It was late winter, and it was the season when Melly’s lake was soft and slushy during the day, and frozen hard during the still-long nights. It was an unpleasant time of year, but one that reminded her that spring would surely come, and she’d be swimming in the green bottoms all day soon. But now, there was nothing to do. She combed her long red hair and sang across the surface. She shut her eyes and let the waxing sun warm her lids and her tail fins, still covered in short winter-white fur dappled with black spots near the tips. Nobody but a complete fool would come out here today.
Her song was interrupted by the crack of ice and a yell for help; she sighed. One should not underestimate the number of fools in the world, she thought, and went to see who had fallen into the ice.
She swam across the lake, under the frozen ice. It was a young man in velvet and furs, and he was floating face down in the cold, cold water. Melly paused and thought of her mother.
“You must sing every day and keep in good practice. Your voice is your weapon, and with it, you will lure strangers to their death. Smash them upon the rocks, or they will surely steal you away from here and kill you,” Priscilla had said.
This was Melly’s first man. She looked up, and was surprised by the gorgeous face above her. Eyes closed, long blond hair floating in tendrils like the most delicate lake weed around him. She couldn’t help but feel pity, and also a bit of loneliness. It had been many long years since her mother had sent her to guard the lake. She took pity on the young man, and surging from the deeps, pulled him out of the lake and onto more sturdy ice.
She laid beside him, and put her ear to his chest. No heartbeat. She turned him over and pounded the water from him, turned him over again to suck the water from his lips, his throat, his lungs. She pounded his chest, then listened again. A faint heartbeat. A soft rise and fall. But he did not wake. He slept in beauty, in the cold, cruel air.
She slid across the surface of the lake, dragging him behind her and being very careful not to put too much pressure on the thin ice. The ice cracked behind them, sending beautiful harmonic notes across the surface of the lake. She sang as she rescued him, making the ice notes a part of her own song.
When they reached the snowbank, she changed her fins into feet and strong legs, but left the white fur to protect her from the cold. Now she dragged him to her hut, a white mound of birch wood dappled with little black spots, a home that blended perfectly with the forest around. She dragged him through the door and laid him out on the bear fur next to the banked fire.
She rustled around the hearth quickly, adding birch and oak and stoking the fire to a brilliant blaze. A kettle of hot water to make the air soft. Then she turned to the young man.
His velvet was bedraggled on land, and his wet hair plastered to his head and face. She began to disrobe him, and she liked what she saw. The cold left him ivory – ivory throat, ivory chest, ivory stomach, and a nest of blond hair with a sleeping dove, and then ivory legs. She dried him as best as she could, then rolled him onto another bear skin – she had so many furs for her comfort, both those she’d hunted herself, and others she’d magicked from flax. She snuggled behind his cold, cold body, and put her ear to his back. There . . . there was still a thin and thready heartbeat. She covered them both with furs, and willed the warmth of her body to penetrate his, to warm him to health and consciousness.
She let her fur turn to skin like his, and finished her transformation into a human woman. Her human self had a higher temperature than her water self. The warmth of the fire began to penetrate through the furs, and she sweated, although he was still cool to the touch. She turned him and found him a little warmer now. When she felt the soft dove between his legs rise, she knew that he was almost recovered.
She slipped from the furs, put more logs on the fire and then dressed in her favorite dress, magicked from linen and wild blue flowers. She braided her red hair, humming softly to keep the warmth flowing through his body. Then she made a stew of bear and flax seeds, flavored with spices her mother had given her so long ago.
His eyes fluttered open and he smiled. He tried to hum with her, but his waterlogged throat would not permit more than a few croaks. He coughed, and she kneeled to pound his back, and she sang the last of the water from his lungs. He gazed at her in awe and adoration.
“Where am I, lady? How did I come here?”
“I pulled you from the lake. You are in my home. By morning, your clothes will be dry and you can continue your journey.”
“My father, the count!” The young man looked worried. “When he reads the message, he’ll send his men to search the lake and sweep the river.”
“Oh, my lord, did you come to my lake to die this day?”
“Yes. I swore Rosamunde would rue the day she scorned me for the stable boy, and my father for preventing me from marrying her. But never mind that now. What is your name, fair lady?”
She smiled. Oh, he was a very young man, very young indeed. But so beautiful. And so pliable. She rescued him, did that not make him hers now? And she was sure she could make him very happy, happy enough to forget the Rosamundes and other beautiful girls of his acquaintance. By morning, he’d be ready to marry her, and she could escape her mother’s curse and exile after so many long decades.
“Melusina, my lord. And may I know yours?”
Like a shining ray of light in the world. His hair, gently curling as it dried, made him seem like a veritable angel. Yes, he’d do. She saved him from the icy waters; now it was his turn to save her.