The first time they kissed, the day of the May festival, it was almost an accident.
Not that Cemwen had not thought about it, dreamt about it, attempted (somewhat) to orchestrate it, imagining the while what it might be like if, just by chance, the object of her undeclared affections might lean too close for that strawberry... But truly, it had not been intended. Not really. It had been too uncertain a venture for intentions. So she had told herself.
"Taste, my dear," Cemwen had said in the shade of the mill that morn, displaying her basket, filled to brimming with strawberries. Choosing one, she had held the bright red fruit up, just before her own face, as if to say, 'If you do not eat it, I shall.' And it was just close enough for noses to brush, and there were definitely possibilities that fingers could be nipped, but lips were surely another story. Her rather horsy friend, with grass stains all down the front of her frock, wiped hands dirty from the stables and nursing her latest charges to health, and raised a fine brow from beneath sweaty strands of hair that had escaped her braid. Cemwen smiled, peering at her from just over the tip of the berry. "They are delicious, and you should want one before they go to Mother's kitchen."
"I should want one, should I?" Ioreth had said, and lifted her chin, eyes asparkle. "But I shan't. I tell you, I shan't. Best you eat that yourself."
"You'll miss it."
Ioreth clasped her dirty hands behind her back and shook her head vigorously, the picture of denial. "I shan't."
Cemwen faltered a bit, her plan gone all awry with this obstinacy. Disappointed, but having no choice, she opened her mouth and set the tip between her teeth, deliberately, started to bite down—
—and just at that moment, Ioreth leaned forward and juice gushed in both their mouths, lips met and pressed, and fingers were most definitely nibbled... Just a moment, and then Ioreth, grinning, withdrew, strawberry (mostly) successfully snatched. She brought the back of one hand to her chin, to wipe at the red juice there, laughed as she chewed.
"Got you," she said triumphantly around the mouthful, and there was that in her eyes that suggested it was not only the jest she meant. Does she see it, then? Cemwen wondered, nearly breathless with hope and fear. Her daring outdone, she gulped and regarded the bit of berry still left in her fingers. Then she looked up once more and met Ioreth's bright black eyes. The look in them... it could not, could not possibly, mean only friendly mischief. So she thought. One way only to be certain. Before Ioreth could stop her—before she could think and stop herself—Cemwen reached and caught her shoulder, holding Ioreth still before her.
"Oh just finish it," she said archly, and popped the rest of the strawberry in her friend's mouth—and one finger, then two slipped past those lips, and oh yes, most certainly that was not an accident, not when Ioreth's tongue slid over them like that... "Wretched tease," she muttered, but it was not really a complaint.
"You began it," Ioreth replied, but then she laughed again, that throaty laugh Cemwen had always loved. Not the giggles of other girls, but a genuine laugh, and Ioreth tapped Cemwen's nose gently. "You know I've a weakness for strawberries. You can always lure me with them."
"Indeed. And with roses, you know. Anything red, really. I should be a magpie, I think, were I a bird, and steal all such."
"I shall bear that ever in mind, and look to you should my ribbons vanish."
"You should," said Ioreth, and actually winked, leaving Cemwen standing flummoxed as she strode boldly off for the well to draw her bath. "Until the dance, Cemwen!"
That was the first kiss.
The second, for all it was practically invited—even planned—needed all that day and a good bit of brandy at table that evening for Cemwen to nerve herself to get it. By the time dinner had been set to, and the May dances begun, she was all in a state of fearful anticipation, between dread and desire. But she watched Ioreth, bright-eyed in her gaiety, dancing with some, refusing others, beguiling and beloved—the very Rose of Imloth Melui, as she overheard too many saying.
At long last, when she had had enough of watching the lads stealing kisses from her, she drained her final glass, reached and pulled the red ribbon from her hair and stuffed it in her apron's pocket, then rose and made the short and shaky walk to Ioreth's side. There she laid a hand upon her shoulder, leaned upon it, and said, perhaps a little too loudly, for Ioreth winced, "I think I've lost my ribbon. Come and help me find it?"
But Ioreth had smiled, and said, "Poor thing! Not that lovely one you were showing me earlier?" And then excusing herself to her friends and lovelorn suitors, had come away with her, making a show of looking beneath tables, asking each and every person passed if they had seen it, 'til at last—at long last—they passed from the circle of lanterns and out into the darkness of the fields and the woods at their edges.
It was cool there in the evening shade, and the trees seemed to bend toward them, muffling their voices, concealing them—a good place for secrets, the woods seemed, as Ioreth leaned her up against a tree and kissed her again. And again. And murmured into her ear, "You haven't really lost it, have you?"
"No," Cemwen whispered, breathlessly, and fumbled in her pocket for it... and then stopped when Ioreth slipped her hand in as well, for it was not the ribbon she fumbled.
"Good," Ioreth murmured. "Oh good, I am so glad, Cemwen... so very glad."
They could not be long, for all their gladness, and the awkwardness that plagues all new-found lovers' trysts made of it perhaps not the most successful evening, but it was a beginning. And when they had finished picking the leaves from each other's hair, and assured themselves that all ties were tied, all buttons buttoned, and Cemwen had finished rebraiding Ioreth's lovely, dark hair, Ioreth turned to her and touched her cheek, and said, "I never thought you would, you know. You are always so shy, even with the lads."
"And you are always so bold, even with the lads," Cemwen replied, and Ioreth's nose wrinkled.
"Ah, that is nothing. Lads are good for kisses, I'll grant, and perhaps a bit more, but they're dull, Cemwen. They're not much for talk, and their hands aren't so clever once they're tongue-tied—as they often are. Not like you," she said, and took Cemwen's hands in her own, lacing their fingers together. "And they're not lovely like you, either," she sighed.
At that, Cemwen smiled. "And I have always been told I am a handsome lass," she said, and they both laughed, Ioreth releasing her hands only to embrace her once more. Then, as they drew apart, Ioreth asked:
"Do you have that ribbon?"
"I should put it back in my hair," Cemwen said, reminded of their excuse, and she quickly drew it forth. But Ioreth stopped her.
"Give it here. I'll put it in for you... back at the dance. Never fear," she said, when Cemwen's eyes widened. "It will make a grand story, Cemwen—trust me! Besides, I should like to braid your hair, and it will keep the lads off for a time. Please?"
"A story?" Cemwen asked uncertainly, and Ioreth nodded.
"You know I am good at telling them, and truly, we shall need some if we are to continue. Oh, it will be great fun—think of it!" she implored, excitedly. "They say this night is for young love, so why should you not sit at my feet and lay your head on my knees? 'Tis a perfect excuse: no one will know, I promise. Say yes?"
In the face of such delightfully earnest wickedness, Cemwen capitulated. And so, hand in hand, they returned to the dance and the dancers, Ioreth holding the ribbon up in triumph for others to exclaim over.
Many an old lay of love was sung that night, for the May festival was indeed for lovers and renewal. And as the moon rode high and the night grew old, Cemwen sat at her new love's—her first love's—feet and listened, feeling Ioreth's fingers combing through her hair, braiding it first one way, and then another. Right in the midst of all the other young loves they perched, who sat rapt in each other's laps or the circle of each other's arms—and no one asked, and no one wondered, though their faces were surely no less alight than all the others. They had a year yet before any gaze grew sharp enough to pierce through to the truth.
But all that was for the future. For the present, full hearts could hide beneath the tale of a ribbon and the excuse of too much brandy that made Cemwen weary enough to lay her head upon Ioreth's knees. Sisterly affection was enough to cover how Ioreth stroked her hair and soothed her brow. And when the night at last ended, and Ioreth drew her to her feet and steadied her, eyes said what lips could not:
"Good night," Ioreth said. I love you.
"Good night," Cemwen replied. I know.