The Tale of Two Swans
By Paul A.T. Wilson
Imagine a time when the gods still walked the Earth, a time before they had retreated to the worlds that are now veiled in mists. This time, long ago, was a time where magic still hung thick in the air like a preternatural afterglow for the creation of the whole of reality. It is this time, dear reader where you must be transported because this is the time that our story is set. So, throw off your shackles of logic and doubt and let's get started.
There once were two swans that, from an early age had taken each other as their one and only loves. From the moment they first met, both knew that the other was the opposite half of their soul and bound together by the deepest of devotions.
As their first season together passed, they both matured into fully grown birds, their necks long and elegant, their feathers as white as freshly fallen snow. They spent their days gliding over the water together as swans do, content in the knowledge that the other was there and never too far away.
For a swan, this first year is like a lifetime, but for these two, lost in their affection it was like a blink of an eye and before they knew it, the winter was upon them. Their parents, still seeing them as Cygnets insisted that they leave with them on a migration to warmer climes. Torn from each other, they made an oath to return to their lake in the following spring to be together once more.
Time went by and the darkness of winter hit their home. The snows fell, the water froze and the island where their little lake was situated became like another world. Winter progresses as winter does and eventually the ice melted, the weather started to warm and the long dark nights gave way to brighter and longer days.
Eventually the male swan returned with his family, his mother and father said their good byes as they had taught their son everything they could. It was time for The Swan to make his way in the world, find his partner and start his own family.
The Swan waited patiently for his mate, day in and day out, eager to see his one true love again. As the days turned into weeks a darkness filled the heart of The Swan and he started to realise his worst fears.
As the days grew longer and spring turned into summer, The Swan finally gave into the grave reality that she was not coming back. With a broken heart he left the lake and wandered aimlessly through the woodland. Forsaking food and drink he walked for days, grief his only companion and the fatigue is only friend. Unable to continue any further the young bird finally collapsed. When he awoke he dragged himself into a hole in the base of a tree, he curled up and hoped to be freed from his agony forever.
"Hello Swan!" a booming voice said, "Why are you held up in such an uncomfortable place?"
The Swan opened his weary eyes and looked up.
"Well, come on Swan, wake and know me bird! Tell me your woes." The voice continued.
The Swan shook his head to clear it and realised that standing before him was man, a large man with a ruddy complexation who was smiling from ear to ear. "Leave me alone sir, let the elements take me away. Don't bother yourself with a wretch like me." replied The Swan to the man.
The man sat down beside The Swan and thought for a moment, for this man was not just any man, but The God Gwydion. Now Gwydion is the sort of god who likes to meddle in the affairs of mortals but only when it can benefit him. The deity thought about the situation for a moment and being a clever fellow, saw the opportunity to take advantage of a mortal creature in distress.
"Come now Swan, it cannot be that bad, can it? Nothing can be so bad that a God cannot fix it." the cunning trickster said with a smile. He then bowed before The Swan and introduced himself.
The Swan, not knowing much of the affairs of gods only of their immense power lowered his head in respect. "O mighty Gwydion," The Swan started, "let me tell my plight." And with that he recounted the story that lead to his broken heart.
Gwydion looked at the bird and smiled again "Swan, your story has truly touched me and I will search for your love for you. Now feed and water yourself and be here this time tomorrow and I will come back to you with news." At that, The God disappeared and in his place was a plate of inects, grubs and seeds and a pale water for The Swan.
The next day, as promised Gwydion returned. He sat down next to The Swan and put his great arm around the bird. The God lowered his voice and said with all the sympathy that he could muster, "I am sorry Swan, but your love is now in the underworld, she came to an untimely end on her way back to you."
Throwing his head to the ground, The Swan sobbed into the earth. "Then all is lost, leave me here to be taken by the elements so that my flesh will return to the ground."
"Ahh, but what if I could offer you something else? What if I could offer you the chance to be together?" said Gwydion with a slight smile. "What would you do to be with her again?"
"Anything My Lord" replied The Swan, "anything at all, my life is yours".
"Then Swan, let us make a deal. One that will benefit us both."
With that, the trickster jumped up and began to give instructions to The Swan. "Far to the west is a kingdom called 'The Land of Night and Shadows'. This land, produces a tonic that is so potent that one cup is enough to allow a person to make merry for a whole year. However, this land is ruled by a King who guards the tonic jealously and for the longest time has refused to give me even a thimble full. If you can go to this land, convince the King that you are worthy of a cup and bring it back to me, I will grant you what you desire."
The Swan, without thinking eagerly accepted the challenge. After committing the instructions to memory, he thanked The God and set off on his journey.
Rejuvenated by the prospect of being reunited with his lost love, The Swan flew due west from his home and eventually he found himself over open ocean. He flew through fair weather and poor, through sun and rain, never deviating from his mission except to eat and drink. Days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months and before he knew it two years had passed.
As he flew, he noticed that the days were becoming murkier, and gradually there was no difference between night and day. "This must be the kingdom that Gwydion spoke of." He said to himself.
He pressed on through the dark land until a castle came into view. The Swan set down and tapped on the great door and as he waited for a response he looked around the surrounding countryside. The people in the fields seemed to be walking about as if in a trance, their eyes all red and their feet dragging. In many cases the people would simply stumble over their own toes and every person was yawning continually.
"Who is there?" a sleepy voice yawned out.
"I am but a humble swan, sent on errand by The God Gwydion to see the King." The Swan replied respectfully.
There was no reply, only the sound of murmurs and more yawning. Then after some time what The Swan thought was the sound of someone shuffling down a long hall.
Eventually The Swan heard a bolt being slid, a latch clicking and finally the door was flung open.
A bleary eyed man looked at the bird through the door and said "Follow me.." The Swan silently obeyed.
The man and The Swan walked silently through corridor after corridor. After every turn The Swan was presented with another hallway as dank and windowless as the last, with thick layers of dust on everything. Small candles on tiny tables or purched upon long disued chairs created the only light within the chambers.
Finally, they reached a door that was decorated with gold and jewels, but that too was heavily laden with dust; everything within the castle was dull and appered to have not been cleaned in living memory. The bleary eyed man knocked on the door, pushed the bird forward and shuffled off in the opposite direction without a word.
The door opened and a small old man with a long white beard and a over-sized crown on is head came out. "So Gwydion tires of doing his own dirty work does he?" the King yawned. He then turned and stumbled back to his chair in front of the fire. "Come in, come in and make yourself at home." he said while pointing to another chair opposite.
The Swan waddled in and made himself comfortable, it was a relief to be able to sit and rest his weary body. The King encouraged the bird to eat and once he had filled himself with as much food as he could and as much drink has he could stand, the old King encouraged The Swan to tell his story.
The King listened to the tale The Swan recounted, sometimes nodding, but saying nothing until The Swan had finished.
"I am an old man," said The King after some time "and Gwydion has been trying to get his hands on our tonic for as long as the moon has shone, but I have never given in. Gwydion is a selfish being, one who is all too happy to spend his time intoxicated rather than using that time to better this world. That is why I have always refused him." The Swan began to protest but the King held up his hand and continued "But... Your story has moved me, and although Gwydion's motives are not pure, yours are. So, let me tell you this: Many years ago, my brother, the King of the Land of Sleep and Dreams had a falling out with me, or I had a falling out with him. I cannot honestly remember now -- a thousand years clouds the memory you know. Anyway, with this falling out he took the secret of dreaming away from us and none of us has slept in a millennium. This quarrel has gone on too long and I wish to make amends with my lost brother. I want you to travel to the south of here, as my emissary and try to mend relations for me. If you do, I shall grant your request."
The next morning The Swan set off, flying due south from the castle. Once again, The Swan flew as swiftly as he could only stopping to drink and eat. He flew over great deserts and strange forests of trees that glowed in the dark until finally the land fell away and the expanse of the open sea was in front of him. Days turned into weeks, weeks into months and before he knew it 5 years had passed.
Eventually to ocean gave way to land again and he noticed that things had changed. The people were not stumbling around or dragging their feet and everyone appeared well rested and happy. "This must be the land the King spoke about." he thought to himself and flew on until he finally came to the castle and set down.
The Swan tapped on the great door and was soon presented with a much more cheerful voice than had greeded him at the last castle. "Hello Swan, how can I help you?"
"I have been sent by the King of The Land of Night and Shadows as his emissary and I beg an audience with your King". The man behind the door asked the Swan to wait and assured the bird that hhe would be back in due course.
Finally, the great door opened and The Swan was welcomed in. The man with the cheerful voice took The Swan down many corridors, but unlike the last castle, these were clean and gleaming. Bright torches lit their way and The Sawn could see that everything was cared for and kept in a most respectable manner. After some distance they came to what appeared to be a bed chamber.
"The King will see you in the morning, but tonight, was you are our honoured guest we beg you sleep and get your strength back."
The Swan thanked the man and not needing any more encouragement climbed into the bed provided and fell into a deep sleep. He slepted like he had never slept before with dreams so vivid that he thought they were real and when he awoke he was so refreshed he felt like a new bird.
The next morning The Swan was taken to see the King. The Swan bowed his head with respect and recounted his story of lost love and the deal he had struck with Gwydion. He went on to tell the King how his brother wanted to make amends and to restore relations with him.
For a long time the King said nothing but sat quietly thinking. Finally he replied, "Your story is indeed epic and your motives do seem pure. As for my brother and our quarrel, well I can hardly remember what it was about." Scratching his chin and smiling the King continued, "So I agree to make amends with him after all these years. Now let me reward you as a thank you for restoring two brothers: I offer you all the gold you can carry in your wings."
The Swan, no longer a young bird had grown less rash with age and replied, "But your Highness, what good is all that gold for me as I will never be able to fly with it. Without the freedom of flight what would I be?"
The King nodded and replied, "Then I offer you wisdom of all the ages past, with this knowledge you will be on pare with the wisest of men and they will treat you as their equal."
Again, the Swan said without hesitation, "Your Highness, what good is the wisdom of the ages past when all I want to do is look forward to the future?"
Nodding again, The King gave one final attempt at a reward. "Then lastly, I offer you the gift of immortality, and you can stay here and enjoy this life forever with every want provided for."
As quickly as the question was put to him, the Swan shook his head and said, "I'm sorry your Highness, but what good is the gift of immortality if I have no one to share it with? My love would still be lost and without her there is no life."
With that, The King picked up a small box, he whispered in it and gave it to the Swan. The King beamed at the Swan and proclaimed, "You have proven yourself to be worthy as no greed has swayed you. Within this box are the secrets my brother needs to restore sleep and dreams to his Kingdom, take it to him and wish him well. Swan, you are proved a true friend to him and to me and I grant you the freedom to visit my land any time you wish."
The Swan set off the next morning flying due north.
The trip back was harded on the Swan because time and his travels had taken their toll on his body. However, after many years of flight, over open water, strange forests and a desert that never seemed to end he found his way back to the Land of Night and Shadows. He made his way back to the King and presented the box to him. The Swan bestowed the best wishes of the King's brother to the old man and explained that sleep and dreams would be restored to the land.
A great feast was prepared and The Swan spent the evening recounting the adventure he had been on to the Court. He told them of the journey and of the 3 tests that the King's brother had given him but before he could finish he noticed that all but himself were asleep. At that moment he realising his quest had been successful and with the secrets of sleep and dreams restored he knew that harmony would be restored to the land.
He joined the Kingdom in joyful slumber where his sleep was long and deep. His dreams were filled with vivid images of the first half of his quest and with the prospect of its end and seeing his lost love again.
The next morning, or what one might call morning in a land of perpetual night, The Swan awoke and stretched his old wings. His joints creaked with age but he felt good and he was ready to finish his journey. He looked around and realised the hall was empty but it was now was gleaming clean and what was once lighted by only candles was now filled with the glow of bright torches. He went to find the old King and when they finally met what he saw surprised and delighted the bird. The King's beard was nicely trimmed, the wrinkles of age were all but wiped away and his old eyes were now a bright blue and appeared to sparkle in the fire light. "Your Highness," the bird enquired, "such a transformation, how did this happen?"
"With the secrets of sleep and dreams restored to us, we have been able to rest and our bodies and they're now regenerated to what they once were. My land is waking up to a new day and the promise of a prosperous tomorrow. My whole Kingdom thanks you Swan and for that you have earned your reward." The King handed over a bottle of dark liquid and continued "Have a safe journey home and I hope this helps you on your quest to find our love. You are welcome here any time you wish as you are a true friend to my people and to me."
Bowing his head, the Swan thanked to King. He tucked the bottle under his wing and with hope overflowing he left the Castle and set off on his journey home.
Although the Swan was very old now, and his wings unable to maintain the speeds they once could, he pushed on with happiness in his heart. The aches and pains that his old muscles were putting him through were pushed aside because he knew the end was in sight.
The land below him started to change, the darkness gave way to light and he found himself flying over the open ocean once again. Flying due east to his ancestral home his conviction kept him going as the months turned into years. Finally, his old eyes spied that quiet lake beside the wood that he left so many years ago and he landed softly on calm surface.
The Swan got out of the water and walked slowly into the woods, he walked and walked until he found that old tree with the hole in it. The weary old bird sat down and pushed himself into the hole like he had so many years before. Grateful for the rest, he closed his eyes and fell into a sleep.
The nights had sarted to turn icy and the dew turned into frost. The coldness had started and penetrate the old bones of the Swan and by the morning he found it hard to even open his eyes.
"Swan! Wake up Swan! Wake up and see me bird!" Exclaimed a booming and familiar voice.
The Swan slowly opened his old eyes, blinked and struggled to focus. Standing before him was Gwydion beaming down at him. "So tell me bird, did you hold up your end of the deal?"
"Yes My Lord," the old bird replied as he shivered in the cold. "It is here, but before I hand it over I need to know of our agreement. Where is my love?"
Gwydion had always known that bringing a being back to life was beyond his magic and thinking that The Swan would never complete his quest had never really considered how he would repay his end of the bargain. The trickster considered the situation and came to a solution and cheerfuly said "My good Swan, you will be seeing her soon enough, now hand over the tonic and I promise before long you will be together."
Wisdom had come to the bird over the years and due to the vagueness of the Deity's response he now understood what Gwydion was really offereing. The God was not going to restore his love to life but was going to take the Swan's. Understanding his fate the bird simply smiled and handed over the bottle, but before letting go he said "O cunning God, I know your plan and I accept that. You played me for your own pleasure and I realise now that it is your nature to do so. My only regret is all those years gone and never being able enjoy them with my lost love. However, from that regrest I must thank you, thank you for the adventure and the exciting life I have been able to live because of you." The Swan then recounting his great journey to Gwydion, all the places he had been and the trials he had faced.
The God just smiled and nodded, he took the bottle and put it in one of the pockets of his coat. Gwydion crouched down and spoke softly in a moment of true warmth, "You will simply go to sleep, you will feel no more pain and when you awake you will see your one true love again." And with that, he put hands gently on the Swans eyes and let him fall into that eternal sleep. Finally after all those years, The Swan had been given what he has truly wanted.
Gwydion left that place with his prize, leaving the Swan where he was to stiffen in the frost covered tree. The God did not see beyond his own selfish wants and simply congratulated himself on a job well done. And because of that he did not know what happened next.
You see dear reader, there was someone else in those woods that morning, hidden and unbeknownst to Gwydion and the Swan. The Goddess Branwen had been silently watching the exchange and the words from the Swan had touched her heart.
Branwen, the goddess of love and beauty knew that Gwydion had tricked the Swan and had taken the chance for this bird to experience love in the physical world away from him. Although the Trickster had never explicitly stated to the Swan that he would restore his love to life, the bird had been tricked into believing it would be so.
The Goddess visited all the places that The Swan had described and she saw that he truly had acted honourably. She realised that he did not succumb to temptation or greed, he never gave up and his only desire was to be with his one true soul mate.
On a mission, the Goddess went to the underworld the find the two swans and offered them a compromise. She could not bring the swans back to life but she could use her magic in a different way, one that was not lead by an act selfishness. This magic that was amplified by the pure love of these two creatures allowed them to come back to the physical world for one night a year.
On that night they would be allowed to share all the delights that our realm would afford them. On Midsummer's Eve, the two swans make their back to their lake on this magical Island. As the sun goes down and the veil between the two worlds becomes thin they fly through and land on the shimmering water. They glide silently over the surface, content and always knowing neither one will ever be too far from the other.
So, if you find yourself walking though the woods on Midsummer's eve, walk quietly. And if those woods lead to a calm lake then maybe you might see two perfectly white swans with feathers like newly fallen snow, and you will know that you are looking into the eyes of true love.