The Wine-Dark Sea
Opening Chapter of YA Fantasy Novel “The Wine-Dark Sea”
Content warning for: violence, blood, gore, death
Sing, sirens, your songs of death. Sing, while you still can. My crew and I are coming for you, and we will not be merciful.
It was a dark thought, one unsuited to the radiance of the glitter of the sea against the sky. Everything was the brightest blue, like the heart of a flame—like a siren’s lifeblood. My fingers twitched around the hilt of my dagger as I thought I caught a flash of scales in the roiling waves.
One of them had been stalking the ship for days. I’d caught glimpses of her mocking face, seen flashes of her flukes shimmer in the sunlight day after day, but she hadn’t attacked. Yet. It was only a matter of time.
Footsteps scuffed over the caulked boards, and my first mate leaned against the side of the ship. The wind whipped strands of ink-black hair from her braid as she tipped back to her head to drink in the sunlight; her earth-brown skin gleamed like it was seamed with gold, though it furrowed as she frowned.
“Any sign of the siren?”
“Not today.” My eyes didn’t leave the horizon. “What are you thinking, Zhaleh?”
“It’s unusual for a siren to wait this long,” she said after a moment. “It makes me nervous.”
“Me too,” I muttered, my fingers pounding a drumbeat on my dagger. I glanced at the ship skimming along next to us; the sailors skittered around like ants, their eyes rolling nervously in their heads like spooked horses. “You negotiated with the merchant?”
Zhaleh nodded. “He still wanted to cut our payment, but I insisted there’d been no breach of contract. We promised to protect them from sirens, and they’re being protected. Psychological damage isn’t in the contract.”
I flinched. I hated even the insinuation that I wasn’t doing my job, that people were suffering under my watch. The sun beat down on my back like the eyes of the gods, and I hunched my shoulders against the glare.
I’ll do better, I promised silently. No one else dies on my watch. Never again.
“Mind watching for a minute while I check on the rest of the crew?” I asked Zhaleh, and she squeezed my shoulder.
My practical, steady first mate. It had been her idea to make it our business to escort merchant ships across the seas rather than prowling the seas ourselves hoping to run into sirens. It was a win for everyone: we make money, the vulnerable merchants attract sirens for us to kill, and the merchants get protection for their valuable cargo. I didn’t know what I’d do without her.
Aristomache caught my eye first, probably because she was doing… some kind of writhing motion on the deck. I approached, eyeing her warily.
“What are you doing?” I asked, and she paused long enough to swipe sweat out of her flame-colored curls.
“It’s a core strength exercise,” she explained, panting. “One of the sailors taught it to me.”
“Don’t you have enough of that?” Kyros quipped with a cheeky grin.
I had to admit that Aristomache was astonishingly brawny, with corded biceps like ham hocks, but anyone would look buff next to Az and Kyros, who were both slight and wiry. The two of them were joined at the hip. Az’s hair was even more colorful than Aristomache’s, dyed purple-red with shells from his home country, Phoenicia, and he wore a perpetual scowl only Kyros could coax away. Kyros was the youngest at fifteen, blond and cherubic, with sneak-thief fingers.
They looked so happy, so carefree, and yet, their weapons were at their belts. They were every moment prepared for war.
They know the danger, I reminded myself as I tousled Kyros’s hair on the way past. And they’re safer than most.
“Don’t do that, Lykos,” Kyros whined, swiping my legs out from under me. I tumbled and rolled across the deck with a laugh, spinning to tackle him. He squealed as he wriggled out of my grip, slick as an eel. “Az! Help me!”
“You brought that on yourself,” Az retorted, watching with his arms folded. “You should know better than to challenge the great Sea Wolf.”
My lips twitched at the teasing. That’s what the whispers called me—the Wolf of the Sea, alpha of his pack of freaks. We hunted the hunters, the only crew to take on sirens and live. But we had something no other humans did: immunity to the siren song.
There were a dozen rumors of how we were able to resist their power when no one else could: that we had a witch on board, that we were demigods born of Poseidon himself, that we drank sirens’ blood to immunize ourselves against desire.
It hadn’t occurred to anyone that we hadn’t needed to immunize ourselves against desire; we’d been born that way. None of us had ever felt the tug of attraction in our gut, the burning that ran through the blood and made men mad. The siren song inflames the passions that already smolder, steer them and stoke them—but they couldn’t spark in us what we’d never felt.
I straightened my tunic, swiping a hand through my now-tangled dark hair. “Just keeping you sharp, kid,” I told Kyros with a grin, and he rolled his eyes at me.
“Lykos!” Zhaleh shouted, and I froze.
It was time.
There are three ways to tell if a siren is readying for the strike. The first is the wind: it turns hot and cold for a moment, running like a fever right through you until you’re shivering in your sweat, and then it’s gone so quickly you wonder if you imagined it. The second is the water. The waves grow glassy and flash like an opal’s fire. And the third is the song. If you can hear the song, you’re already dead.
The hot-cold wind snarled in my hair, and the waves blinded me. And then I heard her.
Imagine the coldest thing you’ve ever felt, the most absolute ice you’ve ever felt in your veins, so cold you can’t breathe or think or see, so cold it burns, and then make that a sound. That’s what a siren sounds like. And even if you’re me, it’ll rock you back a step and take your breath away.
The siren grappled up the side of the merchant ship, her scaly tail thrashing across the deck as she hauled her body towards the sailors that stared, slack-jawed and stone-still under her spell. The siren drew herself up, her fangs gleaming as she smiled at them, and as one, they fell to their knees on the deck. Their kneecaps made a dull thud in the silence.
“Lykos, catch!” Aristomache tossed a spear, and the wood stung my palm. I whipped the spear forward; the siren howled when it struck, a hurricane in a bottle, and every man on the merchant crew started seizing on the deck.
Aristomache swore and vaulted over the edge of the ship, her legs pinwheeling in the air for an impossible moment before she hit the deck of the merchant ship, rolling and popping up with the grace and speed of a lion. She sprinted straight for the siren, and my breath caught jagged in my throat; Aristomache couldn't take on the creature alone.
“Move, move, move!” I shouted, motioning to my crew. “The siren’s wounded, we have to keep her attention on us!”
Kyros and Az hurled their grappling hooks. They slammed into the wood of the merchant ship, the iron shooting up splinters. Their arms, one pale, one tan, pumped the winches to bring us together, slick with speed and sweat. On the merchant’s ship, Aristomache fought alone.
Behind me, someone let out a strangled cry, and I whirled. Zhaleh was clutching her shoulder, her knife flashing as she parried swipes from a second siren’s claws.
Gods damn it. The siren had been waiting for back-up! My breaths came short and fast. Sirens tended to work alone; we’d never fought two at once before.
Ikram and Nenet burst out from below our ship’s deck, jumping into the fray to defend Zhaleh. Nenet was a furious fighter, all black braids and bright bronze, drawing blood with every strike of her spear. Ikram dove into their endless pockets, flicking poisoned darts and colorful sparks that made the siren scream with pain and rage.
They could handle this one. Aristomache was one of the best of us, but she needed more back-up.
We streamed over to the merchant vessel, Kyros, Az and I, like rats up a rope. We’d trained for this every day, drawn blue blood over and over again, but every time, it was a fresh battle.
Az darted in with his hooked knife at the siren’s back, but she whirled, rearing like a snake about to strike, and tried to snap at him with her scissor-sharp fangs. Kyros sank a whip-speed stone from his sling into her skull; she screamed, and in unison, each of the men did too.
The siren darted for Aristomache, but a roar and a slash sent the creature spinning my way. Her eyes met mine: dark, unfathomable, wild with rage and pain and vengeance. I knew that look. I saw it in the eyes of every siren just before the end, the hatred that seems to outlive them and return to haunt me in the next one and the next one.
They weren’t not the only ones who had it; I saw it in the mirror every day too.
My sword flashed out, and she fell.
Her body hit the deck, an echo of the sound the men’s kneecaps had made on the salt-cured wood, and her corpse bubbled and sighed into seafoam and scales.
There was only silence, and the sound of the waves slapping the hull, and the sound of my own pulse pounding through my skull.
The others! Were they alright? I hurled myself back to our ship, my feet skidding across the bloody deck, violet with mingled blood both siren and human. I felt light-headed, colors dancing across my vision. No. No, no, no. I couldn’t lose anyone else, I couldn’t.
“Ikram! Nenet! Zhaleh!” I screamed, shredding my throat raw.
“We’re here!” Nenet waved me over, and I dropped my knees beside Zhaleh, who was propped against the side of the ship, bleeding heavily from her left arm.
“I’m going to be fine,” she said firmly, her eyes boring into mine. “It’s not bad. Listen to me, Lykos—I will be fine.”
I shook my head, my hands curled into fists. “I should’ve realized there were going to be two of them. I knew there was something wrong, I just didn’t think—”
“This was unprecedented,” Ikram countered calmly. “Sirens hunt alone. We’ve never encountered a pair of them before. You cannot blame yourself.”
“Look on the bright side,” Zhaleh added with a smile. “Kyros will get a chance to practice his stitches.”
Kyros bounded up just in time to hear that, and he went white. “Oh, no, I think Ikram should—”
“You said you wanted to learn to heal,” Zhaleh reminded him. “You have to practice or you’ll never get better. I’ll walk you through the whole thing.”
Az nudged him. “You need the practice. I still have that awful scar from last time you stitched me up.”
Their chatter flowed around me, calming me, leeching away the adrenaline singing in my veins. They steadied me, and yet. It wasn’t enough.
“Ikram, can you check on the sailors?” I asked, my voice tight in my throat. “If their captain wakes up, tell him to head for the nearest port. I want to get a doctor to look at Zhaleh’s wound.”
“Yes, Captain.” They weaved through the sailors, checking pulses and rolling over unconscious bodies. When they were satisfied everyone had made it out unharmed, they perched on a bench near the front of the ship and picked up their sewing again as they hummed a haunting melody. After the sirens, I had no love for music anymore, but Ikram seemed to have found their dark Muse of the deep. Their music was beautiful, though, and I was glad they hadn’t given it up.
The tune followed me as I crossed back to our ship and knelt at the bow, resting my head against the curled carving. Below me, the sea foamed and crashed, flecking me with spray. When I closed my eyes, I still saw the siren, with her fierce eyes burning into mine.
Did she have a name? An origin? Did she have a favorite food, a drink she despised, a home she went back to every night? Was she anything at all like me, in any way besides her hate?
I didn’t know. No human did. That haunted me sometimes, especially in the moments after the only thing separating me from the siren had been the breath between us. What if…
I steadied myself against the bow with one hand, the other knotting the chain around my neck through my fingers. The links imprinted on my skin. I breathed in, swallowing the brine in the breeze.
I’d almost failed today. I could’ve lost Zhaleh, or another of them, or one of the sailors relying on my protection. I needed to be smarter, faster, better. The gods had seen fit to give me this gift of immunity; I owed it to them and everyone else to use it well.
Chin up, little bro! It’s not so bad, is it? What have we got?
“Each other,” I whispered into the darkness behind my eyes. “We’ve got each other.” Because that’s what he would've wanted me to say.
Even though it was a lie. He was gone, and I was still here. And without him and his light, I felt like a frenzy of darkness and destruction.
But it takes a monster to kill a monster. And killing monsters was the thing the gods had made me for.
Megan Mahoney is a classical educator of middle schoolers by day and a writer by night. She is currently querying her Young Adult novel based on Greek mythology, and when she isn't teaching or writing, she enjoys reading, cooking, and traveling.