The GOLDEN APPLE
In the high and far-off days when men were heroes and walked with the gods, Peleus, king of the Myrmidons, took for his wife a sea nymph called Thetis, Thetis of the Silver Feet. Many guests came to their wedding feast, and among the mortal guests came all the gods of high Olympus.
But as they sat feasting, one who had not been invited was suddenly in their midst: Eris, the goddess of discord, had been left out because wherever she went she took trouble with her; yet here she was, all the same, and in her blackest mood, to avenge the insult.
All she did--it seemed a small thing--was to toss down on the table a golden apple. Then she breathed upon the guests once, and vanished.
The apple lay gleaming among the piled fruits and the brimming wine cups; and bending close to look at it, everyone could see the words "To the fairest" traced on its side.
Then the three greatest of the goddesses each claimed that it was hers. Hera claimed it as wife to Zeus, the All-father, and queen of all the gods. Athene claimed that she had the better right, for the beauty of wisdom such as hers surpassed all else. Aphrodite only smiled, and asked who had a better claim to beauty's prize than the goddess of beauty herself.
They fell to arguing among themselves; the argument became a quarrel, and the quarrel grew more and more bitter, and each called upon the assembled guests to judge between them. But the other guests refused, for they knew well enough that, whichever goddess they chose to receive the golden apple, they would make enemies of the other two.
In the end, the three took the quarrel home with them to Olympus. The other gods took sides, some with one and some with another, and the ill will between them dragged on for a long while. More than long enough in the world of men for a child born when the quarrel first began, to grow to manhood and become a warrior or a herdsman. But the immortal gods do not know time as mortals know it.
Now on the northeast coast of the Aegean Sea, there was a city of men. Troy was its name, a great city surrounded by strong walls, and standing on a hill hard by the shore. It had grown rich on the tolls that its kings demanded from merchant ships passing up the nearby straits to the Black Sea cornlands and down again. Priam, who was now king, was lord of wide realms and long-maned horses, and he had many sons about his hearth. And when the quarrel about the golden apple was still raw and new, a last son was born to him and his wife Queen Hecuba, and they called him Paris.
There should have been great rejoicing, but while Hecuba still carried the babe within her, the soothsayers had foretold that she would give birth to a firebrand that should burn down Troy. And so, when he was born and named, the king bade a servant carry him out into the wilderness and leave him to die. The servant did as he was bid; but a herdsman searching for a missing calf found the babe and brought him up as his own.
The boy grew tall and strong and beautiful, the swiftest runner and the best archer in all the country around. So his boyhood passed among the oak woods and the high hill-pastures that rose toward Mount Ida. And there he met and fell in love with a wood nymph called Oenone, who loved him in return. She had the gift of being able to heal the wounds of mortal men, no matter how sorely they were hurt.
Among the oak woods they lived together and were happy--until one day the three jealous goddesses, still quarreling about the golden apple, chanced to look down from Olympus, and saw the beautiful young man herding his cattle on the slopes of Mount Ida. They knew, for the gods know all things, that he was the son of Priam, king of Troy, though he himself did not know it yet; but the thought came to them that he would not know who they were, and therefore he would not be afraid to judge between them. They were growing somewhat weary of the argument by then.
So they tossed the apple down to him, and Paris put up his hands and caught it. After it the three came down, landing before him so lightly that their feet did not bend the mountain grasses, and bade him choose between them, which was the fairest and had best right to the prize he held in his hand.
First Athene, in her gleaming armor, fixed him with sword-gray eyes and promised him supreme wisdom if he would name her.
Then Hera, in her royal robes as queen of heaven, promised him vast wealth and power and honor if he awarded her the prize.
Lastly, Aphrodite drew near, her eyes as blue as deep-sea water, her hair like spun gold wreathed around her head, and, smiling honey-sweet, whispered that she would give him a wife as fair as herself if he tossed the apple to her.
And Paris forgot the other two with their offers of wisdom and power, forgot also, for that moment, dark-haired Oenone in the shadowed oak woods; and he gave the golden apple to Aphrodite.
Then Athene and Hera were angry with him for refusing them the prize, just as the wedding guests had known that they would be; and both of them were angry with Aphrodite. But Aphrodite was well content, and set about keeping her promise to the herdsman who was a king's son.
She put a certain thought into the heads of some of King Priam's men, so that they came cattle-raiding at the full of the moon and drove off Paris' big beautiful herd-bull, who was lord of all his cattle. Then Paris left the hills and came down into Troy, seeking his bull. And there Hecuba, his mother, chanced to see him, and knew by his likeness to his brothers and by something in her own heart that he was the son she had thought dead and lost to her in his babyhood. She wept for joy and brought him before the king; and seeing him living and so good to look upon, all men forgot the prophecy, and Priam welcomed him into the family and gave him a house of his own, like each of the other Trojan princes.
There he lived whenever he would, but at other times he would be away back to the oak woods of Mount Ida, to his love Oenone.
And so things went on happily enough for a while.
But meantime, across the Aegean Sea, another wedding had taken place, the marriage of King Menelaus of Sparta to the Princess Helen, whom men called Helen of the Fair Cheeks, the most beautiful of all mortal women. Her beauty was famous throughout the kingdoms of Greece, and many kings and princes had wished to marry her, among them Odysseus, whose kingdom was the rocky island of Ithaca.
Her father would have none of them, but gave her to Menelaus. Yet, because he feared trouble between her suitors at a later time, he caused them all to swear that they would stand with her husband for her sake, if ever he had need of them. And between Helen and Odysseus, who married her cousin Penelope and loved her well, there was a lasting friendship that stood her in good stead when she had sore need of a friend, years afterward.
Even beyond the farthest bounds of Greece, the fame of Helen's beauty traveled, until it came at last to Troy, as Aphrodite had known that it would. And Paris no sooner heard of her than he determined to go and see for himself if she was indeed as fair as men said. Oenone wept and begged him to stay with her; but he paid no heed, and his feet came no more up the track to her woodland cave. If Paris wanted a thing, then he must have it; so he begged a ship from his father, and he and his companions set out.
All the length of the Aegean Sea was before them, and the winds blew them often from their true course. But they came at last to their landfall, and ran the ship up the beach and climbed the long hill tracks that brought them to the fortress-palace of King Menelaus.
Slaves met them, as they met all strangers, in the outer court, and led them in to wash off the salt and the dust of the long journey. And presently, clad in fresh clothes, they were standing before the king in his great hall, where the fire burned on the raised hearth in the center and the king's favorite hounds lay sprawled about his feet.
"Welcome to you, strangers," said Menelaus. "Tell me now who you are and where you come from, and what brings you to my hall."
"I am a king's son, Paris by name, from Troy, far across the sea," Paris told him. "And I come because the wish is on me to see distant places, and the fame of Menelaus has reached our shores, as a great king and a generous host to strangers."
"Sit then, and eat, for you must be way-weary with such far traveling," said the king.
And when they were seated, meat and fruit, and wine in golden cups were brought in and set before them. And while they ate and talked with their host, telling the adventures of their journey, Helen the queen came in from the women's quarters, two of her maidens following, one carrying her baby daughter, one carrying her ivory spindle and distaff laden with wool of the deepest violet color. And she sat down on the far side of the fire, the women's side, and began to spin. And as she spun, she listened to the stranger's tales of his journeying.
And in little snatched glances their eyes went to each other through the fronding hearth-smoke. And Paris saw that Menelaus' queen was fairer even than the stories told, golden as a corn-stalk and sweet as wild honey. And Helen saw, above all things, that the stranger prince was young. Menelaus had been her father's choice, not hers, and though their marriage was happy enough, he was much older than she was, with the first gray hairs already in his beard. There was no gray in the gold of Paris' beard, and his eyes were bright and there was laughter at the corners of his mouth. Her heart quickened as she looked at him, and once, still spinning, she snapped the violet thread.
For many days Paris and his companions remained the guests of King Menelaus, and soon it was not enough for Paris to look at the queen. Poor Oenone was quite forgotten, and he did not know how to go away leaving Helen of the Fair Cheeks behind.
So the days went by, and the prince and the queen walked together through the cool olive gardens and under the white-flowered almond trees of the palace; and he sat at her feet while she spun her violet wool, and sang her the songs of his own people.
And then one day the king rode out hunting. Paris made an excuse not to ride with him, and he and his companions remained behind. And when they were alone together, walking in the silvery shade of the olives while his companions and her maidens amused themselves at a little distance, Paris told the queen that it was for sight of her that he had come so far, and that now he had seen her, he loved her to his heart's core and could not live without her.
"You should not have told me this," said Helen. "For I am another man's wife. And because you have told me it will be the worse for me when you go away and must leave me behind."
"Honey-sweet," said Paris, "my ship is in the bay; come with me now, while the king, your husband, is away from home. For we belong together, you and I, like two slips of a vine sprung from the same stock."
And they talked together, on and on through the hot noontide with the crickets churring, he urging and she holding back. But he was Paris, who always got the things he wanted; and deep within her, her heart wanted the same thing.
And in the end she left her lord and her babe and her honor; and followed by his companions, with the maidens wailing and pleading behind them, he led her down the mountain paths and through the passes to his ship waiting on the seashore.
So Paris had the bride that Aphrodite had promised him, and from that came all the sorrows that followed.
When Menelaus returned from hunting and found his queen fled with the Trojan prince, the black grief and the red rage came upon him, and he sent word of the wrong done to him and a furious call for aid to his brother, black-bearded Agamemnon, who was High King over all the other kings of Greece.
And from golden Mycenae of the Lion Gate where Agamemnon sat in his great hall, the call went out for men and ships. To ancient Nestor of Pylos, to Thisbe, where the wild doves croon, to rocky Pytho, to Ajax the mighty, Lord of Salamis, and Diomedes of the Loud War Cry whose land was Argos of the many horses, to the cunning Odysseus among the harsh hills of Ithaca, even far south to Idomeneus of Crete, and many more.
And from Crete and Argos and Ithaca, from the mainland and the islands, the black ships put to sea, as the kings gathered their men from the fields and the fishing and took up bows and spears for the keeping of their oath, to fetch back Helen of the Fair Cheeks and take vengeance upon Troy, whose prince had carried her away.
Agamemnon waited for them with his own ships in the harbor of Aulis; and when they had gathered to him there, the great fleet sailed for Troy.
But one of the war-leaders who should have been with them was lacking, and this was the way of it. Before ever Paris was born, Thetis of the Silver Feet had given a son to King Peleus, and they called him Achilles. The gods had promised that if she dipped the babe in the Styx, which is one of the rivers of the underworld, the sacred water would proof him against death in battle. So, gladly she did as she was bidden, but dipping him headfirst in the dark and bitter flood, she held on to him by one foot. Thus her fingers, pressed about his heel, kept the waters from reaching that one spot. By the time she understood what she had done it was too late, for the thing could not be done again; so ever after she was afraid for her son, always afraid.
Copyright © 2005 by Rosemary Sutcliff. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.