He didn't hear the call to fire due to the storm.
The opening salvo of cannon fire fell far short of the enemy battleship, which they couldn’t even see anymore over the terrible conditions. The water was choppy, rain crashed down with a vengeance, the wind howled and roared and the sailors and marines had to keep a constant hold of something to avoid being thrown about (or overboard) like ragdolls.
“Hey!” Corporal Grathier shouted over the storm at the man beside him. “At least the cannons aren’t making our ears bleed!”
The remark failed to cut through the wind shear and fell on deaf ears. They had been standing ready for three hours now, soaked to the core as the Alliance battleship Trollbane’s Fury sailed daringly into a storm, trying to evade the Iron Horde vessel. After half an hour of a deck that gave even the sturdiest stomach a run for its money, the Captain must have decided it was time to turn about and strike.
It was Grathier’s 26th birthday today, not that anybody on deck knew. Cruel and unusual fun happened to soldiers who divulged that information, all in the name of a laugh. He should know – he conducted it on others every chance he could.
The salvo was answered by the unmistakable boom and rush of enemy cannon fire striking the nearby water. The portside battery launched another salvo into the rain as they continued their manoeuvre. The ship’s shaman – a robed male draenei – stood on the bow, wrangling the spirits as best he could to keep the storm in check. A gnome priestess staggered up and down the ranks, muttering something (probably a prayer) that was lost to the storm. There were two mages about somewhere too, two batteries of six 24lb naval guns each below deck, scores of sailors and crew working the rigging, as well as Grathier and 39 other marines standing ready, soaking up the rain.
A silhouette appeared in the distance, heralded by a deafening thunder strike nearby. A few soldiers pointed, but there was still too much noise to exchange anything but shouts.
This was always the worst part about a ship-to-ship engagement, Grathier reflected. At the mercy of cannon fire and lady luck until the ships came in close. If the ships came in close. Alliance ships couldn’t stand up to a close-range engagement or a ramming attack by their Iron Horde counterparts, and the Iron Horde couldn’t stand up to a boarding action or a game of manoeuvring by the Alliance. More often than not, both sides kept their distance.
The enemy battleship powered up into a headwind, sails down, running on an internal steam engine instead. They were attempting a collision course. They fired their main battery – a massive howitzer on the forecastle with enough power and recoil to check its own momentum. Trollbane’s Fury moved right to left at its 12 o’clock through the crosswind, making a raking attempt before they closed in. The colossal shell sailed high while their own portside 24 pounders fared little better. Most glanced harmlessly off the ship’s solid iron ram, though at least one went high and tore through the deck.
Trollbane’s Fury swung with the tailwind after clearing any ramming attempt while the enemy ship made their own port turn. Both ships were turning in. They were going in close. Twenty rifles – including Corporal Grathier’s – were brought to the shoulder. Both sides were hampered by wild rocking, near-blinding rain and a violent crosswind over a hundred yards. Which meant that nobody was going to achieve anything but a damn lucky shot.
He felt a tap on his shoulder. Sgt Callahan, the man in charge of the riflemen shouted into his ear and the ear of the man next to him.
“DON’T AIM!” he boomed, yet barely audible. “VOLLEY FIRE! GO FOR THE GUNS!”
He continued down the line to pass the message on to the others. The ships were moving in opposite directions, about to make a pass. This would be brief, unless somebody attempted to board. About a hundred yards away, the firing started with a few cracks on either side. After the first snap of a passing bullet jolted everybody into action, both decks erupted in a dull chorus over the rain.
“Challenge accepted, sarge!” he said to nobody.
The weight of fire spurred some to cover but most returned fire. Grathier looked for the first orc on the opposite deck to give a hand signal, finding one next to the (still safely directed forward) main battery. To hell with volley fire, he reckoned he could hit somebody important. He aimed three points left, fired, missed, threw away any notion of aiming off (at seventy yards and closing, the wind was doing less and less on trajectory, fired again and struck a neighbouring orc in the leg.
The cannons fired again. The world shook terribly as each ship broadsided the other at less than fifty yards. Grathier could feel rather than hear the solid shot tearing up the deck below him. A round ricocheted harmlessly off the private to his left, leaving a score on his helmet.
He fired again and missed again, having mistimed the rocking. The other twenty marines armed with swords and their Iron Horde counterparts could do nothing but hunker behind their shields, waiting for a boarding action of any kind.
The pass lasted perhaps ten seconds. As they drew apart, the Iron Horde’s aft cannons fired and a barrage of canister sweeped the deck. Then it happened.
Grathier felt himself go down under a shower of splinters and shot, along with both soldiers on either side of him. His leg was on fire. One of the others screamed; the other was still. The pain overwhelmed everything. He couldn’t think. But before he blacked out, he did get a quick glimpse of his leg.