«mich müejet und mich swaeret,
mir swachet unde unmaeret
allez, daz mîn ouge siht.
in al der werlde enist mir niht
in mînem herzen liep wan ir.»
(Gottfried von Straßburg, Tristan, v. 12023-12027)
[Everything that meets my gaze
makes me doubt and tremble,
feel weak and as though lost.
There’s nothing left in the world
that my heart loves but you.]
And high do they cut into the sky, the tall white towers of Canoêl.
They arrive with the first autumn storms and Curvenal curses when his gaze slides up the walls, over the patches of salt and moss dotting the stones, over the grass that nests in crumbled window openings and along broken floors.
Myka still hangs limply in his grasp, her weight slighter than back in Cornwall. The bit of milk and herbed wine that he manages to coax past her lips runs out of the corner of her mouth again without heeding his pleas. And now they do not even have a roof to put above their heads.
“Whatever wild mage your father was, to entice the King’s sister to this godforsaken…”
“The river…” Myka, in a bout of wakefulness, smiles. She listens, her brow smooth for a moment. “No, the sea. I remember the sea sounding like this.”
There is not much Myka could remember of the small fief thrust against the waters, far in the Northwest. Even if she could see, her eyes would not recognize much. Too young was she brought to be raised at court, her mother lost in childbirth, her father in battle.
Curvenal tenses at the sound of voices and the pattern of animal steps, but inside the old courtyard there is merely a shepherd, ragged in looks, who has sought refuge from the bite of the winds behind a crumbling wall.
And Curvenal curses again.
“By the Wild Hunt, how will we defend ourselves here?”
And he catches himself, knowing that ‘we’ now means him alone. He eyes the shepherd in distrust and is met in kind. The man has a hand on his knife, weighing the danger that Curvenal means, a trained warrior with strong steps and a sword gleaming at his side, carrying a broken body in his arms.
Curvenal curses some more.
In the end, he finds them shelter from the howl of the storms in one of the towers, half up a set of stairs still solid, and with a view of the cleft hills and the sea to their feet from a wall that still carries their combined weight without trembling.
The vials Helena has given him remain untouched. Sometimes, when Myka’s teeth shake in a bout of fever, he takes them out, gingerly, but he always shoves them back into his pocket. He does not trust the work of a witch. If not for that damn love potion, they would not be here.
Still, Helena’s gold has paid their passage and sealed curious mouths where his fist or his sword could not keep them shut. Whether Helena had anything to do with the silent guard and the brittle lock deep down in the dungeons the night they fled, he does not want to be privy to.
There is not much about healing that Curvenal knows other than what he has learned on the fields of battle. He knows of fresh air and clean water and warmth, remedies that heal honest wounds left by swords and lances, both dull and sharp. He does not know what to do with fever that refuses to break, or with flesh that turns yellow and purple without cause.
And he does not know what to do with the yearning for Helena that consumes Myka like an invisible wound, even as he tries to fend it off and wash it away with his bare hands.
It’s the same pained plea, time and again. Myka’s voice is weak and broken, but it still fits to Helena’s name and it sounds as if torn from her flesh in a way that is not human. It spooks Curvenal and makes his skin crawl.
And still the wound will not close, and the fever will not break.
The hold of the nights grows longer and colder. Curvenal can see the shepherds – there are three of them – and their fire at night, where they huddle behind the crumbled wall with their herds. He cannot chase them away, and at least the sheep will give a fair warning in case MacMelot or the King find out where they are and have them chased.
The sea roars beneath the beaten castle and fever rattles Myka like a child’s doll the night Curvenal finally gives in. Like this, Myka will not outlive the night, so he pours one of Helena’s vials onto Myka’s marred flesh and renews the bandages.
The shepherds wordlessly make space for him by their fire when he steps closer. One of them hands him a leather flask with a drink that makes Curvenal grimace and then curse some more. But Myka’s fever breaks just before dawn and she sleeps quietly for the first time since their flight.
After that, Curvenal leaves his sword behind when he joins the shepherds by their fire, in other nights, with Myka asleep.
Myka’s hands gain in strength and she forces the second vial out of Curvenal’s grasp and onto the festering wound herself when he admits that the Queen gave it to him. He is uncomfortably certain that she would have drunk it down even if it were poison, as long as it was sent by Helena’s hand.
The winter storms come and leave salty froth on the walls, white on white. Curvenal covers Myka with sheepskins against the frost, and slowly she is able to hold the cups with mutton broth between her own hands. She does not feel the cold.
In her sleep, there is summer breeze against her skin and it carries Helena’s laugh. Her fingers search for Helena’s arms among the rough blankets and the night echoes the quiet sigh of Helena settling against her, smile pillowed across Myka’s heart, and Myka’s sleep is restful.
The gap across her eyes turns from red to white as it scars and she relishes the cold air against her skin when she turns her face towards the sea. Fine mist carries up with the breakwater like the dew by the riverside, a long time ago. She can still see it clearly.
Curvenal scans a horizon devoid of sails. Rarely do ships pass by, rarer still may they search refuge in the battered port of Canoêl. Curvenal has crafted bow and arrows and one night, they share their meal with a small crew of rugged merchants, whom Curvenal will only meet with his sword well visible at his side.
But the merchants have traveled along the South, and they have news from the court.
The struggle with the Normans is worsening and it angers Myka because it would have been her fight and her place, by her King’s side.
And the King has celebrated no hunt all autumn long, though no one knows if he cast a plea for an heir with the old Gods, or whether it is a sign of mourning his cousin, the Duke MacMelot.
Curvenal inhales sharply. “MacMelot is dead? Did he fall against the Normans?”
“Nah.” The smile of the leader of the merchant band is lacking several teeth. “Died like a rat over some food, the same night the knight Lady Myka vanished.”
“Huh,” Curvenal grunts. “Is that so.” He remembers Helena warning him of MacMelot, but then he remembers better, that her warning was only of MacMelot’s men and his family. His respect for the Queen grows another notch, as does his wariness of her.
“How is the Queen?” Myka asks at last, her empty gaze turned towards the flickering flames.
“She doesn’t leave the castle.” The merchant shrugs. “Some say the King guards her beauty with jealousy. Some say she’s with child.”
Curvenal sees Myka’s hands curl into fists, but she does not say more. The lone keen of the shepherds’ pipes carries on the wind and beyond that, there is only the sea.
The rage comes days later, with the merchants long gone, and Curvenal is grateful for the possibility to hunt, or go with his sword after a couple of raiders who were drawn to their fire.
“Far better does she fare without me,” Myka bites out, and Curvenal has lost count of the times she has said this already, as if this will finally be the time where she can say it without bitterness, and with conviction. “She is the Queen, and a heir will leave her close to the throne, will leave Arthur indebted to her.”
The fever returns in an abrupt bout, harsh and brutal, but there are no more vials left and Curvenal listens to Myka’s teeth shake as she curses herself.
“And what would she want with a broken woman, no longer a knight, and blind like the old?” And it is a bitterness that will never abate, chafing away at Myka and Curvenal alike. “With no honor to offer, hiding out in a broken castle no longer her own?”
Curvenal hates to see her like this, and he still thinks that all this would not have happened if only they had not gone to Eire to woe their proud princess as Queen for Arthur’s throne.
“Was it worth it?” he asks one night, sharp and angered, and he hopes that Myka will finally say ‘no’.
But Myka calms, her fists uncurling. She still fidgets, but her voice is light and so certain when she says, “Yes.”
And Curvenal curses yet again. To his eyes, even devoid of her title, Myka is still a better knight than most of the others. But Myka rages, promising to set Curvenal free to return to battle and honor, and pleading with him to let her die instead, and to never let Helena know. But even as she speaks the words, Curvenal can hear that she will never stop longing for Helena.
“She said she would come.”
Myka turns her head towards his voice. “What?”
“She said she would come for you.” Curvenal clears his throat. “Come, or die trying.”
“She should not –” Myka tries to say, but she is powerless against the wild hope that suddenly paints itself across her features. When she smiles, it is blinding and Curvenal sees her joy shine brighter than the shepherds’ fire and the winter stars above.
But the next day, her question is plain like that of a child. “But why is she not here yet?”
Curvenal nods at roaring sea to their feet. “You want her out on these waters, in the winter storms?” But he is smiling, for Myka, at last, is sitting up taller. He is glad when Myka cannot see his smile falter. The Queen’s bed is a lot softer than the ruins of Canoêl, and it is far away, and no shining knight will ride in to carry her away.
The breakwater licks at the wall when Myka pulls herself up alongside Curvenal.
“It might be better if she does not come,” she says and her tone echoes all of Curvenal’s doubts. “It is enough that she said it.”
“Might be hard to get her away from court,” Curvenal agrees carefully.
“The court!” Myka dismisses it with a shrug. “I gave her my word when we first went to Eire.”
“When we first… Over the tributes?” Curvenal blinks. “But why did we woo her for the King, if you had set your own eyes on her? You insisted –”
Myka draws her lips into a thin line. “She was born to a throne.”
“And you are not of royal blood?” Curvenal scoffs. “You are the King’s niece, and after you defeated Nathaniel, she was nothing but a vassal princess!”
“I never wanted her to feel like a vassal,” Myka says quietly. “I took the crown from her and she healed my wounds, and I swore to restore her honor to her.”
Curvenal exhales as he fits the pieces together. “So you made sure she would have the throne of Cornwall and England instead.”
“Yes.” Myka says and the sad pride of her tone may be all she has left of her honor, but it makes her more of a knight than any warrior Curvenal has ever ridden with.
“That’s got to be the most stubborn, pig-headed –” Curvenal draws a hand across his face, but Myka smiles, softly.
“That is what she said, as well.”
That brings Curvenal up short. “Huh.” He rolls his shoulders. “Seems she’s got some common sense.” He draws his coat tighter around himself. “For a princess, anyway.”
The same night, Curvenal dresses one of the shepherds in their cleanest tunic and best boots, gives him most of what remains of Helena’s gold, and sends him to a passage to the South, to deliver a message to the Queen.
Curvenal doubts that Helena will come. And when he looks at Myka, he doubts even more that Helena would stay.
And they wait. Sometimes, in her sleep, Myka utters Helena’s name in a way that makes Curvenal push his fingers into his ears and blush.
Spring comes with renewed winds that tear from all sides at the castle in exuberance. The shepherd does not return. Yet Myka will wait on the wall with a view of the sea, day after day, sunlight and squalls against her brow.
“The ship, do you see a ship?”
Her side still will not heal, leaving her too weak to draw a bow or hold a sword, but not too weak to want and to wait. Fever and want continue to eat away at her like dormant beasts ready to rear their heads at every turn, and Curvenal cannot tell which one is which any longer. If the Queen will come indeed, she better hurry.
In fevered dreams, Myka sees Helena, once more standing above her, aboard another ship, the fateful goblet in her hands. And Helena’s eyes are so dark, and Myka knows that she is drinking to her own death, but she does not care. All she wants is to be able to look at Helena for a little while longer, until her eyes close.
But then Helena drinks to her in return, and her eyes are still so dark, and then all Myka knows are Helena’s lips, time and again.
“A ship, do you see a ship?”
And always Curvenal shakes his head. “No ship, my liege.”
Myka is not asking when the shepherds’ pipes spring up a livelier tune one morning, but before she can move, one of their voices carries up. “A ship, Master Curvenal! Green sails —“
“Green… green! It has to be her!” Myka tries to pull herself up on the ledge, to command legs that still won’t obey her, and turns her face towards the sea. “Helena… Can you see her, Petrus? Do you see her yet?!”
“I’ll be damned!” Curvenal laughs as the ship draws into the harbor. “It’s the Queen, she’s at the bow. She came!”
Myka sags against the wall behind her, overwhelmed, before she orders Curvenal away. “What are you still standing here? Quick, help her up!”
She cannot see the doubtful glance Curvenal gives her before he hurries down to the port. Once more, Myka tries to upright herself, rising to meet Helena, and she feels stronger than she has in months. Helena has come, and that is all that matters. Not the fevers, not her wound.
She tugs at the bindings and laughs at the sensation of liquid trickling down her side. Nothing can hurt her any longer. “With a bleeding wound, I defeated Nathaniel.” She tries a step forward, one hand still on the wall. “With a bleeding wound, I’ll stand before Helena again!” She takes another step, and her legs hold. Another one, and she smiles in triumph.
Another one, and she hears Helena’s voice, carrying over the wind. “Myka!”
And Myka tumbles forward, managing another two steps before she falls to her knees.
Feet draw nearer, light and quick, closer towards her.
It sounds like a scream, but Myka is smiling, and then Helena is with her at last, the brush of her dress and the fall of her hair, the warmth of her body and the scent of her skin, the familiar touch of her hands and her lips against Myka’s brow.
“You came,” Myka whispers in wonder. Helena’s breaths are so close to her ear.
“Of course I did.” And Helena’s voice trembles, and so do her lips, and Myka does not understand why as she falls forward into Helena’s arms. Her fingers find Helena’s pulse, her jaw, her temples. And then, at last, there are Helena’s lips against her own and the storm finally halts. Everything halts on this threshold.
She is kissing Helena, and this moment is all the moments there will ever be. Their heartbeats are hanging suspended and it does not matter what will happen in the next breath because there is nothing beyond this.
Myka’s hand curls around a slender neck. “Helena…” She sighs it against Helena’s mouth, blissfully.
Helena is holding her, and she is still holding her when Myka sags in her grasp, her hand falling away from Helena’s neck.
Helena catches it and brings the fingers to her lips, kissing them gently. “Of course I came. My place is with you.” She drops to her knees, Myka’s weight, though so much slighter that she remembers, wearing her down. Still, she does not let go off her. “And your place is with me.” Her fingertips follow the welted scar across Myka’s broken eyes.
Those eyes have not seen the shock on Helena’s face or the hand that flew up to cover her gasp at seeing Myka, face gaunt with yearning and fever, a shadow of the proud knight that Helena remembers. And yet it is Myka, and she is hers. Helena caresses the brow that has grown still, the curls that, for once, are not tucked into a braid.
“You will not leave me, not again.” She cradles Myka to her, on the stones high on the wall. The curve of shoulder under her hands is now more sinewy than broad, but Myka is still her knight. “You get to rest, but just a bit.” Again, she kisses Myka’s lips that cannot respond any longer. “Just a bit.”
The wetness against her belly alerts her and her fingers fly down, pushing Myka’s tunic out of the way and taking in the wound that still has not closed, not even now.
“Poison…” Helena squeezes her eyes shut. “Poison!” It is a whisper, incredulous, and she grasps at Myka’s shoulders, lifting her frame upright against her until Myka’s head lolls softy against Helena’s chest.
“Why did you not send for me sooner?” She smoothes her cheek across the crown of Myka’s hair, like one would do with a child. “I waited. I waited…” There is the rhythm of the waves below, or perhaps it is a willow’s whisper, and Helena gently rocks them back and forth, back and forth.
She does not hear the cries of the shepherds.
“Master Curvenal, another –“
“There are more people, there are warriors –“
“Death and hellhounds!” Curvenal tears his eyes away from the two figures on the wall and reaches for his sword. He already has it unsheathed when he bolts down the stairs, two worn steps at a time, and races towards the broken entryway. “Did the Queen betray us? Did she just lead the King’s men to us?”
He knows the crest on their chests, he knows it well, and he is on them, three at a time, before they can even draw their weapons. “Over my dead body,” he yells. “That is the only way you will get to my liege!”
Even if Myka cannot hear him any longer, even if the King’s men cannot harm her any more, he will stand in between them for as long as he can. His place has always been with Myka, and it is with grim satisfaction that he notes the sharp pierce of a sword high into his leg. Two men lie dead before him already.
But suddenly, in a flash of orange, there is Claudia of Braen, and a cool cloth against his thigh. “We do not come in war.” She does not flinch as he tries to raise his sword again. “The King does not come in –“
“You took my liege, and death is all you will get!” His sword arm does not obey him and Curvenal sees red seeping through his sleeve and now it costs too much strength to do even as much as curse.
“You are not going to die,” Claudia says firmly. “There has been enough death already.”
And helplessly, Curvenal has to watch as King Arthur walks through the fallen gate of Canoêl. He tries to struggle, but Claudia’s hands are enough to hold him down.
“I did not come to shed more blood,” is the first thing the King says and there are two more men with the crest of Cornwall on their shields and armor, but their swords remain undrawn. He looks around himself, and is brought up short by the two figures on the wall. “Dear God…”
“Too late,” Curvenal grunts, and he tastes blood on his tongue.
“I came to see her, to set her free –” And now the King is talking to him, to a simple swordsman because there is no one else left to talk to. “I cannot pardon her officially, but I wanted to send her to exile in peace…” He shakes his head and he looks frailer even than Myka did these past months. “It was a potion. It was not her fault.”
Up on the wall, neither Myka nor Helena can hear him. One of Myka’s arms has slipped from the embrace, her hand motionless on the stones, fingers unfurled as if reaching for Helena even now.
“I even would have let Helena go with her.” Arthur sits on an upended boulder and wipes his hands across his face, royal rings glinting in the light. “Too late, all too late.”
“That love potion brought nothing but death,” Curvenal spits at Claudia.
“That love potion,” Claudia repeats slowly, and Curvenal finds his own anguish mirrored back at him. “It’s what Arthur needed to hear, what Helena believed.” She sets out to bandage his arm and he cowers at the strong scent of herbs from a vial she opens. “It was just claret wine,” she mutters. “I would not serve them the potion of death she wanted, I defied her wishes –“
“Just claret?” For a moment, Curvenal forgets to worry about the liquid Claudia is pouring onto his arm.
“Just claret,” Claudia confirms. She reaches for a strip of cloth to bandage his arm. “Though they believed they would die.”
“Huh.” Curvenal thinks of this past winter, where the only thing gleaming bright was Myka’s longing for Helena.
Claudia’s hands move with ease. “They loved each other long before.”
“They didn’t know?” Curvenal is still puzzled, and Claudia’s eyes are old.
“Would it have changed anything?”
His gaze slides past her, up to the wall, where Myka now lies stretched out on her back, calm as if in sleep. And curled into Myka’s side, head resting above her heart, lies the lifeless form of Helena of Eire. One of her arms is hanging down limply, her fingers just grazing Myka’s.
A sudden gust of wind makes Curvenal shiver and moves the skirts of Claudia’s skirts. On the wall, behind the still bodies, a large raven is unfolding its wings.
It raises its neck in a gleam of blackness and Curvenal shivers again at its braying cry. He watches as it soars up into the sky and circles once above the wall, only to fly out to the sea, high above them all, and then tumbles and crashes into the waves.
And high do they cut into the sky, the tall white towers of Canoêl.
diu getriuwe cumpanîe
bîhanden sî sich viengen,
ûf den hof sî giengen.
(Gottfried von Straßburg, Tristan, v. 16628-16640)
[The two close companions
took each other by the hand
and made their way out of the court.]