By Tim Nutting
The hands that grip the wheel are not old, but they look it. They are weathered, with heavy calluses and curved with years of work in the open air. The skin is brown, bronzed from over two decades piloting ships through good weather and bad. The wheel is almost the same color of brown, enough so that one might be forgiven for not understanding where the ship ended and the captain began.
It is an easy mistake to make. The man stands at the narrow ship’s helm, holding the wheel fast and wind and wave whip around them. He is short, but stands tall. His legs widely spaced but not rigid, his back straight; he is the immovable anchor and the center of his vessel.
He grins as he thinks these things, imagining himself even more the fool, but she sings to him as they dace the waves. She thrums under his fingers, announcing her desires and her challenges, and he adapts with deft and precise movements and commands.
The other men on the _Lady’s Favor_ are his men, true, but they are necessary impediments. They respond to his commands; trim there, let up here. If he could do without them he would.
She cuts into another wave, and the fierce wind blows spray all the way back to him. There’s a particular taste to the salt today. One of the angels of the deep is less that thrilled that men such as they dare these waters.
The gods of his forefathers had different names, and though he prides himself on being a good Catholic of the Roman church, he still knows all the old names and all the hatreds and petty malice that went with them. It offended a priest, he remembers, when he remarked that on the sea all men had the same gods, but to his mind it is true.
The seas care not with confession a man followed, which god he was pledged to, let alone the symbol atop one’s house of worship, or whether you had one at all. Whichever of the fallen ones God almighty had cast into the seas, they were not friendly. Another wave crested, as they cut through, spray blasting off the caps, and she moaned under his hands.
No. Today they were not happy or friendly.
The winds blow hard and fast, filling the ship’s sails, propelling them farther and faster, and the _Favor_ is nothing if not fast.
They had left behind the Moorish pirates hours ago, when the captain had found a stiff wind and steered the _Favor_ into what seemed to be a blessed alley, but it had turned.
The captain turns right to survey the storm clouds building off the starboard bow. The angry gray columns promise no rest. They rumble angrily, and he can smell their displeasure in the salt air. Another of his great grandfather’s gods wants to snuff out his family, but it will not happen. Not to him, not to the _Lady’s Favor_.
He senses the fear of his men. To the left, the land is no longer visible, and now the storm is closer to them than they are to a shelter. He supposes they are good men, they have stood by him in tough times before, but then they believed in their cause. Now… his cargo is not their cargo, and the war he races toward is not their war.
Perhaps, if they can reach their port in time, there will be no war, but it will be a narrow thing, the captain thinks.
He dares not spare the hand to grip the medallion about his neck, but he hopes that Saint Nicholas, will hear his silent pleas and intercede on his behalf. After all, the saint favors the likes of the captain, being a patron of both sailors and repentant thieves, and most of the time the captain is repentant about his thievery. Most of the time.
Other times he regrets ever hearing the name Bragi, son of Are. The skald has got him in more trouble over the years than any ten lesser men, and together they’d shaved more hair off the Devil’s backside than twenty others.
He should have said “no” to the simple ocean crossing months ago. Then he could have left his current cargo on the dockside, instead of opening his damn fool mouth and saying yes to the boy that had become a man since last he’d seen him.
The sailors whispered that the young man was half-crazy, and the captain thought they might be more right than wrong, but they didn’t see the core that he had seen in those gray eyes.
Once the captain had shared a pipe with ths boy, and laughed at his inexperience, but the boy had proven though then, and his curiosity for the world around them had never slacked, unlike the rest of his dour companions.
As if thinking of the charge summoned him, the rangy young man works his way up from the cabin, and the captain spares glances now and again to assure himself that this cargo will not slip overboard through idiocy or happenstance. He is no cultured sailor, but he pays attention to his surroundings.
Where the captain is short and stout, the young man is tall, almost spare. Already his blonde hair is spattered by the sea mist into a wet mess, but it seems to bother him little. He takes a post near the captain, hanging on to a the forward railing. The exchange nods, and the captain continues to pilot the Favor.
The storm will catch them, he thinks, sooner rather than later. Looking once more in that direction he imagines in the angry clouds that he can see a face. It is an old face, and angry one. He shakes his head an dismisses the errant thought. Whatever old god wants their corpses for and undersea decoration, it will have to wait. He has a job to finish and a vow to uphold.