Helen Comes to Troy

It is not as I imagined.

Blue and green, Paris had said, running a finger along my spine. The waters of Troy glow and ripple with a hundred shades of blue and green, so beautiful you would think that the feathers of Hera’s peacocks had fallen to earth.

But the sea which lurches below us now is wine-dark and restless, resisting our first two attempts to land. I see the knowing looks the sailors give each other, the way they whisper amongst themselves. ‘It doesn’t want her here,’ one mutters, though at least he has the decency to look ashamed as I turn sharp eyes upon him. If Paris notices the ill omens, he gives no sign, leaping ashore as agile as a young deer, before turning to help me from the ship. I smile but do not take his hand. I remember the night we left; the darkness pressing hot and close about us, every step we took fraught with the possibility of discovery, until we reached the river. Come, Paris had beckoned, but I hesitated. Just for a moment, a heartbeat; just time to think once more of my daughter and the way she had looked as I pressed my lips to her forehead in a silent farewell, smooth-browed and star-splayed in sleep. Long enough, though. I had felt a fragrant breeze lift the hair from my neck and an iron will push me forward into Paris’ waiting arms.

I feel it again now: a soft chuckle in my ear and, somewhere below the brine of the sea, a waft of spring flowers. I do not turn my head, but I know that she is here. White-armed Aphrodite, laughing quietly. ‘No,’ I whisper to her, ‘this is mine. My choice.’

I suck in salt-air and step out onto foreign sand.

When Paris mocked the palace of Sparta which, until three days ago, was the only home I had ever known, I had bristled with indignation. ‘Rustic?’ I’d demanded, ‘you think me rustic?’

I, whose lineage of gods and princes could compete with anything he might boast, at whose table he had feasted for weeks on end, whose gifts of gold and silver hung about his neck, rustic? I kept my gaze from him all evening after that, even when he had mouthed kisses from above the rim of his wine-cup, or sketched my name across the table with its contents until at last, he had begun to sigh so pathetically that I had glared at him, wide-eyed, certain that my husband would notice.

But now, as we move towards the sloping walls of Troy, even I am struck by the vastness of it: a great, sun-bleached mass rising out of the plain. A heaving ribcage. A hive.

We enter through what Paris tells me is the Scaean gate, and I am surprised to find that, despite the foul weather, the streets are lined with people. They call out, whoop and toss rose petals, peels of cinnamon. The whole city is an assault on the senses: heady frankincense, cumin, coriander, hay, and horses. Paris waves as we navigate cobbled streets, beaming, every inch the Trojan prince. But I shrink back beneath my veil, clutch at him in a way I never would have in Sparta.

He wanted you above riches and battle-glory, I scold myself, you are courage to him, then. You are a golden throne. Be those things now.

The Great Hall, when we enter, is far larger even than that of Agamemnon, my sister’s husband, in the grand palace at Mycenae. Painted walls and columns of gleaming lapis lazuli flicker black then blue in the torchlight.

There is a flash of bright copper, and for a moment I think that it is my daughter standing there before us, hair spilling out like flames. But this girl is older than Hermione, the softness of childhood already carved from her pale face, and the eyes which stare from it are dark with terror. She opens her mouth, a black well that widens impossibly as she begins to wail. Quick as a snake she darts forward, arms outstretched, and snatches the veil from my head in a flurry of silk and painted beads. Then, clutching it to her stomach, she bolts from the room.

‘My sister, Cassandra’, Paris murmurs, his hand brushing my own, ‘please, don’t be offended. She has been this way since she was a small girl.’

I force a smile, set my jaw. ‘How could I be?’ I say, lightly. My cheeks burn.

We continue, to where an old man is sat upon a throne inlaid with ivory, flanked by richly clothed nobles. One man stands a head above the rest, and his gentle face has something of Paris in it. His brother Hector, I think, tamer of horses.

King Priam lifts a wrinkled hand to his heart.

‘We thank the gods that you are returned safely,’ he says, ‘and your guest along with you.’

‘I am grateful, Father,’ Paris’ face is impassive, ‘but you are mistaken. She is not my guest. She is my wife.’

A hiss ripples through the standing courtiers like the wind through dry reeds, and although the tall man I have taken to be Hector still smiles amiably, a small crease appears between his brows.

A grey-haired woman breaks from their ranks: Hecuba, Paris’ mother. She reminds me of my own – the same bird-bright gaze, the same open dislike as she looks me up and down. She places a kiss upon her son’s cheek, but I can see that, where they grip his wrist, her knuckles are white.

‘You have brought death upon us,’ she says simply, and, without a backward glance, she stalks from the hall, following her wild-eyed daughter.

Stumbling a little, I take another step towards the king. I sink to my knees and bow my head, conscious now of my missing veil, dark braids swinging forward.

‘You are welcome here, Tyndaris,’ Priam says, and although his voice is kind, I feel tears threatening to spill down my cheeks, a clawing in my throat. Tyndaris: Tyndareus’ daughter. What father had I now?

I swallow, blinking fiercely. You are courage, I remind myself, you are a golden throne. This is your choice.

Behind me, Aphrodite giggles.
I raise my chin, eyes like suns.
‘I am Helen.’

Written by Hazel Atkinson.

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