Fantasy magic Merlin Arthuriana The Lady of the Lake

Nimuë's Tale

By Madeleine E. Robins
Aug 11, 2019 · 7,020 words · 26 minutes

Photo by Jose Llamas via Unsplash.

From the author: Nimuë killed the old enchanter and fled from Camelot, love and loss behind her. Then a stranger came to her home bringing love--and the prospect of loss. Somewhere, Merlin was laughing.


One who plays with time barely notices its passing. The green of the forest trembled on the verge of autumn when Malla’s husband Oulen told me there were strangers in the village.

I knew. Why else did my heart beat with such heavy strokes, my hands tremble as I put my work aside? By the time I had taken off my apron, unpinned the sleeves of my tunic to hang properly from my elbows and smoothed my hair from my forehead, and had instructed Landra to have wine and honey ready to refresh the visitors, they were in my courtyard.

Pelles looked well, but older; brash enthusiasm wasgiven way to a sterner carriage. His attention was all for his companion; he had dismounted and was at her side before I stepped from my door. She smiled at him, then turned and let her eyes meet mine, as if it had been moments, an hour, a day since she sent me forth from the Lake House.

“Nimuë, how brown you’ve become,” the Lady said.

All my learning deserted me.   I was the girl I had been when last I had seen her face.

oOo

One last time,the old man’s hands stole up to tweak my breast (and him thinking I would not notice it). Once more, apology in his wet-mouthed smile (as if a smile could atone for a twelvemonth of listening to his ancient rambling boasts while I tried to remember to simper up at him). One more time,I leaned away from the old enchanter’s narrow shadow, all the while trying to make myself lean toward him, seeking to intoxicate him with my scent and nearness.

I was a very bad seductress. I did not mean to destroy him.

He had backed me toward a wall to explain some trifling relic, one more of his interminable lessons. As he talked,I watched from the corner of my eye: his hand moved stealthily up to toy with the fiery plait of hair that lay across my breast. The thousandth gesture, the sum of a thousand gestures. It made my stomach turn. With no idea what I was doing, no more hope than to get away from him, I reached into myself and out, pulled down and away and I knew not how, stretching and pulling, venting my rage and disgust: that he should want me. That he should dare want anything young and fresh and beautiful.

The glittering cave began to tremble. Pyrite-streaked stone crashed down around us,and I pulled away from him and ran with all my strength through the chambers, up the rough-hewn stone steps, tracing the branching path back to sunlight and clean spring air.

For long minutes I stood in the adit and waited until my pulse slowed and the world lost its film of red panic. The rumble and crash of stone had ceased and there was silence behind me in the cave. When I could think enough to realize that I must do something, there was only one thing to do, natural as breathing. Our horses were tethered to a gnarled apple tree near the cave mouth. In a trembling dream, I loosed old Merlin’s mare and set her running. Then I mounted my own and turned her toward home: not Camelot, whence the enchanter and I had ridden out that morning. I turned east, toward the House of the Lake and my lady.

In that same dreaming way,I rode through a green and blossoming countryside I did not see. When I was not minding the road (or seeking it anew; I was often lost) I tried to imagine a homecoming to the Lake House after a year. How Sister Eilon would look when she found me standing at the oaken gate; the smell of beeswax, incense, and clean rushes in the Chapter hall; the murmur of women’s voices in the workroom. All the things I had longed for in the year of bright noise and bustle in Camelot.

I thought of the Lady. I told myself she would understand my flight, what I had done (what hadI done?) to the wizard. After all, she herself had told me of men, had shared dismissive laughter after each of her dealings with them. She wouldunderstand, I told myself with one breath. With the next, I remembered that I had failed her, and I trembled.

And when I had lulled those fears from my heart and rode on, half asleep, I would have a vision of old Merlinburied under half the sparkling mountain, struggling for the last stale taste of air, trapped in the cold darkness and cursing me.

It was a blessing to find myself lost again, and in finding the route clear, to forget my fears for another few miles.

I arrived at the House near dark of the second day, hungry and dirty and fearful and so grateful to be home that I nearly wept. Sister Eilon made one startled exclamation at the sight of me, then opened the gate, saw that my horse was taken to the stable by one of her helpers, and brought me herself to a room where I could bathe, eat, and sleep.

o0o

The Lady saw me in the Library after Terce the next morning. She was more beautiful than I remembered, tall and cool in the green morning light. She smiled and my heart rejoiced and I knew everything would be well. I schooled myself not to show my joy too openly, to stand with my eyes downcast, waiting for her embrace. It came, a brief touch of her cheek to mine that turned my heart to water. Then she took my chin in the palm of her hand and tilted my face up to read what was written there.

“What happened, Nimüe?” Her voice was poised at the edge of concern, sweet and low.

I made myself brave and told her. “My lady, I think the enchanter is dead.”

I could not read what she felt at the news: something like a smile was quickly gone and replaced with a frown and a tiny nervous tic in her brow. “Merlin dead? How?” Then, “You think he is dead? And why have I not had some word of this from Camelot?”

I began to explain. I told her of the stone quaking around us, and how I had run and heard the walls crashing down behind me, sealing the old man in. “Lord Merlin often disappeared for days to the cave, even the King himself knew better than to seek for him. I don’t know how long it will be before they miss us in Camelot.”

She nodded without hearing. “But are you sure he is dead? How? Who could have done such a thing?”

I swallowed and looked at the floor. “My lady, I think--I’m afraid--I did.”

“You?” She looked startled; her hand dropped from my chin. “Did you learn so much in Camelot?” Her eyes were avid. I ached to please her, to be able to tell her yes.

“No, Lady. I don’t know what I did. I don’t know how I did it. I just…did.”

She stood away from me, walked the length of her chamber until she was hidden in a spill of morning light from the window. Her shadow trembled. “You just didwhat?”

The words outran my tongue as I tried to make her understand. “I could not bear it any longer, he kept touching me, grabbing at me.” I waited for the nod of understanding which surely must come. I filled the silence with more words, waiting for her to stop me. “I don’t know what I did, my lady, but he reached for me again and I could not stand it, I could not. It was something inside me that came out and…and brought the cave down, like a flood. I was so angry, him with his boasts and his lies! He told me he’d never seen an aura of power like mine, he swore he’d teach me everything, but it was like sifting barley to find a dram of wisdom in his brags. I could have waited forever for his true secrets!”

She stood like a statue in the light; I could not see her face. “You destroyed him.” Her voice was wondering. “Because he touched you.”

I nodded.

“He touched you?” She stepped from the masking light and her face was tight and there was fear or rage in her eye. “You fool, he must have touched you a thousand times in the twelvemonth. That was your purpose, to smile and fawn and listen and be touched. To suffer whatever the old man would do to you to gain his secrets.”

A great trembling took me; I grew small under her anger. Somewhere inside, a tiny rebellious voice insisted that it was all very well to talk of failure; shehad not been pinched and patted by those palsied hands, not suffered whispers in herear. But when I looked up at the fine planes of the Lady’s face, burning cold with rage, I forgot anger and was miserable.

“What did you do?” she hissed. “Why didn’t he break free? How could youdestroy him?”

Again I tried to tell her of the fear and disgust that had brokenin me, of the reaching and twisting and tearing, of murmuring words I did not know and could not remember. Nothing I saw softened her expression. She listened with her arms crossed before her, hands tucked into the wide dark sleeves of her robe.

“I don’t know,” I finished. “It was as if something burst inside of me. It did the damage, itsealed old Merlin in the cave. Not me, my lady. Please….”

I thought my confusion moved her at last. She came toward me and reached a hand to me; I was to be forgiven. She took my chin between strong fingers--no softness now--and looked long and hard into my eyes. I made myself stand without shrinking, trembling with pleasure at her silken touch. When I looked into her dark eyes, I prayed for her to understand, forgive. To love me again.

“You will go,” she said at length.

I started to make reverence. “Yes, my lady.” She stopped me with her hand on my shoulder.

“Do you understand? You will leave the Lake House. Today. And you will never return unless I bid it.”

The light in the room receded, darkness surrounded the burning whiteness of the Lady’s face, her fierce eyes watching me. When I tried to shake my head, the weight of the gesture carried me to the floor; I fainted, still unbelieving.

o0o

I woke in the company of one of the lay sisters, a thin, pinched-looking girl with worried eyes and an impossible number of freckles. She said her name was Malla; her accent was heavily Breton. As my eyes adjusted to the dimness, I realized we were not in my cell; this was a small damp room with the smell of rotting silage. A room over the stables, kept to accommodate the groomsmen of visitors.

“Madam Abbess said you was to rest here until you was fit to travel.” The girl drew away from me as she said it, as if she feared a blow. “I’m to take you out of Britain. There’s your horse, and a donkey for me below. And she give me this for you.” She held a purse out to me. I opened it wide enough to see a sparkle of gold, then drew the string tight again. “Madam said it’s your dowry, mistress. Soon’s you feel up to travel--”

“No. I have to talk to her.” I pushed myself upright and fought my dizziness.

The girl shook her head. “Can’t, mistress. You’ll not be given entrance. They gave us some food, if you’re hungry.” She nodded at the saddlebag filled to bursting and left sitting by the door. “Are you hungry, mistress?” she asked hopefully.

“No.”

“Then I s’pose we’d ought to start away,” she said sadly. I let her raise me to my feet and dress me like a child. She tucked a cloak around my shoulders and pinned it with a silver brooch old Merlin had given me. While I sat, unseeing, Malla dragged the heavy saddlebag downstairs and slung it onto her donkey; my horse already bore a chest with my few possessions in it. Then she returned for me, saw me mounted, and clambered onto her donkey’s back. She took the rein of my horse and led me from the House yard, past Sister Eilon at the gate, into unpromising dusk.

The girl kept up a stream of comfortable chatter as we rode. I heard none of it until she asked if I was a good sea traveler.

“Sea travel? What are you talking about?”

“My home, mistress. Brittany, where my folk are. And kinder fold than you find in your Britain.” She made a scornful sound of it: Breee-t’n. “My old Aunt Landra’d take us in. But be a good sea traveler?”

I was not. The voyage from the seaport of Clausentium to the Breton coast was one long gray misery. I listened to Malla rejoice at being so nearly home; I could not share her joy. My home was behind me, across the sea, a place wrapped about a person; that any other place could become home I doubted.

Malla’s aunt lived in Rugonde, a village of a dozen cottages, close set in the Breton forest. The forest, called Broceliande, had a presence of its own; at night in Landra’s tiny cottage the deep green fastness seemed to embrace the village; I remembered that Merlin often spoke of Brittany as a place of strong magics. Old Landra, fat and tooth-shy, took us in without question. I was let to sit in the sun or by the fire, healing my hurt. By and by, the ache in me gentled to a thin grey longing, a pale film that stretched across my thoughts until I no longer noticed it.

Still, it took a fever that swept Rugonde and would have killed a dozen or more, to pull me from my fog. Watching folk sicken around me, willow bark and strawberry-leaf, I thought. Don’t they know? It seemed they did not, and I spent hours in forest and field searching for flowers, leaves and bark, and more hours decocting a tisane to take the fever away. When the sickness had gone, I had found my occupation making tinctures and cerates, dispensing medicines and learning to read sickness in the eyes of the folk who came to me.

I had cause to bless Merlin’s lessons. So many of them had seemed trivial, a mixture of nonsense--cats slaughtered to cure warts, salt cast over the shoulder to avert ill luck--and cookbook magic. Now I recalled his healing spells and recipes, and cures learned in the stillroom from my Lady. I had believed myself an indifferent student, trying no harder in my studies than would please her. Now I had reason to remember and to learn anew.

So I earned my keep; when I cured the baron’s son of the lung-flux, I was granted a small draughty stone villa in payment, and brought Landra from her mud-and-wattle cottage to cook and see to me. I delivered babies, closed the eyes of those I could not save, learned the franker speech of country folk, forgot in some measure my convent-bred niceness. Malla was betrothed, then wed, to Rugonde’s miller; a year later, I was both midwife and godmother to her girl child.

I could have forgotten--almost--that there was another world outside the green shadows of Broceliande, but from time to time strangers rode through the town. I cared less for their tidings than for the pleasure of hearing different tongues, Latin or British. Often I invited these strangers to my hall to dine and tell me their gossip, and I smiled and poured more wine when they toasted me, the gracious lady of Rugonde.

One traveler, Pelles, was of Arthur’s court and returning from a mission to Rome. Having sped across the continent on the King’s business, he undertook now a more leisurely return for his own pleasure. I thought him very young, fair and open and just a little brash, but he was three years my senior and a veteran--to hear him talk--of several hair-raising campaigns in Arthur’s service.

I liked him. The first night that he dined with me, I laughed often. The second night, I barely noticed what I ate, so deep were we in talking. By the third night, I looked for his coming and would have been disappointed to take my meat with only Landra for company. Pelles reminded me that I had been accounted pretty; listening to his tales, the nonsense he could spout with gorgeous ease, I remembered Camelot.

“I was there,” I told him. “In Camelot. It seems a long time ago.”

“No, surely I’d remember a woman so beautiful and so charming--”

“Truly, among so many?” I teased. “I was there for a year. Youmust have been off on one of your quests.”

He gave me a look full of heart and laughter. I remembered seeing men and women carrying on such dalliance in Camelot; I had scorned it then and never realized its airy pleasure.

Three more evenings he dined with me. We laughed and exchanged stories; he urged me more than once to come to Camelot with him. “Astound them! Let them remember how fair you are, how talented, how gracious.” He waved his arms in exaggerated circles and grinned. On the storming night when he made his farewell, I was sorry to see him go. We screamed our good-byes over the thunder and watched as lightning shadows made a giant of the stone lintel over the courtyard gate.

“Visit again and bring me stories of your heroism,” I yelled.

He took my hand and pressed it against his heart. “Come back with me,” he yelled back. “Come back…” He hesitated. “With me.”

After a moment, I pulled my hand away. It was cold outside his grasp. “My place is here. They need me.” I can never return. “Go safely.”

Rain plastered his fair hair to his skull and water ran off the corner of his smile. He stayed a moment longer, told me to go in before I was as wet as he. So I turned back to my fire. I was pouring more wine when I heard it happen: thunder, the screams of the horse, the grate of stone.

I ran for the courtyard and saw him: his horse had shied in the lightning and brought the wall down. Pelles was pinned under the lintel stone.

Through a haze of panic and anger, I reached into the heart of the stone lintel, pulled up and twisted away, only half knowing what I did. As I ran stumbling across the rain-slick yard, the lintel rose, obedient to my command, up and off Pelles’s body. He was free before Landra and I reached him.

Pelles made a slow convalescence. He charmed old Landra, who scolded and fussed and was entirely under his thumb; with me he was more respectful--a little. I spent some part of the day and each evening with him, dicing or reading, talking. I did my work, gathered and dried herbs, pressed out oils, mixed liniments and powders, prescribed for the sick and hurt who came to me. But I had found a new study, as intoxicating as love or honey wine: Merlin would have recognized it.

I thought often of Merlin, knowing I had missed the heart of his teachings. What I had scorned as an old man’s prosing were his greatest secrets, tricks he had learned over many years to discipline and develop the great natural ability that was his. What I had dismissed as flattery I realized now was truth: the old man had recognized a power in me that even my Lady had not seen.

I struggled to learn the limits of my powers (and it was a struggle, all experiment and failure, no demure learning from scrolls or parchments), spent hours in the woods straining to do simple things without the fuel of panic, doing them easily once I achieved the proper degree of nonchalance. On the day I learned that knack, I went from shifting pebbles to moving rocks, made the trees dance to my will, drew the clouds together in a great frowning congregation. While rain poured down on me, I stood on the hilltop and laughed like a zany, filled with triumph.

Sometimes the learning hurt: I discovered inadvertently that the touch of the Lady’s hand, which I had prized as a sign of especial tenderness was, as well, a way of compelling truth or loyalty. The shadow memory of her hand cradling my chin still made me flush with longing, despite the distance of time and miles. Even the power in me seemed powerless to stop that pain.

Learning so preoccupied me that when Pelles told me it was time that he returned to Camelot, I was surprised (that the time had passed so quickly) and saddened (that he would go) and worrying over a beldame’s recipe for dream-reading.

“Will you miss me?” he asked, playing with my fingers like a Christian telling rosary beads.

“Rugonde will be very quiet without you,” I admitted. Storax, benjamin, labdanum and oil of lavender and…what else? “You’ll be happy to be back in the city, I suppose.”

“Nimüe?”

Camphire and damaske with civet. All together, as a kind of incense. “Yes?” I pulled my attention back to him. He looked well now, only a scar on his brow as token of his fall; his fair hair almost covered it.

“Will you think of coming to Camelot? You’d be welcome, more than welcome, I promise it.” He was very earnest. It made my heart sink.

“I cannot. I’m sorry, Pelles.” What there was for me in Britain I could not approach; what he wanted I did not know how to give. “Come visit me again,” I offered, knowing it was a cool comfort.

He refused to be comforted. “I’ll leave in the morning.” He said it as if he expected the words to hurt and, curiously, they did. He rose and left the room, very straight-backed with his anger, gone before I could say again “I’m sorry.” He never heard the words.

In the morning he kissed Landra’s fat cheek and swore undying love to her; he and I bid a quiet farewell. Anger had passed through us both. Landra and I stood in my small courtyard and watched as Pelles rode away. Then Landra gave a prodigious sigh and went in to her spinning.

Broceliande’s shadows closed behind Pelles, sealing Rugonde safely away from the world. I was busy with my work in the infirmary, with household chores in which I was Landra’s fumble-fingered student. And my studies. There was no goal to the learning, as magic such as mine was rarely called for in the Brittany forest, but I studied the shifting of rocks and trees, the management of clouds and human moods; I searched for words that would unlock the past and let me read what had happened in Merlin’s cave that day. Curiously, I never thought to read the future.

o0o

And now the future was upon me, here in the courtyard of my villa.

“Nimüe?” The lady waited for my reply. Dizzily, I tried to think of something to say. Three years since Pelles rode from my courtyard; seven since I set out from the Lake House. Why now? Why come now, after all these years? I was a woman grown and still I could only stand staring at the Lady, wanting to touch her hand, listen to her voice, be her beloved. Finally, I managed: “My lady, will you take some wine?”

“Thank you, I will.” She ignored her groom and allowed Pelles to lift her down from her horse. His hand lingered at her waist and I was taken with a jealousy so sharp and fierce I almost cried out. She held his eyes with hers for a long moment, then drew one finger casually along his jaw. Words came to my lips that would have torn Pelles from her side--torn him to pieces--but the habit of discipline was strong; some part of me still thought of him as friend. I turned on my heel to lead them to the hall.

“Pelles told me such things of you, I had to see myself.” She sat on a chair of carved wood just beyond the window; rosy afternoon light touched the embroidered hem of her robe. She no longer dressed as soberly as she had at the Lake House; the privilege of Camelot draped about her shoulders in embroidered linen and fine wool. “Sit down, dear girl. Tell me what became of you after you left us.”

After you left us. She made it sound as if the exile had been my own choice. Pelles paced the length of the wall, his eyes always on her. “There is little to tell, Lady; I came here; I’ve been the healer since Malla and I arrived; you’ll remember Malla, Lady; the girl you sent with me.”

She nodded vaguely. “You’re too modest, Nimüe. A country healer does not have a villa like this, or a reputation such as yours. In the villages all up the coast you’re mentioned with considerable respect. You’re hardly a village herb-grannie.”

I watched her lips form the words but barely heard, marveling at the soft rose of her mouth, wanting to trace its shape with my fingers, my own lips.

Pelles laughed behind me, a forced sound that begged for notice. “I told you, Lady Viviene, her powers--”

“You did, sir.” She cut him off. Despite myself I felt a gleam of vindictive pleasure: see there, she does not love you. “Nimüe, I am tired after our journey. Is there a chamber…"

At once I was on my feet, calling for Landra, who had gone off to clear my room for the Lady and to ready two smaller rooms for Pelles and myself. “I’ll take you there at once. Will you sup later with me? Us?” I added, feeling Pelles’s hot look on my shoulder blades.

“Of course. Pelles, see that my groom and horse are taken care of.” She did not wait to see him nod; she was gone.

I paused a second before I followed her. “Pelles…”

He looked at me. For the first time since their arrival, he and I really saw each other, looked square and openly at each other. There was no softness in him for me now. “Yes, lady?”

“You’re welcome back.” It was all I could say. My heart urged warfare, promising a battle for the Lady’s least word. Common sense and the hard-won discipline of my studies reminded me again that he was, or had been, my friend. When he nodded grimly, I understood that his heart and mind were no less divided than mine. “At supper, then.”

The torches were lit when the three of us met in the hall. Lady Viviene wore a tunic of garnet red wool, finely embroidered; it made her cool black-and-white beauty the more stirring for the reflection of rose in her cheeks. I ached to touch her, but knew better than to show my feelings too plainly. Pelles obviously did not know her as well: he followed her movement through the room, besotted.

It was a strange meal. The Lady spoke, and Pelles and I at either hand restrained ourselves from quibbling too obviously for her attention. She asked me what I had done before coming to Rugonde, what great folk I had met in Brittany. I was embarrassed to admit how little I knew outside of Broceliande, and how little I remembered of my first months in Brittany; she took my protestations with a sort of smiling disbelief. “Keep your council if you will, child.” She and Pelles spoke of Camelot while I picked at my food and watched the radiant flesh of her throat rise and fall with her breath.

“A toast.” The Lady poured honeyed wine into my cup; her eyes met mine. “And Pelles?” She poured for him, then herself. “To old friends re-met.”

We drank. The wine was too sweet for my taste, cloying; I was used to taking it nearly unsweetened. Still, I met her eyes over the brim of my cup and smiled; she returned the smile and drank to me.

Then she rose, shimmering in the firelight, bade us both goodnight, and was gone. We sat dumbfounded for a moment, then Pelles smiled; not the beaming of an infatuated boy but a rueful man’s smile. “So are we dismissed,” he said.

“It would seem so. More wine?”

He refused the wine, but sat a while longer. It was companionable, that sitting, shared bemusement between us.

“Pelles, what brought you here?” I asked at length.

“It is just as she said. When I returned to Camelot I spoke of you--often. They called it boasting, Pelles’s questing tale. But Lady Viviene heard and believed me when I told her how you saved my life. I did not know until she made up her mind to visit Brittany that she had known you as a child.”

I thought of our last parting. “Yes. Years ago.” And now she is here. I still could not compass it. In a wondering mood, I bade him good night at last and retired to the room Landra had made ready for me.

In the night, I woke from a nightmare, fought my way back to waking to find I had not dreamt all of it; there was a fire in my throat and belly, a tearing that every breath made worse. My heart beat too fast, my vision was blurred. It was very hard to do what I knew I must: compose my mind to read my body and seek out the sickness. That isolated, I reached, muttering the incantations between gritted teeth, into myself, soothing the burning tissues, finding the toxins and changing them into a syrup as harmless as water, to flow through blood and flesh without damage.

When I could stand, I dressed myself and went to her room.

It seemed she was waiting for me; she was still dressed in her dinner finery, sipping wine by the fire. “Come in, dear child,” Viviene said. “You look pale. Some wine?”

“To try the same trick again, my lady?”

She did not seem dismayed. “That was a most potent poison; your masters would be proud of you.” Her smile invited me closer. I found, to my horror, that I wanted her still; had she reached for me, I would have gone to her embrace, not trustingly, but helpless to resist.

“Why?” I asked, distantly pleased that my voice had not broken.

“What else could I do? I sent you away once, I could not banish you from banishment. And sooner or later, you would tire of this retreat…” She waved a hand dismissively, as if to make my home, the village, all of Brittany small and insignificant. “You would come and challenge me. I could not risk that. While my reports said that you were ignorant of your power, I could let be, but when that boy told me what you had done here in the wilderness, I knew it was past time. Whoever your masters are, sooner or later they would demand you leave--“

“I have no master!” I cried. “Not since you sent me away from the Lake House. I’ve taught myself what I needed for the love of it, using what I had learned from you and from Lord Merlin.”

“An old fool who knew better than to be killed by a stupid girl with a spark of ability?” Her mouth curled. “He deserved his death.”

I looked at her and saw what I had never understood: “You feared him. He was stronger than you and you were afraid of him. You wanted his power.”

She looked at me as if I were telling a children’s tale. “Of course I did. Just as you would come to want mine if I let you.” Her voice was all reason. “So I cannot let you.”

She raised one slender hand to gesture. I reached, and grasped her hand to stop her, the first time I had ever touched her without permission. It brought us face to face, her dark eyes glittered down at me from her greater height, her mouth was pressed tight. For all her slenderness, Viviene was strong, her will steely. I kept my grasp on her wrist and tried to break her cool stare with my own gaze.

And she was still so beautiful. How can I know this evil and still want her? How can I know what I know and love her? Gradually her resistance died; our hands dropped and we faced each other.

“Oh, Nimüe…” A very small voice, tired and sad. She was panting slightly. So was I; my hand trembled at the release of tension. When she raised her hand to cup my chin, I leaned into the palm, the gesture as natural as breathing. With that gesture and for the first time in seven years, I was home. Pleasure made my bones as soft as honey; there was a honey taste in my mouth. If she had asked me for my life in that moment, I would have given it to her.

I raised my eyes to her face, inches above mine, near enough to kiss. Her mouth was curved in the tenderest smile; her wide brow creased just slightly as she read my face. Her dark eyes, fathomless, dancing with the firelight, were filled with love. And pleasure. And triumph, an ugly reckoning triumph which counted every minor capitulation and treasured it.

I pulled away from Viviene’s hand. “I know the trick of touch, Lady. I’m proof against it.”

She smiled wolfishly, the tenderness gone. “You never have been.”

I felt tears start with anger. “I have always been. I loved you, that was what that touch was to me. Not power, love. You could have kept me, here or at the Lake House years ago, docile and biddable as you wished. I’d never have risen against you.”

“It must have come to war soon or late. Look, child…” I looked into the fire as she bade me, and in the flames saw old Merlin in his cave. He stood, bowed and feeble, beneath the rain of stone that I had loosed, paralyzed with grief and unable to save himself. Watching the image licked by flame, I knew that he had died rather than strike me down. He had loved me.

Hot grief seized me, fed upon itself. I stood weeping, staring into the fire, blinded by my vision and hating the stupid callow girl who had killed that old man. And then I remembered why the child had been there, who had sent her. I pulled my gaze from the fire and shook my head, forcing a smile.

“You use the wrong argument, Viviene,” I told her. I looked at the flask and cup from which she had been drinking, planted a thought in her. “You are too used to folk who cannot fight back.” She followed my glance and her white skin paled, glowing with her sudden terror in the firelight. She raised a hand to her throat.

“What have you done,” she whispered. I imagined what she would feel: the tightness, the burning, the conclusion. “You’ve not been near my cup,” she protested. “And I’m proof against poison. Do you think I’d not protect myself against any potion I’d use myself?” She rang out triumphant again.

“It’s not your potion, Viviene.” I let my mind reach hers, let her feel the slow constriction, touched her heart and set it racing. The fire in her belly, the sickly-sweet taste of honeyed wine in her mouth, and fear rich and hot in her blood. I poisoned her with rage. “It’s mine.”

She staggered back with her hand at her mouth. “Nimüe!”

“Do you like this war of your own making?” One final twist, one last cold clutch, and I drew back from her. Released, she shuddered and fell backward, knocking over a small table. While she caught her breath and tried to right a spinning world, I made myself wait, letting the enormous hurt run out of me. “I don’t want to hurt you,” I said at last.

She stood against the wall, one hand at her side, the garnet-colored tunic hanging askew. Her dark hair unraveled from its plait and her face was tense and narrow. “I’ll destroy you. You cannot stand against me.”

Certainty blossomed in me when I looked into her eyes: she was right. I looked at my hands and saw the bones of a child. I was frail, the very draughts of the chamber buffeted me. I was not a woman safe in the serenity of her life and her power, but a girl, pretty and callow and unlearned, as naïve as an infant, afraid of the world of men. I was breathless with terror, knowing that all that kept that girl--me--safe was the Lady’s protection. Without that I was helpless; fighting her would be madness.

Dimly, I watched Pelles enter the room and go to her side, his face all concern, come to a wordless summoning. She smiled a smile of near-concealed suffering; her fingers caressed his cheek affectionately. I wanted to tear his heart out and I could not move.

“N-nn-no!” I stuttered. Pelles turned and saw me: a madwoman gasping and weeping. Viviene whispered something to Pelles, who held her protectively, slightly behind him. My eyes met his--dim and sleepy, bespelled by Vivene’s light, caressing touch--and I was distracted from her spell, returned to myself. I stood still for a moment and let strength course through me.

Pelles spoke: “Nimüe, lady, think what you do.”

I answered him from a cool dim place of power. “I know what I do; Pelles, she thrust this upon me. I never wanted to hurt her. I loved her.”

“Would you destroy her because she cannot return your love?”Was that the lie she had told?“Think who she is, what she is; Nimüe, what’s love to the ones that are the stuff of legends?”

I thought again of Merlin. “No more than food or drink or air to breathe,” I told him. “To those that arethe stuff of legends. Did she tell you she was such a one?”

He looked at me and shook his head dizzily. “Nimüe--“

“Kill her,” the Lady said. “She’ll destroy me--kill her, Pelles.” Her hand went again to his throat, but the caress was desperate this time, her fingers poised like talons.

“Will you kill me, Pelles? It’s what she brought you to do,” I said levelly. The truth was twisted in her face. “Kill me…and she will kill you, soon or late. Am I wrong, Lady?”

Her hand worked at his cheek, feverish. “What does it matter? You, him, that slobbering old mage--I have a right to destroy what is a danger to me. Or what I have no use for. Now, Pelles. Kill her for me.” Behind the dimness in his eyes there was a hopeless spark of rage, and I knew I must help him.

I froze him where he was and watched Viviene as she realized she stroked stone, not flesh. Pelles gazed unblinkingly at me, standing like a warrior facing death.

She screeched something, wrenched the dagger from Pelles’s sash, and flew at me, her face furious as a hawk’s. If I stopped her now she would try again and again, knowing no other way. She raised the dagger above her head to strike me.

I reached for her and grasped her heart with my mind and twisted, crushing, feeling the flesh tear. There was no pleasure in it. It took only a moment; there was hardly time for her look of surprise before the Lady dropped the dagger. Her eyes filled with blackness and she fell to the floor.

Afterward I sat and wept for a long time. Pelles, freed from her spell and from mine, held me, and he wept too.

In the morning, Landra wrapped the Lady’s body in white damask and saw that a carter was found to take the body from my house to the seaside, the first leg of its return to the Lake House. We stood in the courtyard, watching as the wagon pulled away and rolled haltingly over the rutted path until it was swallowed by the dappled shadows of the road. Grief stuck in my throat; I had wept all my tears before dawn, for all of us.

“Let them bury her,” Pelles said coldly. Freed of the Lady’s spell he was angry, ashamed of his infatuation.

Two survivors, still raw, sharing. “You’ll go back to Camelot?”

He nodded. “You’ll stay here?”

“I don’t know.” My exile was over. “This place tastes of ashes.”

“Come to Camelot,” Pelles urged again, a ghost of another urging. “With me.”

I was afraid to promise too much; the leaves were tending to golds and russets and soon it would be no weather for traveling. “Perhaps I will,” I said. “Not now, but soon.”

o0o

I returned to Britain. It looks much the same as I remember, but the open spring countryside seems strange after Broceliande’s green confines. The blossoming orchard before Merlin’s hill turns its face up to the sun. I came here to study the old man’s grave, the rock-filled adit hidden now by young trees and gorse, but there are no secrets revealed in the stone I broke. Like one waking from a dream, I shrug myself free from the past and mount my horse. Then, hopeful, I turn her west, toward Camelot.

This story originally appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction.


Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins may have invented the Regency Noir detective story, and likes to play with history, reality, and the odd sword.