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.
“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.
“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.