On the day that a baby girl was born to Zeus and Leda, flowers fell to their knees and dipped their stems, thus forswearing their oath to nature. Where Helen’s skirts brushed by their petal veins, they kissed satin and tasted glory. They saw kingdoms crumble and empires collapse. They saw the future as it was meant to be, not as the gods wanted it to be, knowing all along that she was one of them—a rose that had been plucked from Zeus’ apple and preened to look beautiful. Only beautiful.
If mankind was the eastern sky of the universe, then Helen was the rising sun. Men rose to their feet when she arrived and sank to their knees when she left, crippled by the stuttering heart beating between their teeth. They swore fealty to no other woman but her, leaving their mothers, daughters and wives to follow Helen’s train like followers to a pantheon.
But hatred began to bloom in young Helen’s chest. She curled her baby fists around the veined petals and crushed them into pyramids of dust. She knew that the most beautiful flowers lived the shortest lives, for they were the first to be plucked by handsome suitors, and she also knew that her beauty would soon shrivel into wrinkles and fine lines. So she found a new way to preserve her beauty. She learned to press petals between the hollows of her ribcage. She learned how to defy time, falling upon a new route to immortality—blood, chaos and war.
It was then, perhaps, that she began to refuse the names Helen of Sparta and Helen of Troy. The young queen was not limited to one kingdom, or two, or three. She was married to all men—the Achaeans who were bounded by oath as well as the Trojans who were sworn to protect her honour. If she couldn’t have every kingdom then nobody could have kings.
Do not be not fooled by the face of grace that Queen Helen wore—she was a playing card and wore many faces during her reign. As the last flower of true beauty, she became the seed of doom—she was the beginning of the end, and the end to all beginnings.
She was simply Helen, the final puppeteer, the truest ruler of mankind. If she wanted the world, it was hers to take.
Before she became soft as sin, Queen Helen was sharper than her father’s eyes. Youth curved the corners of her wit, but she still knew that Aphrodite’s poisonous side-glances kept her from becoming one of the Twelve Olympians. They were half-sisters, born from the same flower but not from the same seed. Ichor ran through both their veins, but Aphrodite was no match for her maiden sister’s beauty. Where arrogance reigned through Aphrodite’s arteries, a hunger for power tore through Helen’s. Both wanted a kingdom of their own but their father denied them that right because women could not become kings.
But it did not matter. Zeus had already promised his youngest daughter an eternity. What was a kingdom to a king if he could not rule it forever? He promised Helen a throne of her own in the Great Palace, a gift no child of his had previously received. She wasn’t destined to become Queen of Sparta or Queen of Troy. She was going to become the Queen of the Gods. It was written in the stars.
In the year of the false winter, Zeus threw a banquet to celebrate Peleus’ marriage to the goddess Thetis, soon to be mother of the great Achilles. Helen was a demigod, therefore by rights she was invited to Mount Olympus to dine with her kind and those above her. A golden chariot arrived on a white cloud and carried her up to the Seven Skies from her great fortress in Sparta. She bid her maids goodbye and mounted the splendid chariot without a second thought to the chaos her arrival would cause.
From afar, Mount Olympus was just another ordinary mountain. Its peak was iced with a fine dusting of snow. Leaves pirouetted under the slow moving clouds. As if anticipating Helen’s entrance, the sun took shelter behind wispy clouds and the air shivered when she pulled back the velvet curtain from the window. She brushed back her flaxen hair and held a delicate hand out to the footmen who hurried forth to escort her to the gates of Olympus. The gilded guards stamped their feet in reverence and stepped aside to let her pass without question.
“Greetings, your highness,” they chimed in their organ-deep voices. “What a pleasure it is to see you return so soon.”
She did not look at them. Her gaze was fixed on straight path ahead where the Great Palace peeked over the horizon like a wedding cake.
One guard, thin as a grasshopper, asked, “Have you come to meet with your father again, my lady?”
Her eyes snapped towards them and flashed like lightning. “I have been invited to the banquet. I am a daughter of Zeus, after all.”
The guard bowed deeply. “Forgive me, my lady. I did not mean to question your divinity.”
“You’re not the first to do so either,” she replied, supercilious as she cast her eyes towards the heavenly dwelling of her divine relations, lightly touching the garland of blood-soaked roses in her hair as she gathered her skirts to head straight for the splendid palace.
The Great Palace was the royal residence of the Twelve Olympians. Her father may have been the head of the Twelve Olympians, the highest of ranks within the Greek pantheon, but Helen knew that in order to join, one would have to leave. And who better to displace than her half-sister Aphrodite. There would be no need for her once Helen was voted to be the fairest goddess of all. Or maybe Helen could exile her father and take the throne for herself. Yes, that would be more convenient for her. What more could she possibly want than free reign over the skies, the ocean and the underworld?
The palace walls shimmered like sunlight on glass as she drew closer and her smile widened. A handsome young man stepped out of the shadows and held out his arm.
“Prince Paris,” he introduced himself with a glittering smile. “It is a pleasure to put a face to your mighty name, my queen. You really are as beautiful as the songs say.”
Helen stared at the outstretched arm, lips wryly wrought—she despised men of noble birth more than she loathed her lack of power. Momentarily stymied, Paris lowered his arm back to his side, but his gaze stayed steady and strong, a mirror to her sharp-witted stare. He knew why she had come. He, too, was a demigod and they all wanted the same thing: to be invited to be a member of the Twelve Olympians.
Helen swept past the Trojan prince and brushed past the golden archway that opened up to the palace gardens. She was a butterfly, winging over beautiful shrubs and glimmering lakes. A great, long table had been erected to circuit the palace, large enough to seat an army, brimming with chattering guests, all dressed in magnificent robes and splendid tunics. Every pair of eyes grew wide when Helen glided by—they craned their necks to get a better look at the famed Queen of Sparta, who had been locked away in a tower since her marriage to Menelaus.
There was an unoccupied seat where the Twelve Olympians were sitting. Helen ignored Aphrodite’s narrowed gaze and took a seat beside Persephone. She flicked the place card bearing Hades’ name and greeted her half-sister with a taut smile.
After the first fifty courses, Apollo leapt forward to dance, followed by a train of smaller deities. By nightfall, nearly everybody was holding hands and dancing in an ellipse, shrieking with laughter, their feet pounding the soft snowfall in time to the drumbeat as their wine goblets sloshed everywhere. Apollo was spinning his sister round and round, Zeus was slow dancing with Hera. Even Poseidon was smiling. His strong arms were crossed over his chest as he surveyed the crowd from the long tables of food.
But the goddess of the underworld was sober as winter. She had her gaze not on the crowd but on Helen. Her smile was laced with bitterness and her tunic was whiter than the bride’s splendid gown—a stark change to the black gowns she was often sighted in, sheer, laced, innocent. There were no flowers in her hair either, only a crown of black roses, resting on her lap; the corners of each petal was curling with age. It was an omen of death.
“Where is your consort?” Helen asked with a side glance, sipping her goblet of wine.
“It is spring,” Persephone replied. She surveyed the dancing guests with faraway eyes, rubbing the gold band around her ring finger. “I am not permitted to return to the sanctity of the underworld until I have served the harvest season above ground. My mother does not trust Hades to take care good care of me. She is a fool.”
Helen took another sip from her goblet, eyeing her own wedding band. It was the same red as her flower crown and too tight around her ring finger.
“I see,” she replied, delicately teething the fat pomegranates on her plate.
A sharp tang filled her mouth. She caught Persephone’s flinch, just the one, and realised that the pomegranates had not been there before. It seemed as if they had magicked out of thin air. When she chanced another glance at the goddess of the underworld, Persephone’s face was moving like water.
“Take in the laughter and joy,” Persephone said, placing her hand on top of Helen’s, whose own face was wrinkled by the sour tang of the pomegranates. “There will never be a day like this again when the Olympians are at one.”
“Why not?” mused Helen, unable to picture a scene more different to the spilling laughter coming from every angle like sunlight. She could not conceal her thrill; it would be very easy to penetrate the hierarchy if they were all at war with each other.
Persephone took off her ring in response. The skin beneath was striped white, the rest of her hand tanned a beautiful brown. Helen wriggled off her ring, reluctantly showing Persephone the sun-kissed skin beneath. It was obvious she wore Menelaus’ ring only when she had to.
“You are not the first woman to despise married life,” Persephone said, “and you will not be the last. But yours will be the one history remembers for all eternity, Helen of Troy.”
Bemused, Helen corrected her half-sister, “I am not of Troy. I am bound to Menelaus, which makes me the Queen of Sparta.”
“Of course, my dear. Of course.”
As the sun began to rise, Helen made more of an effort to mingle with the rest of the gods. Persephone was too morose to be with for longer than an hour so Helen paid her father a visit. She kissed his cheeks and forced a smile when he asked her about her mortal husband.
Helen did not wish to be reminded of her mortality.
“Menelaus is faring well,” she said with acid on her tongue.
“I’m pleased to hear he is treating you well,” Zeus replied, his attention straying elsewhere. He seemed to be eyeing the gates of Olympus, anticipating another guest’s arrival even though the celebratory feast had already stretched to all kingdoms.
“When may I leave Menelaus, Father?” Helen asked, not for the first time. “He is keeping me locked in a tower so that no man may ever look upon my sweet face again. It is torture, Father. It kills me to stare at the sky all day long while my brothers and sisters are given the freedom to walk the heavens and the earth. You promised me Olympus. You promised me power.”
Her father’s distant gaze and heavy brows did not go amiss. “I will send for you when Olympus is safe again,” he said without looking down at Helen.
“Olympus is the safest it has ever been, and I belong amongst the divine. I have ichor in my veins, too,” she reminded him, eyes flashing because he was preoccupied with everyone else’s affairs but hers. Tears burned her eyes. “I deserve more than walls for company. I deserve freedom. I deserve power.”
Her father finally glanced down, this time with a disapproving gaze. “You belong to Menelaus. That is all the power you’ll ever be entitled to.”
Helen jammed her jaw shut and gritted her teeth, viciously wiping both eyes. “I belong to no one but my own.”
Zeus set his heavy palms on her shoulder. “You will serve your time on Earth, as I have told you many times before. Then I will send for you when the time is right. In the meantime, I would like you to try and be happy. There is no point refusing to bear Menelaus a child. It will bring you such great happiness to become a mother, Helen.”
“I do not want happiness. I do not wish for motherhood. I need an army. I need glory. I need power.”
“Power is dangerous in the arms of a woman.” Zeus touched her cheek, once. “I gave you beauty like no other; is that not enough power for you? Bear a child if you want to secure your position as Queen of Sparta.” He smiled wryly, chuckling. “Of course, that may mean you’ll have to share a bed with Menelaus.”
Helen’s face grew cold. “How do you know that we do not share a bed?”
“I see all.”
She stepped back. “If Menelaus dares to sleep by my side then I will see to it that he does not wake up the next morning.”
The curve of Zeus’ lips straightened out. “No daughter of mine will be a kinslayer and a kingslayer. I will bar the gates of Olympus and you will rot alongside cow bones and dirt for the rest of eternity. Do not dare taint the honour of this family with blood. Bloodshed breeds war and that is the last thing we need.”
Helen laughed mirthlessly. “You can deny me power, but I will find it, Father. You can hide the well but not the water.” She drew back her shoulders. “Fine. I will seek it alone. Have you forgotten who I am, Father?”
“Have you forgotten who I am?”
Helen shrank back, but refused to answer. Her father watched her for the longest time but even he could not melt the steel on her tongue. A cloud of dark passed over his face. Helen did not understand his expression, nor did she care. She was done begging.
Gathering her fine skirts, she left in a fit of pique, tired of getting the same response every year. She had already served nineteen summers in the company of mortals. Was it not time for her grand return to Olympus? Was it not time for her to be raised to the status of a true goddess? She was twice as beautiful as Aphrodite and twice as smart as Athena. Twice!
She tilted her anguished face to the sky, ridden with the desire to destroy the Twelve Olympians and form her own pantheon. But she had no power, no gifts and no way of killing the undead. All she had were daggers in her eyes and a blood on her tongue. She was binded to nature, but what use was that to her? How could her gift help her attain immortality? What use were flowers? If only she could plant power, sow the seed and water herself glory. If only she could grow the things she needed.
At that moment, the golden gates of Olympus were blown off their hinges. In a cloud of smoke, a latecomer arrived. The goddess of strife, Eris, rode on a black cloud shaped like a war-horse, dressed in a tunic made from a night sky devoid of all stars. Eris’s long face was pallid and grey, and her lips were twisted into haughty smile.
“Father,” she boomed, hopping off the cloud and crashing onto the long table. Her raven-dark hair hung in thick ropes. “Perhaps my invitation went amiss, but do not fear my absence for I have arrived.”
“Eris, what are you doing here?” Zeus asked, his face dark with anger. They shared the same eyes, the hues of a darker storm, a whirlpool of fury that was barely masked by a thin-lipped smile.
The dancing guests formed a circle around the long table and grew quiet when Eris pulled an apple made from gold out of her robes. She cackled at their horrified expressions and mimed taking a bite before lowering her arm and pointing a crooked finger to three goddesses: Hera, Athena and Aphrodite. Her eyes swept right over Helen, as if mortal beauty was no match for the divine. Helen clenched her hands and watched chaos unfold when Eris threw the apple at the three goddesses.
The three goddesses fought like starving dogs over a bone until Zeus roared, “Enough!” He stormed over to Eris and demanded, “What is this apple of discord that you have brought here?”
Eris’ black eyes sought Helen’s, beady and promising. She spoke to their father, “Kallisti. It means that the apple is intended for the fairest one of all. Surely you, the King of the Gods, can decide which deity is worthy of such a title.”
Zeus swallowed loudly as he glanced at the three brooding goddesses. “I-I cannot make such a decision.”
If he did not choose Hera, he would be wifeless. If he did not choose Athena, there would be a decade-long winter. If he did not choose Aphrodite, there would be no sun. Yet the outcome of any would lead directly to war.
Hera, Athena and Aphrodite stopped squabbling and raised their beaks. Helen did not dare speak.
The discarded apple glowed white in a halo of light as it floated upwards on its own accord, stopping only to rest in Helen’s outstretched palm. It chose her. Nature chose her. The circle of guests drew a collective breath. Aphrodite broke free and snatched the apple from Helen’s hand.
“Give that to me,” she hissed. “I am the fairest one of all!”
The apple refused to give, even when Helen tried to shake it off. “It won’t let go,” she cried, her traitorous lips ticking into a derisive smile.
“You aren’t letting go!” Aphrodite corrected her, spinning around sharply to address the other deities. “See this? See this folly? A mere mortal has stormed into our ranks, has defiled the status of the Twelve Olympians. She thinks that ichor and blood can mix.” Aphrodite whirled around to face Zeus. “How dare you! How dare you let a human rise above your own trueborn daughter?”
Stymied, Zeus glanced between his wife and daughters, the chosen three, slowly turning his critical gaze to Helen.
“Give me the apple,” he said, holding out his hand.
Helen stayed where she was, only moving her eyes upwards to the grey goddess standing on the table with a triumphant grin.
“The apple is hers by right,” said Eris, cackling.
“Liar!” Athena hissed, lunging for the apple.
Hera pushed passed the crowd and drew a dagger. “I am the fairest one of all. Out of my way, fools. The apple belongs to me.”
“It belongs to Helen of Sparta,” Eris sang, hopping off the table and mounting her dark cloud like a flying carpet. In a sweeping move, the goddess of strife surfed into the sky and broke past the clouds. The wedding guests began to roil like a tidal wave, splitting into three armies, each behind a goddess. Nobody stood behind Helen except the handsome Trojan prince.
Chaos broke out. Zeus’ eyes grew wide. He tried to restore order but the deities were angry and felt insulted. Lightning strikes punched through the fresh fallen snow, throwing many gods into the air like rag dolls. The wisest of them fled with their children, but those who stayed behind watched Helen with eagle eyes, hissing at nature’s gift in her hand.
“Give me the damned apple, girl,” Zeus demanded, making a clawing motion with his hands. But the apple would not dislodge itself from Helen’s palm. It fit her like a key to a lock.
“I belong to no one but my own,” she echoed, just as she told her father before, turning her hand as if she was marvelling a new wedding ring. The apple glimmered like liquid light. It may have blinded the three goddesses but it had restored Helen’s sight. She could see so much better now. Now she knew that she would never have been an equal in the eyes of gods and men, not ever. So she vowed to show them just how powerful mortals could be. She knew that having power and unleashing it were two different things.
Her refusal earned a sharp shriek from Aphrodite. In the smoke and dust, Helen heard her sister scream, “Capture her!”
Two arms shot out of the rubble and grabbed Helen’s waist, lifting her into the sky. She was bundled into a chariot and thrown into the backseat, trapped inside a magnificent carriage with none other than the famous Prince of Troy.
“Where are you taking me?” she asked.
Paris smiled with all his teeth. “I’m taking you home, Helen. I’m taking you back to Troy.”