It was an ill wind that bought that vessel into port.
She berthed in the dead of night, spilling her crew out into fog filled streets to worm their way into the various taverns and houses of ill repute. If the Captain of said ship had hoped to arrive in anonymity, he had failed. The crawling sea mist was thick enough to turn the dock into nothing more than a barren forest of creaking masts rising above a swirling, snow covered field, but the streets still had ears. Word travelled fast and whispers preceded that crew. The folk of the stronghold kept a careful eye out for the new arrivals, their guards more heightened than usual.
You could tell them by their eyes. Hear it in their voices. The longing.
The boy who swaggered up to the bar was several sizes too small for his boots- both figuratively and quite literally. He had the walk of a man who- far from having acquired his sea legs- barely had a hold of his land legs. The trousers were baggy and threadbare, giving him a gangly, scarecrow look. The shirt, too, had been expecting someone bulkier and more muscular than the wiry, boyish figure. The eyes looked older, though, and were not as friendly as the pleasant smile suggested. He might, the barman conceded, live to grow into those clothes.
The boy waited as the barman spat into a tankard and gave it a cursory polish before clearing his throat and sliding a coin across the bar.
“I’m looking for Captain Sarris.”
This caused a ripple in the nearby patrons. The barkeep gave the boy a quick second glance.
“No,” he sniffed, barely pausing in his work, “You’re not.”
“I hear he’s taking on more crew.”
“I hear there’s pay for joining, plus the usual shares. Hear he sails eastward come dusk tomorrow.”
“Good riddance,” a heavily bearded man to the boys left muttered into his drink.
The barman set the tankard down and pressed his palms into the bar, leaning down with his weight. The coin stayed where it was.
“A word of advice, lad? Stay here the night- grease a few palms, wet a few tongues. You’ll find someone willing to take you on soon enough. You been in town long?”
“Fallen on desperate times, I take it?”
“Something like that,” the boy itched at his shoulder absently and grimaced before catching himself and puffing out his chest, “What’s it to you?”
“Hey, we’ve all been in the gutter, one time or another,” the barman raised his hands, “Take my word for it- no amount of gold is worth joining Sarris’ crew.”
Several pirates seemed to shudder at the sound of the name, though you’d lose an eye for pointing it out.
“I’ve got business same direction as them, is all. Urgent business.”
“Next harbour’ll be too late,” the grog mutterer interjected, “It’ll be the last crew you join, one way or another. Pray you die before the madness takes you.”
The barman shot him a warning look.
“Those are dangerous waters,” he reminded the boy, “Few sail through them unscathed. Better to delay and arrive in one piece the long way round.”
“I’m not afraid,” the boy said, to various sniggers.
“You should be,” the barman said, “It’s a special kind of madman who spends his fortune sailing those seas instead of retiring. Why do you think he has to pay people to join anyway? Too many head off on that ship and not enough of them come back with nothing to show for it.”
“What’s he looking for?”
“Nothing worth dying for, that’s for sure.”
The conversation in the bar rose to contradict him.
“There’ll be none of that talk here,” the barman shouted, “Next man to name a mythical treasure or even think of that cursed ship and her crew gets the sharp end of my knife. So, boy,” he turned his attention back to the newcomer, “What will it be?”
The boy swiped the coin from the bar and squirrelled it away.
“Guess I’ll look elsewhere,” he said.
It was a motley crew who gathered on the deck of the Muse’s Lament come sundown. The last of the supplies were hoisted aboard as the quartermaster inspected the few recruits they had managed to take in. Of these, one was still unconscious on-route to a nice locked cell where he wouldn’t wake up until they were well out of the bay, one was rich in years to the point of being seemingly unaware of where or in fact when he was, and the last seemed to be barely more than a child.
“Name?” the quartermaster barked.
“You’ve sailed before?”
“Yes, sir. Helped overrun a slaver's ship before coming into port here.”
The quartermaster carefully neglected to ask which side of the cells the boy had been situated in before the takeover. He was hardly going to turn a body away, even one as malnourished as this.
“You’ll do as cabin boy,” the quartermaster said, “Here’s your first pay. Get below deck. Captain will swear you in.”
The crew barely spoke to Kallias as he went about his duties the following day. Around lunchtime there was a ruckus in the cells as the less than willing recruit there finally came around and realised the full horror of his situation. He was a carpenter by the name of Timon. It didn’t take him long to come around to the fact that he was stuck on the ship and vastly outnumbered. Rather than spend the voyage in the cells, he reluctantly signed his name under Kal’s on the ship’s articles. Still feeling sore about the whole thing, he spent the first few days aggressively avoiding everyone except the new crew members, with whom he felt a sense of imagined camaraderie against those who had kidnapped him.
With the ship in good shape and the quartermaster bitter about the black eye he had received in the scuffle that started upon Timon’s waking, Timon was reduced to deck swabbing duties with Kal the following morning.
“So what’s your story?” Timon asked, “Why are you here?”
“I just need to get home,” Kal said.
When no further details seemed forthcoming, Timon changed tack.
“You know, there’s something wrong with these people,” he whispered conspiratorially, “Just look at them.”
It was true that the crew looked... odd. Their eyes bulged slightly and their skin had a sickly parlour, despite their good health. They were well fed, had their fill of drink and were generally well looked after by the Captain and yet there was something off about them.
“It’s not madness,” Timon’s brow furrowed as he searched for the right word, “They look like... addicts. Like they have some shared obsession, something that keeps them here.”
They watched as a crate was brought up on deck and opened. A man with a glazed over expression carefully unpacked the crate, ensuring the items were well maintained as he went. They were harpoons, their fierce tips glinting in the sunlight.
“Just what kind of ship is this?” Timon asked Kal, then yelped as a palm caught him around the back of the head.
“This is a hunting ship, Mr Andino,” the quartermaster hissed in his ear, “Now get back to work before you find out how sharp those weapons are.”
It was pitch black on deck. The ocean was a pit of wavering ghost stars that sighed with each swell of the tide, answered only by the creaking of strained rope and the rustling of sails. Kal sat astride the starboard railing, feeling the wind against his face as though he flew through the freezing night air. Forgetting himself, he began to hum gently. It was an old song. A mournful, flowing lullaby. The notes echoed across the water like chimes as the tune tumbled out of him from some long forgotten corner of his mind. He couldn’t remember the words, just as he struggled to remember the voice that had sung them to him as a child.
“Seems we’ve a musician aboard,” came a voice in his ear.
Kal jumped and jerked his head to look behind him. A hulking figure filled his vision, barely contained by the garish frock coat. Kal craned his neck to look up past the barrel chest and thick beard and into grey, storm-swept eyes. The Captain laughed at his startled expression.
"You’ve a beautiful voice, lad. It’s causing quite a stir below decks.”
“S-sorry, sir,” Kal stuttered.
“Don’t stop on my account, boy,” Sarris waved a hand, “Go on.”
“I... don’t remember how it ends.”
“Pity,” the Captain’s hand disappeared into his coat, withdrawing a small lacquered box, “Perhaps I can help you.”
He slid a protective jacket off of the box, revealing narrow slits in both ends. He held it up to the prevailing wind, directing the air through the trinket. The box began to sing. Its tone was weak and breathy, but oddly human, like a woman’s voice heard through a gale. The song that danced on the wind was the same one that Kal had half remembered. He sat entranced, jaw slack until the song reached a perfect cadence and the music box was silent once more. Kal couldn’t stop himself as he reached a hand towards the instrument.
Sarris snatched it away before he could touch it, grinning cruelly.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Kal breathed, still staring.
“You know, I was a musician myself, back in my youth,” Sarris said, ignoring the intensity and longing in the boy’s eyes, “Attracted the attention of many a fine woman and was courted by the finest of them all. My Melpomene... She gifted me with an instrument fit for the gods. She had the most beautiful voice in the world, far more beautiful than this thing.”
Sarris took up a spot alongside Kal, leaning casually against the rail.
“But,” he continued, “She changed. Turned mournful. The gifts she gave, she took away. She abandoned me. Now I search for what once was mine. This? This is just a cheap imitation I made. The real treasure lies out there somewhere.”
Kal’s eyes followed the box as it was returned to Sarris’ breast pocket.
“Sadly,” said Sarris, tapping his pocket, “This one is coming to the end of its life. The, ha, mechanism is in need of replacement.”
The inside of the box had been dark, but Kal had imagined he saw pink folds. Flesh like. Organic.
“I’m a jealous man, young Kallias,” Sarris said, “And a pirate. I take what I can from her. One day I’ll see her brought low as I was. I’ll see her treasure back in my hands.”
Kal said nothing, watching as Sarris took a pipe from his pocket and began packing it with tobacco.
“Do you believe in monsters, boy?”
“Yes,” said Kal, staring as the flare of a match cast strange shadows over the man’s features.
“Good,” Sarris shook out the match and took a suck of his pipe, “That will make things easier. It won’t be long.”
The Captain walked on, surveying his ship. She ploughed onwards through the waves, towards that forbidden place sailors spoke of only in ghost stories and avoided like the plague.
Thalassa Teratron. The sea of monsters.
“Sarris showed me something,” Timon said, as they scrubbed the deck the following morning, “A music box.”
“I saw it too,” Kal said, observing Timon’s changed features. His skin looked waxier, his eyes slightly glassy.
“Wasn’t it beautiful?” Timon grinned, “I’ve never heard anything so beautiful.”
“Did Sarris say anything about it?”
“No,” admitted Timon, “He just hid it away again. I asked some of the others though.”
“They say... well, it’s impossible what they say.”
“Go on,” Kal urged, growing impatient.
“They say it’s siren song. That’s crazy, isn’t it? Sirens aren’t real, are they?”
He said the words as though he longed for someone to disagree with him, his tone full of a pained hopefulness.
“I couldn’t say.”
“But if they were...” Timon mused, “You know, the stories say that a captured siren will grant you any wish.”
“So I’ve heard,” Kal grunted, putting more effort into his scrubbing.
“If I had a wish, I’d ask for a music box like that,” Timon said, “You think that’s how Sarris came by it?”
“No,” Kal said firmly, gritting his teeth and wincing at a pain in his shoulder, “Sirens don’t grant wishes.”
It wasn’t long before the sea turned on them.
The storm was relentless, battering at the ship from all sides. At times the waves towered high above the Muse’s Lament, tossing her from side to side until it was all the crew could do to keep her upright. They clung to the rigging as white foam cascaded across the deck, their clothes sodden with sweat and seawater, their voices hoarse from shouting to be heard over the hammering wind and rain. The storm lasted for three days and three nights, but even after that there was no rest for the crew.
They saw things. Things that drove away sleep despite their exhaustion.
Great serpents slithered across the surface of the waves. Grasping tentacles reached up from the depths, grazing the ships hull with suckers larger than a man's hand. Once, in the distance, they saw a thing with six heads rear up from the centre of a spiralling whirlpool.
They sailed on in near silence, hoping to avoid unwanted attention.
On the sixth day, there was a cry from the crow’s nest and all the seasoned crew members rushed to see, elbowing each other to get a good view.
“What’s going on?” Timon tried to ask someone, as he and Kal joined the back of the crowd.
Above them in the far distance, a few dark spots flew across the unusually clear sky.
“Eagles?” asked Timon, shielding his eyes against the sun. They were the biggest, strangest looking birds he had ever seen.
“Not quite,” said the quartermaster, pressing something into his hands, “You’ll need these.”
Timon looked down, puzzled, at the two lumps of wax in his hand. By dusk, the singing started and he understood.
They followed the figures in the sky for the next few days. From time to time, they swooped down to land on outcrops of rock where they lounged in the sun, singing as they braided each other’s hair and preened their feathers.
“Melpomene’s children,” Sarris said, eyes full of hate and greed, “Spawn of the muses.”
Against the Captain’s orders, some of the men took out their earplugs to hear them, the ecstasy clear on their faces. Despite the pace they were setting, the creatures kept moving on before the ship could get them into clear view.
At night, when most of the crew were sound asleep, Kal stood at the prow of the ship and sang under the stars.
Around dusk on the tenth day, one of the creatures separated from the flock and the Captain jumped on the opportunity to corner one on its own. They gained enough ground on her to be confident that they had her attention. In the distance was a pillar of stone at the edge of an island where she would no doubt land to try and tempt them into running ashore.
Night fell. Dark, heavy storm clouds shrouded the sky and so there were no stars or moon to light the way. Forced to rely on the ghostly, angelic voice that echoed high above them for navigation, they slowed their pace hoping not to reach the rocks until sunrise when they could see to avoid them and to hunt. They prayed silently that their prey would not grow bored of them before then. The oncoming storm buzzed in the air, along with the crew’s growing excitement.
Lightning flared, ripping apart the sky.
The flash revealed dark shadows on all sides, jagged wings outstretched, sharp talons raised. The night swallowed them once more rendering their advance invisible.
"Ambush!" a voice screamed from high in the rigging.
Thunder roared, deep enough to rattle bones, deep enough to feel in the pit of your chest. Then the sirens screeched and the thunder fled. They screeched and the blood froze in the veins of every man on deck. The noise pierced through them, filling them, consuming them, reverberating through their very souls until that was all that there was. The universe was a cry of murderous rage and they were merely figments within it. The wax earplugs did nothing against so many voices.
"Get below decks!" the Captain yelled, or at least his mouth formed the words.
Even if his crew had heard him, their bodies would not have obeyed. Not even Sarris followed his own advice, barely able to raise his cutlass. There was not a man amongst them who was not pinned in place by the deafening chorus.
And yet... someone walked across the deck. Their pace was calm and measured, unaffected by the raging storm or hovering nightmares. They walked as though they were merely out for a pleasant stroll. The crew watched on in horror as the boy neared the prow, shedding clothes as he went.
Kal hauled himself up and over onto the bowsprit. Water buffeted him from all sides, but he stayed proudly upright. It felt good to stretch his toes- free at last from the painful, constrictive boots- to wrap them around the spar, to feel his claws sink into the dark oak. The wind ruffled his feathers and whispered for him to leap, but the still bloodied stumps protruding from his shoulder blades held him to the ground. Instead, he spread his arms wide and threw back his head, looking for all the world like the ships new figurehead.
"I’m home, Aunties," Kal addressed the sky, smile wide, teeth sharp, eyes burning, "And I bought dinner."
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Well done story. It had a lot of what i like in stories. It was a new twist in the legend of the Sirens and definitely stood out to me as a Dungeons and Dragons fan. I didn't see much to it but the clues you gave about Kallis singing stood out that the young man was a Siren offspring and though it was kind of a give away I really enjoyed what you did to the story. Thank you and I hope to read another story of this style. Good Job
Haa, yep I can see someone asking for an initiative roll after this ended 😂 Thanks for the comment! Next time I'll give less clues before the twist ending...
Louise this was amazing! Spine-tingling and horrifyingly wonderful! I also took the Siren approach last week, but definitely followed a different path. It's great to read other folks' short stories and see how everyone's minds work. And I think the story you've woven here is magnificent. No major feedback/critique from me on this one. I did see a few grammar/mechanical issues but nothing major. Great piece - I thoroughly enjoyed reading :) Only one typo (maybe?) “They say it’s siren song." -- should this have an article? “They sa...
Thanks for the feedback, Aj! I'll be sure to check out your siren story- interested to see your take :D Yes, that bit does read a little clumsy and with hindsight I might not have included that conversation at all... I was struggling with what to reveal when with this one and originally wasn't going to mention sirens until right at the end. At the last minute I decided to plant the seed more explicitly earlier on. I think I was trying to use "siren song" as if it were "birdsong", but you're right- it doesn't quite work 😅