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A Matter of Gods
Elf
rix_scaedu
This came out of a September 18 prompt from [personal profile] sauergeek  which was "Nearly out of water and needing to land to find more."  It came in at 1,936 words.
Jaq was keeping lookout all day but there was nothing to see.  The boat floated on the purple waters of the Osimire Sea, halfway between Alawear and Hengorm Bay and they had been abandoned by the rains.  At this time of year showers scudded across the sea from the north, letting boats make the journey by going directly across instead of skirting around the Sea's fringes and adding weeks to the journey.  The wind hadn't abandoned them, but this week there were no rain clouds and that meant that there was no rain, which explained why The Star of Alawear was running unexpectedly low on water.
Captain Faroche trusted Jaq and knew that he was not the man to lie about what he could see from his vantage point.  She had sailed with such a person when she had been apprenticed to Captain Mallerd and the experience had made her cautious in her hiring practices.  If Jaq reported that he saw no land or rain, then that was because there was none to see.  She consulted the charts, looked at the moon, and calculated the tides.  Nothing in her observations of the sea's behaviour made her think that land might be closer than Hengorm Bay.  She calculated how much water was left, urged everyone to drink sparingly of what there was, and issued the cheap spirits for handwashing.
At sunset she made an offering to the Mermother and the Wind Lass of ship's biscuit and a bottle of the good spirits, and asked for rain to replenish their barrels or guidance to an unmarked island with potable water.
The four passengers, gentlemen from Alawear who had wanted swift passage across the Sea so they could attend to some business of theirs, looked on disapprovingly.  Their approval didn't bother Captain Faroche, partly because she knew that they had been using more than their share of the water supplies ever since the boat had left port.  She had given the usual speech about conservation of water at sea , but the four men had continued to act as if the stuff was on tap.
After the sun was completely down the captain remained on deck to make sure that none of the passengers decided to help themselves to the offering spirits, a stout fortified wine from the upland vineyards that lay east of Alawear.  Land lovers tended to have no respect for the sailors' gods, preferring the stability of the Black and Brown robed priests, and sometimes disrespect led to foolishness.
Because she had made the offering, because she was up anyway, and because she was worried, Captain Faroche stood the watch herself that night.  She steered the boat herself by star and compass, and so was as certain as she could be that they hadn't gone astray from their route when she found the island where there should have been no island.
It was an island of sand ringing a platform of rock.  Not a tall platform, and the entire island was almost round and about two lengths of the boat across.  A less diligent watchkeeper might have missed it.  A captain who hadn't offered to the sea gods at sunset would have dropped anchor and checked for a water supply in the morning.  Captain Faroche dropped the anchor, woke her crew but not the passengers, then sent Jaq and the cook ashore with torches to see if there was freshwater on the island.
She watched from the deck as the two of them climbed the rock.  The boat was close enough for her to see them use the dipper they'd taken with them to sample a liquid they found in the centre of the platform.  She also saw that they didn't spit it out and that they carefully poured the remainder back from whence it came.  One did not waste the gifts of the gods.  The two men came back to the boat, took the water barrels ashore one at a time, refilled them, and returned each to the boat before taking the next.  The sea gods could be capricious, and it was well to remember that.
Jaq and the cook worked well together, and the water barrels were refilled before dawn.  The eastern sky was beginning to lighten when, her crewmen and the water safely on board, Captain Faroche had herself carefully lowered to the island's edge in a cargo net so that she could lay a second offering, this time in thanks, on the edge of the sand before being lifted back onto the ship.  The anchor was raised, and the boat sped on its way with a fresh breeze behind it.  A few minutes later, when the captain looked back the way they'd come she could see no sign of the island.
The passengers woke after sunrise and had their usual breakfast.  Then one of them wanted to shave.
"I would rather that you didn't," said the captain quietly.  "We were...fortunate in the night to find an island with a spring.  With this dry weather, I'd rather not take the risk of running dry again."
"I must be clean," protested the land lover.
"You can be clean with a beard," pointed out Captain Faroche.  "Or you can use sea water."
"I must cleanse myself for three days before our arrival," the man said calmly.  "I must be fit to be in the presence of the virtuous when we arrive.  Salt water is what we use to wash the dead, and sea water is salt.  I cannot use it."
"Provision of water for ritual cleansing is not in our agreement," replied Captain Faroche.  "Your cleansing will have to wait until we reach port."
"That will set our venture back three days."  The man was indignant.
"Three days late is better than three days dead," pointed out the captain.  "Lack of drinking water will do that to you."
"You do not understand."  He looked at the captain pityingly and added, "How could you when you still believe in such foolish rituals?"
The man was beginning to seriously annoy her.  "I am the one who got us drinking water when we were almost out, but you are the one who thinks that cleaning himself with salt water will make him the same as a dead man.  Is being able to do business as soon as you get into port so important that you would rather die than not be ready as soon as we tie up?"
One of his friends intervened then and drew him away with soft words and apologetic glances at the captain.  Captain Faroche left the man to his friends to monitor and made sure that one of her crew was always on deck to watch the barrels .  She arranged the rest of the crew's duties for the day, sent the cook and Jaq to catch up on their sleep, and then took herself to her own bunk.
She woke to the screams of wind and of a man.  When she reached the deck, the man who would be clean was being stretched between the hands of a creature made of water.  A barrel lay empty on its side on the deck and a sheen of water lay across the deck where its precious load had spilled.  The barrel lid and a large metal jug lay on the deck under the passenger’s feet.  The crewmember set to watch the water was on his hands and knees, retching like a man who'd been seriously gut punched, or at least hit in the solar plexus.  The water being seemed to be trying to pull the passenger in two.  If the captain was reading the signs of what had happened correctly, then she would be very happy to have the disciplining of the transgressor taken over by a divine agent.  On the other hand, a death on board from divine retribution was going to mean lots of paperwork.  The water creature looked to have the upper body of human woman and a coiled lower half that seemed to be both fish and serpent.
"Stop screaming and apologise for wasting the water," Captain Faroche told the passenger sharply just as his companions arrived on deck.  "Of course, if she kills you for it then I won't have to flog you for disobeying my orders."
He screamed again.  One of his friends hit the deck on his knees in front of the water being and began pleading for the man's life.  The friend laid a pouch of tobacco, a pipe, and a flint with steel on the deck between him and the victim and continued to beg.
The water creature paused, looked at the offering, and made one last sudden jerk on her victim that produced the sound of a breaking bone.  She dropped her victim to the deck, grabbed the offering, and was gone over the railing into the sea in a flash.  The land lover who'd pleaded for his friend had, sensibly, prostrated himself as soon as the offering was taken.
The victim had stopped screaming and was crying on the deck, one arm in completely the wrong place.
"That," said Captain Faroche when she was a position to stand over him, "is why we do not disrespect the sailors' gods.  Ever.  Our sailmaker will do what he can for your injury, but we'll all be on short water until we get to port.  I don't want to see you out of your cabin until then, and then I never want to see you again.  You can find another way home when your business is done."  She gestured for her crew to take him away.  Then she turned to the man who was still flat on his face on the deck and said, "You can get up now, she's gone."
He rolled over on his back and said, "This is why I didn't go to work on my uncle's farm.  The hooved gods are just like that. Only not made of water, and with hooves.  A nice quiet town life was what I wanted."  He sat up, then stood and bowed.  "My apologies, ma'am, for my companion's actions.  He should not have done any of the things that he did today.  The best that can be said is that he takes his duties to the religion of the towns very seriously."  He shook his head and added, "I don't think that any of them have seen any of your gods or the hooved gods before.  I can hope that they don't think belief in them foolish anymore."
"You did well to rescue him," replied Captain Faroche, "but that wasn't the Mermother or the Wind Lass.  It was one of the ocean spirits that serves the Mermother, and just because one has gone, it doesn't mean that there won't be more if we disrespect the gods' gift again."
The man shuddered.
Captain Faroche smiled to herself and asked, "So, what did you say your name was?"  She didn't think she'd heard it and hadn't bothered to ask.  Partly, because the passengers' requirement for a fast passage had made her suspect that she didn't want to be in possession of relevant details if anyone came asking.
"Rodrigue Fabriticus," he replied, taking a sharp look at her.
She asked, "Would you care to take wine with me over lunch, Rodrigue Fabriticus?  We could discuss what the town gods might want of men.  Out here, where it's safe to do so."
The corner of his mouth quirked.  "Rumours, gossip, and hearsay?  I would love to, Captain Faroche. I hear that the nearest town is still several days sailing away."
This entry was originally posted at https://rix-scaedu.dreamwidth.org/116748.html. There have been comment count unavailable comments there.