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30

NARRATED BY

Helen

Most of the time I kept strictly to myself. How Penelope my cousin would have chuckled! Time hung so heavily on my hands that I had actually taken to weaving. The pursuit, I now understood, of neglected wives. Paris literally never came near me. Nor did Aineas.

Since the death of Hektor the palace atmosphere had altered for the worse. Hekabe had gone so peculiar in the head that she never ceased to reproach Priam for the fact that she hadn’t been his first wife. Bewildered and upset, he would protest that he had made her his principal wife, his Queen! Whereupon she would squat down on her hunkers and start howling like an old dog. Absolutely crazy! But at least now I understood where Kassandra got it from.

A desperately unhappy place. Hektor’s widow and therefore tumbled far from her old status, Andromache acted like a shade herself. Rumour had it at the time that she and Hektor had quarrelled bitterly just before he left Troy to fight his last fight, and that the falling out had been her fault. He had begged her to look at him, to say farewell, but she had chosen to lie in their bed with her face to the wall. I believed the tale; she had that ghastly look of terrible pain and unending remorse which only a guilty woman who loves greatly can wear. Nor could she summon up any interest in her son, Astyanax, whom she had given over to the men to educate the moment Hektor was in his tomb.

What was left of Priam’s world disintegrated when Troilos fell to Achilles. Even the death of Achilles failed to pull him from his slough of despond. I knew the gossip in the Citadel – that Aineas had deliberately refrained from sending Troilos help because Priam had insulted him so during the assembly at which he had appointed Troilos the new Heir. As with Andromache, I believed the tale. Aineas was not a man to insult.

Then Aineas demanded to lead a surprise raid on the Greek camp, and Priam, abject, agreed.

Nothing could stop the wagging tongues, but nothing could be done either. Aineas was all we had left. Though Priam hadn’t given in all the way; he appointed that savage boar, Deiphobos, the Heir. An act of defiance which made no impression upon dear Aineas, very sure of himself these days.

I looked long into that dark Dardanian face, for I knew what fires burned beneath his cool exterior; I knew the lengths to which his all-consuming ambition would drive him. Like some slow-moving river of lava Aineas ploughed inexorably onwards, engulfing his enemies one by one.

When Aineas demanded permission to raid the Greek camp, he knew what he was asking the King to do: forsake the laws of the Gods. And only I had any idea of the hugeness of Aineas’s triumph when Priam said yes. He had managed at last to drag Troy down to his level.

On the day of the raid I shut myself in my rooms, my ears stuffed with wadding to deaden the thunder and the screams. I was weaving a length of fine wool in an intricate design and using many colours; by dint of rigid concentration I managed to forget that there was a battle going on. And hah! to Penelope Web Face, wife of a bandy-legged red man with no honour and few scruples. I was willing to bet that she had never woven anything half so fine. Knowing her, she had probably taken to weaving shrouds.

‘Sanctimonious, carping cow!’ I was saying to myself savagely when the hairs on my arms began to prickle, as if someone from the grave was watching me. Was Penelope Web Face dead? I couldn’t be so lucky.

But when I lifted my head it was Paris watching me, hanging onto the door frame, his mouth opening and closing in utter silence. Paris? Paris drenched in blood? Paris with two cubits of an arrow poking out of one eye?

When I pulled the wadding out of my ears the noise rushed in on me like Maenads racing down a mountainside intent on the kill. Paris’s one good eye blazed at me with the light of madness in it while words I couldn’t understand spilled from his mouth.

As I stared my shock faded. I started to laugh, had to drop onto a couch and shriek helplessly. That brought him to his knees! He crawled with his right hand dragging a crimson trail across the white floor behind him, the arrow protruding from his right eye bobbing up and down so ridiculously that I laughed even harder. Reaching my feet, he wrapped his good arm about my legs and bled all over my robe. Revolted, I lashed out with my foot and knocked him sprawling. Then I ran for the door.

I found Helenos and Deiphobos standing together in the great courtyard, both still in their armour. When neither of them noticed my approach I touched Helenos on the arm; not for all the world would I have touched Deiphobos.

‘We lost,’ said Helenos wearily. ‘They were lying in wait for us.’ Tears stood in his eyes. ‘We broke the law! We are accursed.’

I shrugged. ‘What concern is that of mine? I didn’t come for news of your stupid battle – anyone could have told you you’d lose. I came to ask your help.’

‘Anything, Helen,’ said Deiphobos with a leer.

‘Paris is in my rooms – dying, I think.’

Helenos flinched. ‘Paris, dying? Paris?’

I began to walk away. ‘I want him removed,’ I said.

When they joined me, they bent to lift Paris onto a couch.

‘I want him removed, not made comfortable!’

Helenos looked appalled. ‘Helen! You can’t turn him out!’

‘Watch me! What do I owe him except my ruin? He’s ignored me for years! For years he’s permitted me to become the butt of every spiteful, bitch-faced old sow in Troy! Yet when he needs me at last, he thinks to find me the same moonstruck idiot he took away from Amyklai! Well, I’m not! Let him die somewhere else. Let him die in the arms of whoever is his current love!’

Paris had quietened; the one eye left to him goggled at me in stupefied horror. ‘Helen, Helen!’ he moaned.

‘Don’t “Helen” me!’

Helenos stroked his greying curls. ‘What happened, Paris?’

‘The strangest thing, Helenos! A man challenged me to a duel over a distance only I or Teukros could shoot accurately. A big, gold-bearded wild man. He looked like a bush king from Ida. But I didn’t know him, I’d never seen him before! So I took him on – I knew I’d win! But he outshot me. Then he stood and laughed at me, just like Helen!’

I was paying more attention to the arrow than to this pitiful story. Surely I’d seen one like it before? Or heard it described in some song given by the harper at Amyklai? A very long shaft of willow stained crimson with the juice of berries, tipped with white goose feathers spotted in the same crimson dye.

‘The man who shot you was Philoktetes,’ I said. ‘You’re honoured above your deserts, Paris. You carry one of Herakles’s arrows in your head. He gave his bow and arrows to Philoktetes before he died. I heard Philoktetes had died too, of a serpent’s sting, but obviously the rumour was wrong. This is an arrow that once belonged to Herakles.’

Helenos was glaring at me. ‘Shut up, you heartless harpy! Must you vent your spleen on a dying man?’

‘You know, Helenos,’ I said dreamily, ‘you’re worse than your loon of a sister. At least she doesn’t feign sanity. Now will you please remove Paris?’

‘Helenos?’ asked Paris, plucking weakly at his kilt. ‘Take me to Ida mountain, to my dear Oinone. She can heal me – she has the gift from Artemis. Take me to Oinone!’

I pushed between them, afire with rage. ‘I don’t care where you take him! Just get him out of here! Take him to Oinone – hah! Doesn’t he understand he’s a dead man? Pull out the arrow, Helenos, let him die! It’s what he deserves!’

They levered him onto the edge of the couch and sat him up. The stronger of the two, Deiphobos, bent to lift him, but Paris wouldn’t help; craven to the last, he wept in an ecstasy of fear. When Deiphobos finally staggered upright, Paris in his arms, Paris gave him all his weight.

Helenos went behind Deiphobos to assist him. As he reached across, his arm accidently brushed the shaft of the arrow. Paris screamed and panicked, flung his hands out wildly, his body heaving and threshing. Deiphobos lost his balance and the three of them fell in a tangled heap to the floor. I heard a choked off, gurgling grunt. Then Helenos picked himself up and tugged Deiphobos to his feet, and I could see what they had not.

Paris lay half on his back and half on his left side, one leg twisted under the other, his mangled hand outflung. Its fingers were curled into claws, his neck and back were rigidly arched. He must have fallen on his face with Deiphobos on top of him, then Helenos in landing on them both had slewed him around again. The arrow was in two pieces now; the spotted flights of the butt and two cubits of the shaft lay beside him, and from his eye there protruded a finger’s breadth of splintered willow. A thin trickle of dark blood ran to form a pool on the marble tiles.

I must have cried out, for they both turned to look.

Helenos sighed. ‘He’s dead, Deiphobos.’

Deiphobos shook his head dully. ‘Paris? Paris dead?’

They took him away then. All I had to remind me that my husband had ever existed were the marks of his hands on my skirt and the red stains on the pure white floor. I stood for a moment, then walked to the window and looked out of it, unseeing. There I remained until darkness fell, though what I thought about during that day I have never been able to remember.

The eternal and hateful Trojan wind had risen to a rough whine about the towers when someone knocked on the door. A herald was bowing to me.

‘Princess, the King summons you to the Throne Room.’

‘Thank you. Tell him I’ll come as quickly as I can.’

The huge hall was in semidarkness. Only around the dais were there lamps burning fitfully, casting a sheet of soft yellow light about the King as he sat on his chair, and about Deiphobos and Helenos as they stood one to either side of him, glaring at each other over the top of the King’s crystal hair.

I came to stand at the foot of the steps. ‘Yes, sire?’

Frowning, he leaned forwards, his displeasure overlying all the other pains stamped permanently into his features: the grief, the despair, the utter hopelessness.

‘Daughter, you have lost your husband and I have lost yet another son. I have begun to lose count,’ he quavered, voice a rustle in the gloom. ‘All the good ones have been snatched away. Now these two come to me snarling and snapping and bickering over their brother’s still warm body, each demanding the same thing, each determined to have his way.’

‘What is this about?’ I asked, exasperated beyond courtesy. ‘Why does a disagreement between this pair concern me?’

‘Oh, it definitely concerns you!’ the old man said harshly. ‘Deiphobos wants to marry you. Helenos wants to marry you. So tell me which one of them you prefer.’

‘Neither!’ I gasped, outraged.

‘One of them it has to be,’ said the King, suddenly looking as if he found the situation piquant, novel, invigorating. ‘Give me his name, madam! You’ll marry him at the end of six moons.’

‘Six moons!’ Deiphobos cried. ‘Why do I have to wait for six moons? I want her now, Father – now!’

Priam drew himself up. ‘Your brother isn’t cold,’ he said.

‘There’s no need to get upset, sire,’ I said before Deiphobos could erupt into one of his famous tantrums. ‘I’ve been married twice. I don’t wish to marry a third time. I intend to give myself into the service of the Mother and attend her altar for the rest of my days. So there will be no wedding.’

Helenos and Deiphobos broke into a babble of protestations, but Priam’s uplifted hand silenced them.

‘Be still and listen to me! Deiphobos, you’re my eldest imperial son and my designated Heir. At the end of six moons you may marry Helen, but not until then. As for you, Helenos, you belong to the Lord Apollo. You ought to hold him dearer than any woman, even this one.’

Deiphobos whooped. Helenos looked stunned, but even as I watched, stunned myself, Helenos seemed to grow and change, to melt in some parts and harden in others. It was very strange.

He looked at his father steadily then, and said, ‘All my life I’ve watched others satisfy themselves while I go hungry and thirsty, Father. No one asked me whether I wanted to serve the God – I was dedicated to him on the day of my birth. When Hektor died you would have made me Heir, except that Apollo got in the way. And after Troilos died you passed over me again! Now, when I ask you for such a little thing, I am denied once more.’ He drew himself up proudly. ‘Well, there comes a time when even the least of men will rebel. That time is now for me. I’m leaving Troy. I’m going into voluntary exile. Better to become a wandering nobody than have to stay here and watch Deiphobos ruin everything Troy has left. I hate to say it, Father, but you’re a fool.’

While Priam assimilated this, I tried again.

‘Sire, I entreat you, don’t force me to remarry!’ I cried. ‘Let me consecrate myself to the Goddess!’

But he shook his head. ‘You’ll marry Deiphobos.’

I couldn’t bear to be in the same room with them; I fled like one pursued by the Daughters of Kore. What happened to Helenos I do not know. Nor do I care.

I sent a note to Aineas, entreating him to come to my rooms. He was the only one left who might be moved to help me. Then doubt gnawed as I waited for him, pacing up and down, up and down. Though our affair was long over, I fancied he still had some affection for me. Or did he? Where was he? The time slipped away, each moment longer, more dreary, emptier. I listened vainly for his strong, decisive step in the corridor; since Hektor’s death the only footfalls which had the ability to inspire confidence in their owner.

‘What do you want, Helen?’ he asked, having entered the room so quietly I didn’t hear him. He drew the curtain carefully.

Laughing and weeping, I flew to embrace him. ‘I thought you wouldn’t come!’ I said, lifting my face for his kiss.

He moved away. ‘What do you want?’

I stared at him; when I spoke, my voice faltered. ‘Aineas, help me! Paris is dead!’

‘I know that.’

‘Then you must understand what it means to me! Paris is dead! I’m at their mercy! I’m ordered to wed Deiphobos! That slavering hound! Oh, Gods! In Lakedaimon they wouldn’t have deemed him fit to touch the hem of my skirt, yet Priam orders me to marry him! If you have any regard for me at all, Aineas, I implore you to see Priam and tell him I meant what I said – I have no desire to remarry! None!’

He looked like a man facing an unpalatable chore. ‘You ask the impossible, Helen.’

‘The impossible?’ I asked, stupefied. ‘Aineas, nothing is impossible for you! You’re the most powerful man in Troy!’

‘My advice is to marry Deiphobos and be done with it.’

‘But I thought – I thought – I thought that even if you didn’t want me for yourself, you’d feel enough for me to fight for me!’

Hand on the curtain, he laughed. ‘Helen, I won’t help you. Understand that, please. Every day creates a new gap in the ranks of Priam’s sons – every day brings me closer to the Trojan throne. I’m on the rise, and I won’t jeopardise my position for you. Is that quite clear?’

‘Remember what comes to men of such ambition, Aineas.’

He laughed again. ‘A throne, Helen! A throne!’

‘I’ll buy a curse just for you,’ I said dreamily. ‘I’ll spend everything I own on it. And I’ll ask that you never sit on any throne – that you never know peace – that you’re forced to wander the width of the world – that you end your days amid savages so poor they live in wicker huts.’

I think that frightened him. The curtain swung; he vanished.

After Aineas had gone I took stock of what I was looking forward to: marriage to a man I loathed, whose touch would set me to puking. Then I realised that for the first time in my life I had no resources beyond my own. That if I was to break free from this dreadful place, I would have to do so unaided.

Menelaos wasn’t far away, and two of Troy’s three gates were always open. But palace women were not used to walking, nor did they have access to sturdy shoes. To succeed in getting from the Dardanian Gate past the Skaian Gate to the Greek beach wasn’t possible. Unless, that is, I rode upon an animal! Women rode donkeys; they simply perched on the beast’s back with their legs to one side. Yes, I’d do it! I’d steal a donkey and ride to the beach while night still lay upon the city and the plain.

Stealing the donkey didn’t prove difficult. Nor did riding on its back. But when I reached the Dardanian Gate – much further from the Citadel than the Skaian – my transport refused to budge. A city beast, it smelled the open air of the countryside and misliked the perfumes floating on the wind – the tang of coming autumn, a whiff of the sea. When I whipped it with a switch it began to bray mournfully, and that was the end of me. The gate guards came to investigate. I was recognised and arrested.

‘I want to go to my husband!’ I wept. ‘Let me go to my husband, please!’

But of course they didn’t let me go, though the wretched donkey had now decided that it liked what it smelled. While it kicked up its hind legs and bolted to freedom, I was returned to the palace. But they didn’t wake Priam. They woke Deiphobos.

I waited passively while he came from his bed, gazed at him calmly when he appeared. He thanked the gate guards courteously enough and gave them a gift; when they had finished bowing themselves out he threw the curtain to his bedroom wide.

‘Do come in,’ he said.

I didn’t move.

‘You wanted to go to your husband. Well, here I am.’

‘We’re not married, and you already have a wife.’

‘What does that have to do with it?’

‘No marriage for six moons, Priam said.’

‘But, my dear, that was before you tried to escape to the Greeks and Menelaos. When Father hears about that, he won’t stand in my way. Especially after I inform him I’ve already consummated the union.’

‘You wouldn’t dare!’ I snarled.

For answer, he grabbed my ear in one hand and my nose in the other, wrestling me into the bedroom. Dizzy with pain, unable to break his hold, I collapsed on the bed. The only violation worse was death. The last thing I thought before I put my mind in the care of the Mother was that one day I would violate Deiphobos in that worst way of all: I would kill him.

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