ir dewederez enmahte
gehaben ruowe noch gemach,
wan sô ez daz andere sach.
sô s’aber ein ander sâhen,
daz gieng in aber nâhen,
wan sî enmohten under in zwein
ir willen niht gehaben in ein.
(Gottfried von Straßburg, Tristan, v. 11894-11899)
[Neither of them was able
to find any rest or comfort
except in each other’s sight.
But when they gazed at each other,
that perturbed them also,
since between them they could not
reconcile their desires.]
A willow tree grows by the garden gate, whispering over the tall walls by night.
They have to pass the gate on their way to the church, and they ride past without taking note of it. It is easy, the way it ducks out of sight in between two heavy pillars of stone. Myka wishes she could do the same.
Helena looks radiant. She is wearing a crown of small flowers, a queen by much older rights, and the way people along the road bow to her makes Myka recall that Beltane passed a few nights ago.
Helena does not adhere to gods residing in stone cathedrals, even though she will not speak of that here in Cornwall, but once, under another willow tree, she told a wounded warrior, and Myka has not forgotten. She also sees how pale Helena is underneath the regalia, but she does not sway atop the horse that carries her, side saddle, to the ceremony.
Her breath catches in the brief moment her eyes meet Myka’s, when Myka does not manage to duck back into the streak of festiveness in time.
Myka does not want to trail along. She desperately wants to be somewhere else on this day – surrounded by the curved blades of the Moors, or at the end of the world, beyond the rocky shores of Thule. Somewhere where she does not have to see Helena’s hand in Arthur’s grasp, or the ribbon tied around their wrists.
She does not want to see it, yet she cannot tear her eyes away.
Helena seems calm in front of the altar. Myka is standing behind her, and she can see how Helena’s shoulders raise and fall with even breaths. Only when she turns to the side, she wavers a little, and Myka wonders whether Claudia has given her another drink to dull the fear and the rage.
Myka thinks of it as an act of mercy, and for a moment she asks herself bitterly why they could not have died right then and there on the ship. But all it takes is one look at Helena, at the rise and fall of her shoulders, and she knows that she will cling to life for as long as Helena breathes.
Arthur cuts an imposing figure today. His hair is generously streaked with silver now, and it gives him an air of dignity while his stout frame exudes power, mirrored by the battle scars visible along his cheeks. He makes a better king than a warrior, though, something that Myka wishes he would not so readily admit.
For so long Myka has pleaded with him to take a wife for the stability of the land and the crown, and now that he finally heeds her advice, it is a bitter triumph. But Cornwall needs a queen to quiet the covetous voices that surround the throne. Arthur holds the land at peace, a feat that will crumble to bits without a wife to pass on the legacy, a wife to bear heirs with a lineage beyond doubt.
And Myka’s plan was fruitful. She sees how Arthur’s eyes light up when he looks at Helena. They already did when he first met her. Helena has not raged against him and she has made no attempt on his life, not that Myka knows of. Instead, she treats him with a kindness that reminds Myka of a roof of willow leaves and the gurgle of the river blending with Helena’s voice, and it makes Myka burn with envy and a yearning she knows she has no right to feel.
Yet Arthur looks at Helena without need, the need that is eating Myka up underneath the polished metal and brocaded doublet she wears today. She hates Arthur’s hand on Helena’s arm as he guides her to sit, so close to where Myka is sitting. It is a place of honor for the niece of the King, the next one in line to the throne, at least until they will walk out of this cathedral. Then Helena will be queen. And Myka will merely be a knight to the throne – to Arthur, who looks at her now with such gratitude, his hand still wrapped around Helena’s, and Myka wishes that Nathaniel would have run her through in duel.
Now his bride is Arthur’s, but Myka’s eyes are still straying to where they should not, following the fall of black hair and the cadence of the Queen’s steps. And then she has to look at her again, bound by duty. They have to share a drink, the royal couple and those closest to the crown, to lay false claims to rest.
There is the King’s aging aunt, Lady Rowena, and the King’s cousin, James MacMelot, but no one is closer than Myka.
The goblet passes from the King to his queen and behind her, Myka can see Claudia of Braen, standing motionless among the whispers of the ladies-in-waiting. Her eyes never leave Helena, and they narrow as Helena hands the goblet to Myka of Canoêl in front of the entire court.
Their fingers brush, making Myka look up sharply. Helena’s expression is distant. But as Myka shifts the goblet into her grasp, with the eyes of everyone on them, Helena runs two fingertips across the back of Myka’s hand. It is deliberate, and Myka nearly drops the drink. The wine trembles against her lips when she finally manages to raise it to her mouth, and something inside of her quivers along with it.
She manages to avoid the Queen after that, focusing on Arthur instead, until she is seated right across from Helena during the feast.
Dusk has brought on a multitude of candles and their light molds itself to Helena’s features. Myka watches as Helena lifts a grape to parted lips, and she does not taste any of the food she is eating. All she can see is Helena, Helena’s mouth curved into a smile.
Now Helena wears a small crown of gold. She is the Queen, and Myka should be happy.
Voices drift up from the courtyard and Myka wishes she were out there, where the wine is cheaper and the laughter is louder, alongside Curvenal and the other warriors. But she is cooped up inside the banquet hall, close to the King, and she tries to avoid meeting Helena’s eyes across the table.
She is aghast at herself, at how she can do this to Arthur, and yet all she can think of is Helena and not even the remotest desert will be able to take these thoughts away.
Helena appears on the balcony the next morning and Myka cannot bear the King’s smile and stares at her boots instead.
There have been skirmishes up at the edges of Northumbria for a while, but now they have turned into a swath of fire and sword. The clans are feared, and the North is far. Still, Cornwall has to maintain the borders. And Myka asks to lead the command of the Cornish.
The King protests her request. If he has to sacrifice her, it will not be in senseless bloodshed. She is too important to the crown, and to him.
“She will gain in standing when I am gone,” Myka reasons with him. “As long as I am here, there will be those who would prefer to see me in line to the throne.”
“Everyone knows that I tried that, and everyone knows that you do not want it,” Arthur grumbles.
“They could still weaken you, my Lord,” Myka warns. “Both you and the crown.”
Arthur sighs. He knows that she is right. “And if I send you on this break-neck foray, an errand that does not require a knight of your standing? Will people not say that I am trying to get rid of you, to get you killed?”
“And it would further your standing,” Myka observes calmly. “It would show you unafraid of making hard choices.”
“You are my right arm,” the King reminds her and Myka cannot take the affection in his tone. “You are the shield of Cornwall in the field.”
“Then let me go, my Lord,” Myka pleads. She straightens. “I defeated Nathaniel of Eire, perhaps I will slay the favorite of Uilliam as well and return to you with more glory for the crown.”
But part of her hopes that she will die up there, and die with honor, because otherwise she will die of need for Helena.
She wants to leave quickly, without farewells. The command is small and their route a secret, but the castle walls seem to whisper it through the corridors regardless.
Dusk already hugs the dark passageways when Myka returns from the stables, sword at her side. Somewhere, there is the scent of lilacs. The horses are waiting, but as Myka’s boots resound underneath an arc of stone, light steps move into her path. And there is Helena, a silhouette of white, and long sleeves wind around Myka’s neck.
Myka is half in armor already, yet Helena’s hands easily come to rest on her breastbone, with just a thin tunic between her heartbeat and Helena’s fingers.
Helena’s hair brushes against Myka’s cheek as she leans closer.
“Do not leave me.”
“I cannot stay,” Myka says, even as she ends up cornered against the wall behind her, and even though she knows, more than ever, that nothing in her body or her mind could ever take leave of her Queen.
And then Helena is kissing her again, and this time, it is Helena’s cheeks that are streaked with tears. Somehow, Myka’s hands end up on Helena’s hips and she can feel the warmth of her through the fabric of her dress. Myka know that she should not kiss her back, but then Helena curves into her just a little bit and Myka knows nothing more but the body in her arms and the lips against her own.
Just one moment of bliss, blazing high, then heavy steps sound behind them.
Myka pulls away with difficulty and struggles to draw breath. She cannot make out Helena’s eyes in the dark, but her fingers are trembling. The evening air is suddenly cold against her lips, making them ache for more, along with the burning in her chest that is clawing at her.
Before she can speak, Helena is gone, a brush of white sleeves and black hair that melts into the darkness.
One of Myka’s warriors steps up to her, saddle on his shoulder, and Myka pushes away from the wall with a nod and follows him.
Helena is not there when Myka leaves, bending a knee and bidding her King farewell.
But Helena is watching after her from the merlons of the north tower, unbeknownst, and she is glaring in envy at Curvenal, who rides at Myka’s side. They ride fast and Helena watches until the green of Myka’s coat blends into the fields around her.
And Helena waits.
It is a break-neck command and when they tell her, the Queen smashes a priceless window of stained glass with her fist.
Arthur merely looks at her as if he had wanted to break it himself. The nights with him are not the worst, thankfully rare as they are, but Helena is not sure she can bear with his gratitude at her compassion. It is not about him, it will never be. There is only Myka.
And Helena waits. From the merlons, she watches the doves and the falcons fly past and return. When dusk falls, even the nights seem too small to fit all of her restless heart.
Claudia knows her way around the court much sooner than Helena does. She listens to the rumors in the halls and carries them back to Helena.
How Lady Myka was slated to be heiress to the throne, and how the King might have wed her himself, had she not been his niece. Then again, would it not be a shame to tie such a fine warrior to childbirth and the confines of the court?
How Myka, despite what Helena admits to Claudia in a whisper, could not very well have wooed Helena for herself – “She may get away with being a knight because she is so close to the throne, but she is only the King’s niece, and of no standing to woo a princess.”
Helena asks about news from the Northern borders frequently enough to make courtiers talk.
One of the court ladies, blond hair streaked with gray, looks at her with disdain. “He honors his vows, I suggest you honor yours.”
“Courtiers always talk,” Helena dismisses Claudia’s concerns.
“The Lady Vanessa.” Claudia is all but wringing her hands. “She is the King’s favorite, and he once asked for her hand, but she refused since she is too old to bear an heir to the throne.” She gives Helena a pointed glance. “He does not go to her because he honors his vows.”
But vows are just words, and Helena was bound by eyes the shade of Eire before she ever stood in front of Arthur. She does not adhere to the rules of gods who live in cathedrals of stone.
But Lady Myka does.
And Myka rides hard, she rides up North, to the Moorlands, and perhaps the moors will swallow her up. Their horses are sweat-soaked and she sees Curvenal’s wordless frown, and yet she urges them on. There is quiet grumbling among the knights and warriors under her banner, but they will follow her, everywhere. Such is her fame.
And Myka is fury, bright and relentless. Curvenal doubts that a single clan will uphold its claims by the time they arrive on the heels of the stories preceding them.
Up here, the air is damp even at this time of year. St. John is approaching, not that Curvenal pays much attention to the Saints. They sit by the fire at night, underneath the stars, and Myka stares into the flames as she cleans her sword. She looks grim, and the rage is unlike her.
Curvenal is the one who rages, Myka is the one who reminds him that there is a court, and an order of things. But this time, Myka throws herself into every rencounter, into every ditch they are forced to set up camp in.
She has caught his gaze across the fire and is impatient already.
“My words,” Curvenal mutters. He knows her too well to be cowed by her. “What the hell?”
Myka shrugs uncomfortably. “I was getting antsy at court.”
She looks abashed, but Curvenal does not accept her explanation. “We have been away from court for weeks.” He is a weathered swordsman, not used to mince his words. “If you were a courtier, I’d say you’re hung up on one of the ladies.”
There have been ladies around his liege, though not a great a many, which makes Curvenal joke that all the ones Myka refuses, he picks up. He does not mind being second choice, and Myka has never been hung up on any of them. Curvenal sees her as an equal in spirit, preferring swords and the open sky to perfumed verses and curtsies and bows.
“Good thing that I am not a courtier, then.”
“Good thing, yes.”
Curvenal is unconvinced, but he tosses another handful of twigs into the flames and tries to make light of it. “A courtier would break a fancy rapier he never used, weep over a few roses and write horrible songs.”
Myka tears through the invaders instead and by the time they make it to the Northern borders, there is no one left to fight them.
Curvenal asks her again, but the look Myka gives him is so laden with guilt that he does not dare to insist.
When they return – even the moors spat us out, Curvenal jokes, but Myka’s laughter becomes thinner as they draw closer to Cornwall – the tidings precede them. Curvenal notes the sorrow that surrounds Myka, but at the same time, there is something wild and breathless about her that makes her more alive than he has ever seen her, and he knows her well.
When they return, Helena has waited so deeply, so desperately, that to her, it seems that years have passed instead of months, twisting her heart like old age twists fingers into painful numbness.
Her place is next to the king and they watch them approach, galloping freely with the banner of Cornwall high in the wind. These last minutes are the longest, and Helena is afraid they will never pass. Her knuckles are white on the arms of her chair. The messengers have said that Myka is unhurt, but she needs to see it with her own eyes.
And then they draw closer, close enough to be seen, and they ride in like a wave of summer. Myka’s face is unguarded, hair flying about her shoulders unbraided as she is riding strong and tall at the front of the command. She raises a metal-clad arm to greet the King, but as she tips up her face to the walls of the castle the joy in her eyes as she sees Helena, finally sees her, it is wiping the endless months of fitful worry away.
And Helena wants to hurl herself down the bridge and throw herself into Myka’s arms and into the scent of her, until even that most ephemeral touch will be imprinted indelibly into her senses.
It is not how the Queen greets the champion of the reign. Arthur’s hand is on hers, and when Helena looks at him now, he seems nearly as happy as she is, smiling with unguarded relief.
And Myka does not understand how she could have wanted to disappear in the moorlands and not see Helena ever again. In a flash of white and black up on the walls, all the colors have returned to Myka’s life and she feels as if she has never really taken note of them before. Helena has driven her away, far up North, but it is also Helena who has called her back.
Now the hooves of the horses have stilled and Myka will be received in the throne hall. She will kneel at the feet of the King, and she will be close enough to touch the seam of Helena’s dress with her sword hand.
She wants to race up the stone stairs, but she walks with measurement, the helmet under her arm. Only her heartbeat is hurrying ahead of her, stumbling and rushing ahead with the rhythm of Helena’s name.
The last hallway seems endless, the doors already opened, and Myka fears she will burst into a hundred pieces before she can make it to the dais and stand before Helena. She does not care who will stand next to her, she is coming home to her Queen.
And finally, Myka is there, but she does not dare to look up into Helena’s eyes, so she looks at her hands and bends a knee. It is Arthur whose hands tug at her shoulders, who hugs her and will not let go of her again. Out of the corner of her eye, Myka sees James MacMelot, and Claudia, hovering close to the throne.
The train of Helena’s dress brushes against Myka’s fingers as she passes her, the royal couple preceding the returned knights to the banquet hall for the feast.
Helena is sitting at the head of the table, next to the King, and every time she smiles, Myka cannot breathe, and it is envy and joy intertwined. In the months she has been gone – the summer soon will wilt away – perhaps Helena has grown closer to Arthur. She is his Queen, and Myka is merely a knight whose knife clutters to the table when Helena laughs and looks her way.
Myka leaves the tales to Curvenal tonight, he is better with them in any case, and the court laughs at his stories. Myka watches Helena’s fingers curl around a cup of wine, watches the cup being raised to finely curved lips, and jolts when, unexpectedly, Helena’s eyes meet hers over the rim of the cup.
And all Myka can think is that Helena truly has turned into a Queen. Her gaze is not hesitant, not courteous. It demands.
Heat suffuses Myka’s face and she hastens to drown the sensation in her own cup, but she can feel Helena’s eyes on her skin like a touch. When she looks down at her hand, she sees that it has curled into a fist, and the shiver than runs through her raises the fine hairs along her forearms. Their strength is undisputed, years of sword and shield having sculpted them, but tonight they tremble with the mere thought of a woman.
When Myka looks up again, Helena is still staring at her, cup half raised to her lips.
The laughter around them fades away from Myka’s ears, replaced by the drum of her own pulse. She knows there are ladies and pages and warriors around her, yet she can only see Helena. Everything that she is tries to crawl out of her skin and towards her.
There is music and song later, and the knights under Myka’s command try to remember steps that are dancing and not fighting, words that are gallant and not bellows. Helena weaves through the crowd effortlessly and in the way people align around her as she walks Myka recognizes the Queen.
Myka stands to the side, grateful for the shadows of the tapestries, but then Helena brushes past her again, close enough for Myka to feel the shift in the air. Helena walks out to the courtyard, into the night, alone.
Myka takes a deep breath, and another, and even as she knows that she should not, her feet are carrying her towards the courtyard.
Helena is leaning into the shadows at the bottom of the stairs, where the night and the garden begin. She does not move as she watches Myka approach, steps heavy and laden with want, and Helena finds her own blood echoing it.
She shifts on her feet when Myka finally stands before her and she can see how strong shoulders rise and fall with unsteady breaths. Leave it to Myka of Canoêl to doggedly try and fight something they have drunk to months ago. It is pointless, and maddeningly alluring.
Helena’s teeth dig into her lower lip as she watches Myka struggle. She still does not speak. Her hands find a hold on the wall behind her as she looks up at Myka, and then she merely archs a brow.
Her breath rushes out of her, startled, as she finds herself pushed firmly into the wall at her back, and then Myka’s hands are on both sides of her head. Helena barely has the time to look at Myka’s lips, so soft and so full, before they move against her own.
Helena’s mouth opens unasked and Myka’s arms close around her as they fall into each other, a mindless kiss interrupted only by words that would make no sense to anyone else.
“I died with you out there,” Helena confesses against Myka’s lips.
And Myka murmurs, “I tried to,” but her mouth is already on Helena’s again.
Helena pulls Myka an inch away by the hands she has pushed through her curls. “Don’t you dare.”
Her eyes are as dark as Myka has ever seen them. “I could not see you with him,” Myka admits, and Helena’s eyes soften.
“See only me.” She archs into Myka’s lips against her ear.
Myka’s hands are restless along her back, her arms. “Tell me you are not his.”
“I am not his,” Helena swears feverishly as her head falls against the wall behind her. “I never was. Not Nathaniel’s, not Arthur’s… Only yours.”
She clashes their mouths together and Myka is drinking her in, cradling her face with her fingers splayed wide, as if she is afraid to miss even the smallest detail. Helena reaches for her blindly and they gasp for breath, staring at each other unseeing while their bodies press close, singing with the nearness of the other. Helena has never been so alive, and if Myka presses just one more kiss to her throat – open-mouthed and hot and heedless of the royal chain around her neck – she will dissolve into the night like the fires of Samhain.
The throaty cry of a fox startles them enough to draw them apart and Myka staggers backward, holding onto her sword. The ornaments on the bodice of Helena’s dress rise and fall and rise and fall in the thin light, her mouth still torn open, and she steps towards Myka again because her body does not know to do anything else.
And Myka leans in, a hand lifting to Helena’s cheek, but then Claudia is suddenly between them, a blur of red with rushed breath and wild hair.
She pushes Helena away and Myka stumbles into the dark, feeling like the entire canopy of the starry sky would fit in her chest as she leans against the wall and struggles to catch her breath.
A willow tree grows by the garden gate, whispering over the tall walls by night.
~ on to Chapter 5 ~