At the top of the hill, the chariot driver continued straight ahead under the ridge instead of taking the left fork down into the valley. The rougher track shook the wicker vehicle even more than the main road had, but the youth barely slowed the trotting horses, expertly guiding his mares around the larger stones.
His younger passenger protested. "Hey -- you missed the Argos road."
"Chill -- this will still get us there," he responded over his shoulder. "Just ... not as quickly."
"But King Aegialeus -- "
" -- won't expect us before the evening meal." The driver slowed the horses for a rock that spanned the track, but the chariot still rode over it with a lurch. "Indeed," he went on as he twitched the horses faster again, "arriving any earlier would be rude."
"Agamemnon! You said we'd go straight there -- "
"Besides, Menelaus, up this way we'll have more chance to try out our new spears."
"But they're for -- " Menelaus started, then caught himself. "Oh, right -- we need to test them. In action."
"To make sure they won't embarrass us on tomorrow's hunt," the driver agreed.
Menelaus hesitated a moment longer, started laughing. "Brother, you are the worst."
Agamemnon spared a moment's attention away from the road to grin back at him -- and was rewarded with a bump that nearly threw the chariot over. It took both of them several moments to wrench it back to level and settle the horses. Time, the driver told himself silently, to take it a bit slow, even with the dust. Besides, they were starting up the approach to the pass. The horses would want resting soon -- at the spring, if it was still running this time of year.
"Idiot," Menelaus said, once he had resettled their new spears in the sheath strapped to the car's side.
"Worried old man," his older brother retorted.
"One day your impulsiveness is going to get us killed. You know that, right?"
"So you keep saying."
Agamemnon ignored the exaggerated sigh behind them, for as they rounded the bend of the ridge, there was another chariot under the old oak. A stranger's.
It was larger than theirs -- wide enough to block passage -- though still pulled by only the two horses. One person held the once-sweaty geldings while another watered them. A third filled a skin from the spring. Agamemnon slowed to a stop three lengths away, and Menelaus hopped out to catch the near bridle and hold the horses.
As their dust cloud caught up and rolled over him, Agamemnon thought quickly -- what would strangers with a chariot this fine be doing here, in the hills above Mycenae and Argos? Was it only these three or were they an advance party? Regardless, his duty was clear -- Atreus had thumped the lesson of Laius's death into his head often enough. And until the top of the pass, this was still Mycenae territory, making him host in more ways than one.
Only once the dust had cleared enough they could see clearly, and speak without choking, did he realize the three were all women -- one still holding their horses, two in front of her with a spear ready and a bow strung and nocked. Wearing short tunics and leggings, no less, and holding their weapons like they knew how to use them. All the more reason to be polite.
"In the name of Zeus, Guardian of Strangers, hail!" he called to them.
The archer replied, "In the name of Zeus, Guardian of Hosts, hail!" She had a deep voice for a woman, and was a little older than the other two.
Menelaus coughed -- possibly because of the dust, instead of the half-mockery aimed at his older brother.
Which Agamemnon knew to ignore. "Our thanks," he returned. "What brings you to Mycenae?"
"Ah -- we're past Argos then?" the horsewoman said. Her voice was clear, but accented with the tones of the south. Spartan, maybe?
"Continue on," and he indicated the way he'd come, "and go left down the valley, and it takes you straight to the west gates."
Horsewoman shook her head. "You mistake us -- we're heading north by the shortest road as we can."
Three women, unaccompanied, wishing to avoid the cities -- he supposed that, even armed, they might have a reason to. Or if they were exiles and on the run. But all he said was, "From here, all roads lead to Argos or Mycenae -- or," and he gestured up at the mountain looming from the north, "to Nemea over the back side of Mt. Artemision here, though that's a hard way for wheels."
The women glanced at each other, then the horsewoman nodded to him. "If you could direct us by that road, we'd appreciate it."
Definitely Spartan phrasing. And with a tone like that, probably high-born. Which of King Tyndareus's lords had daughters his age? He couldn't remember -- and his father would whack him for admitting it. "Actually, it's back the way you came, about eight furlongs."
"What, the foot-path at the abandoned town?"
"Told you," said the spearwoman.
"Shut up, Mica."
Through gritted teeth: "Shut. Up."
Before laughter got the best of him, or at least gave him a cough like Menelaus, Agamemnon interrupted with, "Nay, it's a farmers' wagon track -- between here and Lyrkeia, the old town."
"Oh." In this, the horsewoman spoke for all three: each had a nonplussed look. They must have missed it. This was getting more and more interesting.
"We'd be glad to escort you there," he added with a small bow.
"Our thanks," the spokeswoman said with just as small a bow.
It took a few minutes to turn their geldings around. Agamemnon offered to help pick up their chariot, but the three women were strong enough to handle the lightly laden wicker themselves.
Before they mounted, he introduced himself. "I am Agamemnon, son of Atreus -- this is my brother, Menelaus."
Which made the women exchange looks again. "I am C-Clothia." The horsewoman stumbled over the transparently fake name -- obviously not used to deceit. He almost called her on it before remembering she was a guest in his land. Besides, if he didn't ... the temptation to let her tangle her own reins was too strong to give up. She continued, "And these are Critylla and Mica."
And with his own mares rested, both parties were ready. It wasn't until he mounted behind his brother that Menelaus realized: "Wait -- we'll be in their dust."
"Well, they are our guests," Agamemnon murmured just loud enough only Menelaus could hear. Besides, this way, he could see whether they missed the wagon track again.
Being less used to the road, the women drove slower -- but competently, Agamemnon was pleased to note. Word had it that Spartan girls trained well -- and trained naked as any youth. He wondered how long he could find excuses to stay with them. He suspected it would be worth watching. As would finding out just what they were up to. Speculation kept him pleasantly occupied as he hung back, just beyond their clearing dust cloud.
The Spartans stopped at the shepherd's cot. As Agamemnon came up beside them, Clothia pointed at the track winding up the hill beyond the paddock. "Is that it?"
"Aye," Menelaus. "That'll take you straight over the mountain."
Mentally, Agamemnon kicked his little brother.
Mica shook her head. "They take wagons up that thing?"
"Up isn't the hard direction," Agamemnon quickly said, cutting off Menelaus before he could spoke his wheels again. "But given how light your load is, down shouldn't be a problem." Then he added, "Much."
The women looked at each other. That's it, he thought. Take the bait. We're good, strong young men at your service.
"Let me guess," Clothia said, "we can't miss the way."
"That's right," Agamemnon said. "Just bear left at the second herm, the one without a head. When you reach the ridge, continue up instead of taking the first way down. Oh, and before then, as you cross the meadow, ignore the cairns -- they're for the hunters."
He made the directions as confusing as possible -- in truth, the route was indeed obvious, with the side-ways being footpaths no wagon or chariot could take. Menelaus gave him an odd look, but played along -- for once.
The women again consulted each other silently. "Our thanks, Agamemnon," Clothia said. "We do not wish impose upon your hospitality any longer, but could you perhaps recommend a guide for us?'
Ha! "Speak nothing of it. We can show you the way ourselves."
And bless his heart, Menelaus only nodded. After Agamemnon insisted three times that it was no imposition, the women gave in.
The wagon track was even slower than the road, but no rougher if you stayed in the wheel-grooves. It was, however, steeper -- to save the horses, only the driver could ride, with the others walking. Since Menelaus was lighter, he got to take the reigns, but Agamemnon wasn't about to give him control of Balius and Xanthus, and walked them holding Xanthus's bridle. As needed, he helped Mica and Critylla, who also walked, when their chariot caught straying out of the grooves. By the third time, Mica even thanked him for it.
With stops at the two springs for rest and water, and a noon-meal of bread and olives from a pair of shepherds, they didn't reach the border between Mycenaen and Corinthian territory until mid-afternoon.
Clothia stood beside him on the ridge, looking down at the vale of Nemea with its pine forest. "You were right," she said. "We couldn't miss it."
Agamemnon smiled. "Aye."
She measured him with narrowed eyes. "So?"
He raised innocent eyebrows. "So?"
"So is the road to Nemea as obvious as this one?"
He opened his mouth, then thought a moment. "To Nemea, yes," he said honestly, "but the only road out goes straight down to Kleonai, where it meets the main road north from Corinth. You'll have to pass through the town -- ask for directions to Tenea -- that road will let you bypass Corinth."
"I ... see." He wasn't sure if she was more disconcerted by his directions or his open acknowledgement of their desire to avoid cities.
"Well then," he said in an imitation of his uncle's heartiest manner -- the one Thyestes put on when he was about to say something the most cutting, "before our farewells, I bid you one favor."
"Yes?" As if, as guest, she could deny it.
"Your name." Her true name.
If Clothia were a dog, she would have snarled. As a human, and a noble at that, she only smiled with all the sweetness of honey mixed with wormwood. "Clytemnestra."
"Tyndareus's daughter?!" Menelaus blurted at his shoulder.
The Spartan king's daughter bowed to him, mouth set as if it held an unripe olive.
"But what are you -- !" he began, but Agamemnon interrupted, "Brother! Courtesy to our guest."
Clytemnestra looked at him, then glanced at the boundary stone -- the one beyond which they would no longer be guests. Agamemnon smiled sweetly.
"Again, our thanks," Clytemnestra said.
"May the gods protect you on your journey, no matter where it takes you," Agamemnon said pointedly.
Clytemnestra looked at him a moment, then her shoulders slumped slightly. "Let me guess -- you know the way around Kleonai without asking for directions."
Agamemnon bowed slightly. It was that or grin like a lunatic.
"We would be glad of your continued assistance," she said, voice resigned.
"Lady!" Critylla protested, even as Menelaus squawked. Agamemnon stepped on his brother's sandaled foot, while Clytemnestra cut Critylla off with a gesture. "They've shown themselves to be honorable hosts," she said.
"Always," Agamemnon agreed. "By Nemean Zeus, you have nothing to fear from us."
"By Nemean Zeus," Menelaus echoed hastily.
Mica shifted the spear in hand, then glanced down at the sanctuary just visible below. The looks both she and Critylla gave the brothers promised that what the will of the gods didn't protect, the hands of women would. Though in truth, Agamemnon had no intentions that way -- not when there was an adventure to be had. And as for Menelaus, he was still more interested in horses and hounds than girls.
Clytemnestra let out a breath. "Then let us be off, while the sun still shines."
As Agamemnon came round to step into his chariot, Menelaus caught his arm. "Brother," he said through gritted teeth.
"Hunting with Aegialeus can wait," Agamemnon told him. "Besides, from here, this is the fastest way back."
"One day, brother -- "
" -- but not yet," Agamemnon said. "Not while the gods favor the bold."
Menelaus looked at him a moment, then just shook his head as he released his arm.
The way down was faster than up, even with holding the horses back -- and, at times, the chariots as well. Agamemnon and Menelaus switched off who drove and who pulled. It was longer work than Agamemnon expected, but he wasn't about to complain when the women didn't. It was probably just as well the parties had to stay too far apart to talk.
Finally the slope flattened, though the road still went downhill through scattered oaks and then clustered pines -- flat enough that after resting the horses they could all ride. The sun was still just over the western mountains when they reached the sanctuary of Nemean Zeus, below the cave where the Lion had denned. Menelaus eagerly pointed out the latter, and the valley where Heracles had fought it.
"We'd best lodge here," Agamemnon said, nodding at the guest-houses for pilgrims that lined the main road up from Kleonai. "There's little else between here and town."
Clytemnestra glanced at the disappearing sun, and nodded reluctantly. And truth be told, Agamemnon was glad of stopping. Mica and Menelaus both drooped as well, though Critylla looked fine -- her stamina was disturbing. Separate lodgings for men and women, of course, though they bartered together for their evening meal. Critylla made short work of preparing it while Mica borrowed a coal for an outdoor hearth-fire. As meals went, even without meat and with sour wine, it was good. It had been a long day.
Agamemnon, sitting across from Clytemnestra, considered her face in the flickering firelight -- her strong nose and straight brow. She stared into the coals, frowning. Time, he thought, to bring this to a head.
When she noticed his gaze, he said, "I've been patient enough. So where are you going?"
Critylla stirred and Mica choked back a protest, but Clytemnestra only blinked -- remembering, no doubt, that her privacy was no longer bound by guest-law. She took a considering breath, then said, "Theseus of Athens abducted my sister, and we're going to rescue her."
It was Agamemnon's turn to blink. "You mean Helen?"
"Ah -- you've heard of her."
Who hadn't? Harpers up and down the peninsula had sung her praises since she was old enough to dimple a smile. "Is Theseus really that stupid?" he said, at the same time Menelaus said, "Is Helen really that pretty?"
Clytemnestra rolled her eyes, and Agamemnon swatted Menelaus upside the head.
"Thank you," Clytemnestra said.
"Don't mention it," Agamemnon said.
"Well I will," Menelaus said. "That hurt!"
"And in answer to your questions, yes," Clytemnestra said.
"Then why?" Agamemnon asked.
"Does stupidity need a reason beyond beauty?"
Agamemnon waved that aside. "I mean, why you?"
Clytemnestra looked grim. "I always promised my little sister I'd protect her."
"Ah." Agamemnon knew about those sorts of promises. All the times he'd taken the beating for Menelaus, or stopped their half-brother Aegisthus from picking on him.
"Oh," Menelaus said, and then glanced at his brother. Then, "But wait -- how are you going to take Athens with just two soldiers?"
"Three," Agamemnon corrected. Hadn't he seen her sword belt?
"Cities are defended against armies, not against a couple 'mere women'."
"What do you mean -- sneak in?" Menelaus said. "Use deception?"
Clytemnestra waggled her hand in indifference. But then, what did honor mean to a woman, anyway? No more than her name, and she'd already shown what she thought of that. This promised to be a truly interesting adventure. It was all Agamemnon could do to keep from grinning, even as Menelaus started to argue.
In the morning, the Spartans did indeed train -- with an emphasis on sword, spear, and bow over athletics -- and did it like any youth. For all his speculation the day before, Agamemnon resolutely ignored them as he drilled his brother with sword alone -- training was too important. The sight of the naked women, though, made Menelaus more than usually distracted.
"That's -- "
Agamemnon whacked his shoulder with the flat of his sword. " -- what you get for gawking."
"Ow! But it's not -- " Menelaus barely parried the next blow.
" -- what you're supposed to look at."
"But they're -- "
" -- not who you're fighting." Agamemnon whacked the other arm. "Watch the sword, not the sheathes."
Menelaus flushed even more at the double-meaning. This was not the time for him to suddenly get old enough to notice the other sex -- not when it kept him from defending himself. Agamemnon snarled and knocked the sword out of his brother's hand, then brought blade up to his throat.
"That's four times dead." He pointed at the sword in the dust. "Concentrate! Or you really will get killed."
The women finished first, leaving Agamemnon no reward for his virtue. By the time they were ready to leave, Menelaus had died three more times but was finally getting his guard up, and even managed a couple counter-attacks. It was just ... so frustrating. For all his vows, Agamemnon wouldn't be able to protect his brother forever -- he had to make sure he could survive on his own.
They left Nemea soon after, on the smooth road that let all of them ride. Only as they departed did Agamemnon realize he also hadn't seen how well the women could fight.
"I was trying to tell you," Menelaus said. "They're good."
Agamemnon grimaced but didn't respond. Which meant he had to hear his brother go on and on about the neat trick Mica had used with the spear to disarm Clytemnestra.
At their rest stop halfway to Kleonai, Agamemnon found himself beside Mica as they tended their respective horses. She was the same age as him and Clytemnestra, though not as striking at the latter. "You've got an admirer," he said, "for your spear-work."
She paused to look at him, but he kept his face carefully blank. "Do I now?"
He nodded toward Menelaus. "He was quite distracted by it."
Mica smiled. "Oh, was he now. By my spear-work."
"So he says." Agamemnon had to work to keep his lips from twitching.
"Ah, well," she turned back to checking her gelding's hind hoof. "He's too young for the likes of me."
"Aye," Agamemnon agreed. Balius shifted as he inspected her knee -- she sometimes got inflamed if she pulled for too long.
When she stood up, Mica said, "You're not bad yourself." Then added, "With a sword."
Agamemnon smiled. "It's all in the practice."
She politely agreed, hiding a smile of her own.
He would have gone on, but caught sight of Clytemnestra, watching them with a frown. "Are we ready to leave?" she asked.
"Yes'm," Mica said, in her soft Spartan accent.
"Aye," Agamemnon agreed.
As the party prepared to mount, Clytemnestra caught Agamemnon alone, and held up a finger to stop him. She stared into his face a heartbeat, eyes narrowed. "I protect my own," she said in a soft voice stiffened with iron resolve.
"Of course," Agamemnon agreed, voice just as low. "That's why you're following Helen."
"And don't you forget it."
He doubted he would. He nodded and hopped onto his chariot, saying more loudly, "Follow me 'round Kleonai, then," as if that was what they'd been discussing.
True to his word, though, when the road reached the river plains, he lead the Spartans off between fields, north around the town. In the olive groves to the east, however, the tracks began crisscrossing like a labyrinth, hiding the main road over the next mountains. It was easy to follow once you were on it, but it was only marked at the town gate. Twice he thought he had it, only to realize it was another side road for the olive pickers. It was Menelaus who first pointed out the right way.
"Aye," Agamemnon agreed and smoothly turned his mares onto it -- heading onward. The horses could go a little further still, and the sun was barely halfway up the sky.
"Hey!" Menelaus said but subsided when Agamemnon ignored him. Agamemnon smiled to himself.
They stopped at the well beside another sheep-pen, just before the road headed up the mountain in earnest. As they rested and fed the horses, Clytemnestra came over to the brothers.
Slowly, almost as if reluctantly, she said, "Our thanks for all you have done for us."
Agamemnon bowed his head for a moment. "Zeus strike me if I've been a bad host."
Which pulled a chuckle out of her. "Nay -- nothing like one. And Zeus strike me if, like a bad guest, we impose upon you any longer."
"It'll be no imposition at all," Agamemnon said smoothly.
"In that case," she began, then realized what he'd said. "It 'will'?"
Menelaus finally caught on. "Wait, what?"
"You're not coming with us," Clytemnestra continued, halfway between a command and a question.
"It would," Agamemnon said with a straight face, "be dishonorable to abandon a rescue mission."
Menelaus made a strangled sound.
"You are not coming with us," Clytemnestra said more firmly.
"Right," Menelaus agreed, "we're already -- ow."
Agamemnon kept his foot on his brother's. "Of course we are," he said to her. "My father, Atreus, is a friend of Tyndareus -- we cannot stand aside and not help when his family is in need."
"Ow," Menelaus said again.
"I -- " Clytemnestra began, then shook her head. "Politics," she said, voice disgusted.
"We will rescue Helen," Agamemnon said. "My word on it."
"Ouch," Menelaus said, as if to vary things.
Clytemnestra looked into Agamemnon's eyes. Hers were a dark blue, he was startled to realize. She let out her breath, as if concluding his resolve was indeed solid. "Fine. I accept your assistance," and then turned with a swirl of her tunic to stalk back to her handmaids.
Agamemnon wanted to sigh himself. Instead, he let his brother's foot go.
"THANK you," Menelaus muttered.
"You're welcome," Agamemnon replied sweetly.
"Never mind Aegialeus -- if our father finds out."
Mention of Atreus and his likely wrath was almost enough to dampen the spark that drove Agamemnon -- even for such an adventure as this promised to be. Who knew how far this one would take them?
Menelaus went on, "Are you really just doing this to stay friendly with Tyndareus?"
"Swear to me on our grandfather's name that you wouldn't want to be known for rescuing Helen of Sparta." Agamemnon looked into Menelaus's eyes, and his brother looked away. "You can't."
Menelaus covered his face with his hand. "You owe me," he said against his palm.
Agamemnon just laughed. Menelaus limped over to the horses to console himself in Xanthus's mane.
Beyond Tenea, they stopped at the top of the pass to look out at the sea: the head of a long deep bay, green below them, blue beyond, and misty at the horizon. Agamemnon pointed right down the coast. "Epidaurus is around the headland. The island ahead is Salamis, where Telamon rules. His father, old Aeacus, still holds Aegina with his Myrmidons, the half-hidden island to its right. And down there, we take the coast road left," he gestured along the curving sweep of the shoreline, "over the Isthmus, through Megara, Eleusis, and then Athens, beyond Salamis."
"It's beautiful," Menelaus said, gazing raptly at the ocean.
Clytemnestra chewed her lip thoughtfully. "So another three days?"
"More like four," Agamemnon said, though it was pure guess. "Distances are deceiving."
She nodded. "Then let's get going."
Late the next day, they straggled into the harbor town of Kenchreai, across the Isthmus from Corinth. The road down to the sea had been rougher than expected, and having never taken it before, Agamemnon made a wrong turn twice. The coast road itself had wound in and out of every inlet and ridge. Distance was, indeed, deceiving.
"We should go on," Clytemnestra said. "It's still light."
"Princess," Agamemnon said with as much patience as he could muster, "the horses must rest."
"As must we," Menelaus added. Both he and Mica were looking more than a little worn. "And eat."
"Besides," Critylla said, "there's a shrine here to Artemis the Healer that was founded by Atalanta."
Which made Mica perk up. "Oh! We have to visit that!"
"By Atalanta," Clytemnestra repeated.
Critylla and Mica nodded in unison.
"Sometimes, you fangirls are just a little too much," Clytemnestra said.
Ignoring her, Critylla went on, "it's on the north side of town, near to the natural hot baths."
"Baths," Menelaus said longingly.
Clytemnestra's shoulders slumped. "A bath," she said faintly, "sounds lovely."
"As does dinner," Agamemnon said.
"Food," Menelaus said in the same longing voice.
There was lodging as well, as usual near a place of healing. The pools themselves were not part of the shrine itself, though they were said to ease the aches of age. Certainly, they were relaxing. Agamemnon thought if he stayed in them long enough, the knot in his shoulder from holding the reins might in fact loosen one day.
Curiously enough, it was from neither the bath attendants nor the priests that they learned about Helen. Halfway through nodding off over dinner, Menelaus said, "By the way, your sister was here."
"What?!" Clytemnestra said, with Mica's "When?!" and Critylla's "How??" close behind.
Agamemnon swatted his brother up-side the head.
"Ow! What was that for?"
"For that 'by the way'," Agamemnon said. "Waiting this long to say something. Spill."
"Now," Clytemnestra agreed.
"Well, that's what our hostess said. When Theseus passed through ten days ago, with his 'young bride from Sparta,' she insisted on stopping for the night. Bathed in the pools and came out -- how'd she put it? -- 'even lovelier than before.' She was quite taken with her," Menelaus said. Then in the silence, "The hostess with Helen, not the other way around."
"Well, of course not," Mica said indignantly.
Agamemnon pinched the bridge of his nose.
"Swat him again," Critylla told him.
"Won't do any good," Agamemnon said. "Besides, that's poor reward for news like this."
"You're welcome," Menelaus said.
"Bride?!" Clytemnestra finally erupted. "BRIDE!?"
"Which tells us something about his intentions toward her," Agamemnon said, then immediately regretted it under Clytemnestra's glare.
"Not," she said through gritted teeth. "Helping."
Agamemnon turned to his brother. "Did she say where they were going?"
"Athens, of course," Clytemnestra said.
Menelaus nodded. "Attica."
Of which Athens was one part of, but never mind. "So not on to Thessaly -- good." To the women's blank looks, he explained, "Where Peirithous, his sworn brother, is from."
Clytemnestra closed her eyes. "I hadn't thought of that."
Agamemnon clapped his hand on Menelaus's shoulder. "Good job."
The answering smile was enough to make the whole trip worthwhile.
They were rested enough at dawn to train again -- this time all together. When Agamemnon crossed swords with Clytemnestra, he found Menelaus was right -- she was good. Not strong like a man, but quick. Worse, her flashing breasts and dark triangle below were much harder to ignore, when right in front of him.
It was probably just as well they stuck to standard drills instead of sparring freely. Agamemnon then switched to giving Menelaus a new lesson in humility -- his little brother had been feeling pleased with how quickly he'd picked up Mica's trick with the spear. Which was, indeed, a good trick but you could counter it if you knew it was coming.
"Enough," Clytemnestra said. "It's time and past to be off."
Agamemnon glanced at the sun, a hand's width clear of the sea to the east, and nodded.
"But I want to practice this some more," Menelaus said.
Taking an interest in weapon-work, wonder of wonders. Not to be discouraged. "Then do it when we rest the horses," Agamemnon told him.
North of the Isthmus, the coast road ran straighter and smoother. It was also the only real road, carrying all traffic north and east into the mainland under the looming coastal hills. Oh, there were side-tracks for locals, but between being unfamiliar with them and Clytemnestra's eagerness to catch up with her sister, they took the main way. Besides, this far from home few were likely to recognize them.
The hills opened out into a small plain, Megara in the center, while the sun was halfway down the afternoon sky. The acropolis itself was several furlongs inland of the harbor, on a low lonely hill.
Agamemnon pointed at Menelaus. "Ruled by?"
Menelaus gave him a look. "Megareus." Then after a moment, "Unless he died?"
"Not that I've heard, though he'd be getting on in years." Agamemnon glanced at Clytemnestra, who shrugged -- she'd heard nothing either.
Critylla sniffed. "I'm more worried at the two full squads of foot-soldiers by the gate, than at their commander."
Agamemnon nodded, though really soldiers were only as good as their captain. "Something's poked the ant nest." To Clytemnestra, "If you're still interested in not catching anyone's attention, it may be worth the extra time to go around the city."
"It might even be faster," Critylla added.
"It might, at that," Clytemnestra murmured, then shook her head. "Right -- inland and around."
As it was, the tracks through the fields were not as confusing as at Kleonai, if only because the plain was narrower. They had nearly circled the city's north wall when they were stopped by a patrol of a hand of chariots plus outriders on horses. All the men were armed and alert. Clytemnestra halted her chariot beside Agamemnon's to parley.
"Hail, in the name of Zeus," Agamemnon called out. Men should talk to men.
"Hail," the patrol captain replied. He was nearly as old as Atreus, with the same ease of long command. "State your name and business in Megara."
Agamemnon twitched -- so much for courtesy. "With whom do I talk?"
"Timalcos, son of Megareus, if it's worth your knowing."
Worth it? For another son of a king, of course it was. "Agamemnon, son of Atreus."
In the corner of his eye, Agamemnon saw Clytemnestra close her eyes with a pained look, though it wasn't like he'd named her. Or their mission.
Timalcos considered that a moment. "You're a long way from Mycenae."
"We're traveling to Delphi, to consult the oracle for my father."
"A bit off the main road as well."
"We were misdirected," Agamemnon agreed.
Timalcos snorted. "I see." He glanced at the city's east gate, nearly as well-guarded as the west gate they'd avoided. "Well, I suppose you'd have need of haste. Just so you know, the Boeotian road goes north from Eleusis, not here."
Agamemnon frowned, but nodded. "Our thanks."
And then Clytemnestra had to speak up. "Why the formal welcome?" she asked, indicating the patrol and guards. "Are you at war?"
Timalcos smiled wryly, making him look even more like an old campaigner. "Not yet, gods willing. Let's just say we're none too happy with Theseus right now and leave it at that."
"Theseus -- " Clytemnestra began, but Agamemnon raised a hand to cut her off.
"Is Attica safe, then?" Since that was the question they would have asked, if their story was true.
"I'd pass through quickly, if I were you, pilgrims to sacred Delphi or no."
"I see," Agamemnon said. And then, since that was a clear dismissal, "In that case, we'd best move quickly. May the gods favor you in this endeavor."
"And may they protect you in yours." At Timalcos's signal, the patrol chariots parted to let them pass through.
The soldiers watched them till they passed out of sight behind an olive grove.
When they next rested the horses, at a stream crossing the main road, Clytemnestra walked stiffly over to Agamemnon -- her posture equal parts tired and annoyed. "So it's Delphi now?"
He shrugged, more concerned by Balius's knee -- it was getting warm, though not yet swollen. "It worked," he said. "And it's not like I lied about my name."
"Ha. Ha," she said, completely unamused. "Very funny." Then she sighed. "Fine, it's a fair hit. It's just, it'd be nice to know these things ahead of time. So we don't tell different stories."
Agamemnon straightened. That, he supposed, was just as fair a hit. "Aye. It was the inspiration of the moment."
She nodded, apparently satisfied, and walked stiffly off again, and this time it was all tiredness.
That night, at a prosperous farm halfway to Eleusis, Menelaus got Agamemnon alone as he applied a poultice to Balius's knee. "What did Timalcos mean, about needing haste to Delphi?"
Agamemnon frowned. "I don't know," he admitted. It was a small worry, compared to the question of how under heaven two men and three women could rescue a stolen princess, but it was enough to make him wonder if he should be having second thoughts.
From the hill looking down at Eleusis, they could see the gate was unguarded. "This ought to be easier," he told Clytemnestra. And with the sun's chariot heading down the slope of the sky, it was time to stable and rest their own horses for the night. And themselves.
"Oi," Critylla said, "behind us." They turned and saw a dust-cloud rising from the road behind them.
"Someone's riding hard," Menelaus observed.
"Several someones," Agamemnon agreed. At least twenty horse, he thought. Maybe more.
"Or whoever they were afraid of," Agamemnon suggested.
"Oh no," Clytemnestra said softly.
"Or maybe not," Agamemnon went on.
"No, no, no, no," she insisted.
"Ma'am?" Mica said.
"Pray that I'm wrong," Clytemnestra said, "because otherwise it's a short ride to Hades."
Mica and Critylla looked at each other and paled. Clytemnestra whipped her horses into a quick canter. What on earth -- ? With a last glance at the cloud, Agamemnon followed.
It did no good. Clytemnestra's brothers caught up with them outside the town wall -- together with twenty-two men, all riding horses instead of encumbering chariots. Castor leapt astride Clytemnestra's off-horse and reined it in, while two riders closed on either side of Balius and Xanthus and halted them. Before Agamemnon could so much as drop reins and draw sword, Polydeuces had jumped aboard their chariot and thrown Agamemnon and Menelaus out on the ground. As Agamemnon rolled to a stop, two men were already upon him, a sword at his throat and boots on his hands. A heartbeat later, a hand grabbed his tunic and hauled him upright.
The two coldest blue eyes he'd ever seen pierced his gaze. "Abduct my sister, will you?"
Clytemnestra screamed something, but Agamemnon didn't hear it over the smack of Polydeuces's fist on his jaw. Pain and bright darkness and confusion. As he slowly shook it off, he heard her shouting, repeatedly, that she wasn't being abducted, that they were helping, to stop it. Her words were stopped by a slap, the sound of which brought Agamemnon fully to.
He was still held up by his tunic, cloth bunched tight under his armpits and feet barely touching the ground -- which put him eye to eye with Polydeuces. The twins were no more than a handful of years older than him, but that span felt like a gulf. They were mature warriors, as dangerous as freshly sharpened blades and just as bright. He ought to fight back. He had to. But he didn't have the chance.
Polydeuces looked at him, lean face drawn in a contemptuous sneer. "You are?" he asked, giving Agamemnon a shake.
"Agamemnon, son of Atreus." That he kept his voice level was a small thing to be proud of, but he was.
"And is that your story, too -- that you're out to 'rescue' my little sister?"
"Clytemnestra asked," and he swallowed to keep his voice from cracking, "for our assistance."
Polydeuces made a disgusted sound and threw him back to the ground. This time, soldiers didn't bother covering him with swords.
"Well, you can go back," Polydeuces said.
"We," Castor said, cupping Clytemnestra's cheek with his hand, "will take care of this."
"Take our sister with you," Polydeuces said.
"Athens will fall," Castor said.
"And we'll send Theseus to the underworld," the brothers said together.
Clytemnestra swallowed. "Take Athens? You and what army?"
Castor gestured west, and Agamemnon looked up at the chariots and horsemen, over a hundred, riding down the hill towards town. "That army."
"Oh crap," Menelaus whispered, and Agamemnon silently agreed. So much for being a man. So much for being brave.
"How," Clytemnestra started, then swallowed herself. "How did you get here so fast?"
"We got home soon after you disappeared without a trace," Polydeuces said.
"And rode hard all the way," Castor continued.
"They tried to stop us in Megara," Polydeuces said. "Had to kill a few captains before they'd let us through. Or we'd have caught up sooner."
Timalcos? Agamemnon fleetingly wondered. He hoped not. His legs had probably stopped trembling enough that he could stand. He had to push himself up, but he made it to his feet.
"You, though," Castor said, looking at him for the first time, "aren't worth bothering with."
"Go home, little sister," Polydeuces said.
At their joint signal, the Spartans warriors all mounted. As he turned his horse's around towards Eleusis, Castor looked at Agamemnon one last time. "Return her or die." And then they galloped off, leaving the five in a cloud of dust and Agamemenon, at least, with a chest that felt empty.
Oh crap, indeed.
Agamemnon limped over to Menelaus -- his left knee didn't want to take his weight. His brother was dusty but not bloody. He offered his hand -- Menelaus looked up bleakly and took it. On his feet, he looked steadier than Agamemnon felt. "You hurt?"
Menelaus shook his head. "Not on the outside."
What was next? Oh, yes -- Balius and Xanthus. Agamemnon turned and limped over. The mares were skittish, but unharmed. He gentled them with soft noises. Soon he felt able to stand without fear of toppling over.
"Never mind them," Clytemnestra said at his shoulder, "how are you?"
He looked at her. How could he possibly answer that? She caught his chin and turned his head, looking at where Polydeuces had punched him. She winced, and thinking about it, he supposed it did hurt. She held up a damp rag and started cleaning the side of his face, carefully working around the worst bruise.
"Very, very tired," he finally told her.
She nodded. "They have that effect on people."
Agamemnon took a deep breath. "I see why some call them Godborn."
"My mother," Clytemnestra said, "is not an adulteress." Her voice had the same coldness as her brothers -- nearly throwing Agamemnon back into a panic.
"O-of course not," he quickly said. "I spoke only of their reputation." He almost added that, besides, it would be no slur on Leda to have bedded Zeus, but the sharp blue of Clytemnestra's eyes suggested he hold off on that.
She hmphed, but continued cleaning his face.
"There," she finally said with a nod.
"My thanks." He touched the swelling tenderly. Well, he'd had worse. Or just as bad, anyway. He took another deep breath. "So, shall we go?"
Clytemnestra nodded, then looked at him oddly. "Go where?"
"Home." Where else?
She pinched the bridge of her nose. "So much for your honor." She looked at him, blue eyes hard. "Remember that? Your 'word' that you would see this through?"
Protests tumbled through his head faster than he could pick one to stammer out -- that her brothers would rescue Helen, that it was pointless with just the five of them, that word given to a woman didn't matter.
"Just remember," she went on, "that my brothers know our plans."
That caught him. Her brothers knew that he'd vowed to help. If Agamemnon called off now, they'd spread the word -- and he'd lose his honor before he'd had a chance to establish it. And if he didn't break his word, they'd kill him.
Oh crap didn't begin to cover it.
Menelaus marched over to Agamemnon. "Town," he said, pointing at the gate a few furlongs away. "Shelter. Food." Then, when Agamemnon didn't respond, "NOW." His face was more determined than Agamemnon had ever seen before.
He nodded, though the movement hurt his jaw. "Right. Food and shelter for the night." For now, anyway.
Agamemnon lay awake on his pallet in a shelter off the sacred way leading to the Eleusian shrine, listening to Menelaus snore lightly. It was totally unfair that Polydeuces, by ordering him to give up, had ensured that he couldn't. It was enough to convince him the twins really were Godborn.
From now on, he told himself, he'd think through ALL the options BEFORE acting.
In the morning, even with sleep made restless with dreams of being smacked up and down his father's hall, Agamemnon felt steadier. Steady enough to tell Clytemnestra over their shared breakfast, "I am sorry, for yesterday. I was -- in shock."
Clytemnestra looked him over, then slowly nodded. "Those assholes are shocking."
He nodded. "I'll be better prepared, next time." With a sword already drawn and a knife sheath on each thigh, at the least. Maybe a troop of archers behind him as well.
"Ready to go on?" she asked.
"Ready," he confirmed. And maybe, if he lived that lie, it would become truth. Ivory become horn.
"Yes, but go on to where?" Critylla asked as she broke a second loaf of bread.
Clytemnestra whirled on her. "Athens, of course."
"And walk into your brothers again?"
"She's right," Agamemnon said, crouching beside Critylla. His knee protested slightly, but not as much as his jaw when he chewed. "We need a plan. And information." To think it through beforehand.
Clytemnestra turned up her hand. "We go there, sneak around them, and get inside."
Agamemnon and Critylla exchanged a look. Clytemnestra might be good with a sword, but she was no tactician.
Agamemnon sat back on his heels. "Let's start with what we do know." Then when no one replied, "Which would be?"
Mica nodded. "Castor and Polydeuces and their army passed through town without stopping to sack it, then went on to Athens."
"The baker said," Critylla added, "he'd just heard they've set siege to the citadel, but no one knows any more."
Menelaus hurried up, taking a bundle out from under his cloak. "Sorry I'm late -- here's the cheese."
"About time," Clytemnestra grumped.
Agamemnon looked at his brother. "I suppose you got caught up, talking with someone?"
Menelaus ducked his head. "Sorry."
"No, no," Agamemnon said, and patted the ground beside him. "Sit. We were just sharing everything we know."
Menelaus blinked, dropped beside him, and started ticking off items. "Athens is under siege. Athens has been taken by storm. Athens has repulsed the attack. Theseus is leading the defense. Theseus isn't there. Theseus -- "
"What?!" three women's voices said at once.
" -- got married again."
"Back up one," Agamemnon told him.
"Theseus isn't in Athens?" He accepted a chunk of bread and cheese from Critylla. "Thanks."
"Why wouldn't he be?" Clytemnestra said.
"Mr glmm blffth," Menelaus answered, then swallowed. "Because he got married again?"
"What does that have to do with anything?" Agamemnon asked.
Menelaus dropped his bread and cheese in his lap and continued ticking off, "Theseus married a Spartan princess in Eleusis, the moment he reached Attic soil. Theseus married Helen in Athens. Theseus married her at his mother's home. Oh, and get this one -- Theseus married a Trojan princess."
"Trojan?" Clytemnestra said. "As in Troy in Ionia?"
Menelaus grinned. "I know -- wild, isn't it?"
Agamemnon wondered if knowing nothing was better than knowing too much. Something niggled at him, though. Something about ...
"Theseus's mother," he said suddenly. "Aethra -- isn't she from Megara?"
"The man said she's in Aphidna," Menelaus said. "Made it sound like outskirts of Athens."
Oh, Agamemnon thought. Oh.
"I thought Athens was too small to have outskirts," Clytemnestra said. "If Theseus is such a great hero, why hasn't he taken a bigger city to rule, instead of keeping to the small citadel of Athens his father held?"
"No," Agamemnon said, thoughts too jumbled to come out correctly. "I mean, yes, Athens is small, or so I hear. But Aphidna, it's north and east, on the road to Aulis." He was hazy on the details, but he remembered that much.
They all looked at him. "You're saying he took Helen north to Thessaly?"
"No, I'm saying I think we have a trail," Agamemnon said.
Clytemnestra narrowed her eyes considering.
"Boy," Critylla said, "were there any more market stories?"
Menelaus shook his head. "That's the lot."
"Athens is a dead end for us," Agamemnon told Clytemnestra. "This may also be a dead end, but we don't know yet. And more importantly, your brothers aren't checking it out."
"Afraid of them?" Clytemnestra said.
"More clever than them," he countered.
Which got him a snort. "The muscleheads."
"We can always circle back to Athens, if the trail is false."
After another moment, Clytemnestra nodded. "To Aphidna," she agreed.
The five hurried through the rest of their meal and got horses ready. As they did so, Agamemnon said to Menelaus, "Told you we'd go hunting."
Menelaus blinked, and then smiled. "You said we'd use our spears, though."
"As for that," Agamemnon said, "we'll have to see what quarry we find."
Attica was a wide country -- easy riding, but much larger than Agamemnon had expected. The town of Aphidna turned out to be most of the way to Aulis, north over the central hills and overlooking the Euboean Straight. Late afternoon, they were still nowhere close, and they'd pushed Balius harder than Agamemnon liked. All the horses were tiring, after this long a journey, even fed with grain.
They lodged with another farmer. His wife gave them dinner from her hastily expanded pot and word that Theseus and Helen had passed through last market-day, heading north. It was all Agamemnon could do to only grin in triumph -- the trail was hot, and it was real. Clytemnestra flushed. He let Critylla and Mica talk her out of trying to press on through the dark night of a waning moon on horses not up for it. Instead, he questioned the farmer's wife further and learned that no, neither Theseus nor his pretty bride had come back -- still up north, far as she knew.
In Aphidna or beyond? No way of knowing without following the trail. He was as eager to follow it as Clytemnestra, but that'd have to wait till morning.
After, he went into the stable to check Balius's poultice in the fading daylight. Her knee was much improved. If they didn't push too hard or too long, tomorrow, she should be fine. And from talking with the farmer, they should reach Aphidna by noon.
Agamemnon leaned against the stable wall, scratching Xanthus and thinking about Clytemnestra. She was a king's daughter through and through, protecting her sister with a single-mindedness that was almost -- well, worthy of a man. And if not able to defy her older brothers, she could stand up to them without flinching.
And she was of an age to be married.
Lost in thought, he didn't hear her approach till she stepped into the stable. "Agamemnon?"
"In here," he said, and with a last pat for Xanthus stepped out of the stall. Clytemnestra, silhouetted against the darkening sky, wore her cloak against the evening chill.
"How is she?"
He glanced into Balius's stall. "Should be good."
"You really do care for your horses, almost as much as your brother."
"Of course." That's what men do.
A pause, then, "I never asked -- what are their names?"
"Balius and Xanthus."
A small choked sound. "You named your chariot horses Dappled and Yellow?"
"They're fine names," he said defensively.
With that, another pause. Think before you act, he reminded himself. But nonetheless he suddenly said, "My future isn't certain."
She stirred, but in the dim light he couldn't see her face.
He went on, "I am my father's oldest son, but he favors my younger brother."
"Menelaus?" she asked, puzzled.
"Half-brother, I mean -- Aegisthus."
He still couldn't tell what she was thinking. "Nothing is certain -- Aegisthus is still too young, and there's ... rumors about his paternity. With a powerful father-in-law, I could still take the throne after Atreus."
She drew herself up. "Politics again."
He grimaced, though she could no more see his face than he could the distaste no doubt on hers. "In the line of Tantalus and Pelops, it's play politics or die."
She said nothing, only stood still. Finally, "And why do you tell me this?"
He wanted to say he meant to approach Tyndareus about marrying her, and ask whether she would agree or argue against it. He pulled the reins on the impulse. Give yourself, and her, time to think it through. Instead, he replied, "Now's not the time to answer that. Once we have Helen back, ask that question again."
Unexpectedly, she chuckled. "You are deceptively subtle, for a man."
He spent the time falling asleep wondering what she meant by those last three words.
Their first sight of Aphidna was not promising: a scattered collection of square houses stacked on a hillside but otherwise barely fortified.
"Are we sure this is it?" Clytemnestra asked again.
"The man insisted that we couldn't mistake it," Critylla said patiently.
"Mistake it for a town, that is," Clytemnestra muttered.
"Shall we?" Agamemnon said.
"Why bother?" Clytemnestra said. "Theseus would never hide something as precious as Helen in a -- a -- a midden like this."
"A maiden in a midden?" Menelaus said.
Agamemnon frowned at him. If the boy was going to make bad jokes, at least he could make them dirty.
"I think it's rather quaint," Mica suddenly said. "Like a mountain village."
Clytemnestra rounded on her. "My sister doesn't do 'quaint'."
"Exactly," Menelaus said, "you don't do quaint when you're a que-- "
Agamemnon and Clytemnestra both glared at him, but it was Critylla who whapped him upside the head.
"Ow! I was just trying to lighten the mood."
Clytemnestra shook her head. "Let's get this over with," and started back to her chariot.
"But I -- " Menelaus started, but Agamemnon caught him by the head and turned it to face him. "She's a king's daughter -- some jokes, you just don't make, okay?"
"Fine," Menelaus muttered, and shook off Agamemnon's grasp.
At the top of the hill, they found half of the town had not been visible from below -- the more prosperous half. This looked more promising, and indeed, Clytemnestra looked a little less sour. In the nearly empty agora, Agamemnon pulled up in front of a wine-seller's shop where two old men sat in the sun against the wall. "Greetings, elders. We've a message for Aethra -- is she in residence?"
"Aye, sonny," the younger and sprier one said. "Left lane off the square, up the slope to the largest house. Even someone my age couldn't miss it."
"Is the young bride with her, as well?"
The old men cackled. "You've heard of her, eh? Aye, you may catch a glimpse of her as well -- if you're lucky."
"I pray Hermes I am," Agamemnon said. They needed luck.
"And Aphrodite," the old man replied.
With a laugh, Agamemnon thanked him and twitched the horses into a walk.
At the inn where the buildings thinned and grew larger, Agamemnon pulled over into the stable yard. Clytemnestra came up beside him.
"Aphrodite?" she said, voice shimmering with anger.
Agamemnon blinked. "His joke, not mine."
"She's only twelve summers old." The words sounded as if she'd bitten them out of the air.
"Which is why I'm not looking to her for a bride."
"You're looking for a bride?" Menelaus asked, then took a step back, hands up, when Agamemnon and Clytemnestra turned on him.
Agamemnon sighed, then told him, "Not yet, but I will be soon. That or our father will."
"Indeed," Clytemnestra muttered. But her anger had passed. She hadn't thought he ... ?
"Why are we stopping here?" Critylla asked.
Agamemnon pointed at Menelaus, who immediately replied, "Scouting is easier on foot." And when Agamemnon held up two fingers, "And -- gossip from the stable?"
"Right." Menelaus had shown him the value of that.
Clytemnestra let out a slow breath through close lips, then nodded.
From the stable-hands they learned that, yes, Aethra lived just up the way. Theseus weren't here, though, only those new guards he left behind -- the ones to stay clear of when they came down into town to drink of a night off. None of them had seen the young bride, but they'd talked with thems who had -- everyone agreed she was a beauty. The details were vague, but Agamemnon guessed there were at least a double-handful of soldiers.
On a hunch, he asked about the shrine on the hill above them, and learned that yes, there was one up there, to the club-foot god some called Hermes. Better yet, a path up was just behind the inn. For luck like that, it was worth actually visiting the shrine to make an offering to Hermes, lame or not. Silently, Agamemnon vowed to give the god his best dagger if he survived the day.
All five took their weapons, spear-blades wrapped to hide their glint.
They climbed the slope silently. Partway up, a house clearly larger than the others came into view -- the old man was right, they couldn't have missed it. As for guards, Agamemnon saw three, all facing the lane.
"Are the rest around the other side, or just off duty?" Critylla murmured.
"Let's get a little higher, then circle round," he murmured back.
A goat-track leading behind an outcrop brought them to a couple furlongs of the house -- compound, really. As he crouched behind the rock, Agamemnon felt sweat clinging to his tunic, and didn't know if it was from the noon sun or nerves.
"I don't see anyone," Clytemnestra said.
Agamemnon shook his head. Either the guards were well hidden on this side, or ...
At a building's corner, movement -- Critylla had her bow drawn and aimed before he knew it. An old man came into view, holding the halter lead for a pony. A matronly woman walked beside it, talking with the riding girl. All were unarmed.
Just as there was no mistaking the house, there was no mistaking Helen of Sparta.
Agamemnon clapped his hand on Clytemnestra's shoulder to keep her from standing. "Wait for it."
"So close," she whispered, but settled back. He sympathized -- he was also trained for action, not sitting.
Helen and attendants and her placid pony -- shouldn't a girl her age be on something with more spirit? -- headed out on a path up the hill, to the right of their outcrop. No guards followed, or even seemed to be watching. Surely it wasn't this easy?
After a few dozen heartbeats, Mica tapped Clytemnestra's shoulder, and pointed at the goat-track, as it crossed hillside and Helen's path. Clytemnestra nodded, and Agamemnon let her stand. They followed her in a line, women before, men guarding their rear. Agamemnon kept more of an eye on the house than his footing, but still it was Menelaus who stumbled.
They were closer than a small child's spear throw when Helen's party saw them and stopped. Clytemnestra called out, "Helen!"
"Clytie!" Helen hopped off the pony and ran toward her sister.
The next several moments were filled with hugs and squeals and overlapping conversation -- half of it "missed you" and "so worried" and the other half "Uncle Theseus" this and "Uncle Theseus" that. While that went on, the attendants led the pony up. Agamemnon addressed the older woman.
"The gods be with you -- Aethra?"
A guess, but she nodded graciously. "And with you -- Clytemnestra, daughter of Tyndareus, and ... ?"
"Agamemnon, son of Atreus -- my brother, Menelaus."
Who was, he realized, standing rooted like a willow, staring at Helen like a moon-eyed calf. Oh gods, not now -- not him. Not that Helen wasn't the beauty everyone said: dark eyes, lustrous hair, clear brow, and a voice like a sparkling stream.
Which was now protesting: "No! If I leave now, then I won't get the very special gift Uncle Theseus is bringing me."
"Is that where he is now?" Agamemnon asked her.
"Yes, and it's been days already!"
"But Helen," Clytemnestra said, "Father is -- "
"And it was so far, the trip from Sparta. My feet are still blistered."
"Now, Helen, they are almost healed," Aethra said.
Why had he thought this was going to be easy? It was going to be an even longer trip back to Sparta, with a spoiled princess like this. Agamemnon cleared his throat, and -- was that?
Yes -- from in front of the house, the clear ring of sword on sword, and again.
Aethra looked sharply at him. "Nay, not ours," told her. "You'd all best come with us."
Another clang, followed by a shout.
Aethra nodded, reluctantly -- only half-believing him. "There's a hidden cave -- with supplies," and indicated the hill above the outcrop.
Agamemnon took her arm and pulled her forward. "Lead on," he told her, giving her a push. "And quickly."
Helen protested, but Clytemnestra cut her off with a sharp, "Helen -- drill!" And wonder of wonders, with a worried look behind her, the girl shut up. And even hurried, despite her blistered heel. Critylla sent the old man and the pony, with a slap on its haunch, around the hill as a blind.
Agamemnon first heard the hoof-beats behind them soon after they ducked under the thin pine trees. In a clearing, he and Mica turned and unwrapped their spears -- just as the horses caught up. Riden by Castor and Polydeuces.
Agamemnon held steady against the storm of their arrival -- but not steady enough to get in the first thrust as he should have with a long weapon. He fended off Castor's sword thrust and countered with the spear butt against the horse's flank. It was the last blow Agamemnon got in, as further horsemen thundered up. In another moment, he was disarmed, and some unknown soldier's sword was at his throat.
Helen's brothers took charge of her, of course -- along with credit for rescuing her. It had taken them a couple days to reduce the citadel of Athens, and only then had learned that Theseus wasn't there. And now they were here, and the quarry theirs, for all Agamemnon and Clytemnestra had caught it first.
The real blow came from Castor, however. "Go home," he said, returning Agamemnon's spear with a toss.
Agamemnon caught it, single-handed, frowning at the man. Why had he gloated as he said that?
Polydeuces tossed Menelaus his spear in turn, then paused. "Oh, that's right -- you don't have a home."
"What?" Menelaus said.
The brothers looked at each other, then at the twins.
Polydeuces smiled like a hornet. "While you were gone, Thyestes deposed his brother Atreus -- your uncle holds the scepter of Mycenae now. He's even named his bastard son Aegisthus heir."
"No home, no future," Castor agreed.
Agamemnon could say nothing, feel nothing.
"He's dead?" Menelaus said, as if the words meant something.
Polydeuces only smirked.
"You bastards!" Menelaus said.
The two only laughed as they went back to taking charge of everything.
"Dammit!" Menelaus shouted.
Agamemnon couldn't agree more, though his anger wasn't at the twins, not any more. "It's the same thing," he said slowly.
"What?" Menelaus said.
"It's the same damn family story," Agamemnon said, more firmly. "It just keeps happening."
Which sobered Menelaus. He knew their sordid family history as well as anyone, what Atreus and Thyestes had survived.
Agamemnon whirled and clasped his brother's forearm. "But it stops with us."
"Agamemnon?" Menelaus looked into his brother's eyes, his own dark eyes confused.
"Let us swear, the two of us -- we'll never be like them. The curse of Tantalus's line dies with our father. No more fighting, not between us."
Menelaus swallowed, then nodded. "I swear, on Zeus the Father."
"On Zeus the Father," Agamemnon agreed. Later, they would solemnize it over a sacrifice on the god's altar, but the true oath started here. They had each other's backs. Like brothers should -- like blood brothers.
The brothers embraced, and Menelaus started crying. Agamemnon wanted to cry himself, but now he was too numb. Later. Later he would mourn his father, even the hard man that he was, and later still he would somehow avenge him. But for now, he held his younger brother and comforted him. He had nothing else, now.
Back at Aethra's house, the looting was complete and the Spartans were preparing to leave. Even Aethra was to be carried off as a slave. Castor ranted over how no one knew where Theseus was, but no matter how much he howled, the trail was cold -- as if the man had slipped under the earth. There was nothing else for them but to head back to Sparta with their sisters. The twins really were almost like a divine wind, a tempest that blew through everything they touched, with no one to hinder them.
Even the pouting Helen didn't talk back to her brothers.
In the midst of the packing, Clytemnestra came up to Agamemnon and Menelaus.
"Since my brothers won't have thanked you, I supposed it's up to me. The house of Tyndareus is in your debt."
Agamemnon bowed slightly, as did Menelaus. "You are welcome, daughter of Tyndareus."
After a moment, Menelaus added, "At least you have Helen back unharmed."
"And untouched," Clytemnestra agreed.
"That," Agamemnon said, because it was expected of him, "is good." It was something.
Clytemnestra coughed, then said, "You know, those two are almost never home."
Meaning her brothers. "Ah. That must make things more comfortable."
She made an impatient sound. "What I'm trying to say is, there are worse places to spend your exile in my father's court."
Oh. Agamemnon hadn't even gotten as far thinking where they would go now. To Aegialeus maybe, though Argos was too close to Mycenae for safety.
"With you," Menelaus said, "and H-Helen?"
Clytemnestra rolled her eyes, but agreed.
"Agamemnon, can we?" he asked eagerly.
Wearily, Agamemnon nodded. Then to Clytemnestra, "We thank you for your offer."
"It is the least my father can do, for what you've done."
Agamemnon watched as his brother hurried off to tell Mica and Critylla -- he doubted the boy could say two words to Helen herself. Softly, to Clytemnestra, he said, "You know, I haven't got the heart to tell him it's hopeless, with her."
She nodded sadly, then said, "Well, stranger things have happened."
Indeed, though he could think of precious few just then. Then his brain caught up with what she wasn't saying. He cleared his throat. "Is this your way of asking that question from last night?"
She turned to look at him with her bright blue eyes. "Why, yes -- yes it is."
"Then you already know the answer," he said, gesturing towards Menelaus, still excited at the prospect of spending exile in Sparta. An excitement that Agamemnon didn't share -- though he felt a stirring of hope. With the backing of a father-in-law like Tyndareus, he'd have a chance of retaking Mycenae. If he could win Clytemnestra's hand, that is.
With a small smile and an even smaller bow, Clytemnestra left him.