Nimueh finds the boy in a small village, wide-eyed and honest and trusting, and he smiles at her. Smiles at her, and his eyes flash gold, and she knows, knows in her bones and soul that this is the boy who will save her. The whispers of the future say, he must go to Camelot, he must, he must.
Her heart begs, not yet.
He must go to Camelot, but she cannot send him unprepared, cannot send him forth like a lamb to the slaughter, still so trusting and brave. He must go to Camelot, but not for many years, not until he is a young man, rather than a child. He must go to Camelot, but surely there is time.
He must go to Camelot, but he is so small.
She goes to his mother, who stares at her, all calm eyes and practical face, and says, "Please keep him safe."
Nimueh promises her, this peasant woman in her village shack. Nimueh, who was once a Lady of the court, bows her head and vows.
She will not lose this boy, not when she has lost so many, when she could not keep them safe from Uther's madness.
She will not fail this child like she failed Ygraine, those many years ago.
She leaves Camelot after Ygraine's funeral, to connect with her Gods and rail at them, screeching and howling and grieving, wild as her magic.
It takes seven days for the pain to bleed away from her, for the agony of loss to fade into a dull throb rather than knives in her heart.
It is not until she turns toward Camelot that she knows something is wrong.
The air smells like smoke and death, and she does not dare go into battle unprepared.
The water shows her Uther, standing tall and stone-faced, over fire. A bonfire. A pyre a stake a girl and oh, oh, Gods, Nimueh feels her heart tearing at the screams.
She sees his eyes, and they are nothing like she remembers. They are empty and bitter and dark and consuming, and she knows that everything has changed.
She could fight him. She could wage war upon the kingdom that she built for him, with him; she could tear his world apart, piece by piece, brick by brick, life by life. She could bring him to his knees and pull him to pieces, body and soul. She could leave his universe in ruins.
But he has Ygraine's son, and Ygraine would not want her son to grow up without a father, without that blood-tie binding him to everything Ygraine had loved and lived for.
Merlin is a good pupil; bright and eager to learn, and the strength of his magic still amazes Nimueh. She will teach him to speak to trees, learn their secrets, only to find him a few nights later, held by branches that had not bent that way a night before. While she can heal a wound, Merlin can stop the blood from rushing out, can mend the flesh and knit the bone.
His eyes are golden and happy (the color of Ygraine's hair), and she is proud.
She rests her hands on his head; white hands against dark locks of hair, and hopes.
The first time the knights find her, Nimueh tries to reason with them. She continues trying, until she can no longer bear the bite of steel against her flesh, and must act.
Nimueh has no love for death and bloodshed.
The second time the knights find her, Nimueh runs, vanishes into the night and shadows, and does not return to the village. She'd stayed too long, grown complacent.
The third time, it is only one knight, and he finds her in the cave she has claimed, deep in the wilderness. He finds her on accident, eyes wild and frightened, sword shaking in his hand. His name is not said, but Nimueh does not recognize him.
He is very young.
Nimueh does not love death, and after she has done what is needed, she mourns.
Asphodel grows above the grave, and regret grows around her heart.
There is no fourth time.
Merlin is hungry for tales of other magicians, and she cannot shelter him forever; cannot wrap the world in lies for this boy, her boy. She cannot keep him safe that way.
His eyes are dark, and his voice is unhappy when he asks her, “Is there nothing that can be done? With all of your power?”
And for that, she has to hold him. He is fifteen, and too old for hugs, or so he claims, but she loves him too much for asking the question to do anything else.
She whispers, “There is something I can do, and I have done it.”
This boy, wonderful and honest and loyal and true, this boy will end Uther's tyranny, will heal Camelot's wounds and bring joy. He will come from the side, where none would expect him, and he will wind his way into the heart of Camelot. The future whispers to her, and she sees Merlin's dark head beside a golden one, and smiles, and Merlin's eyes are gold while Ygraine's son's are blue.
It will take many years. It will take blood, and secrets, and sacrifices.
It will consume Nimueh, she is sure of that, but it will be worth it.
Merlin is a good name for a savior.
Nimueh intends to raise one.