Uther and Nimueh, you could say that they’ve a history. It begins when they’re still young. Uther is Crown Prince of Camelot, which means he gets to stay out of the castle and take to the streets of Camelot, knights in tow.
Every day, Uther walks into the market place, checking on the merchants and taking great care to maintain order when it looks like a drunken brawl is going to break out outside the Tavern. He enjoys his duties, enjoys the looks and the bows he gets, and how the crowd parts to let him through. He is Crown Prince after all, and this is Camelot- these are his people.
Sir Gorlois smirks as one of the serving girls curtsies in front of them, and ends up unbalancing the basket of apples she’s slung over one arm. She kneels to collect the fruit before it rolls away any further.
“You did that on purpose.” Uther regards Gorlois from the corner of his eye. It amuses Uther how incredibly vain his friend can be, and how everyone seems to react to his charm in such extreme ways.
“I don’t know what you speak of, my Lord.” Gorlois feigns innocence as he silently nudges Uther. “Is his Majesty jealous?”
Uther looks ahead and pretends not to notice Gorlois’ smirk.
Satisfied with their rounds, the Knights make their way back towards the citadel. They’re nearing the Royal stables when Uther sees something that makes him stop in his track.
“Not this again-“ he swears under his breath. Gorlois follows Uther’s gaze and reacts similarly. The two youths stare at the cloaked woman and her young apprentice as they dismount their steeds.
“They’re back.” Uther observes. The older of the two women senses Uther watching (of course she does) and meets his gaze. Uther nods at her in acknowledgment. The woman does not return his nod. Instead she turns on her heel and walks into the castle, with her apprentice in tow.
“Looks like we’re needed in Council.” Gorlois remarks. Uther hmms in response.
The King’s Council is already assembled in the Throne Room when Uther walks in. The knights have been asked to wait outside, and this worries Uther. Something serious has happened, something that needs to be kept secret. Uther is sure of it. He scans the room to see who else has been summoned- there is Lord Dreyfus who is his father’s counsellor and Lord Wilfred of Nemeth,an old friend of the house of Pendragon. Uther also spots Timothy- the Royal Physician and his new apprentice, Gaius. His eyes make contact with Gaius’, and Gaius nods subtly at him. The man is only a little older than him but he’s very serious, and Uther supposes he must be extremely capable if Timothy- who can be extremely harsh at times- hasn’t sent him packing yet. Behind them are some more noblemen, who appear to be discussing among themselves, gesturing mutedly now and then.
The King raises a hand, putting an end to all muttered conversations and everyone,including Uther focuses on the woman and her apprentice who stand in the centre of the room.
“Lady Madja.” The King smiles at the woman, who has by now discarded her riding cloak and wears a red gown and a circlet around her head. She could be mistaken for a royal, except everyone in the room knows that she isn’t.
This is Lady Madja- the High Priestess of the Old Religion.
“My Lord.” She mutters the word and bows her head in acknowledgment.
“You bring us news?” The King prods. Lady Madja nods and looks at her apprentice who draws something out from the folds of her dress. She hands it to her mistress who holds it in front of her for the king to see. The King looks at the cup in disbelief. He makes to hold it but thinks the better of it.
“You found it then.” His voice is a murmur, his eyes still fixed on the cup.
Lady Madja smiles briefly. “It was my apprentice that found it.” She admits. “I cannot claim ownership.”
“No,of course.” The king nods in comprehension. He turns to the younger girl- she too is dressed in red, but does not wear a headdress. Where the Lady Madja is fair-haired and grey-eyed, her apprentice is dark-haired with eyes that are the brightest shade of azure. She is pretty, but Uther knows that with High Priestesses, looks can be deceptive.
“What is your name?” The king asks of her, and the apprentice steps forward and curtsies.
“Lady Nimueh.” The King corrects. “You have been chosen by the forces for it by your hand that Camelot’s greatest treasure was procured.” He casts a glance at Madja, who holds out the silver cup to Nimueh.
“You shall be the Keeper of the Cup of Life.”
Nimueh bows her head and accepts the Cup from Lady Madja. She holds it close and closes her eyes, muttering an incantation under her breath. Her eyelids flutter and Uther spots slits of gold. The cup responds by glowing equally bright for all of three seconds before it goes back to normal.
The ritual is complete- Nimueh will retain the Cup Of Life on behalf of Camelot.
“For Camelot.” Nimueh meets Uther’s eyes, and Uther clears his throat, pretending to be non-chalant.
But even he knows he fails at the act.
“Prince Uther.” Nimueh greets him as he passes her by in the square two months later. She’s standing with Gaius and the two look like they’ve been having a serious conversation. He stops and fixes Nimueh with his gaze.
“Lady Nimueh.” He says by way of greeting.
“Gaius and I were just talking.” She begins. Gaius looks extremely apologetic and Uther quirks an eyebrow, giving him a once over- the physician’s apprentice has his medicine bag slung over his shoulder, and his long brown hair’s windswept as if he’s been running against the wind.
“We think.” She crosses her arms across her chest and looks up at Uther. “That you need to look at the trial again.”
Uther stares down at her coldly. Of course they’re talking about the trial still. Uther’s first trial- a manservant who’s been accused of poisoning one of the nobles of the court. Uther knows half the city thinks the boy’s been wrongly accused, but the evidence is strong against him.
Uther shakes his head. “There’s nothing I can do.”
“Come now, Uther.” Nimueh chides. “Don’t tell me you’re going to let an innocent manservant die.”
“People die every day.” Uther counters. “He won’t be the last.”
“You’re trying so hard to be uncaring.” Nimueh’s eyes flash and Uther takes a step back. “You’re going to be king one day, Uther Pendragon. These are your people, and they deserve justice.” She holds his gaze. Uther gulps and looks over at Gaius, who is staring resolutely back at him. There is a moment of tension where the three look at each other with varied degrees of exasperation. Finally,Uther’s shoulders sag and he sighs.
“What do you have?”
Nimueh smiles at him and gestures for Gaius to begin.
Three days later the innocent boy walks free because Uther catches the real criminal- the noble’s older son, who is a power-hungry slimeball anyway. He knows that if it weren’t for Nimueh’s ability to identify poisons and know just how accessible certain ingredients are and Gaius’ ability to cure the poisoned man who affirmed that his manservant did not serve him the poisoned dinner that night, then they’d never have caught the real culprit. His father reluctantly arrests the son, realising that any noble that plots to overthrow his own father, could do the same to his king.
It feels good to do the right thing.
Of course, he’ll never tell Nimueh that.
“You know, you and I might be different.” She says to him one day while they’re walking down the corridor. “I’m smarter, kinder, and much more conscientious, while you’re uptight, boring and big-headed…” She ignores Uther’s scowl. “But in many ways, Uther Pendragon- I think we’re the same.”
Him and Nimueh. The same. What an odd thought, Uther thinks.
Uther’s father dies when he is twenty-two. The king was old and it was completely expected. Uther is the new king and it’s his turn to serve Camelot. In many ways, that year is one of transition- Timothy the physician retires and nominates Gaius as his successor. Uther allows it because he likes Gaius, even though some of the potions the man brews are despicable. That same year Nimueh becomes part of his (official) counsel.
“See,I knew I was important.” She smirks at him after their first meeting. She’s older now, no longer the young apprentice. Nimueh’s developed a formidable reputation- she’s beautiful and regal and self-assured. Everyone knows she is destined to be one of the High Priestesses, and everyone respects her. Uther thinks it has to do with the red dresses and the circlet that Nimueh has started wearing- a gold-leaf pattern that rests atop her dark head.
Occasionally Nimueh makes trips to the forests around Camelot to interact with the druids. She usually returns with news about the neighbouring kingdoms, who is looking for what relic and whether or not one should be wary. Sometimes, when the situation is dire Nimueh keeps to herself for days and watches the scrying-glass. Every now and then she bursts into the throne room, instructing Uther to send his knights to stop insurgents on the northern borders, or to stop bandits from entering the Valley of the Fallen Kings.
Once, when Uther leads patrol to the Valley, she insists on coming along.
“There’s something I want to show you.” She explains, as she rides beside him.
“What could you possibly want to show me?” Uther scoffs.
And he does see.
It is twilight and they have stopped for the day.Uther’s about to command his knights to start a fire and set up camp when Nimueh tugs at his arm.
“Wait.” She breathes, a sly smile playing on her lips.
“Why?” Uther asks. Nimueh just shakes her head and tilts her chin up towards the sky. “Look.” She whispers. Uther follows her gaze and looks up.
“Are those-” his words die on his lips as he sees the great winged shapes above them. There’s ten of them, and they must be very high up because they’re all but specks in the dusky sky.
“Dragons. They come out at night.” Nimueh explains, watching Uther’s face with satisfaction. “They’re creatures of magic- a High Priestess’ greatest ally.”
“Will you-” the words die on his lips but Nimueh understands anyway. “I’d like to have one on my- our side.”
Uther nods in agreement, his eyes fixed on the now disappearing creatures.
“I couldn’t imagine a world without magic.”
He marries the next year. Ygraine du Bois is a beautiful woman and a worthy queen. She also brings with her the alliances of her brothers Tristan and Agravaine, and Uther couldn’t hope for a better match.
Nimueh visits him before the wedding.
“You’re getting married today.” She states, eyes scanning Uther’s outfit- a silk tunic and dark breeches, the richly embroidered Pendragon cape, and his ceremonial crown and sword.
“Uther Pendragon’s handfasting ceremony.” She snorts. Uther watches her- she’s discarded her usual red for a much more unusual lilac. Apart from that, she looks like she always does.
He grunts non-commitally.
“Do you love the Lady Ygraine?”
Nimueh shakes her head and walks to his side. She whacks his hand out of the way, and does up the fastening on his cape. “It’s an easy enough question.” Uther catches her smiling to herself.
“Do you love her?”
“I- I suppose I do.” Uther shrugs. “Does it really matter?”
“Why else would you marry her?” Nimueh sounds amused.
“Well, her family would make a good ally, and she- is beautiful.” He stutters.
“So- you think she’s beautiful.” Nimueh teases, and Uther swears the blush she sees creeping up his cheeks is merely a figment of her imagination and nothing more. “I’ve never heard Uther Pendragon call anyone else beautiful.”
“I don’t have to say it for it to be true.” Uther protests.
“Ah,so there are others you think of as beautiful.” She chides. “You can tell me their names.” When Uther doesn’t, Nimueh simply rolls her eyes.
“I could ask Gaius- I know you tell him everything.”
“Gaius will not tell you anything.”
“Hm. I have my doubts about that statement. Gaius owes me.”
“What for?” Uther is intrigued.
“I taught him some of my ways. Strictly medical purposes, of course.” She says sweetly, and Uther groans. Great, now his friend’s discovered the magical properties of wormwood and hemlock, and the subtle science behind turning people into toads.
“You.” He mumbles,finally.
“Sorry?” Nimueh raises an eyebrow in question.
“I think you’re beautiful.” He says. She stares at him for a moment, regarding him with the manner in which one would regard a mad man.
“I’m a High Priestess.” She tells him- softly, almost sadly.
“I know.” He nods.
“I have a duty to Camelot.” She insists.
“Yes. As do I.” Uther agrees.
Nimueh surveys his face,her lower lip trembling a little as she does.
“See.” She half-smiles. “We’re not that different.”
No,no we’re not. Uther thinks.
Later that night, Nimueh conjures fireworks in celebration of the King’s Marriage and the entire city attends the feast. There is mead and wine and plenty of food. Uther sits at the head of the table with his new wife beside him. He knows the citizens have already warmed up to their queen and this makes him happy. He is a happy man, and the world seems right.
Nimueh smiles at him from across the table, as she converses with one of the Queen’s brothers. He averts his gaze to smile at his wife.
It’s the three of them now- King, Queen and Priestess. Camelot is going to be fine.
Camelot is fine for a few years, and then it is not.
Uther wonders how everything fell apart so suddenly as he sits in his Council Chambers, and stops himself from breaking down. Not yet. He won’t be desperate, not yet.
“The people have begun to talk, my lord.” One of his advisors is saying. “And now that battle with Mercia is imminent…we must think of the kingdom’s future.”
Uther shakes his head. “I am not going to die.”
“And one would not dream of it, m’Lord.” The counsel hesitates. “But- if Camelot were to have an heir, then Camelot’s future is safeguarded.”
Uther knows this, he’s heard the same argument over and over, the same need- that Camelot should have an heir, that Uther should have a son.
Ygraine tells him he should – look elsewhere. That there are noblewomen who will gladly bear him a child. Uther knows she’s only thinking of the kingdom, but he couldn’t bear the thought- not when he loves Ygraine so much. So he brushes off her pleas, and consoles himself- there must be another way.
“No.” Nimueh looks stricken that Uther would even suggest such a thing. They’re in her chambers, and Nimueh’s just sent her apprentices off for the day.
“Nimueh, I am begging you.”
“You don’t know what you’re asking,Uther.”
“I’m asking you to give me- Ygraine and me- a child.”
Nimueh shakes her head. “I can’t do that. You have no idea how-”
“What good is the Cup of Life if it can’t give me a child?” Uther shouts in anger, in desperation. Nimueh doesn’t flinch. Instead, her voice attains a lower pitch and her eyes flash.
“It is dangerous,and I can’t- I won’t put you through it.” She hisses. “My answer is no.”
“I thought we were friends.” Uther snaps. “I thought you pledged loyalty to Camelot.”
“We are friends and I did. It is for your own good,Uther. Don’t ask me to do things I can’t.”
“I thought we were alike. I can see now that I was wrong.”
“Wait.” Uther turns to face her again. Nimueh holds his gaze for a second and then looks away.
“Please.” Uther begins. “If you ever felt anything for- for Camelot. I beg of you.”
“Send Gaius to me tomorrow.” Nimueh’s voice trembles and Uther sees the tears but he pretends he doesn’t, as he walks out of the room.
“The Lady Nimueh sends you this.” Gaius hold up a vial. “Water from the Cup of Life.”
Uther stares at the clear liquid that Gaius presents to him.
“My lord…” he shifts his weight to his left foot. “Uther. Don’t do it- she’s begging you.”
“What will it do?” Uther acts, deflecting the plea.
“I-” Gaius stammers. “It will bear the queen a son, but for a price.”
“What kind of price?”
“A life for a life.” The meaning is clear, spelt out in bold letters.
But Uther takes it anyway, because he trusts Nimueh. He knows what she feels, and she wouldn’t want to see him unhappy.
Yrgaine’s brothers Tristan and Agravaine come to Uther, warning him not to do what he plans on doing. They’re convinced that the spell will kill Ygraine, that Nimueh would do such a thing to the woman he loves. Uther sends them off, ignoring their threats.
They don’t know her like he does. She would give her life for Camelot.
He’ll thank her later.
Two hundred and seventy days later, Arthur is born.
Two hundred and seventy-one days later, Ygraine dies.
Two hundred and seventy-two days later, Uther sees red, and he reacts.
Ygraine is gone, gone forever and it is all her fault. He’s been tricked- tricked by magic.
Tricked his entire life into thinking that it was good, that she was good. He won’t stand for it anymore.
He begins with the things she likes.
All of her pupils are arrested. Herded behind closed doors where they can’t do anything.
Gaius he spares, because Gaius is his friend and Gaius was tricked into the whole thing by Nimueh. Gaius tries to reason with him, but Uther shakes his head. Gaius doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He doesn’t see her like Uther does.
The dragons go next- he sends his best knights to capture them. She loves her dragons, well, she can’t have them anymore.
She comes to him the next day. Her eyes flashing, her hair untamed and wild.
“Stop this.” She shrieks.
Uther laughs coldly at her.
“Uther,please-” He sees her let her guard down, watches her break down. “This isn’t you.”
“You don’t know me.” He spits out.
She cries, for the others he’s had burnt, for the dragons, the fires, the purge. All while his son sleeps in his cot, with a nurse watching over him.
“I told you- I warned you- you knew. You made me do it,you made me!” she screams.
He ignores her. He hasn’t tried to seek her out because he wants her to suffer, to see everything fall apart. It has nothing to do with the little part within him that can’t, can’t see her as his enemy.
“You planned it all along. You and your magic.” He hisses. “You couldn’t see me happy.” He shudders. “You couldn’t bear the thought- and so you killed her.”
“Now watch me return the favour.” Uther’s voice is cold as ice.
“No, please…” She moves towards him, to rest an arm on his hand. He pushes her away, she drops to the floor.
“There is no place for you here. I have seen your true form.”
“I gave you a son.” She hisses.
“You murdered my wife. You’re alone, and you would want the same for me.”
There is moment of silence, the tension hangs in the air.
Slowly, Nimueh gets to her feet. She faces him, her eyes blazing and angry.
“I was wrong about you.” Her voice is an octave lower Dangerous,angry.
“You are blind, you will never know what it is to be just. You are a coward.”
Her eyes flash gold and Uther is thrown backwards into a wall.
“I could have done that years ago, but I didn’t because I trusted you.” Her voice quivers, and Uther tries to get to this feet but she holds him there, binding him to the wall.
“This was your fault. I did everything for you, but this is your fault.”
“You’re a witch.” He accuses. “I have seen your kind.”
“And I yours.” She whispers. She steps away from him, shunning him, turning her back on him.
“I will not forget.” She tells him. “We’re the same, Uther. You will let your anger govern you, then so will I.
“You took everything from me. You took me from me.” She laughs,long and cold- the chandelier above them shakes and rattles with the energy.
“One day it will be my turn.” She turns to face Uther, a twisted version of her usual smirk on her face.
“We are the same,Uther and you are going to wish it was not so.”
And then she’s gone. She disappears into thin air, leaving behind her circlet, which clatters to the ground, and falls silent on the cold stone floor.
They are nothing alike, Uther decides. He was wrong. Like he was about everything else. He has a justification for his actions, she doesn’t. She’s been corrupted by the evil of her magic. They have nothing in common.
He keeps one dragon alive, just to prove how much better he is than her.
He ignores the voice that tells him it’s too late, that they’re both the same, that there is no going back.
That no matter what he does now, all will be lost.
Instead he tells himself that there can be no place for magic in Camelot, and that Camelot is better off without it. Magic is evil, and he is a misunderstood saviour.
So he hides his loneliness behind a mask of power and kingly authority, and carries on.