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!”