“But what if Myka were the knight for a change?”
After writing a medieval AU where Helena was a knight (and Myka a nun), I began to wonder how the dynamic would change if Myka were the knight.
I couldn’t fully picture Helena as a nun, though. Then again, I could picture her perfectly as a vengeful princess. And that’s when this idea barreled headlong into Tristan & Iseult.
There are many versions of that myth; modern Western perception tends to be shaped by Celtic legend, medieval French court literature, and the 19th century opera by Richard Wagner. For this story, I’ve drawn primarily from the most popular version, Gottfried von Strassburg’s “Tristan” fragment (written around 1210) and from the 1865 opera. All chapter quotes are from Gottfried, which is available in full online. Translations cited after Lee Stavenhagen, who hosts a full English translation online.
There are various full productions of the opera on YouTube, fully subbed. The 2007 Scala production by Patrice Chereau for La Scala was still online when I wrote this, it has since been taken down (there are only excerpts left), but there is a DVD of it, in case you have four hours to kill.
Finally, I know history didn’t quite give us the female knights it should have, but given that it’s a stupid-ass happenstance, I’ve elected to ignore it.
nu begunde ir herze kalten
umbe ir schaden den alten.
ir varwe diu wart beide
von zorne und von leide
tôtbleich und iesâ viuwerrôt.
(Gottfried von Straßburg, Tristan, v. 10087-10091)
[The cold fist of an old insult
seized her heart in its grasp.
Her color both blazed and paled
with fury and with anguish,
first deathly pale, then fire-red.]
The sea is rolling, forever the sea. She can feel it tear at her blood.
It beckons her where she is standing, nose pressed to the very bow of the ship. The salty humidity is ever present, a fine sheen on the planks even down here, in the dark belly.
It is a luxurious cabin, she has to admit. There are tapestries and soft carpets and even a pair of delicate chairs. She wants to scoff at them because this is a vassal’s ship, but she cannot find anything at fault.
Still, she stands at the bow in the dim light, hands pressed against the wood where she can feel the sea push against her palms. The roar sweeps through her like the ire in her veins. Up and down, up and down, but she does not feel nausea. She only feels rage.
Across the room, a shadow is huddled against the foot of the bed and if there was more light, she would see the fear and the nausea that she does not allow herself etched into the worried face of Claudia of Braen. What possessed her mother – the Queen – to send such a young companion along with her, she will never know. But Claudia stands doggedly by her side, and Claudia does not complain.
When the seamen hurl insults at them, Claudia does not back down. She glares back defiantly, despite her youth and her slight stature and her temper and all the things which a companion should not be. Not on such a journey.
In the old times, this would not have happened. She would not have stood on the ship of a vassal’s vassal, carted off like cattle to be married beneath her standing. But the old blood is weakening. She can feel it. A few generations back, Queen Irene would have laughed her suitor out of the court, or would have changed at the insult and torn after them.
Changing has turned into legend along with the old Gods, and she stands deep in the bow of a ship carrying her away from the green and the salt that mean home.
She whirls around, and Claudia takes a step back at the anger in her stance, but she does not relent.
And Helena presses her forehead against the wood and wills the sea to answer her call and swallow them all, her rage, the men and every last plank.
“You need to rest.” Claudia insists. “You need to eat.”
But none of this is about what Helena needs.
“At least get some air.”
They would let her on deck. She is their future queen, no matter the murmurs among the seamen. And wouldn’t they love to parade her up there, the prize won for their king, bared to all eyes as the coast of Cornwall draws near.
She will not do them the favor. If they want her on deck, they will have to carry her up against her will, just as she was pushed into this betrothal. She will not let them forget that.
“So that they may hand me to Arthur with rosy cheeks?” Claudia does not deserve her ire, but ire is all that Helena has left. “They will have to drag me up by my hair.”
“He is king,” Claudia reminds her, having caught on to Helena omitting Arthur’s title, not for the first time. It is the last bit of defiance she allows herself.
“The most powerful king there is at the moment, and past the point of youthful idiocies,” Claudia continues. She is of noble birth, but not royal blood, and has learned early to arrange herself with decisions made by others. “There could not be a worthier husband.”
But Helena is the Queen’s daughter. “He is a vassal.”
“Not anymore.” Claudia states practically. She hesitates, but only for the merest bit. “Is this truly about King Arthur?”
Claudia is far too astute for her age.
“Is it not enough that they are mocking our line and land?” Helena spits out. “Not enough that they have slain my betrothed, that I was bartered away to them?” She stands tall. “They will have to drag me up by my hair.”
For a moment, there is quiet, but Claudia is far more valiant than Helena expected. “You know she would never do that.”
Yes, they both know that. They know it only too well, and part of Helena even wishes –– and that is a thought she quenches right there.
“She is too much of a coward even for that,” she declares with derision instead.
“A coward? Lady Myka?” Claudia sounds as if she wants to protest on behalf of their adversary.
“How would you know?” Helena asks archly. “How? During this entire journey, she hasn’t presented herself once!” She crosses her arms over her chest, the fall of embroidered sleeves echoing her gesture. “She hasn’t even looked at me since she obtained me for her King.”
Helena does not begrudge Queen Irene for giving her away in a peace treaty. Eire cannot afford to battle both the Normans and the Cornish at once, and marriage is a common settlement.
But not to this King. And not through this envoy.
“Imagine what a King he has to be, if he has such knights at his service! Lady Myka is the most important one in all of Cornwall.” Claudia is clearly taken with their host and Helena wishes that she didn’t know how easy that is. “As a woman knight! There are so few of them on all the islands —”
Oh, there is no shortage of stories about King Arthur’s gallant niece, not on all the islands. And Helena does not want to hear them, least of all the one where Lady Myka of Canoêl persuaded her uncle to stop paying toll. Where she headed a party to break the old contract on Irish soil. Where, in battle, she killed Sir Nathaniel, the pride of Eire, only to return to claim his bereft bride as a prize for her vassal uncle. What a fine story that makes.
This one in particular, she had heard more than enough. Petrus Curvenal tells it on deck, time and again, to the roaring laughter of the seamen. He makes sure to tell it loudly enough to carry down here.
It is not Curvenal who is keeping her under deck, though. The insults, she can handle. Whatever Petrus Curvenal throws at her, she will scoff at.
But going up would also mean seeing her.
Up on deck, wrapped in a woolen coat, a lone figure is standing in the shadow of the helm, head tipped back to gaze at the fading stars. The journey is almost over, the waves pushing them homeward now. And she has done the impossible, forged peace with Eire and even won their proud princess as bride for the King.
Myka of Canoêl closes her eyes for a moment and wonders why she does not feel more at peace. She tastes salt on her lips, and her palm closes around the worn hilt of her sword.
The sea is rolling, forever the sea. She can feel it tear at her blood.
~ on to Chapter 2 ~