si sâhen beide ein ander an,
dâ generten si sich van.
der wuocher, den daz ouge bar,
daz was ir zweier lîpnar.
si enâzen niht dar inne
wan muot unde minne.
(Gottfried von Straßburg, Tristan, v. 16815-16820)
[They could gaze at each other,
which was enough to sustain them.
The harvest that the eye bore
was nourishment for them both.
They ate nothing while there
but desire and love.]
Few are the moments they manage to steal from underneath the mantle of night.
A banquet for a Norman leader, a hunting party, a jousting at court. And only afterwards, there may be a handful of whispered minutes, with a fretful Claudia always hovering just out of sight.
When the Norman envoy visits, Myka is required to wear chain mail and sword belt. Arthur wants her to look her most intimidating, and Myka only wants to look at Helena at the head of the table.
The Norman envoy, who is seated next to the Queen, seems to share her thoughts. His eyes glaze over every time Helena speaks to him and Myka holds onto her cup tightly enough to expect dents in the silver when she sets it down again.
Helena wears a dress of rich green, the belt around her hips heavy with embroidery, and her hair shimmers like black ink in the light of the torches that line the hall, while Myka’s palms echo the sensation of silken strands. Behind Helena, the large tapestry moves with the steps of the pages hurrying past, until Helena, turning her head and smiling, looks like an ornament in its center.
It seems so much later when the hall lies devoid of steps and voices, but the tapestry is still moving. Perhaps it is the draft that slants in through the window openings, or perhaps it is the rush of the two forms entwined in the alcove behind it.
The roast and the wine have disappeared, and so has the knot that kept Myka’s braid in place. The front of her tunic is hanging open, a pair of hands pulling it further apart, and Myka cannot suppress a shiver when Helena’s lips are close enough to breathe against her skin.
She has no sword here, no shield, no means to defend herself. She cannot fathom that she is kissing the wife of her King, in his own banquet hall. But she can imagine letting go of Helena even less.
The ornate belt drops to the floor and Myka’s hands brush the royal pendant around Helena’s neck out of the way. And there is the way Helena’s fingers curl with intent into Myka’s unlaced tunic in reply. It has Myka stumbling forward, blindly, to where she is beckoned.
She can feel Helena’s warmth already on her lips when Claudia coughs and draws them apart, with difficulty, their legs and hands slow as if trapped in honey.
Helena recovers first. Myka watches as she smoothly bends down to pick up her belt, and when she stands again, Myka’s hands have curved themselves to echo the slope of Helena’s hips without conscious thought.
“Why, Myka of Canoêl –” Helena’s breaths still come a little quicker, and she is still so close and Myka cannot move a single limb. “Do you intend to make this alcove your camp for the night?”
It is a gentle tease when the way they have to listen to steps at the other side of the tapestry does not allow for such gentleness, but Helena carves the moment out of the guilt that surrounds them.
Myka stops, even though she yet has to move. A quip about choosing a swim in a cold lake for the night dies on her lips when Helena closes the brooch of her belt and adjusts its fall. It is a useless labor since she will take it off again in mere minutes, in her chambers.
Helena’s hands still, and Myka knows what her own fervent gaze is telling: her hope that the light in Helena’s window will not burn tonight. That it will not be Arthur to loosen this belt, not tonight.
Helena’s smile is small and sad. “It is easier when I can think of you.” Fingers brush along Myka’s jaw, a last stolen gesture that feels like an apology.
And then the Queen is gone, and the light in her window burns at Myka’s back as she crosses the courtyard in the dark, towards the stables. She will ride and ride until the light stops shining, until the night swallows her whole.
The horses are calm and rested again for the hunt come morning, and the bright day knows nothing of the night.
The ladies of the court are invited to the hunt, which has the courtiers hoping for a wolf, a bear or a fox. Their laughter is raucous, their steps broader.
The morning is still new and Myka sees Claudia, pale atop her horse behind the Queen and the King, amidst impatient hooves and dogs tearing at their leashes. Myka casts down her gaze when they ride past. She does not dare to meet Arthur’s eyes any longer. Of Helena, she only catches a glimpse, the fall of her skirts and a gloved hand on the pommel. Her heart races regardless.
Next to the King, MacMelot offers to side with the Queen, a task that falls onto a gallant knight when the hunt rides faster.
Myka is staying in the back, close to the lines of the archers, and like arrows, they dash forward into the field at the first sound of the horn. She disappears in the rhythm of the hooves, her heart stretched wide underneath the sky, lost honor forgotten. The forest welcomes her in an embrace of green.
It is so easy to stray from the hunt and its hounds and this is how they meet, in a clearing among firs. The horns and the bark of the dogs sound farther and farther away, until all that remains is the breath of their horses and the rustle of green around them. The air is cooler here than out in the fields, but there is nothing cool about the way they look at each other.
There is no MacMelot, and Claudia does her best to blend into the fir trees unseeing.
They may have but a minute before they have to rejoin the hunt, apart from each other, yet there is no rush. There is no time to dismount, but as Myka brings her horse over, it is enough to see Helena, and how Helena does not look away from Myka’s face at all, hungrily making up for all the times at court where she cannot look. She does not even blink.
And Myka does not try to hide the smile that lights up her entire face and crinkles the fine lines around her eyes. This time, she does not have to hide it.
Helena still looks at her when she reaches for one of her own hands and, slowly, removes the glove covering her fingers.
Around them, the forest seems to echo their breathing and Myka takes that bare hand, the hand of her Queen, and presses a kiss to the back of it. And then she holds onto it because she can. Their only witnesses are the trees and Claudia, who is discreetly glancing elsewhere.
This is how Arthur held Helena’s hand at the cathedral, and now Myka is doing it and Helena is smiling, and it is enough.
Snaps in the thicket raise their horses’ heads and Claudia, alert even before the sound reaches their ears, pushes forward as Myka backs away.
MacMelot, assigned to ride with the Queen, breaks into the clearing.
“Sir James, there you are,” Helena offers nonchalantly.
MacMelot’s eyes are drawn to her bare hand.
“We were getting worried about being lost,” Helena continues. “Thankfully, Lady Myka found us.”
“Thankfully,” MacMelot repeats. “Yes.” His eyes flit back and forth between Myka’s face and Helena’s bare hand.
There is a hint of a blush on Helena’s features, something that might have been put there by the ride in the breeze, and Myka has to remind herself to look away. As soon as she is in Helena’s presence, she finds her body angling towards her like a pilgrim’s heart towards the altar.
She does not trust herself to speak, but perhaps it does not even take that. Anyone who looks at her can see Helena reverberate in her in these instants. Myka is a bell with its bronze hit by sound and her lips still echo the smile she now has to hide again. And when she turns her horse around brusquely and trots away, she realizes that even her breathing changes around Helena.
Someone is bound to find out.
Few are the functions at court the Queen does not have to attend. To some of them, Myka is summoned as well, as a knight of the crown, and she stands and watches as all eyes are on Helena. So are Myka’s. And Helena is in the light, and the light never goes out again.
A sunshade covers the balcony for the summer jousting, shielding the ladies and the nobility. This time, it is Myka in the light and Helena takes keen note of the whispers among her ladies when Myka rides past the balcony and raises her sword arm in greeting. A few sighs blend with the whispers and Helena straightens.
Below, on her horse, Myka cuts a dashing figure. She wears the colors of no lady, just those of Cornwall, although from underneath the sunshade, a few gloves rain onto the ground. Some of the court ladies are far too forward, Helena finds. She shifts in her seat when Myka slides to the ground to gallantly pick up the offerings and looks up to the balcony again with a bow.
When more whispers ensue, Helena wants to command that Myka wear none of those gloves on her armor today.
Her eyes follow Myka, the line of her arm, as she pulls herself back up into the saddle with ease, and Helena shifts again. She halfheartedly answers Arthur’s smile, next to her, but her heart beats faster when she sees Myka heft the jousting lance. Her lips part involuntarily as she watches Myka ride to the start position, thighs firmly molded to her horse. The rhythm and shift of muscle strings Helena along, strength barely held in tow, waiting to be released. She catches herself before she can shift in her seat again.
She has not kissed Myka in so long. She counts the days and the hidden glances above the rim of a goblet. So many nights, she sees Myka walk away while Helena has to entertain. She knows that Myka will be in the stables or at the sparring fields then, and Helena hungers for the body forged in those nights and for all the glances they have not shared.
Now all eyes are on Myka. She is adept at these courtly games, gallant and enough of a warrior, but with an even face that makes the ladies sigh. When Helena looks at Myka, she does not even have breath left to sigh.
Myka’s first opponent is a bulky brute of a warrior and Helena’s brow furrows in concern. The laughter among the courtiers to her left dies down, and Helena gasps when a jousting lance hits Myka with full force in the shoulder, the one she once healed. MacMelot looks at her sharply, but Helena has no time for that, she needs to see how Myka sways and struggles, but does not fall. And Myka wins and later Helena finds herself gasping again, when she has a brief minute by the armory tent to crown the champion of the tournament with more than a wreath.
But the more she has, the more she needs. The stolen moments barely amount to half hours, even though Claudia lies and cheats and covers for them.
Claudia still does not complain. Her lips are drawn into a thin line at the Queen’s requests, but she does not protest like she did when Helena first reached for the darkest bottle in the chest.
It is the bottle Myka wishes for on the nights when the light in Helena’s windows will not die down and she stands and stares and she wants to drink it or die or have Arthur drink it instead.
And then someone finds out.
“The Queen?” Curvenal roars. “By the Wild Hunt and all the witches – the Queen?!”
Myka has glanced up at the lit window once too often and Curvenal looks as if he wants to strangle someone, preferable the Queen. He has never seen his liege like this, desperate and restless, but even he has to admit, if grudgingly, that he has never seen her this joyful, either.
“She put a spell on you, didn’t she? She and that witch of Braen…”
Myka laughs, but she does not laugh any longer when Curvenal has the King send them on an errand to the duchies in the East. It is six nights in ditches under a cold moon and Helena believes that she must die during each of them, each night where she does not know Myka underneath her window.
Curvenal just tells Myka, “You will thank me later,” and Myka wants to kill him, too, as they ride away.
But when they return, she is still the same. Much to Curvenal’s chagrin, there is no spell in sight.
“I need to see her. I need…”
Curvenal wants to speak up, but shuts his mouth again because there is nothing to say. He is loyal to his King, but his first oath is to Myka. Where she goes, he will go. And if she needs his word so that she can see the Queen, so be it. Myka has saved his life time and again, and he has saved hers, and if she needs him to save her one more time, he will do it.
For six days and six nights, Helena has been jealous of Curvenal, who gets to ride at Myka’s side. She is jealous of the stable boys and the squires who hand Myka reins and weapons, who see her ride out with taut poise and return in hot sweat. She is jealous of the horses under Myka’s hands and the grass under their hooves.
The way she longs for Myka – the one who defeated Eire, the one who bartered for her hand – should embarrass Helena, but it does not. She listens to her blood, and only her blood. The reign does not concern her, it is not her reign. All that is hers is Myka. But Myka struggles. With honor, with duty, with her oath. And yet she comes back to Helena every time.
It is MacMelot who urges the King to sign an agreement with the Eastern duchies after Myka and Curvenal return. It is MacMelot who argues that Arthur should travel himself, to make a stand. The King has not been gone for a single night since the wedding, but now he will stay away from the castle for two nights – two full nights – and Helena can barely believe her luck.
“Not tonight,” Claudia says sternly.
Helena looks at her as if she has gone mad. “Myka has returned, and Arthur is not here.”
“Perhaps the King is not here, but the court is,” Claudia reminds her. “There are eyes and ears everywhere.”
“So are yours. And you will stand guard,” Helena decides with impatience. The sun is straining to touch the horizon already, and she will not be denied, not tonight. “I must see her. I must –“
“If you want to get yourself killed!”
But Claudia’s warning passes unheeded as Helena looks out at the sinking sun again, willing it to move faster. “I will die if I do not see her tonight.”
She sounds so utterly convinced that even Claudia is inclined to believe it.
A night, an entire night! Everything about Helena is impatience, an archer’s arrow quivering with the nearness of flight, and with the promise of Myka’s arms at the other end of the arc.
There is no place for them within the castle, as Claudia does not tire to point out to her, but Helena does not care. She will be in the garden, past the gate by the willow tree. It is still summer, and no roof can contain what she feels.
She waits on the merlons, her dress covered by a dark coat. She waits for the moment when the crowns of the trees will blend into the night enough to be of the same ink. Only then she will put out the torch, the torch Myka must be staring at, down past the bridge, waiting for her.
Claudia has made Helena promise to wait until then, Claudia, who will watch from the walls and will tell everyone that the Queen has retired early in absence of her husband.
And Helena cannot wait any longer. She is bursting forth, beyond the seams of herself, as the stars begin to dot the sky.
“Don’t put out the torch,” Claudia pleads with her. “Not yet!”
But Helena looks at her and laughs as she tosses the torch into the sand and then she is already on the stairs, rushing towards the ground, towards the garden, with the train of her dress trailing behind her, lifted by the haste of her steps.
And she waits. These are the last days of summer, with chill nipping at the nights already, but this evening, the air is a balmy simmer that trembles against her skin, in her lungs, and she wants to scream because it is both too much and not nearly enough.
She counts the heartbeats now, strained by the wait, until she will see Myka, finally see her again. Her gaze burns against the dark outline of the garden gate, willing Myka to walk through it so that she may rush towards her and fall into her until no one, not even Claudia, will be able to tell them apart in the dark, hair shaded to the same ink by the night.
Her fingers bend and uncurl, waiting to find hold on the curve of Myka’s shoulders with no armor between them.
And still the night is too soft against her skin.
The willow leaves whisper across the wall and through the garden gate she will come. Helena has left the shadows already to be closer to the gate, even though Claudia has forbidden her to do so.
The Queen is so hard to hide. There is a flock of people swarming around her at all times and it has taken claiming herself unwell so that she may disappear. Rumor already has it that she is with child. It gives her space to breathe at court, even as it drives Myka mad and makes her hands more desperate, but Helena does not mind the ferocity.
Steps, finally, on the other side of the wall, but they disappear again, dragging Helena with them. Then a creak of wood and metal, a rustle, and there, sharp against the thin moon, a line of strong shoulders, braid falling down a lean back.
Helena’s mouth turns dry as her knees start to give way and she is too weak to call out, too weak to do anything but want.
Myka walks closer, scouring the dark, and then a frisson of pure brightness passes over her face. She is running, care cast aside, and Helena hears herself laughing giddily. Only at the last yard they stop. Helena knows that Myka’s drunken disbelief mirrors her on, and then she throws herself forward, stumbling into a desperate embrace. Her arms close around Myka’s neck, around the scent of her and the brush of wild curls. In the night, only her hands are visible, clinging tightly to Myka and building a haven for the two of them.
She is not even kissing her, the need to simply hold her is greater, to feel her breaths tight underneath her skin, close to the surface, and then Myka draws back just enough to look at her. Her pupils are wide already.
And Helena’s hands are tracing Myka’s face, so close in the dark, and her lips follow the same path, dusting along Myka’s face, her brow, the slight furrow above it, the part of her hair, her lashes. It is Myka and always Myka, and it takes Helena a moment to realize that Myka is shaking just as much as she is, sinking to her knees in front of her.
Helena bends down, her hair falling over them both like the night. She can hold Myka now. Tonight, no one, not even the King, can take this away from her.
With a quick move of her hand, Helena lets her coat pool on the ground. Claudia will curse later at the grass stains and the dirt that she cannot wash away, but Helena will cherish the reminder.
Under her hands, Myka rises again, her stance firm and lithe, and reaches for her sword belt. For a moment, the weapon sings in the night, then Myka pushes it into the soil already damp with night. And then she is Helena’s, and Helena’s alone.
Myka’s fingers stutter and stumble when they finally find their way around Helena’s waist, Helena can feel it, but it does not matter because Myka is touching her, at last, and now there will be no end to it, not ever. It is not just this touch – the one that has Helena’s eyes grow darker – but it is the knowledge of all the touches that will follow.
They fall backwards, the bark of a tree scraping at Helena’s back, but all she knows is Myka’s hand on her thigh, the grip desperate. It tears something incoherent from Helena’s throat and if it were not for Myka’s hand anchoring her, nothing would stop her from dissolving into the night around them.
But Myka is there, and her hand is trembling, too.
Helena holds onto fistfuls of Myka’s hair, leaving Myka lightheaded with the heat and the breath of her, and with how Helena so easily curves into her every touch. She stumbles under Helena’s kisses and her hands will never again know how to stop. Helena’s belt falls away, one of her sleeves tears, and still her lips leave Myka wanting for more, until her knees buckle and Helena pushes her the rest of the way.
The coat crumples beneath them and Helena is above her. She pulls at Myka’s tunic, at the laces of her doublet, at the bindings of her own corsage. It is two hands at first, then four, and then they tumble into one another, graceless with need.
Myka tries to drape her own coat over them both, but Helena reaches for that hand. She does not need her to be gallant, she only needs her.
And Helena’s breaths are galloping ahead of her and she is struggling to catch up, even as she collapses against Myka’s chest, against soft breasts unbound and outlined against the haphazardly unlaced tunic.
Tremors ripple through back under Myka’s splayed fingers and then Helena laughs against her neck, softly, and it is just the two of them by the river again.
Helena’s hands are on Myka’s shoulders, muscles beginning to warm from the strain and the closeness, and she pulls off the rumpled tunic at last. Her palm hovers over the old shoulder wound before she traces the scar with her fingers, and then her lips.
Her mouth strays lower, lips dragging across Myka’s skin to finding another scar, and then another. And Myka is the most valiant knight of Cornwall’s crown, but tonight, she is trembling in the arms of the Queen.
Helena has wanted this for so long that she does not remember not wanting it, not needing it like the air that she breathes. When she raises her gaze from the plain of skin before her, she finds Myka pushing up into her, eyes wide open, yet unseeing. Even with the night stealing the colors out of the garden around them, those eyes are green, and Helena understands that all the shores she remembers as home have only ever been an echo of this.
Her breath catches along with Myka’s, but her hands are firm, and Myka is taut like a bow, and Helena feels her blood rush close to her skin in wonder.
Honor and name, oaths and the reign briefly shine up in Myka’s mind, shine and perish. She once held them above all else, but now there is Helena above her, and the only thing Myka prays for is for Helena not to take away her hands, to not stop moving.
Helena’s breath is heavy against her ear, and Myka is dimly aware of stars above beyond the rustle of leaves.
“Are you mine?”
Myka barely gets to whisper, “Yes,” before her mouth is taken in another kiss. She thinks she should pray, and instead it is Helena who pleads.
For a beat, Myka hangs suspended, heaving for breath. “I will always return.”
But Helena must know that she will never be able to walk away from her, no matter where horses or orders take her. Helena’s fingers are strong, her lips a benediction, and when Myka’s voice does not obey her any longer, it is her body who speaks. And Helena must know, must have known all along that Myka is hers, and hers alone, even when Myka is nothing but a blaze of stars racing underneath Helena’s touch.
Yet the way Helena looks at her is shy. And Helena’s smile is so generous, so unguarded, that, suddenly, Myka cannot bear the thought of Arthur seeing her like this.
It is her arms around Helena now, it is her weight that is pushing Helena deeper against the crumpled coat, it is her mouth against Helena’s chest.
And Helena’s hands are on her waist, urging her on. Fingers dig into the muscled small of Myka’s back. Her braid has long come undone and her curls brush against Helena’s skin with every thrust. Her mouth hangs open, air burning in her lungs, honest sweat against the cool night air.
Helena archs up for a moment, hands curved around Myka’s face and her breath hot against Myka’s neck, and then she is tugging her down, a strong grip around Myka’s neck. It is a yoke born gladly and yet Myka will buck against it just the same, just to feel it, and feel it again as Helena’s hold tightens and she flies like the falcons, carried high, and burrows deep into the soil.
When Helena looks at her again, there is tenderness and rapture warring in her gaze and her stomach quivers when Myka rests her temple against it. Even now, Myka’s fingers are unable to still, slowly tracing the slope of Helena’s hip. She has no words, yet she knows. And Helena is unlocking her like a key.
The stars continue their path unseen and it is Helena who takes Myka’s hand and kisses her fingers, worn by swords and reins, and who kisses her lips while she holds onto that hand and then pushes Myka’s fingers into herself, deep and without wavering.
And even if Myka were cast into the icy waters north of Thule, she would burn at the sound she swallows from Helena’s lips, and Helena still holds onto her hand, holds on as if she had to die if Myka lessened the pressure even a little.
The soil is lumpy beneath the coat, but Helena does not care. Dew already clings to the grass blades around them and it’s the last thing she knows, and then she is the stars and she is drowning, toes curling and neck taut.
When her mouth finally slackens, Myka is already kissing her. Helena shifts to rest against her and Myka is soft curves and strong hands.
Just as Helena exhales in sheer bliss, Myka stills. And when Helena tips up her head, she can see it too, a first pale stripe fraying out underneath the dying stars. And even the thought of light is enough to make Myka react like the knight she is. It is in her blood.
“We need to part.”
“It is almost dawn.” Helena concedes. “But not yet.” She holds onto Myka when Myka wants to sit up.
And Helena wants to bottle the way Myka speaks her name like this, tender and with a bit aggravation, her voice still hoarse with night. She wants to pour it into the most precious flask to be able to tuck it away in the deepest corner of the wooden chest.
“Just once,” she says. “Just once let me fall asleep next to you, and wake with you still by my side. Even if it is just for a minute of rest.”
And Myka looks at the paling sky, and she feels Helena’s hand come to rest over her heart and she cannot deny what she wishes for so fervently herself.
Where does the night end, and where does Helena begin? Are they not one and the same? They are older than this, and yet this is older than they will ever be.
Helena’s breaths come more evenly against her neck and Myka tucks her coat around them both. She allows herself to turn into Helena’s arms and kiss the tousled crown of her hair.
Just one minute, one minute before the light will tear them apart again.
Yells and barking, a tumble of steps and dull thudding.
Myka sits up with a start, cold morning air touching her bare shoulders. A shadow of orange red flits by in the dim hour of dawn, perhaps a fox, and then Claudia is running towards them, her face ashen.
But this time, she is not quick enough.
The gate is giving way in splintered planks and twisted iron, and torches and voices spill into the garden.
Myka scrambles for her sword, pulling her tunic over her head, but it is too late.
“Cornwall, see your Queen, see you champion knight!”
It is MacMelot, torch in hand, with half the court on his heels, hunters and warriors and the King.
Next to Myka, Helena sits up slowly and wraps the rumpled royal coat around herself.
When Myka, sword held at the ready, glances to the side, she cannot stop herself from reaching out, once more tangling Helena’s fingers with hers. Helena has never been more beautiful than now, solemn and exhausted in the first light of morning. All of Myka is screaming at her to draw Helena into her arms and shield her and to never let go of her again. It is the only thing that makes sense as torches too bright for her eyes cast nervous shadows onto trees and bushes.
But then Arthur steps out from beyond MacMelot’s triumphant stance. He looks old and gray, and it is worse than any anger could be.
“Myka,” he says. He doesn’t say anything else and Myka lets her sword sink.
And even though she knows she should not, even though she knows that she has no right, her eyes are searching for Helena again, who is now standing, wrapped in nothing but the her coat, with her hair fanning out around her face.
Myka closes her eyes and when she opens them again, she forces herself to look at Arthur and even among the overwhelming shame, her lost honor weighs less than Helena’s hand in hers.
At Arthur’s nod, two armed men step forward and Myka is still looking at Helena, who glances back at her in dazed warmth, as if they were still alone. She does not seem to notice the hands that grab her by her upper arms and drag her backwards to where her husband is standing.
Helena’s bare feet peek out from underneath the coat as she gravitates towards Myka again, her lips still swollen with Myka’s kisses.
And Myka smiles, because this will be the last thing she sees. With a quick flash, she raises the sword to her eyes.
She does not see the lance or MacMelot. She does not see Helena rear up in the grasp of two warriors, struggling frantically. She does not see how the wail of “No!” is torn from Helena’s lips, like a wolf or a bear entrapped, large enough to make the curious courtiers back away.
When the lance pierces Myka’s side, forcing her to the ground, Helena passes out with a scream.
Few are the moments they manage to steal from underneath the mantle of night.