As princesses of Sparta, Helen and Klytemnestra have known nothing but luxury and plenty. With their high birth and unrivaled beauty, they are the envy of all of Greece. But such privilege comes at a cost. While still only girls, the sisters are separated and married to foreign kings of their father's choosing—
Helen remains in Sparta to be betrothed to Menelaos, and Klytemnestra is sent alone to an unfamiliar land to become the wife of the powerful Agamemnon. Yet even as Queens, each is only expected to do two things: birth an heir and embody the meek, demure nature that is expected of women.
But when the weight of their husbands' neglect, cruelty, and ambition becomes too heavy to bear, Helen and Klytemnestra must push against the constraints of their society to carve new lives for themselves, and in doing so, make waves that will ripple throughout the next three thousand years.
Daughters of Sparta is a vivid and illuminating reimagining of the Siege of Troy, told through the perspectives of two women whose voices have been ignored for far too long.
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"Klytemnestra! Have a care, girl! Your spindle's gone all a-wobble!"
Klytemnestra's eyes snapped into focus at the sound of her name. In front of her the spindle bobbed, her carefully spun wool unraveling quickly. She stopped it with her hand.
"Not like you, Nestra," tutted Thekla, turning back to her work. The crease in her nurse's brow lingered, but at least she had returned to calling her Nestra. Klytemnestra had never really liked her full name-it was too big, too cumbersome-but she liked it even less on a sharp tongue. It was her sister, Helen, who had taken to calling her Nestra when she was too young to manage the whole thing, and it had stuck ever since.
Helen was sitting beside her now. They had been working wool together all afternoon, and Klytemnestra's arm was beginning to ache from holding up the distaff. Her sister was singing a song to herself as she watched her spindle twirl on its thread, and though Helen had a sweet voice, she only knew half the words and kept repeating the same verse. Klytemnestra wished she would stop.
The women's room was dim, the walls plain, the air thick and still. As one of the innermost rooms of the palace, it had no windows through which daylight might spill, nor any fresh breeze to break the stagnation. It was summer, and the warm air was made warmer still by the many women who filled the room, lamps and torches illuminating their dark heads and their white, working hands.
Klytemnestra's woolen dress clung to the sweat of her back as she looked over her shoulder toward the brightest corner of the room. There stood the looms, three large wooden frames with half-finished cloth stretched across them. Only two were being worked at present, by the most skilled of the household slaves. Admiring and envious, Klytemnestra watched as they led the shuttles back and forth, building their clever patterns thread by thread. It was like watching a mesmerizing dance, or the playing of a complex instrument.
"You know," came Thekla's voice, "we could start you on loom work soon."
"Really?" asked Klytemnestra, pulling her eyes from the dancing hands.
"You're eleven now. In a few years you'll be married, and what kind of wife will you be if you don't know how to weave?"
"I would like that very much," she replied with a grateful nod. Working the loom certainly looked more interesting than spinning.
Helen stopped her singing. "Can I do weaving too?"
Klytemnestra rolled her eyes. Helen always wanted to do what she was doing, even though she was two years younger. She hadn't shown the slightest interest in the loom before now.
"I think you're still a little young, Mistress Helen. You'll get your chance soon enough, though."
Helen made her face into an exaggerated pout and turned emphatically back to her spinning. Klytemnestra knew she would soon forget she was supposed to be sulking, though, and sure enough her face smoothed as her attention became absorbed once more by the motion of her spindle.
The three of them continued working for a little while until Thekla said, "I think that's enough work for one day. Why don't you girls go and find some food?"
Klytemnestra stopped her spinning. "Can't we go and play outside for a little while before supper? It's not dark yet. I can't stand being indoors all day."
"Ooh yes, can we?" piped Helen.
Thekla hesitated. "I suppose so," she sighed. "But you must take a slave with you. So that you're not alone."
"But we'll be with each other!" Klytemnestra protested. "It's no fun when there's someone watching." She gave Thekla a pleading look but the nurse's face was unwavering. "Fine," she said with an indignant huff. "We'll take Agatha." The girl was between her and Helen in age, and a better playmate than any of the sour-faced escorts Thekla might have chosen for them.
The nurse looked unconvinced, but she nodded her assent.
"Agatha! We're going to play outside, come with us," Klytemnestra called across the room before Thekla could change her mind. The slave girl shuffled over to them, head bowed, while Klytemnestra took Helen's hand and headed for the door. The three of them were already halfway down the corridor when Thekla called after them.
"Keep close to the palace! And don't stay out too long or you'll be brown as goatherds! And who will marry you then?"
The three girls left the palace and walked down the hill to the meadow, Klytemnestra leading the way. The grass was high, the dry seeds brushing off on her dress as she strode through it. The sparse trees rustled above their heads and she was glad of the fresh breeze on her arms after so long in the womenÕs room. Once they were far enough away from the palace not to be overlooked, she stopped.
"What shall we play?" she asked the other two.
"I'll be a princess," said Helen, without hesitation. "And Agatha can be my handmaid."
Agatha nodded shyly.
"But you are a princess," said Klytemnestra, exasperated. "Don't you want to pretend to be something different? Like a sorceress or a pirate or a monster?"
"Nope. I'm always the princess."
"All right, fine. Then I'll be the king," sighed Klytemnestra. She had learned that it was easier to just let Helen have her way. Otherwise she would start crying.
Helen snorted. "You can't be a king, Nestra. You're a girl!" Helen looked over at Agatha, encouraging her to join in with the joke. Agatha let out a quiet giggle, but clamped her lips shut when Klytemnestra shot her a scornful look. Agatha looked at her feet.
"Fine, then. You can be the princess, Helen. Agatha, you be the handmaid. And I'll be the nurse." She thought for a second. "But I'm a nurse who can make magic potions," she added.
"What are you playing?"
The voice came from behind them. A boy's voice. Klytemnestra spun around to see who had spoken.
The boy was sauntering toward them through the long grass, now only a few paces away. He was a little older than they were-tall, but without his first beard. He had long, dark hair and a smile that made Klytemnestra suddenly shy. She had seen him arrive at the palace with his father a few days ago. Some sort of diplomatic visit, she supposed, or maybe just passing through. People came and went all the time, on their way through the mountains or coming up from the coast. Her father's hearth was always lit, but it was rare to have a guest so young. Usually, the only noble-born boys around were her twin brothers, Kastor and Pollux, but they were too old to play games with her and Helen. And Thekla said it was unseemly for princesses to play with slave boys. Surely they could play with this boy, though? He was a guest.
"He-hello," said Klytemnestra, her tongue suddenly clumsy in her mouth. "We were just about to play a princess game." She cringed at how childish it sounded, and hurriedly added, "It's just silly, really, but Helen wanted to play. We can do something else if you want to join in."
There was that smile again. "No, a princess game is fine."
Klytemnestra was worried he was laughing at them, but at least he wanted to play. "What's your name?" she asked.
"Theseus. My father and I are visiting from Athens."
"Theseus," she repeated. "All right, well, Helen was going to be the princess, and Agatha-she's just our slave-she was going to be her handmaid. And I'm a nurse who can make potions. What do you want to be?"
"I'll be a foreign king. A great warrior."
Klytemnestra smiled, pleased that he seemed to be entering into the spirit. "Well, how about you get shipwrecked on our shore and then I find you and heal you with a potion and . . ."
But Theseus didn't seem to be listening. He had turned away from her and was looking at Helen instead.
"You do indeed look like a princess, my lady," he said, with an exaggerated bow. "You've got the brightest hair I've ever seen." He raised a hand, as if he might touch it. "It's like fire. And your skin's so white-like a real lady. I bet you'll be as beautiful as Hera herself when you're fully bloomed."
Helen giggled, but Klytemnestra was annoyed. People were always commenting on Helen's hair. She didn't see what was so special about it. And her own skin was just as fair as Helen's. Besides, she was nearer "full bloom." Helen's chest was as flat as a boy's.
She tried to bring his attention back to the game. "Anyway, I was thinking you could be shipwrecked-"
Theseus cut in. "How about I've just arrived from a battle, and I've got a wound that needs herbs to heal it. You have to go and fetch the herbs."
"All right." Klytemnestra smiled, glad he had given her an important role. "I'll go and do that."
She walked a little way from the others, toward the river, imagining herself venturing into the mountains on her quest for rare herbs. She could hear Helen ordering Agatha about as she stooped to pick a plant with small white flowers. She went on a little farther until the rush of the river's flow replaced Helen's commands and giggles. She stooped to wash her hands in the clear water, but the wool grease clung to her skin, stubborn as ever. There weren't many interesting plants by the river, but she picked a few wildflowers and grasses nonetheless. She wondered if she'd have to pretend to put a poultice on Theseus's wound. The thought made her nervous, but excited too. She'd never touched a boy before-other than her brothers, and they didn't count.
When she was satisfied she had found enough magic herbs, Klytemnestra gathered the stems in one hand and headed back into the heart of the meadow. But as she drew closer to the place where she had left the others, something felt odd. And then she realized: she could no longer hear Helen's voice. She lengthened her strides.
As she drew nearer she found she could not see Helen either. Nor Theseus. Nor Agatha. She scanned the meadow, squinting in the light of the lowering sun.
She broke into a run. Panic was rising in her throat now. Stupid, stupid! She should never have left Helen. If anything had happened to her it would be her fault. They were supposed to look after each other. What if a wolf had come? Or a boar? They didn't usually dare to come so close to the palace, but it wasn't unheard of. Or what if they had been captured? Taken by slavers or some foreign wanderer seizing the opportunity. Theseus wasn't old enough to fight off full-grown men.
She thought she must be at the place where she had left them now. Still no sign. She kept running. Suddenly her foot caught on something and she tumbled into the grass.
"Ow!" came a small voice.
Klytemnestra sat up and saw what she had tripped on.
"Agatha? What are you doing lying in the grass? Where's Helen?"
The slave girl was holding her stomach where Klytemnestra had kicked her. Wincing, she said, "She's playing with Theseus. He said he was kidnapping her, and he stabbed me-in the game, I mean-and he said I was dead now and I had to lie down and be quiet. I heard them run off, but I don't know where they went. I was being dead."
Klytemnestra's stomach clenched. "You stupid! You can't let Helen be on her own with a boy!" She jumped up. "We're going to be in so much trouble," she moaned, almost to herself.
Agatha's eyes had grown wide and fearful. Tears started to shine in them. "I'm sorry, mistress, I'm sorry," she said, her voice cracking. "I was scared of him."
"Sorry's no use," spat Klytemnestra. "We need to find them." She cupped her hands around her mouth. "Helen!" She took another lungful of air. "HELENNN!"
She scanned the meadow, turning until she had come full circle. There was no sign of them, or where they might have gone. She started to run-better to look somewhere than nowhere-but stopped after just a few steps.
"It's no use us running after them. Then we'll be lost too and no one will know what's happened. We need to tell my father."
Tears were running freely down Agatha's cheeks now. "But we'll get in trouble," she whimpered.
"It's too late for that. Come on!" Klytemnestra grabbed her wrist and ran toward the palace, dragging Agatha behind her.
Klytemnestra had been locked in her chamber for what felt like hours, though she could tell from the light that the sun had not yet set, so it couldnÕt have been very long at all. She wished someone would tell her what was happening. Had Helen been found? Was she all right? She didnÕt even have Agatha with her to share her anxiety. Her guilt. Father had kept the slave girl with him when he shut her in here. He had been so angry when theyÕd told him. No, not angry. Afraid, perhaps. SheÕd never seen her father afraid before. He had sent Kastor and Pollux out on horses, and half the palace guard on foot too, to look for Helen and the boy.
Time passed. Klytemnestra fiddled with her hair, pulling it, tying it in knots. She sat hunched on the edge of her bed, thinking about all the things that might have happened. Even if Helen and Theseus were safe, Helen was still alone with a boy. Klytemnestra knew what boys did to girls. What men did to women. Thekla had explained it all to her when she had asked why the sheep climb on top of one another. And if that happened to Helen . . . well, she'd never get a good marriage. Klytemnestra felt sick. She had let her sister down. She was usually so responsible. Helen was young and sometimes foolish, but Klytemnestra had always been there to keep her safe. She'd been so stupid today, though. Why had she been so desperate for Theseus to like her? He was just a stupid boy. Helen meant more to her than any boy. More than anyone at all.
She started to cry. Silent, angry tears. Angry at Theseus. Angry at stupid, beautiful Helen. Angry at herself.
Then she heard the door bar being lifted. She quickly wiped the tears from her face and stood up. She hoped with all her heart that Helen was about to walk into the room.
But when the door opened it was Agatha who stumbled through, pushed from behind. She let out a pitiful yelp and then the door was closed behind her. Her face was streaked with tears, her eyes red and puffy. She staggered forward a few steps, then stopped, as if she couldn't go farther. She stood frozen, steadying herself against the wall with an outstretched hand.