Once upon a time, there was a lake, laid around with white frost, where winter reigned. It was known in villages some miles away as the Lake of Winter. In further parts, it was simply called the Ice Loch. Swans, ash-coloured, swam there, to guard it from curious travellers. If anyone made their way into the lake, there they disappeared, and were never heard from again. People said that a siren turned it to ice in her anger at being abandoned by one she loved. She swore that only true love could survive the winter of her heart.
Let us walk away from this cold place, towards a boy and a girl. They are in love. I could go on about their love and how it came to be, Reader, but that would be another story entirely! The girl, who had a hint of siren blood in her, was laughing, with the laugh of those girls who know when they are loved. And surely, the boy was in love with her, her and her gold-white hair. And she was in love with him, his gentle eyes and his strong hands.
And that was that, simply said.
But stories are old, and easily forgotten. These two did not know of the Ice Loch. The legend had faded away. They knew of the new stories, of Jack Frost and Santa Claus.
In a few days, it was to be her birthday. The boy wished more than anything to find her a perfect present. For this purpose he went into the forests to find something beautiful as she was to him. He did not realise that the girl had followed him out of curiosity. She was not the patient sort, Reader, and she was as fleet and as fast as he was.
He stumbled and slipped his way forward, like all boys do in their eagerness. Eventually, he slipped again, down a lake, his feet caught in freezing water, his hands tangled in feathers. One of the black swans of the lake had caught him.
The boy caught hold of a black quill and it melded with his hands, which were shrinking. The feathers at his neck changed colour to a deeper ebony, and his neck rustled with them. The boy had been turned into a swan, Reader a black swan, another traveller doomed to protect the lake. That was the siren's curse.
The girl had been hiding behind a tree, waiting to surprise him when he emerged. One, two minutes, she waited, but he did not appear. Three, four still he had not shown. She stepped out of the tree and looked around, and shivered. There was no one there, only the swans. From faraway, they blended in well with the dark trees around them. She stared at the lake, at the spot where her love had once been.
And without thinking, without even stopping to consider recklessly, as young people are, she jumped into the Ice Loch.
I cannot imagine how cold she must have been. It was colder than the places in the sea where the sun cannot reach, colder than the ends of earth, where ice is the only land.
As she swam down I do not know how she must have done it, for it would have been so very cold she caught a hold of black feathers. And all she could have seen would have been black feathers and bubbles of breath leaving her mouth. The bubbles were everywhere. The feathers, too, were everywhere, braiding themselves in her hair, and on her neck, and her hands.
Remember, there was some siren blood in the girl at the start. The thing about siren blood is that it is very strange down the generations. It weakens and weakens until there is no use of it it is only useful as a wish-magic. Rather like blowing dandelions in the wind or a four-leaf clover. It is a very naïve and beautiful thing, and it only works in times of most desperate need.
The curse was upon her, so that she, too, was a swan. Such was the anger of the siren that cursed the lake; it made the curse was impossible to break. But such was the love of the girl that she had turned herself into a swan to be with her love. She was a swan, too, but she was of pearliest white down.
And with the boy she stayed in that lake, together, for in their eyes, they were human, while for the others, for the eyes of one such as myself, who is telling this tale, they were swans, seemingly eternally young swans.
And what of the lake? Oh, winter went, summer came, the ice melted. Soon a new village would creep next to it. Soon the dark trees would be replaced by cherry blossoms. And soon a new story would come, and replace Jack Frost and Santa Claus, about the two swans that floated on the lake, one a beautiful white, another the handsomest black.