Nimueh wakes from a dream and takes the whole day to be certain it was not a false one.
(She isn’t often given true dreams of the future. There was one once, long ago, one of a golden queen and her stalwart king and Nimueh herself behind them, but it didn’t last, in the end.)
She dreams the same dream that night and the next day, she begins to plan a journey to Camelot. It is less perilous than it would have been even five years ago, with the Great Purge still in its last waves, but it will still take great care.
Part of her still wonders if this must end in the defeat of the Pendragons and all Uther’s traitor blood (Ygraine’s child lives in Camelot still, and no matter what she tells herself now she loved Uther once as well). But there are more dead than can be counted, magic ripped out of the world until Albion was screaming and what magic left twisted itself for its own survival, turned itself into a weapon.
Nimueh supposes that makes her a weapon as well, and if she is to become a sword to cut the Pendragons down—well, then. She has a journey to plan.
Camelot looks different. Oh, its walls and towers are the same, the shape of its streets, but without the charms in the windows, without the dragons flying overhead, it seems a pale imitation of itself. (She has never seen Camelot without Ygraine.)
Nimueh could have simply whisked herself into the king’s chambers after dark, waited for him to fall into dreaming, and done what was necessary. She wishes to see her city, though, see what the Purge has done to it, so she wraps herself in a disguise—someone else’s face, she is no fool to make herself old when Uther saw her so years ago when she wished to walk among the people without being called on—and walks.
She sees Camelot’s knights, as brave and stalwart as ever, but their squads no longer have a sorcerer at the heart of them. She sees the little shops, the inns and taverns and people moving about, and none have charms around their necks. Few have the spark of magic in them, and those few try to hide their terror, their worry. If it were not broad daylight, Nimueh would tell them of where to find the druids—but then, do they have some reason to stay?
The castle courtyard is not stained with blood, though it feels like it should be. Nimueh watches the knights train (stupid, so stupid, does Uther think that if he does not teach them to defend from magic it will not attack?) before her attention is caught by a boy, golden-haired, doing his swordwork with attention too focused for a child of ten. She knows whose son he is.
(He’s hers. More than he was ever Uther’s, he was hers, but she cannot let herself think of him that way. He’s been fostered in this cold, blank place, away from magic, and this Arthur is not the prince she and Ygraine and Uther dreamed of. That is why she’s here.)
Nimueh watches Arthur until Gaius crosses the courtyard, the ten years between them seeming more like twenty by his stoop and the lines in his face, and then she slips inside the palace, to find the king and to seal his doom.
When it’s dark, Nimueh changes disguises, hiding in the antechamber of the king’s rooms. He’s been at council, and she recognizes the lines in his brow when he comes in after having dinner with Arthur and his new ward, a girl named Morgana (a daughter he will never acknowledge, say her dreams, conceived on some night he claimed to be visiting his dear friend, leaving Ygraine and Nimueh alone in his bed, the traitor. It gives Nimueh more pleasure to know that this Morgana will betray him than it does to do so herself).
Nimueh has learned patience, in ten years. She waits for him to fall asleep, for the candles to gutter out.
She stands before his mirror and puts on Ygraine’s face.
It makes her sick, seeing golden, glowing Ygraine looking back at her out of that mirror. Ygraine has not been seen in this world since her son’s birth, and that is as it should be, but Nimueh must beg her a hundred thousand pardons, because Uther will not take Nimueh into his bed. He will take a dream of his wife.
Nimueh (Ygraine) stands over Uther’s bed and thinks about putting a dagger through his throat. It may be kinder than what the gods have ordained for him, and there is enough mercy in Nimueh yet to consider that kindness.
She looks over her shoulder at the mirror again and thinks she sees an expression on Ygraine’s face that even after years she never knew how to interpret, a tightness in the mouth and a burning in the eyes. It’s how Ygraine wore fury, she thinks, and she remembers it only from a few times, but the memory that sticks out is that of the day Gorlois presented young Morgana to the court, the day before she begged Nimueh to give her a child. A child, at any cost.
Nimueh wakes Uther.
He is pleased to see her and she wants to kill him.
Uther never once greeted Nimueh with this softness, this gentleness. They met each other with sharp words and passion and affection, yes, but never this. “Ygraine,” he says, and Nimueh feels it like a knife in the stomach. “Ygraine, I have missed you so.”
Nimueh makes herself smile. “Hello, my love. And a fine night it is, my king falling asleep before he’s seen to me.” Hearing Ygraine’s voice saying those words again is a joy and a pain, and she half-expects to hear her own voice echo back (“Well, you might have asked me, my queen, I’ve been awake and waiting.” It was the game, then).
Uther does not even leave a pause as though he might miss Nimueh. She can’t hate him for that. “It’s been so long.”
“Hush, now. A nightmare only.”
He is ready for her, and it is easy, the only struggle being to pretend she is Ygraine and not herself. Ygraine would be the lady wife, would let him take her by the waist and roll her, pin her to the bed between his legs (she would turn her head to the side and kiss Nimueh while her husband worked between her legs, tonight Nimueh just kisses him instead). From there, it is easy to let him drive into her, to arch against him, unable to be clumsy in this body she knows so well and loves so dearly.
“It’s as though you’re really here,” he says in something like startled delight, all unsuspecting. The fool.
“Why would I not be?” Let him convince himself it’s a dream.
“A dream, only a dream.” He never once fucked her like he fucked Ygraine. It’s strange, feeling his gentleness.
“A dream, then, my lord.” She shifts her hips. “In a dream, you can have what you want. What do you want of me?”
“You. Only you.”
Nimueh can’t even bring herself to feel jealousy or anger. She has sunk every bit as low as him, violating her memory of Ygraine for her own revenge. She can’t blame him for not wanting both of them even in his wild dreams. “Then have me,” she says. “Do you know what I want of you?”
“You can have anything, Ygraine.”
(A kingdom. A sorceress in their bed. A child. A revenge bards will sing of for generations.)
“Get a child on me,” she whispers.
Uther stiffens. “It will hurt you, it will—”
“Hush, my love, I’m a dream and a dream only. We can have the life we never got, here. Fill me, let me have a child of you, to grow up brave and strong.”
Uther always gives Ygraine what she asks. Nimueh pities him for how easy he makes it, for letting Ygraine become the weakness that will bring down Camelot when she should have been the strength pinning it together.
She gives him what he wants, one last night with his innocent young wife, without Nimueh polluting the life he thinks he ought to have had, and she leaves before the dawn, when he is sated and believes it a dream, and when she has what she needs.
Nimueh goes to the druids the next spring with a babe in her arms. They watch her warily. They know who she is. They may even know who the child is: surety in case this golden king they foolishly believe in turns out to be not such a miracle after all. “Tell him I was merely a peasant woman, hiding away a son who she knew would have magic,” she says to their leader. “Tell him …” She looks down at the child, at the blue curious eyes and the beginnings of dark hair. He looks very like her, and very little like his father. All the better, then. “Tell him his mother loved him.” It’s the sort of thing children deserve to hear.
“What will you do, High Priestess?”
“Go to the Isle. There should be a priestess there, no matter what Pendragon does to Camelot. There is a novice who I think may have escaped. I will find her, train her.” She holds the baby out, and doesn’t look down when he starts crying. “I can’t have dealings with the little one. You know the prophecies.”
“Let us hope he never has to fulfill them.” The druid takes the baby from Nimueh at last. “Do you have a name for the child, my lady?”
Nimueh puts her hood up, already restless to be away. She’s set one plan in motion. There are others that require her attention. “Call him Mordred,” she says, and walks away into the shadows.