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Authors: Amalia Carosella

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Historical, #Literary, #Mythology & Folk Tales, #Historical Fiction, #Literary Fiction, #Mythology

Helen of Sparta (4 page)

BOOK: Helen of Sparta
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“I heard you crying from below. You sounded t
errified.”

“You shouldn’t be here.” I sat up with the realization. Clytemnestra? No, she was not back yet, or she would be shrieking now. But she could return at any time. And Leda. She might check on me, to be sure I was still in my room after what I had d
one today.

“Shh,” he said, pressing me back. His breath smelled of wine. “Your mother is still at the banquet.” He snorted. “And Nestra is so busy flirting with your father’s guests, I think she’ll forget to sleep tonight. I have never seen a woman her age so desperate for a
husband.”

“Please, you cannot be here. If Leda finds out, she will have me
whipped.”

“If Leda finds out, she will have you married. And how is it, Helen, that Nestra, in everything your junior, has become a woman when you
have not?”

I froze at his words. Was that why he was here? To claim me? The wine had certainly given him courage, to bring him through my window in the middle of the night. But he was right. Better to have me married than dishonored. Leda would make me his bride if she found him here, even if he had not touched me. My hands closed into fists in t
he linens.

“I think you had too much to drink at the banquet,
Menelaus.”

He stroked my hair, winding his fingers through it. “I could not listen to you cry and do nothing. What do you dream of that upsets you so? Your brother refuses to speak of it at all now, and Nestra will only say that
you weep.”

I closed my eyes and turned my face away. “It doesn’
t matter.”

“You never kept secrets from me before.” His hand fell away from my face. “I wish I knew what I had done to lose your trust. To lose your friendship, after all this time. Have I not always treated you kindly? Have I not always kept my word to you in ev
erything?”

The pain in his voice cut through my heart, and I caught his hand. Sword work and spear throwing had calloused his palms, and he wore a heavy ring now, on his thumb. My fingers brushed over it, imagining the lion carved into the gold, the mark of a true prince o
f Mycenae.

“Leda says I must remain distant from my suitors.” It was the only excuse I could give him, and I clung to it. “I must trust my father to choose the best man fo
r Sparta.”

“And you think I am you
r suitor?”

“Ar
en’t you?”

“Oh, Helen.” He raised my hand to his face, pressing it to his lips, then his cheek, roughened with stubble. The moonlight washed the bronze from his skin and hid the breadth of his shoulders, and, for a moment, I saw the boy who had been a brother to me. “There is not a man who has seen you who does not wait for the day that Tyndareus calls us to compete for your hand. But I missed your friendship sorely. Did it mean so littl
e to you?”

I pulled my hand free, glad that it was dark and he could not see my face flush. “It meant the wor
ld to me.”

“Then why, Helen? Would it be so terrible to marry you
r friend?”

The pressure behind my eyes made his face swim into shadow. “I don’t want you to
hate me.”

He was silent for a heartbeat; then he laughed, low and gentle. “Why
would I?”


You will!”

My voice rose, and he hushed me, touching a finger to my lips. I pushed it away, sitting up. My hand found his knee, and I gripped it so hard,
he hissed.

“You want to know what I dream of? I dream of war, Menelaus. The world turned to ash and fire. A golden city that burns while I hide in a temple, begging the gods to protect me, and then Ajax o
f Locris—”

I stopped. I did not want to think of Ajax the Lesser. I did not want to speak of it, for fear I would have the dream again. My father worried about the gods, but it would not be the gods who
abused me.

“Menelaus, in my dream, you hate me. There is no love between us, no kindness, no friendship. All of it is gone. And so many die, so many. I cannot risk it. You have to understand
. Please.”

He stared at me, and even in the dark I saw the whites of his eyes. He shook his head slowly, as if denying my words, and his hand covered mine on his leg, wrapping around it. His other hand was in my hair again, his fingers threading through the strands and cradlin
g my head.

I smothered a sob, but he pulled me to him, pressing my face against his shoulder and holding me in his lap while I cried the tears I could no longer hold back. He stroked my hair and wrapped his arm around my waist, rocking me against his body, warm and solid, and as familiar as the scent of leather and wood smoke that clung to
his tunic.

“It is only a drea
m, Helen.”

But I did not think he believed i
t, either.

C
HAPTER THREE

L
eda came to me not long after dawn, touching my shoulder to wake me, and pressing a finger to her lips when I would have spoken. Clytemnestra had not come to bed until the birds had started their early songs, and she slept like the dead beside me, her br
eath foul.

I dressed and followed Leda from the room. Slaves already ducked in and out of the other sleeping rooms, linens draped over their arms. Morning light poured into the hall through high-cut windows where the roof of the corridor rose taller than the rooms on either side. It painted the plaster walls sky blue, giving life to the purple-and-gold-feathered peacocks, which chased one another along the bot
tom third.

My mother had forbidden any symbols of Zeus in the women’s quarters, choosing to honor Hera instead. But Zeus’s wife was not known for her sympathy when it came to those women her husband had taken interest in. Proof, I thought, that these gods were not worth our regard, if Hera could be
so cruel.

Leda brought me to the baths, where she bade me sit on a high stool while she cut my hair. The sound of the shears filled my ears, and I held still as the strands fell around me to the limestone floor, like so much flotsam in the painted waves. The terra-cotta tub where she had scrubbed the dye from my hair still bore darker brown splotches in the grooves of the fish swimming along
its edges.

It had been for nothing. But I was not certain if I was more worried or pleased that Menelaus loved me for more than just my looks. We still could not marry. I still should not be his friend any longer. I had not realized how difficult a habit it would be
to break.

“Undres
s, Helen.”

Leda’s voice was even and soft, but my nails dug into the wood of
the stool.

“You may as well bathe, or you’ll be scratching at yourself all day. I won’t have a princess of Sparta fidgeting in
her seat.”

I had known from the beginning that it was only a matter of time, but I had hoped to hide my bleeding for another month or two. Until Menelaus left again, at the least. If I bathed now, in front of Leda, in front of Leda’s servants, she would know the truth at once and my childhood would be over. Tyndareus could not afford to put off my marriage for too long once it was known I had become a woman. The sooner I had a husband, the sooner Tyndareus could begin to teach him about the kingdom he would inherit, and secure the s
uccession.

Of course, if he meant me for Menelaus, he need not rush things quite so much. Menelaus was already well-known from the years he and Agamemnon had spent living in the palace, exiled from Mycenae, and now he had proven himself in war as well. Sparta would have no trouble accepting him as its fu
ture king.

I had to believe Tyndareus would consult my feelings before he chose my husband, or else I would go mad. What was the point of being so beautiful if that beauty could not at least ensure peace? Surely one of the men it might attract would serve Sparta better than
Menelaus.

“Now, Helen.” Leda tugged at the sleeves of my dress, urging me to lift my arms so she might pull it up over my head. I hesitated for only a moment. It would do nothing to help me if I fought her, and everything to increase her fury when she discovered what I h
ad hidden.

I shrugged out from beneath her hands and stripped the fabric from my body, hiding the wool I had kept between my legs in the cloth as
I did so.

Unlike the small tubs, the communal baths were fed from a hot spring and always warm, but I shivered all the same as I stepped down into the pool. It was large enough to swim in, and if I had not been so afraid the blood would show, I would have done so. Instead, I clamped my legs together and held as still as possible in
the water.

One of the slaves picked up my shift, shaking it out. The wool rolled free onto the tile, leaving a tra
il of red.

Leda pressed her lips
together.

“For how long?”
she asked.

I said nothing, watching the warm water weave faint tendrils of blood through the carved dolphins on the bottom of the pool. Dolphins were sacred to Apollo, and I hoped I did not owe my dreams to him. Athena, the goddess of wisdom, was the only Olympian I could respect in the least. She was strong and beautiful, and no one would ever make her marry against
her will.

“You will go straight to the shrine and make an offering of your morning meal to Zeus, your father.” Leda scrubbed my back with a coarse sea sponge, making my skin sting. “And you will spend the morning on your knees, begging for h
is favor.”

She shoved me deeper into the water to rinse the hard soap from my skin. Normally, the servants would have used sweet-smelling oils. But normally, a bath was not a punishment. My hair would stink all day from the tallow, like rancid fat. I grimaced. Perhaps it would keep Menelaus from coming
too near.

“You will return by midday, and you will tell Tyndareus what you have done.” She let me go, leaving me the soap to wash the rest of my body. “Let him decide your punishment, and determine your fate now that you’re a woman. This is the last time you will b
etray
me
.”

“Yes, Mama.” The words sounded v
ery small.

Leda did not spare me ano
ther look.

My morning meal waited for me at the table in the megaron, the remnants of last night’s feasting still in evidence. Kraters, empty now of the watered wine mixed for the guests, still stood on their pedestals at each corner of the room for easy access by the servants. The long tables and benches, littered with wine cups and empty platters, had not been put
away yet.

At the family table, Pollux and Menelaus sat on either side of my usual stool. Pollux looked as though he had barely slept, but he smiled and called for me to join them. I could feel Leda’s glare, and only shook my head, collecting my bread, smeared with honey, and a pomegranate. It made a meager offering, and I wondered if Leda meant to shame me before the priests, too. More likely, she wished to keep me from eating any of
it myself.

Pollux rose as if to follow, but Leda’s sharp voice brought him back to his seat, and I l
eft alone.

The path up the hill to the shrine had long turned into packed dirt, and in truth I preferred the sacred grove to the temples. It seemed more fitting to me that a god should be worshipped in a garden than trapped inside st
one walls.

Of course the shrine had not always been a garden. It had begun as nothing more than a stone altar before the face of Zeus in the rock, but Leda and Tyndareus had made it into something finer. Flowering trees and bushes scented the air as thickly as incense before the shrine came into view, and a seashell path led to a raised limestone altar, exquisitely carved. They had also built the bower to shield the stone of Zeus from the elements and encouraged grapevines to grow over
the frame.

It had been done after the swan came, before my birth, and Pollux claimed to remember playing in the dirt here while Tyndareus worked. It was a rare thing for a king like Tyndareus to build a place like this with his own hands. Perhaps they had hoped that with their sweat and labor, Zeus might forgive them for the insults they
had given.

Now the shrine was tended by two priests, watering the plants and clearing away the offerings left for the god. It was peaceful and quiet, for most of Sparta’s people prayed to Zeus at the temples. But not us. Tyndareus and Leda always insisted that we make our offerings here. Pollux and I had made almost daily trips to the shrine while Tyndareus fought for Mycenae, and we had offered kids, lambs, golden cups and bowls,
and wine.

Steps had been cut into the hillside and an archway built at the top to remind those who passed through it that this was a sacred place. On either side of the arch, Tyndareus had planted oak trees, hiding the inside of the garden from sight. The bark of these trees would not be harvested for cork, unless the priests re
quired it.

I did not notice the priestess until I had entered, removing the scarf from my head out of respect. When she looked at me, her mouth twisted, and then she laughed, a sound like silver chimes in
the wind.

“Oh, Helen. What a sad sight you
make now.”

I flushed and walked to the altar, setting my offerings out and keeping my head down as I knelt before Zeus’s image. Tyndareus swore he had once seen the face come to life, after I had been born, but I felt it more likely someone had put poppy milk in his wine. As a child, I had prayed and prayed for some sign from the god who was supposed to be my father, aching for Zeus’s acceptance when my mother looked on me with such loathing, but I received nothing for my troubles. Pollux had never seen anything, either, and by my tenth summer I had
given up.

Now, I pretended to pray so that I would not have to speak, but I felt the priestess watching me, and though she waited in silence, I did not think she was
convinced.

After a time, she asked me, “What do you pray fo
r, Helen?”

I sat back on my heels and covered my hair once more with the scarf. “My mother told me that I should beg Zeus for his favor, since I have l
ost hers.”

The priestess laughed again. “Do you honestly believe you ever had hers to begin with? Pollux may have been born of love, for Zeus took Tyndareus’s form when he came to her then, but you, Helen, you were born of rape and shame. She would have had you dashed on the rocks if not for fear of
the gods.”

My face burned, though I did not think my cheeks could become much redder than they were already. “No woman deserves to be treated in su
ch a way.”

“Leda was given a great honor, to bear Zeus’s son. She cursed him for it, as did Tyndareus, who could not see beyond his own pride. If Zeus had not loved Leda so well, Sparta itself would have fallen. Leda’s rape by a swan was less than your parents deserved in punishment. Zeus showed h
er mercy.”

“And does Zeus punish me for the sins of my parents now?” I looked back at the priestess where she sat on a low st
one bench.

Her auburn hair hung loose down her back, myrtle flowers floating in the soft curls like gulls on the sea. A scallop-shell pendant rested at the hollow of her throat, and sparrows and doves darted around her feet, picking at the crumbs of past offerings. Strange that I had never met her before, but I wished that she had not dedicated herself to the gods. Perhaps Menelaus might have fallen in love with her
, instead.

“Do you feel so ill-used? The most beautiful woman alive, with a brother who loves you well—Pollux will never forsake you. And a man who would offer you the same, though you spurn him.” She seemed to look right through me, pinning me to the earth. “Is there someone else you would prefer over Menelaus? You have only to name him and he will be d
elivered.”

“No.” I rose to my feet. I did not like the way she spoke of Menelaus, as if he were nothing more than a convenience. “I ask nothing of these gods. Let Menelaus love me for his own reasons, or better yet, no
t at all.”

The priestess smiled, but there was little kindness in her expression. “To hear such a thing from your lips is absurd. Have you no idea of the power you hold over men? Menelaus will continue as he has begun. I could not stop it if I wished. Nor co
uld Zeus.”

Her words sent a prickle of unease down my spine, though I did not know why. I had never heard a priestess speak as she did. By all rights, the gods should have taken great exception to her arrogance, prieste
ss or not.

I did not want to worship gods as cruel as this—gods cruel enough to rape my mother after she objected to being deceived, or willing to waste the lives of hundreds, perhaps thousands of men in a useless war. I did not want to believe we could no
t be free.

“Menelaus has the right to make his own choices,” I sai
d at last.

“And yet . . . ,”
she said.

My stomach twisted at the weight of those two words, and at the thoughts that followed in my own mind.
And yet
, I kept from him his fate. I kept from him the truth of what I saw coming. But this priestess could not have known what I
had done.

I shook my head, trying to clear it. The dreams had come to me as a warning, I was certain, for I had dreamed of smaller moments in the past and seen them brought to life through my inaction, and avoided when I interfered. Once I dreamed that Pollux would be thrown from his horse and break his arm while riding with Castor, and I begged him not to go. He had come back with a sprained wrist and claimed if it had not been for my warning, he would have suffe
red worse.

BOOK: Helen of Sparta
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