Daughter of Sparta
Agafia listened quietly, afraid that even the slightest noise would betray her hiding place behind the pillars. She knew her deviousness could cost her dearly but the loyal nursemaid refused to consider anything else besides Helen's welfare. Made barren by a passing fever Agafia dedicated her life to raising Tyndareus' children after Leda's unexpected and violent suicide. And, in spite of all the tragedy Helen brought upon her family, the beautiful woman was still Agafia's favorite child out of the four she was made to care for.
Thus far, none of the interviews have claimed much respect on her part. Hector certainly did know how to present himself in a royal manner and Achilles told the most entertaining stories. But neither of them seemed to impress Tyndareus to a degree that the king was willing to hand over his daughter to their care. Agafia did like Machaon; perhaps it was because of his still youthful age that the young man's speech impressed her. The physician not only spoke kindly but with great amount of intelligence and tenderness to press his suit. However, Agafia wondered how warm Machaon's kept his bed and if sweet words alone would be enough to keep Helen by the healer's side.
In spite of earlier failures, Agafia had high hopes for this next suitor. More than once has the servant judged Menaláos favorably, not only because of his obvious respect towards Tyndareus, but she also had the good fortune to observe the man coming into maturity right in front of her eyes. It was remarkable how slaves were treated as non-entities whose judgments and opinions mattered not to their masters. Thus freed by her bondage, Agafia was able to observe everything and live as long as she kept her mouth shut. And silence has been her ally for she has witnessed all that had taken place in Tyndareus' household and still managed to reach her fortieth birthday.
"Fair afternoon, King," Menaláos voice greeted both the King and spy.
"Menaláos, sit," Tyndareus said with true warmth in his voice. "Do you wish for wine to slacken your thirst? Euneon informed me of your busy morning."
"I have need for nothing. I took afternoon meal with Odysseus, whom, by the way, sends his truest apologies for his behavior. He would have delivered the message himself but he feared he would meet with Penelope and not survive the encounter."
Tyndareus chuckled and shook his head, "Good to know the madness that had overtaken him has dissipated and quickly. I have no desire to see my lovely children transformed into harpies and hound the King of Ithaca out of the city."
Menaláos' grin broadened for a moment before his usual somber mood returned. "I usually find myself failing during moments like these, King, so forgive me if both my tongue and my words seem clumsy. You know everything I have to offer, for it was you who gave me my land and my position in your army. I only hope you have done so because I have earned it and not because Agamémnon, my brother, is your son-in-law.
"I know that is the reason why you have accepted me into your house when I first came to you -- you wished to earn my brother's good graces and later ease the political marriage between him and Clytaemnestra. An act that has given fruit to prosperity for both our lands and made many people happy not only with the union, but with the peace between Mycenae and Sparta founded after years of war and bloodshed. During those years I have grown from second prince to general, from being the one who is led to the one who leads. It has not been an easy task but now that I stand in front of you a man I am proud to be, I would not trade the experience for all the riches in Ilium. For many things can be bought with gold, but never honor and good sense.
"My singular lack of position, King, is also my greatest strength. Should I be wed to your daughter, my allegiance will be towards none other than Sparta and her lands. I will not be divided as Hector must be since he is heir to Troy's throne and all that it holds dear." The smile that lit Menaláos' face returned but crookedly. "My youth has long past me and with it the burning desire to seek adventures in battles and quests. I have already witnessed what the world can offer and have tasted my fill. Now, I am more than content to fortify what I have built and ensure that my children will find their maturity in peace and safety.
"As you well know I have never been wed nor do I have children. My family's tragic history has made me careful where I sow my seed and I was honestly too busy to find temptation in a woman's arms. And thus my bachelorhood days have also raced by, but freely and with my thanks. Better that I preoccupy myself with what is noble and good than what is pleasurable and regrettable. I know fully well many have whispered behind my back that this moderation could be measured as a blemish against my character, but then they do not know of my uncle and his evil deed so I shall remain mute and grateful of their ignorance and they can stay amused."
"Don't speak of those days," Tyndareus hastily said. "I have always judged a man by his acts, not by his heritage. But, Menaláos, how do I know you love my daughter? Truly?"
"I can say I would die defending her, but then so would every soldier in your army. I can say I would honor her but then so would every suitor and slave who rests in your household. I would offer her my kingdom but I have none to give; I could promise her wealth but my treasury does not extend far. I am only a man, and only as such can I declare my love for her. Helen is not just your daughter, King, she also belongs to Sparta, and to me she represents everything I have fought for, if unwittingly, for the last fifteen years. Every border war, every naval clash, every peace negotiation and hostile declarations. By knowing what Helen is, I now know the reason behind your choices, the mysterious need that drove you so for so many years. I confess, many times I have questioned your decisions but now that I have been made to know Helen, all has become clear.
"She will not be found wanting for anything, King. Within my arms she will be safe and protected. Wherever I go, there will be sanctuary made for her so that none may come into her presence without her permission. And Helen's children -- your grandchildren, I will hold above all my gain, and they will be as safe and loved as their mother will be. Never will they see a day when they will be made to worry for their safety, to be afraid to walk the palace's gardens in fear of treachery and base collusion. They will be free of such meanness, I will see to it."
Menaláos sighed deeply and turned his head to the sun peering into the cavernous chamber. "Measure my worth as you will, King. You know me well enough to do honestly and justly by me. That is all I can ask for."
"And that is all you shall have." Tyndareus said.
Euneon watched his general absently drain his cup, and was pretty sure the man would've drunken a goblet filled with centaur's blood without tasting a drop.
"It went that well?" He asked.
"I made myself such a fool," Menaláos whispered. "Why did I not send you to speak on my behalf? You, at least, would have kept your head. The things I've said, I actually reminded him of my family's foul history. Instead of bringing forth my achievements, I managed to speak of every ill deed ... what have I done?"
"Well, then, all you have to do is make Lady Helen fall in love with you. Even if King Tyndareus has judged against you, I am sure Lady Helen can switch his opinion. "
The casual comment earned a look of sharp reproof from Menaláos. "And how am I suppose to do that?"
Euneon gave a bow, left the room and promptly returned with Agafia. "She'll answer that question."
The slave waited until after Euneon's departure before speaking, "Remember me, General?"
"My memory would be very lacking if I don't remember Tyndareus' loyal nursemaid."
"Most slaves in my standing would've been sold off long ago," Agafia confided, "But Lady Helen, out of generosity, would not see me tossed into a hard life in the fields. She managed to scheme my easy living within the palace and I owe her much for that."
"It seems whomever Helen loves, benefits." Menaláos said.
"Then let me tell you something; a story that all have forgotten because it seemed trivial to them. When Clytaemnestra married your brother and left Sparta, Helen fell into a great fever. The poor girl didn't want to worry her father so she hid her illness until it was almost too late."
"I heard of this tale, Penelope saved her."
"Yes, but as Helen was recovering she told me of a strange dream. That Aphrodite, the goddess herself, made a visitation one evening and promised Helen a husband of equal nature. That this man, whoever he was, would know her. Those were her very own words, General. She could not remember the face of the man but was sure, very sure, that her future husband would have the blessings of not only Tyndareus but also Aphrodite. And with such blessings bestowed upon her, Helen would finally find happiness she longed for."
Menaláos asked, "And this dream was important to her?"
"Important enough for Helen to never speak to her father about it. Important enough for Helen to reject countless suits of marriages since then. She is now three and twenty, long past the age of being made wife and still she will not wed. Why do you think she remains so obstinate?
"Helen will not speak of the dream now, not even to her sister or cousin, and those two have long dismissed it as feverish talk - but not I. I saw the fire in Helen's eyes, and knew then as I do now that indeed Aphrodite has made such a promise to the girl. So, General Menaláos, do you know her?"
Menaláos did not hesitate, "Indeed, I do, Agafia. I do know Helen."
"Then tell her and win her hand. Only promise me you'll keep her safe, away from all the evil that would snatch her the moment she leaves these grounds. I, too, suffered those miserable four years and never would I see such a curse befall on any family, even my enemy's. Promise me this for what I have told you."
Menaláos laid his hands on Agafia's. "I swear."
"Father has curtailed all talks with other suitors for today." Clytaemnestra said with some frustration in her voice. "And I cannot find out why."
"Whom did he talk last with?" Penelope asked.
"Menaláos," Clytaemnestra answered. "He must have made some impression on father."
"I wonder what the general said," Helen commented with a frown. "I hope it was nothing damaging; Sparta needs him even if I wed another. He's been too long in father's service and has made himself invaluable to our welfare."
"Well judged," Clytaemnestra said. "I like him and fancied him once if only briefly. It must be that gold hair, so strange is his complexion it's actually attractive just because it's so unusual."
Penelope picked up the hint well enough and continued, "Yes, imagine his blue eyes and your coloring. Your children would be the envy of every court, Helen."
"But ... he's old," Helen said in a small voice, for she was ashamed to admit to such trivial opinion.
"Older, sister, older. Old would be father. Old would be dead and honored in our temples." Clytaemnestra countered. "Besides, it's always the quiet ones who perform well in bed."
"Clytaemnestra!" Helen said in shock at this sudden randy turn in the conversation.
"It's true!" Clytaemnestra shouted with laughter in her voice. "Imagine, after few months spent in battlefield with nary a relief to be had, he'll be eager than a stallion..."
"Enough!" Helen interrupted. "Unless you want me blushing every time he enters my presence!"
Clytaemnestra threw back her head and laughed uproariously while Helen turned blood red with shame as her imagination took her places she hadn't visited in years. Penelope sat back and watched the entire exchange with great relief. It was good to see Helen consider men and their sexuality without feeling threatened. The damage inflicted on her cousin was finally healing if not healed and she wondered if it was time or curiosity, perhaps both, that performed the deed.
"He's a good man," Helen finally said after the laughter died down.
"So you wouldn't mind calling him husband?" Penelope asked softly.
"He reminds me of Theseus. Both gentle and wise. I don't feel threatened by him." Though Helen never directly answered Penelope's question, her reply satisfied both women.
"And why should you?" Clytaemnestra said briskly. "For as long as Menaláos has been called general, it's our enemies who were made to worry, not us."
"And we know him," Helen continued the talk though she sounded like she was trying to convince herself. "His worth has been proved over and over, to near forfeit of his life."
"Which is why Agamémnon was only too glad to rid of him. Menaláos was becoming too popular and the last thing my husband needed was an usurper to the throne of Mycenae."
"Really?" Penelope asked, taken back by her cousin's revelation. "But..."
"It's the way of things when there are two brothers but only one throne. Look at Pollux and Castor; both knew that with each of them a division of loyalties would be made amongst the army and the people. Menaláos knew it too which is why he was equally happy to leave and seek his fortunes elsewhere. Imagine the bloodshed if Menaláos decided to stay in Mycenae and fight for the crown. Mercifully for both my husband and the kingdom Menaláos loved them too much to rip them apart for his own gain."
"So the general can love?" Helen said. "Forgive me, he seems so dedicated to the army and..."
"Easy enough of a mistake," Clytaemnestra said. "Men, like women, can love and passionately. But unlike us, they have neither the liberty nor the ability to express such emotions. And Menaláos has been so preoccupied by Sparta's welfare he had neither the time nor the inclination to seek out a comfortable domestic life."
"Until now," Penelope added.
"Well, of course," Clytaemnestra agreed then planted a firm kiss on Helen's brow. "He saw you and realized in that one glance all that he could have had, should have had, and now eager to have. Even a turtle can be charmed out of his shell if given enough incentive. And what better incentive then you, Helen?"
Helen's blush increased making her look utterly beguiling as she listened to the candid conversation her sister and cousin engaged in. The pleasant talk shared by three was shattered when Agafia came rushing into Helen's chamber. Her pale face told the women whatever news she had it would not be much welcomed.
"My ladies, it's Thanos." Agafia said in a frantic voice. "He didn't mean it, I swear he didn't."
"What has happened?" Helen asked, alarmed by her former nursemaid's panic. Thanos was another slave whose age was guessed to be no greater than twelve. Agafia, now without charge, has taken the boy as a fosterling of sorts and loved him as if he were her own son.
"Thanos is a clumsy boy, you know that already. He spilt some wine onto Prince Hector's robe and I think the man will make Thanos pay for his mistake with his life. Please, the child is all I have."
"Where are they?"
"Main hall, Hector says he's only toying with the boy but he's armed with a dagger and none of the other suitors are willing to stop him!"
Menaláos was becoming more uncomfortable with every passing moment. Hector claimed he was only going to teach the slave a lesson but his suspicions said otherwise. Hector had given the boy his dagger, in the guise that the child could do with some lessons with weapons, but the boy was painfully thin, a runt for his age and he was tiring very quickly while Hector was increasing his paces.
"Come child," Hector chided. "Do your blood some credit. How can you claim to be Spartan if you can't keep up?"
"That's enough," Odysseus said sharply. "Tyndareus will not approve of you harming his property."
"If I happen to damage the creature I can replace it well enough," Hector replied carelessly. "Do not concern yourself in this matter for it does not involve you."
The warning in the last sentence could not go unheeded by the others for Hector's statement, as unpalatable as it was to some, was correct. Menaláos decided to speak on behalf of Tyndareus in order to prevent the entire mess from becoming a needless tragedy.
"Hector, I charge you to stop," Menaláos said in a cautious voice. "We do not know what value this boy has and who holds his worth. It might be Tyndareus, it might even be Helen, so please, desist. If you show mercy perhaps..."
Thanos, seeing that Hector's attention was now turned to the general, threw the dagger at his tormentor, thinking he might be able to dash off in the aftermath. His move was desperate and like such decisions born of desperation it was a tremendous mistake. Hector swatted at the dagger, sending it flying in opposite direction. Then, he turned to the stunned child and spoke.
"You'll pay dearly for that connivance, slave."
However, the boy did not speak. His mouth was open, his eyes fixed on something towards Hector's right. The Prince of Troy suddenly realized everyone else was looking at that very same direction and turned.
The dagger he deflected found another victim -- Helen, for it blade was firmly planted in her chest. The rapidly growing red poppy besmirching her robe told Hector that his unconscious aim still found its mark with deadly accuracy. Clytaemnestra and Penelope stood next to her, looking horrified like the rest, but neither woman made a move to touch her.
"What have you done, Hector?" Achilles whispered hoarsely.
Menaláos felt his body grow cold as funeral stones. He has seen many wounds on countless battlefields and knew that Helen had only moments to live. Odysseus was the first to move towards the wounded figure, followed by Machaon, but they had taken only few steps towards Helen before coming to a total stop.
Helen's eyes had slowly widened with shock as her gaze fell at the dagger's handle protruding from her chest, but she did not collapse or utter a cry of pain. Instead, her trembling hands grabbed the handle and slowly unsheathed the weapon from her flesh. The men were too stunned to make any noise as they watched her. They expected blood, for Helen to fall to her knees, passing on to the care of the Ferryman, but she did neither. The gaping wound that was left visible slowly sealed itself in front of the shocked witnesses. And within moments it was as if she had never been pierced by the knife.
The guilty dagger felt from Helen's weak grasp, making startling noise as it hit the ground.
"It cannot be..." Odysseus said, still unbelieving of what his eyes had just witnessed. "You should be dead."
"What are you?" Hector asked Helen. "Who are you?"
"Zeus' child," Leitus said. "The rumors said your father wasn't Tyndareus but the god of gods. I never would have believed it."
Achilles' gaze on Helen intensified as he asked, "Is it true? Is what..."
Helen suddenly whirled around and ran, her footsteps echoing behind her as she disappeared.
"Clytaemnestra, is it true?" Menaláos asked heatedly. "Is what Leitus saying true?"
The sister's stony silence was enough of an answer for all. Odysseus, without a word, took chase after the fleeing woman. His speed outstripping the raging thoughts inside his head.
Helen blindly found her way into the Zeus' sanctuary erected within the palace and slammed the door behind her, though she forgot to lock them in her distress. She collapsed on to her knees in front of the main statue and cried openly.
"Help me, father. Help me. You loved my mother once and found comfort in her arms, and I am but a fruit of your willing union. Must I always live with the curse that is your blood? Now that they know they will never leave me alone. I will never find peace and Tyndareus will be brought to ruin because of me. Please, help me. Please, father. Protect me."
Odysseus stared at the weeping figure, his whole being filled with pity. What should have been a magnificent gift was nothing but a bane in Helen's life, the cause of all her unhappiness and misery. If she were a man Helen could have gone forth and found adventure and earned herself a place in the pantheon of heroes. But because she was a woman, she had little choice but to be considered a reward and be handed to a man judged worthy of such offering.
And Helen was wise enough to realize that with her face alone, the suitors would come to blows with each other. Now, that her true parentage was revealed, it was inevitable that wars would erupt over who will come to possess her. The outcome of such conflicts never wavered -- bloodshed, regret, and damnation to the one who caused it all. The fiery mind that belonged to the King of Ithaca worked hard to find a solution not only for himself, but also for this poor creature who seemed doomed even to him.
Suddenly an idea struck him and Odysseus did not hesitate to voice it.
"My lady, I believe I have your father's answer to your prayers."
Helen turned to him, her face streaked with tears. "What are you doing here?"
"We might be able to turn all this around to your advantage, if you permit me to scheme freely."
Helen wiped the tears off her face with the back of her hands, looking remarkably like a little girl with the childish gesture. "Why should I trust you?"
"Because I will talk with your father and withdraw my suit before the sun sets."
"You will do what?"
"I wish to withdraw my suit, Lady. It is obvious that I cannot make you happy or give the life you deserve. So why should I bother wasting my time and yours?"
Helen's eyes narrowed, "Nobody trades something for nothing, Odysseus. What is it you want?"
"For my plans, I wish to earn the right to court your cousin, Penelope."
"Penelope?" Helen was taken back.
"Yes, I believe she is more my equal and will be pleased with the world I have to offer."
"Again, I must ask. Why should I trust you?"
"Because my fear of you is greater than my desire for you."
There was silence for a moment before Helen's weak laughter broke the stillness. "Indeed, you are no fool, Odysseus. What is your plan?"
Odysseus smiled craftily, "That Tyndareus will make the suitors declare an oath of honor to uphold whatever choice you make as to whom will be your husband, and to support that man's claim if someone should violate the sanctity of your marriage."
"And why should they make such an oath?"
"Two reasons; vanity and hope. All the suitors will believe you will choose him, their pride would not let them consider otherwise. And the hope of calling you their own will only fuel such speculation. Your father must conclude his talks with all the suitors if only to give the illusion that he is seriously considering all, and meanwhile let them parade around in front of you as they wish. I'm sure your sister will be amused to no end by their displays. And when the time is right, your father will strike and make the suitors give their promise. Once given, it cannot be taken back and you and your father will be free to choose without fear."
Helen slowly stood up, her movements that of a sickly woman. Odysseus rushed to help her to her feet. So attentive was his gesture Helen had to ask, "Why are you so kind to me?"
"Because I also pity you and cannot help but think that were I in your place, I would have perished long ago of despair."
"I love my cousin, Odysseus. I would never barter her away for my own safety."
"I know and Penelope would say the same, which is why I believe I not only love her, but also respect her. You share such ferocity of love and loyalty, I cannot help but envy and wish I could taste a drop of it."
"You will be good to her? Honor her? Protect her?"
Odysseus felt his heart wring itself when he realized the pathetic need that drove Helen to ask him those questions.
"She will love me and come to trust me as her husband; she will want for nothing, I swear." Odysseus said then added with a bright smile, "Besides, I know what ill fate will befall on me if I make her miserable. Clytaemnestra making unannounced visits to my home, making my life utterly wretched until I heartily wish for death."
Helen began giggling if slightly hysterically before the humor in Odysseus' statement overtook her distress. Odysseus held the laughing woman in his arms, feeling as if a huge burden had been lifted from his back. She would never be his, and thus freed from such obligations Odysseus could now make plans for a future where he could be content. And loved.
After her humor died Helen led Odysseus into a labyrinth that was tunneled underneath the palace. And with a few turns of the hidden corridors the two found themselves in Tyndareus' chambers.
The King, just recently informed of the horrific events, was only too anxious to see his daughter and was surprised to find her with a companion.
"Father, Odysseus has a plan and I think you should hear it." Helen said.
"Can't this wait? I wish to speak to you alone, Helen."
"No, father, it can't. It would be best if Odysseus explain it since it is his scheme. I'll be waiting right outside so we will have out talk."
Helen bowed and left the two men alone. She was calmly waiting for her turn to speak to her father when Menaláos appeared.
"Lady, are you well?" He asked awkwardly.
She gave a gracious nod then informed him, "My father is busy with Odysseus and will wish to discuss with me afterwards. So it would be best if you go about your business. I will make sure my father knows of your visit."
Menaláos hesitated only for a moment, "I shall follow your recommendation. Please do tell King Tyndareus I have a most urgent business with him."
He didn't turn around to glance at her while he walked away though it was his single greatest desire at that moment. Menaláos couldn't help but wonder if Odysseus had given chase and somehow managed to win Helen's heart with his clever words when she most needed to hear strong promises and tender declarations. The thought of it prevented him from taking any pleasure for the rest of the afternoon and Menaláos soon found himself riding furiously towards the army camp. He needed something to do if only to prevent himself from going mad with the thought that Helen was lost the moment he believed he had discovered a chance to win her hand.
Helen sat in the darkness, her hopes now ever higher. Tyndareus saw the cunning behind Odysseus' scheme and wholeheartedly gave his approval. Now, all that remained was to execute it without the suitors being any wiser. She frowned a little as she wondered how she could go about corralling her cousin without Odysseus' aid. A devious thought crossed her mind and she smiled secretively, privately rejoicing at her own cleverness.
"I hope that smile means your mood has improved."
"Achilles," Helen said, surprised to see the man appear so silently next to her. "I did not hear you."
"You weren't meant to," Achilles said gently. "Are you well?"
"I am lost," Helen said.
"As am I."
"If you are here to declare..."
"A declaration of sorts, yes. I just spoke with King Tyndareus. I have withdrawn my suit though nobody else knows of it save you and your father."
"Why?" Helen asked, surprised.
Achilles took out the dagger hilted on his belt, opened his hand, and without warning slashed his palm. Helen gasped in shock, expecting blood to appear. But there was nothing. There wasn't even a cut.
"How is this possible?" She asked.
"We do not have the same mother, but we share the same father, Helen."
Helen's eyes grew huge on her face and her mouth dropped open. Achilles kneeled in front of her and took her hands into his own.
"I never thought I would find true kin of the blood in this world, but here you are -- my half-sister. If I had known I never would have done the deeds that made you so unhappy. And now that I have fully considered my past actions I am ashamed of what I have brought upon your house. So, here is my vow, Helen. Choose wisely but choose for your heart also. And I will see to it that your choice will be honored by the rest. I owe you that much for all I have done. Pollux and Castor are not here, but I am and I will be honored to take their place in your household, if only to see you content."
"You kept it secret too? I know the rumors speak of your glorious parentage but I never suspected."
"Like I?" Achilles said with a smile. "I know what fears drove you to hide yourself, the same hounded my mother and I for years. She was so unhappy, Helen, trying to protect me from a life she could not, and in the end it broke her heart to know I could not remain under her guardianship."
"I fear for everything," Helen whispered. "I cannot wed a man who will fall completely under my spell for he will be made weak and a weak king will destroy Sparta. But if I marry someone who cares so little for me and too much for the throne, I will be made to rue my choice for the rest of my life."
"You have to strike a delicate balance and it is a great task indeed. I wish I could help you but I cannot because I do not understand your situation. But if you ask of me I can give you my opinions of the suitors, and in my own way help you make a choice that is not rashly formed."
"Speak to me then, Achilles. Tell me freely about the men who would take my father's place and my wedding bed."
Achilles obeyed his half-sister's command and the two talked well into the night about not only the suitors, but many things that were denied to Helen because she was female. And in the cover of night Helen discovered the kernel of greatness that would make Achilles the greatest Achaean hero to have lived, and in the later years, her worst enemy.
Helen swallowed another yawn as she wrapped the parcel in her veil. "Penelope, could you do something brave for me?"
The cousin, only too eager to atone for her earlier mistake, asked, "What feats of heroism may I perform for the lady of the house?"
"Could you deliver this present to Odysseus? I fear if I give it to him personally the other suitors will make the King of Ithaca pay for my preference with his very life."
"Odysseus?" Penelope asked in a faltering voice. "You favor him so? Is that wise? Would Hector not be a better choice, or even Achilles perhaps?"
"No," Helen said firmly. "I wish for Odysseus to receive the gift because he has been very kind to me, especially yesterday. I believe I would have perished of despair had it not been for his gentle words and restrained embrace."
"He held you?" Clytaemnestra asked. "That is most improper, Helen."
Helen sighed, "I was ready to cut my own throat, sister. And if Odysseus hadn't stopped me, I probably would have succeeded."
Penelope unfolded the parcel, immediately noting the wrap. "This is a kingly present, Helen." She said, fingering the exquisite robe made of palest green cloth, bordered by gold threads. "It belongs to Hector's wardrobe, not some farmer king's."
"Yes, it does. I have listened to so many others mocking Odysseus because of his more sensible taste for dress. You should have heard Hector two days ago, it was needlessly cruel and though Odysseus laughed at the comments with the rest, I am sure Hector's barbs found their marks. Anyhow, as silly headed as my decision may be to you, I wish for Odysseus to appear in my father's presence in the raiment befitting such a noble man. Perhaps those wagging tongues will be silenced once and for all when they see that Odysseus is their better not only in wit, but also in looks."
"How about our general? Does he not also deserve such fineries?" Clytaemnestra asked.
"He has his armor, shield and sword, and the might of the entire Spartan Army standing behind him. They will earn Menaláos all the respect he needs and deserves."
Penelope reluctantly picked up the bundle and said, "I still think you are choosing too rashly, but I will carry out your wishes, cousin."
Clytaemnestra waited until Penelope's footfall faded before asking, "Helen, what are you doing?"
Helen smiled beatifically, "Giving Penelope her due, sister. Even if she's too stubborn to appreciate it."
Penelope purposefully marched into the throng of suitors, looking for the familiar and somewhat exasperating figure. She spotted the King of Ithaca holding court with his regular compatriots. With some dark amusement Penelope recognized Menaláos and Achilles in the crowd surrounding her target.
The determined woman made her way through the men until she stood only steps away from Odysseus.
"Good morning, King." She said with a sweet smile on her face.
"Lady Penelope," Odysseus said with some surprise, rising quickly to his feet. "You honor us with your presence. How may we be of service?"
"These are for you," She said, raising her voice noticeably. "A gift from my cousin, Helen. She wishes to convey her gratitude for all you have done for her yesterday and honestly regrets not being able to give more. For now."
Penelope almost hurled the bundle into Odysseus open hands before turning around and leaving as briskly as she came. Odysseus looked at the parcel, opened it, and was taken by what he saw. Everyone else noticed the white veil the gift was wrapped in and more than one pair of eyes narrowed in dark suspicion and jealousy.
"You have been busy, haven't you, bee farmer?" Achilles said with only a hint of amusement in his voice.
Menaláos arched an eyebrow and asked, "Care to tell us exactly what did happen yesterday?"
The memory of what he witnessed last night was still too fresh in his mind, and to his unending distress King Tyndareus had closeted himself in his private chambers, refusing audience with anyone, including his own general. And now, with this blatant show of preference by Lady Helen who never bestowed a single gift to her suitors - Menaláos felt half crazed with not knowing and fear.
Odysseus realized he had better choose his next words carefully lest he wanted to meet his grandfather too soon. "We talked."
"Must have been some conversation." Achilles said in a goading tone. Watching Odysseus dance so nimbly to save his hide was proving to be a great source of pleasure.
Odysseus threw him a look of warning before continuing, "I am surprised she remembered any of our talk, she was so distressed."
"Oh, distressed was she?" Achilles asked. "What did you do to relieve the lady of such ... distress?"
At this sudden and dangerous turn of discussion, Odysseus decided silence would be the only way he could live through the morning and tossed a careless shrug, ending the conversation.
Menaláos asked, "May I see the gift?"
Odysseus reluctantly handed it over. Menaláos gave a nod of sincere approval after studying the robe, "It's of fine cloth. Handsome color too. Helen must indeed be grateful for your coming to her aid."
Before he could return it Hector snatched it from Menaláos' grasp. He examined the finery with a sharp eye before declaring, "I've seen better."
With a careless toss he returned it to Odysseus before walking away to join his own group. Menaláos shook his head in wonder at Hector's behavior.
"I've seen better." Odysseus mimicked cruelly. "I think that one believes he is more beautiful than Helen."
Achilles chuckled softly, "Tread easily. Remember, she rejected his gift only yesterday and here you are, receiving even finer one from her. The boy's ego is clearly bruised."
Menaláos made a noise of agreement before saying, "I have work to do and wasted too much time. Excuse me."
Achilles watched the man very carefully and whispered to Odysseus, "Now, that one -- he's harder to predict than Boreas. His previous behavior would have me believe he would be twenty times more jealous than Hector but he doesn't show a whit of it."
"Oh, yes he did." Odysseus countered with a broad grin. "He just walked away with Helen's veil. The noble thief."
Achilles' gaze snapped towards the robe held in Odysseus hands and sure enough, the white cloth was nowhere to be seen.
Menaláos paced his inner chamber, his strides conquering the entire room in less than ten steps. He could bear it no longer; in spite of Tyndareus' previous orders, the general of Sparta was determined to make his way to the king and demand some answers. How he would accomplish this feat and not lose his head was something of a conundrum and Menaláos soon tired himself out by wracking his mind.
A soft cough from the doorway attracted his attention. Euneon was conscientiously studying his leader with no small bemusement, and Menaláos hadn't a clue how long the man was present to witness his private tirade.
"Unless you bring me fair news, I do not want to hear it!"
"Fine, I'll tell Lady Helen you are of foul disposition and in no humor to obey her wishes."
"Thought that might get your attention. Here," Euneon revealed a small bouquet of the white flowers Helen so diligently wore in her hair. "She wishes you place this on your cuirass, just for today. To remind the soldiers of Pollux and Castor, and to have them pray for her brothers' safe return."
Menaláos sighed and took the bundle. "She'll be the death of me, Euneon. And you might be able to explain this mystery. Where do these flowers grow? I have seen them only worn, and they are not in the gardens."
"Helen raises them in her chambers, so does her sister in Mycenae. Those two are the only one allowed to grow them. It was decreed by Tyndareus long ago after a priest predicted that as long as the flowers are tended by the princesses, the princes will be safe."
"She must be meticulous in her care of them."
"It is rumored her bedchamber is heavily perfumed by these, and their scent is the only thing that gives away where her rooms are hidden."
Menaláos twirled the bouquet, "I wonder if they are still alive, Euneon. And if they will ever return home."
"If they are still with us, they will return. Don't think such maudlin thoughts. We've got a busy morning and that means your mind needs to be sharp and fast. And you can explain a mystery to me -- how did your talk with the slave go?"
"Well but useless." Menaláos said. "I believe Helen has chosen already and Tyndareus is of like mind."
"So, you're worried that Helen is favoring another suitor?"
"Yes, Odysseus, King of Ithaca."
Euneon laughed, "I think not, General. Forgive me, it's no shame to Odysseus but he's not the kind to fit Lady Helen's liking. No, definitely not."
"Care to tell me how you are so sure?"
"Well, I've heard of confrontations between the King of Ithaca and a certain lady, but it wasn't Helen's name that was mentioned alongside Odysseus'."
"You're speaking of Lady Penelope? But why would anyone in their right mind choose her over Helen?"
"I cannot answer that, General. All I know is that it is Lady Penelope who is always mentioned when Odysseus' name is bandied about. Besides, who can fathom that man's mind? Can you?"
"Most certainly not," Menaláos said with a tired laugh. "You're right, as usual. Come; help me prepare for this morning's tasks. And let's see if I can please the aggrieved sister by wearing her flowers though I would probably look a fool for obeying her wishes."
"Why don't we begin with the release of whatever that white cloth you've wrung to nothing in your hands? It looks like you wish to mangle someone's neck and that was the nearest thing you could perform such an evil deed without actually resorting to murder."
It wasn't long before Menaláos matched the flower's heady scent to Helen's own. He couldn't help but wonder if the flowers wreathed Helen's bed to such density that she now carried their perfume on her body naturally. That thought immediately led to others concerning her bed but not the flowers and it took Menaláos every shred of control to perform even the most trivial of his duties.
Tyndareus scrutinized the men carefully, watching them from the corner of his eye as the meal progressed in a leisurely fashion. His daughters and Penelope were keeping much to themselves for most of the meal save for few occasional conversations with him and few men. Menaláos looked as if he was sulking -- an act he didn't think Menaláos was capable of, and Odysseus was even livelier and wittier than his usual, thus becoming the most entertaining guest present. The King of Ithaca was dressed comely for a change -- gone are the hardy but handsomely tailored robe and cloak, not to mention the oversized sword he hauled around the palace. He also shaved his beard, revealing a youthful face capped with a firm chin. All in all, he was not unlike a bright singing bird of great talent in a room full of dour hawks.
Even Hector was fascinated with Odysseus' tales and soon the Prince of Troy was drawn from his haughty shell and convinced to participate in the conversation by offering humorous stories of his own. Ajax told of his misfortunes when first introduced to riding, and Achilles added a few about the mishaps he had while learning to swim. Though the anecdotes revealed various weaknesses usually hidden by Helen's suitors, the uproarious tales entertained the diners long into the night and most admitted afterwards that it was so far the best company they have taken part in.
Hoping everyone retired for the night Menaláos took refuge in the garden, thinking he was well hidden from any stroller-by until a voice interrupted his reverie.
"Did you not enjoy tonight's feast, General? It has been a long time since I've heard my father laugh so freely."
"Lady Helen," Menaláos said with a deep bow. "My mood is of my own making. It has nothing to do with the company I am blessed with."
"Then what dark thoughts preoccupy you that you took no pleasure tonight? I saw your lack of enjoyment and wondered much about it."
"You are too kind to notice." Menaláos was about to end the conversation and flee before remembering Odysseus in all his newfound glory. Jealousy, mixed with desperation, convinced the general to act in a manner he would not have even considered had his starving heart not been involved in forming the decision.
"It's something that has been in my mind for some time. Years in fact." He said cautiously, formulating the lie even as he spoke.
"What is it? Or do you wish for it to remain private?"
"No, perhaps a lady can understand my predicament better than a man possibly can, though I fear you might think less of me if I did reveal it."
"I promise I will hold your secret sacred and will not think of you in mean regard because I have earned your confidence." Helen said somberly. Whatever was bothering Menaláos, it was dangerous enough to threaten the man's impenetrable self-control, and that was worrisome to her.
"It was right after the Battle of Helus. I received a mortal wound and for days following I teetered between this life and the next. I was also laboring under great fever and for a while did wish for death if only to escape the pain. During that time I had a dream, probably brought on by the mind fever, that the Goddess Aphrodite visited me."
"A general who leads charges instead of staying in the safety of the tents? Is such a man even capable of dreaming about the goddess of love and marriage?" Helen asked in a teasing voice though Menaláos noted a definite trembling quality in her tone.
"Of course, hence my reluctance to mention it to any others, even Euneon. She told me that I must not surrender because for my years of loyal service, the gods have decreed that I be blessed in a manner that most soldiers are not -- a marriage to a woman whom I will love with all my being and who will return my love. And that our union will be blessed and protected by the gods. A woman of equal nature was what Aphrodite said. The years and the fever have faded the dream somewhat, but that much I still remember."
"I see your difficulty in speaking about this, Menaláos. It is such a strange dream for a soldiering man to have, but you were wise never to forget it."
"I've held on to that dream, Lady Helen. I've fought my way through many clashes and tasted much deprivation since the Battle of Helus, but that dream kept me alive, and I cannot stop hoping that it wasn't the work of a half-demented mind."
"If the dream was true and the gods have made such a promise; then, Menaláos, I am sure you have earned your dream, many times over since that day."
"I am gladdened to hear you speak that way. I cannot help but worry if there was some task I failed to do and consequently have the gods withdraw their favor."
"You do not know of the lady who was promised to you?"
"None, I can't remember her face though if she looked like you -- I would think even death could not make me forget. Of equal nature; those words are all I have."
"You are a warrior, don't give up hope. Life dulls to an unbearable degree when you do, even if you choose to do so for the best of reasons." Helen rose from her seat and bade her companion a fair night before disappearing into the gardens. Menaláos had much battle experience and knew well to sit still and wait for the results of his actions tomorrow.
Helen could barely breathe. She hadn't spoken of her dreams in years and she was certain both Penelope and Clytaemnestra had long forgotten it. And surely Agafia took it as a ranting of a sick child she was forced to nurse and nothing more. Was it possible? That somehow the promise given to her was going to be fulfilled even after years of misery and anguish? How long had she waited patiently, for some sign from the gods that the words spoken to her in her dream would come to pass? How many years had she prayed in secret? Her words spoken in silence, in dread that some spying ear would catch them and make her pay for uttering such foolishness?
Equal nature, he said. Those words ... those particular words, there can be no mistake. And like me he doesn't remember the face, only those words. And the promise that he will finally find the happiness he so longed for but was denied. Denied, like me. His fortunes tossed this way and that -- like me. He has served my father for fifteen years but I never suspected him! Oh, what fool am I not to consider those closest to me. To hide myself away in fear and wallow in my self-righteous misery while he patiently waited, guarding the very gates to my home. For fifteen years! And I didn't have the good sense to look outside my very window!
Helen moaned and hid her face in her hands. If Zeus struck me dead now, I'd be deserving of such an end. To suffer needlessly is one kind of foolishness -- to make another suffer, what act of cruelty have I wrought on an innocent man?
Helen took a deep breath. She would not reveal what she had learned; she had no desire to betray Menaláos any further. Instead, she would speak with her family and learn their opinions of the general, and if they report favorably then Helen would hesitate no longer. She wasted nearly ten years of her life and Menaláos'. After committing such a hideous mistake she was determined to waste not even one day.
"Has the King finished his private conversations yet?" Achilles asked, squinting at the early morning sun. He didn't think it possible but the heat already rising from the earth warned him that the day would be the hottest yet.
"By this afternoon, do you know why he suddenly withdrew yesterday? Even during the evening fare he remained somewhat elusive." Ajax said.
"How was his mood when you spoke with him?" Achilles asked.
"I would say worried though I do not know the cause."
"Come now," Odysseus interrupted from his corner of the field. "He was worried the moment we started to arrive at his gates. Between all of us we have an army camped around his city; his sons are nowhere to be found; Helen is thoroughly distressed because she was ill prepared for our invasion, not to mention our ceaseless clamoring for her wedding bed. And now, with the interviews drawing to a close he knows we will be impatient for a decision."
"But his army is here," Machaon said.
"They're outside the gates, physician." Odysseus said, "Tyndareus isn't so rude to have them within the city walls, which is what Menaláos probably recommended. And who is to say that after the choice is made we'll honor it? Some of us might become angry enough to make the lady a widow before the wedding is held and have this entire mess circle back to their house yet again. No, if I were Tyndareus, I'd smuggle my family out of Sparta and into safety before making any declarations."
"I would have thought his fears were assuaged by now," Idomeneus said, puzzled by Odysseus' logic.
"Many were probably put to rest, but now that this ordeal is coming to an end, new ones must have raised their ugly heads." Achilles said then thoughtfully added, "And we do not know of the lady's mind. She is as illusive as ever, even though her lovely face has been revealed to us."
"She will do what her father orders her," Hector said. "She is a good daughter and trusts her father's judgment."
"And that will guarantee her future husband a happy bride?" Odysseus countered, "A happy wife? Hector, how would you feel if you were forced to watch her waste away, day after day, in silent misery because she obeyed her father's wishes and not her own? For years she had avoided being tied to a man, and suddenly she will discover domestic felicity after being forced into the saddle with one? I doubt so. No, the lady has something in her mind, something she refuses to tell any, including her beloved father, and do children not keep secrets from their parents?"
"What secret might that be?" Machaon asked.
"Perhaps she wishes nothing better than to be a temple priestess." Achilles said. "Is that not a great honor not only to Tyndareus' family but also to the goddess whose altar will be blessed with Helen's presence? Maybe she would like nothing better than to sweep the steps of her father's temple, day after day, until Zeus recalls her to the Elysian Fields. And who among us dare defy such livelihood if that is indeed her chosen destiny?"
"A temple? To be kept locked up in such a bowed life?" Hector asked, his disquiet plain for all to hear. "She wouldn't, such a woman would never want to live a life so curtailed."
"You forget," Achilles said. "Her life has been such a cage, for years. She has not once seen the world outside Sparta's walls and has no desire to out of fear. This decision she must make, how frightening it must be for her. Not only must she decide whom to marry, but her entire existence must change soon after, and from where she stands, it will not be an improvement."
"She must know she will come to no harm," Ajax said.
"Helen doesn't fear for herself," Odysseus said. "No, that one cannot be harmed, we all saw proof of that. She fears for others, for her elderly father, her cousin, her sister and niece. And most of all, for her people. You are right, Achilles. She must be paralyzed with worry by now."
"Odysseus is right. If I were Helen I'd be plotting my way into Athena's side right now. That is the only way I can see to keep the peace earned by her father and his army. Any other choice would risk open war." Achilles said, his words sending alarming thoughts to all who listened in on the talk.
"War?" Ajax echoed, "You suspect such catastrophe?"
"Why not? Who among us would not kill to call Helen wife?" Odysseus asked. "It is by Tyndareus' orders that we do not fight to the death on the fields. And because we do not wish to upset Helen's delicate sensibilities that blood hasn't flown freely within her house. Whether we like to admit it or not, it is because of those two we are all still alive. Not by our wisdom have we kept such great peace amongst ourselves. Even after Hector's horrendous mistake with Lady Helen -- has Tyndareus declare that the Prince of Troy pay for it with his life? Any other father would demand immediate death to any man who stabbed his daughter, unwittingly or not. Yet, Tyndareus overlooked such murderous behavior, probably on Helen's behest. King Priam owes much to Tyndareus, that much is sure."
Hector said, "So, you think Helen would flee into a sanctuary and spend the rest of her days happily keeping a lonely bed?"
"As long as her bed is empty, no blood will be shed. She would be too eager to make such a sacrifice on behalf of her father and her people, leaving Tyndareus no choice but to divide his lands amongst his two sons when they return. And we will never see her fair face again, unless we earn our claim in the Elysian Fields." Achilles pronounced in a somber voice. "And what a waste it will all be."
"Helen, what is it?" Penelope asked for the fourth time as she watched her cousin's attentions drift away from their conversation.
"I was thinking of Menaláos. I stumbled upon the general last night, in the gardens. He looked so sad, Penelope. I could not bear to see him thus burdened; it was as if he was dying another death right in front of my eyes. So I spoke with him and he revealed great fears. Fears I didn't think he was capable of feeling. In the end, I ached for him. It was more than pity, and I can't help but wonder if my pains come forth from my heart."
"Because you love Menaláos and cannot stand to watch him so wounded?"
"Yes, but I have never loved, cousin, so I cannot know what my own feelings are. Have you loved?"
"In my youth, there was a boy, yes, but it wasn't meant to be. He sought his fortunes elsewhere and found them, praise be to the gods. What you are feeling may or may not be love, Helen. But I do know one thing; if all the talks and whispers I hear are true, Menaláos is madly in love with you, and not just because of your pretty face. For him you are Sparta. And since he has served Sparta so well and justly for so many years, I believe he will do the same by you. You have already said it, Helen. He has proven his worth, many times over, has he not?"
"And the army will be content with the union. The people and the soldiers will be made one by our marriage."
"Yes, Menaláos may not bring wealth but he does bring with him the absolute loyalty of the army. Though your father is the King we both know it is Menaláos who commands them. You marry him; you marry the army, and both will be devoted to you, for life."
"And they will keep my children safe."
Penelope embraced her cousin, rocking the woman back and forth -- an old act of comfort she performed since their youthful days. She understood where Helen's true fears sprang from and was too wise to talk of it directly.
"If you respect and admire your husband, you are more fortunate than most of the wives living. In due time you will come to love the man, or perhaps finally see that you have loved him all along, and when that happens you will need no more blessings. But, Helen, first you must heal all your old wounds and I truly believe Menaláos will be eager to help you with that hardship. He's strong enough for the task, and more importantly, he has the patience. You cannot rise to his rank without either."
"And Clytaemnestra and Iphigenia will also benefit because we will continue to keep the peace with Mycenae. Menaláos wouldn't want to change the alliance made by father."
"No, he's not ruled by his ambitions, and Agamémnon will only be too happy to make further concessions since it's his brother ruling Sparta's throne."
Helen sighed then said, "I have already made my decision, but I wished to hear your thoughts echoing mine."
"I guessed as much, cousin." Penelope kissed the dark head and said, "And it is a wise one."
Odysseus loitered around the main hall, wondering if he would see Helen, her cousin, or even the sharp-tongued Clytaemnestra. It was Penelope who greeted his sight, much to the King's delight.
Penelope spotted him and said, "Fair afternoon, King of Ithaca."
"You seem surprised to see me still standing," Odysseus quipped, "Your little trick this morning failed, fair Penelope. I am still alive, thanks to my wit."
"Ahh, or perhaps your feet are more nimble than your tongue, farmer king."
Odysseus smiled openly, "That also, but both traits I have inherited so neither can be blamed on my noble head. I was wondering, how is Lady Helen faring? I have not seen her since last evening and her absence has been remarked by all her suitors."
"She is not well," Penelope said. "All this upsets her a great deal, more than she cares to reveal."
"Of course, she is Spartan and your people rarely expose any weakness, even under the blade of a knife. Is she ill?"
"No, tired. Helen has spent little else but thinking about this ordeal and exhaustion has finally overtaken her. She has taken a sleeping draft and is resting, and probably will sleep through the day. So if you could be kind to reveal these facts to the suitors and make excuses on her behalf, I would be grateful."
"Consider it accomplished, Lady Penelope. And how are you coping with all this chaos around you?"
"Me?" Penelope asked, surprised to have inquiries made about her own welfare. "I am well, as always."
Oh, good." Odysseus said with yet another charming smile. "Hardy flowers bloom beautifully under Ithaca's sun. Fair afternoon, Lady Penelope."
It took Penelope some time before she realized what Odysseus had said and the shocked woman stood still in the main hall for quite a while in order to fully digest his suggestive words.
The suitors noted Helen's absence during the evening meal with mounting alarm, and Tyndareus' subdued mood only increased their suspicions. Most of the men already established a chain of personal spies around the city, thinking Achilles' fears about Helen's flight to be inevitable. If Penelope and Clytaemnestra noted the sudden shift in the suitors' temperament they wisely kept to themselves.
Menaláos, already regretting his earlier misstep, tried his best to alleviate his own fears by keeping company with the ever-cheerful Odysseus, but even he couldn't ignore the sudden pall that overshadowed the guests. It wasn't until after dinner and a private conversation with both Odysseus and Achilles that he discovered the reason for the gloomy silence. At first Menaláos thought the men's fears to be unfounded. However, in the darkness of the night and the company of an empty room, Menaláos found their reservations to have more validity than he would've liked.
Forgoing any sleep Menaláos took his old patrol route in the palace. He greeted the night sentry stationed at various sectors, idly wondering if any of them had seen Helen earlier. However, it was Odysseus' voice and not some soldier's who greeted him on the steps leading down to the garden.
"I see you've had a tiring day also." Odysseus said merrily, half-hidden in the dense foliage.
Menaláos smiled, "And you. Why are you suffering from a sleepless night?"
"Many things are occupying my thoughts," Odysseus admitted. "Some good, some not."
Menaláos hesitated only for a moment before offering aid, "If there is anything I can do, you may freely ask of me."
Odysseus sighed, "I'm afraid I've gambled too much on odds not to my liking."
"Why? What has happened?" Menaláos asked.
"Penelope, I can't read her. Can you?"
Menaláos knew for certainty then, just by hearing the tone in Odysseus' voice, that Euneon's whispers were true. Suddenly, all the burdens that weighed him down dissipated in one breath and Menaláos gave a soundless sigh of undeniable relief.
"She isn't meant to be read like some missive, Odysseus." Menaláos said and took a seat next to Odysseus. "No woman can be solved with such ease, no matter what Hector claims."
"So you think I'm wasting my time?"
"First, I must ask, have you transferred your favors to the lady?"
"Yes," Odysseus answered. "Though if you ask me when and where I would be unable to answer."
"And Lady Helen knows of this?"
Odysseus nodded, "I have her blessings, and it wasn't so cheaply gotten either. But I have yet to win Penelope's good opinion and I wonder if I ever will."
"What stands in your way?"
"The horse lord for one," Odysseus remarked with some sting in his voice. "And the other numerous suitors she left behind."
"But they are not here," Menaláos reminded his companion. "You are. You have Helen as your ally, which means Clytaemnestra is also involved and to your favor. I would think your clever mind would find many paths in order to ensnare the lady's heart."
"Now it is my turn to remind you, Menaláos, one must never win a woman's love through network of deception." Odysseus said, "For nothing good can come of such trickery, no matter how earnestly promoted. No, if I am to win the lady, it must be done honestly and fairly. That is the only way I am guaranteed a happy and lasting marriage."
Menaláos felt cold shiver dance on his skin as he listened; it was as if Odysseus knew of his earlier deceit and was warning him of it. Shaking off the dire feeling Menaláos said, "True, but since you have the good will of both of Tyndareus' daughters can you not see a way to win his niece's?"
"I can tell her outright," Odysseus chuckled at the thought. "That should shock her into silence for a day at least."
Menaláos shook his head, "A less direct approach could be more beneficial."
"I've tried," Odysseus confessed. "I've shaved my face, put on this fancy robe that Helen gave me, which itches to the bone -- but all worked to no avail. Penelope nary gave me a glance the entire evening. Her food interested her more than my supposed witty conversations."
Menaláos laughed softly, "Aren't we the saddest pair? Both of us madly in love with women who'd prefer to spend their days without the company of a proper husband, and are willing to prove their point with great fervor."
"Must be the Spartan blood, no other explanation for it."
"Odysseus, you said earlier ... what did you promise Helen in return for her alliance in your quest to entice Penelope?"
"I found a way to make the suitors uphold Tyndareus' decision."
Menaláos was speechless for a moment, "How?"
"You saw my connivance working tonight. The fear that has gripped them; that's my doing. By making them think Helen will choose none of them out of concern, they will be only too glad to have a chance of making sure Helen choosing one of them -- even if it means that they must bite their tongue afterwards for she can marry only one, not all."
"And how will you ensure they continue to behave?"
"By making them give their oaths to uphold Helen's choice of husband. I have yet to figure out when Tyndareus will extract the promise, but it must happen soon."
"Forgive me, but your plan sounds improbable."
"What would you give to have Helen call you husband?" Odysseus asked promptly.
Menaláos paused for a moment before answering, "I don't think she will ever call me husband, Odysseus."
"Then you are the only one. The rest all believe she will choose him for reasons too numerous to mention. I am surprised to hear you voice such an opinion. Do you think your chances to be so poor?"
"I am a soldier, King of Ithaca, and we measure our battlefields with cold eyes though we make speeches to our men saying otherwise."
"And if your dire predictions come true, what will you do? Will you return to Mycenae?"
"I will never abandon Tyndareus and his children. I will stay here, observe my post, and make sure her husband deserves a wife such as she, and guarantee Sparta will reap rich benefits from the marriage."
"All the while pining away, watching another man make her his bride," Odysseus finished the unspoken part of his compatriot's decision, noticing the melancholy look on Menaláos' face. "I will pray for a kinder fate for you, General. You surely deserve better."
"This is a kinder fate, Odysseus." Menaláos said offhandedly, not realizing the impact of his words. "The moment I set foot on this land my fortunes turned for better and there never has been a day I regretted leaving my brother's rule."
Odysseus refrained from delving further into Menaláos' revelation and instead gave gentle orders for the general to find what rest he can, even if he had to resort to drink. Menaláos took humor at the recommendation and left the King of Ithaca to the company of the night.
"Menaláos never fails to surprise me," Tyndareus spoke from his hiding place, startling Odysseus.
The King of Ithaca rose quickly and gave a bow of reverence, "Gracious Host, I did not hear you."
"You weren't meant to," Tyndareus said, "You have forgotten, meeting me at this old age, that once I was also a general of the army and have led many battles openly and in secret. I cannot help but think you like my successor, am I correct in guessing such?"
"He has an extraordinary combination of loyalty, humility, pride and ruthlessness." Odysseus said then hesitantly added, "He thinks of you as his father, I wasn't so certain until now."
"Yes, I am quite well aware of that. I made sure he regarded me as such. It was the only way to own his complete loyalty." Tyndareus took Menaláos' place next to Odysseus and continued to speak, "You should have seen him when he first arrived. I always believed the rumors I heard about Atreus and Thyestes to be nothing more than unconfirmed talks from jealous rivals. Then I met Menaláos and knew whatever horrors were whispered about his father, they were nothing compared to the reality of the man. Menaláos was so ashamed of being Atreus' son; he wanted to completely forget his bloodline, and was quite willing to die in order to do so."
"Is Agamémnon as haunted by his father's deeds?"
"No, that one is more resilient and has ambition to balance out the nightmares. Menaláos, on the other hand, sleeps worse than a newborn; maybe a nod here and there is more than sufficient. He has another equally telling habit -- he doesn't eat much, if you hadn't noticed. No doubt he learned to fear food set in front of him by his father; poisons are hard to detect, even for a seasoned campaigner like Menaláos. Such cursed legacies to leave behind for your children. What monstrous acts Atreus must have inflicted on a man as brave as his son to break him so thoroughly."
"If the rumors are true, then ... what happened to their cousin, Aegisthus?" Odysseus asked, slowly recollecting the entire gruesome story, which seemed like a cautionary tale from the dark histories.
"Disappeared. I, myself, have hunted for the murderous creature for years but have failed to find him. I have diligently prayed that the Furies have snatched and rendered him limb from limb for his ugly deeds."
"So the sons of Atreus still live in fear of that madman."
Tyndareus nodded, "Yes, that somehow Aegisthus will slip into their homes and cook their children to be served as supper dishes to their parents."
Odysseus felt his head spin from pure disgust. "Such horrible acts, all for the throne of Mycenae..."
"Precisely why Menaláos fled the kingdom the first chance he could secure. And why he prefers to be called General of Sparta than Prince of Mycenae."
"Would you be comfortable choosing such a man as a king? And your daughter's husband? With such violent history I worry some of his ill luck will follow the general wherever he goes."
"He has proven his worth and all my fears have been laid to rest years ago. Besides, a man so driven will be industrious, always, and Sparta needs such a man as their king. And, more importantly, as their general."
"You seek to give him some comfort by offering him Helen. You already made your choice then." Odysseus said in wonder. "I could not guess who you'd choose, but my thoughts leaned towards Hector."
"He would have been my choice had Menaláos not stood in his path. And, through the years, Menaláos has become my son - a wounded hawk, but a wounded hawk that belongs to me, to Sparta. He will find home within these walls, and the misery of his earlier years will dull with Helen's care."
"But he will always remain Atreus' son." Odysseus cautioned. "That will be his defining identity, for good or evil."
"You have forgotten how I came about my throne, King of Ithaca. Violence is the way of power, and a most useful tool if wielded properly. I do not just sympathize with Menaláos. I also empathize with him. Would you deny Penelope your bed just because she is Icarius' daughter?"
Odysseus looked chastised at the pointed truth and admitted, "No, I think not. Indeed, I must practice upon my history, King Tyndareus."
"None of us in power can ever be held blameless. All the rulers who judge themselves to be fair kings would be called murderers by many. And if this be our lot, I'd rather have a man capable of great acts of brutality and heroism in order to protect my kingdom and my child from harm and treachery."
"And that is where you and I differ," Odysseus said.
"Which is why you would make a fine companion and sword-arm for a man like myself, and Menaláos." Tyndareus said with honest admiration. "Best two men balance each other in heated arguments than two who agree on all and disagree on none."
"I will admit, when all this is over, establishing an alliance with Sparta will give me great pleasure. And, if I marry into such an alliance -- all the better for me, my islands, and my people."
"You will have it," Tyndareus promised. "And your marriage. I heard your sad speech regarding Penelope. Take heart, Odysseus, for she has spoken about no other suitor than you. For good or harm, you've been the greatest thought occupying her mind, and she was suffering from no small envy when Helen gifted you with her favors yesterday."
"Then it would indeed very prudent of me to make my way to the temples and offer great sacrifices which will smoke up the buildings well into morning. Wouldn't it be grand if both Menaláos and I earn wives while the great Achilles, Ajax, and Prince Hector leave empty-handed?"
Tyndareus laughed, "Yes, I confess that particular brand of vengeance has been the greatest piece of entertainment in my thoughts. I would start the fires now if I were you. Tomorrow will be an interesting day indeed and you might be too preoccupied to properly give thanks to the gods."
Helen immediately recognized the temple. It was the same one that haunted her in her youth for so many days. And, once again she felt like a little girl, lost in a place of terrible beauty and power -- a place her true father called home. The dream was exactly the same, including the laughing female voice, taunting yet sweetly promising:
"I have found a gift worthy of Zeus' daughter. A man, a most beautiful man, who is of equal nature when compared to Leda's gift. He is promised to you and you to him. And you shall find such happiness, I swear!"
Helen began to shiver, in spite of the laughter and the wondrous pledge, she could not shake off the feeling of dread, and her first instinct was to flee which she had done countless times before. But now, she was grown and no longer a child, so Helen did not hide or burst into tears. Instead, she turned her gaze into the large pool of trapped water possessing a reflective sheen of her bronze mirror.
"Yes, Helen, look and know what honor I have befitted you with!"
Helen hugged herself tightly and walked up the steps. She sat on the edge of the pool and leaned forward only to find her reflection gazing back at her. In her previous dreams an arm would explode from the watery depths, grabbing her and frightening Helen so badly she'd scream herself awake.
This time, she sank her right hand into the coolness, whispering, "It is Menaláos, only Menaláos. I have nothing to fear."
Slowly her hand was pulled in and Helen followed willingly. She closed her eyes as her face sank into the water and opened them to see rocky hills dotted with green grass. From afar she heard sheep bleating their docile calls. This landscape was unfamiliar to her and Helen stood still, examining the foreign pasture and mountains.
A hand rested itself on her shoulder and a soft voice said, "Helen, it is I. Let me see your face, my beloved wife."
For some reason Helen felt tears cloud her eyes, but with a deep breath she obeyed.
"Helen!" Clytaemnestra said loudly, "Wake! Do you plan to spend the entire day in bed?"
Helen bolted up into a sitting position, her breath coming in short gasps. She stared at her sister and for a moment had to refrain herself from strangling the woman with her hands.
"I've been trying to wake you since dawn," Clytaemnestra said primly. "Father wishes to see us."
Helen buried her face in her hands and gave out a strangled moan of frustration.
"What?" Clytaemnestra asked, "What has happened?"
"Nothing," Helen whispered, "Nothing, just a dream."
"Was it a good dream?" Clytaemnestra asked slyly.
"Yes, it was and I wish you didn't wake me from it," Helen complained in a shrewd voice. "Why do you ask?"
"Because you were mumbling my brother-in-law's name in your sleep."
"Was I? Truly?" Helen asked.
"Most certainly," Clytaemnestra answered. "Unless, of course, you are acquainted with another man named Menaláos."
Helen laughed softly, "No, most certainly not."
"It was a good dream then?"
Helen hugged her sister tightly and whispered fervently, "The best dream ever."
"I am glad, I am so glad for you, Helen." Clytaemnestra said, "Finally, you will find happiness. And security."
Achilles heard Odysseus' voice drift out from a chamber whose entrance was hidden by a blind corner. For a moment he stood still, disbelieving his ears as he heard the King of Ithaca make outrageous claims. How did Odysseus get admission to see Helen so early in the morning? Then Penelope's ringing laughter greeted his ears and the man charged into the room, determined to refute Odysseus' self-serving tales.
Only Helen, Clytaemnestra, and her cousin were present, their eyes wide with surprise at his sudden entrance.
"Forgive me," Achilles said quickly. "I thought I heard Odysseus. My mistake."
Helen smiled, "No, your ears didn't deceive you." She tilted her head to the side, closed her eyes and from her lovely lips came forth a perfect imitation of the voice belonging to King of Ithaca.
"I don't believe it," Achilles said with great wonder. "How ... where did you learn such talent?"
"She was born with it," Clytaemnestra informed the intruder. "Helen has been able to copy the voice of any human being introduced to her. That was how she used to sneak out of the palace when she was a child, much to our father's vexation."
"I can only copy human voices, never animals or birds though I have tried and tried," Helen said in Hector's voice.
Achilles laughed and sat on a cushion near his half-sister, "Remarkable, do that again. Please, Helen."
Helen immediately went into a diatribe of a kitchen maid who burnt her master's supper, all the while her voice switching from one suitor to another, including Achilles. He clapped his hand in appreciation of the performance, still amazed by what he had just witnessed.
"That is an incredible gift," Achilles said.
"And one that never ceases to entertain me when I listen," Penelope said. "How are you?"
"I am well and I am glad to see Helen's health has improved. Odysseus told us of your troubles yesterday and we were worried."
Helen shrugged carelessly, "My will finally wavered and I withdrew to find rest."
"You mean we scared you witless and you hid in terror in your room." Achilles teased, his eyes alight with laughter.
"What?" Helen asked.
"At least that's what Odysseus is telling anyone who's willing to listen. What schemes have the King of Ithaca designed without my knowledge?"
Tyndareus overheard the question from ad adjoining chamber and rescued the women from having to swiftly build a plausible lie. "Achilles, you have no reason to be seeing my daughter so early. It is not proper and should any suitors stumble upon this scene, it would create even more difficulties for both Helen and myself. If you wish to talk to my child, do so after morning fare."
Achilles made a hasty retreat, trying to ignore the women's pealing laughter tinkering behind his back. He joined his usual group as most of the suitors were already eating -- their conversation naturally revolving around Helen and her absence from the table. Tyndareus also didn't show for the meal and by the time breakfast had ended their talks were wild with speculation.
Menaláos was disappointed he couldn't see what changes, if any, in Helen which he could claim responsibility. And his conscience was soon kicking him alongside his frustration, heightening the man's emotions to a degree that the general decided to keep his own company and none other. However, before he could depart, Tyndareus appeared looking grim and determined.
"I had a talk with my daughter this morning and I have come to a decision."
Silence was only rivaled by unchecked anticipation as Helen's suitors listened.
"I have given Helen my permission not to choose her husband, now or ever, if that is her wish."
His announcement stunned the men even though many suspected something akin to it. Menaláos didn't know what to think. Part of him was furious that he was made to suffer for days; yet another spoke in hope -- he could remain faithful to Helen to the end of his life and be content with just her presence near him.
"However, Helen feels that it will be unacceptable behavior to dismiss such distinguished guests after all that has happened. So, to ease her mind and allow Helen true freedom to decide, I want an oath from each and every one of you. That whomever Helen calls husband, you will honor the marriage, and should some malcontent try to destroy it -- you will help them defend their home.
"Helen believes, though I don't, that you are truly honorable men in spite of your earlier behavior, and will be satisfied with the knowledge that you have given us your blood oath."
Achilles was waiting for this moment, his withdrawal of suit kept secret for such an occasion. So he spoke first and with a firm countenance, "You have my oath, Tyndareus. To my dying breath I will honor Helen's marriage."
Odysseus smiled, "Of course, if that is what it takes for Helen to choose, then you have my oath, King."
"Mine also, and I do feel sorry that Helen believes herself so betrayed by us," Machaon said.
"And mine is readily given as my allegiance has always been to your house, King Tyndareus. Tell Helen to rest easy and come to her choice with a light heart." Menaláos said then turned to the other men who remained silent. "Who among you will honor your host and King of Sparta? And who among you will refrain from giving what is their due?"
"Brave words, second prince," Hector said but added without hesitation, "I, too, give my oath, Tyndareus, if only to see who will be your successor."
After Hector's capitulation to Tyndareus' demand the rest agreed swiftly. The Prince of Troy had a valid reason, they were curious to see whom Helen would call husband and hoped she would make up her mind before the day was over.
"That was your doing, wasn't it?" Achilles asked Odysseus after cornering the King of Ithaca near his chambers.
"Mine? How could a farmer king influence such powerful man?" Odysseus answered in all innocence.
"The wide-eyed wondrous act does nothing for me," Achilles quipped. "Well done. So, Odysseus, who do you think will be crowned King of Sparta? Yourself?"
Odysseus shook his head and said, "I fear I will be a losing bet on this one. No, not me."
"Perhaps, I do not know."
"Odysseus, you are a terrible liar."
"One of my more charming attributes. Ahhh, Menaláos, you're looking more severe than usual. Maybe you can answer Achilles' question?"
Menaláos managed to smile and said, "Not I. I have not been in Helen's presence for a while now so I do not know her moods."
"Well, take heart. She will be much relieved when her father delivers the good news." Odysseus said.
Menaláos nodded in agreement, relief also visible on his face. "I keep forgetting what she must have endured since this trial began. Her life has been so measured and precise for years, all this upheaval in her house must be most upsetting. I must remember to give orders to my men to prepare to move swiftly should she decide to seek some solitary days by the coast."
"Menaláos, for once stop being a general and act like the suitor that you are," Odysseus admonished the man. "Do you think her future husband will let his newly-wedded wife run off to some temple by the sea just because she wants to bathe in the ocean?"
"If I were the husband, I'd build Helen a pool and trap sea water in it so Helen can bathe in such conditions whenever she wishes," Achilles said. "Then happily watch her swim about wearing nothing but my imagination. I'd probably make that my wedding gift."
"Glad to see you're a practical man," Menaláos deadpanned. "For a while there I thought you were a heartless creature when it came to women and their tender mercies."
"I can be romantic, when the mood suits me." Achilles answered blithely.
"Or when it serves your purpose," Odysseus added. "Your reputation in that particular matter is somewhat grim."
"False rumors spread by my jealous detractors," Achilles dismissed quickly, "Nothing more."
Menaláos caught the sight of Machaon running towards him and his body tensed in alarm, "What has happened?"
"Tyndareus has called the suitors. Helen has made a decision."
"That was fast," Achilles said.
"We better be faster," Odysseus said as he began briskly marching towards the main hall. "Who knows? Maybe Helen has decided that whoever appears first will share her bed tonight!"
The suitors gathered only to find Tyndareus present. His robes had changed from the simple one he wore earlier into a kingly creation made of shimmering fabric and precious stones woven into the cloth. On his head was the wreath of red metal -- the bloody crown of Sparta as it was known by many outside the city walls. And in his right hand Tyndareus held the sword that ruled the mighty army. Indeed, in spite of his graying hair and lined face, every man in the hall saw the greatness that was Tyndareus.
"My daughter has come to her decision. And of her free will. For that I thank you all. And, remember your oath to me for Sparta will never forget what was promised within this palace, and will never forgive those who forget it. Helen, my true daughter, enter and give your people their new king."
Helen appeared from her father's right, through curtains that hid a secret passageway. She was still unadorned and in simple white, but her sister and cousin, who walked right behind her, were dressed in the richest garments the men had ever seen.
Helen walked up to her father who bowed his head, and with calm majesty she lifted the crown from his head. She turned to the crowd, her dark gaze sweeping all the men, seemingly unaware of their straining bodies and bated breaths.
Menaláos couldn't watch any longer and dropped his gaze to the floor. Now that it was all done and he has reached this end, Menaláos fervently wished he could relive it all again if only to avoid this terrible finality.
I love her, Aphrodite, he fervently prayed. I will serve her to my dying day. I will be husband to her and she my only wife. I will be loyal, I swear. Be merciful. Be kind to a crippled old soldier. Let me spend my dying days with her. Let her be mine.
"I choose Menaláos."
He felt the crown rest on his brow but could not lift his head, so shocked was he.
"Menaláos," Odysseus whispered kindly, "Will you not look upon your wife?"
Menaláos finally raised his eyes and saw Helen smiling sweetly at him. Then she raised her right hand and smoothed his left brow with gentle fingers, repeating her earlier declaration.
"I choose Menaláos."
With those three words Helen erased all of Menaláos' unspeakable nightmares; the years of hidden shame as he carried the burden of being called Atreus' son; the fear of others discovering the truth behind his father's amiable façade; and the unspoken dread that his own blood was poisoned by his father's deeds and that he would face the same end as Atreus.
But it will not be, Menaláos thought as he enfolded Helen's hands into his own. Helen has saved me from my father's fate.
From that moment Menaláos' primary identity was poured into Helen's and he knew he would love her faithfully and serve Sparta selflessly, for without his wife and the blood-red crown resting on his head, Menaláos would cease to exist.
©2003 Copyright held by the author.