May 8, 2018
The task was not simple, and the outcome uncertain. For four days and nights, the men of the Helen’s Grace had been sailing through stormy seas south out of Ithaca before turning towards the east and heading directly into the wind, forced to row in brutal shifts as the waves crashed rapid and choppy against their bow. The men were stoic, as was expected by their captain and those who had celebrated their quest in the week-long festival held in their honor before their departure. These men were hardened, many of them in the famous wars of decades before, others survivors of savage conflicts on land and sea all around their home island. None of them expected to survive this mission given that only a lone hero had ever survived a similar voyage.
Odysseus had been the first to triumph against the odds, proving that it was possible to survive the sirens by sealing his sailors’ ears with beeswax and having tied himself to a mast so as to witness, first-hand, the temptations sung by the rare creatures determined to lure the men to their deaths. Even with the lessons learned by Odysseus, the crew of Helen’s Grace had become resigned to the knowledge that the legendary hero’s journey had surely been favored by the gods, but only Odysseus himself. The lives of those sailors with him proved insignificant to the powerful deities who selected only Odysseus alone to survive. All his crew were lost on their journey, and only the sailors who now rowed against the wind continued to pray to the gods to honor the struggle and sacrifice of those who helped Odysseus secure the beginning of his legendary quest. They were without hope, but it was their role in this life to provide the same sacrifice in order to ensure their own hero succeeded, as well.
The captain, a man known as Cyril, was young for his station, barely in his twenties, but bold and confident and favored by his men. He came from a family said to be related in some way to Odysseus himself, though the rumors never could agree on exactly how the bloodlines connected. Cyril was a man of wealth, but humble, a hero-in-the-making, but not arrogant. The captain never assumed the loyalty of his men. He earned it by leading them in battles on land and sea and by always being the first to breach the opposing lines, or to leap to the enemy’s deck as soon as the ships crashed violently together. The men would have walked to their deaths, heads held high, to honor the man they followed.
It seemed likely such a sacrifice had already been sealed.
Rumors of the sirens had been floating around Ithaca and surrounding states for years. It was thought that they had all been destroyed when Odysseus and his crew had escaped their trap, as was demanded by the curse put upon them, the creatures flinging themselves into the sea to drown in despair and failure. But sailors had spotted, from afar, what seemed to be creatures similar to those described by Odysseus. Women with broad, angelic wings, beak-shaped noses, hair like soft feathers, bared breasts, feet which held claws instead of toes. They were perched on small, ragged islands far from where Odysseus and his crew had encountered similar creatures on the Sirenum scopuli near Capri, but more than one crew had affirmed the new sightings, and as commerce grew towards the lands to the east of Ithaca and the Peloponnese and more ships were passing closer and closer to the new Sirenum scopuli, Ithaca had determined that the threat must be destroyed. Seven ships had already fallen victim to the sirens, so it was believed. Empty vessels had drifted aimlessly, found later by other ships. No sign of anyone who had been on board was ever noted.
A call went out to gather brave sailors, veterans, those with honor and pride, capable of sacrifice and decency to protect their fellow seafarers, their traveling statesmen and merchants, any who might fall victim to the sirens. A quest was defined, and the model used by Odysseus was to be employed. Those who knew the stories, the legends, the history of such things foretold that the gods will not be pleased by mortal interference, that the sirens, cursed as they were, held some favor and were necessary in the greater plots of beings too powerful to be stopped. Interfering with the plans of the gods had only rarely turned out well for those men who did so, and the sailors of Helen’s Grace had come to their mission understanding their lives were now worth only what the mercy of gods could deliver, and that, they understood, would almost certainly mean their deaths at sea.
The captain appeared late in the process, boldly proclaiming himself the leader of the men only as the statesmen in Ithaca fought amongst themselves to appoint their favorite to command the mission. Laughter and derision had met Cyril at first, but then he opened the old, dusty bag he had carried into the gathering, pulling out the tip of a spear.
Those in attendance grew silent, staring in awe and fear. They knew the origin of what Cyril held in his hand. It was the very thing which had slain the hero Odysseus. “How have you come to possess this?” some shouted, others crying “Thief!” and “Murderer!” Cyril waited until the commotion had died down and explained that he had been a soldier and sailor since he was eleven, leading men from far away lands against those enemies even further away. He’d discovered the spear which had killed the great Odysseus in the collection of a great general and taken it for his own.
Two of the sailors, old journeymen, rose to their feet and exclaimed their joy at seeing Cyril. They had each fought with him in the years before and attested to his bravery and leadership. The men proclaimed their belief that Cyril’s life was favored by the gods, and despite the protests of the wise men in the room, they refused to be shaken from their stances.
Another man, less old but twice Cyril’s age stood and drew the room to silence. He told a story of a young man, no more than fifteen, who charged, alone, across a wide, muddy field, nothing but a small knife in his hands. The men on both sides had watched, stunned, as arrows rained down around this young man. None struck, and the boy showed no sign that he feared being slain. He leapt into a fortification and slew those all around him. Cries went up from his side, and soon, more men were leaping into the defenses and the rout was complete. That young man, the speaker said confidently, was the same man now holding the spear which ended the life of Odysseus.
The protests which followed held less fire, and it was decided that a test was needed. Cyril would take charge of the sailors selected for the mission and they would hunt a notorious ship which had been capturing vessels trading to the east. Find that ship, slay its captain, and Cyril would be appointed the captain of the mission to destroy the sirens.
For six long weeks, the men sought out this villain without luck. But Cyril remained confident, rousing the men to continue rowing and tacking and following the signs only he could see. Some of the crew began to think the young man mad, and mutterings of mutiny were heard, even by Cyril himself. But he was steadfast and sure, calming the mutinous ideas and keeping the men focused.
Cyril’s certainty was shown true when the targeted ship approached them in the night on calm, dark seas. Cyril had the men ready for such a thing, foretelling it in the hours before he’d ordered them to anchor in the shallow waters well south of Ithaca to wait for the coming of their destiny. The men muttered but followed orders.
By the time the ships collided, Cyril’s crew held their weapons and knew their orders. The captain vaulted onto the enemy’s vessel and slew seven men before anyone else from his ship could climb aboard. The fight was over in minutes, the head of the enemy captain wrapped in cloth and the vessel sunk. The crew returned triumphant, celebrating with wine as soon as they reached shore.
The statesmen of Ithaca deemed the success worthy of Odysseus himself and congratulated Cyril as the newly-sanctioned captain of the mission at hand.
Cyril’s mind was never read by those around him. He kept his emotions calm, his words only ever useful and timely. How he came about his wisdom, he never said, but to those who had rowed and sailed for four days and nights out of Ithaca in rough seas and severe storms, it didn’t matter. They knew, first-hand, their captain’s blessed life and if anyone could see them through the mission, one the men expected they would not survive, it was Cyril who would lead them to glory.
The captain stood on the bow and surveyed the small islands to their front. They were nearing their destination. Spotters in the mast called down to say they had seen the very island described in the reports, though they could not yet see the sirens themselves. Cyril nodded and ordered the rowers and helmsman to continue their efforts, neither slowing nor changing course.
They grew closer and closer. A man atop the main-mast shouted down that he saw winged creatures through the mist and rain, four of them, on one of the small islands ahead. Very close now, he warned. Cyril nodded again, continuing to encourage their advance.
Some of the crew grew nervous though none of them faltered in their tasks. Even as the rain became sheets of sharp needles against their skin, nearly blinding their eyes, the rowers rowed and the skilled crewmen performed admirably.
Cyril adjusted their course slightly, to just slide by the island, and then he tore into his rowers, almost ravaging them to gain speed. More! More! he demanded. The rowers put every muscle they had to the task. More! Faster!
The island could easily be seen now as the rain backed off. Cyril saw the sirens and stared in wonder.
Each was as described. Olive skin, beautiful faces like goddesses, dark hair more feathery than human, sharp, beak-like noses of flesh, full breasts with dark tips, dark, feathery hair near their nethers, long, shapely legs which gave way to broad, clawed feet which were tightly gripping the rocks below. Even without hearing their songs, Cyril felt a compulsion to join them.
One of the four appeared slightly younger, youthful instead of regal, appearing as a woman near Cyril’s twenty-two years. Her curves were no less divine, but they were more subtle, breasts less rounded, more youthful and pert. Her sharp features held traces of her youth. The dark, feathery hair over her sex was less dense, softer in appearance. Cyril knew this one would have an especially sweet song.
He drove his crew forward, so close now that he could see the lips of the sirens mouthing their songs. So close that he began to ready the next commands.
The ship had gained as much speed as possible against the wind and waves. They were just seconds from the first vibrations of the seductive tones. Now! He called to all the sailors low and high on Helen’s Grace. Each man knew what was required.
All the men pressed sticky wax into their ears, tapping it down hard, as they’d been trained. Two of the men did the same then ran forward with ropes, quickly tying Cyril to the fore-mast as tightly as they could, then the men dashed down to hide themselves from any temptation their eyes might find. Cyril alone could still see and hear the sirens.
Their beauty only grew more legendary the closer they got, now just a dozen meters separating the ship and the creatures.
The first bars of their song lifted Cyril from his tension, easing his muscles, relaxing him, setting his mood into a state he’d only known twice in his life. Those times were in the arms of lovers. Only twice had he known such delights, but the songs being sung melted away his defenses and recalled the delicious memories of those intimate, passionate nights.
He longed for such things, moaning in discomfort and desire. The song grew stronger in his ears, the ship now beginning to pass by the sirens. He saw desire for him on their faces, a look he could barely even imagine. They needed him, not in a mortal sense, but in the way a goddess desired a pleasure.
Cyril strained against his bonds, calling to his men to cut him free, desperate to escape and leap into the welcoming arms of the sirens. Their song became urgent, not so much words as rich, desirous cries, sensual and full of need and pleasure. They wanted him to join them. Needed him. They were desperate, as was Cyril. He clawed at the ropes, tearing ribbons of bloody wounds into his wrists and legs and chest.
Cyril screamed for help, screamed for his crew to rescue him in his most desperate hour of need. How could they not see his panic, his pain? How did they not come to his call? Those traitors! Free me! His voice was pitched high and tight, his tears falling freely, the torture he felt unlike any a mortal had ever known.