Aeolus kicked his tail rapidly, desperately, as he cut through the turquoise water, eyes darting left and right, his entire body undulating as he used the current to speed his progress. He could hear the Sirens singing, which meant they had spotted a ship and intended to lure the sailors onto the rocks. Their song had no effect on him—he was unable to leave the sea to follow their lure, but even more than that, uninterested in maids. He had been told often enough that he could have his pick from among them, but another world had caught his interest, a world he could see only from the edges: the world of men.
Catching sight of the keel of a vessel, he propelled himself toward it, hoping to distract the sailors from the lure of the Sirens’ song. The ship was moving slowly, and he could picture the scene aboard with alarming ease. The men would have heard the entrancing music, confusion settling across their features as the Sirens’ hypnotic spell worked on their senses, drawing them away from their duty and into the secluded cove. One or two might try to resist, but it never worked for long. Only Odysseus had ever escaped their clutches, though Aeolus was not sure how. Knowing their lure could be overcome, Aeolus tried even harder now to save the ships, to break the spell.
Passing the bow of the ship, he broke through of the water’s surface, his powerful tail propelling him up into the air, water foaming around him as he tried to catch the attention of the men aboard the vessel. They had ears only for the Sirens now, so he did not try calling out to them. His voice, however powerful, could not drown out the trio who lay in wait for their victims. He hoped instead that a merman appearing suddenly in front of them would divert their attention long enough to draw them away. A few did indeed look his way as he danced along the surface of the water, his tail working swiftly to keep him balanced on the waves, but they did not succeed in distracting the man at the helm of the ship from his new goal: the cove where the Sirens tempted men to their deaths. Before long, even the men he had freed from their spell succumbed again, their curiosity in his regard no match for the enthralling song.
Sliding back into the water in defeat, Aeolus tracked the boat’s advance, hoping that despite all prior evidence, this boat would somehow avoid the rocks and sail safely through the entrance to the cove. The men would still be enslaved by the Sirens, but at least they would be alive.
Moments later, the sharp rocks shredded the hull of the vessel, and Aeolus watched helplessly as the men fought the undertow. He dared many things in his battles against the Sirens, but he dared not enter their grotto. They allowed none but Poseidon himself inside their lair, and the sea god rarely left his underwater palace these days.
When the struggles of the drowning men ceased, Aeolus retreated, his heart falling. He felt each death as keenly as if his failure had lured them there in the first place, but he had learned the hard way not to try to help the victims. Even as they drowned, they fought to reach the Sirens, and his attempts to help them were met with vicious kicks and blows. Undulating slowly through the water, he asked himself once more how long he was prepared to keep fighting—and losing—this battle.
The water darkened as he swam deeper, seeking the grotto he had claimed for his own when he left his father’s house. Entering the cave, he waited for his eyes to adjust to the phosphorescence that lit his home. Everything was just as he had left it, the coral table in the center of the room bearing the remains of the morning meal he had abandoned to swim after the ship. With a bubbly sigh, he cleared the flat seashells from the table, returning them to their places on the shelves he had constructed out of the sunken remains of wrecked ships. He ran his fingers over the pieces of flotsam he had collected from those same shipwrecks, each one a glimpse into a world he could never enter. He knew what most of them were for, having observed men on their ships since he was old enough to swim to the surface, but they were still curiosities to him. Each relic reminded him of his failures even as it reminded him of his dreams.
He refused to give up hope that he would eventually triumph. To do so would be to give up hope on the world of men. He had spoken against the Sirens in Poseidon’s court, but he had found no sympathy among the other merfolk. If the men were weak enough, they said, to be lured by something as mild as the singing of the Sirens, they deserved their fate. Aeolus didn’t agree. He had seen men fight, had seen their will stolen by the Sirens’ lure, and he knew it was wrong. Unfortunately, with no disapproval coming from the one being the Sirens feared, they had no incentive to stop.
Everything in order in his grotto, Aeolus returned to his haunting of the sea lanes, swimming farther afield than he usually did. Perhaps if he could catch the attention of the sailors before the Sirens did, he could lead them away from the dangerous cove and safely past by another route.
He could still hear the Sirens singing when he caught sight of another hull cutting swiftly through the water. He swam to the surface, hoping the song was inaudible to mortal ears at this distance. As he broke into the air, he searched the deck for signs of enchantment. The surprised calls of the sailors at his appearance suggested they had not yet fallen prey to the deadly lure.
“Follow me!” Aeolus called to the sailors. “The Sirens lie in wait a few leagues ahead. They’ll lure you to your death on the rocks if you give in to their call.”
“How do we know you are not in league with them?” the captain called back.
“They need no help to kill,” Aeolus retorted. “You can take your chances with them if you choose, but I would not wager against them. I can lead you safely by another route, but we must go now, because it will not be long before you will hear them singing, and then I fear I won’t be able to help you.”
“Nileas, follow the merman,” the captain ordered the sailor at the helm. “Whatever happens, do not deviate from the route he takes.”
Heart pounding with the hope that this time he would be successful, Aeolus detoured sharply out to sea, not sure at what distance the song would reach the men’s ears. The ship turned more slowly, but Nileas did as his captain had ordered, turning the ship in the direction Aeolus had taken.
Despite their detour, Aeolus heard the Sirens’ song grow louder. He could not believe the sisters would leave their cave to fight for one ship with at most a score of men aboard, but neither could he come up with a more plausible explanation. He rose higher above the surface again. “You must not give in to their song!”
“How?” the captain shouted back, his eyes darting between Aeolus and the distant shore.
“Focus on me,” Aeolus said. “I can’t out-sing them, but they lie behind you. As we go farther out to sea, their song will fade.”
“Trim the sails,” the captain ordered, but Aeolus could see a difference in how quickly the men responded this time. Heart pounding, he flipped his tail so he could grab the rail of the vessel. Some of the sailors, seeing him, shook their heads and went back to work. Some, however, did not even seem to see him. He glanced toward the helm. Nileas, the helmsman, had his eyes fixed on Aeolus’s face. “Go,” the man said. “I’ll follow.”
Aeolus searched the man’s expression, but he saw none of the confusion or vacancy he had come to associate with the ensorcellment of the Sirens, and that gave him enough hope to release the wooden frame and swim ahead of the ship again. They had sailed another half a league before Aeolus realized the ship had slowed. He swam back, jumping to the railing’s edge to see complete chaos on the ship. Sailors brandished swords, a few clearly trying to follow the captain’s orders but the rest lost to the Sirens. Nileas has abandoned the helm to defend himself, but he seemed free of the spell still. “Can you help?” he called to Aeolus.
Aeolus looked regretfully at his tail. “I am helpless out of the water,” he apologized as Nileas dodged another blow. In the water, Aeolus could have escaped them all, moving with far greater grace and ease than the lethargic movements of men ensnared by the Sirens. “Come with me,” Aeolus shouted, seeing the captain fall beneath the sword of his former crew. “They’re lost, but you don’t have to be. I can take you to safety.”