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 bitch-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 bitch 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.”
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!”