You, Helen, stood with your back against the pillar and took three deep breaths to slow your racing heart. One … stop being silly, calm down, you’re being ridiculous … Two … what will Nestra think, what will Penelope think? … Three …
You felt the rough grains of the stone under your fingertips as they spidered restlessly up and down the pillar at your back, the nervous gesture of hands that were used to being occupied - plucking at lyre strings, spinning silken threads. Your eyes were pressed tightly shut, dark gold lashes lying in a feathery fan against the tender skin beneath, but you couldn’t close your ears against the sound of them. Braying, clamouring, guffawing. Deep bass and whining tenor. Barking baritone. Bustling, rustling, clanging and slurping.
You jumped like a startled cat when you felt a hand on your shoulder, but when your eyes snapped open and your heart catapulted in your breast, you were relieved to see only the faces of your sister and your cousin, furtive and mischievous in the midst of their covert operation.
“Did someone see you?” Clytemnestra whispered, her dark eyes wide with relish at the thought.
“She was daydreaming, I bet,” Penelope said knowingly, observing your dusky cheeks and startled expression at having been caught with your eyes squeezed shut.
A gleeful smile grew on Nestra’s face and she peered round the pillar that sheltered the three of you from the room below. “Which one, Helen?”
Below, in the echoing atrium of the grand palace of Sparta, was the greatest gathering of heroes the world had ever seen. They came in every shape and size and colour, resplendent in bronze and glittering like gods. Penelope and Nestra stared down in fascination, stifling giggles and pointing and whispering as they tried to guess which were the men who had stepped straight off the tongues of the bards, and you tried to play along. To pretend that the sight filled you with girlish excitement.
There were three figures who stood out from the crowd. One was a veritable mountain of a man, a craggy, bald-headed giant. The span of his shoulders was colossal and the laugh that rumbled out of his chest was even bigger. He stood in animated conversation in a ring of others - it seemed that he drew their attention without trying. This, you knew, was Ajax, son of Telamon.
There were only two other men in that room of heroes of comparable size to this larger-than-life figure. They stood slightly apart from the rest of the suitors. Just as Ajax drew everyone’s attention, these brothers seemed to deflect it. A respectful distance was maintained between them and the rest, but everyone in the room seemed to steal surreptitious glances in their direction at regular intervals. You were young then, Helen, but you already knew that men obeyed power, and it was clear that power rolled off the brothers in waves.
They were both tall and broad and bluff, every inch the seasoned warrior. Common features - a high-domed forehead and prominent brow - suggested a family resemblance, but their colouring marked them as different. Your gaze was drawn to the one with a profusion of bright red hair and beard, a bristling bush of spun copper. His light blue eyes had a surprisingly dreamy look to them. His brother’s face was a starker and crueller translation of his own: hair and beard a deep chestnut, eyes a stormy indigo. You didn’t like the sneer that seemed set as his resting expression.
“The sons of Atreus,” Nestra breathed as the three of you stared down at them like gods on Olympus.
“Which one would you prefer?” Penelope asked you.
You tried to hide your thick swallow with indifference.
“It’s not up to me. Father will choose,” you answered demurely.
There was little that you wouldn’t tell Nestra and Penelope. The three of you had played together, dreamed together, learnt to be women together. But there was one thing you had never shared, and they had never asked.
You knew that heroes could be villains too.
As you stood there in the gallery and panic fluttered in your chest like a trapped moth, it was hard to imagine the girl you had been before. Your father used to say that you were a wild thing, a creature of the woods and the mountains like Artemis of the silver bow. While your sister and cousin busied themselves in the palace, learning how to weave among a coterie of female attendants, you roamed the forests with your brothers, those shining twins you idolised. Castor, with his long, rangy limbs and mop of golden hair, and Polydeuces, squat and broad with a nose broken too many times to count. There was no one else with whom your father would entrust your safety.
The three of you were hunting a deer that day. You had clung onto Castor’s waist, your golden hair streaming out behind you, as you galloped across the plain until you were breathless with exhilaration. No one could handle a horse like Castor could. He rode like a centaur; it was as if the pumping chestnut legs were simply an extension of his own body. The slightest pressure through his thighs, the lightest tug of the reins, and the horse responded with gusto. It was there, out in the wilderness with the sun beating down on your back, that you felt truly happy. Cloistered palaces, stuffy rooms cluttered with spindles and looms, hot halls of whispers and secrets - they filled you with a restless longing to flee to the mountains.
You had followed the deer deep into a thicket. Castor was waiting with the horses in the open, and you had signalled fiercely for Polydeuces not to follow you. You were slim, girlish, as light on your feet as moonlight as you slid past the grasping branches; Polydeuces crackled and snapped as he lumbered through, sure to alert the deer if he went any further. He raised his hands in submission when he caught your expression and smiled indulgently, allowing you to take this prey as your own.
Although it was cool in the dappled shade of the foliage, a bead of sweat ran down your temple. You crept as close to your quarry as possible - your brothers were far behind, out of sight, out of earshot. You heard every leaf rustle, every twig snap, the thrum of blood as it swished past your ears. You took a deep breath as you drew your bow, the bronze arrowhead pointing at the deer’s neck, your fingers brushing your cheek as you pulled back the bowstring. You felt the tension through your entire body as your arm muscles strained …
The arrow flew straight and true, but the split second you loosed it, a noise startled the deer and it turned its head. The arrow missed by a whisker, probably brushing the fur of its neck before sailing past the quarry and thunking into a tree trunk. The deer, which had literally felt its brush with death, bolted as if the hounds of hell snapped at its hindquarters. It only managed a few long-legged strides, however, before it collapsed and crumpled to the ground.
Angry with yourself and confused by the deer’s sudden demise, you picked your way through the undergrowth to study the body lying prone on the ground. A bronze throwing axe, the twin blade nicked and tarnished with use, was buried in the deer’s neck. It panted out its last breaths in a gush of arterial blood from the wound.
Someone else is here. You felt a rush of shock as you realised that you were completely alone - the blissful silence of the wilderness you had relished before now seemed to echo as empty as the void of chaos itself.
“What do we have here?”
The voice was male, unfamiliar. You wanted to run, to scream for your brothers, but you felt frozen in terror, just like the prey you often stalked through these woods.
You turned your head slowly in the direction of the voice. Two men stalked towards you, one slightly ahead of the other. The one closest filled your vision. He was tall and armoured, with a curling black beard and sun-bronzed skin that complemented his gleaming breastplate. The expression on his face when your eyes met his black, beetling gaze was completely unfamiliar to you then. You had lived all twelve years of your life in the women’s quarters of the palace at Sparta, sheltered from prying eyes. The only men you had ever met were your father, your brothers and your male slaves, whose eyes were always firmly fixed on the ground.
Now you know the routine like clockwork. Transfixion, as their gaze crawls over your body, up the delicate line of your neck. Hunger, as their eyes lock onto yours and you see the animalistic flair that makes their pupils dilate. And lust, sometimes swiftly hidden, sometimes written all over their features. Panting, primal, improper, inevitable.
But how could you have known it then? How could you have comprehended that Theseus - that infamous hero of Athens - was undressing you with his eyes? That he was imagining you, not yet nubile, far from ready, tangled in his bedsheets, your curls cascading over his pillow?
“It must be Artemis herself,” he breathed, and you were pinned under the weight of his gaze. “No one but a goddess could possess such unearthly beauty.”
You shook your head - afraid of the blasphemy, afraid of him - palms sweaty, heart hammering, and took a step backwards. He stepped closer, as if this were a dance.
“I … I must be getting back. To my brothers,” you stuttered, but a smile spread over his face.
Suddenly you bolted, fear adding speed to your light feet, but Theseus just laughed and caught you within a couple of steps, his arms closing around your waist. All at once he was there, pressing himself up against your back. It was the smell that struck you most - the masculine musk of sweat and leather and metal, so foreign and overwhelming. He sunk his fingers into the material of your dress and his face into your hair, breathing you in as he held you captive in the iron circle of his arms.
“POLYDEUCES! CASTOR! HELP ME! PLEA-” you screamed, terror and revulsion lending weight to your plea, before he slapped a dirty hand over your mouth.
“Little Helen of Sparta,” Theseus crooned in your ear. “You’re coming with me.”
When you finally returned to Sparta months later, your family were so relieved to have you back that they didn’t notice the small changes in their golden daughter. No one had noticed that you avoided your reflection at all costs. You were hardly vain before, but now you would go out of your way to escape the glimpse of your form in a pool of still water, the distorted reflection of your face in a shining breastplate. You didn’t want to be reminded of the reason he took you. No one noticed how you sobbed yourself to sleep on the night your monthly courses flowed for the first time, sick with relief that they hadn’t blossomed just a couple of months earlier.
They noticed, but no one was surprised, when you refused to leave the palace. No more hunting trips with Castor and Polydeuces, no more revelling in the feeling of fresh air streaming into your lungs. You stuck to the cloistered corridors, made yourself useful at the loom.
But there was no hiding anymore. You and Nestra were fifteen, and Penelope six months older. The three of you were fully aware that your most important role now was as a bargaining chip in the fist of your fathers.
“Great dynasties will be made or denied in that room,” your father promised you, rubbing his hands together as you peered side by side into the great atrium after the envoys had been sent out to all the corners of Greece. “The most beautiful woman in the world, Princess Helen of Sparta, daughter of King Tyndareus, is in need of a husband.”
And they had come.
Every hero worth his salt, every heir looking for an advantageous match, every leader of men without a wife at his side. A steady flood of suitors trickled into the palace until it seemed that they filled every corner of space right up to the rafters.
You had dreamt the other night that your father held a contest for your hand, as is customary when you have too many suitors to count. They all lined up - giant Ajax, youthful Diomedes, red-headed Menelaus, proud Palamedes - to compete in the foot race, but they were left in the dust of Theseus, who appeared at the line just as the race started and sprinted with a single-minded determination to cross the finish line first. Then he carried on coming, past Tyndareus with the victor’s wreath, up to the dais where you were watching, frozen, and his arms wrapped around you once again …
You woke with the musk of him in your nostrils and dry wretched with revulsion. Theseus wouldn’t be there among the suitors, your rational mind told you. Firstly, your father would never let him anywhere near you again with all his limbs intact. Secondly, he was married now to Cretan Phaedra. He had no need for a wife.
As you looked down at the men from the gallery with Nestra and Penelope, you wondered what he would be like, your future husband. Would he be kind, protective, gentle, like your brothers? Or would he be sinful, lecherous, terrifying, like Theseus? How could you know? How could any woman be comfortable with being given to someone without truly knowing them first?
“Girls!” A frantic hiss from the doorway made the three of you spin round in surprise. “What do you think you are doing?! Get away from there!”
Hyphainia, your childhood nurse, may have been humpbacked with age but she could still move with remarkable speed, shuffling sideways like the little orange crabs you had seen at the seashore. She chivvied the three of you away from the balcony and whipped your veil over your face in one deft movement.
“Keep your face covered, girl! Do you want to start a riot?” she hissed, shaking her head so that her withered jowls shook, but there was no malice in it.
She shuffled through the lofty corridors of the palace, leading the three of you back to the safety of the women’s quarters. There were still many hours left of good daylight, but the thought of going back to the loom turned your stomach. How could you possibly sit still and concentrate on weaving at a time like this? But, then again, where else could you go?
With a sigh you pulled the veil from your head and threw it on the floor by the side of your loom. You lifted the heavy weight of your curls up off the back of your neck and bound them there with a leather thong. Immediately you felt less stifled. The weaving room had a large, open doorway which led out onto a courtyard with a tinkling fountain. A cool breeze snuck around your bare neck today, spiriting away some of the stuffiness from the air.
You eventually forced your gaze from the inviting green of the lush courtyard and turned to your work. For months you, Nestra and Penelope had been making your bridal outfits. You had carded, wound, spun and woven the innumerable threads that made up each garment by hand. While you passed the shuttle back and forth at the loom and the delicate fabric of your bridal gown grew, the women would sing and Hyphainia would tell stories as well as any bard. While her deft fingers wove wool her tongue would weave words of Arachne, who challenged Athene herself to a weaving contest, and of the Fates, who spun, measured and cut the threads of life for every mortal on earth.
As, slowly, steadily, the cloth had grown bigger, you had felt a gradual tightening in your chest. Because wearing this beautiful outfit would mean the end. The end of a life safe within the walls of the palace, the end of falling asleep at night next to the softly slumbering forms of your sister and your cousin.
When you were small and precocious - long before Theseus had taken you - you had complained to Hyphainia that you wanted to be a boy like your brothers. Why would anyone want to be a girl, you had asked. You weave and you marry and you move away and you have babies. I want to do more than that. The old nursemaid had taken you to the standing loom where she was weaving a splendid tapestry of green, red and yellow. A multitude of plain warp threads were strung vertically from the wooden frame, gathered into ropes and weighted at the ends to keep them straight. She showed you how the brightly coloured weft threads were shuttled backwards and forwards as they were woven into the warp.
“You see, my girl? In order for the cloth to grow, some of the threads have to stay still while others are always moving. Although women are shuttled around from man to man, the fabric of life can’t be woven without them.”
Now you had almost completed the glorious silk peplos that you would wear on your wedding day. But as you passed the shuttle through the long line of warp threads, the tightness in your chest only grew.