Title: Ghost Against the Void.
Pairing: Eventual Arthur/Morgana
Summary: AU. Foreseeing the terrible consequences for all those who practice magic if Igraine dies, Nimuë sacrifices another and saves the Queen's life the night of Arthur's birth; unwittingly setting in motion a catastrophic chain of events that will eventually force Morgana to make a devastating life or death decision to choose between love or family…
There are burnings.
The stench of scorched flesh is in her nose. Her hair is clogged with charred flakes that float over the crowd and settle, black and choking, on those watching the bodies.
At least they are not screaming anymore.
She cannot look away even as the fires lick higher and higher, till the chains binding the bones (once people, then victims, then corpses, finally skeletons) glow molton red with the heat and the executioners signal to each other and the fires begin to be put out and the spectacle is over.
But the smell. The smell of roasting, screaming skin lingers long after the bones are taken away, the crowd disperses back to their homes, the stakes and chains are dismantled and the inner courtyard of the castle swept clean of ash.
It settles in the air as something tangible and remains as a stinking reminder of the curse of magic and the price paid by traitors who practice it. So Uther says anyway.
She watches from her corner as he breathes great lungfuls of it in, fills his chest with the aroma of death and victory and then triumphantly orders a feast of pork and chicken and other pale meat grilled black, roasted, spitted, basted and fried for his table. He talks loudly, drinks too much, laughs too hard and ignores the empty seat beside him where the Queen should sit.
To his left, the boy prince, she notes, eats little and says less. His eyes are glued on his mother's empty chair, the seat of the mother he has never known. The mother that magic killed, that his father revenges every night with glorious, gluttonous death.
And Death, like his Father, is always hungry for more.
Nimuë woke trembling. Taking quiet gulps of air before she sat up and pushed the covers away from her, the images, terrible and explicit in their gory detail ran over and over before her eyes.
Unusual for her to have a vision. Rare even. Seeing was a gift that she seldom manifested and the experience was unsettling, the lack of control over this aspect of her magic expressing itself as frustration.
That the vision should be so disturbing was even more troublesome.
There was a sudden knock at the door. A middle-aged man entered without waiting, his face pale and drawn, hands absently wandering through hair that was beginning to grey at the temples.
Nimuë sat up a little higher. Eyes glimmering gold she wordlessly lit the candles dotted around the room and attempted to keep the bite of irritation from her tone. She was tired and anxious, but the wizard would not have troubled her so late in the night or walked uninvited into her private rooms without good reason. Indeed, in the dim candlelight he looked positively terrified, as though he had suddenly aged a decade in ten short minutes.
"Did you see it?" he asked abruptly, closing the door behind him and resting against the solid oak panels, hands spread flat against the wood like spider's webs. His pale, frightened eyes found hers. "Nimuë? Did you see death?"
The sorceress nodded and slowly slipped unashamedly naked from her bed to the window, watching over Camelot as other lights suddenly lit through the town, beacons of warmth dotting the landscape.
"A shared vision," she murmured and her heart beat a little harder. She sensed Gaius come to stand beside her, felt warm bearskin draped over her shoulders and only then recognised she was shivering. It wasn't from cold she realised, but fear.
Gaius gazed over the city as she wrapped the fur around her tighter, and his voice when he spoke was solemn and resigned.
"The Queen will die then."
"We all knew what would happen should a child be conceived through magic. That balance being required to create a life necessitates the extinguishing of it. He was warned. They both were."
"And yet he will destroy us though we have granted his wish."
Nimuë shrugged, a delicate movement of her slim shoulders and Gaius watched the fragile bones of her shoulder blades move beneath the skin. "He cannot blame himself for her death so he will blame us."
"And we must all suffer for his decision." Gaius took a deep and troubled breath. "My apprentices woke screaming. I hardly knew what to tell them." The line creasing his forehead grew deeper and he rubbed at it absently. "There isn't time to warn everyone and a total evacuation now would be impossible. But I can save the little ones perhaps and if we left now we could-"
Nimuë pursed her lips and shook her head. "We stay."
"And suffer Uther's tender mercies? He won't stop at one and he won't just persecute the adults, Nimuë. To stop is to be exterminated."
"The Queen isn't dead yet," the sorceress replied slowly. "There is still time."
Gaius raised an eyebrow. "What exactly are you proposing?"
There was a pregnant pause before Nimuë drew herself up and her expression hardened, shuttered and she once again regained her icy composure.
"Go back and tend your apprentices. Give them something for their nerves, reassure them it was merely a powerful shared nightmare - blame it on Voids if you must- but put them to bed and then forget all about it yourself."
"Nimuë? I don't-"
"Leave, Gaius. I will fix this." Her voice was hard, all traces of fear crushed beneath her powerful resolve. When she was like this she was intractable in her decision making. Resilient. Steely. Still he hesitated and she softened ever so slightly, the briefest curve of her lip, a gentling of her gaze, the slight relaxation of her posture. She pressed the pads of her fingers against the back of his hand briefly but firmly. "Trust me."
So he turned and walked out of the room and Nimuë dropped her furs and reached for a dress from her wardrobe. She pulled out her darkest one, tied her hair back and tugged black boots on. A practical outfit; efficient, stylish and dark enough to hide blood stains.
And just before she left her room she reached for the dagger resting on her bedside table. Slipped it in her belt.
Headed to the royal quarters.
Igraine was too tired to scream anymore and the midwife's face was grim.
The once pristine blue and white bed linens were spattered with blood and the queen, propped up on a mound of pillows at the head of the bed looked small and weary and lost amongst the sheets.
"You must push once more, my lady," commanded the midwife, her rough red hands resting on Igraine's pale thighs. "The babe is stuck and if you don't help me it will die and you will follow."
Vivienne wiped the sweat from her sister's brow and squeezed her hand. "Listen to Ruthanne, sister, and do what she says."
"I can't. I don't have the strength," Igraine panted, barely able to lift her head up from the pillows.
"You don't have a choice," her sister snapped.
The queen closed her eyes and sighed. "It shouldn't be this hard. You said Morgause and Morgana just slipped out."
"Aye, because they took after Gorlois and did what they were bidden. Your poor child has Uther for a father. Of course the child will be stubborn. It runs in the Pendragon veins thicker than blood."
Igraine managed a weak smile and feebly pressed her sister's hand. "If I die then you must promise me, promise me," she urged as Vivienne began to protest, "promise me you will look after Uther and the child."
"She shall do no such thing because you aren't going to die," said Nimuë firmly as she strode into the bedchamber, halting at the foot of the bed.
"See," said Vivienne, "listen to your older sisters. We always know best."
Igraine, however, could only frown. "Have you Seen?" she asked Nimuë. When she nodded, Igraine brightened and some determination came back into her face. "Then I shall try again," she declared painfully. "Fate wills me to have this child and I shall obey." She took a deep breath and pushed herself up again onto her elbows as Vivienne moved to support her.
The midwife, jaded and shrewd, gripped Igraine's legs but her knowing gaze met Nimuë's and she shook her head.
"Make her keep pushing and stem the bleeding as best you can," she murmured in the other woman's head as Igraine began to cry out again. "I will see what I can do."
The midwife merely nodded bleakly and turned back to the dying queen and her bloody sheets.
Spinning on her heel, Nimuë stalked down the corridors of the castle, carefully sidestepping Uther as he rounded a corner. The King appeared tired and worn, his expression wearing the faintest of bitter expressions, as if he knew exactly how long his wife had left in this world.
The stench of burning flesh filled her nostrils. A column of smoke rose up in front of her. She blinked and the vision vanished, but she couldn't help the glimmer of revulsion that crossed her face when she looked at the king.
No, not a king. A man. A murderer.
But not yet. Not if she could help it.
"Igraine?" he asked, as though he already knew the answer and was simply waiting for the inevitable.
"Still living," she bit out. "For the moment."
Uther nodded tiredly and leaned against the corridor wall. "And there's nothing you can do?"
"It was the bargain you made, Uther," she hissed. "I told you both the consequences and yet you still went ahead with your selfish desire to have a child."
His expression flared at that. "This kingdom needs an heir."
"At the cost of its queen? At the cost of my sister?"
"She agreed to it too," Uther snapped.
"A decision that never fails to make me wonder what exactly you did to her to persuade her."
It was an ugly insinuation and he raised his hand. For a moment, she thought he would strike her.
"I made you a king, Uther. I can just as easily make you a corpse," she commented quietly, eyes glimmering gold.
His hand fisted in the air, knuckles turning white, fingernails digging grooves in his skin. And then it dropped slowly to his side, the danger passed and he slumped back against the wall, once more a tired, middle-aged man.
"There is little point in regretting what has already happened," Nimuë said briskly. "A life must be taken." She paused and watched him from beneath her lashes. "Of course, it need not be Igraine. You could bargain someone else instead."
A shadow of something dark rippled over Uther's face. "Anyone?"
"Anyone," she agreed, swallowing her repugnance. She had to save her sister, no matter the cost. No matter who paid the price.
The young serving woman who had been hurrying past, arms full of wilting chrysanthemums, dropped a frightened curtsey and kept her eyes to the ground.
"Yes, sire?" Her voice quivered, which wasn't surprising, thought Nimuë, as she cast a glance at a grim-faced Uther; she'd just been singled out by the two most powerful and terrifying people in the land.
Uther, she noticed, wouldn't, or couldn't look at the woman. He was capable of feeling guilt then, she mused idly. "High Priestess Nimuë has need of your services."
The woman swallowed. "My lady?"
"Come with me," Nimuë said quietly. Almost kindly.
And as she dragged the unsuspecting woman behind her, Nimuë's hard eyes met Uther's and he nodded; a small almost imperceptible movement as she passed. The guilt, the blood, the consequences of tonight would be his burden. Nimuë was free from her actions.
The serving woman knew better than to question the sorceress and let herself be led along the castle corridors up into Nimuë's chambers, the highest rooms in the castle.
"Close the door behind you," she commanded, as the candles reignited themselves once more. She pulled out a silver bowl from an ancient carved oak chest and adjusted the old gilt mirror on her dresser. "And leave the flowers on the floor."
Nimuë began pulling herbs down from a box high up on a shelf, shredding the leaves into the bowl as the woman fidgeted nervously behind her.
"What's your name?"
"Catha, my lady," she replied anxiously.
Nimuë finally turned and looked at her properly. She could be no older than thirty, with a slightly pinched face, chestnut coloured hair and wide hips.
"And do you have a family? Children?"
"I…I have two girls, milady, they're five and two."
Nimuë nodded seriously. "You have my word that they will be well taken care of."
A flicker of confusion crossed Catha's face. "Lady?"
But there was no time for fear as the sorceress' eyes flashed.
"Shhh," Nimuë whispered, and the woman's eyes fluttered shut, sinking into a sleep so deep she was conscious of nothing, even as Nimuë caught her and laid her gently on the bed.
Then she raised her hand and slit her throat.
Siphoning the blood that gushed out from Catha's neck into the silver bowl, her skin began to prickle and she could feel the edges of time grasping at her. Igraine had very little time left in this world.
Hastening her movements she set the dish on the window ledge and offered it to the moonlight that fell through the panes of glass. A wave of her hand and the blood began to boil. Dark green flames licked at the blood until the bowl was clean, and slowly the body on the bed disintegrated, the blood stains disappearing, until all that was left as a reminder of Catha was a heap of dying flowers on the stone floor.
The air around her was suddenly thick, and she had to lean against a doorpost as the world around her suddenly shifted, pulsing once with a dull grey light as the future rewrote itself.
She caught glimpses of Stonehenge and a baying crowd, of ice and a man with the build of a mountain troll saving a dark-haired woman, of the flash of a blade. And Camelot burning, hundreds of people scaling its walls. People dying. Screaming. A golden haired prince standing beside her, his face twisted in anguish.
But she did not see the scorch of human flesh.
Nor did she see columns of smoke rising from blackened skeletons.
And she did not see her sister's death.
Her people were safe.
The baby screamed as it was born.
As Nimuë watched from her post at the door Uther offered her a dark eyed smile full of relief, thanks and dark understanding. They both knew the high price that had been paid for Uther to gain his heir, but only Nimuë knew how much higher it could have been.
Unable to offer a smile in return she merely nodded in silent acknowledgement.
Calculated the leverage she now had over the King.
Igraine cradled the baby tiredly, but her cheeks were now a healthy pink and she looked fresher and healthier than she had done throughout the entire pregnancy. Beneath her, the blood stained sheets of earlier had been replaced with fresh by the midwife.
"Nimuë," the Queen smiled, "come and look at the baby."
"Has he a name?" the sorceress asked as she wandered closer to the little pink bundle of flesh wrapped in purple blankets.
"Arthur," cooed Igraine, tickling the child under his chin as he squirmed in her arms.
Nimuë gazed at the future king with her lips pursed, her own arms crossed. Minutes old and the babe had already had blood spilled in his name.
"Well? What do you think of your nephew?"
She wondered how many more would die for him in the years to come, how many would sacrifice themselves for this wriggling infant tucked against his mother's breast.
"And have you Seen a future for him, Nimuë?" asked Igraine eagerly as Arthur yawned and gazed at up at his aunt. Reached out one tiny little fist for her finger.
She withdrew her hand hastily before he could grasp her own, slipping them into the folds of her gown.
"A peaceful one." The lie slipped easily from her lips but it pleased her sister as she knew it would.
Uther stroked the top of his son's head gently. "I take it the arrangements are all in place for his security?"
"The same wards that guard Igraine will protect him until he is weaned. Then Gaius and I will watch over him until he comes of age, at which point his amddiffynnydd will be chosen and take over," replied Nimuë succinctly.
And then Vivienne came back into the room bringing her daughters and as the girls crowded round their cousin and began to talk over each other in their excitement, Nimuë took the opportunity to slip away unnoticed to her rooms.
Gaius was waiting for her when she got back. "Well?" he said simply.
Nimuë frowned briefly and rubbed at the headache that was beginning to build. "I fixed it as I said I would. We are safe."
His eyes searched her face but knew better than to ask her questions. They both knew the price of magic powerful enough to bring life.
And neither of them mentioned the blood underneath her fingernails.
Please Read and Review!
Your thoughts are always appreciated. Hope you enjoyed it and are a little intrigued as to what will happen next :)
This story is going to be darker, sexier and more violent than my previous stories.
You have been warned.