When the bones of the sons of Prometheus went into the ground of Amyklai surrounded by precious artefacts, each skull’s grin shielded by a mask of gold, the plague began to diminish. How wonderful it was to be able to drive once more through the town, join the hunts in the mountains, watch the sports in the arena behind the palace! Wonderful too to see the people’s faces wreathed in smiles, to hear them bless us as we moved among them. The King had cured the plague and all was well again.
Except with Helen. Menelaos lived with a shade. As the years passed I grew ever quieter, even graver – worthy and dutiful, always. I bore Menelaos two daughters and a son. He slept in my bed every night. I never refused him access to my apartments when he knocked. And he loved me. In his eyes I could do no wrong. Which was the reason why I remained a worthy and dutiful wife; I could not resist being treated like a goddess. There was another reason too; I liked my head joined to my shoulders.
If only I had been able to keep my body remote and cold when he came to me after our wedding! But I could not. Helen was a creature of the flesh, not proof against the touch of any man, even one as dreary and fumbling as my husband. Any man better than none.
Summer came, the hottest in living memory. The rains ceased and the streams dried up, the priests muttered ominously from the altars. We had survived plague; was famine to be next on the list of our human agonies? Twice I felt Poseidon Earth Shaker groan and move the bowels of the land, as if he too were restless. The people began to whisper of omens and the priests lifted their voices higher when the emmer wheat fell earless on the parched ground and the hardier barley threatened to follow.
But then as summer reached a peak of unrelenting heat, the sable-browed Thunderer spoke. On a breathless, suffocating day he sent his messengers the storm clouds, piling them up and up in the white metal sky. In the afternoon the sun went out, the gloom thickened; Zeus erupted at last. Roaring his might in our deafened ears, he flung his lightning bolts down to earth with a ferocity that made the Mother shiver and shrink, each shaft falling in a column of pure fire from his terrible hand.
Shaking with terror, sweating, praying in a babble, I huddled on a couch in the little room I used near the public areas and stoppered my ears while the thunder cracked and wild white light came and went. Menelaos, Menelaos, where are you?
Then in the distance I heard his voice, speaking with unusual animation to someone whose Greek was warped and lisping – someone foreign. I made a dash for the door and ran for my apartments, not wanting to incur displeasure; like all the ladies of the palace, I had taken in the heat to wearing a shift of transparent Egyptian linen.
Just before the dinner time Menelaos came to my rooms to watch me step into my bath. He never tried to touch me; this was his opportunity to do no more than look.
‘My dear,’ he said, clearing his throat, ‘we have a visitor. Would you wear your state robes this evening?’
I stared, surprised. ‘Is he so important?’
‘Very. My friend Prince Paris from Troy.’
‘Oh yes, I remember.’
‘You must look your best, Helen, because I boasted of your beauty to him while I was in Troy. He was sceptical.’
Smiling, I rolled over, water slopping. ‘I will look my best, husband, I promise.’
Which I was sure I did when I came into the dining hall a little before the Court assembled to take the last meal of daylight with the King and Queen. Menelaos was already there, standing near the high table talking to a man who had his back to me. A very interesting back. Much taller than Menelaos, he had a mane of thick, curly black hair falling halfway down his back, and he was bare from the waist up in Cretan style. A big collar of gems set in gold encircled his shoulders, both his powerful arms were clasped by cuffs of gold and crystal. I eyed his purple kilt, his well-shaped legs, and felt a stirring in me I had not experienced for many years. From the back he looked good; but probably, I thought wryly, he would be horse faced.
When I brushed my flounces to make them chime both men turned around. I looked at the visitor and fell in love. It was that simple, that easy. I fell in love. If I was the perfect woman, he was surely the perfect man. I gazed at him quite stupidly. No fault. Absolute perfection. And I was in love.
‘My dear,’ said Menelaos, coming to me, ‘this is Prince Paris. We must extend him every courtesy and attention – he was an excellent host to me in Troy.’ He looked at Paris, brows up. ‘And, my friend, do you still doubt me?’
‘No,’ said Paris. And again, ‘No.’
His evening made, Menelaos beamed.
A nightmare, that dinner! The wine flowed freely, though (being a woman) I could not partake of it. But what mischievous God put it into Menelaos’s head to guzzle it when he was usually so abstemious? Paris was seated between us, which meant I could not get close enough to my husband to gentle him away from his goblet. Nor did this Trojan prince behave with circumspection. Of course I had seen the attraction flare in his black eyes the moment they settled upon me; but many men reacted similarly, then afterward became timid. Not Paris. Throughout the meal he paid me outrageous compliments, his glances unashamedly intimate, apparently oblivious to the fact that we sat at the high table being watched by a hundred men and women of the Court.
In a tumult of fear and distraction, I tried to make it seem to those observers (more than half of whom were Agamemnon’s spies) that nothing untoward was going on. Trying to be civil and offhand, I asked Paris what life was like in Troy – did all the nations of Asia Minor speak a kind of Greek? – how far away from Troy were places like Assyria and Babylon? – did those countries know Greek too?
No fool with women, he answered easily and with authority while his wicked eyes roamed and roved from my lips to my hair, from my fingertips to my breasts.
As the interminable meal wore on Menelaos grew slurred in speech, seemed to see nothing beyond the brimming contents of his cup. And Paris grew bolder. He leaned so close to me that I could feel his breath on my shoulder, smell its sweetness. I moved until I encountered the end of the bench.
‘The Gods are cruel,’ he whispered, ‘to give so much beauty into the keeping of one man.’
‘My lord, mind what you say! I beg you, be discreet!’
For answer, he smiled. My chest caved in, I pressed my knees together on a sudden hotness.
‘I saw you this afternoon,’ he went on as if I had not said anything, ‘fleeing away from us in your gauzy gown.’
The scarlet flooded up beneath my skin; I prayed no one on the floor of the hall noticed.
His hand dropped and found my arm. I jumped, the touch unbearable, the sensation coursing through me akin to what I felt when the Thunderer spoke.
‘My lord, please! My husband will hear you!’
As he laughed he put his hand back on the board, but so abruptly that the goblet at his elbow tumbled over; the red wine in it spread in a lake across the pale wood. Even as I beckoned to a servant to clean it up, he was leaning towards me.
‘I love you, Helen,’ he said.
Had the servants heard? Why were their faces always so impassive while they waited on their betters? I glanced at Menelaos; he sat staring sleepily at nothing, very drunk.
Too drunk to come to me that night. His men carried him to his own apartments and left me to find my way alone to mine. For a long time I sat on the window seat in my parlour, thinking. What to do? How to get through the next however many days this dangerous man would be here? After a single meal in his company I was undone. He stalked me fearlessly, deeming my husband too big a fool to catch him out. But that was the wine, and I knew tomorrow’s dinner would see Menelaos sober. Even the most foolish of men has his share of vigilance; besides which, one of the house barons was bound to say something to him. They were paid by Agamemnon to notice everything. Let even one of them decide that I was unfaithful, and Agamemnon would know within a day. Trojan Prince or no, Paris would lose his head. So would I. So would I!
Torn between fear and longing, I writhed. Oh, how much I loved him! But what kind of love came so suddenly, without any warning? Pure lust I could resist; I had learned that over the course of my marriage. Love, on the other hand, was irresistible. I yearned to be with Paris for every reason. I yearned to spend my life with him. I wanted to know how he thought, how he lived, how he felt, how he looked while he slept. The arrow had pierced me, the arrow which had driven Phaidra to kill herself, Danai to step into a box her father flung into the sea, Orpheus to brave the kingdom of Hades in search of Eurydike. My life was not my own; it belonged to Paris. I would die for him! Yet… What ecstasy to be able to live for him!
Menelaos came into my bedroom a few moments after I had climbed wearily into my bed, while the cocks were crowing raucously and the rim of the eastern sky was pale amid mist. Looking sheepish, he refused to kiss me.
‘My breath stinks of wine, beloved, I would offend you. Odd, that I drank so much. There was no need.’
I drew him down to sit beside me. ‘How are you this morning, aside from your breath?’
He grinned. ‘A little unwell.’ Amusement fled; a frown arrived. ‘Helen, I have a problem.’
My mouth went dry; I felt myself lick my lips. One of the house barons had told him! Words! I must find words! ‘A problem?’ I croaked.
‘Yes. A messenger from Crete woke me. My grandfather Katreus has died there, and Idomeneus is delaying the funeral until either Agamemnon or I can come. Naturally he expects to see me. Agamemnon is tied to Mykenai.’
I sat up, mouth fallen open. ‘Menelaos! You cannot go!’
My vehemence surprised him, but he took it as a compliment. ‘There is no alternative, Helen. I have to go to Crete.’
‘Will you be away long?’
‘Half a year at least – I wish you knew more geography. The autumn winds will blow me down, but I will have to wait for the summer winds to blow me back.’
‘Oh,’ I said, and sighed. ‘When must you leave?’
He squeezed my arm. ‘Today, my dearest. I’ll have to go to Mykenai to see Agamemnon first, and since I’ll sail from Lerna or Nauplia, I won’t be able to return here before I sail. Such a pity,’ he rambled, delighted at my consternation.
‘But you can’t go, Menelaos. You have a house guest.’
‘Paris will understand. I’ll perform the purification rites this morning before I leave for Mykenai, but I’ll also make sure he feels at liberty to remain here as long as he likes.’
‘Take him to Mykenai with you,’ I said, inspired.
‘Helen, really! In such a hurry? Of course he should go to Mykenai, but at his leisure,’ said my foolish husband, anxious to please his guest but blind to the peril his guest represented.
‘Menelaos, you cannot abandon me with Paris here!’ I cried.
He blinked. ‘Why not? You’re well chaperoned, Helen.’
‘Agamemnon may not think so.’
My hand was wrapped about his forearm; he leaned to kiss it, smooth my hair. ‘Helen, rest easy. Your concern is charming, but unnecessary. I trust you. Agamemnon trusts you.’ How could I explain that I did not trust myself?
That afternoon I stood at the foot of the palace steps and said farewell to my husband. Paris was nowhere to be seen.
Once the chariots and carts had disappeared into the far distance I went to my rooms and stayed there. My meals were brought to me. If Paris did not set eyes on me he might grow tired of the game he played, take himself off to Mykenai or Troy. Nor would the house barons have any opportunity to see us together.
But when night fell I could not sleep. Up and down the bedroom I prowled, pacing, then went to the window. Amyklai lay in utter darkness, no lamp burning anywhere, and the mountains were anonymous humps against the starstruck sky. A full moon hung huge and silver, silently pouring delicate light into the Vale of Lakedaimon. Drawing all this in with deep breaths of pleasure, I leaned my head out of the opening to let the stillness invade my bones. And with that enchantment still in me I sensed him behind me, watching the beauty of the heavens over my shoulder. I neither cried out nor turned round, but he knew the moment in which I became aware of his presence. His hands cupped my elbows, he drew me gently to rest against him.
‘Helen of Amyklai, you are as beautiful as Aphrodite.’
My body went limp, I moved my head a little under his cheek. ‘Do not tempt that Goddess, Paris. She dislikes rivals.’
‘She doesn’t dislike you. Don’t you understand? Aphrodite has given you to me. I belong to her, I am her darling.’
‘Is that why they say you have never sired a child?’
‘Yes.’ His hands at my waist moved in slow circles, unhurried, as if he had all the days of the world in which to make love to me. His lips found my neck. ‘Helen, have you never longed to be out there in the night, in the deep forest? Have you never craved the fleetness of a deer? Have you never wished to run free as the wind, fall exhausted under the body of the only man?’
My sinews leaped in response, but I said, mouth dry, ‘No. I never dream of things like that.’
‘I do. About you. I can see your long pale hair streaming in your wake, your long limbs striving to keep ahead of me in the chase. I should have met you so, not in this empty, lifeless palace.’ He parted my gown; the palms of his hands rested light as feathers against my breasts. ‘You have washed away the paint.’
And that was the breaking point. I turned then into his arms and forgot everything save the fact that he was my natural mate. That I loved him, truly loved him.
His willing slave, I lay in his arms as limply as my little daughter’s rag doll, and wished the dawn away.
‘Come back to Troy with me,’ he said suddenly.
I raised myself to see his face, saw my own love returned in those wonderful dark eyes. ‘That is madness,’ I said.
‘No, it is good sense.’ One hand lingered on my belly, the other toyed with my hair. ‘You don’t belong with an unfeeling clod like Menelaos. You belong to me.’
‘I am born of this land, I am born of this very room. I am the Queen. My children are here.’ I brushed my tears away.
‘Helen, you belong to Aphrodite, just as I do! Once I swore a solemn oath to her, to give her everything – I abrogated Here and Pallas Athene in her favour if she would grant me whatever I asked. And all I ask of her is you.’
‘I cannot leave!’
‘You cannot stay. I will not be here.’
‘Oh, I love you! How can I live without you?’
‘There’s no question of living without me, Helen.’
‘You ask the impossible,’ I wept, tears falling ever faster.
‘Nonsense! What’s so difficult? Leaving your children?’
That gave me pause; I answered honestly. ‘Not really. No. The trouble is, they’re so plain! They take after Menelaos, right down to their hair. And they’re freckled.’
‘Then if it’s not your children, it must be Menelaos.’
Was it? No. Poor, downtrodden, dominated Menelaos, ruled with a hand of iron from Mykenai. What did I owe him after all? I had never wanted to marry him. I owed him no more than I owed his beetle-browed brother, that forbidding man who used us like pieces in some monumental game. Agamemnon cared nothing for me – my wants, my needs, my feelings.
I said, ‘I will come to Troy with you. There is nothing for me here. Nothing.’