si kâmen mit gelîcher ger
gelîche vliegende her,
daz sî diu sper zestâchen,
daz s’in den schilten brâchen
wol ze tûsent stucken.
(Gottfried von Straßburg, Tristan, v. 6857-6861)
[Each as eager as the other
they clashed with one another
shattering each other’s lances
which splintered against the shields
into a thousand fragments.]
On the horizon, there is a thin line of green that will never mean home again.
It is Claudia who tells her about it, Helena merely feels the shift in the rhythm of the waves. The shore is drawing closer, and this is why she sends up Claudia to get Lady Myka, in a sudden flash of urgency. They will be landing soon, and she needs to end this. And if this is the end, she needs to talk to her once more, to try and understand —
But there is Petrus Curvenal, blocking the path before Claudia can even make it to the helm.
One more reason to end this.
The carpets seem to swallow up her anger as she paces, Claudia’s slumped shoulders at the corner of her vision. Rage is tingling in every fingertip of her clenched fists.
How dare he. How dare she.
“I tried to…” Claudia wants to explain.
“It is alright,” Helena says, even though nothing is.
“What’s so urgent?” A damp breeze and bright light invade their space, and Helena can make out the silhouette of Petrus Curvenal leaning against the entrance. “…Princess,” he tacks on, late enough to have it be an insult rather than her rightful title.
Helena stands tall. “Get your liege.” She won’t say her name, and how dare she hide behind her second-in-command.
Curvenal shrugs, his pose defying her standing. “She doesn’t have time.” He is Lady Myka’s eyes and ears, her chosen swordsman. His frame carries an edge of menace, bulky enough to remind them that his calling is that of a warrior, not that of a courtier in brocaded robes.
“She will make time,” Helena declares.
“Why would I get her?”
Helena can hear Claudia suck in a breath at Curvenal’s attitude. The farther they get away from Eire, the more openly he treats them as vassals.
Helena merely archs a brow. “She serves me.”
That raises his hackles. “She serves no one but King Arthur!”
“Whose queen I will be,” she reminds him.
He is fuming at that, hand reflexively reaching for his sword before he realizes that she is smiling at his outrage. It is a petty triumph, but her wins have become so few that she is not picky about them.
If it were up to Curvenal, Helena would not marry Arthur at all. It may be the only thing they agree on.
His stance is still belligerent, and it is something she can oddly relate to. “It is customary to make peace before landing,” she offers in explanation, and he relaxes marginally.
“I will relay your request,” he bites out and she wants to remind him that it is not a request, it is an order.
When he leaves, she catches sight of a stretch of green through the rail and for a moment, it echoes the memory of Eire. But it isn’t the right coast, and it will never be the right coast again.
No green will ever be home again.
Behind her, Claudia is shifting. “It is noble of you to try and offer peace.” She sounds surprised.
And Helena sounds far too calm. “I will not stand for this mockery.”
She is still staring at the spot where Curvenal has stood. Arguing with the henchman of the knight of a vassal, those are the lows she has stooped to.
“She will come,” Claudia tries to reassure her. “You have never asked for her before. She cannot deny you.”
“Perhaps.” It does not matter any longer, and she still has not moved.
“You will have to be around her at court, and she holds standing there.” Claudia is being practical again. “Making amends is the wise thing to do.”
Helena is insulted by the relief in her tone.
When she does not speak, Claudia tries to bridge the silence. “So… what drink do I serve?”
Now Helena turns around. “Get me the chest.”
But Claudia is standing in front of it, her silhouette suddenly larger in the muted light of the cabin. “What do you want with the chest?”
She seems to loom over the space and Helena wonders whether Claudia’s lineage is of old blood.
“Be careful with your mother’s secrets.” Claudia’s voice holds an authority that makes her far older than Helena is.
“I seek peace,” Helena states. Here, she is a supplicant, not the princess.
And the chest opens under Claudia’s fingers. It is unadorned, rough-hewn, the wood dark with age as they kneel before it.
Helena takes in sealed crucibles and small bottles of cloudy glass. Many of them, she has seen in the Queen’s chambers when they still seemed big for her small hands. Her mother’s line is a line of healers, that much has remained.
Wound balms, tinctures, powders. Cures for fevers and bad sleep, philters to curse and for love – that one, she is supposed to drink with Arthur – and, in the far back, the darkest black bottle.
Her hand darts out.
“No.” Claudia shakes her head. “You do not understand with what you are toying.”
“I am not toying.”
“That is not peace, it’s vengeance! She is –“ Claudia lowers her voice. “She is Arthur’s favorite, they will kill you in return.” And they will kill Claudia, too.
Helena shrugs. “If they dare.” She knows it will not come to that.
“Helena…” Now it is Claudia who is pleading with her. “Please, no.”
But Helena is relentless. “Have you forgotten that she killed Nathaniel?”
“In fair duel.”
“Is this fair?” Helena’s hands encompass the dark cabin and the sea, the men on deck and the shore they will be spilled onto. “Mocked and derided, a prisoner in enemy land for life?”
“It doesn’t have to be enemy land,” Claudia argues. “And Arthur might make a good husband.”
Helena closes her eyes. “It is not my path.” Perhaps she has always known that it would have to end this way instead.
“No.” Claudia is not ready to give up yet, not with Cornwall already in sight.
“You are to serve me,” Helena reminds her. “Bound by oath.”
For a long moment, there is silence. “Very well,” Claudia says finally, with disgust. She is pale, her lips a thin line. Her hands rummage around the chest and come up with a goblet, silver and carved. “Why do you hate her so much?”
“Hate?” Helena scoffs. She wants her dead, dead and gone. Perhaps it is hate, perhaps it is something else. It does not matter any longer. “She’s just a vassal’s vassal who lied.”
Claudia gives her a doubtful look. “She wooed you honestly.”
“For her uncle!” And Helena’s voice is sharp and wounded.
“What is this, Helena?” Claudia sets down the goblet. “You don’t even know her!”
Helena glances down at her fingers that are adjusting the heavy pendant around her neck. “No, I suppose not.”
Claudia has not been at court for long, but all it takes is one look at Helena. “You do know her.”
Something white-hot seethes through Helena. “I should have killed her when I could.”
Claudia stares at her aghast and Helena knows she will have to continue. She owes her that much.
“Last year, after the winter storms, when the Cornish refused to pay toll and sent ships —”
“And Queen Irene sent Sir Nathaniel after them…” Claudia knows the tale.
“I blessed his sword,” Helena remembers bitterly. “And they killed him. She did.”
“The duel was chosen because we did not want a war,” Claudia reminds her, and Helena does not want to hear it.
“And she isn’t to blame for the riots afterwards, either?” All this is Myka’s fault, all of it.
“You weren’t even that fond of Sir Nathaniel,” Claudia points out.
“He was a good choice.”
“You were his token reward,” Claudia corrects her. “For his wins against the Normans.” She shrugs as she picks up the small goblet again and begins to polish it. “Rumor says that you rather had your eyes set on Cuán of the Northern Hills.” Back and forth she rubs over a blind spot. “Or even Melisende the Norman, before war broke out.”
“Court gossip.” Helena mutters, but she does not deny the claims. “Yet no one at court knows that I was down by the river the night after the battle. And I —” She falters. There are things she cannot clothe with words, and without them, they are for her alone. “There was a wounded warrior, left for dead. A woman. I couldn’t kill her… She was no threat. I helped her.”
Claudia’s eyes are bigger than Helena has ever seen them.
And Helena is back in that night, with dampness creeping up from the river, towards the castle on the hill behind her. Her feet follow the small path with ease, she knows it well: down to the willow tree that is brushing the water with its branches. And there, in her secret spot, where she slips off her shoes and presses her bare toes into the moss, lies the still form of a warrior.
He is still breathing, but his eyes are closed as he lies sprawled out before Helena’s gaze: torn doublet over a trim shoulder, strong fingers curled as if searching for a sword, a brawny thigh devoid of protective leather.
He is no threat like this and when she bends down to check the wound in his shoulder, she sees the slope of his chest and realizes that this is no man at all.
The warrior bears no insignia, neither of Eire, nor of any other land that Helena knows, but she is there, alive and breathing and wounded. Helena brushes dark curls away from an even face, and then she drags the warrior up the riverbank, between the curved roots of the tree, and begins to clean her wounds.
At some point, the warrior stirs and eyes as green as the moss blink up at Helena.
“Are you a fay?”
“Not quite,” Helena says.
“I am in no shape to greet a lady.” The warrior woman tries to sit up. “I —”
Helena recognizes the courtly manners, but they are not at court. She smiles. “Do not worry, then.”
The warrior woman smiles, too. “A fay, then.”
Helena covers her with her coat when she leaves.
And she comes back the following night. And the night after that.
For half a moon, they share the space underneath the whispering roof, bare feet pressed into the moss as the wound slowly mends and the warrior gains strength again.
She gives no name and Helena never asks.
Then, one night, there is the skiff. The warrior has her hair properly braided, she bows and kisses Helena’s hand.
And Helena stands by the willow tree, with her coat once more wrapped around her own body, and she watches the boat being swallowed by the fog. The last thing she sees is a firm set of shoulders, and a braid falling down a lean back.
It is all Helena has seen of Myka in the entire journey, far up at the helm, when she was walked onto this ship with Claudia. And Claudia is still staring at her.
“I hid her, tended to her wounds.” She should not have helped the enemy, but back then, that was not who they were. “I nursed her back to health.” Helena recalls her own steps on the path to the river in the evenings, quiet and quick. “She told such beautiful stories whenever I came to see her. – One of them was that she was just a simple soldier.” And she wishes Myka would not have said anything at all.
“…Lady Myka?” Claudia’s voice is but a whisper.
“I didn’t know!” It is despair more than ire.
Claudia thinks quickly. “And did she know who you were?”
“Perhaps not at first,” Helena allows, it is what tears at her more than anything else.
Alarm shines up in Claudia’s face. “What happened?”
The implication hangs heavily between them, more so for an unmarried princess.
“Nothing,” Helena says with dignity. “She left.” Half a moon underneath the willow branches, and then seeing the small skiff disappear into the fog on the river, dew brushing against her face. “But she swore to honor my kindness and serve my name, and to never raise her sword against Eire.”
“And?” Claudia seems to think that this is a tale told in court by a bard, with measure and sense.
“And I didn’t know who she was in truth until she marched up to my mother’s throne, an envoy of Arthur, and demanded my hand for him!”
When Helena reaches again for the small black bottle, Claudia does nothing to stop her.
“You don’t have to go.” Curvenal’s broad hands adjust the brooch that fixes Myka’s coat on her shoulder. “I can fend them off again.” He fumbles with the intricate gem.
“It is all right.” But Myka sighs, rolling her shoulders.
“She’s just a vassal now,” Curvenal reminds her, and curses inwardly when Myka stiffens at his words. Why his liege feels bound to the haughty princess, he will never understand. “You’re giving her the throne – your throne – and she dares to order you around? The only thing she should be saying is, ‘Thank you, my Lord’.”
“Careful, Petrus.” Myka cracks a smile. “If they made me queen, we would be stuck at court.”
“If it weren’t for your pushing, Arthur wouldn’t even get married,” Curvenal grumbles even as he grimaces at the threat of a court life. “You are his niece, your valor is undisputed –“
“It is not my place.” Myka reaches up to adjust her braid. She hopes she looks enough like a royal envoy, after the journey they have had.
“Still no reason to let the English throne fall to a foreign princess and her children,” Curvenal mutters while he helps Myka with her boots and her belt. “I’m telling you, you don’t have to go.”
“Yes, I do.” He is her truest swordsman, her closest friend, but he will never understand why she must heed Helena’s call.
Still, her steps are measured, her hand resting on the hilt of her sword for reassurance as she approaches the cabin.
“Lady Myka of Canoêl,” a squire announced her formally.
There is rustling ahead and with a deep breath, Myka enters. Her eyes need a moment to adjust to the darkness and she bends one knee. “Princess.” The grip on her sword is white-knuckled.
Soft steps draw closer, muted by the carpets. From where she is kneeling, Myka can only make out the train of a violet dress.
The greeting is cool, but Myka’s eyes still close at the sound of her voice and for a moment, it carries the whisper of willow leaves. Then she makes the mistake of looking up.
Standing over her, arms in ornate sleeves crossed over her chest and eyes ablaze, is Princess Helena of Eire. Myka has not looked at her in so long, and she looks like all the songs written about her: pale, with noble features and hair like a raven’s wing, hands like white lilies, and dark eyes that seem to speak of the wild moorlands of the North.
And all Myka can do is to fall headlong into that gaze.
On the horizon, there is a thin line of green that will never mean home again.
An integral part of the Tristan story in both Gottfried (and Wagner) is Tristan’s wound from his fight against Morold (Nathaniel), which is tended to by Isolde (or her mother), who doesn’t know who he is. Tristan spends a while in the orbit of the Irish court without being recognized. While Tristan (literally: “So sad) is in her care, he switches the syllables of his name to Tantris (literally: “much laughter”) and claims to be a bard.
In both Gottfried and Wagner, Isolde eventually figures out who Tristan is (a splinter from his wound fits with Morold’s battered sword) while he is still in her care and ponders whether she should kill him.
~ on to Chapter 3 ~