The harbour master at Sigios sent word to me that Paris’s fleet had returned from Salamis at last; when I joined the day’s assembly I sent a page to whisper the news to my father. It was the usual wearisome, leisurely audience – disputes over property, slaves, land and so forth – an embassage from Babylon to be received – a complaint about grazing rights from our noble relatives in Dardania, put forward as always by Uncle Antenor.
The Babylonian embassage had been dealt with and dismissed and the King was about to deliver judgement on some trifling matter when the horns blared and Paris strutted into the Throne Room. I could not help smiling at his appearance; he had gone Cretan with a vengeance. The complete dandy, from his bullion-fringed purple kilt to his jewels and curls. He looked very well and very pleased with himself. What mischief had he been up to, to look like a jackal getting to the kill ahead of the lion? Of course our father was gazing at him with doting favour – how could a man wise enough to sit upon a throne be so blinded by mere charm and beauty?
Paris strolled down the length of the hall to the dais and was already settling himself on the top step as I drew near. That incurable stickybeak Antenor was also edging up within hearing distance. I went to stand openly beside the throne.
‘Have you good news, my son?’ the King asked.
‘Not about Aunt Hesione,’ said Paris, shaking his head, his ringlets bouncing. ‘King Telamon was courteous to me, but made it very clear that he will not give up Aunt Hesione.’
The King stiffened dangerously. How deep did that old hatred go? Why, even after so many years, did Father continue to be implacably turned against Greece? The hiss of his indrawn breath silenced the whole room.
‘How dare he! How dare Telamon insult me! Did you see your aunt, have the chance to speak with her?’
‘Then I curse them all!’ He reared his head at the roof and closed his eyes. ‘O mighty Apollo, Lord of Light, Ruler of Sun and Moon and Stars, grant me the chance to bring down Greek pride!’
I leaned over the throne. ‘Sire, calm yourself! Surely you expected no other answer?’
Twisting his head to see me, he opened his eyes. ‘No, I suppose not. Thank you, Hektor. As always you draw my attention to cold reality. But why should the Greeks have it all, tell me that? Why should they be able to kidnap a Trojan princess?’
Paris put his hand on Father’s knee, tapped it gently. Gazing down at him, the King’s face softened.
‘Father, I have fittingly punished Greek arrogance,’ said Paris, eyes brilliant.
I had been about to move away, but something in his tone arrested me.
‘How, my son?’
‘An eye for an eye, sire! An eye for an eye! The Greeks stole your sister, so I have brought you a prize out of Greece greater by far than any fifteen-year-old girl!’ He jumped to his feet, so full of himself that he couldn’t bear to sit at King Priam’s feet a moment longer. ‘Sire,’ he cried, his voice ringing round the rafters, ‘I have brought you Helen! Queen of Lakedaimon, wife to Menelaos the brother of Agamemnon and sister to Agamemnon’s queen, Klytemnestra!’
I reeled in shock, unable to find words. That was a tragedy, for it gave Uncle Antenor the chance to get in first. He leaped forward, the swollen joints of his hands making them seem like huge, misshapen claws.
‘You stupid, ignorant, meddling fool!’ Antenor roared. ‘You pansy-faced philanderer! Why didn’t you really make it worth your while, kidnap Klytemnestra herself? The Greeks lie down meekly enough under our trade embargoes and their own shortages of tin and copper, but do you expect them to lie down under this as well? You fool! You’ve handed Agamemnon the opportunity he has waited years for! You’ve plunged us into a conflagration that will be the ruin of Troy! You brainless, conceited idiot! Why didn’t your father expose you? Why didn’t he stop your profligate career before it started? By the time that we have reaped all the consequences of this, no Trojan will utter your name without spitting!’
Half of me applauded the old man silently; he voiced my sentiments exactly. Yet I cursed Uncle Antenor too. What might my father have decided if he had held his tongue? Where Antenor found fault, the King inclined to favour. No matter what Father thought privately, Antenor had pushed him onto Paris’s side.
Paris was standing thunderstruck. ‘Father, I did it for you!’ he beseeched.
Antenor sneered. ‘Oh, yes, of course you did! And have you forgotten the most famous of all our oracles? “Beware the woman taken out of Greece as a prize for Troy!” Doesn’t that speak for itself?’
‘No, I did not forget it!’ my brother shouted. ‘Helen is no prize! She came with me willingly! She wasn’t the victim of an abduction, she came with me willingly because she wants to marry me! And as evidence of that, she brought a great treasure with her – gold and jewels enough to buy a kingdom! A dowry, Father, a dowry!’ He giggled. ‘I did the Greeks a far worse insult than to kidnap a queen – I cuckolded them!’
Antenor looked done. Shaking his white thatch slowly, he slunk back into the ranks of the Court. Paris was gazing at me urgently, imploringly.
‘Hektor, support me!’
‘How can I do that?’ I asked through my teeth.
He turned, slipped to his knees and wrapped both arms about the King’s legs. ‘What harm can possibly come of it, Father?’ he wheedled. ‘When has the voluntary flight of a woman ever meant war? Helen comes of her own free will! Nor is she a green girl! Helen is twenty years old! She has been married for six years – she has children! And can you imagine how terrible her life must have been, to leave a kingdom and her children behind? Father, I love her! And she loves me!’ His voice broke pathetically, the tears began to fall.
Tenderly the King touched Paris’s hair, stroked it, patted it. ‘I will see her,’ he said.
‘No, wait!’ Antenor came forward again. ‘Sire, before you see this woman, I insist that you hear me! Send her home, Priam, send her home! Send her back to Menelaos sight unseen – send her back with sincere apologies, all the treasure she has brought with her, and a recommendation that her head be separated from her neck. She deserves nothing less. Love! What kind of love can leave children behind? Doesn’t that say something? She brings Troy a great treasure, but not her children!’
My father wouldn’t look at him, but he must have known how the rest of us were feeling, for he made no attempt to stop the tirade. So Antenor swept on.
‘Priam, I fear the High King of Mykenai, and so should you! Surely last year you heard the selfsame Menelaos prattle about how Agamemnon has welded the whole of Greece into an obedient vassal of Mykenai? What if he should decide on war? Even if we beat him, he will ruin us. Troy’s wealth has increased for time immemorial for one reason – Troy has avoided going to war. Wars bankrupt nations, Priam – I have heard you say so yourself! The oracle states that the woman out of Greece is our downfall. Yet you ask to see her! Take heed of our Gods! Listen to the wisdom of their oracles! What are oracles, except the God-given chance for mortal men to see into the future pattern on the loom of time? You have taken the work of your father, Laomedon, and worsened it – whereas he merely restricted the number of Greek merchants allowed into the Euxine, you have stopped them altogether. The Greeks starve for sufficient tin! Yes, they can get copper from the West – at immense cost! – but they cannot get tin. Which does not negate the fact that they are wealthy and powerful.’
Face streaming tears, Paris lifted his head to the King. ‘Father, I have told you! Helen is not a prize! She comes of her own free will! Therefore she cannot be the woman of the oracles – she cannot!’
This time I managed to get in ahead of Antenor, and came down from the dais to do so. ‘You say she comes of her own free will, Paris – but is that what they will say in Greece? Do you think Agamemnon will tell his subject Kings that his brother is that most ridiculous of all men, a cuckold? Not Agamemnon, with his pride! No, Agamemnon will give it out that she was abducted. Antenor is right, Father. We are poised on the brink of war. Nor can we view a war with Greece as something affecting us alone. We have allies, Father! We are a part of the Asia Minor federation of states. We have treaties of trade and friendship with every coastal nation between Dardania and Kilikia, as well as inland as far as Assyria, and north into Skythia. The coastal lands are rich and underpopulated – they haven’t the manpower to fend off Greek invaders. They aid us in our blockade and they have grown fat off selling tin and copper to the Greeks. In the event of war, do you think Agamemnon will confine himself to Troy? No! It will be war everywhere!’
Father regarded me steadily; I looked back without fear. Only a short while ago he had said, ‘Always you draw my attention to cold reality.’ But now, I thought in despair, he had abandoned reality. All Antenor and I had managed to do was set his back up.
‘I have heard all I care to,’ he said icily. ‘Herald, send in Queen Helen.’
We waited, the hall as still and silent as a tomb. I glared at my brother Paris, wondering how we had let him become such a fool. He had turned on the dais (though he kept one hand on our father’s knee, caressing it) and was staring fixedly at the doors, his mouth curved into a smug grin. Clearly he thought we were in for a surprise, and I remembered Menelaos’s saying that she was a beautiful woman. But I always had my reservations when men called queens or princesses beautiful. Too many of them inherited that epithet along with their titles.
The doors swung open, she stood on the threshold a moment before she commenced to walk towards the throne. Her skirt chimed with a delicate tinkling as she moved, turned her into a living melody. I found I was holding my breath, had to force myself to exhale. She truly was the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. Even Antenor was gaping.
Shoulders back and head imperiously level, she walked with dignity and grace, neither shamed nor shy. Tall for a woman, she had the most superb body Aphrodite had ever lavished on any female creature. Tiny waist, graciously swelling hips, long legs thrusting at her skirt. No, there was nothing about her did not please. Her breasts! Bare in the immodest Greek way, high and full, they owed nothing to artifice save that their nipples were painted gold. Time elapsed before any of us got as far as that swanlike neck, her face above it. Superlatives, too many superlatives! As I remember her on that day, she was just… beautiful. Masses of pale gold hair, dark brows and lashes, eyes the colour of springtime grass rimmed with kohl drawn outward in the manner of Cretans and Egyptians.
But how much of it was actual, how much of it a spell? That I will never know. Helen is the greatest work of art the Gods have ever put upon Mother Earth.
For my father she was Fate. Not so far gone in old age that he had forgotten the pleasures to be had in the arms of a woman, he looked at her and fell in love with her. Or in lust. But because he was too old to steal her from his son, he chose instead to take it as a compliment to himself that a son of his could lure her from her husband, her children, her own lands. Swelling with pride, he turned his wondering eyes upon Paris. They were certainly a striking pair: he as dark as Ganymede, she as fair as Artemis of the forest. Without doing more than take a little stroll, Helen won the silent room completely over. No man there could continue to blame Paris for his foolishness.
The moment the King dismissed the assembly I went to his side, deliberately mounting the dais at its far end and approaching the throne slowly, three steps higher up than the elopers and taller by far than my father’s gold and ivory chair. I did not usually parade my pre-eminence, but Helen set my teeth on edge; I wanted her to know exactly whereabouts Paris stood – and where I stood. As she watched me she raised her strange, fathomless green eyes to my face.
‘My dear child, this is Hektor, my Heir,’ said Father.
She inclined her head gravely and regally. ‘It is a great pleasure, Hektor.’ Her eyes grew coquettishly round. ‘My, what a big man you are!’
It was said to provoke, but not to provoke want in me; her taste obviously ran to pretty milksops like Paris, not to massive warriors like me. Just as well. I wasn’t sure I could resist her.
‘The biggest in Troy, lady,’ I said stiffly.
She laughed. ‘I do not doubt it.’
‘Sire,’ I said to my father, ‘will you excuse me?’
He cackled. ‘Aren’t my sons magnificent, Queen Helen? This one is the pride of my heart – a great man! One day he will be a great king.’
Eyeing me thoughtfully, she said nothing; but behind her lustrous gaze the mind clearly wondered whether it might not be possible to unseat me as Heir, put Paris in my place. I let her wonder. Time would teach her that Paris wanted no part of any responsibility.
I was already at the door when the King called after me, ‘Wait, wait! Hektor, send Kalchas to me.’
A puzzling command. Why did the King want that repulsive man, if he did not also want Lakoon and Theano? There were many Gods in our city, but our own special deity was Apollo. His cult was peculiarly Trojan, which made his special priests – Kalchas, Lakoon and Theano – the most powerful prelates in Troy.
I found Kalchas walking sedately in the shadow of the altar dedicated to Zeus of the Courtyard. Nor did I question why he was there; he was the kind of man no one presumed to question. For a few moments I watched him unobserved, trying to divine his true nature. He wore long, flowing black robes embroidered with strange symbols and signs in silver, and the sickly white skin of his completely bald head shone dully in the last light of day. Once I discovered a nest of pure white snakes far underground in the palace crypt, when I had been a boy and up to all kinds of mischief. But after encountering those blinded, attenuated creatures of Kore I never ventured into the crypt again. Kalchas aroused exactly the same feelings in me.
It was said that he had travelled the length and breadth of the world, from the Hyperboreans to the River of Ocean, to lands far east of Babylon and lands far south of Aithiopai. His mode of dress came from Ur and Sumer, and in Egypt he had witnessed the rituals which had been handed down the ranks of those illustrious priests since the beginning of Gods and men. Other things were whispered of him: that he could preserve a body so well it looked as fresh a hundred years later as it did the day it was interred; that he had participated in the awful rites of black Set; even that he had kissed the phallus of Osiris, and so gained supreme insight. I could never like him.
I emerged from the pillars, walked out into the yard. He knew who approached, though he never once looked my way.
‘You seek me, Prince Hektor?’
‘Yes, holy priest. The King wants you in the Throne Room.’
‘To interview the woman out of Greece. I will come.’
I preceded him – as was my right – for I had heard tell of priests who came to fancy themselves powers behind thrones; I wanted no such hope to enter Kalchas’s mind.
While Helen regarded him with uneasy revulsion, he kissed my father’s hand and awaited his pleasure.
‘Kalchas, my son Paris has brought home a bride. I want you to marry them tomorrow.’
‘As you command, sire.’
Next the King dismissed Paris and Helen. ‘Go now and show Helen her new home,’ he said to my stupid brother.
They went out hand in hand. I averted my eyes. Kalchas stood unmoving, silent.
‘Do you know who she is, priest?’ my father asked.
‘Yes, sire. Helen. The woman taken as a prize out of Greece. I have been expecting her.’
Had he? Or were his spies as efficient as always?
‘Kalchas, I have a mission for you.’
‘I need the advice of the Pythoness at Delphi. Go there after the wedding ceremony and find out what Helen means to us.’
‘Yes, sire. I am to obey the Pythoness?’
‘Of course. She is the Mouth of Apollo.’
And what exactly was all that about? I wondered. Who was fooling whom? Back to Greece for the answers. It always seemed to go back to Greece. Was the Delphic Oracle the servant of Trojan Apollo or Grecian Apollo? Were they even the same God?
The priest gone, I was alone with Father at last.
‘You do a sorry thing, sire,’ I said.
‘No, Hektor, I do the only thing I can.’ His hands went out. ‘Surely you see that I cannot send her back? The damage is done, Hektor. It was done the moment she left her palace at Amyklai.’
‘Then don’t send all of her back, Father. Just her head.’
‘It is too late,’ he answered, already drifting away. ‘It is too late. Too late…’