She hates being called Nora.
The first person to do it was her mother, shortening her little girl’s name to make it easier for her to say, and maybe then it had been all right. But she grew up fast, and the nickname faded and died along with her childhood and her mother.
Then she met him.
“Balinora,” he’d said at first. “What a strange name.” Then later: “May I call you Nora?”
She’d let him, and that’s what she became to him. It was the name he used to address her in court, to call to her in battle, to talk with her in private, to seduce her into bed while Lady Ygraine slept three rooms away.
It was the name he choked out between tears months later as he grieved over his dead wife, begging her to comfort him as the loathing and the guilt ate away at his sanity. And she’d tried, so hard, to help him, to save him from the madness threatening to take him, but the rage was too strong. Ygraine’s memory was poison in his veins, something she was incapable of curing.
Come, Nora, is what he says when he takes her with him to the courtyard balcony to watch the first executions. It’s an inferno of screams and burning flesh, of children dashing into the flames for their parents and wives for their husbands, and just as she begins feeling faint from disgust, he asks her, Isn’t it beautiful, Nora?
Nora, can you find Nimueh? he asks her the next day. Can you kill her?
She doesn’t know if she could or not, but she tells him no, that she’s not that powerful.
The inevitable begins happening after that. She hadn’t ever been so naïve as to hope it wouldn’t. When the hate burns as deeply as it does in him, eventually there are no shades of grey. Magic itself is the enemy, as well as everyone who practices it, no matter who they are.
But she doesn’t want him to hate her. For months, she’s seeking atonement for something that isn’t even her sin. She stops practicing when he asks her to, and then she puts her head down and humbles herself and holds her tongue and hopes that he’ll have mercy on her like he did on Gaius.
But he still looks at her with hate. He speaks to her with hate. He fucks her with hate.
She learns to ignore it, because silent loathing is better than the pyre.
Nora, he demands one day, as the ashes of human remains hang heavy in the air around them, so thick they might as well be permanent, summon the Great Dragon.
She does so, praying for a return to his favor.
But as soon as Kilgharrah is in chains, he motions the guards over and she realizes that he had just been biding his time. The last Dragonlord was useful to him for luring the last dragon, but now she can offer nothing.
“I’m with child!” she shrieks as they drag her off to her cage. “You can’t murder your own child!”
But Uther stares at her with that cold, hateful gaze, and she realizes that yes, yes he can.
She spends three days in the dungeon, curled on herself as she drifts in and out of reflection. She thinks about everything that led her here, and the world closes and narrows and darkens in terror of the flames she can almost already feel.
She thinks of all the others who have met the same fate before her, burned to death as she stood next their murderer and watched, and she feels hate.
It’s strangling, incapacitating. The loathing for this tyrant, this monster that led her into betraying her own kind, who used her up and threw her away. She wishes she could drive a knife into his heart—scratch his eyes out—put her hands around his throat and choke the life out of him.
Her body writhes in repulsion at the memories, the phantom touches, the heavy feeling in her belly where his spawn rests, still too undeveloped to show but there. She wishes she had a knife to cut it out.
The only reason she never does is because it saves her life. Uther wasn’t moved by her state, but Gaius—kind, caring Gaius—was. He comes to her in the middle of the night, cell key hidden up his sleeve, and smuggles her out of the city.
They ride for two days, only stopping for short periods when the horses come to the point of exhaustion. Soon they’re entering a small village on the outskirts of Cenred’s kingdom, a community of peasants who eek by on the crops they grow each season.
Gaius tells her that he was born here, and his youngest sister still lives here. Hunith is a kind woman, a spinster, and she agrees to hide her with very little hesitation, despite the danger.
“Be careful, Balinora,” Gaius tells her. “He won’t be happy you’ve escaped.”
Balinora. For some reason, it brings a little smile to her face.
“I’ll try to come check on you as often as I can. You’ll need at least some medical care if you want things to go smoothly. May I?” He reaches out a hand to pat her belly, and she allows him.
When he leaves, she watches him from the window and wishes that she could’ve been bearing his child instead.
Life in Ealdor is far from that in the court of Camelot, but it’s simple, like her childhood with the druids. She works in the fields for the first few months, until it becomes physically impossible. From then on, she does chores around the house while Hunith is in the fields, cleaning and repairing broken furniture with her magic. The mending of clothes she tries to do herself, as a way to pass the time.
She tries to forget, even as Gaius brings news that Uther is hunting her like a man possessed, risking war by sending his troops across borders to search. It’s the only way to stay sane.
At night, she whispers to her womb, telling the child that it has no father. It’s a nice lie. But it can’t go on forever.
It’s an autumn night when she wakes up to wetness gushing down her thighs. The next hours are spent in agony, Hunith wiping the sweat from her brow as the midwife pokes between her legs, assessing her progress.
It goes on into the next night, the pain rushing up over her in waves. Some are intense enough that she almost begs for death; others wring the consciousness out of her, carrying her down into a black oblivion that thrums with the suffering of her body.
Near the end, she thinks about Ygraine, dead almost two years ago from this very thing. She likes to think she’s stronger than that, but maybe this is the curse of any woman to conceive by Uther: an ugly, excruciating death.
But soon after she stops hoping for it, the midwife does another check and tells her it’s time to begin pushing. As she enters a whole new realm of pain, she thinks of Uther, briefly. She wonders if he’s ever given a thought to his bastard, if sometimes he looks out his window and thinks about the child he has out there somewhere, if it’s been born yet.
Maybe, she thinks, he didn’t even believe her when she told him it was his. She hopes so.
When the pain reaches a crescendo and drives all the thoughts from her mind, she’s glad of it. She loses herself in it, drifting, not aware of anything except the sensations and her instructions—push.
She pushes, and there’s a scream. One not her own.
She comes rushing back, vision clearing and body tingling with aftershocks.
“It’s a girl!” Hunith declares cheerfully, swaddling the newborn in a rough red cloth and setting it up on Balinora’s chest.
She looks, almost dreading.
The girl is ugly, like all newborns. She’s covered in blood and mucus and flushed with anger, chest heaving as she shrieks.
She’s healthy. She was born alive. Balinora is still alive. It’s all most mothers would’ve asked for.
But what relieves Balinora is her hair and her eyes. They’re black and blue, not brown and hazel. And her face, her features—there is no Uther there.
Balinora still hates her. She can’t help it. But now, she finds she doesn’t want to.
“What will you name her?” Hunith asks.
She thinks, briefly, of Ygraine’s son. Arthur. What an ugly, blunt name. She knows she wants something completely the opposite, but she isn’t sure what.
It takes her a week to decide, a week of learning to nurse and cradle and soothe, a week of ignoring floating objects and putting out small fires.
Her daughter is a born witch, and she loves it. She wants to take her to Camelot and parade her in front of Uther and show him the kind of bastard he’s sired. She knows, of course, that she can’t, but she dreams for her child, hoping that one day, she’ll grow to be strong and swift and cunning, a predator to Uther’s prey.
That’s why she names her after her favorite breed of falcon. She’d used them in Camelot, when she’d attended the hunt—Uther had thought them small and weak, but she’d admired their quiet strength and speed, moving in for the kill with deadly precision.
One day, she tells Merlin every night as she lays her down to sleep. The child’s innocence is almost unnerving to her, because she knows that it won’t last; one day, she’ll hate, with everything she is.
But she doesn’t see it.
A month after the birth, she wakes in the morning to the sound of horses galloping into town and the surprised shouts of the villagers, and she knows. They’ve searched everywhere else, and now they’re here.
Hunith rushes in the door and immediately joins her in gathering up any signs of her presence, bundling them into a neckerchief and shoving them into her arms.
Then, all that’s left is Merlin.
Balinora hesitates. Hunith glances between them, out the window at the red caped knights halting their horses in the village center, and hisses, “You can’t take an infant on the run.”
It’s the truth. But she still tries to protest. “But I—”
“Go. Just go. You can come back when they’re gone.”
She spends a month drifting from town to town, living in inns and caves and tents. And she realizes: this is her life now. Uther is willing to risk war to get her back to Camelot. He’ll slight anyone just to see her burn. There’s nowhere that she can go, not even back to the druids—they’ve cast her out, for standing by in the beginning of the madness and watching her kin die.
By the time she wanders back to Ealdor, she feels like a stranger there. She creeps up to Hunith’s home and peers in the window, sees her daughter being cradled and grinned at. Hunith, barren, spinster Hunith, looks radiant in the light cast from the hearth, happy and glowing like a new mother, so full of love for the child in her arms it might as well have been her own.
It’s such a pretty picture. And she has no place in it, not when she’ll only bring fear and uncertainty. Nor can she take Merlin away to live in a cave, constantly on the run, every moment shadowed with the threat of execution.
So Balinora turns and walks into the night, directionless.
The tears that run down her face are viciously swiped away. She tells herself she has no reason to cry.
She hated her daughter, anyway.