The problem with Goatherders (Storms Prologue)
The Prince of Solis talked so much, not even death could shut him up. His translucent image hovered in the air just to the left of me, as it always did. But this time he was looking up a vast mountainside. A rough goat trail cut up the sharp rocks, winding through the encroaching weeds. “You know there are other gods up there,” he said.
“Yes.” I huffed out the answer, more focused on putting one foot in front of another than on my ultimate goal, but of course I knew there were gods on Mount Olympus. That was the whole point.
My foot skidded across a loose stone. Dry grass blades scratched at my bare toes. My roughly calloused and tanned skin threatened to burst open, but Erys glided in front of me without a care. His earth-brown curls and the edges of his tunic moved with an artificial breeze that only seemed to affect him. I had to climb and sweat and bleed to get anywhere. He did not.
“I mean, not just Jupiter. Guardian gods. Scary gods.”
I took a breath, resting my hand against a rock so I could glare at him. The sun burned my neck, and beads of sweat gathered on my forehead. “Do you think any of them know how to banish ghosts?”
He rolled his eyes. “I’m serious, Ari.”
“I am too. You’re really annoying.”
“You love me.”
“Less and less every day.” I sighed, my words already harsh and dry in my throat. While traveling in the underworld, my mortal body had somehow gone days without food or drink. Now, I couldn’t last more than a few hours. I ran my hands down my stola and tried the waterskin belted to my waist, but I already knew it was empty of both water and salt. There was nothing for it. I had lost my connection to the sea, and I would have to keep going until my journey reached its end.
I mumbled a curse and kept climbing until a bleating sound stopped me in my tracks. Five scraggly goats stood with their equally scraggly keeper. A goatherder. I might have been able to deal with a god, but people were hard. The blood sang to me, pulsing in my ears. My tongue ran over my fangs, and I swallowed saliva, both actions involuntary.
Erys looked down at me and shook his head. He could pretend to be taller than me now, his sandals always hovering a few paces over the ground. “You want to eat him, don’t you?”
I wrapped my arms across my chest, defensively. “Only a little.”
“Oh good,” Erys said. “You’ll only eat him ‘a little’. What does that even mean?”
Despite the prince’s words, I peered over at the goatherder again. I couldn’t help it. I was hungry, and I had been out of the water for hours.
The goatherder finally turned like he thought I was trying to get his attention. He looked at me, his eyes expectant. Waiting. Giving me the chance to approach.
I could call him to me. I could sing.
The rust and salt of his blood could fill me like the sea.
The strength of his soul could make me feel alive again, if only for a moment.
“Well, if you think about it, it’s his own fault being out here, all alone,” I tried. Harsh lines and dark hair covered the goatherder’s face. He wasn’t young or handsome or particularly important. He might not even be missed. Only the goats and Erys would notice.
And Erys was dead and probably a figment of my imagination, so his opinion really shouldn’t count as much as he seemed to think it did.
“Yeah,” Erys said, “he likes the quiet, so he definitely deserves to be eaten.”
I got myself to turn away that time, but only to glare at Erys instead. “It may not be his fault, but it is yours.”
Erys’s transparent jaw dropped, and his eyebrows raised. “Mine? What did I do?”
“You turned me into this in the first place!” I gestured to myself, my arms and legs stained with dark tattoos made from his blood. His death gave me my fangs, my thirst for more blood and souls to add to my collection. As a siren, I might not actually have to eat human men to live, but I still wanted to the nagging ever-present way of a headache or a sore tooth.
And the longer I stayed out of the water and the base of my powers, the worse it got, and the less it seemed like it would be any kind of crime. After all, I was already responsible for the death of one person I loved, so why not a few more? I had made that case in my head a hundred times and might have cracked just as often if the boy who died, the one who had sacrificed his life for me, wasn’t still there haunting and scolding me for it.
I should have been grateful, but sometimes I just wasn’t.
I was hungry, and it was all his fault.
“Me? No,” Erys said a little sadly. “I merely gave you my heart. What you choose to do with it has always been up to you.”
I hated his words, and often, I hated him, but I walked by the goatherder and never looked back.
Neither of us talked much after that. There really wasn’t much more to say. Erys was dead. He had stabbed himself in the chest so I could take his heart and escape the underworld. I had become a siren and had power over storms that I could barely control. In order to understand and fully master those powers, I hoped I would be able to meet with the god some called Zeus and others called Jupiter. They all agreed he ruled the skies from a mountain palace. They just didn’t agree on where such a place could be. I had climbed all day to reach a likely seeming peak, but there was nothing here.
When Erys had been alive, he had spoken about his time as a foster here in Galath. He told me about the mountain they called Olympus, and I really thought this peak might be the one. Unfortunately, it was nothing but quiet fields leading up to perfectly normal rocks and perfectly normal goats. And of course, perfectly normal goatherders.
I needed to stop thinking about goatherders.
After seeing the empty peak, I didn’t waste any more time to wallow over my failure. I turned my feet and quickly started back the way I had come, letting the downward slope add more speed to my flight. I would find the real Mount Olympus eventually, but now I could at least get back into the water where I belonged.
Erys flew even faster ahead of me, but he stopped abruptly when we reached the shore. He smiled in a way that didn’t quite match his eyes. “So, you want to build a raft with me?”
I rolled my eyes in response. He thought he was hilarious. But the memory those words conjured of our first meeting was no longer a welcome one. He was no longer the bright-eyed boy who had saved me from a dark island, and I certainly was no longer that naïve and innocent girl.
I was a siren.
I entered the waves with a triumphant splash. Where I could swim so fast, not even Erys could keep up with me.
Where I could actually eat.
My legs fused together under my stola and formed my tail. I dove deeper into the water. My mouth opened to welcome it into body. I sank my fangs into the first fish I saw and smiled as the dark blood swirled around me.
I would stay here for a while.