I returned to Troy on foot and alone, my bow and quiver across my shoulders. Seven moons I had spent among the forests and glades of Mount Ida, yet not one trophy did I have to show for them. Much as I loved hunting, I could never bear to see an animal stumble under the impact of an arrow; I preferred to see it as well and free as I was. My best hunting moments concerned more desirable quarry than deer or boar. For me the fun of the chase was in going after the human inhabitants of Ida’s woods, the wild girls and shepherdesses. When a girl sank down, defeated, no arrows pierced her save the one Eros shot; there was no stream of blood or dying moan, only a sigh of sweet content as I took her into my arms still gasping from the ecstasy of the chase, and ready to gasp with another kind of ecstasy.
I always spent my springs and summers on Ida; Court life bored me to the point of madness. How I hated those cedar rafters oiled and polished to richest brown, those painted stone halls and pillared towers! Being shut in behind huge walls was to suffocate, to be a prisoner. All I wanted was to run through leagues of grass and trees, lie exhausted with my face pillowed against a perfume of fallen leaves. But each autumn I had to return to Troy and spend the winter there with my father. That was my duty, token though it was. After all, I was his fourth son among many. Nobody took me seriously, and I preferred that.
I walked into the Throne Room at the end of an assembly on a wild, bleak day, still in my mountain clothes, ignoring the pitying smiles, the lips pursed up in disapproval. Dusk was already dimming to the gloom of night; the meeting had been a very long one.
My father the King sat upon his gold and ivory chair high upon a purple marble dais at the far end of the hall, his long white hair elaborately curled and his tremendous white beard twined about with thin strings of gold and silver. Inordinately proud of his old age, he was best pleased when he sat like an ancient god upon a tall pedestal, looking out over everything he owned.
Had the room been less imposing, the spectacle my father presented might not have been so impressive, but the room was, they said, bigger and grander even than the old Throne Room in the palace of Knossos in Crete. Spacious enough to hold three hundred people without seeming overcrowded, its lofty ceiling between the cedar rafters was painted blue and bedewed with golden constellations. It had massive pillars which tapered to relative slenderness at their bases, deep blue or purple, round plain capitals and plinths gilded. The walls were purple marble without relief to the height of a man’s head; above that they were frescoed in scenes of lions, leopards, bears, wolves and men at hunt – black-and-white, yellow, crimson, brown and pink against a pale blue background. Behind the throne was a reredos of black Egyptian ebony wood inlaid with golden patterns, and the steps leading up to the dais were edged in gold.
I slid off my bow and quiver, handed them to a servant and worked my way through the knots of courtiers until I arrived at the dais. Seeing me, the King leaned forward to touch my bowed head gently with the emerald knob of his ivory sceptre, the signal to rise and approach him. I kissed his withered cheek.
‘It is good to have you back, my son,’ he said.
‘I wish I could say it is good to be back, Father.’
Pushing me down to sit at his feet, he sighed. ‘I always hope that this time you will stay, Paris. I could make something of you if you would stay.’
I reached up to stroke his beard because he loved that. ‘I want no princely job, sire.’
‘But you are a prince!’ He sighed again, rocked gently. ‘Though you are very young, I know. There is time.’
‘No, sire, there is not time. You think of me as a boy, but I am a man. I am thirty-three years old.’
He was not listening to me, I fancied, for he raised his head and turned away from me, gesturing with his staff to someone at the back of the crowd. Hektor.
‘Paris insists he is thirty-three, my son!’ he said when Hektor arrived at the bottom of the three steps. Even so, he was tall enough to look into our father’s face at the same level.
Hektor’s dark eyes surveyed me thoughtfully. ‘I suppose you must be, Paris. I was born ten years after you, and I’ve been twenty-three for six moons now.’ He grinned. ‘You certainly don’t look your age, however.’
I laughed back. ‘Thank you for that, little brother! Now you do look my age. That’s because you’re the Heir. It ages a man to be the Heir – tied down to the state, the army, the crown. Give me the eternal youth of irresponsibility any day!’
‘What suits one man doesn’t necessarily suit another’ was his tranquil reply. ‘I have far less taste for women, so what does it matter if I look old before my time? While you enjoy your little escapades in the harem, I enjoy leading the army on manoeuvres. And while my face may wrinkle prematurely, my body will be fit and spare long after yours sports a pot belly.’
I winced. Trust Hektor to find the vulnerable spot! He could gauge a man’s fatal weakness in the twinkling of an eye and pounce like a lion. Nor was he frightened to use his claws. Being the Heir had matured him. Gone was the exuberant, irritating youth of yesteryear, his undeniable powers safely channelled into useful work. Still, he was big enough to take it. I was no weakling, but Hektor towered over me and bulked twice as large. He dressed very plainly – and therefore with a certain compelling dignity – in a leather kilt and shirt, with his long black hair braided, tied back in a neat queue. All of us who were sons of Priam and Hekabe were famous for our good looks, but Hektor had something more. Natural authority.
The next moment I was jerked to my feet and removed from our father’s vicinity; old Antenor was peevishly indicating that he wished to speak to the King before dimissal. Hektor and I slipped away from the dais without being called back.
‘I have a surprise for you,’ my young brother said with quiet pleasure as we began to traverse the seemingly endless passages which connected the wings and minor palaces comprising the Citadel.
The Heir’s palace was right next door to our father’s, so the walk was not an unduly long one. When he led me into his big reception room I propped and stared about in astonishment.
‘Hektor! Where is she?’
What had been a warehouse cluttered with spears, shields, armour and swords was now a room. Nor did it stink of horses, though Hektor loved horses. I could not remember ever seeing enough of the walls to know how they were decorated, but this evening they glowed with curling trees in jade and blue, purple flowers, black-and-white horses gambolling. The floor was so clean its black-and-white marble tiles gleamed. Tripods and ornaments were polished, and beautifully embroidered purple curtains hung on golden rings from doorways and windows. ‘Where is she?’ I asked again.
He blushed. ‘She’s coming,’ he growled.
She entered on the echo of his words. I looked her over and had to commend his good taste; she was extremely handsome. As dark as he, tall and robust. And equally awkward with the social graces; she took one look at me, then looked anywhere else she could find.
‘This is my wife, Andromache,’ said Hektor.
I kissed her on the cheek. ‘I approve, little brother, I approve! But she’s not from these parts, surely.’
‘No. She’s the daughter of King Eetion of Kilikia. I was down there in the spring for Father, and brought her back with me. It wasn’t planned, but it’ – he drew a breath – ‘happened.’
She spoke at last, bashfully. ‘Hektor, who is this?’
The crack of Hektor’s slapping his thigh in exasperation made me jump. ‘Oh, when will I ever learn? This is Paris.’
Something that I didn’t like showed for a moment in her eyes. Ah! The girl might be a force to be reckoned with once discomfort and strangeness dissipated.
‘My Andromache has great courage,’ said Hektor proudly, one arm about her waist. ‘She left her home and family to come with me to Troy.’
‘Indeed,’ I said politely, and left it at that.
Soon I became inured to the monotony of life within the Citadel. While the sleet pattered against tortoiseshell shutters or the rain cascaded in sheets from the top of the walls or snow carpeted the courtyards, I sniffed and prowled among the women for someone new and interesting, someone a tenth as desirable as the least of Ida’s shepherdesses. Wearying work without challenge or good hard exercise. Hektor was right. Unless I found a better way to keep myself trim than skulking up and down forbidden corridors, I would develop a pot belly.
Four moons after I returned Helenos came into my rooms to settle himself comfortably into a cushioned window seat. The day was cheerful – quite warm for a change – and the view from my quarters was a fine one, down across the city to the port of Sigios and the isle of Tenedos.
‘I wish I had your clout with Father, Paris,’ Helenos said.
‘Well, you are very junior, even if you are an imperial son. The view comes later in life.’
Not yet shaving, he was a beautiful youth, dark haired and very dark of eye, as were all of us who owned Hekabe for mother and called ourselves imperial. A twin, he occupied a curious position; very strange things were said about him and his other half, Kassandra. They were seventeen years old, which made him too much my junior for any real intimacy to have developed. Besides which, he and Kassandra had the Second Sight. An aura hung about them which rendered others, even their brothers and sisters, uncomfortable. This air was not so marked in Helenos as it was in Kassandra – as well for Helenos, really. Kassandra was crazy.
They had been consecrated to the service of Apollo as babes, and if either of them ever resented this arbitrary settling of their destinies, they never said so. According to the laws laid down by King Dardanos, the Oracles of Troy had to be held by a son and daughter of the King and his Queen, preferably twins. Which had made Helenos and Kassandra automatic choices. At the moment they still enjoyed a certain amount of liberty, but when they turned twenty they would be formally handed into the care of the trio who ruled the worship of Apollo in Troy: Kalchas, Lakoon and Antenor’s wife, Theano.
Helenos wore the long, flowing robes of the Religious. With his dreamy expression allied to so much beauty he was sufficiently arresting to hold my attention as he sat surveying the city from my window. He liked me better than he did any of his other brothers – be they by Hekabe, by another wife, or by a concubine – because I had no taste for war and killing. Though his stern ascetic nature could not condone my philandering, he found my conversation much to his liking, more pacific than martial.
‘I have a message for you,’ he said without turning.
I sighed. ‘What have I done now?’
‘Nothing deserving censure. I was merely told to bid you to come to a meeting tonight after supper.’
‘I can’t. I have a prior engagement.’
‘You had better break it. The message comes from Father.’
‘Bother! Why me?’
‘I have no idea. It’s a very small group. Just a few of the imperial sons, plus Antenor and Kalchas.’
‘An odd assortment. I wonder what’s the matter?’
‘Go, and you’ll find out.’
‘Oh, I will, I will! Are you invited?’
Helenos did not answer. His face had twisted, his eyes taken on the peculiar inward gaze of the mystic. Having seen this visionary trance before, I recognised it for what it was, and stared in fascination. Suddenly he shuddered, looked normal again.
‘What did you see?’ I asked.
‘I could not see,’ he said slowly, wiping sweat from his brow. ‘A pattern, I sensed a pattern… The beginning of a twisting and turning that will go to an inevitable end.’
‘You must have seen something, Helenos!’
‘Flames… Greeks in armour… A woman so beautiful she must be Aphrodite… Ships – hundreds and hundreds of ships… You, Father, Hektor…’
‘Me? But I’m not important!’
‘Believe me, Paris, you are important,’ he said in a tired voice, then got up abruptly. ‘I must find Kassandra. Quite often we see the same things, even when we are not together.’
But I too felt a little of that dark, webbed Presence, and shook my head. ‘No. Kassandra will destroy it.’
Helenos was correct in that the group was very small. I was the last to arrive, took a place on the end of the bench whereon sat my brothers Troilos and Ilios – why them? Troilos was eight years old, Ilios only seven. They were my mother’s last two children, both named for the shadow man who had taken the throne from King Dardanos. Hektor was there. So too was our eldest brother of all, Deiphobos. By rights Deiphobos ought to have been named the Heir, but everyone who knew him – including Father – understood that within a year of ascending the throne he would bring everything down. Greedy, thoughtless, passionate, selfish, intemperate – those words were used of Deiphobos. How he hated us! Especially Hektor, who had usurped his rightful place – or so he saw it.
The inclusion of Uncle Antenor was logical. As Chancellor he attended every meeting of any sort. But why Kalchas? A very disturbing man.
Uncle Antenor was glaring at me, and not because I arrived last. Two summers ago on Ida I had loosed an arrow at a target pinned to a tree just as a wind boiled up out of nowhere; it deflected my dart far off to one side. I found it lodged in the back of Uncle Antenor’s youngest son by his most beloved concubine; the poor lad had been hiding to spy on a shepherdess bathing naked in a spring. He was dead, and I guilty of involuntary murder. Not a crime in the true sense, but still a death which had to be expiated. The only way I could do that was to journey abroad and find a foreign king willing to undertake the ceremonies of purification. Uncle Antenor had not been able to demand vengeance, but he had not forgiven me. Which reminded me that I still had not taken that journey abroad to find that foreign king. Kings were the only priests qualified to conduct the rites of purification from accidental murder.
Father rapped the floor with the butt of his ivory sceptre, its round head flashing green because it contained a huge and perfect emerald. ‘I have called this meeting to discuss something which has gnawed at me for many years,’ he said in his firm, strong voice. ‘What brought it to the forefront of my mind was the realisation that my son Paris was born on the very day it happened, thirty-three years ago. A day of death and deprivation. My father Laomedon was murdered. So too were my four brothers. My sister Hesione was abducted, raped. Only the birth of Paris saved it from being the darkest day of my life.’
‘Father, why us?’ Hektor asked gently. Of late, I had noticed, he had take it upon himself to bring our sire back to the subject when his mind wandered; it was beginning to display a tendency to do that.
‘Oh, didn’t I tell you? You because you are the Heir, Hektor. Deiphobos because he is my oldest imperial son. Helenos because he will hold the Oracles of Troy. Kalchas because he caretakes the Oracles until Helenos comes of age. Troilos and Ilios because Kalchas says there are prophecies about them. Antenor because he was there that day. And Paris because he was born on it.’
‘Why are we here?’ Hektor asked then.
‘I intend to send a formal embassage to Telamon in Salamis as soon as the seas are safe,’ Father said, it seemed to me with proper logic, though Hektor frowned as if the answer troubled him. ‘That embassage will request that Telamon return my sister to Troy.’
A silence fell. Antenor went to stand between my bench and the other, then turned to my father on the throne. Poor man, he was bent almost double from a painful disease of the joints he had suffered time out of memory; everyone thought that its ravages were the reasons for his notoriously short temper. ‘Sire, this is a silly venture,’ he said flatly. ‘Why spend Troy’s gold on it? You know as well as I do that in all the thirty-three years of her exile, Hesione has never once indicated that she mourns her fate. Her son, Teukros, may be a bastard, but he stands very high in the Salaminian Court and acts as friend and mentor to the Salaminian Heir, Ajax. You will get no for an answer, Priam, so why go to the trouble?’
The King jumped to his feet, furious. ‘Are you accusing me of stupidity, Antenor? It’s news to me that Hesione is content in her exile! No, it’s Telamon prevents her asking us for help!’
Antenor shook his gnarled fist. ‘I have the floor, sire! I insist on the right of speech! Why do you go on thinking it was us wronged all those years ago? It was Herakles who was wronged, and in your heart you know it. I would also remind you that if Herakles had not slain the lion, Hesione would be dead.’
My father was trembling from head to foot. There was little love lost between him and Antenor, though they were brothers-in-law. Antenor remained a spiritual Dardanian, the enemy within.
‘If you and I were young men,’ my father said, biting off his words, ‘there would be some point to our continuous warring. We could take up shields and swords and make an end. But you are a cripple and I am too old. I repeat: I am sending an embassage to Salamis as soon as I can. Is that understood?’
Antenor sniffed. ‘You are the King, sire, the decision is yours. As for duels – you may like to call yourself too old, but how dare you assume that I am too crippled to make mincemeat of you? Nothing would give me greater pleasure!’
He walked out on the echo of his words; my father resumed his seat, chewing his beard.
I stood up, surprised that I did, but even more surprised by what I proceeded to say. ‘Sire, I will volunteer to lead your embassage. I have to go abroad to seek purification for the death of Uncle Antenor’s son anyway.’
Hektor laughed, clapped. ‘Paris, I salute you!’
But Deiphobos scowled. ‘Why not me, sire? It ought to be me! I am the eldest.’
Helenos entered the fray in Deiphobos’s favour; I could hardly believe my ears, knowing how much Helenos detested our oldest brother.
‘Father, send Deiphobos, please! If Paris goes, I know in my bones that Troy will weep tears of blood!’
Tears of blood or no, King Priam’s mind was made up. He gave the task to me.
After the others had gone I lingered with him.
‘Paris, I am delighted,’ he said, stroking my hair.
‘Then I am rewarded, Father.’ Suddenly I laughed. ‘If I cannot bring back my Aunt Hesione, perhaps I can bring back a Greek princess in her stead.’
Chuckling, he rocked back and forth in his chair; my little joke sat well with him. ‘Greece abounds in princesses, my son. I admit it would twist the Greek tail perfectly if we made it an eye for an eye.’
I kissed his hand. His implacable hatred of Greece and all things Greek was a byword in Troy; I had made him happy. What matter if the pleasantry was empty, provided it made him chuckle?
Since it seemed the mild winter was going to end early, I went down to Sigios several days later to discuss the marshalling of a fleet with the captains and merchants who would comprise it. I wanted twenty big ships with full crews and empty holds; as the state was paying the bill, I knew I would have a host of eager applicants. Though I had not understood at the time what daimon prompted me to volunteer, I now found myself excited at the prospect of this adventure. Soon I would see places far away, places a Trojan did not hope ever to see. Greek places.
After the conference was over I strolled outside the harbour master’s cottage to breathe in the sea-tanged, sharply cold air and watch the activities of that busy beach, the ships drawn up on the shingle during winter now swarming with teams of men whose duty was to inspect their pitched sides and ensure that they were seaworthy. A huge scarlet vessel was manoeuvring close to shore, the eyes upon its prow trying to stare me down, the figurehead tipping the curving cowl of its stern obviously my own special Goddess, Aphrodite. What shipwright had seen her in which dream, to have delineated her so marvellously?
Finally the master of the vessel found enough space to beach its heavy sides in the pebbles; down went the rope ladders. At which moment I noticed that the ship bore a royal standard in its bow, scarlet-encrusted and fringed with solid gold – it carried a foreign king! I walked forward slowly, twitching my cloak into elegant folds.
The royal person descended carefully. A Greek. That was evident in the way he dressed, the unconscious superiority which even the least Greek possessed when he encountered the rest of the world. But as the royal person drew closer I lost my initial awe. Such an ordinary-looking man! Not particularly tall, not particularly handsome, and red-haired. Yes, he was definitely a Greek. Half of them seemed to have red hair. His leather kilt was dyed purple and embossed with gold, the fringe hemming it was gold, his wide belt was gold studded with gems, his purple blouse was cut away to reveal a meagre chest, and around his neck he wore a great collar of gold and jewels. A very rich man.
When he saw me he altered his course.
‘Welcome to the shores of Troy, royal sir,’ I said formally. ‘I am Paris, son of King Priam.’
He took my proffered arm and wrapped his fingers about it. ‘Thank you, Highness. I am Menelaos, King of Lakedaimon and brother to Agamemnon, High King of Mykenai.’
My eyes widened. ‘Would you ride to the city in my car, King Menelaos?’ I asked.
My father was conducting his daily audiences and business. I whispered to the herald, who sprang to attention and flung the double doors open.
‘King Menelaos of Lakedaimon!’ he roared.
We went in together to face a crowd stilled to immobility. Hektor was standing at the back with his hand extended and his mouth open on an unuttered word, Antenor was half turned towards us, and my father was sitting bolt upright on his throne, his hand wrapped so tightly about his staff that the whole of it shook. If my companion got the idea that a Greek was not welcome here, he betrayed no sign of it; after I grew to know him better, I decided that he probably had not noticed. His glance around the room and its furnishings was unimpressed, which set me to wondering what Greek palaces were like.
My father came down from the dais, hand extended. ‘We are honoured, King Menelaos,’ he said. Pointing to a big couch strewn with cushions, Father took the visitor’s arm. ‘Would you care to sit down? Paris, join us, but first ask Hektor to join us too. And see refreshments are brought.’
The Court was very quiet, eyes speculative, but the talk at the couch was inaudible two paces away.
The politenesses completed, my father spoke. ‘What brings you to Troy, King Menelaos?’
‘A matter of vital importance to my people of Lakedaimon, King Priam. I know that what I seek is not in Trojan lands, but Troy seemed the best place to start my enquiries.’
Menelaos leaned forward, turned side on so that he could look at my father’s expressionless face. ‘Sire, my kingdom is lashed by plague. When my own priests could not divine the cause of it, I sent to the Pythoness at Delphi. She told me that I must go in person to seek the bones of the sons of Prometheus and fetch them to Amyklai – my capital. They must be reinterred in Amyklai. Then the plague will cease.’
Ah! His mission had nothing to do with Aunt Hesione, or the scarcity of tin and copper, or trade embargoes in the Hellespont. His was a more mundane mission by far. Very common. Contending with plague called for extraordinary measures; there was always some King or other wandering the seas and shores looking for some object the Oracles said he must bring home. Sometimes I wondered if the whole purpose behind such an oracle was to ship the King off elsewhere until natural attrition brought disease to its inevitable end. A way of protecting the King from retribution; if he stayed at home he was likely to die of the same plague or find himself ritually lynched.
Of course King Menelaos had to be accommodated. Who knew whether next year it might be King Priam sent by the Oracle to ask help of King Menelaos? The Royal Kindred, no matter what their differences or nationalities, stuck together in certain situations. So while King Menelaos was made free of the city, my father’s scouts went out to locate the bones of the sons of Prometheus, and learned that they resided in Dardania. King Anchises of Dardania protested bitterly, but that came to nothing. Whether he liked it or not, the designated relics would leave him.
I got the job of looking after Menelaos until he could journey in state to Lyrnessos and claim the bones. Which led to my offering him a customary courtesy: his choice of any woman he fancied provided she was not royal.
He laughed, shook his head emphatically. ‘I need no other woman than my wife, Helen,’ he said.
My ears pricked. ‘Really?’
Face glowing, he looked besotted. ‘I am married to the most beautiful woman in the world,’ he said solemnly.
Though I looked polite, I managed to let my incredulity show. ‘Really?’
‘Yes, really, Paris. Helen has no peer.’
‘Is she more beautiful than my brother Hektor’s wife?’
‘The Princess Andromache is dim Selene compared to the splendour of Helios,’ he said.
‘Tell me more.’
He sighed, flapped his arms. ‘How can one describe Aphrodite? How can one paint visual perfection in mere words? Go down to my ship, Paris, and look at the figurehead. That is Helen.’
My eyes closed, remembering. But all I could envision was a pair of eyes as green as an Egyptian cat’s.
I had to meet this paragon! Not that I believed him. The figurehead was bound to be superior to the model for it. No statue of Aphrodite I had ever seen could rival the figurehead’s face (though, truth to tell, sculptors were a poor lot who would persist in endowing statues with fatuous smiles, stiff features and even stiffer bodies).
‘Sire,’ I said impulsively. ‘Shortly I have to lead an embassage to Salamis, to see King Telamon and ask after the welfare of my Aunt Hesione. But while I am in Greece I also have to seek purification from an accidental killing. Is it far from Salamis to Lakedaimon?’
‘Well, one is an island off the Attic shore and the other within the Isle of Pelops, but – no, it’s a feasible journey.’
‘Would you undertake to purify me, Menelaos?’
He beamed. ‘Of course, of course! It is the least I can do to repay your kindness, Paris. Come to Lakedaimon in the summer and I will perform the rites.’ He looked smug. ‘You doubted me when I spoke of Helen’s beauty – yes, you did! Your eyes gave you away. So come to Amyklai and see her for yourself. After which I expect an apology.’
We sealed the pact with a draught of wine, then became absorbed in planning the journey to Lyrnessos, there to dig up the bones of the sons of Prometheus under the indignant gaze of King Anchises and his son, Aineas. So Helen was as beautiful as Aphrodite, eh? I wondered how Anchises and Aineas would stomach that comparison when Menelaos came out with it, as he surely would. For everyone knew that in his youth Anchises himself had been so beautiful that Aphrodite stooped to make love to him. Then she went away and bore him Aineas. Well, well! How the follies of one’s youth do return to haunt one.