The Isle is silver in the moonlight—unnatural-bright, almost as clear as day although nearly all color has faded from the scene—and Morgana shivers only a little as she crosses the grass to Nimueh’s altar. She knows what will happen next, and what might, and she’s agreed to all of it.
Nimueh’s robes look black instead of red. She kisses Morgana’s brow, and Morgana bends to kiss Nimueh’s hands. It’s ritual, as simple as any court afternoon, and it steadies Morgana a little.
(She’s had dreams of this moment starting the first night she woke with bloodstained sheets, pain twisting through her belly. She doesn’t know what happens after Nimueh picks up the knife. She’s always woken then, the future still hidden from her, protected, unseeable.)
Nimueh sheds her robes before she sets the blade to the back of her arm. Blood wells black-red into the moonlight. She gathers it like ink on her fingers and brings them to Morgana’s face, painting rough shapes around her eyes.
“Clarity,” she says. “Choice.”
The wind is cold on Nimueh’s blood, drying on Morgana’s face. Nimueh’s hands leave bloody prints on Morgana’s white novice’s robe as she unfastens it, and the wind rushes in and Morgana shivers.
The next symbol is over Morgana’s heart, and Nimueh says “Fidelity” as her newly-wet fingers slide gently over the slope of Morgana’s breast, not quite a caress, and before Morgana can try to decide how she feels, before thoughts run through her mind and shake her from the half-trance she’s in, Nimueh is writing courage across her belly and strength over each of her hips and patience down her legs.
(“Not wisdom,” she’d told Morgana. “I can’t give you that. You have to take it for yourself.”)
Morgana presses her hands flat to the altar, feeling her skin stiffening as Nimueh’s blood dries, and Nimueh draws great sweeping arcs over her back, fingers dragging a little on the longer ones, and says, “Responsibility,” and then she’s done, picking up the knife and handing it to Morgana.
(“You—all of you, every novice—you remind me why I’m here. What I do. That’s your task, as I give you the things I’ve learned. Tell me what I need to give them to you.”)
Morgana feels incomplete, as if the magic Nimueh has brought out is floating above her skin instead of settling into it, as if she’s not quite attached to her body.
When she presses the knife to her arm, carefully, as she’s been taught, it all rushes into her at once as her skin parts beneath the blade. Her blood is hot against her breeze-chilled arm and there’s magic wrapping around her, heat blooming through her as it tightens. She stands there lost in it for a moment: nothing like what she had with Gwen, all gentleness—want and urgency, yes, but always tender—this is something harsh and raw, something she could remake as magic if she wanted, something she could use to bring down a storm—
—but the isle is well-watered, and in the moonlight Nimueh is more than beautiful.
Morgana wets her fingers with her blood and writes perception across Nimueh’s brow, generosity and justice over her hands, understanding over her heart (she must be years older than Morgana, to have accomplished all that she has, but her breasts are still almost as firm as a girl’s, and everything inside Morgana winds hotter, tighter, wilder), and then she stops, finished, not yet begun.
“How do you feel?” Nimueh asks, and Morgana whispers “May I?” in sudden uncertainty. She, who is so rarely uncertain, is lost now.
There’s blood in their kiss, Morgana isn’t sure whose it is, and Nimueh slides her thigh between Morgana’s as Morgana cups her breasts, letting Morgana ride it as she bends to lick and suck, the taste of her own blood sharp in her mouth. Morgana is gasping for breath when she pulls away and kneels in front of Nimueh—the altar, Nimueh is leaning against the altar—and the moonlight shines off the slick she’s left on Nimueh’s thigh. Between her legs Nimueh is wet with salt but not iron, and she cries out like a prayer into the night when she comes.
Morgana doesn’t know what will happen next, what can be given to her, but Nimueh kisses herself out of Morgana’s mouth and slides her fingers into Morgana, curling them knowingly, and Morgana clutches at air, gasping for breath. Nimueh takes her other hand, shining dark with dried blood, and draws something where Morgana’s body grips her fingers, and the touch—the pattern of it, the knowledge and the gift and the magic in it—sends Morgana flying loose, all that storm-bright power falling into her and breaking like lightning over her.
“What was that?” Morgana asks when she can speak.
Nimueh slips her arm around Morgana, giving her something to lean against. “Surrender,” she says, and leads the way back into their shelter.