The Book of Helen
Genre: Women's Fiction/Fantasy/Romance
Tags Greek Myth, Women’s Fiction, Historical Fiction, Teens, Fantasy, Helen of Troy, alternate history
Editor: Anne Duguid
Line Editor Sarah Champoux
Cover Designer Suzannah Safi
At 65, the famous Helen of Troy finds herself in a new role, that of having no title, husband or things to do as she faces exile on the island of Rhodes. Her hoarded wealth, fabulous stories of the past, and a newly acquired servant/scribe named Pythia , should allow Helen to establish her own legacy, but there are some who won’t be courted.
Helen begins to ply her legendary charm, wit and capacity to create beauty and spectacle in her new home to win the hearts of the people with great effect. But Helen rarely recognizes that as she ascends, others might resent her casual winning over of everyone. Queen Polyoxo has granted sanctuary to her childhood friend for reasons other than friendship, leaving Pythia caught in the wake of two very powerful women with very different means of conveying and maintaining authority.
Can Helen with all her treasures and stories and charisma win over everyone? Or will the need for revenge, threaten the life of the most beautiful woman in the world and those who serve her?
“You started telling me a story you didn’t finish,” Pythia said. You mentioned this all started with an apple…is it this one?” She held out a small perfectly blown glass apple.
Helen glanced at it. “No, that’s a souvenir from the event I stopped telling you about.” Helen took a real apple from the table. “It’s a reminder of the day I became betrothed. After a week of trials, feasts, and boring speeches with long parades of men showing how strong, fierce, and powerful they were, we were nearing the end of the vetting process. My father still hadn’t settled on who should have me for a wife. I hadn’t been much help, flirting one minute, insulting them all the next, testing loyalty by having my maids flirt with them. Putting mice in their suites to hear who screamed. I commissioned bread from our kitchen to be filled with spices. I told the suitors I made it so I could watch several fawning fools compliment me while trying desperately not to break into a sweat, vomit, or cry from the heat.” She bit into the fruit.
“When my father culled the herd from forty-five down to fifteen, he asked each of the remaining men to bring a basket of apples to the great hall. It wasn’t quite the season, so acquiring a large quantity quickly proved difficult. It weeded out the smaller, less worthy suitors. It was my father’s favorite fruit.” She threw the apple down with displeasure. “Not mine.”
Pythia stifled a chuckle.
“Seven men came back with none. The market must have been cleared out. Ajax, Agapenor, Amphimachus, Antilochus, and Thalpius came back with one or two apples. My father took the fruit, gave them gifts, and told them to seek other women. Agamemnon, Podalirius, and Menelaus returned with large baskets full of fruit.
“‘One of these three men will have my Helen,’” my father said to the eager crowd. They all cheered. The money was on Agamemnon.
“He stepped forward. Some goddess or god must have tripped his foot. He stumbled on the steps. The apples spilled out over the court, causing much laughter, bruising the fruit, not to mention his ego. His servants picked up the mess. He bowed, knowing the accident cost him my hand. I was glad too. He was a pompous man even before he started conquering the various kings of Greece.
“Podalirius brought forth his basket. He was one of the lesser kings. My father took the apples out to look at them. There was a snake nestled in the fruit. He took the snake as a sign of the gods, declaring he would become a physician. The snake wasn’t poisonous. It probably just crawled in at the market place to avoid being trampled. Still, everyone deemed it a poor omen for marriage, so he was dismissed. I heard he wasn’t serious either, he just did it because his brother was also amongst the suitors.”
Helen paused, reflecting. “You know it’s very distressing to know you are the most desirable woman in the world and someone considers trying to win you a chore.”
Pythia laughed. Her mistress laughed too.
“I still am a very vain thing. I expect to be wanted, I’m shocked when I’m not...” She picked up the glass apple and looked through it.
“My father summoned Menelaus with great pomp and circumstance. Picking up a single apple from Menelaus’ offering, he cut it in two with a knife. He bit into one half. Upon swallowing, he announced my suitor. He cut the other half in two and proclaimed us betrothed as we ate the slices. So, there you see, an apple started it all.”
“Your father gave you this to remember it?” Pythia asked.
Helen nodded. “At the time. Isn’t it lovely?”
Pythia stared at her papers, as if turning over the whole story. Something nagged at her. “Your father prearranged your marriage.”
“What?” The queen’s smile froze. Holding the glass apple turning it to catch the light, she’d expected Pythia to be pleased to know the whole story. Pythia crystallized the thought in her head faster than she could speak.
“Want to bet he planned with the merchants to limit the number of apples available in the market, and asked them to barter hard to weed out the weakest?”
“That’s likely.” Helen placed the glass fruit back in its wrappings.
“Then I wouldn’t be surprised if a servant tripped Agamemnon. And maybe another placed a snake in Poli…Poli…”
“Right. Podalirius’ basket to ensure you would wed Menelaus.”
“You’re probably right.” Helen felt defeated. “The contest revealed one very significant thing I only realize now in telling you the story. All the men may have wanted my body. Not one man in the room actually wanted me.”