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.
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.