Daughter of Sparta
They are eating Tyndareus out of his home, destroying the good king's lifetime of work and sacrifice, Agafia thought darkly as her fist curled around the coins ever tighter. Her brisk pace became faster as she wove her way through the crowded merchant streets. The woman's eyes locked firmly at the encroaching building, squinting against the rising sun which promised another scorching day. Her unshod feet left barely any imprint on the dusty ground as she broke into a full run, taking the steps two, three at a time as she made her climb towards the entrance of the temple. With a small triumphant shout she rushed through the open doors and their priest attendants, not paying any attention to their shocked and distressed visages.
The old handmaiden threw the coins into the waiting palm of a shaven-headed neophyte and grabbed the burning sticks proffered by the boy. She brusquely shouldered her way through the waiting throng, snarling at those who dared to throw a cautionary word at her regarding her rude behavior. Agafia planted the smoking sticks firmly into the prayer jar, kneeled and looked up at the magnificent face of Ares.
We have served you well. We Spartans have praised your name to the heavens, in both defeat and conquest, but never have we failed to honor you when the day was done. Now, we are invaded by those others would call heroes, kings, generals and like. We are being cut and bled by their insults, their gluttonous behavior, their discordant and bombastic declarations. How can you let this happen to the King? To the one who has served you well; with such devotion that even Heracles found nothing but praise for Tyndareus who was only a green youth when Heracles returned the throne of Sparta to him?
Agafia's head dropped and proud tears ran down the already tired and lined face. They are destroying our world, the world you created, magnificence. Tyndareus ages ten years for every day he has to bear their company. His strong heart that bore so many wounds from so many wars aches without hope. And Helen ... that poor girl, your half-sister, daughter of Zeus, weeps in her bed. She has not eaten in four days, so sick is she of what she has witnessed by those who dare to call themselves her suitors Helen is willing herself to die before she is forced to marry any one of them.
Agafia's sobs became louder and she began to wail like a mother whose first newborn was slaughtered in front of her face. Save us! She cried out silently as she beat her chest with clutched fists. Deliver us!.
The tear-filled eyes suddenly widened and gasps ripped through the stone hall as Agafia's prayer sticks exploded in flames.
Her cries were heard by all the gods. To the damnation of all Achaeans.
Tyndareus glanced for the fourth time to his right where his daughter sat. The heavy veil did not lift and neither did the eating knife poised in the left hand. The fingers were definitely thinner the father judged with worry-filled mind. The delicate wrists were positively bony and he could only guess how the rest of Helen looked under that wall she firmly erected in front of her face. If not for the fact the fabric rustled with her breaths, she could have been mistaken for a statue so still was she.
Pollux, Castor, come home, Tyndareus prayed fervently. Rescue us from the curse that has become our lives. Save your sister as you have done once before. Why did you go on that perilous journey with Jason? Why could you not stay with us, guard us, warding off those who dare to defame your family's honor?
The tired king masked his moist eyes behind a fanned hand, feigning irritation and exhaustion. He fooled all save one, Menaláos, his general and the beloved but undeclared leader of the infamous Spartan Army. The unusually light-blue eyes narrowed in sympathy as Menaláos helplessly watched the noble head droop under the unbearable strain Tyndareus was suffering. The eyes shifted slightly towards the masked woman sitting next to the King, their postures mimicking each other's depression and fear.
And there is so much to fear, Menaláos admitted to himself. He looked around the feasting table and noted again with some amazement how many famous nobles were present, most carelessly engorging themselves on Tyndareus' dishes while openly fondling the pleasure women who accompanied them. Ajax, Achilles, Idomeneus, even Hector from Troy came to stake their claim. They all believed, perhaps with the exception of the crafty Odysseus, that Helen was some trophy they could win as they have done so many times before. Menaláos would love nothing better than to hurl the entire lot to their deaths from the city walls. However, he dare not for the same reason Tyndareus, King of Sparta, Ruler of Lacedaemon, could not. Any one of these much-heralded suitors could openly declare war and perhaps even bond together against Sparta, effectively dooming Tyndareus to his death and his much sought-after daughter to a lifetime of slavery.
Achilles' offensive humor once again managed to entertain the men while simultaneously insulting his hosts. Helen rose stiffly and without a word marched out of the hall. Tyndareus envied her for he would love nothing better than to follow his enraged child.
"Your daughter needs to learn some manners," Achilles said over his gold cup. "She has to excuse herself first, especially among such esteemed guests."
"Perhaps she did," Menaláos said cuttingly, "But her voice was drowned by yours crude jokes, hero."
The silence in the hall was even more worrisome than the noise that filled it before. Achilles stiffened and then slowly sat up from his silk-lined palette, his eyes leveling coldly on Menaláos. But before he could get a word in Odysseus spoke.
"This is another well-prepared meal and most excellent wine, King. My compliments to your house."
The heartfelt praise could not go unremarked by others and by the time the rest of the group finished their compliments, given mainly because none of the guests wanted to be undone by Odysseus who was unquestionably the poorest suitor to grace Tyndareus' table, Achilles' attention was once more captured by the whore sitting on his right. The woman was intelligent and desperate enough to keep his thoughts firmly trained on her for the rest of the meal, in her own way helping Tyndareus avoid open confrontation with the most dangerous and belligerent suitor.
Helen ripped the veil off her head, not caring if strings of her locks followed since she had firmly pinned it to her hair. The woman threw back her head and screamed like a tormented wildcat, her cry billowing the curtains that shielded her immense chamber from the garden. She could no longer pretend, not even for her most beloved father, a man whose life was cursed the day she was begotten by Leda. Shameful tears rolled down her cheeks and Helen fell gracelessly to her knees. She cupped her face with her hands, openly weeping now.
They are pigs! Such crude, barbaric pigs! I wish death on the whole lot of them! How can I bear to let them slither into my bed? Use my womb and my body? How can I see their hideous, greedy, drunken faces and not plant a dagger between their eyes? Oh, Theseus, why did you leave me behind? Why didn't you make me wife before you left Athens?
Helen bunched the veil into a tiny ball and threw it out the window.
No more! I shall take it no more! Let it be war then! At least we'll have reclaimed our pride with our swords and shields! No further pretense, no more swallowing their insults, their crude groping of my body so they can have a taste of what they all believe to be rightfully theirs. No more! Let it be war!
The red lips curled into a perfect smile, betraying none of the horrific thoughts that ran behind her face. If Helen could scheme it properly, she may be able to turn them against each other. Let them freely kill their competition and leave her father out of the bloodshed. And should there be a survivor, her army can most assuredly handle one. They might not be able to fight all her suitors currently camped in her father's palace, but one ... yes, one can be cut down, his carcass tied behind her horse so she could drag it around the city walls as an example for all to witness the humiliation ... yes, one was definitely manageable. It would be fitting end for a loathed enemy, for she was a daughter of Sparta and their particular brand of vengeance was known throughout the world and the seas.
It was Helen's mood that puzzled her father. Gone was the sadness, the condemning silence. She even briefly conversed with Ajax over the breakfast meal, to the shock of all present.
"More honey, father?" Helen asked solicitously, the small shell bottle already poised to pour some sweetness onto his morning bread.
Tyndareus' answer was a warning glance; Helen was planning something and he did not like it. But the damned veil covered her face and the father could not even begin to guess what deviousness his child hatched the night before.
Helen remained tactfully silent for the rest of the meal and swiftly excused herself from all present. None of the suitors saw the mysterious figure until well into the afternoon, when the sun passed its apex but the heat did not. It was the sound of many bare feet, clanging of swords and foreign-tongued greetings that drew the men into the main courtyard. Most guessed it was yet another suitor who came to win Helen's hand in marriage. To their surprise they were greeted by the sight of two women, clad in ornate but dusty robes. Both were heavily veiled in order to hide their identities and thus protect them from assassins. It was their servants who were making alarming noises, unloading baskets and trunks all over the yard, chatting happily with each other, obviously glad for the end to what had to have been an arduous journey.
The strangers glanced at them but it seemed none of the staring men could hold their interest and the two women resumed their quiet discourse. Their dismissal immediately irked the men, even Menaláos who knew them well.
A rustle of robes made the men turn around and Helen appeared from behind a doorway. She stood at the edge of the stairs, looking down at the new visitors. One of the veiled women saw her and approached closer.
"Forgive me, lady of the house, for we are lost." The stranger said with a strong but respectful tone. "We are looking for Helen, declared heir to the throne of Sparta. We have been told she now houses the greatest of men under her father's roof. For they have gathered to win her much coveted hand. Is this the house?"
"I beg your pardon, high lady, but this house contains no such Helen. Perhaps there is another Helen whose father is king and whose walls hold such richness. I have none such here to be praised so highly and more importantly, with such righteous words."
Ajax flinched as if he was slapped. Hector's mouth fell open in shock and Achilles' face reddened in fury. Only Menaláos openly smiled, rejoicing at the arrow that so gracefully found its mark. How he loved these Spartans and their ways!
Helen began to descend the stairs when Achilles with a loud snarl grabbed her veil. He viciously tugged it from her head, leaving the torn material fluttering helplessly in his angry gasp.
"How dare you insult your guests! Who do you think you are to devalue us to pair of whores..." Achilles' tirade died in his throat as Helen turned to face him.
For the first time Helen's suitors laid their eyes on the face that claimed the lives of so many men, and all became stricken with fever that consumed their mind and body in one delicious gaze.
Menaláos couldn't breathe, didn't want to, and more importantly he forced himself not to blink, for what stood in front of him was a creature surely born of no mortal. She couldn't be real, couldn't be created in a mortal womb. As if sharing his disbelief Hector, who stood closest to her, reached out to graze his fingertips on her bare shoulder, as if he was afraid any stronger touch would melt the vision into nothingness.
Helen visibly recoiled, a small cry of distress escaping from her lips. She took three steps further down, and her suitors collectively leaned closer, unwilling to widen the distance between them. The woman at the bottom of the stairs rushed towards Helen and rested a protective arm around the cringing shoulders.
"Take back your filthy hands! How dare you touch my sister without her permission!!" The figure enraged even as she raised the heavy veil from her face.
"Achilles, you fool..." Odysseus whispered with laughter in his voice when he recognized the proud face.
Achilles had just called Clytaemnestra, daughter of Tyndareus, half-sister of Helen, and most honored wife of Agamémnon, King of Mycenae - a harlot. It was a declaration that had the makings of total war for it was well known Agamémnon was immensely proud of his wife and the children she bore. Achilles was a hero many worshipped, but even he would have a hard time fighting such bloody and costly conflict against the mighty armies of Sparta and Mycenae.
Achilles heard Odysseus' admonition and for once kept his mouth shut, though his eyes spoke loudly enough for Helen to know what thoughts raced inside his mind. Helen's posture straightened, taking strength from her sister's presence and her gaze was openly taunting as she locked eyes with the man who insulted Clytaemnestra.
"Well, I don't see why you requested our presence, Helen," the second woman spoke as she too lifted her veil and pointedly stared at the gaping jaws. "To be surrounded by such wit, such grandeur, surely you must be offering daily sacrifices to Aphrodite to blessed with the company of such men."
Helen whirled to face the speaker and cried out, "Penelope!"
The young woman threw open her arms and Helen gratefully ran into them.
"How I missed you, cousin!" Helen said with true gratitude. "How I missed you both!"
By now Achilles was fervently wishing he was anywhere but his current position. His foolish words would cost him dearly in the eyes of Tyndareus, Penelope's uncle, not to mention Helen herself, as her love for her cousin was evident by her exuberant greeting.
"I see my father's been keeping poor company of late," Clytaemnestra said sharply. Her voice wasn't raised but it didn't have to be for the queen to be heard without error. "I must speak to him about it, and soon since I have brought my children along. Agamémnon would most surely not approve such deviant behavior to be sampled by his heirs."
"Speaking of Agamémnon," Penelope continued in an acerbic tone when she recognized Menaláos, "How could you be one of my cousin's chief torments, General of Sparta? Were you not endowed with many gifts from my father? Isn't your home, nay, the land your home stands on, a gift from my uncle? And here, resting in the folds of my robe I have a missive that reveals how unhappy Helen is. For shame, Menaláos, how could you forget your sworn duty?"
The pale face paled even further by the bold admonishment but Menaláos held his tongue in check. He was heartedly ashamed for her accusation was not without reason. He gave a small bow of acceptance of the blame and kept his eyes leveled to the mosaic floor even though his mind screamed for him to behold Helen once more.
Machaon, moved with pity, spoke for the humiliated soldier. "Do not blame him for the shortcomings of others. Menaláos has conducted himself with admirable restraint, to the derision of many and recognition of none I fear."
Penelope smiled a little at the healer's words and became quiet, sparing others of the rich tongue-lashing they earned.
"Come, sister," Clytaemnestra said, "You must tell me all. Everyone at court is dying to hear what has transpired in my father's house, my husband especially."
Helen walked up the precious few steps and faced Achilles until he could taste her breath on his lips. "I'd rather choose a grave as my wedding bed than call you husband." She hissed and then took a sweeping glance at all the suitors. "In fact, I'd rather marry a Spartan shepherd! He, at least, would have the sense to know the true value of a woman such as I!"
Helen, who was one now made three, returned to the women's embrace and the group walked away, their heads bent together, their whispers tormenting the men they left behind.
"Well, never let it be said life is dull with you around," Odysseus cheerfully said to Achilles.
"I thought it a cunning ruse," Achilles whispered hoarsely. "I thought because his sons didn't want the throne Tyndareus schemed up a clever plan to win the most powerful man for his daughter. I never imagined she was beautiful as the rumors made her to be. Was she real, Odysseus? Could a woman like that possibly exist? Even now I doubt my eyes and ears."
"You are not the only one," Ajax, a giant even among this group said. "I thought the same. A girl with pretty face, endowed with the throne to one of the most powerful lands ... no wonder Theseus went mad and kidnapped her."
"And may I remind you all right now that unattainable creature is made even more so because of her anger? You heard what she said. Death over marriage to any of us," Odysseus curtly said. "Even if one of us were to marry her, what will prevent her from slitting her throat during the wedding feast? Or even better, the nuptial bed?"
"Nothing in the world is as fickle as women," Hector countered. "Give them a few days to calm themselves then drown them with gifts, gold and precious jewels, finest of robes to cover their shoulders and pearls to dress their hair. Their temper will ease soon enough. Of course, you might have some difficulty, Odysseus. I fear your sheep and your farms won't be as attractive to Helen as you hoped they would be."
Odysseus shrugged away the barb without hesitation. "Nothing in the world is so easily misunderstood as women, especially the likes of Helen and her ilk." He paused for a moment, his eyes fixed on the doorway the women took. As if carefully measuring something in his mind he continued to speak but with great deal more caution. "I would tread carefully around that three. Remember, one is married to a king, and all three are related to yet another king whose very roof shelters us. Tyndareus might be old but his sword is still deadly sharp and his armies camped only three days from Sparta. If forced I reckon the entire lot could be down our throats within a day. Hundred thousand soldiers, all Spartan and armed to their very toes if the rumors hold true."
The warning did not go unheard and many suitors gave a nod of wary agreement as the group dispersed to their respective quarters. Odysseus carefully watched Menaláos stroll down a corridor; his head still bent low from Penelope's berating. Caving into his curiosity the ruler of Ithaca swiftly ran after his quarry.
"Menaláos, hold for a moment!"
The general turned to face his pursuer. The two were strangers but they have supported each other many times in order to defend Tyndareus against ridicule.
"What is it, bee farmer?" Menaláos asked without malice. "And Hector is much mistaken. Helen loves honey in her wine. I know that for a fact, and she is also quite fond of warm wool blankets."
Odysseus smiled at the familiar name-call. "From your reaction I gather you have never seen her face either until today."
Menaláos shook his head and said, "No, her chambers are hidden within these grounds. Only precious few know where she rests her head. And Tyndareus made it clear when I began serving him that Helen was not a topic I could freely approach from my end. Like the rest I thought her a pretty girl ... but after what I have seen, I fear my chances to win her hand are reduced to dust."
"Clytaemnestra isn't so shabby either," Odysseus said. "Little wonder your brother married her within days of introduction."
"No, my sister-in-law is a force that cannot be ignored, either here or at Mycenae. It was her dowry that bought my brother the fleet necessary to guard his coasts. And the alliance made by the union keeps many of my brother's enemies at bay."
"Their eyes, was Leda's eyes the same color?"
Menaláos nodded, "Yes, pure molten gold. It is a trait shared by all of them, Clytaemnestra, Helen, Pollux and Castor. However, only Pollux and Helen share similar coloring -- the dark hair and gold skin while Clytaemnestra and Castor both have lighter shade in their locks and complexion. Or so I was told by the servants and my quartermaster."
"Do you know why the princes do not want the throne?"
"I was told they have too many obligations to fulfill the duties of a king. I personally believe neither wanted the power without sharing it equally. And since the throne can be safely held by only one, Tyndareus refuse to split it, even to accommodate his sons."
"Unusual family, aren't they?" Odysseus asked.
"And great. Their house has been hounded by one tragedy after another, and yet here they are enslaving and making us dance to their tune."
Odysseus laughed at the observation and wryly added, "But such a lovely song it is!"
Menaláos smiled and ruefully agreed. "Indeed. So, Odysseus, what will you offer to win Helen's hand?"
"I have a jar -- a sample of the best honey from my most faithful bees. It will mysteriously make its way to the dinner table and do much to sweeten Helen's mood. I also have a warm wool blanket from my sturdiest sheep. It's dyed blue, a shade I think she'll like. I am still trying to find a way to have it delivered to her chambers without rousing the suspicion of others."
"Best of luck then, shrewd fox!" Menaláos said, using an old war name that was given to Odysseus in his youth. "May your wits be faster than your grandfather's winged feet!"
"Menaláos," Odysseus said after a pause, "Remember this. You are Tyndareus' general and thus far, his favorite. He chose you to protect his home and his children and the man is no fool. Remind the rest of our astute company of that salient fact next time they decide to better themselves at the cost of your honor. Hector may have Troy's gold and her Poseidon walls, but you, Menaláos, have the favor of the Spartan Army and that is something nobody should ignore."
Menaláos stared hard after the man, wondering what drove the mind hidden behind those dark blue eyes. Odysseus never held anything back, but he was the type who could reveal everything about himself and yet remain a riddle to all but few. He was ambitious, that was true, but who wasn't? Menaláos had to admit even he was greedy for fame and recognition and had abandoned Agamémnon and his homeland in order to freely gain power. His travails led to Sparta where Tyndareus recognized his worth and gave him a chance to win what he desired.
Menaláos couldn't help but wonder if Tyndareus would do so again. If not for the sake of his daughter, then for his kingdom.
Clytaemnestra carelessly threw yet another fine robe onto the ground. "No, this one is unfitting also."
Helen was sitting on the floor, chest-deep buried in her sister's fine gifts. Even if all this finery was from her beloved sister and wealthy brother-in-law, decorum demanded that Helen show equally generous display in the near future -- a costly affair that neither she nor her father could afford. Thus hindered she said, "I can't accept any of this! There aren't enough days in my life to wear all these..."
Penelope lifted a veil, "No, this won't do either."
"Aren't any of you listening to me?" Helen asked, half laughing, half exasperated.
"No," Penelope said saucily. "When have we ever listened to you anyway? Last time I did, I remember being saddled on a crazed stallion determined to break out skinny little necks. The only reason we survived that mad adventure was because the horse ran into the dry lands and not into the sea."
Clytaemnestra sighed and turned to the two women with a shrewd eye. "Silence from both of you, especially you, Helen. I'm trying to make you a fair representation for tonight's feast. Though we will not be joining our esteemed guests, I can assure you we will see most of them before the evening is over. And before you object any further, remember, any alliance you make through your marriage will benefit Mycenae indirectly. Besides, Agamémnon will not allow you to be introduced without showing off his own wealth. His pride though at times is insufferable, can also be beneficial if wrought properly."
"Oh, why bother?" Helen asked, falling back into the fabrics, and then burrowing into a cloud of soft, silky robes. "They'd probably prefer to see me nude anyway." She muffled from under layers of material.
"There's a thought," Penelope said with a smile on her face. "That would definitely guarantee some entertainment for the meal."
"And our father's immediate departure from this world," Clytaemnestra added. "However, it is a thought..."
Helen's head suddenly appeared and she gave an alarming glance at her sister, "What thought?"
Clytaemnestra smiled, the calculating look became ever sharper and the queen sat down next to Helen. "Let her wear white, nothing else. No jewelry, no crown, let her go unshod and unadorned save for the flowers we always wear on behalf of our absent brothers."
Penelope blinked once before she understood what her cousin had planned. "Oh yes, let them imagine, let them..."
"What are you saying?" Helen asked. "You know I cannot wear that color, it would be scandalous."
Clytaemnestra answered, "Let them see you thus so white, without color, without jewels. Let them imagine dressing you in their fine robes, their offerings of trinkets and like. Let them paint you in their heads in their colors, Helen. Let them think they are that much closer to you, even if only in their dreams. I think they would be much more docile and eager to please if the leash on their fantasy was slackened somewhat."
Helen stared at the robes around her then smiled and said, "And their dreams will be feverish, won't they?"
"Of course," Penelope said. "How could it be otherwise?"
"And men who sleep poorly make even poorer soldiers," Clytaemnestra added. "Should the need arise, they would be easier to handle than if they were fed and properly rested. Not even the strongest of them, Ajax, can go days without rest."
"And unrested men make mistakes." Helen said, "And their judgment will be easily malleable to our needs."
"Indeed," Clytaemnestra said, "Aren't they interesting creatures?"
Tyndareus took another surreptitious glance around the table, marveling at the changes wrought by the arrival of his daughter and niece. Gone are the pleasure women and the wine was definitely being conserved. Most conversations were polite if slightly stilted as the men kept glancing at the entrance Helen usually took to enter the main hall.
For a moment the king felt sorry for his guests before remembering the abominable way they treated him and Helen. Hardening his heart Tyndareus spoke, "Helen will not be joining this table."
Menaláos bit right through a chicken bone and gnawed one end out of sheer aggravation. He knew the women would be upset enough to excuse themselves from the meal; he moodily wondered how long the self-imposed exile would last.
Odysseus cautiously asked, "Will we be seeing..."
"Not for a while," Tyndareus answered in a gentler tone. "I can make Helen do my bidding but not all three. I congratulate you, Achilles. Not even Pollux and Castor managed to anger all three so thoroughly."
"My king," Achilles said reluctantly. "Though my mistakes are great, Helen is unfairly punishing all by refusing her presence..."
"You called Clytaemnestra a whore, Achilles. So, yes, your mistakes are indeed great." Tyndareus somehow managed to keep the laughter from his voice. "And Penelope has been teased for many things but never that particular brand of business. Give it time, Achilles. The wounds will fester for a while yet but they will heal in a few days."
Achilles gave a nod then his attention was grabbed by sudden noises floating through the balcony lined one side of the great hall, overlooking a magnificent garden. It was tinkering laughter of women; there was no doubt in his mind whose laughter. The men could only imagine what was taking place as music soon joined the melodious sounds.
Tyndareus hid his amusement in his cup as he took a healthy swallow of wine. His dark eyes scrutinizing each suitor as they all took surreptitious glances towards a scene they could not see. He didn't know exactly what his daughters were up to, but whatever their schemes were, the effects were magnificent to behold.
The meal finished in a hurried manner, with some of the final dishes left untouched. Tyndareus wisely let them go, knowing quite well where the men will spend the rest of the evening. He disappeared into his chambers but not before appointing Agafia who will watch over all that will pass in the garden and dutifully report back to him when the evening was done.
Menaláos didn't brave himself to go into the garden and instead watched from the balcony. He knew Helen would not appreciate any attention from him, no matter how sincerely it was given, for she had her beloved sister and cousin by her side and that was all the company she wished for. Besides, he enjoyed the view from where he stood, and his pride would remain intact afterwards.
"May I join you?" Odysseus asked.
"If you wish," Menaláos said. "I thought you of all people would be down there, seeking an entrance to their company. Your wit and your nimble fingers on the lyre would probably grant you reprieve from their anger. That and the fact you are blameless of the earlier fiasco."
Odysseus smiled, "No, best to make my self scarce tonight. See a face too often and fondness can turn to annoyance very easily. Besides, I'd rather watch a massacre than participate in it."
Odysseus pointed to a dejected suitor who was summarily evicted from the women's tent. "Massacre. There will be many broken hearts tonight if Clytaemnestra unleashes her tongue, which I have no doubt she will."
Menaláos threw back his head and laughed loudly. Odysseus grinned and pointed to yet another suitor who didn't even get the chance to enter the tent before being dismissed.
"Poor fools," Odysseus said.
"Poor us, you mean."
"That is understood." Odysseus grinned widely, "Tell me what do you know about the dagger-tongued cousin? The one who didn't hesitate to flay you in front of all the others?"
"Penelope is a good woman," Menaláos immediately came to her defense. "She cares for Helen very much; the two bonded when Helen became ill when she was but a child. The family had all but given up on her, so sick was she. Clytaemnestra was sent for but Tyndareus didn't think Helen would live long enough to see her. Then Penelope arrived and she never left her cousin's side. She was barely woman then but she nursed Helen morning and night, and wrestled her free from the ferryman himself."
"No resentment then?" Odysseus asked. "To be always partnered by the likes of Helen, I can't help but wonder if there is a drop of envy in Penelope's heart."
"If there is any such mean emotion I have never witnessed it nor heard anyone speak ill of Penelope. She is much loved by the servants and Tyndareus never lets her leave the city unescorted. I've had the pleasure of returning her to her father and her company is indeed something of a gift. And, as you might have noticed, both Clytaemnestra and Helen adore her. She is cousin but to them she is sister."
"Oh, Achilles is about to try his luck..." Odysseus deftly switched the topic. "I wonder how long ... and there he goes."
"That was quick, even for Clytaemnestra."
"I'm surprised he didn't depart with a spear run through his body."
"I don't think the women requested such implements for their meal."
"Why should they? Especially since their army is already on the move?"
It was to Menaláos' credit that the only outward sign confirming Odysseus' remark was the tightening of the fingers on the right hand.
"Don't worry, I haven't told the others." Odysseus said.
"How did you know?" Menaláos asked, instinctively trusting Odysseus was telling the truth.
"I saw the rider this afternoon. But then I've told my spies to keep watch for such a figure for a while now. It is astonishing Tyndareus withstood the battering as long as he did. But now, with both his daughters, his grandchildren and his niece, what choice does he have?"
"He didn't send the rider, I did."
Odysseus looked startled for the first time since Menaláos had considered him more than an interesting stranger. "You? You have such sway over their army?"
Menaláos nodded curtly and said in a hard voice, "And those very same reasons were mine. Helen will have to make her choice soon, and once it's done the rest will feel deprivation. Some might even become angry enough to challenge her decision. Tempers will fly and so will insults. Not a good combination, not if there's nothing to help the suitors cool their anger. Having the entire palace coated with armed soldiers might make them reconsider all their options and decide more wisely."
"Or so you hope," Odysseus said. "The battles could be waged outside the walls and the damage will be the same."
"Do you have better thoughts? Because if you do, I wouldn't mind being privy to them."
"Patience, general, patience." Odysseus said then peeked over. "Why don't we go down and try our lot?"
Menaláos looked over the balcony, "What makes you think we will have better luck than the rest?"
"Because we won't enter their domain. We'll just stroll by, give a bow of grace and a compliment or two then leave."
Menaláos frowned, "Why..."
"It is what we will not be doing that will make them remember us favorably. Instead of ingratiating ourselves like the rest, we will allow them the choice of accepting us or rejecting our company."
"They'll not want to be bothered." Menaláos said.
"Exactly, but the ability to choose is still theirs, what manner they wish to exercise it is not our concern."
"But it is. At least to me." Menaláos said in a confused voice.
"They won't know that."
Having so thoroughly confused his partner, Odysseus had little trouble steering Menaláos down the stairs and into the garden.
"Who is the one accompanying Menaláos?' Penelope asked after the men's departure. The two walked up to the tent, gave a formal greeting of good night, complimenting Helen on the dishes served for dinner before leaving promptly. Their brief conversation was judged to be pleasant by the women mainly because it was so brief.
"Odysseus of Ithaca." Helen answered. "I like him. He has formidable wit and the wisdom to curb it when need be. He's been very kind to father, doesn't drink wine like the rest and is quite fond of bees."
"Bees?" Clytaemnestra echoed in some confusion.
Helen took a small silver jar from the table and shook it, "Yes, bees. You've been generously sampling his honey."
"A king who is a bee farmer?" Penelope asked laughing. "Helen, you do attract a varied lot!"
"Have you never heard of his achievements? The rest of the suitors mock him but never to his face save Hector. But then that one mocks everyone, father included."
"Is it fear?" Penelope asked.
Clytaemnestra answered, "No, not fear, wary respect perhaps. For every method of vengeance they know, Odysseus knows twenty and has the means to carry out all of them without ever being caught. Dangerous only if nettled; otherwise sweet and industrious - like his bees."
"Surprising then," Penelope said. "To see Menaláos keep company with a farmer king. I would have thought he'd prefer someone more martial like Ajax given his history. At least those two have more in common."
"It is, isn't it?" Clytaemnestra said while slyly noting the fact that a minor figure like Odysseus suddenly held interest of both Helen and Penelope. It was this thought that distracted her for a moment and her daughter took advantage of it by gleefully dumping an entire goblet of wine onto Helen's bare arm.
"Iphigenia!" The mother cried, "What have you done?"
The two-year-old child answered with the babble only fond parents and loving nursemaids can understand.
"That is not a proper reason!" Clytaemnestra admonished though her voice revealed more affection than anger. She did not realize that neither of the two women present had a clue what the child's response was and also failed to catch the look of amusement passed between Helen and Penelope.
"Don't fret," Helen said and lifted the edge of her white robe to dry herself, and by doing so revealing a delicate calf and ankle to any watching.
Menaláos was one such witness and he was treated to a fine sight indeed. Helen's skin was like that of well-polished bronze surface in direct face with the sun. He didn't think it was possible for a human being to shimmer but Helen was such a dazzling creature. Her night-winged hair was coiled simply around her bare shoulders and nape, nothing to decorate the luxurious locks save few fragile white flowers -- flowers that the sisters have named after their all-too absent brothers. A reminder to any that Tyndareus didn't just have daughters but two fully grown sons capable of committing great acts of heroism and tyranny.
After Helen finished her task she scooped her troublesome niece into her arms and played with the girl, doting on her almost as much Clytaemnestra. This contented domestic sight planted yet another thought into the heads of her suitors. To have her grace their beds, that in itself was considered nothing short of bliss -- but the result of such bliss would inevitably be children. And as the men watched Helen with Iphigenia they dreamt of future heirs who would share their strength and her beauty. A combination that enchanted even the stoniest of them.
Thus, when the sun rose next morning it surprised none of the men that the competition to win Helen's hand began in deadly earnest.
Helen had to be silenced twice by Penelope as the three women stealthily walked down a hidden corridor built into a wall that enclosed the practice fields. She couldn't believe Clytaemnestra was made aware of such delights while she was kept ignorant.
"Clytaemnestra, how could you hide this from us?" Penelope whispered.
"Because you two would have given away the secret as soon as you were told." She responded primly. "Where are ... yes, here they are. Remember, speak softly."
The women peeked through the holes and on to a scene that would never have been made available to any proper woman in the city. The three were treated to a full view of the suitors practicing gymnastics and other martial endeavors. With nary a scrap of clothing on them as was the custom of the age.
Penelope shoved part of her veil into her mouth so she wouldn't make any noise. She was surprised to note how detached Helen was with the sight offered to her. What embarrassed Penelope obviously didn't touch Helen's sense of decorum.
"The beautiful one, the dark god," Clytaemnestra said. "That is Hector?"
"Yes," Helen answered. "Apollo seemed to have blessed more than Troy's walls, no?"
"A fact he seems to be quite well aware of from his strutting," Clytaemnestra dryly noted. "But he is quite the specimen and would give you handsome children. I wonder if Priam was so handsome in his youth."
That made Penelope giggle into her gag and shake her from head to toe in mirth. The choking sound tickled Helen's fancy but she remained quiet as she continued her examination.
"I think farming benefited Ithaca's king quite well." Clytaemnestra absently noted with a smile, and Penelope's chortles became louder.
Helen's eye caught a familiar figure, his fair hair now colored that of ripe wheat under the merciless sun. The man turned his back to them while preparing for his discus throw and the view offered made Helen gasp in shock.
"What happened to Menaláos? I've never seen such a wound on a living man."
Clytaemnestra finalized her decision at that moment and spoke carefully. "At the Battle of Helus. Menaláos wasn't suppose to lead the army but our father fell ill three days into the march, so he took the place at the head of the charge. The arrow that struck him was poisoned, and so foul was its craft that they sliced part of his shoulder off to prevent the poison from working deeper into his body and killing Menaláos. Agamémnon said his younger brother suffered greatly as he was awake when they performed the cutting on the battlefield." She paused mostly for dramatic effect before continuing. "I suspect the entire battle was a trap to lure father and murder him since it was right after Pollux and Castor left Sparta."
Penelope was amused no longer -- the scar was horrific to behold. Where healthy shoulder blade should have been there was only pitted flesh and it was obvious Menaláos favored the left hand because the lack of muscles on the right side.
"How vile," Helen whispered. "To make use of poisonous arrows to strike down a man instead of an honest challenge. And to fall victim to such cowardice and nearly lose your life. How unacceptably contemptible."
"In the end Menaláos benefited from the experience," Clytaemnestra explained further. "His near death earned him the loyalty of our army and our father's good will. And his survival betrayed to all that the second son of Atreus is stronger than his lean looks make him to be."
"How old is he?" Penelope asked. "For his fair complexion makes it hard for me to guess."
"Seven and thirty," Clytaemnestra answered. "Which makes him one of the oldest suitors."
"At least he reached that venerable age without losing his honor or his head." Penelope commented. "A respectable feat for a man."
"The arrow would have killed father," Helen whispered. "And left me undefended."
Clytaemnestra put a comforting arm around Helen's waist, "Agamémnon would have sent his fleet the day he was made aware of our father's shameful murder, and Mycenae would answer such viciousness with righteous might."
"Your ships would not have arrived in time. Though the army could have kept the enemy from falling over our walls, chaos would have befallen on Sparta without father. I could not have taken his place because Pollux and Castor would have been the only legitimate heirs. It has been less than eighty days since father made declaration that the throne be inherited to me and not his sons."
"Do not think of such things, sister." Clytaemnestra gently said. "Father had the good sense to surround himself with wise advisors and loyal generals such as Menaláos. They would have seen Sparta through all such dark days."
"Can we leave?" Helen asked in a small voice.
"Let us depart," Penelope agreed. "I am quite tired of watching Hector preening like a fourteen-year-old girl coming into her womanly curves."
The cousin's sarcastic observation succeeded in easing Helen's dark mood so the three women were laughing once more when they made comparisons safely in Helen's hidden chambers. Clytaemnestra deliberately kept humor in their talks, ensuring Helen's generous nature to be present when the three joined Tyndareus for early supper.
The Queen of Mycenae didn't think Helen was capable of loving any man, not after what she was made to endure in her youth. However, pity and respect would be persuasive enough for Helen not only to marry but remain loyal to the man who successfully wooed both emotions from her wounded sister. And Clytaemnestra wanted that man to be Menaláos for she judged her brother-in-law to be the man most fitting for Helen years before Tyndareus began his disastrous campaign to win his daughter a befitting husband.
Clytaemnestra's hopes were raised when Menaláos came to speak with Tyndareus while both daughters were present with the king.
"Menaláos, I have been told the army is within half-day's march from our home and will be in front of our gates by sunrise, tomorrow. When were you planning to tell me of your decision?" Tyndareus asked, more curious than annoyed.
"Forgive me," Menaláos hastily explained. "I didn't want you to know in order for you to be held blameless when the others found out. When your daughter makes her decision blood oaths are bound to be tossed about, and some might be thrown down on your feet and ... Helen's. Should that happen we need the army to ensure your family's safety. Agamémnon will lose his mind if harm befell on his wife or his children. I feared there will be much bloodshed before calmer winds dictate."
"So you were willing to shoulder all the blame from the rest of your compatriots? Even from the likes of Achilles who will undoubtedly take the presence of our army as a grave and personal insult to his honor?" Helen asked, "Wouldn't that put your very neck in jeopardy?"
"Better mine than yours, daughter of Tyndareus." Menaláos said then dared to raise his face to hers. A crooked but charming smile appeared on his lips. "I have lived in such straits for years and know how violent those currents can be. More importantly, I have learned to survive them. Such meanness should be made unavailable to you until there is no choice but for you to be exposed to them, for they can make life so bitter as to turn a gentle person into a creature harder than stone."
A mask swiftly dropped over Clytaemnestra's visage as she struggled to veil her emotions. How she wished Menaláos was about when Helen was exposed to such wanton cruelties! How she wished a man like Menaláos was there to rescue her sister from the abomination that stole her when she was only ten. Clytaemnestra caught a glimpse of tears in Tyndareus eyes and even Helen quieted as the same thought raced through both their minds. However, Menaláos was kept unwise of it, if only to prevent Helen from remembering too much of her nightmarish captivity.
"Thank you, Menaláos," Tyndareus said. "I knew your explanation would merit nothing but our gratitude, but I wished to be certain."
Menaláos gave a deep bow, "You honor me, King Tyndareus. May I have your permission then to gather supplies for the men when they arrive? They are bound to be famished and thirsty."
"Begin as you please."
Menaláos gave another bow and left the group, his eyes filled with images of Helen, sitting by her father's side, her exquisite face revealing nothing but approval of his decision. He was so preoccupied by this beautiful vision he didn't realize Helen was calling after him, tracing his steps. He turned to face her, not believing she was alone with him at last.
"I, too, am grateful for your decision and more importantly for your presence." Helen carefully said as she was not used to dealing compliments to men. "I can only imagine what the others say of you to your face and behind your back. If it is anything like what they say of me it is a miracle you can withstand the talk and not go mad."
"Mercifully, it is nothing like what they say of you." Menaláos wryly commented. "Otherwise, the army would have been here days ago."
Helen laughed outright and unconsciously reached and took hold of Menaláos' forearm in order to steady herself. The general knew better than to return the touch and instead hardened his stance so she could brace herself against his solidity. Helen's warmth told him, indeed, she was made of flesh and blood and not a dream. Over Helen's shoulder Menaláos caught the sight of Clytaemnestra overlooking the entire scene with a satisfied look on her face. She made a gesture of silence so Helen would not notice her presence, and Menaláos knew then he had a powerful ally in his quest to win Helen's favor in marriage.
"So beautiful," Helen whispered as she examined the exquisite trinket resting within her cupped palms. "I've never seen the like, such fine detail!"
"Hector does have good sense of judgment," Penelope admitted, her eyes also riveted on the pair of earrings Helen so delicately held. "Either that or his mother chose well for her son."
Clytaemnestra nodded, "Troy's wealth is without par. Her trade with the Unknown Lands in the East gives them ample opportunity to fatten their war chests -- a state of affairs that gives my husband many sleepless nights. May I see the earrings?"
Helen reluctantly handed the gift over, "I cannot accept them. How can I when I have rejected all the other gifts?"
Clytaemnestra laughed softly, "Dear girl, why not accept such fine things when they're practically tossed at your feet? Besides, it will make others jealous and even more eager to match Hector's suit. Who knows? Perhaps Odysseus has some more of that divine honey hidden in his saddlebag? I confess I have developed a craving for the nectar."
Helen's frown deepened and she shook her head, "Your reasoning is seductive, sister. But should I choose such a gift, he'll want reciprocation ... some token of my affection and I'm not that good a liar."
Clytaemnestra's smile deepened, "Then return them but do so in the following manner."
The three women discussed their strategy in whispers though only their serving women were present. And soon Hector's servant was dispatched with a very gracious rejection.
"She refused?" Hector was more than a little annoyed. He firmly believed the earrings would have been happily accepted and he would in return receive a most-desired invitation to spend a casual afternoon in Helen's company.
"Yes," the servant answered, his voice muffled since his face was firmly glued to the floor. He raised the package from his awkward position and said, "Lady Helen gives her thanks to the Prince of Troy and King Priam for this most beautiful flattery. However, she does not believe she deserves such fine gift as the one you have bestowed on her, so she must refuse."
His pride thus stroked Hector took back the gift without rancor, noticing the delicate fabric that wrapped the earrings. He unfolded it and studied its color -- white, and the material was almost sheer with only a bare hint of pattern embroidered upon its edges. He did not doubt for a moment it came from Helen's unusual wardrobe.
"Tell Lady Helen I am even more grateful for her thanks, not only for myself but also my most honored father." Hector carefully said, his attention wholly drawn to the fabric; he wondered if it came from her chemise because it was so soft. "You're dismissed."
The youth fairly took off, eager to be in the presence of the beautiful woman. The slave hoped she would bestow upon him yet another smile for his troubles when he delivered his master's message.
Menaláos hid his face by looking down at his well-worn shield. He furiously brushed it with oil, trying to drown his babbling mind in the routine of nursing his weapons. He failed miserably; Menaláos could still remember the jewelry dazzling brightly in the early morning sun as Hector boastfully revealed it to the others. They were beautiful, made of precious stones Menaláos couldn't even begin to name, and there wasn't a moment when he doubted Helen's acceptance of them.
But she refused. The hope that burned within his heart would not bend its head in defeat. She refused because she did not wish to hoist Hector above the rest of us. She knows her worth and it cannot be so cheaply gotten. Helen will not choose for wealth alone. She is of Sparta and her heart dictates that her people be her first consideration.
Leitus suddenly burst into the court, panting mightily. "I just heard; their army is here."
"How?" Achilles asked, "I have not been told and my men..."
"Have to be taught how to do their work properly," Menaláos finished the sentence and contemptuously looked up at his younger rival. "I have sent for them yesterday. You're correct in your assumptions, King of Ithaca. The army can travel three days worth of roads in one when ordered."
"You sent for them?" Ajax asked, "But why?"
"Agamémnon's children are here, along with his wife who also happens to be my sister-in-law. I also tire of hearing all of you speak so foully of both Tyndareus and his beloved daughter." Menaláos said cuttingly, "And by Hera's eye, if I have to bring the entire army down your throats in order for you to treat them with the respect and honor they deserve, I will do so. You are guests at their home; eating their food; drinking their wine; sleeping in their beds. And, until yesterday, none of you cared a whit about either of them. Perhaps now you will change your tune that Tyndareus' soldiers are about, listening to your every word, judging you by their measures and then reporting back to their king."
"You dare to challenge..." Achilles raged.
"I have dared," Menaláos spoke loudly enough for his voice to echo off the walls and ceiling. "And there is nothing you can do. My men have been fed and watered before sunrise. The gates are already open and they will be marching in at my next breath, waiting for my command."
"Exactly what problem will the soldiers pose, Achilles?" Odysseus asked lazily, "For they are Tyndareus' men and will do his bidding, not Menaláos'. After all, would you blame the King for having his men about? Especially since Helen's been stolen off the grounds once before? I am surprised they didn't arrive earlier, considering Helen's tumultuous past. Let's admit to each other; if possible who among us would not be tempted to carry off the fair lady if given a chance? Honor bound or not, there are men who are not above such treachery and Tyndareus has suffered from such betrayal before, by noble Theseus' hands no less; and the King of Athens was a guest at Tyndareus' own home if my memory serves me correctly."
Hector bristled, "But to think..."
"Let the old man have his soldiers," Odysseus interrupted. "If it will ease his mind then my common sense tells me Helen will be relieved also, and maybe she will show her lovely face more often instead of hiding it behind a veil or retreating to her hidden chambers for days on end. If you noticed we haven't seen her since last evening and we have certainly never seen her unless she allows us to. Perhaps she shares her father's fears? A daughter kidnapped will be wary of such a thing happening again and small blame to her. I, for one, will thank the gods that the army is about if it means I see that wonder of wonders more than just during supper."
Achilles considered Odysseus' words then turned to Menaláos, "Are the king's fears that great?"
"He suffered four years looking for his stolen daughter. You cannot possibly know what pains he went through to find her. Tyndareus must be spared of it lest I wish to lose a king and you win a war with Sparta."
"And, as Menaláos already has said, our behavior didn't exactly garnish us the father's admiration or his approval." Odysseus slyly reminded Achilles of his horrid mistake.
"I will admit I do not have children so I cannot possibly understand," Achilles judiciously conceded, "But I must not fault others for what is essentially my lacking."
"Wise decision indeed," Odysseus said. "And ... I do believe I hear Helen's voice. And it is only morning. Shall we see what stirred the lovely bird to brave outside her cage?"
The men were greeted with a scene that was pleasing indeed. Helen was at the main courtyard with four men, all armored, kneeling in front of her. She was speaking animatedly to the strangers and they were responding even though none would raise their faces to her.
"Menaláos, General of Sparta." Helen said, her face shining with pleasure when she noticed the group. "Euneon is here."
Menaláos smiled and broke into a hurried walk, "Friend, rise! Why will you not face me?"
The summoned man was visibly struggling and Helen guessed as to his reason. "My father has lifted the decree, old friend. You may see me plain after all your years of service."
The grizzled head slowly lifted and a gasp escaped from between the man's lips when he finally saw Helen's face. Then, suddenly, the head snapped back down.
"My lady," Euneon said, "I dare not. Please practice mercy and spare this old campaigner from such gifts. For a man my age, I will do nothing but worry about them well into the night."
Helen laughed softly, "Very well, soldier. I will leave you to your tasks for which there must be hundreds. Menaláos, you heard him. Treat him well for Euneon's bones are old and must be handled accordingly."
Helen deliberately threaded her way between the suitors, saying her morning greetings to those whose names she remembered. Odysseus smiled openly as she passed by him before disappearing into the inner sanctums.
"See?" He said jauntily, "Give me hundred Euneons if it means I get to see one Helen every morning before fare, and her mood has remarkably improved, has it not?"
Hector raised an elegant brow in an agreement as he watched Helen disappear. He fancied he felt her brush against his body by will than accident and her sweet scent of her hair left a dazzling impression upon his senses.
Menaláos said, "Well, given such orders I have only two hundred tasks for you today, Euneon."
The soldier finally stood up and smiled openly at his general. "I'll not complain."
"They actually believe we have hundred thousand soldiers at our call?" Euneon asked.
Menaláos said, "Even the King of Ithaca believes such nonsense."
Euneon threw back his head and laughed, "What fools are these men? We don't have half that strength! We never did!"
"Best to leave them to their delusions," Menaláos said in all seriousness. "It is not just fear of our ferocity that rouses fear in our enemy, but our numbers also. And this would be the worst time for the truth to be revealed. Euneon, how many have you brought?"
"Eleven thousand strong; all set to their teeth because of what they've been told. So they're good and angry like a hornet's nest that's been kicked around. How are you faring, General?"
"Better than I expected," Menaláos confessed freely. "I don't know if it is because Tyndareus likes my company or he simply cannot stand the others and wishes to avoid them by singling me out."
"Lady Helen spoke to you without prompting," Euneon said slyly, "That's the first time I've seen her converse freely with a man who isn't her father so you can't be failing too much."
Menaláos couldn't help himself and smiled though there was a drop of chagrin on his face. "I fear she humors me, Euneon, nothing more. I am just another lovesick suitor who has fallen prey to her lovely face. Though, so far, her wit and courage aren't found lacking."
"Nice package, eh?"
The old man chuckled, "Hush, Tyndareus has seen me chastise his daughter many times for her more outrageous antics in her childhood. And more than once have I stood between Helen and her father's wrath. I fear I will probably have to interfere few more times before my end. But, oh that face, I thought she would look like her mother. Clytaemnestra does, you know, take after her mother in both looks and pride."
"Was her mother truly beautiful?"
Euneon paused for a moment, "She enchanted the king of all gods, Menaláos. What do you think?"
"I think Helen will marry well and Sparta will greatly benefit in the alliance made from the match."
"Couldn't agree more." Euneon agreed, his eyes speaking opinions his mouth dare not.
"Euneon," Menaláos said with somber voice. "What chance do I have? A second son with nothing to show for himself save what the lady's father gave him? I am old, older than most of the suitors and though my brother has generously endowed me so I don't look a beggar -- I also have seen what Hector has brought. The riches he has in one fist outshines all my gifts put together. He is also first prince, heir to the throne of Troy and the most beloved son of both Priam and Hecuba."
Menaláos' voice faltered as he remembered the younger man's otherworldly athletic abilities. "He is a supreme warrior, one of the very few who could challenge Ajax and Achilles in both bow and sword. And his looks are well favored -- I've heard the women whisper about the dark god all over the palace. The only thing he may lack is tact but Odysseus rules in that kingdom and I am but a fool in both of theirs."
"But you are our choice, Menaláos." Euneon said with force. "You cannot dismiss that as easily as you do yourself!"
"And as such my loyalties do not lie with my desires but with the King and his family. I will do what is best not for myself but for them. Even if it means I must step aside so that Helen could choose wisely and to her heart's desire."
"You are in love with her," Euneon whispered. "In all the mercies, I never thought you'd fall for her."
"Wasn't that the doom declared when Helen was born?" Menaláos said bitterly, "That all who look upon her will love, some to their content and some to their madness?"
Euneon paused for a moment, "Will you be speaking with Tyndareus? I believe I heard the King has planned a private meeting with each suitor in order to see who will be most fitting for his troublesome daughter."
"What of it?"
"There is something you should know about Helen," Euneon said, "But you must never tell anyone. Swear to me, give me the oath of your blood that you will keep this a secret."
"I give my oath," Menaláos said with some curiosity. "Euneon, what is it?"
"It is a terrible story. One that has never been told outside these walls, especially to someone not born of Spartan blood. It happened when she was ten. We have received warnings but we didn't think much of them..."
"What is so fascinating, Lady Penelope?" Odysseus asked after studying the cousin for what seemed like an inordinately long time. The woman was standing still, her eyes riveted to the sky.
"The hawk, it has been circling overhead for so long. I wonder if it was sent by the gods to spy on you and the rest of the suitors. To ensure you all behave properly towards Zeus' daughter."
"I think we can drop that pretense now," Odysseus said indulgently. "As beautiful as your cousin is, to claim blood kin to the god of all gods - that is rather far fetching, is it not?"
Penelope turned to look at him, "You don't believe the story?"
"I believe Helen's looks have spun the tale, and rightly so for such loveliness cannot go unnoticed without some fool declaring her parentage to belong to the heavens."
"I see your wit for all its popularity lacks imagination, bee farmer," Penelope said, her gaze once more returning to the sky and its single occupant. "You disappoint me."
For some reason her last comment put Odysseus in a foul mood well into the evening. And so painful was his biting tongue, his servants and the rest of the suitors, including Menaláos, made wide berth around the snappish figure.
Unfortunately, the women were not warned and it wasn't long into supper before they got taste of Odysseus' lesser palatable offerings. And it was Penelope who first sampled the poor fare.
"I wonder when Lady Penelope will be departing?" Odysseus politely asked, interrupting the conversation held by Helen and her cousin.
"When I desire," Penelope answered. "My father does not want me to hurry back."
"Perhaps he wishes you to return with a husband of your own."
The implication was plain and shocking to all who heard Odysseus' well-aimed accusation. Once Helen has made her selection, it was quite possible the rejected men will want someone to assuage their wounded ego -- what better chance for Penelope to win herself a husband by picking through Helen's leftovers?
Helen's fists clenched in anger and Clytaemnestra's lips thinned to a bloodless gash. Menaláos knew it would only be a moment before his sister-in-law gave the King of Ithaca a worthy tongue-lashing but he himself was struck dumb by Odyssseus' unusual display of cruelty and thus unable to come to the man's defense. Hector watched the entire scene with avid interest and even Achilles was engrossed with the play being staged in front of him.
"I already have suitors waiting for me, more than I can manage, hence my fleeing to Helen's rescue."
"Is the horse lord one of them?" Clytaemnestra asked. "I remember meeting him once, he possessed a kind temperament and had well-developed common sense. He especially knew when to keep his tongue from wagging too far and blistering his listeners' patience."
Odysseus took a drink of his wine before asking, "With such a worthy man camped on your doorway, why, I wonder, are you here instead of finding wedded bliss with such a paragon?"
"Because I love my cousin and I do not love him."
"So you would marry ... for love? Do you believe such a thing exists, Lady Penelope?" Machaon asked, thoroughly charmed by the woman's honest answer.
"Of course I do." Penelope asked. "We all do in spite of being told from childhood that we must marry out of duty, out of need. We pay homage to Aphrodite, pray in front of her altar but we never once believe we'll be fortunate enough to love the one we bind ourselves to. The most we could hope for ourselves is to be able to tolerate our marriages and pray that our children will fill the emptiness left by such an arrangement."
"But such is the lot when one is born to nobility and power. With such blessings come certain obligations. None of us can escape them." Machaon said.
"I was talking about the lot of being a woman in this society." Penelope contradicted. "Which is being amply demonstrated by this table and this very conversation."
The silence was extraordinary. Not even Clytaemnestra dared to say another word. It was Hector's loud, sonorous claps that broke the quiet.
"Well done, Lady Penelope." Hector said and raised his goblet. "I never thought I would meet anyone who would gain one above Odysseus but you have proven me wrong. Thank you for that honor."
Penelope raised her own goblet to honor the toast made by Hector.
"And, may you marry out of love," Hector added, "Because I can't wait to see you proven wrong also."
"Then freely pray that I may live such a fate, Prince Hector," Penelope said. "Because I wish for nothing dearer."
Odysseus managed not to sulk for the rest of the evening and wisely keep his mouth shut by drinking inordinate amount of wine.
Menaláos, Machaon and Achilles spotted the inebriated figure rocking his way down an unlit corridor, generously stumbling over the uneven floor.
"Odysseus, wait!" Menaláos shouted and chased the man down. "What did you mean by insulting Lady Penelope in front of everyone? Have you gone mad?"
Odysseus managed to look outraged, "She called me a fool! I politely asked her what she was doing watching the sky like some witless sheep and she called me a fool!"
Achilles hid his laughter behind his cough, "I distinctly remember the conversation during supper and Lady Penelope never traded a word with you until you accused..."
"Not at supper, you stupid ox!" Odysseus barked, "During the afternoon! Why would she stare up at the sky during supper? The food's in front of her, not above her!"
Machaon gave a nod of warning to his two sober compatriots though his eyes were fairly dancing. "So you traded some words with Lady Penelope..."
"No! I was everything polite and kingly in my behavior. I asked her what she was doing looking up at the sky ... how many times do I have to repeat myself on this, and she called me a fool!"
"Must have been a fascinating conversation," Menaláos said. "Why don't we all get some rest and tomorrow you may seek out an apology from the Lady for injuring you so unjustly."
"That's a good plan," Odysseus said, "Though it might be a problem because I can't remember where my rooms are."
"We will help you find your way." Menaláos said.
"Do you know she actually believes her cousin's related to Zeus?" Odysseus said, still feeling the sting of an imaginary insult.
"What?" Achilles asked, confused by the sudden turn in the conversation.
"She thinks Helen's Zeus' daughter! What kind of fool is this woman to believe such nonsense! Zeus' daughter -- as if the king of gods doesn't have enough illegitimate brats to deal with!"
"Enough," Machaon said, "Do not invoke his name under such circumstances, Odysseus. His wrath is too easily given and rarely withdrawn. Come, let us get you to bed and soon all this will be over."
"What fever has gotten into his head?" Machaon asked only after much laughter. "I did not understand any of his ramblings. Did you?"
Menaláos shook his head while wiping tears off his face, "No, not a word, but whatever Penelope did or did not do, it must have wounded his pride insufferably."
Achilles took a deep breath in order to calm down, "Hector's correct -- I never thought I would see Ithaca's pride so bettered as he was during supper. I must find out what was transpired earlier between the two in order for Odysseus to behave in such a manner."
"I am trying to imagine why Lady Penelope would be standing in the middle of a room, looking up at the sky or ceiling ... but I cannot find a plausible answer." Machaon said, still chuckling.
"Perhaps Zeus was riding across the sky in one of his cloud chariots and waved at Penelope when he caught sight of her." Menaláos said and all three broke out into hysterical laughter again.
"And then told her Helen was his daughter but Odysseus just missed the conversation!" Achilles added before his hilarity completely overtook him.
It was in this state that Euneon found his leader. He watched in some wonder as the three men collapsed against the walls and floor, laughing without restraint. Suddenly an irate voice thundered out of a chamber:
"Silence! How can I get any rest with madmen outside my door!"
Odysseus censure was closely followed by few choice expletives but all the effect was to make the men laugh even harder. Euneon waited until they calmed down before making himself known.
"General, you told me to remind you..."
Menaláos nodded and said, "Yes, yes, of course. I completely forgot, so amusing was this evening's entertainment. I must bid you goodnight, I have much work to do."
Menaláos gave a formal bow and left with his second-in-command. Machaon watched the two soldiers disappear before commenting, "You know, in spite of being Atreus' son, I like that man."
Achilles admitted, "A bit self-righteous for my tastes but he is honorable and fair in his judgment. Little wonder Odysseus prefers his company above ours. It is strange how different the brothers are and yet so similar."
"As long as neither take after their father or their uncle, we will be safe."
"I shall pray for that," Achilles said, sobering quickly.
Helen watched Penelope once again measure her entire chamber by pacing the length and width. However, it was her sister who finally could no longer stand the nerve-wrecking habit and questioned their cousin.
"What is it, Penelope? Has Odysseus upset you so?"
Penelope shook her head then gave a woeful gaze at Helen. "I did a terrible thing today. Forgive me."
Helen frowned and asked, "What has happened?"
"The conversation was in jest and my mind was so preoccupied ... I told Odysseus your sire was Zeus."
Clytaemnestra sat up straight and asked, "Did he believe you?"
"Not a word, not even for a moment."
Helen shrugged though the movement was made clumsy with worry, "Then don't fret. Who would honestly? If only Odysseus would reveal the conversation to others and make them believe it is nothing but false rumor. In truth, I hope he does."
"But what if someone already put their measure in the story and now that I have revealed my opinion, would it not only confirm their suspicions?"
"That, what?" Helen said sharply. "That I am Zeus' bastard daughter? My very face would make that a sensational tale, nothing more. Besides, the suitors are too enamored of what they see to even consider that far. Don't cause yourself too much grief; that story like all the others will die, in short time."
Clytaemnestra nodded in agreement, "Fables are entertaining and epic stories amazing to behold, but to have one actually be proven true, in our time? They would consider such thing an act of folly. Helen's correct, Penelope. Rest easy. What we plan for them will keep their thoughts hopping in all directions, and so busy will they be, they won't have time to consider anything else."
Menaláos entered Odysseus' sleeping chamber to find the man standing with his head firmly entrenched in a tall basin filled to the brim with well water. The former drunk took out his soaking head and shook himself dry.
"How do you feel?"
"Twenty times the fool than Achilles." Odysseus answered ruefully. "I fear I will have no cause to castigate his behavior after my egregious display last night."
"What happened?" Menaláos asked, "I have never seen you behave in such manner."
"Once in a while a black mood sets upon me and I'm afraid I let my tongue fly before common sense grabs hold of the reins. That and the fact I am a poor companion to Dionysos."
"I hear Ithaca doesn't lack for proper drink."
"No, we are prosperous in all things from the vineyards to the orchards, " Odysseus answered while drying his head, "But that is because I sample so little of our wines. A clear-headed king is much loved by my people."
Menaláos picked up Odysseus' cloak and threw it to him. "No harm done though I would make myself scarce around the three if I were you for a while yet. Come, ride with me. A good strong wind will help you to clear you head."
"Where are we going?"
"To see the army. The daily supplies are being hauled into camp and I wish to visit my men."
Odysseus was only too eager to accept the invitation for he had been longing to see the fabled Spartan Army in all their martial splendor. However, the chaos that greeted his perusal the moment they exited the gates shocked him. There were trains of carts, already on the move, and groaning under the weight of sacks of meal and jars of wine. With quick mental calculation Odysseus guessed there was enough food material to feed at least fifty thousand men for a single day.
Menaláos saw Odysseus' face pale and knew his companion reached the erroneous conclusion he hoped Odysseus would make.
"All this for one day?"
"Hopefully it will last one day," Menaláos lied smoothly. "At least that is what Euneon told me. We shall see."
The two rode hard for some distance before they came upon a flat plain. And crowded on the smooth expanse were thousands of small tents, pitched by the soldiers. Odysseus could not have known that more than half were empty of owners, for this ruse was long practiced by the army in order to instill fear upon their enemies.
Menaláos led his guest into a large tent, sparsely furnished with furniture that did not welcome much rest. Euneon was standing besides the main table and he greeted the two men with warm enthusiasm. Before Odysseus could return the salute a piercing cry tore through the morning air, startling him.
"What is that sound?"
"It is execution today." Menaláos explained truthfully. "When our newly-trained soldiers join the ranks, they must kill on their first day."
Odysseus blanched noticeably, "What?"
"First kill is always the hardest for any man, even a soldier, and to do it upon a battlefield is even more difficult, especially if you respect your foe. And any hesitation could cost the soldier his life. So, the new recruits are partnered with prisoners and given orders to kill. If the prisoner succeeds then he is set free, though that happens rarely."
Another scream echoed into the tent but the terrible sound seemed to affect neither Menaláos nor his second.
"Do you not ransom?" Odysseus asked, his voice slightly hoarse.
"Why?" Euneon answered before admitting, "Sometimes, yes, when the price is handsome enough. Otherwise, the army's needs must be considered first, for the good of Sparta of course."
"Of course." Odysseus echoed and then became pensive.
It took Odysseus a while to realize neither Menaláos nor Euneon were ignoring the horrible sounds drifting between the tent's flaps. They were able to carry out their discussions because they weren't hearing the screams at all.
©2003 Copyright held by the author.