No matter how many times you do it, it's never any easier. Every day, wearing the same muddy clothes. Waiting for hours for a bunch of them to charge you, growling like wolves the whole time. Swinging your sword until you can't feel your shoulders anymore. Just as scared you're going to cut yourself or one of your own guys as you are to feel a knife in your spine. Ending up with blood and sweat all over you and not knowing who it belongs to, and going back to whatever hole you've dug to sleep in, and trying to figure out who's dead and who's alive. Then somebody shakes you awake, and you do it again. Sometimes you have to march first.
The kid had looked back at Tarlo with the dumbest gawp. Someone had probably convinced him that the war was over and the Alliance had won.
Sure, they were better off than the other side. Orgrimmar breached, the chief orc in irons, the Horde down and licking their wounds.
So what? Pandaria had been ravaged, to exactly no one's surprise. Now that their local menaces had been run off, the natives were quick to spout gratitude, but Tarlo knew they were only being polite. There was no way to have armies fight in your home without hating the people who started it.
And the Horde wasn't destroyed, just routed. There was a new warchief now, and there'd be a new war once he got settled in. Whoever thought a cannibal troll would lead the Horde to an era of peace and understanding hadn't seen much of the Zandalari.
Yeah, they'd won.
Tarlo Mondan had been at the Pandaren campaign from the first call for volunteers, and he'd been in plenty more battles before that. Orcs, moldering undead, twisted horn-heads that wore human skulls—he'd fought them all and lived.
What'd he gotten out of it? Enough scars to make him shave his scalp? Some pillage put away in a bank? No children, no wife, no home he built himself, no paintings on the wall. Not much to go out on. They were sailing home on the Patron's Pride, but it could have been any other fat ship full of loot and new recruits. They'd stand in the first clean uniforms they'd worn in months, get cheap medals around their necks, and then do… what? Wait for the next call to arms?
Better the kid figure it out now. Sooner was better than later, alone with some brain-dead Horde ox barreling down on him. At least he could quit while he was young.
Of course, the kid never did. He had that same idiot's gawp on his face when the third big wave of the night belched over the deck of their ship.
It knocked Tarlo to his knees. White, foamy water washed over everything, got in his mouth, and stung his busted gums, but he squinted and focused on the kid.
The sail was flipping, near ripped in half. Men were yelling to be heard over the din, screaming, picking themselves up. The Patron's Pride was lurching, and Tarlo's stomach seized up in his guts and stayed there while he ran for the kid.
Tarlo was halfway across the deck when he realized why the kid's face hadn't changed: he was slumped up against the side of the ship, little ocean washes pushing him back and forth. Tan, waterlogged wood splinters were all over his clothes, pooling in the water around him. His formerly blue tunic had been bled through and was sickly purple. Probably a cannon had slid over and crushed him. Maybe a spar had cracked his skull. Maybe—
While Tarlo was speculating, another wave turned the ship sideways. His feet left the ground, and he was ripped off the deck. He saw seawater everywhere under him for an instant. Just a few hours ago, he'd been pissing in it.
Tarlo smashed into the ocean back-first, the air already halfway out of his lungs, the churning of the water tugging his limbs left and right like doll parts. Sinking him.
It was piercingly cold, like being hit with a spear out of nowhere. His fingers curled involuntarily. It hurt to open his eyes.
Down. His body spun over and over. The water was punching him everywhere at once. His arms and legs flailed out.
Tarlo was being pulled farther under, it felt like. He was painfully aware of his lungs throbbing, trying to expand. They would pop, and water would come flooding in. There was no knowing when. He bit his lips closed, thrashed, was wreathed in his own bubbles.
His lungs burned hotter, harder. The veins in his neck pulsed, tensed like rigging.
His chest was giving in. His body was a puppet. Maybe his legs had been broken; they were hardly moving.
Everything seemed heavy. Was he drowning? How terribly appropriate that he'd die here, after surviving a dozen battles, a few seconds from his ship.
He had to open his mouth. Something hit him hard out of nowhere, and his mouth opened itself.
He sucked in brine and hot salt. Because of the pain, it just felt right to breathe back in. He hated himself even as he was doing it.
Air. He snorted air and water and snot, and Tarlo realized that his head was above the surface. He was breathing. His back and sides were on fire, and his arms were sore, but he saw straight for the first time in an eternity, and there was light gleaming from the twin moons up above. Tarlo bobbed against something behind him. Rocks. Sharp. He pushed against them with his legs and gasped in another breath.
Tarlo coughed red, salt bile into his mouth. It hurt—a good sign. He was alive.
In the distance, he could see the Patron's Pride, beaten, sails wrapping, shakily drifting away. He wouldn't expect them to come back in this storm. He wouldn't have come back. Better one man overboard than a hundred.