Anticipating Tyndareus’s return from peace negotiations in Troy, his daughter barely slept all night. Her legs twitched and bounced into the early hours of morning, and by the arrival of dawn she was certain that she had not slept for a second. Now, knowing that her nurse would be in to start readying the princess for her father’s return as soon as the sky had turned thoroughly pink, she saw no reason to spend any more time trying to sleep. She threw her silk bed covers off and ran out to the balcony.
In the gray light of dawn, the sea was still dark blue. She liked it best when the water was clear and green and she could look down from her high balcony and see things swimming below. She imagined that they were nymphs, mermaids, or sirens, even though she knew that sirens only lived in the deepest sea. She would fantasize about being a siren, and at the first sight of sails she would hum quietly, imagining that it was her father’s ship that she drew to her with her song.
Sometimes, she thought that if a siren were to beckon her, she would follow the voice creating the most beautiful music, as she had always heard it told, and live in the ocean with them, singing and playing.
She climbed up on the wall, her legs dangling over the side, to watch the sky and sea grow brighter. She closed her eyes for a moment, letting the salty breeze and the early morning sounds wash over her. But for the gentle waves breaking against the cliff above which her bedroom sat, the world was quiet. The sun, growing warmer on her face by each moment, told her that this would soon change.
And just as she thought; very faintly, she could hear evidence of movement in the kitchen. Cooks and servants would be getting everything ready to begin meal preparations. In order to feed everyone who lived and worked in the palace, they would have to work all day.
The water rippled with the sun’s reflection, causing the young girl to squint. No sight of a ship yet. No song of sirens either. She started to hum tunelessly, stringing random notes together as if they were a familiar melody. He’ll come home, he’ll be home. She peered down the cliffside at the brightening water, deciding that the amorphous shadow twisting below the surface was a dolphin. She waved to it.
Looking up again, she frowned. Dark clouds were just beginning to drift in, far to the right. If they moved into her father’s path, they would delay his arrival, and they had already been expecting him for six days. She took up her tune again, willing the ship toward home and the storm away.
The door opened and then shut. Her nurse’s light, quick footsteps – the most efficient she had ever heard – made their way to the bed, which, of course, she found empty. Immediately, she would look to the wood-framed arch leading out to the balcony. Through the half-drawn gauzy white curtains, the seven-year-old on the stone wall was easily visible.
“Come eat breakfast, Helen,” the nurse requested sternly.
She swung her legs back on the balcony side of the wall, jumped down, and ran to her nurse, who led her by the hand to the round table. Bread, fruit, and olives waited on a plate for her hands to search for the pieces that looked best to her. Beside it sat a painted clay cup full of fresh milk. Helen climbed into a chair, folding her feet underneath her, and stuffed her mouth full of bread.
“I’ve told you not to dangle your legs over the wall like that, it’s very dangerous,” the nurse chided her. “And I wish you would wear your sandals when you walk outside, even if you’re only out on the balcony.”
“I know,” Helen said, between swallows. “I forgot.”
“Never mind for now. I have to mend your dress before you can wear it, I’ve just found a tear. I don’t know how you manage to put holes in all of your clothing.”
“The one with the gold threads? Does that mean that he’ll definitely be home today?”
“Your father will surely arrive before the night.”
Bursting with happiness, Helen sprang from her chair and skipped about the room, shouting with joy.
“Helen, calm down! Finish your breakfast! You shouldn’t skip around so. Behave like the princess you are.”
But Helen’s radiant good mood would not be quenched, nor would her energy. She picked food from her plate as she passed by, taking bites and crying “He’s home, he’s home!” between chews. The nurse shook her head, smiling, and sat down to mend her charge’s dress.
Helen ran back out to the balcony, still barefoot, and leaned over the wall. She peered hard out over the water, hardly moving, until she at last spotted sails. She smiled widely. Because she liked and feared the god of the sea, she quietly said, “Poseidon, let them arrive safely today.”
She saw, or imagined, a swirling pool of light some way off, a phenomenon she had seen or imagined many times before – a sunny ray that seemed to emit from the ocean, turning the water nearest to it a pure emerald color. She thought of it as Poseidon waving to her, indicating that he had heard her. She pushed herself off of the wall and ran back in to tell her nurse, “Poseidon will not delay their arrival anymore. My father will be here today.”
“That’s nice. It’s time for your music lesson, Helen. Put on one of your day dresses, and you can come change into this one before the King arrives. I shall finish mending it before lunch, and I doubt they will have docked before noon.”
She laid out a lightweight white dress, with which Helen obediently dressed herself. She ran out the door while still tying the white cord around her waist, chased by a shouted request to wear her sandals. She did not go back for them, but hurried to the room of the music tutor in bare feet.
The lyre could not hold her attention for more than half a minute, what with the preoccupation of her father’s arrival. The music tutor very soon abandoned the attempt at instrumental instruction and asked Helen to sing – which, still imagining herself as a siren, she was inclined to do anyway. On this day, she could not stand still, and paced around the room as she went through the verses of a love song, touching everything she walked by.
She had a very pleasant voice, sweet and resonant, pure, as a child’s voice should be. And she loved to sing. Even this, the tutor could see, was hopeless, and he dismissed Helen long before the lesson was meant to be over. Just as she had done to her nurse, she skipped from the room without a word to him.
In an open-walled corridor leading out to a spacious and well-tended courtyard, Helen ran into her sister. She ran to her. “Have you heard yet, Clytemnestra? Father will be home today.”
Clytemnestra, eleven years old and therefore much wiser and more composed than Helen, smiled at her little sister’s excitement. “Yes, I have. It is the news of the day, it seems. But where are your sandals?”
Helen looked at her feet, then back at her sister’s waiting eyes, and admitted with the slightest feeling of guilt, “I forgot again.”
“You’re impossible. I always remembered my sandals, even when I was younger than you are. The bottoms of your feet will be irreversibly rough by the time you’ve seen ten summers.”
Helen stuck out her tongue, although she knew she shouldn’t. “Some people think other things are more important.”
But when Clytemnestra held her hand out, Helen took it and allowed her to lead her back to her bedroom, where the nurse had laid her sandals out by the foot of the neatly made bed. With Helen sitting on the edge, Clytemnestra helped her tie the laces around her ankles.
Helen leapt up the moment it was done. “Now you have to do something I want,” she demanded.
Hands on hips, Clytemnestra laughed and said, “Just until lunchtime. Being up all night makes me hungry.”
“You didn’t sleep either, then?” Helen caught on eagerly.
Clytemnestra stiffened for a moment, then relaxed her shoulders with visible effort. “My neck hurt, that’s why. I couldn’t manage a comfortable position. I might need new pillows. Come on, what is it you want to do? You want me to go outside with you, am I right?”
Helen frowned. Her sister did tend to demur, rarely revealing much emotion at all, but this was different. This was about Tyndareus. Although Helen never could find a reason for it, she grew more and more certain that their father was, most of the time, distant and strained in his relationship to his older daughter. The nurse had told her that it began when their mother died. When Helen had suggested, “Because he misses her?” the nurse said no more.
“Let’s go,” Clytemnestra urged. “I’ll bet the sea is your favorite color by now. It’s a bright day.”
“For now,” Helen responded. She frowned again, a distinct frown from the last. She hurried out onto the balcony again. Shading her eyes from the sun’s reflected light, she scanned the sky to find the dark storm clouds slightly larger than she remembered. They were coming closer, but the sails of her father’s ship were still a long way off the shore. Closing her eyes, she concentrated very hard on her thoughts, and sent a message.
“Zeus, please delay the storm until after Father is home. Then you can rain twice as hard if you want.”
Her eyelids flew open. She grabbed Clytemnestra’s hand and pulled her along, shouting, “Come on! We have to make an offering to Poseidon!”
“What for?” her sister wondered – but Helen, focused on her task, did not stop to explain. Clytemnestra did not ask again, but let Helen drag her outside the palace walls, all the way to the end of the dock where the king’s ship would come in.
Without hesitation, Helen gripped a few strands of her hair and yanked them from the top of her head. She held them over the dock’s edge and waited for the wind to blow toward the ocean. In the mirrored sunlight, the light golden strands shimmered. She watched them while she waited, her hair held out over the water. The wind, slight though it was, shifted, now blowing from behind. Helen released her offering, watching it fall onto the sea’s surface. That spot became bright and choppy for a moment before settling down to the same level of calm and light as the rest of the water.
“Did you see that?” Helen exclaimed.
“Yes, I did, and you know that your nurse wouldn’t be happy if she saw you pulling your hair out. Lucky for you I’m not going to tell her.”
Clytemnestra seemed to have missed what she meant, and therefore had not seen what Helen saw. She did not try to tell her about the light, knowing that her sister would only attribute the sight to her imagination. Instead, she grumbled, “I don’t see why I need a nurse. You don’t have one.”
“I don’t have a nurse because I’m old enough to take care of myself, and I do – as much as is necessary,” Clytemnestra answered with an incredibly knowing tone. “If you didn’t have a nurse, you would never change from your shift into your day dress in the morning – and I doubt you would mend the hole in your own garment for tonight.”
“I could manage just as well as you,” replied Helen, not pouting, but a bit resentful. “I can do all of those things myself.”
“I know you can, Helen, but you wouldn’t. You’re unfocused, head lost in the clouds most of the time, singing as a siren and seeing swirling lights in the water… taking care of yourself requires a practicality that you lack entirely. I don’t mean it as an insult. It’s simply the way you are.”
Helen was silent for a minute. She could not see her father’s ship from there, but she knew from which direction it would come, and she kept her eyes on that part of the horizon. If she concentrated hard enough, perhaps the ship would arrive more quickly. She closed her eyes and could not tell if the wind began to blow a little harder.
As it so often did, time proved Helen’s enemy. She spent the entire day in agony of waiting, constantly distressed to find that the sun had barely moved at all since the last time she looked. When it was time for lunch, she could barely sit still to eat – not that she had much of an appetite. By then, the ship was so close that it seemed to be just beyond her reach when she stretched her arm out from her balcony. She found herself nearly wailing with frustration, but in a largely unsuccessful effort to appear composed, she forced herself to settle for murmuring and grumbling.
She could at least be thankful that everyone, including the nurse, had given up trying to make her treat this day like any other. Even suspecting that they only meant to distract her, to pass some painfully dragging time, she felt insulted on behalf of her father. Any day he returned from a long voyage was not a normal day. Such days were quite special in her view. Besides, she was un-distractable, despite her wandering thoughts of sirens and gods and lights in the sea.
Perhaps she would have missed her father less if her mother were alive. Helen had been so young when she died that she could not remember her, but she still felt like she knew her. A beautiful, patient, vibrant, talented, and regal woman, she had been the perfect queen and the perfect mother, until she drowned, soon after Helen’s first birthday. No matter who she asked, no one seemed to know exactly what had happened. There had been a storm. The stones were wet. She must have hit her head, or the current pulled her under, or her foot was caught on seaweed or submerged rocks.
By the time they were able to find her, she had been dead for several days.
Having only one remaining parent, Helen felt unusually strong attachment to her father – unusual according to her nurse and a few others, that is. They commented that they had rarely seen a young girl who loved her father quite so much. Helen herself had never known it to be another way, and so she thought it natural. She could not imagine loving him less. When he stepped off the ship, she intended to give him the longest, strongest embrace she possibly could.
“The clouds have moved in quickly, all of a sudden,” Helen heard an old warrior say as she passed him. His observation stopped her progress down the hall. Her breath and heartbeat became so loud that they drowned all other sounds from her ears. For a few booming beats, she was frozen, and could not move or think. A few seconds passing returned her mobility, and she bolted to the nearest oceanward window – a four-foot-wide opening with a high, arching frame. Helen climbed onto the windowsill and, holding tight to the side, leaned as far out as she could to get the best possible view of the sky. She saw that while she had been fidgeting in her seat as her nurse twisted her hair and pinned it in place, the world outside had not waited for her. The clouds did not have far to travel now before reaching the coast and castle. Her father’s ship still made steady progress, but the clouds seemed almost to hang off its stern. As she continued to watch, the clouds began to overtake the ship. They were full of menace and thunder, but they held back their rain.
A hand gently took Helen’s arm. She turned to find Clytemnestra there. Her sister said firmly, “You mustn’t lean so far out of the window. What if you slipped? You would never survive a fall.”
“Why did Zeus ignore my prayer?” Helen asked, pained.
In lieu of an answer, Clytemnestra stroked Helen’s hair and kept her steady on the windowsill. Helen looked toward the clouds again, trying not to cry. Her father had been away for nearly a year. One more day was far too much to ask.
The ocean looked rather more emerald-green to Helen than it usually did when under such clouds, as if it were lit from underneath. She knew that Clytemnestra would not also see it, if she pointed out her vision, but it gave her some hope. Poseidon must have been happy with her offering.
“They’re close now,” Helen said, mostly to herself.
“Yes,” Clytemnestra confirmed. “It might be a good idea to put on the dress that your nurse spent so much time and effort mending.”
Helen could not be budged until the ship had come close enough for her to see each individual sailor, her father among them, tall, serious, regarding the sky with a mixture of respect and warning. Then, she allowed Clytemnestra to lead her back to her room, where her dress of shimmery, gray-blue silk trimmed with bright gold thread waited on her bed. The nurse, it seemed, had gone about her other duties, trusting that Clytemnestra would do her part to get Helen ready.
It did not take long to dress, as her hair had already been arranged and her sandals neatly laced. The moment she was fully presentable, Helen rushed out of the palace. Clytemnestra had to hurry to keep up, despite her much longer legs, with Helen in her eagerness. She would have gone all the way to the end of the dock, had Clytemnestra not caught up with her and held her back a bit to leave room for the men to disembark.
They stood and watched and waiting. Helen lost all control of her imagination, gazing in horror as monsters of the deep with long, glistening bodies bore down on the ship and Zeus and Poseidon came out to argue heatedly over whether the seafarers would reach home. Poseidon reached up, sending enormous waves in the direction of the sky, while Zeus shot lightning into the water. It wasn’t until Clytemnestra firmly took her shoulders, protesting, “Stop swaying!” that Helen realized none of this actually occurred. The storm had not yet broken, and the ocean, while not ideally smooth, would not cause any difficulty in docking.
She didn’t know why she had such thoughts. When she saw the lights in the water, she was convinced they were real, even if no one else’s sight confirmed the vision. When she imagined herself as a siren, it was harmless and fun. When she was wishing for things to go right, she often imagined everything going wrong – everything possible as well as things impossible. She could not stop it, nor could she understand it.
A small group of men guided the ship to its proper spot. Thunder rolled along the clouds overhead, starting out at sea and moving toward shore. The first drop of rain landed on Helen’s temple. Restlessly, she watched them maneuver with ropes and oars and planks, and after what felt like hours, Tyndareus made it onto the dock. He looked for his daughters before anyone else, and found Helen running toward him. Laughing deeply, he spread his arms to let her leap into them.
“You’re home!” Helen cried, hugging him tightly.
“Yes. I’m home.” He put Helen down, greeted Clytemnestra tenderly, and started toward the palace with an arm around each of his daughters.
Forty men had accompanied Tyndareus to Troy, but fifteen more came off the ship with him. These men were Trojans, Clytemnestra whispered to Helen, and while several were academics or servants, six were clearly experienced warriors. Immediately curious, Helen tugged the end of her father’s tunic a few times.
“Father, why did you bring Trojans back with you? Are they going to live here now?”
“I was about to explain that, my dear – “ as Tyndareus began his answer, a young boy began his descent from the ship’s deck. His clothes were fine, his bearing regal if a little haughty, and his features handsome. The Trojans – aside from the warriors, who maintained a strong, intimidating stance – bowed as he passed them.
Tyndareus gestured toward the boy. “Allow me to introduce Hector, prince of Troy. He has come to study the traditions and battle technique of the Spartans. In one year’s time, King Priam of Troy, will visit us here and Hector will return home with his father. Until then, I will view Hector as my own son, and I have no doubt that you, my beautiful daughters, will treat him as a brother.”
Hector had paused before them, looking carefully at both Helen and Clytemnestra. “I hope we’ll be friends,” he said, his expression quite serious.
In response, Helen quickly stepped forward and flung her arms around him. Hector let her, but did not return her embrace, while Clytemnestra clenched her teeth at her sister’s impropriety. Helen took no notice of this. She laughed and said, “I always wanted a brother.”
Tyndareus hailed a servant and ordered, “Show Prince Hector to his chambers, and show his attendants theirs as well. Allow him to settle in properly, and then escort him to the main hall for the return feast.”
The servant bowed, then addressed Hector. “Please follow me, Your Highness. Your rooms are all prepared for you.”
As Hector and his Trojan entourage trailed the servant into the palace, Helen realized that the messenger who ran ahead of the ship must have informed the servants that Hector came with Tyndareus. “Father, why did no one tell me the Prince of Troy would be here?”
Tyndareus touched Helen’s cheek affectionately. “Because everyone knows how you love surprises.”
Thunder grumbled directly above them. Tyndareus looked up, startled. His face suddenly grew much darker, eyes narrow, jaw firmly set. With an arm around each of his daughters, he urged them inside, leaving the ocean behind him. The clouds above seemed to churn with anger, Helen thought. They had been inside for mere seconds when the rain began. No more than a few drops at first, it quickly became a downpour.
“That was lucky,” Helen said, giggling. “My prayer must have worked. It looks like Zeus smiled on us.”
She peered up into her father’s eyes. He looked down at her, somber and distant, and responded, “Zeus does nothing but frown at me, Helen. He has smiled on you.”
As he headed for his room, looking to change out of the seafaring clothes he had been wearing for weeks or months, he muttered, “As usual.”
Helen tilted her head as she took this in. “What does that mean?” she asked. But Tyndareus was out of hearing, and Clytemnestra just shook her head and she followed her father down the hall. Everyone around her merely passed by her on their way to somewhere else.
After a time, Helen’s nurse came to usher her back to her bedroom. The feast would begin soon, but not until Tyndareus, the returning Spartans, Hector, and the Trojans had some time to refresh their bodies and spirits. The nurse, knowing that Helen would be most restless until she could be near her father, brought out a shining handful of colorful ribbons and helped her to braid them prettily together. Helen lost herself in the task. When they had finished, she asked if she could replace her golden rope belt with the new, more unique option. Nodding and smiling, the nurse took the ribbons from Helen and helped her to make the switch.
“These colors are very pretty with that dress,” the nurse said.
“They’re like the ocean,” Helen breathed, gazing with wonder down at the purples and blues and greens of her new accessory. “I saw something in the ocean today.”
“I’m sure you did.”
Of course the nurse did not believe her – but she felt sure that she had really seen those lights in the water. Thinking that, just maybe, if she saw them again now she could point them out to the nurse, Helen made her way onto the balcony. She peered hard, scanning every visible inch of the ocean, but saw no lights. Instead, she saw, far out from shore and just below the surface, a grand and horrible bearded face with eyes even stormier than the ocean. Helen gasped – but the face was smiling at her.
“You’ll be soaked, Helen, and then you’ll have to change your dress. Come back inside,” the nurse insisted. Helen obliged, looking anxiously over her shoulder, but the face had disappeared.
When the nurse finally accompanied Helen into the main hall for the celebrations, Clytemnestra was already there, but Tyndareus was not, nor were their new guests. Disappointed, Helen moved toward her sister, who was currently circling the hall in a half-hearted inspection of the room. Helen slipped her hand into Clytemnestra’s and joined her in looking over the festive additions to the room. Light, shimmering fabric had been hung over and between the usual tapestries – well out of the way of the torches, which had all been lit, as the sun was obscured behind thunderclouds – making the room seem to glow. Numerous polished platters of food covered every surface. Musicians tuned lyres and harps.
“There are more musicians than usual,” Helen noticed.
“They are going to great trouble with the entertainment for Hector, I imagine,” Clytemnestra commented sagely. “I heard that there will be dancers later tonight.”
“I don’t understand… no other land’s princes come to stay with us, and Father doesn’t usually stay so long away from us. Why do we do all of this for the Trojans?”
Clytemnestra sighed. “You were very young the last time Father voyaged to Troy. He was gone for a long time – not as long as this time, but longer than I can recall him being away in any other kingdom. I don’t know why any more than you do, but there is something about Troy that makes it special to him. And Helen, don’t ask such questions in front of the Trojans. It will seem ungracious.”
Helen did not understand why she should have to be any more gracious than usual, but she was excited to have a brother at last and would rather not insult Hector. With this in mind, she agreed to show only happiness and hospitability in the Trojans’ presence.
Lightning flashed. It must have struck an arm’s length from the castle, for the shimmering fabric decorating the walls lit the room to impossible brightness. It appeared like all lightning, powerful but fleeting. It was over before Helen had a chance to properly admire the effect. The room seemed unbearably dim in comparison, with torches as the only source of illumination, although she liked how everything seemed to glitter. While the gray clouds grew darker outside, the hall felt like a cozy, dreamy nymph-dwelling.
Clytemnestra and Helen, completing their first circuit around the hall, met their father’s brother Icarius at the main entrance. They each received a cordial greeting from him, then a warm embrace. Their affection for him was nothing like what they felt for their father, but still very strong. “Is Father coming out soon, Uncle?” Helen asked, unable to contain her excitement.
“As soon as he can, little one,” Icarius answered, patting Helen’s cheek lightly. “He had a few matters to see to before the feast – needs to catch up on what’s happened in Sparta in the past year before he can get back to running the kingdom. It’s a lot of information to study, but don’t worry. He knows how much his daughters want to see him.”
Icarius excused himself, joining a group of the Spartans who had accompanied Tyndareus to Troy. He had grown up with them and missed their company in the past months. A goblet of wine in his hand, Icarius was soon exclaiming and laughing as animatedly as any of the Spartan warriors.
Another half an hour passed, and neither Tyndareus nor Hector had yet appeared. Helen wondered whether it would be more polite for Tyndareus to arrive first, making him present to welcome their royal guest, or for Hector to come out and wait for the king of his new host country. She wondered if their opinions on the matter would be the same.
She would have asked Clytemnestra, but her sister had claimed a sofa and was currently picking delicious-looking morsels from a golden plate at a leisurely pace. The plates of gold, Helen’s nurse had told her, were special and few, nearly always reserved for the royalty. Helen only saw them brought out for feasts; she was provided ceramic and silver dishes for everyday use. It distracted her momentarily, seeing that golden plate. They were so polished, bright, rare, that she loved to eat off of them. She began to wander toward the food, in search of her own golden plate. When she found it, she would, as always, briefly inspect her reflection. It was not often that she had the chance to see herself in a plate’s surface, and the novelty always amused her.
Helen had hardly begun her treasure hunt when she heard Tyndareus’ arrival announced. She did not wait to glimpse him, but sprinted toward the door, weaving between bodies when they blocked her way. Her small, perfectly formed feet (her nurse had commented on the shapeliness of her feet many times as she did the laces on Helen’s sandals) carried her swiftly to the entrance, where she ran headlong into her father’s arms. He staggered back one step as her force hit him, chuckling deeply.
“I’m so glad to see you, dear daughter. You look lovely. What a pretty belt of ribbons.”
Her father always noticed things like that. Helen smiled broadly. “Thank you, Father.”
An especially loud crack of lightning resounded through the room, flashing several times before it was gone. Startled, Helen gripped her father’s arm until the lightning stopped. The scowl on his face made her nervous. It was the expression he always wore when a thunderstorm became particularly violent, or lightning struck especially close.
That one, drawn out bolt signaled the end of the storm. The rain soon abated to a few drops here and there. Once Tyndareus had said a fond hello to Clytemnestra, he made his way to the head of the long table in the room’s center. Some of the men sat with him. Tyndareus promised them his full attention once he had taken advantage of the food, and they laughed, their spirits no doubt lifted by the ceasing of the rain. In no time at all, the clouds had melted from the sky, leaving them with a view of a lovely twilight.
Twinkling pinpricks of stars were slowly dotting the sky, soon to be filled with thousands of bright lights, when Hector led the Trojans into the hall. Helen, standing by her father’s chair, looked up with interest when they entered. She was eager to spend time with her new brother, to become as close to him as she was with her sister. When his eyes, sweeping over the room, met hers, she smiled brightly. Hector did not smile back, but he inclined his head to acknowledge her.
Tyndareus rose as they approached. He raised his half-full goblet and, with a hand on the Trojan prince’s shoulder, he said, “May your time with us further the good relations between our kingdoms.”
A youthful servant handed Hector a goblet of wine, not at all watered down, as Helen’s always was. He seconded Tyndareus’ wishes and drank with him. All who had heard joined in the toast, taking deep draughts of wine. Helen sipped a little, too distracted watching everyone to fully take part. What reason did she have to drink to good relations between Troy and Sparta? They seemed to get along just fine – so well, in fact, that her father stayed longer in Troy than any other country he visited. For her part, Helen found the motions of Hector’s hands and his lithe, stately way of walking much more interesting.
“Thank you, King Tyndareus, for your hospitality. The accommodations you have provided for me and my fellow Trojans are quite comfortable, with all the amenities we could have wanted. And this impressive feast is a magnificent welcome. We are extremely grateful for everything you have done.”
“It pleases me to hear of your satisfaction,” Tyndareus replied, holding out his hand to receive his newly refilled goblet. “Would you join me at my table?”
“I would be glad to, Tyndareus – and I hope to become acquainted with some of those Spartans I did not meet on our journey here.” Hector looked at Helen and Clytemnestra as he said this.
Tyndareus nodded, smiling. “There will be ample opportunity for that, young Hector. We are all glad to have you here, and any citizen of Sparta will readily engage with you, in any way you wish. I do hope that you will never experience enmity from any person under my rule.”
Helen shifted from foot to foot, growing restlessly impatient. This exchange between Hector and her father seemed unnecessary, especially after they had spent at least one month on a ship together. They would have spent enough time in each other’s company to dispense with such formalities, and let Hector take his leisure at Helen’s side. She supposed, though, that they had some reason for this formal greeting.
As Hector claimed a chair near Tyndareus and selected food from the many polished platters, Helen asked Clytemnestra why they spoke to each other like strangers. Patiently, Clytemnestra explained.
“It’s not an expression of their current relationship, Helen, but a display for those who will follow our father’s example in how they treat Prince Hector. This is Hector’s first visit to Sparta. What just took place between the Prince of Troy and the King of Sparta officially indicates their good will. And it gives our countrymen occasion to witness their King’s respect for Hector. From now on they will most likely behave with much more familiarity toward each other.”
Helen understood this, but could not grasp the necessity of it. She prodded, “But why must they do it this way? Shouldn’t they all realize Father’s regard for Hector just by the fact that there is friendship between them?”
Clytemnestra shrugged. “Why do we have ceremonies when a new ruler assumes the throne? Everyone knows who their ruler is, don’t they?”
Helen tapped her chin thoughtfully. “I suppose I understand,” she said, but it still rather puzzled her. It seemed to be one of those things that would become plain to her as she grew up and became more familiar with diplomacy – something that could hardly concern her at her age.
A Spartan warrior, stretching his arm backward, jostled the arm of a servant, causing him to spill the contents of his tray across the floor. The platter itself clattered against the stone. Tyndareus, having been deep in conversation, looked up suddenly and snapped, “Careful!”
As he did only when indulging in festal wine, he was letting his internal turmoil be known. He had cheered somewhat when Hector had entered, distracted by his duties as host of a foreign prince, but once the official welcome had been fulfilled – and Tyndareus had taken in a bit more wine – Helen noticed his expression darkening. She wished that he would lose his troubles in the joviality of the celebrations, but as the night passed, Tyndareus sank more and more into brooding isolation.
Hesitantly, tentatively, Helen approached her father and touched his arm. He turned his unfocused eyes upon her. He caressed her cheek, intoxication hindering his movement. “My daughter,” he slurred, at once loving and resentful and dejected. With a hollow noise somewhere between a laugh and a depressed groan, he stood with difficulty and wandered away.
She came to him because she hoped that she could make him feel better, but it always turned out just this way. Moments like this convinced her that, although he loved her, her father also hated her. She stood in the spot where he had left her. Her eyes started to fill with water.
Clytemnestra startled Helen when she placed her hands gently but suddenly on her shoulders from behind. Without a word, she steered Helen into the courtyard, where the ground was damp from the rain but the sky overflowed with stars. Under that infinite sky, breathing the cool, moist air, Helen calmed considerably. Still, she felt the sting of her father’s words. She looked at her feet.
“Helen, it’s not your fault. Adults always have some kind of deep wound on their souls, and because of that, they cannot help their moods. You know that Father loves you.”
Helen sighed. After a moment, she nodded. “I know – but I don’t understand. Why is he so sad? Is it just that he misses our mother? But why does he say the things he says? He never does this to you, only me.”
“Oh, Helen,” Clytemnestra burst out, sitting on a ledge. “In his way, Father slights me as well. You’re too young to understand even if I tell you this… although he loves us both, you are very special to him. I cannot make him as happy as you do.”
“Or as unhappy,” Helen added, and her sister did not deny it.
They grew quickly silent. Helen knew that Clytemnestra would not explain things fully. Everyone she asked always waved her away, claiming that when she was old enough she would be told, but she suspected that she would never find out why Tyndareus acted this way. She was still curious, but so tired of asking. Letting the peaceful sounds of the night and the faint noises from the ongoing feast become a peripheral cadence, Helen watched the stars. The stars twinkled at her. She could not tell whether they laughed at her ignorance or smiled consolingly. One more mystery.
“See any faces?” Clytemnestra asked suddenly. She leaned toward Helen, supporting her weight on one arm and smiling in amusement.
“No,” Helen responded indignantly. She knew that Clytemnestra teased good-naturedly, but she did not appreciate the joke.
“Just stars, then,” said Clytemnestra, still smiling. Helen smiled back. She could not help it, when her sister showed so much care toward her. Clytemnestra did this often; she warmed Helen’s heart when Tyndareus took away his encircling arms.
When Clytemnestra suggested that she take Helen to bed, Helen protested, “I haven’t spoken with Hector tonight. I was so looking forward to it.”
“He’s here for the next year, Helen, you’ll have plenty of opportunity to speak to him. I’m sure that in no time you’ll be as close with him as you wish.”
Helen did not feel quite as sure, but she found her sister’s assurance encouraging. Temporarily placated, she allowed Clytemnestra to lead her, by the hand, through the room full of revelers and the halls littered with those who sought a moment of quiet, to her bedroom, where Clytemnestra turned her over to her nurse.
“You must be tired, dear. You rarely stay awake this late,” the nurse commented as she unwound the laces of Helen’s sandals.
“I’m not tired. I could stay up all night,” insisted Helen. Excitement and sadness and deep thoughts jostled each other for front position in her mind. She contemplated her father’s stormy melancholy and the secrecy surrounding its source, the promise of a new friendship with Hector, the visions from the ocean, and the splendor and gaiety of the feast. With so much to occupy her, Helen could not fathom falling asleep.
Almost as soon as she lay her head down, she drifted off to her nurse’s gentle lullaby.