Oh right, the new members of the Horde, introduced in Cataclysm -- the goblins of the Bilgewater Cartel that runs Bilgewater Port on Kezan, the island home of the goblins' trade empire. Now how do these little guys come into play? Well that's interesting in and of itself, and entirely relevant to the actions of Thrall.
From what was available in playable demos of the starting zones, goblin players will eventually find themselves shipwrecked on an island after getting caught in a battle between Horde and Alliance. During the course of the first few levels, goblin players will discover a dead orc with a diary that explains the battle and how the Alliance fired on the orcs' ships. The Alliance NPCs in the area are hostile because the goblins are helping out the orcs. After grabbing a key and hijacking a plane to fly out to one of the Alliance ships and retrieve some "precious cargo" located on the craft, the cargo is revealed to be Thrall, warchief of the Horde. Now what's he doing all the way out there?
Thrall is not happy with being captured and fully endorses the murder of his Alliance captors. That seems a little out of line for a warchief concerned with the events of Cataclysm -- especially since the title of warchief is given to Garrosh, isn't it? And what exactly is he doing out there on that Alliance ship, anyway? From what I can gather, the timeline of Cataclysm at the start falls something like this:
- The trolls, in high spirits after the death of the Lich King, seek the help of the Horde to take back the Echo Isles and establish a proper troll capital city. Vol'jin may or may not choose to stay at the Echo Isles at this point.
- Cataclysm hits, Deathwing gives Azeroth a major facelift.
- Thrall takes a ship to ... somewhere. Perhaps another peace summit, like the failed summit in Theramore that played out in the comics. Perhaps having something to do with the Earthen Ring. Perhaps just to survey the extent of the damage. Alternatively, Thrall is kidnapped by the Alliance forces, and a fleet of very angry Horde set out to rescue him.
- As a result of the Cataclysm, the volcano on the island of Kezan erupts, forcing the evacuation of the goblins.
- Somewhere en route to someplace safe (i.e., an island or landmass that doesn't have a volcano on it), the goblins get caught in a battle between Horde and Alliance ships, who are fighting for unknown reasons -- more than likely, something to do with Thrall.
- Goblin ships and rafts are blown to bits, and the goblins are washed up on the same island as a bunch of very angry Horde and Alliance members.
- The goblins somehow choose to help the Horde with their plight, earning the enmity of the Alliance as a result.
- As part of this choice, the goblins rescue Thrall from where he is being held captive as "cargo" on an Alliance ship.
- In gratitude to the goblins, Thrall allows them to join the Horde. He can do this because at this point in the time line, he is still warchief of the Horde.
- Thrall heads back to Orgrimmar or somewhere safe. The goblins demonstrate that ancient night elf ruins are no match for the raw power of dynamite and build a new home in Azshara, mowing the land into something resembling the Horde symbol. After all, the best way to show your affection for your new-found friends is by finding a giant chunk of once-sacred land and blowing the stuffing out of it.
- Something else that is as yet undetermined happens: Thrall steps down and the Horde is taken over by Garrosh, who doesn't appreciate the small, green-skinned additions to the Horde, as they are tiny and weak and Garrosh doesn't understand the importance of the finer things in life like compassion and currency. Alternatively, Garrosh is ticked that the Alliance tried to capture the warchief, and further ticked that Thrall chose to call the incident a misunderstanding or chose not to hold the Alliance as a whole responsible for whatever fleet happened to attack him. That's why he challenges Thrall. Or another alternative: Thrall simply realizes he's needed elsewhere and appoints Garrosh in his stead.
- Garrosh takes over as warchief. Thrall heads out to either become the next Guardian or to help out the Earthen Ring as they investigate what exactly Deathwing's emergence has done to the world.
- Cairne bites it. Somehow. Either these old bones are simply too tired to continue living, or he does something that raises Garrosh's anger -- say, saving Alliance children from the crumbling wreckage of the world along with Horde children -- and Garrosh arranges for Cairne to have an "accident." Garrosh then blames Cairne's death on the Alliance.
- Vol'jin and the trolls are no longer allowed in central Orgrimmar. Neither are the forsaken, nor the blood elves, nor the newest goblin additions to the Horde forces. Only the tauren and orcs are deemed strong enough to protect the city, something that is sure to rankle the races that are dismissed for being too weak.
- Sylvanas discovers a local puppy mill and decides it would make an excellent target to decimate, thus proving the strength of herself and her people to the Horde. This further irritates the Alliance, but Thrall's not around to call her off. Gleeful destruction ensues.
- The blood elves begin to train warriors in an effort to show the Horde that fabulous hair and impeccable fashion sense has very little to do with raw strength and power, something they possess in spades.
- The tauren are in a state of grief at the loss of their beloved leader and cling to the Horde even more closely as a result. Either Baine steps up, or Magatha steps up, and the tauren find themselves surprisingly willing to bash a few Alliance heads in, should the need arise.
- The trolls, blood elves, forsaken and goblins grow increasingly resentful of Garrosh's opinions of their various forces. The tauren remain half grief-stricken and largely oblivious. Tensions rise -- not between the Horde and Alliance, but between the allied races of the Horde, and it soon becomes clear that the major question is not "Will the Horde be able to defeat the Alliance and stand on their own as a proud faction," but "Will the Horde be able to actually stand together as one?"
- Dogs and cats, living together, mass hysteria.
Not quite so funny anymore, are they? "Comic relief" to be sure, but they have untapped potential that will not be fully revealed until Cataclysm's launch.
While the outlook for the Horde appears to be grim as all get-out, it's worthwhile to keep in mind that Blizzard has traditionally followed a story progression in their games. First, there were the Alliance and Horde forces of Warcraft III who grudgingly held hands with the Alliance to defeat the Burning Legion that threatened the world. Between Warcraft III and World of Warcraft's release, that hand-holding and grudging respect between the two factions crumbled into nothing. During World of Warcraft, the two factions were at each other's throats, much like we saw in Warcraft II. In Burning Crusade, the Alliance and Horde were once again asked to hold hands and defeat the Burning Legion that threatened the world -- and they did so, grudgingly. In Wrath, we see what we didn't get to see between the end of Warcraft III and the beginning of World of Warcraft: the crumbling of the hand-holding and grudging respect.
See the cycle? In Cataclysm, the Alliance and Horde are once again at each other's throats -- something that originally drove World of Warcraft, which makes it incredibly appropriate that the return to that cycle is marked by an expansion that is essentially giving the original game a revamp. But more importantly, look at how the cycle progresses. Yes, the Alliance and Horde will be at each other's throats, but given the progression we've seen so far, it's not going to last forever. There will be bigger, more dangerous threats to worry about, in time.
Will any of this come to pass? Good question -- we'll have to wait until Cataclysm to see. Until then, all we can do is observe, analyze and predict. If you've got any good theories regarding Cataclysm, the timeline or the Horde, feel free to leave them in the comments. With prediction and analysis, it's as much an exercise in discussion as it is in picking a story apart. The more people poking it, the merrier!