“False gods, monsters, daemons,” the priest spoke to the crew and me. “All these things are as nothing to the Stevene, and his God.”
“Really?” I feigned interest. Holy men annoyed me, generally, but it was a long journey to Sharks’ Cove from Dargon, and the crew of the vessel had their hands full. The salt air filled my lungs as the waves rocked the ship, and a strong breeze blew in from the west. The winds, coupled with the dark clouds that were many leagues off, signified a coming storm. But we would be safe on board, well ahead of the rains. Our southerly journey was taking us away from the danger of the storm.
The shore of Baranur could be seen to the east, a league or so of ocean separating the Vanguard Voyager from dry land. Westward lay ocean, leagues upon leagues of landless waters. Big and wide, it was a world unto itself, with different rules and different gods. The priest would have done well not to anger those gods, or the sailors who worshiped them.
The priest and I were both passengers on this ship. While I had spent several years in Lord Dargon’s navy, this was the priest’s first voyage. We shared the same cabin below decks. This morning, the priest had told me of his intention to convert the crew to Stevenism during our voyage. I had asked him what he knew of sailors. “One does not need to understand sailors,” he had replied, “to teach them the love of the Stevene.”
Now, above decks with the crew, I saw an opportunity to teach him something about sailors. “And does your god bring fair weather for sailing?” I asked. I’d had this debate before, with other Stevenics, and I knew how to win it.
“Of course He does,” the priest answered. He almost harrumphed his reply. I suspected he knew where I was headed: he, too, had heard this argument before. “But he also must bring rains for the crops, must he not?” The priest had bushy, overbearing eyebrows — the kind that large birds could nest in — and he raised them in question. His entire visage was accusatory, his eyes wide and directed at me, as he stared down his long beak of a nose. He folded his arms across his barrel chest, as though this tactic were new and undefeatable.
A few of the crew began to pay attention to the debate as they worked the deck. Captain Brynna Thorne watched our debate from where she piloted the ship. I turned on my heels, spread my arms wide and asked, “Are you saying the Stevene cannot separate the winds and the rains?” One of the crewmen, Jergen, smiled then. I winked at him, sharing the joke.
“God does not fulfill the dreams of every petty little man. He strives to save *all* of mankind from its own sins!”
This was an interesting delay to the answer I was seeking from the priest. I egged him on a little. “What use a god, then, who does not answer prayers?” I raised my voice to let the rest of the crew hear. “Cirrangill, at least, sends his breath in front of the storm so that ships may find safety.” Some of the crew smiled: they knew the weather we were traversing.
“Cirrangill, indeed!” The priest feigned offense, his prodigious jowls shaking vehemently. “A false god built up by the rumors and stories of men who spend too much time at sea.” At that statement, some of the crew made warding signs and offered quick prayers to Cirrangill. One of them cut a small lock of his hair and tossed it into the ocean. I took a moment to glance westward at the coming storm; I would have to time this properly.
“Careful, priest,” I said. I raised my arm and pointed westward. “That storm is but a few leagues away. Our winds are fair at the moment, but if Cirrangill’s Breath does not favor us, we will be caught in it, and possibly wrecked.”
The priest looked westward, as if noticing the storm for the first time. The ocean can play tricks on a man who is unused to her. Clouds that appear low and close may be many leagues away. And ocean storms are often preceded by strong winds well in front of the rains. But the priest did not know that. He also didn’t swim.
“If a storm that size,” I continued, “with clouds that dark, comes across this small vessel … well, I hope the Stevene can teach you to swim in the time it takes to fall overboard.”
“Don’t be absurd,” the priest ruffled. “You don’t really think this boat will be capsized.” He said it as a statement, but I knew it was a question.
“Oh, aye,” Jergen answered. He had been mending a sail while he listened to our conversation. “I’ve been on ships twice this size what got rolled over like a whore during shore leave. Beggin’ your pardon, sir,” he added as the priest blanched.
“Perhaps,” I added to the fire, “now would be a good time to see just how much the Stevene can help out.”
“Nonsense,” the priest said, and he put on his best preaching face. “The Stevene, and God, is also confident in man’s ability to save himself.” He was nervous, but he put on a good front. “I’m certain the captain and the crew can maintain the safety of this ship during our travels.”
As if on cue, a loud slapping sound broke overhead, and one of the sails let loose from the mast. I noticed one of the crewmen, suspiciously near to the tie, trying to hide a smile. It seemed they were all in on it with me. Poor priest. He didn’t realize how boring these trips can be, and that a good joke could break the monotony for a long time. But by releasing that line, the crewman had endangered the ship.
“Mark your wind!” cried Captain Thorne. “Secure that sail, raise the spreader! Unfurl the mainsail, or we’ll be back winded!”
The crewman who had released the sail was suddenly caught up in a flurry of activity with several other crewmen. For a moment, the ship pitched fore to aft. Jergen muttered to himself, “Roll, roll you son of a bitch; the more you roll, the less you’ll pitch.” Then the mainsail was set, and snapped to a billowy white cloud as the wind pulled it taut. The Vanguard Voyager steadied her course, but the momentary distress shattered the priest’s resolve.
The priest dropped to his knees almost immediately and grasped at his holy noose — the symbol of his particular sect of Stevenism. Several of the men snickered softly as the Stevenic’s supplications were offered up to his god. Jergen and I glanced westward at the storm and smelled the wind. Shortly now, the storm’s head winds would be picking up, giving us the extra speed to get south of the on-coming storm.
“Too late, priest,” I said. “Your Stevene hasn’t helped.”
“But … nothing’s happened, yet!” he protested. He glanced westward. The storm, still a few leagues off, seemed almost upon us. “What will we do?”
“I don’t know,” I muttered, as if to myself. “Cirrangill’s Breath should have begun blowing us to safety by now.”
“Perhaps,” the priest retorted, “your god cannot help in this matter either.” The priest stood up, as if his failure to summon the winds was a sign of Cirrangill’s falsehood. But Jergen played his part perfectly.
“More likely,” Jergen said, “Cirrangill’s mad at us for praying to the Stevene on his waters.”
“What should we do?” I asked Jergen, letting him take the lead.
“Tough decision,” he said. He scratched the beard on his chin and stared at the dark clouds to the west. His keen eyes could see the rain front approaching. The priest was nervous. Then Jergen turned and looked the priest in the eyes. “I’ve known crews to throw men overboard, as a sacrifice. But the cap’n gets paid for your safe arrival at port. No sense in angerin’ her.”
“Then all we have to offer are prayers to Cirrangill,” I said.
“Bout ‘majin,” he replied.
And then I began a prayer to Cirrangill that the whole crew knew. It was actually a verse from a song about a sailor coming home to port, but I hardly expected the priest to know that. I sang it soft and slow, and the crewmen around me slowly added their voice to my own. The tempo became a low, deep pulse that drove the crew in their work.
“My sails been blowed, and torn, and laid down wet,
They need all the mending that they can get.
There’s a storm on the horizon and I’m trying to get home,
Cirrangill will save us from the waters way down low.”
Just as we were finishing the third repetition of the verse, the wind picked up. “Cirrangill’s Breath!” Jergen called out, and the deck burst into action as crewmen who had been watching our joke suddenly remembered the storm. The captain called out to batten down the hatches, secure the lines, and tighten the rigging.
“All passengers get to your cabins,” she bellowed. The priest stared wide-eyed at the confusion. “Now!” she yelled. And the storm was upon us.
The ship rocked wildly beneath us as we lurched toward the hold. Using the mast, barrels, and several crewmen along the way, the priest managed to get to our cabin, and hurl himself into its shelter. I was only footsteps behind him, and the door was slammed shut by gale force winds. The rain began suddenly, pelting the deck with heavy drops while the crew scampered about, carefully now, to complete the captain’s orders. We could hear the beams stressing as the winds hurled the Vanguard Voyager along her course. Captain Thorne ordered all sails unfurled and the ship lurched forward, her bow crashing through the waves as the wind filled every sail.
When Jergen opened the door to our cabin, we spied a brilliant bolt of lightning against the dark sky. We counted the pause, then heard the resounding thunder shake through the bowels of the ship. “Two leagues … perhaps three,” I thought. The captain was cutting it close. She was dancing the westward edge of the storm, using its winds and waves to speed us on our southerly journey. She was taking a small risk, but the storm was paying off.
As ever, the priest was unaware of our situation. The lightning had revealed his terror, and the thunder had caused him to pale even further. I feared he would soil his robes, and then I would have to live with that fetid smell until the storm let up. “Will we live?” he asked Jergen.
“This is the Vanguard Voyager,” Jergen replied. “She’s the best ship there is, and she’s got the best cap’n. We’ll get through it.”
“Then we’re saved,” the priest said. He sighed relief, but still looked sad. “Cirrangill saved this ship, not the Stevene.”
I felt sorry for the priest. Bored sailors who didn’t want to be bothered by a well-meaning priest had played a joke. And while we were not fearful of losing our faith, we had shaken his confidence in his. The priest thought he could convert the sailors. His mistake was thinking they would abandon their faith while they sailed in the very temple of their god. “Keep your god on land, priest,” I offered. “Leave the ocean to Cirrangill.”