Reflecting

Friday, May 5th, 2017

People are naive about such things, and they would rather write them off as evil than attempt to understand them. An unfortunate truth, but a truth nonetheless.”

- Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus

I am five years old, standing behind Vivienne at court. She is swathed in blue and covered in pearls, and I think that maybe I want to look like her one day. The young king, sitting on his throne, looked like the sun. And he is listening to her advice.1 Beside the king is an old man, his body bent with age. His robes are covered in runes, and he clutches at a staff to stay upright.2 Vivienne seems to disagree with a lot of what the older man says. At dinner that night, she warns me about him.

“Avoid him, Nimüe,”3 she says, sipping her wine. “He causes nothing but trouble.”4

But the man looks so harmless, almost like my grandfather.5 There’s no way he could do anything to hurt me, right?

I think Vivienne reads my thoughts, because she responds, “He looks harmless, I know, but he has more power than you will ever have.”

The next time we come to court, I’m fifteen. Vivienne has never looked so enraged. The king (who had listened so attentively the last time she had things to say) has chosen to ignore Vivienne’s advice.6

As we stride into the hall, I can sense the tension among the assembly.7 Something is wrong. Vivienne stops halfway down the great hall, preparing. From the corner of my vision, I see someone stirring. And then, as Vivienne opens her mouth, there is a slash.

Blood.

So much blood.

I am screaming, the other women with us are screaming.

My white robes stained with blood.8

Running towards Vivienne, trying to make sure she is alright.

Blood. Blood everywhere.

Voices.

“She was going to enchant you, my Lord. Her hands were moving and her lips were open.”9

I want to respond, but I can’t.

I’m too busy watching Vivienne die.

The king’s voice rings out over the confusion, but by then the other ladies and I are leaving.

We take Vivienne’s body with us.10

At Avalon, a conclave meets to select a new Lady.11 Of all the candidates, they select me.

Me, Nimüe.

I don’t know what to do.12

I had no guidance. I wasn’t prepared to take on this role.13

But I suppose it’s my duty now.

The next time that I’m at court, I’m nineteen. This time, as I incline my head to the king, I look to see who’s seated next to him.

There’s a pale skinned brunette, with a slim golden band around her head. She has to be the queen.14

There’s a tall man behind the queen, standing at ease.15 He must be the famous Lancelot du Lac.16

And behind the king is someone who I do not recognize. He is young, but still looks like he has seen things in his life. He seems familiar somehow.17

The king beckons me to the dais, and, upon my arrival, bows to me18 and offers me a spot at the table for dinner. I accept.

At the table, I am seated next to the mysterious man.

I still can’t shake the idea that he is familiar, somehow.

And then he speaks.

“I knew your predecessor, my Lady.”

I raise an eyebrow at him. “Oh?”

He looks down at his plate. “Vivienne never liked me too terribly much.”

And that’s when it suddenly all makes sense. The robes, covered with runes. The staff he has casually laid against his chair while he eats.

“Merlin?” I can’t help but ask.

He grins mischievously. “I’d doff my cap at you for figuring it out, but that’s not exactly possible at this moment.”19

I can’t stop staring at him.

“What is it?” he starts, looking nervous now. “Is there something in my teeth?”

“What?” I shake my head. “No, it’s…last time, you were…”

The recognition dawns across his face. “Oh, the aging thing.” He laughs. “I age backwards.”20

It dumbfounds me. “Is that even possible?”

He smiles at me. “Of course. Magic does wonders, you know.”

“Could you…” I gulp. “Could you teach me?”

He looks pensive. “I’ll have to consider it.”

I nod.

Two weeks later, after I have left court, I receive a messenger, who gives me a piece of paper with two words on it.

I will.21

I never know when Merlin is going to show up for my lessons. Sometimes, it’s a few days. Other times it’s months.

A few select occasions, it’s been years.22

One time, we were in the middle of a forest. He laid his hands on the trunk of the tree and breathed deeply.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

He sighed. “This is an ancient forest, Nimüe.”23

I nodded. “And?”

He opened his eyes and looked right at me. “It’s the place where I will die.”

“Why are you telling me this?” I asked.

“Because,” he said. “You’re the one that kills me.”

I couldn’t help laughing.22 “Why on earth would I kill you? You’re my best friend.”25

He turned. “Come, Nimüe. I’m going to show you how to speak to living things.”

He grows on me. And I start to grow on him, I think.26 Our training is more frequent. He starts spending as much time near me as he can.27 But his behavior is different.

He can’t look me in the eyes, and yet I catch him looking away quickly.

He spends much of his time fiddling with his robes, or his staff, or his hair, or his beard.28

He begins to speak faster and faster.

When I ask him what is going on, he answers, “I’m running out of time.”

One day, in the middle of our lesson, he grabs my hand to demonstrate the problem with the cast I was performing, and freezes.

“What is it?” I ask him.

He just looks at me.

“What did I do wrong?” I say, tugging my hand.29

He shakes his head, grabs my other hand, and starts to delicately shape my hands in the correct form. But then he freezes again.

And looks up.30,31,32

Time does not change his behavior towards me.

In fact, it gets worse.

He wants to teach me love magic, wants to show me how to brew potions and catch unicorns.

Flowers appear out of the blue – lilies. Always water lilies.

I want to escape this.33

We return to the forest. We haven’t been here for a long time.

“I only have a few things left to teach you, Nimüe,” he tells me.

I nod.

I can see the toll that constant teaching is having on him. He has the face of a young man in his prime, but his body is old. And so is his mind. It weighs on him.

But me – I’m aging the other way. I have laugh lines where he has none. I’m starting to get wrinkles around my eyes.

Soon, we will not have any more time to spend together.

I look at him. “Merlin, is there anything I can do for you?”

He looks confused.

“You seem so tired,” I tell him, slowly walking him back to the nearest tree. “Don’t you just want to sleep for a little?”

He looks thoughtful. “That would be nice.”

“I can place you into an enchanted sleep, and you won’t wake until you feel refreshed.”34

He nods. “That would be nice.”

As he curls up on the ground and I begin to move my hands over him, he murmurs, “Thank you, Nimüe.”

I cast the strongest sleep I can. When I’m sure he has fallen deeply asleep, I move him so that he stands against the tree, arms outstretched.

He looks so peaceful, stretched out like that.35

I almost break. The tears threaten to come.

I place my hands on the bark of the tree.

And I start to sing to the tree.

I tell it the story of Merlin and Nimüe. How they were originally friends, and Nimüe asked for the great Merlin to act as her teacher. How she learned all of his magic, and then, at the end, she could not truly learn it all. How Merlin was tired – so tired – and needed to sleep. Because some day, in the future, the king would need him. And so, while Merlin sleeps, the king will learn the lessons he needs to, without guidance.

And Nimüe will learn how to heal her broken heart.

This is the song I sing to the tree. And as I sing, I beg the tree to house him until he wakes up. To protect him, like the water protects me.

And the tree, moved by my song, begins to envelope his sleeping form.

Slowly, bark envelopes his arms, his hands, his feet.

It closes over his chest.

The last thing to be covered is his face.

When it is finished, I collapse.

And I let the tears come.36

I am now old – so old, that I believe my bones might turn into dust if I move. But I return to the tree, and sit at its roots.

Waiting.37


1 Men rarely listen, I’ve been told. Although growing up surrounded by women, I didn’t exactly have any experience with that. At least, not then.

2 If you haven’t guessed, this is Merlin. You know, the Merlin. The guy behind the Sword in the Stone. The one who always advised King Arthur. The one who was seduced by the maiden Nimüe, who stole all his secrets and then trapped him.

3 Oh, yeah. I should probably mention – I’m Nimüe. Yes, that Nimüe.

But the stories have it wrong, I promise. If they were right, would I be telling you this?

No, probably not.

Clearly I don’t listen too well, because look where I am now.

Or what I imagine he looked like, anyway. I was taken to serve Avalon as an infant, so I’m not completely sure what my family is like. If they are still alive.

And, I mean, I might sound a little hypocritical, yelling at him for ignoring Vivienne when I’ve done that plenty of times, but if you’re king, you don’t just go ignoring the Lady of the Lake. It simply isn’t done.

7 I should’ve told Vivienne. “Trust your instincts, child,” she had always told me. Why didn’t I trust my instincts then?

8 I also don’t think that her blood ever really washed out of those. I still have them, somewhere. There’s faint pink splotches where I was splashed.

Vivenne always talked with her hands. Our magic never involved hands, anyway. It’s also really hard for us to enchant anyone away from water.

Not that Balin would’ve known that, but still.

10 Because that’s our duty, as maidens of Avalon. We guide the dead to their final resting place, after all. Why would Vivienne be any different?

11 There’s groups of us all over the islands. This is the only time when we get to see all of our sisters at once. And you can imagine the insanity that is having so many women in one place at one time.

12 To be fair to the conclave, neither did they. None of them expected to have to elect a new Lady so soon. Vivenne was pretty young, and she looked like she was going to live a long, healthy life. So you can see why her sudden death was pretty shocking.

13 Again, no one thought Vivienne was going to die anytime soon, least of all Vivienne, so she hadn’t handpicked a favorite for her successor. We all thought it was going to be Elaine (she was so perfect at everything – she knew the rituals by heart, and could cast without blinking an eye). So hearing my name was like having a mild panic attack.

Nothing quite prepares you for becoming a major world leader like shock and abject terror at the job.

14 It’s a miracle that Arthur managed to get her to marry him. Merlin likes to tell people that he won over Leodegrance, her father, with the promise that she would be Queen of the Britons, and that her father was so overjoyed with the thought that he gave Arthur not only his daughter, but also a huge round table that had been a gift from Uther Pendragon.

I have yet to see this “Round Table” anywhere at Camelot. In case you were wondering.

15 Military at ease, not slouching about – Lancelot was a military man, after all. I guess it’s just ingrained in him after so many years of service.

16 Let me tell you, Lancelot was quite a fascinating figure among us at Avalon. Even if he did claim that the Lady of the Lake was his mother (let me assure you, she was not. Hard to be a virgin priestess with a son on your hands.), he was still one of our favorite knights to hear tales about. We were especially fond of the stories where he served young maidens, and refused to take payment or marry them in return for helping. It always made us feel like our unmarried states weren’t necessarily a bad thing.

Although he does have a penchant for becoming overwhelmed by bloodthirst and killing everyone in sight. That wasn’t really something we were fond of.

17 Have you guessed yet? I mean, it took me a while, too, so don’t worry if it hasn’t clicked.

18 Okay, not bowed bowed, but more of a courtly bow, like you’d expect from two people of equal rank.

19 He always talked like this – saying things that sounded vaguely off and out of place. But you’ll see why in a second.

20 SEE?! This is why I was so confused. Because (as he explained often, and in great detail), he lives backwards in time. So he ages backwards, too. But he sometimes has a lot of knowledge about things that haven’t happened yet. Like the doffing of caps.

21 For all his bragging, Merlin did quite enjoy being cryptic.

22 I often wondered if he just forgot, or if he was intentionally spacing them out. Like he knew it was going to be better if he did certain lessons at certain times. But it was so annoying, waiting for him – I’m not too terribly patient, and waiting made me angry.

23 I mean, clearly. The tree he was leaning against was so tall that I couldn’t see the top branches.

24 Remember the exaggeration thing?

25 Which was true.

26 Why else would he spend so much time with me when he should’ve been doing other things?

27 Definitely neglecting his role as advisor to the king. Although I heard from my friends at court (Elaine – I made her ambassador) that the queen was trying to change his mind, twisting him towards Christianity and away from us older beliefs. Which I never thought in a thousand years would actually work.

28 He informed me that it’s grown in the style called a “goatee,” but I never really liked it. He always looked better when he had a longer beard – it was more menacing and grave, even if his eyes were twinkling.

29 To no avail. He had a pretty tight grip.

30 To be honest, I wasn’t expecting him to kiss me. It came so suddenly and out of the blue that I was more surprised by it than anything.

31 Although kissing him back was not something I expected to do, either.

From that point on, lessons were a lot more difficult.

32 Look, I’m supposed to be a virgin. And I took a hell of a lot of vows swearing on ancient and holy things that I would be. So having an emotional connection to someone I considered my friend was not something that I could deal with.

Not that I deal with emotions very well, to begin with. But it made it much harder.

33 You think that I don’t love him.

But it’s not true.

I do. Just not the way that he wants me to.

Or rather, it is in the way he wants me to, but I can’t act on it as freely as he can.

I took vows. I can’t break them.

So you see why what happened happened, right?

 

34 He’s almost at the tree by this point.

35 Although the snoring kind of ruins the image.

36 So you see? I didn’t mean to trap him for so long.

37 I thought I was helping. I thought that what I did was a good thing.

But, if you know anything, you know that I was wrong.

And when I journeyed with Morgana and Elaine to take the king to Avalon, he turned to me and asked what had become of Merlin. Because, in his time of need, Merlin had abandoned his faithful friend.

So I wait for the day when the king returns. Because, in the kingdom’s most desperate need, he will rise.

And, maybe, Merlin will awaken.