Light dazzles, heat crushes; Helen stands on the wall of Troy and watches with her heart beating hard enough to make her sick as Hector walks out to meet Achilles.
As Hector walks out to die.
He is good; Achilles is better, and Achilles fights to avenge a loss Hector already blames himself for. Helen will never see him again; Priam and Andromache and little Scamandrius will never see him again; Troy will never welcome him home, Troy will die without him.
Helen brought this fate down on them all.
It was easier, when it was just Paris—when a beautiful young man with a soft heart was willing to take her away from her husband to somewhere that might be safe. But then it was Hector, who told her she was Troy’s now, and Priam, who called her his daughter, and Andromache, who might mistrust her but has been all courtesy in spite of that. Paris is exactly what she thought he would be, but everyone else is so much more.
Andromache sinks down to the ground, turned away from the killing field below, and Helen stands at her side and suddenly can’t bear this, can’t bear any of it.
Hector is a good man and an honorable man, and he bears the burden of his position and his choices, he might forever be weighed down by the death of the boy who pretended to be Achilles, and an honorable man would never do anything but walk out to die.
I don’t want a hero, she had told Paris, and she had meant it. She wants safety, and however much a hero might love her—love anyone—there is no safety in that love.
She had dismissed bravery and honor as things of Menelaus’s, to soothe Paris, but Menelaus’s honor had been counterfeit. Hector’s is pure sun-bright gold, and Hector will not kill for it, he will die for it.
“Shoot,” she tells the archer who had raised his bow before.
He stares at her, wide-eyed. “The prince—”
Helen turns the full force of her attention on him, and watches him sway. “Shoot, curse you,” she tells him again. Her voice doesn’t crack; she has had years of practice disguising fear as strength.
The archer looks around for guidance, finds none. “The prince forbade…”
Andromache is looking up at Helen, the blind blank misery fading from her face to be replaced by the faintest flicker of hope. Helen turns, and Priam is sitting so still she knows he must agree with her in his heart, to not have sent her away. Paris’s fingers curl and uncurl at his sides.
“Shoot that Achaean beast down,” Helen says, low and furious, burning with rage and helplessness and a yearning to save Hector and Troy whatever the cost, “or I will take your bow and do it myself.”
It’s impossible—at this distance, when she hasn’t practiced since she was a girl (since she married Menelaus)—but the archer steps back, relieved, and hands her his weapon.
Paris takes a few running steps toward her, then halts as Troy’s general says, “It is a thing of honor.”
Helen lifts her head and looks him in the eye. “And if I were a soldier of Troy, I might be bound by that. I am not a soldier, I am not a man, I am not anything of Troy, nor Hector’s to command.” The wind blows her veil back, bares the glittering pallor of her hair. “I am the whore of Sparta, shameless and cruel. My name will be a curse on women down through the centuries, and I have no honor.”
Silence, for a moment. Helen’s words seem to echo around them, ricocheting back from the air to strike her again and again.
“He will not forgive you,” Priam says, gently, as if she might break. Softly, so soft she isn’t even sure if she hears it or just wishes to, he adds, “My daughter.”
Helen’s mouth quivers, and she turns it into a smile. She will not break; she has never broken, whatever Menelaus did to her. “I know.”
She looks down at Andromache, rocking Scamandrius gently and looking back up at Helen as if she might be something other than destruction. Priam still hasn’t moved to stop her. No one has. She holds bow and arrow in her hands, and below is Achilles, alone, vulnerable.
Paris comes to her side and circles her with his arms, lifting the arrow into place for her. She leans against him and lets him guide her. What if she misses? What if she can’t get a second arrow, or what if she can? How long before they notice?
(What if she strikes Hector instead?)
It’s Paris holding the bow, now, and she ducks out of his way and knows this will be something that nobody will ever tell Hector. She will take the blame for this, too, and call it a fair price to pay.
The string shudders against their fingers. The arrow flies. Helen breathes a prayer to Apollo, to Artemis and Athene and Ares, even to Aphrodite whose gifts brought her here. She will make any sacrifice to any god, if this arrow strikes true.
It pierces Achilles’s heel, and Paris mutters a curse under his breath and jumps back, shoving the bow back into Helen’s hands. He could have done better, she knows, if she hadn’t been there—but if she hadn’t been there he would never have had to.
Achilles staggers at the first shock of it, trips over the shaft as he tries to lunge at Hector, falls. Hector’s sword is brilliant as any thunderbolt as it follows him down.
He does not rise.
Hector stands very still next to him, moving only to look up from the death-wound to the arrow to the walls of Troy.
Helen lets the bow fall from her hands, and turns, and walks away.