The Chapter with the Siren (Tsaritsa, Scholar, Woodsman, Thief)

Chapter Twelve


It wasn’t until Cyril was closing in on the hummock of rock called the Siren’s Footstool that he noticed a third swimmer had joined the race. Each time he twisted his head back for a hasty gulp of air, he caught glimpses of a slender form gaining on Yeshik. The newcomer’s hair was drenched to a nondescript brown, but his arms were slender. One of the younger lads, perhaps? He was fast.

Cyril pushed himself to reach the tiny island hummock first. Once he’d tapped it and turned back for shore, he would have a clear view of the new competitor. Not that he was worried, but it wouldn’t hurt to know who the newcomer was, and to gauge their strengths and weaknesses.

What Cyril saw when he turned back was most unexpected. The new swimmer appeared to be attacking Yeshik. Who would do such a thing? Who would be so foolish this far out in the water? Was it possible Cyril was misreading the situation? He kept his gaze forward when he took his next gulp of air. No, he had not mistaken what was happening. The two swimmers were struggling with one another.

Yeshik surfaced and, eyes wide with panic, called out.

“Help! Cyril!”

Indignation flared through Cyril. He struck out to the pair, determined to give the younger swimmer an admonition he wouldn’t forget. Horseplay was one thing on land, but in the sea? Such behavior could get someone drowned.

Cyril reached the pair in time to hear Yeshik shouting the names of the Holy Mother and several major saints in a Rosiyska dialect used by the great horse-masters of the plains. Never before had he heard Yeshik employ this tongue. It spoke to his friend’s desperation as clearly as did his flailing arms.

And then, with a shock, Cyril realized that the attacker was a girl. She was scantily clad—if she was wearing anything. Why would a girl have shed her clothing in plain view of all the lads on shore—

Recognition struck him. This was no girl; it was a siren. He saw it clearly now in the flash of her teeth, white and deadly. In the translucent webs joining her long, pale fingers.

Yeshik had managed to place the creature in a headlock, but she was thrashing so wildly that Cyril knew the struggle was far from an end.

“You there!” cried Cyril.

He was uncertain what else to add. Was this siren one of those who had eaten man-flesh and gained human speech? A shudder of revulsion passed through him.

“Stop it!” he shouted to the creature. “Leave him be!”

The siren freed herself from the headlock, and Yeshik was once again struggling to keep his head above water.

“Let him go!” Cyril demanded.

The creature paid no heed. Perhaps this wasn’t one of those who’d dined on humans already. Either way, Cyril wasn’t about to let his friend become a siren’s meal.

With a mighty push, he surged ahead and grappled the creature from behind. Yeshik surfaced, gasping as he sought to fill his lungs.

“Go!” Cyril shouted to Yeshik.

Yeshik tried to speak but only succeeded in coughing.

“Go now!” cried Cyril.

“Attack it … to-gether,” Yeshik rasped out.

“You’re in no condition to fight,” shouted Cyril. “Swim back to shore and get help!”

In Yeshik’s momentary hesitation, Cyril was revisited by memories of his own hesitation to follow his doomed father’s orders to seek help. He shoved the dark recollections aside.

“Go for help!” insisted Cyril. “Bring an iron dagger!”

The creatures loved silver and gold and even brass, but they were loathe to touch iron and would flee those who wielded it. Attacks had become so rare since the Tsar’s Peace that few islanders now wore the once-common crosses of iron about their necks. Cyril vowed he would never again swim without one.

His grip on the creature’s arms was lessening. Not because his strength had waned, but because she was so slippery. As slippery as fine silk. He shifted and secured her in front of him, pinning her arms while wrapping his own about her torso. It would have been a compromising position, were she a human girl. Her chest was bare of covering. He felt his cheeks heating. He also noted other involuntary responses to the nearness of her silky, bare flesh. But all responses were abruptly checked when he was thwacked from behind, as if by a battering ram.

He grunted in pain, and she wriggled free. What had struck him? Was there another of the creatures nearby? Cyril twisted before recognizing his mistaken perception. There was only the single creature. She had used her powerful tail to strike him from behind. Now she was circling him, a predator readying itself for the kill. And then, abruptly, she stopped circling and surfaced.

Cyril got his first unimpeded view of this watery maiden of the deeps. He had read of a siren’s blank, pupil-less gaze, but the poets had been wrong about this. She had pupils. They were colored the pale silver of the moon. Or of the sea at dusk. From a distance, perhaps, the color would blend into the whites of her eyes. Up close, however, they were distinguishable. Pale and shining. Compelling. Lovely. A skilled painter might be able to capture those eyes, or a skilled bard to report them aright. As for her lips? Once, Cyril had seen polished red coral adorning the ears of a visiting noblewoman. The siren’s lips were of a far more lustrous shade. She was altogether lovely to behold. Her skin seemed to shine, as if reflecting the light of sun and sea. Cyril’s gaze dropped to the tops of her rounded breasts.

“Mortal!” she cried in a piercing tone.

Cyril recollected himself, and it felt like the moment of waking to discover he’d been dreaming. He had been about to do something incredibly foolish. He averted his gaze from her torso and locked eyes with her instead. Here, too, he felt her power, so he shifted his gaze to the hummock of land beyond her.

With a suddenness that defied anticipation, she lunged for him. Once again he felt her silken curves as she pressed herself to him. He had neither power nor desire to resist her. Her body called to him in ways no human girl’s had ever done. He must join himself to her. He must—

Abruptly she clutched either side of his head. Her grasp was vice-like. She could crush his skull, if she wished to. Did she? Was her face the last thing he would see before death?

He felt her magic entering his mind, piercing his flesh and weaving through him. It came to him that she could “hear” his thoughts—and that he was doomed.

“There are worse ways to go,” she murmured.

“Tell me your magnificent name!” he cried out. It was all he could think of to forestall his death—sirens were said to be proud of their names, surpassingly beautiful in their own tongue.

Abruptly she released him. His entire skull throbbed, but he was not dead.

“Give me yours first, mortal,” said the siren.

“I am—” Cyril broke off. He had been about to do it. “No one special,” he concluded.

“No one special,” she repeated. She made a thrumming sort of noise deep in her throat. “You are wise to withhold your true name. Names have power. But you are also wrong, Cyril Halvorsson of Talisfarne. You are not ‘no one special.’ You were not before I marked you, nor will you be in the future, neither.”

She had employed so many negatives that he couldn’t be sure he understood her. Perhaps the use of negatives was common in her speech?

“You know my name,” was all that he said in reply, however.

“I took it from you,” she said with a careless shrug. “But I shall not take your life. You are not for me.”

If the statement was meant to be reassuring, it was not.

A gentle swell of the sea nudged them both sideways such that Cyril now caught sight of Yeshik and the shore. He remembered suddenly what he had been doing. And what hung in the balance if he lost the race.

“I must go!”

The siren smiled, revealing sharp teeth, a deadly smile. She clutched his wrist. Cyril felt the impossibility of loosening her grip.

She fixed her eyes on his and spoke in an imperious tone. “Someday, you shall bring me the one who shines with the bones of my granddam.”

“The one who … shines?” asked Cyril.

“He is marked for death.”

With that, she released Cyril’s hand, turned, and fluked, her silver tail splashing a shower of dazzling brightness so that Cyril felt he’d been sprinkled with the shards of fallen stars.

He shook his head as if to clear it and then turned to catch up to Yeshik. As he swam, he seemed to hear the siren’s voice calling through the briny depths: Your companion will not remember me, but you, I think, will never forget me.

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