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, he was 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 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 doomed 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."
Nileas seemed to hesitate for a moment before dropping his sword and sprinting toward the rail. Aeolus pushed away to give him space, watching in anticipation as Nileas's lean body dove over the rail and cut cleanly into the water. Seconds later, Aeolus was at his side, arms closing around the muscled body, drawing them both back to the surface, safely away from the listing boat.
"You must relax and let me swim for us both," Aeolus said when he felt Nileas's legs moving against his fin. "If I have to fight you, we could be dragged under. That won't hurt me, but you could drown."
Nileas relaxed in Aeolus's arms. "Where are you taking me?"
A vision of Nileas in his grotto flashed through Aeolus's mind, but that would mean Nileas's death. "Where do you want to go?"
"The ship was bound for Massallia, in the western province in Gaul, but I have no need to travel there now," Nileas replied. "If you could take me back toward Phocaea, or any port where I could find a ship to take me that way, since Phocaea is rather far."
"You are from Phocaea?" Aeolus asked, his tail swishing into motion as he adjusted his direction. It was indeed a long swim. They would have to stop multiple times to allow Nileas to eat and drink, but Aeolus would see him safe. He had not rescued Nileas only to have him lose his life in his attempt to return home.
"Yes," Nileas replied. "It is my home, though I have spent many years away."
"Then I will take you to Phocaea," Aeolus promised. "We will swim as far as we can each day and stop to eat and to rest at night."
"Can you leave the ocean?" Nileas's voice betrayed his surprise.
"I cannot walk upright as you do, but it will not hurt me to spend a night or few on the sand," Aeolus said. "If the tides have changed, you may have to help me back into the water in the morning, but beyond a blow to my dignity, there will be no harm."
"I didn't know," Nileas said slowly. "I'd always heard...."
"Heard what?" Aeolus prompted when Nileas did not finish his sentence.
"Heard so many things about merfolk, but nothing that could have prepared me for the reality of you appearing out of the waves offering to help save us."
Aeolus thought of the ship Nileas had jumped from, of the men whose lives were lost now, and wished he could have done more, but that was in the past, unchangeable. He could only affect the future. "I will have to make sure you know the truth about merfolk before you leave me," Aeolus said with a chuckle, "but for now, if we wish to make a safe landing before nightfall, we must swim."
Aeolus juggled Nileas in his arms, adjusting his position so the man's legs were less likely to become entangled with his tail. The first time he had tried to save a drowning man, the man's struggles had sent him beneath the water, hastening his demise rather than prolonging his life. Were the circumstances different, Aeolus would not have complained about feeling the man's legs around his body--for he had already seen that Nileas was an attractive man with dark hair and swarthy skin, his upper body broader than Aeolus's and his legs long and thick--but he would not risk the sailor's life. Once he had Nileas comfortably situated, Aeolus swished his powerful tail and propelled them through the water. He could not maintain his top speed for long with a burden like this, but he pushed as hard as he dared, wanting to reach the shores of Ithaca before dark. He knew a quiet inlet there where they could sleep for the night, and the island's bounty would provide a meal for Nileas while Aeolus hunted the nearby seas.
As he swam, he contemplated the differences between Nileas's body and his own, not just the obvious ones of legs instead of a tail and the man's inability to breathe beneath the water, but the subtle ones, like the fact that his arms were so powerfully muscled, whereas all of Aeolus's muscle mass was in his tail. He used his arms only to steady whatever he needed to move. His tail did all the work. He had seen men aboard their ships and occasionally on shore, though, and he knew they used their bodies differently, heaving on lines and pulling on oars with their arms and shoulders, giving them a bulk Aeolus found incredibly attractive. Nileas was warm against him, a sensation Aeolus rarely experienced in the cold depths of the sea. He held Nileas closer, reveling in the closeness, in the chance to finally know a man.