We, Hermia, like two artificial gods,
Have with our needles created both one flower,
Both on one sampler, sitting on one cushion,
Both warbling of one song, both in one key,
As if our hands, our sides, voices and minds,
Had been incorporate. So we grow together,
Like to a double cherry, seeming parted,
But yet an union in partition...
"Hermia!" Helena smiled as they embraced, but Hermia frowned.
"You look tired," she said. "Are you unwell?"
Helena shook her head, still smiling. "Not now you're here. Come in, come in."
Hermia looked around. "Where's the mister?" she asked.
"Oh. Out." Helena's smile looked forced now.
Hermia grinned. "Preparing a surprise?"
"Surprise?" Helena rubbed her temples, no longer smiling.
"For your - our - six month anniversary! It's Midwinter, six months since..."
Helena cut her off. "I don't think so. He's very busy at the moment."
"That's probably just what he's telling you. I bet he's out shopping for something special. Like Lysander! Last month he..."
"I really don't think so, Hermia. But never mind about that. Tell me your news. It's been months! Would you like a glass of wine?
"No thank you," said Hermia. "Which brings us neatly to my news." She patted her belly and met Helena's eyes with a shy smile.
"You're expecting! Oh, congratulations my dear." Helena kissed her friend. "Some cordial then." She motioned to a servant to get it.
"Thank you." She smiled. "I've brought you something," she said, rummaging in her voluminous bag. "There. Sorry it's not wrapped."
"A Yule present?"
"Not really. More a piece of nostalgia."
Helena unfolded the pale cream linen. It was embroidered with the image of a spaniel and a vixen curled up together so close that you could barely see where one ended and the other began, and bordered with an intricate ring of love-in-idleness.
"Do you remember?" said Hermia.
"How could I forget?" said Helena. Then it all became too much for her and she fell into her old friends arms, sobbing loudly.
"...but when you say `love potion', you're speaking figuratively?"
"No Hermia, I'm not. I believe it. Do you remember Bottom's Dream?"
"That awful am dram thing Hippolita and Theseus made us watch?"
"That's the one. Well, some of the details just seemed... I don't know. They reminded me of our night in the wood. So I spoke to the fellow who wrote it, and even more fitted, and then I asked the sibyl and she confirmed all my suspicions. It explains everything, Hermia. Why he was suddenly so keen on me, and what happened to Lysander too, and... and... why it started to fade when it did."
Hermia held her sobbing friend. Although she didn't believe a word of it, a bit of adventure might be just the thing to buck Helena up. "There's nothing for it," she said.
Helena looked up. "What do you mean?"
"We'll just jolly well have to go back to the wood and see if we can't get another dose of the stuff. Maybe even a lifetime's supply!"
Neither of them had been to the wood in winter before, and both were surprised by its beauty: the severe grace of the sparse branches, now lightly dusted with snow, now laden more heavily; the bright clumps of holly.
"Shh!" said Helena, barring her friend's way, so as not to disturb a squirrel digging up her hoard, then returning bulging-cheeked to her nest.
"I thought everything would be dead," said Hermia.
"Me too," whispered Helena.
"No sign of fairies though," said Hermia.
"No. Perhaps we should call them."
"Hoy! Fairy!" shouted Hermia, and a robin flew from a nearby branch in fright.
"Shh!" said Helena. "We must be respectful."
"What should we say then?"
Helena closed her eyes. "Lord and Lady of the woods," she said. "I come to you a humble suppliant. Vouchsafe, I beg you... vouchsafe..." The tears started to seep between her eyelids. "Lady and Lord, I don't know the right words to say, but you helped me before, and I beg you to help me again. Do this and I will be in your debt."
She opened her eyes and looked around. There was no sign of the robin or the squirrel, and even the wind was silent. The snow was falling thick and fast, even through the canopy of branches. They stood together for a while, watching, listening.
"It's magical," said Hermia.
"But... um... maybe we should be heading back?" said Hermia. It would have been untactful to say, "otherwise I'll be late for my anniversary date with Lysander", but Helena knew she was thinking it.
"...Well I thought you were taking note of the direction."
"It's you who suggested we came out here."
"For your benefit."
Helena was crying again. "I'm sorry," she said. "Let's not squabble."
"I'm sorry too," said Hermia, hugging her. "Now, I'm sure I recognise this holly bush. Didn't we see the squirrel over there?"
"What was that?" said Helena.
"Over there. Scampering between those bushes."
Hermia peered. "I didn't see anything," she said. "Was it another squirrel?"
"Too big for that." She trudged her way through the snow to investigate.
"A fox then?"
"Wrong colour. Oh!"
Hermia came up behind her. "What's the... Oh!"
In a small clearing just in front of them, it was Midsummer. A beautiful lady with long golden hair lay on a bed of flowers, while butterflies danced and songbirds flirted.
She looked directly at them, and the power of her gaze jolted their hearts like little bolts of lightning, and their senses like thunder and spilt perfume. "Come hither, mortals," she said.
Helena was already half way through the two holly bushes that led to the clearing, but Hermia grabbed her wrist. "No!" she said. "It's dangerous."
Helena looked back. "It's what we came for!" she said.
"But I didn't really believe..." Hermia trailed off, aware of sounding foolish and disloyal.
Helena just smiled. "Wait for me then," she said, and took a stride forward.
But she turned round at once, cheeks flushed and eyes bright, beaming like a bride. "Hermia!" she said. "You're still here. I shouted, but you can't have heard. Oh, you must be freezing, you poor thing. Come here." She took Hermia's hands and rubbed them between her own.
Hermia was surprised by the warmth of her friend's skin. "What on earth are you talking about?" she said. "When did you shout?"
"When I'd been talking to her Majesty for about five minutes."
"But you didn't talk to her."
"Yes I did." Helena frowned. "I was with her for... I don't know... hours. Did you fall asleep? Anyway, She gave me this!" She held up a small bottle containing purple liquid. "One drop will last for months," she said. "I just need to put it in his eye, and we'll be like newlyweds again."
"I didn't fall asleep," said Hermia, troubled.
Helena looked thoughtful. "I remember the stories," she said in a quiet, dreamy voice, "a child slips into Faerie and when she comes back all her playmates are old men and women."
Hermia nodded slowly, and shuddered. "We got away lightly," she said. Then she paled. "Unless..." But she didn't want to say it out loud in case that made it true. "Let's get home," she said, loud and matter-of fact, as though to drive away the thought.
At first the calling was so faint that Hermia thought she'd imagined it. But then Helena heard it too, and they started calling back at the tops of their voices.
They burst through the bushes.
"My darling, I've been so worried about you," Lysander hugged Hermia.
While they were distracted, Demetrius hissed in Helena's ear: "where the hell have you been?"
Hermia and Lysander led the way, holding hands. Demetrius followed, and Helena lagged behind. But when they got to the outskirts of the wood, Hermia kissed her husband and waited for her friend while the men went on.
Helena was crying again, and Hermia's eyes filled in sympathy for her. "You know, Helena, forgive me if I'm speaking out of turn, but I'm starting to think that your husband is a bit of a..." Hermia paused. "I mean, have you ever considered giving up on this love potion thing and just leaving him?" She started groping in her pockets for a handkerchief.
"Here," said Helena, "take mine. I always carry spares."
"Thanks." Hermia dabbed her eyes. She blinked. She looked at Helena. She blinked again. She looked at Helena again. "Gosh," she said.