Although there was a bitter frost and he was cold, the young hunter tracked the deer in the pre-dawn. He kept his movements slow, tread carefully so that his steps made very little sound through the autumn-browned bracken. The stag’s ears twitched as it lifted its majestic, antlered head, its ink-black eyes wary as it wove its way through the trees.
The scent of pine was thick upon the air and the hunter’s exhalations plumed in winter’s breath. His arms were tense as he held the bow and arrow, keeping it at the ready, waiting for the moment when the stag would stop, giving him the opportunity to strike. As they moved, hunter and prey, the grey of the morning began to lift, promising the forest with the first hints of the sun’s rays.
The hunter knew his time was growing short. He did not want to lose a coveted stag. He thought it a regal beast, a king of the woods – its pale antlers its crown and glory. Stilling, the hunter saw his opening, his blue eyes narrowing as he brought up his bow. He breathed out slowly, calming his heartbeat and nerves. He kept his eye on the mark behind the shoulder, where the arrow would pierce the heart, making the kill clean and humane. Pulling back the bowstring, the hunter saw the stag tense, instinct telling it danger was near. He exhaled one more time and then he heard it – the voice – singing so exquisitely that he lost his focus. The stag, startled by the noise, leapt forward and was gone, saved by the singing woman.
Sighing with loss, the hunter stood, still able to hear the woman singing. Her voice resonated through the trees and compelled, he turned and followed it, knowing it was taking him towards the lake. No one lived there and a mixture of curiosity and annoyance drove him to seek out the singer, thinking to see the identity of the young woman who had frightened the fine stag.
As he neared the lake, the singing became clearer. He found his annoyance fading, instead feeling soothed by the beautiful words sung confidently to the forest and its animals. The stag forgotten, the young hunter felt enthralled by the voice – he had to find the woman, but did not know why. The drive seemed to overwhelm him, a need he could only quash by finding the owner of the beautiful voice. He quickened his pace, pushing his way through the bracken and undergrowth. It was moments before the dawn.
Kneeling beside the waters and dipping long fingers into the cool water, the young woman watched her reflection ripple and distort. It always fascinated her to see her image change and disappear, but it also made her forlorn. An appearance was a fleeting thing, sometimes gone in the blink of an eye. Over the years, she had grown to know it well. There was a sense of yearning and a sense of loss in it – emotions she had no control over, along with the fate forced upon her. In the pale of the pre-dawn, she sighed and remembered the life she once had.
When the waters stilled, she began to sing to her image. It was the only person she had during her years of lonely existence. To it, she sang a song of love and hope. It was hope that kept her going. The hope of breaking the spell, of unravelling the curse that would free her of the lake. Despite the freedom of the lands, which surrounded the mirror-like darkness and the mist-touched forests, the lake was her prison and her solace: her grief and her joy. The day time was her grief – her memories shattered, stolen in the golden light; the night was her moment of freedom and joy. Lifting her sad eyes, she recited the song loudly, so that it echoed over the waters. Her eyes were on the horizon – on the threatening light – and she sang in defiance of the act that would soon steal her humanity. It was seconds before dawn.
The hunter reached the lake shore and ran along the pebbled bank, urgently seeking the voice. The first rays of sunlight struck the lake waters and the singing stopped abruptly. The feeling of loss hit him keenly as he rounded the trees and entered a small inlet. Although he was sure someone had been singing in the firth, there was no one there now. Confused, he stopped and stared at the dark waters.
A single white swan drifted upon the lake, its regal head bent as it looked upon the waters, its beautiful reflection mirrored below it. Around its floating form the waters fractured, disturbing its image as the sunlight rippled across it. The echo of the woman’s voice remained in his mind as the swan lifted its head, looking at him as it glided away. He was unable to explain why he felt such a sense of sorrow. It was different to losing his prey. Unexplainable, undefinable.
Breathing out the strange emotion, the young hunter knelt beside the waters and looked upon his image. The reflection wavered and wobbled, but held firm in the sunlight. He lifted his eyes and saw the swan one last time before it rounded the firth into wider waters. The spell which had compelled him towards the lake shattered. The hunter blinked, as though coming back to himself and stood, taking a lingering look at the lake. There was a mournful cry upon the waters as he walked away.