Summer spreads out across the land, hot and flat and brassy. The air stifles; the crops half-bake in the fields. Ygraine’s father paces back and forth in his council room as he listens to reports of ruin, while beneath the windows the earth cracks from dryness.
Autumn brings not a rich harvest but the slow death of the year. The leaves that slip wearily from the trees are pale and withered and crumbling as they fall. Tristan is injured in a tournament, and Vivienne is wed, leaving Ygraine alone and lonely most of the days.
Winter falls like a hammer-strike, biting deep into the ground and turning it hard as iron. The rivers freeze and cut off the boats. Through the frosty fields comes a dark-haired lady on a lean grey horse, arriving from the Isle of the Blessed to complete the initiates’ training; the day after her comes the snow.
Spring trembles beneath ice and stillness, uncertain and straggling. The priestess is named Nimueh, and Ygraine is half in awe of the sharp brightness of her mind, the edged lushness of her features. Nimueh visits weekly, however bad the snow—sometimes more than weekly.
“This year. Is it a curse?” Ygraine’s father asks her soberly one day.
Nimueh raises one fine brow. “Who have you so offended, milord?” And then, when he looks confused, “No.”
Afterwards, when Ygraine walks with her to the stables, she says, “The land is forgetting.”
“Pardon?” Land is land, Ygraine thinks; it can no more forget than it can remember.
“You belong here too,” Nimueh says, and there’s something secret and dark and warm in her smile. “But you lock yourselves away in cut stone that comes from far-off quarries, and the land forgets.”
Ygraine asks, “What do we do?” and Nimueh does not answer.
When the ice melts and, a little later, the pond in the woods—where years ago their nurse would take Vivienne and Ygraine to gather flowers and dabble their feet in the water—is no longer so cold it steals your breath, Nimueh invites Ygraine to swim.
As soon as they arrive, Nimueh strips naked unhesitatingly and plunges in, a pale blur of skin. She surfaces with weeds in her hair, shaking water from her face. Ygraine sits on a rock by the water’s edge and pulls off her shoes and stockings one at a time, and Nimueh rolls her eyes and smiles. “You live and die inside, if you are fortunate,” she says, as if picking up a conversation they’ve only just left off, and it takes Ygraine a moment to track it back to the question of the land. “Men die in battle and it remembers. Sometimes there’s a child born on the road. But it’s hard, with so much of what you do hidden. Look at you now.”
Ygraine looks: bare feet nearly cream-white, constantly hidden from the sun. Petticoats, an underdress, an overdress embroidered with flowers that look like none she’s ever seen. Her toes just barely brush the surface of the water; it’s far too cold for her comfort.
“And look at me,” Nimueh says, dark hair clinging to her neck and shoulders, mouth red. Ygraine can see the curves of her breasts through the water. “I know the land and it knows me. I know its demands and its fears, I know its wounds and its secret hopes.” She reaches out a hand and curls it around Ygraine’s ankle. Nimueh’s skin is cold and wet, but even as Ygraine flinches a little, reflexively, she feels a sort of tingling warmth beneath the touch.
Ygraine leans down and kisses her. It’s clumsy, from the terrible angle and the fact that Ygraine hasn’t had a chance to kiss many people, but Nimueh doesn’t make a sound of complaint, just tilts her head back a little more. Her mouth heats under Ygraine’s, the chill of winter fading from her lips.
After that when Nimueh visits the castle it’s in her priestess’s robes, arms bare beneath her cloak, and Ygraine watches the way her neck flows into her shoulder, the soft strength in her calves where they peep out beneath the hem. The wind stirs her loose hair when they walk in the gardens at twilight, sending it scattering-dark into the night itself.
It’s Nimueh who kisses Ygraine the next time, four visits later when every moment spent with her until then has been uncertainty. They’re in the woods, and Ygraine has made herself a coronet of flowers and placed it crookedly on her hair. She thinks Nimueh is intending to straighten it until Nimueh’s hand is on her cheek, her lips against Ygraine’s. It’s warm this time, slow, tender, easy, and after a few moments Nimueh brings her hand down, carefully, to Ygraine’s shoulder, and then lower, running her fingers along the embroidered edge of Ygraine’s bodice as she traces Ygraine’s throat with her mouth, tongue lingering over the pulse where it flutters quick and urgent.
“Please,” Ygraine says. She wants, even though she’s not quite sure what. It’s a hunger deeper and fiercer than she feels mapping her own body in the night, a yearning pull towards someone else.
Nimueh sighs and steps away so she can look Ygraine in the eye and says, “I know how you can make the land remember you.”
For a second Ygraine feels lost, uncertain, and then she shakes her head. “That isn’t what this is.”
“I wouldn’t have suggested it if it were,” Nimueh says sharply. “There are other things that can be done, that I could do—more complicated, more draining. I was prepared to try, but then you kissed me and I thought perhaps it wouldn’t be too much to ask you after all.”
“Anything,” Ygraine says, fearless and trusting.
“You are mistress here. Give yourself to your land.” Nimueh hesitates, looking at Ygraine, and Ygraine knows what she sees—a gold and white and fragile lady, hair bound, body hidden, innocent and breakable. “Through my magic, in the ways of desire.”
Ygraine is as untouched by magic as by strangers’ hands, but she thinks of green fields and Nimueh’s smiles and says, “When?”
“Noon, on the day of the full moon,” says Nimueh, and the smile she gives Ygraine now is new; it sends heat shivering down her spine.
Nimueh visits again on the third day and they touch each other through their clothes, tucked into a corner of the gardens between fruit trees beginning uncertainly to flower. Nimueh wears nothing beneath her robes, and although Ygraine wears too many layers to find release here she finds her hand pressed between Nimueh’s legs as Nimueh rocks against it, her breath coming in little pants as the cloth dampens beneath Ygraine’s fingers, until she shudders and gasps, eyes squeezing shut.
Ygraine’s mouth is painfully dry, her heart racing. She squeezes her thighs together beneath her many skirts and wishes they’d gone to the woods, to her chambers, anywhere else.
“I wasn’t expecting that,” says Nimueh, with a shaky laugh.
“I need—” Ygraine says, and breaks off.
Amusement, knowing, flashes in Nimueh’s eyes, and she murmurs “Of course” and presses a courtly kiss to Ygraine’s knuckles and a lewd one to the inside of her wrist. Ygraine feels both all the way up her arm. “Tomorrow,” Nimueh says, and gathers her cloak around her to leave.
Ygraine hurries back to her chambers, to the privacy of her own bed.
The day of the full moon dawns warm and still. Ygraine meets Nimueh outside the castle, dressed in her simplest gown and glad a priestess is so unexceptional and approved a companion for her. Nimueh looks her over: once, with approval; twice, in appraisal.
She plucks the net from Ygraine’s hair, leaving it all to tumble as free as her own, and says, “Come with me.”
Some corner of Ygraine’s mind had expected a temple or a chapel for the ritual, but—of course—it’s a clearing Nimueh brings her to, open to the sky. She can hear a brook gurgling past somewhere, and moss and grasses grow thickly enough that the ground looks almost soft. There is a peace to this place that settles into her bones, sinking through nervousness and desire and hope with the ease of falling rain.
“We work here,” Nimueh says, before Ygraine can ask. “Not great rituals, but simple spells, daily spells. The little wheels along the path of life.”
“Oh,” says Ygraine, suddenly uncertain again.
“You are welcome here.” The words hang in the air, weighted, and then fade into its stillness.
Ygraine fumbles for words. “Thank you.”
It seems to satisfy Nimueh. She asks, “Would you rather be undressed by hand or by spell?”
“Hand.” It’s foolish, Ygraine thinks, to draw these fine lines—to have come here to somehow bed the land, through magic, yet balk at having her clothes removed that way—but she is a little bit afraid and wants some familiarity at least.
So Nimueh does. When she removes Ygraine’s shoes and stockings her fingers linger on Ygraine’s ankles, trace the lines of tendons up her calves; when she unlaces the overdress she slides her hand down Ygraine’s spine to rest warm and steady on her rear. With the underdress gone she cups Ygraine’s breasts through her shift. There are three petticoats and she takes them all off at once, unfastening them and letting them fall to the ground, then runs her hands up Ygraine’s thighs as she takes the shift.
“My maids never undressed me like that,” Ygraine teases, a little breathless already.
“I should hope not,” says Nimueh, a smile flickering at the edges of her mouth. Her eyes are dark as she watches Ygraine, dressed only in the sun and wind. She kisses Ygraine’s hands, her brow, her heart, and then her mouth, lingering there for a moment but keeping it no more than the press of lip to lip. Then she pulls away and says, “Lie down.”
Ygraine does. The ground is as soft as it looked, and above her the sky is deep, deep blue. She hears the rustle of cloth and turns her head to see Nimueh has unpinned her robe and slid off her shoes. She stands with her hands held out to either side, as if she’s catching sunlight in her hands, with her feet shoulder-width apart, bare toes curling into the moss. “Brúcan híe, hæme híe, lufa híe,” she says, eyes flaring summer-gold, and Ygraine feels the soft-rough sound of the ancient words settle beneath her skin and kindle there.
For a while she feels nothing, just the earth and the air around her, and then, curling up from the ground like unfurling flowers, it begins. There’s no touch, nothing that easy to understand, but something winds up her arms, weightless and cool as precious chips of ice in summer, and she shivers as cold and renewal run through her. The cold fades and she’s tingling as if her whole body had been numb and now awakens, feeling arousal prickle through her blood.
She looks up at the sky again, bluer than any lake, so lovely, and the breeze across her skin is fire in winter, the close-pressing air of summer, and she trembles with it as it strokes down her body, long and slow, and back up even more slowly, lingering over her thighs then leaping immediately to her stomach, and she can’t help the protest that sounds in the back of her throat.
The next touch is almost like hands but formless, drawing invisible symbols down her throat, around her breasts in narrowing spirals until it reaches her nipples, holds them softer and wider and deeper than the press of her own fingers can, and she gasps and arches up into it, desire flaring up until she’s blazing with it. It is writing across her stomach, up her legs, and she spreads her thighs and begs without words, lifts her hips against the air. She feels empty so sharply that it’s almost painful, awareness rolling through her in waves, out from her womb, with every beat of her heart.
Warm as it is, the breeze feels cold between her legs, shocking and wonderful, sensation flaring up to meet the heat twisting tighter and tighter low in her belly, and then the halves of the inscription across her meet, the pattern from her stomach tracing through her curls and sending sparks flying all the way to her fingertips, the designs from her thighs running across her folds as her body grips air and nothingness, and she feels tears start in her eyes because it’s too much, not enough. She should have been gone by now, flying apart, but instead she’s become the air just before a lightning strike, frozen and craving.
And then it slides inside her, without stretch or pain, and she almost screams with relief as she’s filled perfectly as any lock, as the emptiness that had ached through every caress fades and she’s complete, pleasure rolling through her like the tide coming in, unceasing, unbreaking, filling her to the palms of her hands and the soles of her feet until she feels she must be glowing with it, and above her the sky is blue enough to drown in, pouring down over her as she falls up to meet it—
Everything goes white.
Her whole body is shaking, still, when she manages to blink a few times, feeling the dampness of drying tears on her eyelashes.
Nimueh is sitting on her heels not far from her, flushed and with a sated smile. Her hand rests across her groin and in any other woman Ygraine might have taken it for modesty, but Nimueh’s fingers don’t so much hide her curls as disappear into them, and in any case she doesn’t believe in modesty.
“I didn’t know,” Ygraine says, or tries to, but her mouth is wine-slack and her voice doesn’t seem to want to work. She swallows and tries again. “I didn’t know it would act on you, too.” It’s sound, this time—slurred, but real.
“It didn’t, much,” says Nimueh. “That was you. I couldn’t help myself.”
Ygraine’s body tries to warm, twinges with pain. She isn’t sure she can survive another time like that, isn’t sure she ever wants to move again. She will lie here and melt into the earth, and Nimueh will use her life to work her great magics.
Nimueh shifts her legs, settling herself more comfortably on them, and says, “Rest for a while.” She starts talking about the places she’s been: spring on the Isle of the Blessed; the midwinter hunts up north; lords’ courts and farmers’ cottages. Ygraine drifts in and out of sleep, listening as Nimueh pieces the land together.