Two days after Arthur lives and Hunith lives, after Merlin returns from his journey shaking and triumphant, the dream comes.
It is the first night Morgana has dreamed of herself. She is standing in an empty courtyard. She can see the stars above and glimpses a woman in the darkness, her pale face hidden beneath a cloak. The woman approaches and Morgana feels the ground tremble beneath her feet, as if the woman’s approach makes the very earth come alive.
The woman steps closer and stretches out a hand, reaching for Morgana’s palm. Morgana braces herself for the contact, but the instant before the woman’s hand touches hers she wakes, trembling. Morgana cannot sleep again that night, and as the darkness fades into a grey, wet day, she pulls her knees to her chest and sits by the window to watch the clouds and wonder what her vision meant.
Morgana does not dream of the woman or the courtyard the next night, nor the one after that, but three weeks later Uther breaks his pledge to listen to her criticism and her counsel—which are the same—and he burns two women on the suspicion of witchcraft. There is no evidence against the women except hearsay and Morgana thinks they are being burned for being women, not for being sorcerers, though she would defend them regardless. The women are bound together on the pyre and they scream until the smoke stifles them, their cries echoing in Morgana’s head long after they are gone.
The night of the burning, Morgana dreams of the courtyard where the stone seems to thrum beneath her feet like a heartbeat. She turns on the spot, searching the shadows, for the woman isn’t there as the clouds above her gather to shroud the moon and the wind rises. Suddenly the woman appears out of nowhere and, dream or no, this can only be magic.
“Who are you?” Morgana asks, but there is no reply.
She can barely glimpse the woman’s face beneath the hood of her cloak, the dark lips and skin shining white in the moonlight. The woman walks toward her, smiling oddly, stretches out her hand and Morgana wakes.
The woman from the dream is hauntingly familiar, as if Morgana has passed her in the town or the fields. If the women is a witch then she may already be dead; perhaps one of the executions Morgana could not bear to watch. No matter how hard Morgana tries to remember, she cannot identify that face.
The dream returns when Morgana sleeps on the cold, hard floor of the dungeons as punishment for protesting the execution of a frail old druid. The courtyard is the same as ever, steeped in magic and intimidating in the moonlight. By now Morgana knows to simply wait. The woman emerges from the shadow as if materializing from the very air itself and approaches, her hands lifting to the hood of her cloak.
“Do you know me yet?”
The words are not spoken aloud, but go straight to Morgana’s mind in the same way the druid boy spoke to her, and she jolts.
“No,” Morgana says aloud. “Reveal yourself.”
The woman pushes back her hood and she is lovely in the moonlight, high cheekbones and bright, calculating blue eyes.
“I am Nimueh,” the woman says, and Morgana recoils at the name.
“You have nothing to fear from me,” Nimueh tells her, moving slowly forward, “though Uther Pendragon might.”
Nimueh stops in front of Morgana, and with a shock Morgana realises that she is standing beside a stone altar, not simply a table. This must be a graveyard or a temple, and she is in the company of a sorceress.
“Join me,” Nimueh says, reaching out her pale hand, and Morgana wakes up in her bed with a cry. She wraps the blankets tight around her, but it doesn’t stop the shivering.
When Morgana speaks to Gauis about the dreams he urges her to drink ever more of the sedative potions but will not meet her eyes. It is a shock to realise that Gauis is not her physician but Uther’s, a man who loathes magic and perhaps Morgana herself. She smiles to Gauis, thanks him and disposes carefully of every potion he brings her.
Morgana’s visions come more often now: every day that she rails against Uther’s violence and unjust decisions, every evening that she quarrels with the knights or fights with Arthur over the governance of the realm. Arthur is not to blame for his father’s decisions, but he is responsible for his own inaction and reluctance to shoulder the task of changing things. Someone must intervene or Uther’s blades and fires will one-by-one consume them all.
When the urge becomes too much to bear, Morgana rises early and rides alone to her father’s grave. In the dawn light her fingers scrabble amidst the frosty grass, feeling for the amber-coloured stone until it lights up at her touch.
Morgana slips the stone into a pouch and hides it beneath her cloak before turning to her father’s tombstone, and beside it the place where she killed Tauren. She sits on the grass at the graveside and watches the sun rise over the hills, considering Uther’s behavior, what needs to be done, and what her father would have considered right.
When Morgana returns to the castle, only Gwen and Merlin seem to notice that she has been gone. Merlin gives her a curious, piercing look, but she turns away before he can ask where she has been. Morgana hides the stone in a place within her room where she can be certain that Gwen will never see it.
Not long after collecting the stone Morgana hears a persistent echoing call that seems to emerge from the castle’s foundations. She determinedly ignores the voice for two days, snapping at people and flinching at shadows, before following the sound to its source.
The dragon that she discovers is huge, strange and remarkably ambiguous in its pronouncements about destiny. Nonetheless, Morgana learns two things: that her prophetic dreams are important and that the dragon longs for the king’s death. She reflects on its words while clasping the amber stone in her hands and waits for the day when she is resolved to use it.
That day comes when Uther blames yet another ordinary man for yet another fantastical monster, reacting with bloodshed and fury because he will not face the ubiquity of myth and magic. Morgana waits until the sun has set and the candles are lit, flames crackling in the kitchens and the hearths of the castle, then she rides out under the full moon.
Frost crunches beneath her horse’s hooves and there is a dusting of snow that gives the hills and forests a cold, hard beauty. She rides fast, steering by the stars, and when she finally reaches the shoreline it is familiar from her dreams. A boat carries her across the lake without any propulsion she can discern, though the magic tugs Morgana forward and the stone is warm against her palm.
The flagstones are silver and gleaming in the moonlight as Morgana strides to the altar, her heavy cloak billowing around her. She places the stone upon the altar and draws a sword from her belt, looking up at the skies before lowering her gaze and drawing the blade across her palm.
Blood springs from the line scored by the blade and Morgana raises her hand over the stone and the altar, watching her blood form fat droplets and fall. For a moment there is stillness, then the sky darkens as clouds gather above her, racing across the sky as if pulled to the centre of a cyclone. The whole courtyard begins to shudder like the reverberation of a bowstring, or the trembling of a nervous animal.
At this temperature the clouds should bring snow, but they don’t. Instead there is an abrupt downpour of rain that drenches Morgana’s hair and makes her cloak sodden and heavy on her shoulders. She blinks the droplets out of her eyes, squinting into the darkness, and suddenly Nimueh stands before her and the clouds retreat as fast as they arrived.
Nimueh is pale but indisputably alive; Morgana can see the haze of her breath in the cold air. As the moon re-appears Morgana can see that Nimueh’s cloak and dress are blood red, the same wine-dark shade as her lips. In this moment, Morgana thinks that Nimueh might represent all those who have been murdered for Uther’s hatred of magic, all the women sacrificed for daring to speak their minds or follow their own paths.
If she has interpreted the dragon’s words correctly, then the life exchanged for this will have been Uther’s, and the gain... The gain goes to the kingdom and to Arthur. Morgana wishes that she could trust Arthur to rule wisely and to listen when he is contradicted, but men - especially men - are fallible, and absolute power corrupts.
“Morgana,” Nimueh’s voice says inside her head, and Morgana meets her eyes.
Nimueh steps forward and if Morgana hadn’t already guessed that Nimueh was the priestess of this temple of the old magic, then she could read it now in the older woman’s poise. How old must Nimueh be? How much power does she wield? What wonders might they achieve together, these dark-haired women who are almost mirror images, two sides of the same coin?
Perhaps Merlin’s argumentative nature will prove sufficient and Arthur can be kept in check, but Morgana does not think women will be treated equally in Camelot unless they seize that power themselves. What can be done with brute force and sword can be done as well —no, can be done better—with reflection and foresight.
“Join me,” Nimueh says and reaches out her hand as she has a dozen times in Morgana’s dreams.
This time it isn’t a dream. This time Morgana stands real and shivering in this courtyard with a powerful witch whispering words of treachery. This time the brutality of Camelot can be stopped.
Nimueh’s arm is outstretched, her palm turned upwards in a gesture of vulnerability despite all the power contained in those soft hands. Morgana’s own hands are calloused, and while she doesn’t regret the nights in the dungeon or her skills with a blade, now it is time for something different. Something more fluid than steel, more subtle than fire.
Nimueh is waiting, beautiful and silent, and with a smile Morgana takes her hand.
“Such women are dangerous
to the order of things”
and yes, we will be dangerous...
because the line dividing
lucidity from darkness
is yet to be marked out.
Adrienne Rich, from the poem ‘From an Old House in America’