to guard duty at the Crossroads, sir!” Corpora, one of Orsha's team, sputtered. “I couldn't stand it there! I need adventure. I need to see all the different lands that touch the Great Sea!”
Guttural mumbling marked the crew's enthusiastic agreement.
Pebble held his chin, as if thinking, struggling to hide his joy. “What about my officers? What says the first mate?”
The lanky troll pretended to only just notice his surroundings. “Me, sir?” he said coyly.
“Yes, you.” Pebble looked Yo'jin up and down, slackening his posture in a gesture only his old friend could notice. He didn't want Yo'jin to lie for the sake of the crew. He wanted him to speak for no one but himself. “If you had your freedom, what would you want?”
The first mate affected to consider his options. “I'd like to go fishing,” he said, to the mirthful catcalls of the crew. “But, you see, sir, I'm rather bored with these waters. I've been thinking about dangling my rod in someplace new. If I had my freedom, captain,” he scratched his nose, ostentatiously keeping his audience in suspense, “I believe I'd travel to the Veiled Sea.”
Every mouth gaped open. Even Pebble was genuinely shocked. “No ship has ever charted the Veiled Sea. You'll find there's no dock there for you to fish from, first mate.”
“Then I'll build myself a dock, captain,” Yo'jin said nonchalantly. “And a town to go with it. A proper troll town. I've had enough of you orcs with your burrows.”
A chorus of laughter broke out.
“And of course I'll need a fleet to make that voyage, captain,” Yo'jin said. “Ask the Warchief if he'd be so good as to build me one.”
“I'll pass that along, lieutenant,” Pebble said. “What about you, second mate?”
Ma'grek steadied himself on the shoulder of a nearby sailor. No one made a sound as they awaited his answer.
“If I could advise the Warchief,” he began in a hoarse, wavering timbre, “I'd suggest he send a voyage to the Eastern Kingdoms.”
Gasps and squeals clamored all around. Pebble was uncertain he'd heard right.
“Back to Azeroth? We only just left.”
“That warlock came from Azeroth,” Ma'grek continued, more sternly than before. “It seems the Dark Horde is more powerful than we knew. We have to strike at them, subdue them, and save as many of their members as we can from the demon's curse.”
“A navy cannot perform miracles, lieutenant,” said Pebble. “The Warchief will never agree to an invasion.”
“He won't need to.” Though uncertain of his legs, Ma'grek was deadly sure of himself. “I've been studying Proudmoore's logs. One of his ships had occasion to send a longboat into the Swamp of Sorrows. There, in the forest, they found the ruins of Stonard.”
Every face turned toward the sickly figure. They had all heard tales of the great orc fortresses of the First and Second War.
Ma'grek coughed out a piece of phlegm before continuing. “If the Admiral's charts are correct, then three or four ships the size of the Seawolf will be able to carry an expedition that will traverse the swamp and build a new settlement on the foundations of the old. From there, we can send scouts throughout Azeroth, maybe even build more strongholds to support more settlers. Perhaps one day we'll lay a road to connect them all. We must continue the fight we've waged since our days on Draenor, the fight for which Grom gave his life. We cannot surrender the land to the Dark Horde!”
More coughing followed Ma'grek's passionate speech. Orsha gently patted his back to loosen the obstructions from his throat.
Pebble took a moment to contemplate what he'd just heard. At last he cast a grave expression upon the rest of the crew.
“And you, third mate? What would you do with your own fleet?”
Orsha stood her full height, chin pressed defiantly against the wind. “I would comb every drop of this ocean until Baron Longshore was dead. . . or trapped on a sandy beach with no hope of escape.”
Shouts and howls of approval roared through the ship.
“Very well then. I think I know what to report to Thrall.” Pebble snapped to attention. “In the meantime, let's trim the sails and clear the hold. Move quick now! There's a lot of work to be done!”
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