© Helen Lowe
Shortlisted, Raymond Carver Short Story Award 2005 (USA)
First published Carve-zine, September 2005
Republished, The Best of Carve Magazine, 2006
I never have liked my brother Agamemnon, even when we were children together. I saw too much then of what he is: grasping, devious and none too brave. Not the kind of man who likes to fight his own battles if he can get someone else to do it for him. I think he quickly came to see that as my role, for I was, after all, the younger brother and must earn my way in the world. Fighting my kingly brother's battles more than suited Agamemnon, and to be fair, it suited me as well for a long time, not least because it kept me away from my scheming sibling. Besides, I too am an Atreides, and was as keen to promote the glory of our house and the Mycenaean kingdom as Agamemnon.
And I like fighting. I always have enjoyed the sheer physicality of it and the camaraderie with your shield brothers, both on the field of battle and around the campfire afterwards. There is something too, about seeing the whites of an opponent's eye across the rim of your shield, testing your strength against theirs and knowing that only one of you will survive the clash and fury of the battle. It gives life a savor, a knife sharp edge that is missing when you wake up knowing that this day will be no different from the last. And the food and the wine are sweeter afterwards, the campfire and the lover in your arms warmer because of that sharp awareness of death and life, raw edged against each other in the battle. Even when I was little more than a boy and still believed myself invincible, I was intensely aware of that flame edge that battle and death give life. The fire only burns hotter as one grows older and more aware that you are vulnerable.
I think that particular awareness is one of the things Agamemnon lacks, because he does not like to venture himself in battle. He will always play it safe if he can get away with it, letting others take the front row, the position of danger. There can be no doubt however, that his cunning and that smooth tongue of his has helped make Mycenae even greater than it was when he first planted his backside on the Lion Throne. He has a trick of always saying what he thinks a man wants to hear - when it suits him. His statesmanship, he likes to call it, although others have given it a different name.
"Your damned, lying, devious ways," an older Chieftain accused him once. The man had grown truculent in his cups, and reckless with it, and he did not live long afterwards. Agamemnon laughed loudly at the time, of course, clapping him on the shoulder and calling him one of the old guard. What he did not say was that he had no time for the old ways and those who held to them, but I saw the wound that killed the man in his next battle. He had been one of my father's bodyguard and his face was to the front as you'd expect - but the sword thrust had come from behind. I knew then by whose will he died, if not by whose hand.
So now you know why I have never been one for loose words. It suits my image too, of course: Menelaus the blunt soldier, the man of few words outside of strategy in war and exhorting men in battle. The truth is that I learned long ago that it does not pay to cross my older brother in war or deeds, for he will always exact the reckoning in full: in the heat of the moment if he has the numbers and it will serve him, but he will wait if he has to - years if necessary. I have always known that our shared blood and bond of brotherhood would not protect me if I crossed him in anything he considered important. No, the day I decide to go against Agamemnon I will have to kill him, and swiftly, while he suspects nothing. Otherwise I will be the dead man and sooner, probably, rather than later.
I used to see the same knowledge in Clytemnestra's eyes when she thought no-one was watching her. She wore the mask of the Goddess well, that one, her face smooth and expressionless, every inch the Royal Wife. Her lips always smiled when she looked on Agamemnon, but I have grown used to watching men's eyes, both across the shield rim and assessing the mood and temper of my own men before battle. It was natural for me to look beyond the royal mask and the smiles to the Queen's eyes, and I saw the bleakness of knowledge and disillusion there when they rested on Agamemnon. Her husband. My brother. Sometimes I thought I saw a flicker of other emotions as well, of despair perhaps and even hatred, but I could not be sure. She never let you close enough to catch more than a fleeting glimpse of what went on behind the mask. She was alert too, and wary, and it did not take her long to realize that I was watching. After that, even her eyes were veiled.
I have often wondered, in the long years we have been camped on this windswept shore, whether both mask and eyes turned to stone on the day she learned of Iphigenia's fate. I have seen Clytemnestra often in my dreams since then, and always with the same mask, which is not that of the Goddess anymore but a Gorgon's, although she still wears the Queen's crown on her snaky hair. One thing I have learned however, in this seemingly interminable war, is that the Goddess, no less than the God, can wear a dark face as well as a fair one. I always wake sweating out of that dream and lie staring into the darkness of my tent, listening to the ceaseless wind and wondering if Clytemnestra will ever forgive me for what happened to Iphigenia. I do not know if I will ever forgive myself.
I know what Nestor would say, or Odysseus if I were foolish enough to share that thought with either of them. Nestor would shake his white head and look wise, murmuring about the will of the gods and the right of life and death that rests in the hands of a High King, even over his own daughter, the Sacred Princess born to the land. The platitudes would follow after, for he likes the sound of his own voice does Nestor, even when it says little to the point. Odysseus, on the other hand, would raise one eyebrow and ask how I could possibly be at fault when Iphigenia was not my daughter and the decision to sacrifice her was made entirely between Agamemnon and his priests, without consulting anyone else. The look in his eye however, would tell me that I was a fool to lose sleep over something that could not be helped. Nor would either of them waste any time in telling the whole to Agamemnon if they thought it might benefit them, the one whispering in his left ear while the other murmured in his right. So I keep my own counsel and attend to what I do best, which is fighting Agamemnon's wars.
Odysseus's second eyebrow would definitely join the first if I was ever sufficiently unwise to speak that thought aloud, and his mouth would twist into his slow, feral smile. "Agamemnon's war?" he would ask, in the broadest of Ithacan accents, which he can turn on or drop at will. "And here I was thinking that we were all here to retrieve your wife, my Menelaus." His eyes, of course, would mock his words, for he knows as well as I do that Agamemnon doesn't give a damn about Helen. Does a man who will quite literally sacrifice his own daughter to further his ambition lose sleep over the abduction, as he chooses to call it, of his brother's wife unless he can see benefit to himself? I know the truth and so does Odysseus, which is that Helen was just a convenient excuse for Agamemnon to declare war on Troy, something he had wanted to do for years. As far back as I can remember he always hated Troy, not just because of its stranglehold on the Euxine trade but because it is his nature to hate anything that he does not control. If he cannot acquire it for himself then he will bring it down, sooner or later.
Part of Agamemnon's "statesmanship" however, is that he likes to cloak his actions in legitimacy. He knows that it is important to retain the support of the fighting clans and their princes, men who still like a king to uphold the laws of the gods. They fight better for it, even if their eyes are fixed on loot and battle glory, and Agamemnon knows it.
I, of course, gave him exactly the excuse and legitimacy he needed to unite the princes and lead the clans against Troy - I and Helen between us. That is why I hold myself responsible for Iphigenia's death, even though it was not my plan to sacrifice her, or my hand that wielded the blade that cut her throat while the army watched. I hear their roar of approval still and see the mixture of fear, bloodlust and a curious satisfaction in the eyes of those around me. I think it was that which finally pierced the miasma of rage and shame and grief that I had wrapped about myself since Helen left. It should have been the girl's white terrified face, her desperate eyes fixed on mine, pleading with the uncle who had tossed her up in the air so many times when she was a child, and put her up on his tall horse. She was a child still, but discerning as her mother. Even in her terror she knew better than to expect anything from her father, since her death served his purpose.
No, it was to her uncle that her face turned, on my face that she fixed her eyes, but I was blind and deaf to everything but the raging anguish of Helen's betrayal and flight. It is even feasible that I, if no other, could have stayed Agamemnon's hand, since it was my cause this massive fleet and army was gathered to pursue with blood and sword. Just possibly, I could have persuaded the High King that a lesser sacrifice than his Royal Daughter would be sufficient to placate the gods. Possibly, but just as likely not, knowing Agamemnon and his vaunting ambition as I do. The point is that I didn't even try. I stood by and did nothing and let Iphigenia die, betrayed not only by her father but also by the uncle who had always claimed to love her.
If I were Clytemnestra, I would know where to let my curses fall for that deed. We both know what Agamemnon is, but she may have thought better of me, until that moment. She may even have believed me capable of rising above my fury of grief and wounded pride. Well, she will know better now. My only hope is that she, too, will be blinded by her anguish and rage and so reserve both her hatred and her curses to her husband - but I don't rely on it, not when I wake sweating from the Gorgon dream in the silent watches of the night. I see the mask as clearly awake as asleep, and know that it is the face of her mother's curse, pursuing me.
It is clear enough, given the ten long years we have spent on this plain, that someone's curse has been working against us, and I know that others think so too. I can see it in their eyes, a certain haunted expression, and in the grimness around their mouths. I hear the whispers around the campfires, the belated realization that the girl whose death they cheered was a Sacred Princess, sworn from birth to the service of the Goddess. They whisper that in placating the gods of sky and war, we stirred the slow anger of the earth serpent against our cause. And they fear that they will never see their own hearths and homes again, and I cannot blame them. I have come to doubt it myself and understand why they spin themselves a new story, a tale of the Goddess substituting a goat for her sworn maiden at the last minute and spiriting the princess away. It is what men do, shying away from the truth of our dark deeds and substituting a story that rests easier on our conscience. But it is not true, this story. I know it and so do they, in their hearts.
I know too, that leaving this blighted plain would be as easy as summoning my men, getting aboard our ships and sailing away, back to Sparta. It would probably end the war, since it is my wrong, ostensibly, that has fuelled it these ten long years. It would mean breaking with Agamemnon, of course, which would undoubtedly mean my death or his when we had both returned to Greece. I do not fear that confrontation, not any more, but I cannot bring myself to leave either, not when I look upon those Trojan walls and know that Helen sits behind them. Helen, whom I loved once and probably still do, somewhere amidst the worn out anger and the hate. Love and hate together, an odd mix, and both grown stale with ten years of war. I am weary of it all, and yet I cannot leave. She holds me here, the two of us yoked together like horses poled up to a chariot. One cannot turn away without pulling the other with it, and the wreckage of the chariot, like our world, is dragged heedless in their wake.
That is one part of it. The other, the cynical voice that is clearest in the dark hours, asks how much of my reluctance is because it is none so certain that I would still be King in Sparta, if I returned without Helen. She, after all, was the Sacred Daughter there and wore the mask and crown of the Goddess. I became King because I married her, for the Atreides had no claim in Lacedaemon. It is certainly part of the reason that I stay. I do not deny it to myself as I stand here, gazing out across the darkened plain. It is something I have always believed, that a man should strive to be honest with himself, at least in his own heart.
King of Sparta. I like what that title has brought me, including the men at my back. They have followed me here over the sea, these men of Sparta, but I can never be sure whether it is to right my wrongs or simply to win back their Luck, their Sacred Queen. It may even be that their purpose is to ensure that the path is clear for Helen's daughter to take the Queenship in her turn. And where would that leave me? As Regent for Hermione, Helen's daughter and mine, until she came of age and could take a husband to supplant me, the Young King turning out the Old. And to what end, to once again become dependent on my brother's charity and soldier in his cause as I did before? The thought tastes bitter as ashes in my mouth and it is not the wind that makes me shiver as I look towards Troy.
No, I like being King of Sparta, no longer just a subject of my brother and the sword that gives a keener edge to his statesmanship. As King of Sparta I am an ally, a brother king. I saw that opportunity the moment I heard that Tyndaerus of Sparta had invited all the princes of Hellas to sue for the hand of his daughter, soon to be the Young Queen. Better still, Agamemnon had urged me to it, keen to cement the alliance with that ancient and divine lineage that he had initiated ten years earlier by marrying Clytemnestra, Helen's elder half-sister. "Mycenae and Sparta," he had said, rubbing his hands together. "The whole of Greece will bow to us then, brother." I had shrugged of course, returning a light reply to the effect that I must first be chosen. It never paid to appear eager before Agamemnon. He however had snorted, despising any appearance of modesty. "I think you sell yourself too short brother, yourself and Mycenae."
Truth to tell, my heart was high as I and my retinue took the road to Lacedaemon. It was green, the springtime of the year and I was young, with renown as a warrior and leader of men and none too ill to look upon either, or so my erstwhile lovers had assured me. I was tall and well muscled and I wore my hair long, a fashion approved by the Spartans. I let it fall loose for the wooing, knowing that even the Mycenaean bullion on my tunic, and the gold at throat and wrist, did not gleam brighter than the golden-red of my hair. I was proud of that tunic too, which was of fine Egyptian linen, dyed red, with a white mantle over it. The mantle had a golden border and was pinned with a great, golden brooch, shaped like a shield boss but with a lion's head in its center, our own lion of Mycenae. I knew I presented as fine an appearance as any of the princes gathered in Tyndaerus' hall, and I suspected that he and his advisers would approve both my reputation in war and the wealth and power of Mycenae at my back. I could only hope that the Young Queen too, would approve what she saw, for Clytemnestra had told me, ignoring Agamemnon's derisive snort, that her word would carry considerable weight in the final decision.
It was only later, after we married, that I found out that I was her choice as much as her father's. When I asked her why she simply laughed, saying it was for the fine, dark gray of my eyes. Later, when I persisted further, she kissed me, her own eyes thoughtful. "I am not entirely sure. I didn't want to like you at all, knowing what my sister's life has been, married to your brother - but I did in spite of myself." Her nose had wrinkled a little, as it always did when she was thoughtful, seeking for words. "I knew my father thought you the best choice, because of the alliance with Mycenae and your success in war. He said you would make a good King for Sparta, and that did weigh with me. How could it not? But of all of them, I thought you seemed, oh, I don't know, different somehow, modest and thoughtful, even kind." She had laughed then, the laugh that made you remember what men claimed, that her true father had been a god. It dismissed my seriousness, breaking the moment. "And you are very handsome too, Menelaus of Mycenae, and a King should be handsome, don't you think?"
I laughed too then and let it go, afraid of seeming too serious in the light of her springtime face, although I would have preferred to hear her say that her heart had flown out of her breast and into my keeping, the way mine had to hers. It was not just that she was fair, although she was, or that the shimmer of her divine heritage hung about her. I had simply never encountered a woman like Helen before, for all that I was no stranger to women and had always liked them, both in my bed and out of it, unlike so many of my fellow princes who prefer their noble youths. She was tall and golden and graceful, she laughed easily and often, and she could toss conversation as lightly as a glass ball, glittering through the air. And I loved her, tenderly, passionately and deeply, as I had never loved anyone in my life before.
As for Helen, she seemed glad enough in the marriage and we were happy together in those first years, basking in our splendor as the Young Queen and King. The clouds crept up slowly, and at first only cast a little shadow, such as the dislike Helen felt for Agamemnon. She did not care for him at all, although initially she tried to hide it. "Sparta is no vassal of Mycenae," she cried out once, low but intense after one of his not infrequent visits. "We are allies and you are his brother King. You need not bow your knee, or your neck, to the Lion Throne!"
I looked at her then, surprised at her intensity, but remembering that she had been brought up all her life with the knowledge that she was of divine origin, sacred as well as Queen, the Luck of her people. "Agamemnon would be the first to acknowledge what you say," I replied slowly, "calling me both ally and brother."
"In words perhaps," she said simply, saying aloud what I too knew to be true, "but never in his heart. He still sees you as the younger brother, the junior, to come or go at his bidding."
I shrugged. "It is the way of older brothers. And he is the High King in our Mycenaen alliance." I did not add that he was jealous of his prerogatives, for a blind man could see that. "There is no gain to be had in challenging him, on either score."
She shook her golden head impatiently. "I do not understand why you defer to him so. You are thrice the man that he is, Menelaus, and the power of Mycenae is due as much to your victories in battle as his so called statesmanship."
I had smiled then, trying to turn the matter aside with light words. "You can hardly expect me to be the one to tell him so, however." Yet I had learned something about my love that day, which was that she was not as discerning as her sister. She simply did not see that to Agamemnon his High Kingship was a matter of life and death. At the time, I quickly dismissed the matter from my mind, but looking back I can see that it should have warned me, for if Helen could not penetrate Agamemnon's character, she might well be equally blind to other men. It was after the birth of Hermione however, that the real clouds came. For the first time, I saw Helen listless and deeply discontent, and it did not help that I was too much away, campaigning against our enemies to the north. Agamemnon's enemies, she said coldly, and turned her face away.
At first, the advent of Prince Paris seemed like a blessing from the gods, for he and his company were all young, debonair and gay, full of their recent sojourns in Egypt and Crete and all the wonders of those lands. He came too, prepared to praise the famous beauty of the Spartan Queen and Helen's spirits revived in his company. And although there are many good looking men, Paris was something more. His barbering and dress were elegant, his dancing graceful and he had a charm that matched Helen's own - and even the most dour of my warriors, blinking at this sudden advent of eastern splendor, had to admit that he showed skill and courage in the hunt. I noted however, that although he spoke with enthusiasm of accompanying me on campaign, he did not protest too hard when I replied that his aged father would scarcely thank me for risking his son's person.
A pretty princeling, I thought him, but I made him my guest friend anyway, for Helen's sake and with a longer eye to trade with Troy. I kept my smiles at his airs and graces to myself and forbade my men, with dire threats, from quarrelling with his entourage. It would certainly never have occurred to me to lisp out a poem to the arch of Helen's eyebrow, or the whiteness of her arms. I even laughed over it, a little, in the privacy of our apartments.
Perhaps I should have noticed that Helen did not join in my laughter, but I esteemed her too well to believe, even for a moment, that she valued such nonsense. Clytemnestra called me a fool for that later. She said that there is no woman alive who is too intelligent or circumspect to enjoy a little dalliance or pretty flirtation, especially with someone as noble and beautiful as Prince Paris. Perhaps Helen did not intend it to go as far as it did, perhaps the final flight really was an abduction, but I should have recognized the allure Paris held for her, given her frame of mind at that time. He brought with him all the glamour of far-off places and the great city of Illium, which must have seemed as far from Mycenae, and the machinations of the Atreides, as Olympus itself.
Well, Clytemnestra was undoubtedly right to call me a fool, for I did not see it. I was too busy marshalling men, arms and horses, and all the other logistics of a punitive expedition, to give Prince Paris's visit more than half my mind. Even now, the events of that time are little more than a blur of feast and hunts, with a different entertainment every night.
I remember my return from the expedition though, and the echoing silence of our palace by the sea. My footsteps seemed un-naturally loud as I strode from room to room, for all the servants had hidden themselves away, terrified of my wrath. The only sound was a thin, fitful wailing from the nursery, where Hermione too had been abandoned. I picked her up out of her crib, holding her in the crook of my armored arm and trying to convey some sense of comfort, although there was none in my own soul.
It was an effort, when my soldiers had hunted the servants out, herding them before me, to keep my voice quiet and even. I knew Agamemnon would have put them all to the sword, slave and free alike, as if they could possibly be held accountable for the decisions of their Queen. I however, said that I would only slay them if they neglected Hermione again, or failed to return to their duties. But even then, none of them dared speak or lift their eyes until I turned on my heel and left, calling for chariots, and horses, and driving straight to Mycenae and my brother.
The disbelief, bewilderment and hurt I felt when I stood in Helen's empty apartments gave way, first to pain and then to the slow burn of anger. It turned, during that long drive, to a cold fury against both Paris and Helen for their betrayal. The rage consumed me, but it was not the kind of rage that stops you thinking. I knew exactly what I was doing when I went to Agamemnon, the longed for weapon that I was placing in his hands. I saw the triumph and delight flare in his eyes, even while his hand grasped my shoulder and he mouthed the smooth, meaningless words of a sympathy that he did not feel. I knew that secretly my brother would despise me, for he always had a sly, contemptuous jibe for the man who could not keep his women in order. I knew, but I did not care, for in that moment he became my weapon, the driving force of rage and revenge that I would unleash against Troy, pursuing Helen and Paris relentlessly, until the end.
It is that end that I am facing now as I stand on the ramparts above our camp, looking out across the plain to Troy. A few lights still twinkle there, high on the walls, even after ten years of siege. >From this distance they look like small, yellow stars and it may even be that one of them is shining from Helen's room. It is strange to think of her there, combing her hair as she used to in Sparta, while her maids busy themselves with the clothes chest and their spinning. Strange too, to think of her living there as wife to another man, as though the simple passage of years could undo our marriage vows. I wonder how much choice she had when Priam insisted that she marry another of his many sons when Paris fell. I smile slightly, in spite of myself, remembering how Helen always liked to do her own choosing, in men as in most other things.
The wind pricks beneath my cloak with cool fingers and I know, as do we all, that this wooden horse of Odysseus is the last throw of the dice. I will be in it with him and the other chosen men, volunteering for a post that will mean certain death if we fail - but put me in the forefront should we succeed. Agamemnon had shaken his head over my presence in the horse itself. "Odysseus I can understand," he said, "since it's his idea. Besides, he's only a prince of Ithaca when all's said and done. But you, my brother - you are of Mycenae and Sparta. Why risk yourself un-necessarily?"
For answer, I simply shrugged and said I found it fitting. I did not say why, that I thought it only right that the one who had started the war should venture himself in the gamble that would end it, one way or the other. For I could have let my head rule my heart ten years ago and sent emissaries and Mycenaen gold after Helen, to win her back with honeyed words and the clink of wealth into Trojan palms. I had known at the time how unlikely it was that the romance would last, that it was an infatuation, no more. I had known, even as I stood there, listening to the echoing silence of her rooms, that diplomacy would be the wisest and most prudent course, putting the wellbeing of kingdoms ahead of my own wounded pride and ego.
But I could not do it. I would not. Let the world burn as I burned, for rage and rending grief and the loss of love. I had embraced my rage knowingly and the intoxication that went with it, a mix of indignation, righteousness and wrath that was a torch to the brushwood of my brother's plans. It took Iphigenia's death and the shamed connivance in the eyes of those around me to bring me back into myself. Too late for Iphigenia, and too late for all those who have died here on the Trojan plain. Far too late, but at least now, when the ashes of my rage have long grown cold, I will take what responsibility I can and hazard myself in the belly of the wooden horse.
And if we are successful, what then? I will be in the forefront of the attack with the few picked men of my bodyguard and some hope of reaching Helen before the worst of the sack, but to what end? A man should be honest with himself in his inmost heart, but even now I am not sure. My heart, it seems, is mixed. Part of me loves her still, or at least my memory of what she was, but there is still a spark of the old anger there, perhaps only waiting the right breeze to fan it into life. Then there is Menelaus the general, the leader of men who would lead them still, and as King of Sparta, not the client of his brother. That Menelaus likes to weigh the odds and consider the strategic course, his eyes veiled as the wine bowl goes around and the others boast of what will come to them, of their share of the spoils when Troy falls.
Agamemnon quizzes me of course, seeking to know my mind. He has already claimed Priam's daughter Cassandra as his prize amongst the women when the city falls. I see the quality of his smile as he stakes his claim and I know that he will make her feel her degradation to the full, a princess of Troy and a priestess of the God both, brought to serve in his bed. There is no kindness in him and he will find every way to drive home her dispossession, to make himself feel the greater by comparison. And he never did like Helen, any more than she liked him.
His narrowed eyes turned to me again tonight, when the bowl went around for the last time and I could see he was brooding, thinking his dark thoughts. He leaned over and grasped my wrist and his gaze held mine, compelling. "You must kill her brother, have her put to the knife, a sacrifice for the armies out here on the plain. You are an Atreides of Mycenae and King now in Sparta. You must set an example, show the world what that means."
Like Iphigenia, I thought, sick to the stomach as I saw again her pinched child's face and pleading eyes locked on mine. But I kept my face calm and let my lips smile as I swirled my wine, studying the cloudy depths before looking back, open and friendly, at my brother. "She is the Queen of Sparta," I said, "the Luck of Lacedaemon. That is something I must consider too." It was a warning and he never lacked for wit. I saw his eyes flick to the warriors behind me in sudden, quick comprehension and then as quickly away, his own lips smiling too.
He reached out and grasped a handful of nuts, cracking them between his fingers and chewing them slowly, the brooding eyes hooded. I stared into my wine again and this time it showed me Helen's face, grave but unafraid, gazing back into mine. I thought about seeing her in the flesh, face to face again after so long and wondered what face she would wear for that fatal meeting: Helen the woman, or Helen the Queen, or the mask of the Goddess, inscrutable and bland? Not that last, I thought quickly, for the Helen I remembered would scorn that as a coward's trick. I did not expect her to plead either, no matter what I might intend.
Agamemnon's eyes were still veiled when the party finally broke up and we departed for our own tents. He held me back as my bodyguards ducked out ahead of me, into the night, the ransom of his rings glittering against the bronze of my vambrace. "Even so," he murmured, very soft, "Sacred Queen or no, we are Atreides. You must still be seen to punish her, my brother, if we are to hold our heads up amongst other men."
I nodded, suddenly and intensely aware of the richness of the hangings around us in the flickering light of the braziers, and the biting chill of the night wind outside. Its cool touch drifted across my neck but I held his eyes, trying to find the reason that would make sense to his jealous pride, rather than being a challenge or a threat. "I would still be King of Sparta too, brother, when this is done."
He was silent for a long, long moment, digesting this, something hard and dangerous glittering in his eyes. "Surely you are not suggesting that the Lacedaemon clans followed you to win back their sacred Luck, rather than to uphold your honor as their King?" There was no mistaking the silky, warning note in his voice, however low he kept it.
I held his eyes with a steady, warning look of my own. "A wise man would not discount the possibility too quickly, my brother." For the first time I saw a flicker of uneasiness in his eyes, and I wondered then if he too dreamed of Clytemnestra wearing the Gorgon's mask, but the flicker came and went so swiftly that I could have been mistaken. I hoped he was remembering that Iphigenia too, had been a daughter of the sacred line and sworn to the Goddess from her birth. At any rate, the dangerous glitter left his eyes and he let go of my arm.
I nodded and stepped out into the windblown dark where the torch fire was streaming like red banners, casting a lurid glow over bronze armor and stiff horsehair crests. My hand slid to the hilt of my sword and I instantly felt reassured, for here at least was something straightforward, that I understood and could do well. I would focus my mind on the silent belly of the horse and the waiting, the long hours hidden inside the wooden carapace while the Trojans cheered and rejoiced, dragging doom into the city with their own hands.
After that, there was only the stealthy descent from the horse and the heart sickening run through the streets, trying to stay ahead of the swiftly spreading tide of blood and battle as the Greek army surged into the city. And I still did not know what would come of it all, for me, for Helen, even when I finally stepped over the threshold of the Trojan palace. I and my bodyguard had fought hard to get there first, and the blood was thick on our swords and arms. The night behind us was filled with screams and the torchlight leapt wildly again, but this time across marble walls and cool, tiled floors. We stood there, motionless, our heads up and listening, for this hall at least was silent, the screaming and destruction still at a distance.
There was a stair at the hall's end, a small stair curving upwards in wide, shallow steps and I followed it, my footsteps steady and suddenly very loud, until I pushed aside the heavy curtain with my sword's edge. I knew, with that instinctive sense that binds you close to those you love, or hate, that she would be there. I felt my men close in around the foot of the stair behind me, but they did not follow me up. They were men of Lacedaemon all, not one chosen from those of Mycenae. It was only as I stepped into the small, moonlit room beyond the curtain however, that I admitted the significance of that decision to myself. Odysseus had known I thought, remembering how his eyes had flickered over them as we entered the body of the Horse and his small, curved smile. But then, unlike Agamemnon, the Ithacan had always had a fondness for Helen. He sees too much that one, I thought, then shrugged, for it could not matter now. He had not stood in my way and I was here, ahead of the bloodhunt and well ahead of my brother.
She was waiting, standing by the window and making no attempt to conceal herself, although the room was unlit. Her white robe glimmered in the shadows and the moonlight, slipping through the opening, could not wash the gold from her hair. Her face however, remained in shadow and she did not speak, just stood there watching me as I stepped into the room, my bloodied sword naked in my hand. She did not look at the sword either, but fixed her eyes on mine through the mask of my visor. After a moment I reached up and pulled the helmet off, aware of the turmoil in my breast, a sudden resurgence of the old, raging emotions that I thought had grown cold, so long ago.
It was only then I realized that she was wearing all three faces for me, in the moon touched shadow of that room. There was the maiden, the laughing, beautiful girl that I had married, and there the Queen, her head high beneath the weight of the crown. The mask of the Goddess was there as well, sliding beneath and through them both. The only face I could not see clearly was the face of the woman she had become, in her ten long years in Troy. I could not be sure, but I thought she was beautiful still, yet touched by sorrow and something of my own weariness and grief. Neither of us moved or spoke, caught between our past and present, and I felt made of stone, torn between my life's love and the last of my anger, an unwillingness to forgive.
In the end, it was she who spoke, so soft it was scarcely more than a whisper. "You have burned a whole world because of me, Menelaus. Will you not even speak to me, now, at the end of our conflagration?"
I had forgotten the power of her voice, that gift from the gods. Hearing it again, after so long, shook me as the sight of her had not. I was off balance, unsteady, but I knew, finally, what had brought me here to this place, this moment. And I did not believe that the world and other men would think so ill of me, despite what Agamemnon said. I too am an Atreides, but my brother's ways are not mine and I would not do his will, not in this one thing.
I sheathed my sword. "It is not the end, Lady," I said and my voice sounded strange in my own ears, both resonant and soft at the same time, "not unless you will it so. But it is not my will."
She drew closer to me then and what I saw in her face, of love lost and the long years spent, yearning for home, pierced me to the quick. "What is your will then?" she asked, still very low. "Why are you here now, Menelaus?"
I made no move towards her, although I was overwhelmed by the memories of her in my arms. Instead I kept my eyes on hers and my voice steady, steadier than in any battle and for greater odds, as I spoke the truth of my heart aloud. "A new beginning together, if we will it so. For that is why I am here, now, to bring the Queen of Lacedaemon safely home and to her own again."
Her eyes, even so close to me, were still pools of shadow and the moment stretched between us, rang in the silence of that one room. I could hear the shifting of my men's feet below and further off, still at a distance but getting closer, the travail of a city being sacked. I wondered if she thought there was any other choice, at this time, with Agamemnon waiting. As if in answer to my thought, she lifted her hand slowly from the folds of her robe and I stood very still, seeing the dagger gleam in the moonlight. I wanted to grab for it, to protest, but knew that I must not, for this was Helen, who would make her own choice, even now, when so much else had come to ruin.
The moon shifted, flooding the room with silver and illuminating the eyes and face of the woman before me. We looked at each other, a steady look, without illusion, then Helen put the dagger aside and extended her hand to me. Silently I took it, putting my soldier's cloak around her and drawing it up, to cover her bright hair. Then still in silence, we went out of that room together, quitting the dying city for the windswept shore and the black beaked ships that waited there.
After the fall of Troy Menelaus and Helen returned to Sparta where they ruled together long and happily until his death. There are many and varying accounts of the final fate of Helen, who was reputed to be the daughter of the God Zeus.
Following the sack of Troy Agamemnon took Cassandra as his war prize and authorized the sacrifice of her sister, Polyxena, on the grave of Achilles. He then returned to Mycenae where both he and Cassandra were murdered by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus. It is said that Clytemnestra was motivated by hatred of Agamemnon, particularly for the sacrifice of their daughter, Iphigenia. He was avenged by his son Orestes who murdered both Clytemnestra and Aegisthus in their turn. For the crime of matricide he was pursued by the Furies until he finally won the forgiveness of the Goddess Artemis at Tauris. He eventually married Hermione, the daughter of Menelaus and Helen, so that together they became King and Queen of both Mycenae and Sparta.