The Lady of the Lake looked out over the battle and sighed. She had known that this day was coming for many moons, but still she had hoped that she had misread the signs. Such things had been known to happen before, and for clearer visions than this, so she was not, perhaps, without reason in her hopes. Alas, it was not to be, and so blood was flowing freely into the turbulent waters of her home. And high on the barren peak of the mountain opposite her throne stood the man who was so much more than a man: Merlin. Old though he may have been, he was a mighty figure up there on the hilltop, his face filled with fire and fury, his body revitalised as he fought, revisiting the youth he had known so long ago. As she looked at him, entranced, her enchantments failed, and the shield surrounding him collapsed, leaving him vulnerable as he focused on protecting his King.
Why does he not protect himself? the Lady thought in anguish, as she tried to rebuild her shields. Too slow. As she struggled, reaching for her magic, an arrow flew through the air. The archer’s aim was true, and Merlin fell. The shields he had been holding flickered, trembled, and fell within seconds of their master’s death, leaving the king open to attack, and his enemies with a golden window of opportunity. He doesn’t realise the danger that he’s in. Arthur continued to fight, unaware that the protection he depended on was gone, a whirlwind of power and righteousness as he fought to reclaim his crown. The Lady refocused her efforts on protecting the king, and continuing the duty that Merlin had died to fulfil. She could feel her energy draining as she drew a dazzling shield up around Arthur, and knew that she was not long for the mortal world. Soon, she knew, she would be joining Merlin in the halls of the next life, and there they would stay for the rest of eternity. She knelt on the uneven ground before her, in an unspoken promise of fealty to the king who Merlin had died to protect, raising her head to catch the ray of sunlight that came through the clouds, and knew that it would be the last thing she would see. And it was. `As she knelt, an arrow came flying through the air, coming to rest deep within the confines of her heart, and she felt her life draining away as crimson blood fell to the ground before her. And with her dying breath, she raised her hands to the sky, and cried out in a voice filled with pain and despair: “The wizard has fallen! I am soon to go! Protect your king until your final breath!”
And with that she died, slumping to the ground as men rushed to their king. But victory was not to be theirs on that day, nor on any day after, for Arthur lay dead at the hand of his son, and his son lay dead at his. Before the sun had set that evening, both men had been taken for burial, and Arthur’s sword lay forgotten in the dark depths of her home, where it would remain for many hundreds of years to come.
I’m drifting down through the silky darkness that surrounds me, holding me safe as I journey onwards. My gown whips around me, changing with the moods of the water, but always keeping time with the heavy drums that fade away a little more with each passing second. My feet touch the bottom, and I jolt awake.
I know, with absolute certainty, that there is someone at the bottom of the lake.
I open my eyes and wince.
“I didn’t ask for clown makeup; did I Gen?”
“Well no, but it isn’t exactly clown makeup is it?” She’s nervous, and it shows. Not about me of course—we’ve been friends for years—but about tonight. Because tonight is the night. Tonight is my parents’ annual summer solstice celebration, and anything less than perfection is strictly forbidden. Every year, my parents invite their closest friends to an ‘intimate celebration of one of the most important days in the calendar’. And this year I’m expected to attend. The party is for sixteens and over, and up until now, I did not fit that category.
“Come on Eve. It’ll be fine, trust me.”
Gen doesn’t have to come because she’s younger than I am, still fifteen and without the responsibilities of being the daughter of the party’s hosts. I, unfortunately, will be celebrating my sixteenth birthday tonight, and the party promises to be bigger than ever.
Half an hour later I make my way down to the lake, and I remember the dream I had earlier. I woke up pale and shivering, covered in a thin film of icy sweat that left me feeling as though I had taken an unexpected dip in the lake, or as though I had not breathed for centuries. I sat up, blindly fumbling for my light switch as I gasped for air. I shake my head: it doesn’t do to dwell on your dreams, because sometimes you end up making them into reality.
I blink—without me realising it, the lake has crept up to me, and gentle waves are lapping up against my bare feet. The cold shocks me, sending icy shivers deep into my heart, and I turn to leave. I have never been good around water: when I touch it, I feel the power it holds over me and over every other person in the world. There are stories everywhere about the dangers of water: the sirens of Ancient Greek legend and the German Lorelei; the Celtic stories of kelpies…all immensely beautiful…alluring to the highest degree…and all of them destructive forces which humans are powerless to disobey. Beware the woman who sits on the rocks and sings, for she would clean your bones in return for the wreckage of your ship; beware the handsome stranger who wanders the shores of the lake, and beware the horse which sings from the waves, for beauty will betray you, and water will run red if you approach them. Yes. I think that the water is a trap disguised as a gift; a prison hidden behind a pearl-encrusted throne, and I avoid it when I can.
But this time I can’t. No matter how hard I try, the water draws me back, deeper and deeper into its’ depths. I can feel it swirling around my ankles, then my calves, and I struggle for the shore, which suddenly seems so far away. I struggle, and the water whips up into a frenzy, spitting and tugging at the deepest caverns of my heart. A pain shoots through my chest, as though I have been struck with an assassin’s dagger, and I want to scream—to cry for rescue from this unseen demon which has targeted me when I am at my weakest.
I’m walking through a forest, surrounded by the thousands of hues of green which make up what should be paradise. It isn’t, of course. How can it be, when my heart is locked away in a tomb of oak, which groans with the weight of such a burden? One touch—one slender hand resting on the mighty trunk, and his cries echo deep in my soul, begging me to release him from this prison of his own making. I cannot do so, for when he showed me the true extent of his power I knew that it would destroy me if I did not stop it. And so I stopped it, and we must both bear the consequences. He must spend his life imprisoned in an oaken coffin, unable to fulfil his duty to Arthur, the boy-king who he swore to protect with his life; I must live in freedom, chained by the knowledge of what I have done to one so entirely undeserving of such a fate. Merlin: my heart and my soul, my teacher and my protector, my lover and my closest friend.
I do have a real reason to fear water as well. It responds to my emotions; my fear and hatred of it cause it to react in ways which only worsen the agony. It drags me in, hissing and spitting up at me, like some fierce beast that only I can see. Like now. A revolving circle which turns my emotions in on me, forcing my darkest secrets out into the open. But there’s a voice, echoing in my ears. Control it. I can’t. It comes from within me, I know that, but I don’t know how to control it. I don’t want to know how to control it. If I try, it will take over, and I will have changed utterly. The water releases its hold on me, and I stagger as I am dropped into the cold water of the lake, where I kneel, gasping for breath as I try to recover from the assault on my deepest fears.
I hear running, and look up just in time to catch a glimpse of long golden hair, pale skin and a flowing white dress, which swishes around the slender legs of my mother—still sixteen at heart, although the lines adorning her face say otherwise—before I am swept up into a tight embrace, which leaves me with no room to move, and even less to breathe.
She’s calmed down a bit, and is now gently helping me to stand up and totter towards the shore, which draws closer with each baby step that I take, my mother’s arms around my shoulders, guiding me to the safe haven which I so desperately need. As we reach the grassy hillock, I collapse into the granite throne which has stood there for as long as I can remember. The swirling engravings which have been smoothed away into scratches are familiar as I trace their patterns with my fingers and wonder how they got there. Did a queen once sit in this stone seat, high above the lake and look out over her dominion? Did she rule with a kind heart, or with a fist of iron? Was she confident and sure of herself, or was she more like me?
The sun has sunk low over the distant horizon, blazing like fire behind the mountain which lies opposite, stark in its contrast with my velvet carpet as the sun glints off the bare summit. As I gaze at it, a figure appears, tall and proud, and clad in grey. I blink, and he is gone, leaving only the faintest of images in my mind.
Later that night, I lie awake, revisiting in my mind the stranger who I saw on the mountain. No—stranger isn’t the right word; he was familiar to me even though I didn’t know who he was, and under his watchful eye I felt safe. As the silver moon looms over the silent lake, I can see him again, protecting me, protecting the land over which he rules, as I drift off to sleep.
I am sat on my throne, looking out over the sapphires and emeralds at my feet: the lake and forests of my childhood. I focus, and out of the lake rises a tower of clear water, which twists and turns to be moulded into an enormous moving statue of the man who stands beside me, one hand resting on my shoulder.
“It is good.”
He smiles, and I turn to him, willing to accept his compliment, for they are few and far between. My concentration breaks as I do so, and before I can say anything in return there is a great crash behind us, and I hear a musical laugh burst forth from his lips.
“You have grown careless Nimuë. I have told you before not to allow yourself to be distracted. Now—see how it should be done!”
He begins to build a living statue for me. Not just for me—of me—for as the water shifts into place, I can see my own features formed in my element, and I marvel at the accuracy of his work. A gasp flies from my lips as I see what he has fashioned out of water now.
I can scarcely believe that he would do such a thing, but as I look at what he has created, I know it must be true.
I grab his arm, and try to make him pause in his terrible creation, but nothing I do or say can stop him; he simple continues, unfaltering, as he shapes a monstrous model of his pupil, with a staff in my hand, and a whirlpool of anger surrounding me. I’m crying now, as I beg for him to stop.
“Please…Don’t do this…You can’t mean it…I won’t let it be true.”
And it’s this final statement that I take as my resolution, and I know that once he has finished his work, I will take him by the hand, and lead him into the forest, towards a mighty oak which lies at the heart of the woods, and there I will leave him, entombed in a wooden cell. Because I have seen his power, and I know that I will one day be capable of far more, should he continue to teach me. And I vow, that I will never become the woman in the future that he has painted for me.
Again! Every night now, I have these dreams about her: Nimuë, the Lady of the Lake. Every night I see her weaving her magic in the surrounding countryside, which is the same as that which I see every day, and I can feel a connection. Yesterday I attempted to do what she has done: sat in her throne, I built a statue of the man I saw on the mountain. And it terrified me, because I did it. I created a statue out of water, using powers which should not be possible. I started small, with tiny spurts of water, and in the months which followed the solstice, I let it grow. Each night she guides me in my dreams, and each day I follow her guidance. It terrifies me, but I know that it will consume me with longing if I do not listen to her. And so I build my statues and my whirlpools, and I pretend for another second, that I know what I am doing.
I’m in my throne again, but this time it is darkest night, and the moon is high overhead on this cold winter’s night. Six months have passed since I first used my powers, and tonight I will test their true extent. The winter solstice is a fitting occasion I think, and I raise my arms above my head, and let the power consume me.