Summary: Walking the line between two worlds.
Spoilers and/or Warnings: spoilers for 1.09
Title, Author and URL of original story: Apples by suaine
A/N: Thanks to my awesome betareader animus_wyrmis. A heads-up, I'm going to be out of town for the next week or so, so I'm going to be late in replying to comments.
The first thing you notice about your human form is the absence of flame from your being.
"Calm yourself," Nimueh says. "Watch. Like this."
Her eyes flash gold.
The first sorcerers were dragons. They drew power from the earth to which they were bound, the air through which they danced, and the fire in their veins. The first spells were cast in dragonsong, with words older than the first man.
You tell Hunith all this and more – the history of your people and the myths of your heroes, disguised as the thesis of a traveling scholar who seeks only the knowledge of this world.
“Is it the proclivity of dragons to seek out the company of simple village women?” Hunith asks with a smile.
You reply, “Not to my knowledge.”
“Nor to mine. But what does it matter, in these modern times, hmm?” She reaches into her satchel, saying, “Come, sir. It’s lunchtime, and even great magicians must eat.”
She offers you an apple, and you take it despite yourself.
Nimueh tells you, "You cannot expect to walk the world of men and remain unmoved by them."
"I expect nothing more than what the stars tell me."
"Then you know nothing. You know as well as I do that the stars are hardly articulate."
“And Uther?” you counter. “What does he think of your walking his world?”
“Uther and I know what to expect of each other.”
“You know each other’s hearts so well?”
She laughs. “Listen to yourself. You begin to speak of hearts! How long before you speak of love?”
“You avoid my questions.”
“You ask too many." Nimueh has the pride of dragons, but even so, her smile is laced with human coyness. "Love your woman, my friend, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
As Nimueh backs away, the air around her shimmers. You blink once, twice, and then she is back in her true form, her long neck graceful and her golden eyes wise. She raises her wings and lifts herself to the heavens, and then she disappears into the night.
She does what she must, you suppose. You will too.
How strange humans are, with their pretensions of authority though they themselves are so weak, their bodies so soft and exposed to everything. They have nothing like the armor of scales that dragons have, nothing that divides her skin from yours. You tighten your grip on Hunith’s hips and her body gives way. You run your hand through her hair and it tangles around your fingers.
“They’re tricky,” Nimueh warned. “They can find power where there is none. Where there is weakness, they will forge it into strength.”
In the afterglow, Hunith drapes her arm around you and doesn’t ask where this will lead, whether you will stay. She doesn’t seem to fear what lies beyond the ledge, and you're not sure if this is courage or foolhardiness. You want to know if she is at all curious, and whether you would tell her the truth if she ever asks.
“Lady,” you say, and the woman Nimueh turns around.
There was a time when she would have protested that she is no lady. She spends more and more time as a human these days, and more and more time in Uther’s court. You wonder what she is not telling you, and what alliances she has forged in the world of men.
She asks, “What is it?”
“Something troubles you.” It's not a question. By now you can recognize the stoniness of a woman’s silences and the distance in her eyes.
The twitch of her mouth makes you anticipate some smart retort, but instead she takes a deep breath and replies, “Igraine is with child.”
Hunith chuckles. “Well, don’t look so surprised. Of course I knew.”
“Since when?” You resent the petulance in your voice. To be human is to be too easy to read.
“Since I first saw you. Since before that, even. The magic wafted off you like stink from rotting meat. I felt the dragon in you before you even spoke.”
“Rotting meat. Charming.”
Hunith waggles her eyebrows. “You can say I have the taste for magic.”
“Oh, don’t frown so.” Hunith leans in, mischief in her smile. “It ruins a perfectly good disguise.”
She fits so well into your empty spaces that sometimes you allow yourself to forget that you are different. You wonder if this is what Nimueh has found now that she is more human than dragon these days. Hunith’s love is blithe and fearless, and she chatters about the harvest and the peculiarities of her neighbors like you actually know what she’s talking about. When she performs the spells she still remembers from her days as a sorcerer’s apprentice, it makes you smile. She teaches you the games she played as a little girl, and you win enough times to allay her suspicion that you see her as something lesser than you are.
She is nothing of the sort. Everyone has their role to play.
Nimueh frowns. “She didn’t fear you in your dragon form?”
“She seemed more frightened of the height than anything else, but she said it wasn’t everyday she got to ride on the back of a dragon.”
“Hmm,” is all Nimueh says, though you notice the flicker of emotion that flash across her face.
You say, “Maybe one day you can take your king for a quick zip through the skies.”
“Ha! Can you imagine Uther flouncing from cloud to cloud on my back?”
Long ago, men rode dragons in times of war and ceremony - not as commanders on a tamed steed, but as friends and allies under a common cause. Times have changed, however, at least for Nimueh. She has willed change into her body and heart. Where she stands between the worlds, you no longer know.
“Is it so difficult to imagine?” you ask.
“Yes,” Nimueh replies stiffly. “Yes, it is.”
“It’s such a small thing.”
She shrugs, an altogether too-human gesture. “Small things can have great impact on the lives around them.”
"If the stars will it."
"Stay out of my stars."
Hundreds of feet above the earth, Hunith wraps her arms around your neck, and you feel the flutter of her heartbeat against your nape. How her heart races, how the blood must rush through her veins. Your own heart beats a slow and steady rhythm, and the cadence of her pulse find refuge in yours, fitting into the space between one beat and the next.
“I understand now,” she tells you later, “why dragons prance around bloated on themselves, masters of the earth.”
You run your fingers through her hair – a gesture of which you are fond, for the softness of it and the way it makes her sigh. “Why is that?”
“It’s the flying, isn’t it?” She rolls over to look into your eyes. “The world seems so endless when you’re up there. It stretches out in all directions and you can go any which way. Us here on the ground, we can only go backwards and forwards, left and right. You can do whatever you want in the air. Go wherever you want.”
“In the air, we can go where we please, yes. But we are not so free; we have our duties.”
Hunith rolls her eyes. “Spare me. We all have duties.”
“I’m sure,” she says indulgently, and tugs you closer. She kisses your collarbone, and the hollow at the base of your throat. She kisses your neck, your chin, and when she finds your mouth, you close your eyes and forget the sky.
The first time you saw Hunith, she was singing a springtime reel in the summertime, her footsteps light and her face turned to the sun. The feeling you thought was mere apprehension was perhaps the recognition of fate, which love only complicates. Perhaps it was simply curiosity.
Either way, there could never have been anyone else.
Nimueh returns just before the dawn, and you wake to the heavy beat of wings. Although winter still lingers, the springtime is making itself known. You can taste the earth’s rebirth in the air; the cold is less biting, and the days are longer. The snowmelt turns the field to mud.
“We have but days,” Nimueh says as she alights on the ground. “Uther will have a son.” There is a brittleness to her voice. She laughs, and it is a bitter sound that flattens as she shifts back to human form. “I helped create this child, yet I am not his mother. He will be a prince, and I am no queen!”
Although your suspicions have been confirmed, you do nothing but lift a wing - a gesture that beckons Nimueh to come to you. “Does Uther know the price?”
Nimueh presses against your foreleg and strokes your scales with one hand. In this shape, she seems so small, and incongruous with the power you know lies within. “He knows only what his heart tells him. He thinks everything will be all right.”
“It always will be.”
“But not as he thinks,” she says. “He doesn’t think! He just...”
She falls silent, and you let her. You understand.
When Hunith tells you the news, you can only think of Nimueh’s words. You will be father to this woman’s son, but you are no man. He will have a great destiny, while you are soon to outlive yours. You are stretched across two worlds and running out of time.
“Is it so difficult to stay in just one world?” you wonder.
Nimueh says, “That’s what it means to be a sorcerer.”
When Uther's men come for you, you fight. It won’t change the outcome, but you fight anyway. You cannot deny your destiny but neither can you deny who and what you are. They bind you with chains, and the fire bursts from your throat and curls into the sky: a final battle cry, and a farewell.
"You can escape, I know you can," Hunith insists. "Surely your magic is greater than these chains. Surely—”
Your dragon’s roar drowns her words, your dragon’s wings are raised above your head, and your fire almost burns her, though you are careful that it doesn’t. You rave and rail at her until you see fear in her eyes. When she tries to speak, you cut her off. When she interrupts, you lash out.
“Leave this place!” you demand. This is the only way you can make her see. This is all that your anger will be good for: you let it all out and you don't stop until there are tears in her eyes. “Leave me and forget me! You must do this for our son.”
“Do not,” she exclaims fiercely, “tell me how to care for my son!”
And you settle back on your rock, satisfied by the grief of your own success.
“I’ll leave you if you wish it,” she says, only a hint of a tremor in her voice. ”But as for forgetting, I’ll do no such thing.”
Still, she stands on the edge of the precipice as if waiting for something more. Her stillness is a challenge, as is yours. You're not sure whom you want to win.
"Do you wish it?" she asks softly.
Just as soft, you answer, "I do."
Hunith nods mutely. She holds out her hand, and you bend down so she can stroke your snout and kiss your face.
There is nothing left to say, at least for now.
You know better than to wait for Nimueh, and she would know better than to watch over you.
You think of Hunith and your son.
Buried underneath the earth, you forget the sky.
The years pass.
When Merlin comes to Camelot, you think this must have been how Hunith felt all those years ago – to feel you before she even saw you, to hear your call before you even knew your voice was raised, and to already see two worlds within you when you thought yourself anchored only to one.
“Hunith,” you say, and relish the familiar feel of her name on your tongue. You have not had occasion to say it in far too long.
“Dragon,” she says.
The trials of bygone years are written into the lines on her face, but her courage is apparent in her smile. Her skin marked by someone else’s war, but you know it would be as soft if you were to touch it. You recall a springtime reel sung in the summertime, and once more you find yourself standing before a woman offering you an apple and the promise of a new world.
"I have brought you a gift," Hunith says, and you remember.