A Stranger in the City – Chapter Nine

Hello everyone. Here’s another chapter of my story. As usual, I thank those who are reading and I am looking forward to read any comments.

Warning: the protagonist’s suicidal thoughts are discussed in this chapter. There is nothing graphic, but it might be unsettling for some people struggling with mental health conditions. If you think you are in danger, seek professional help immediately.

OOO

“What have I become?
My sweetest friend
Everyone I know goes away
In the end

And you could have it all
My empire of dirt
I will let you down
I will make you hurt”

Johnny Cash – Hurt

OOO

Helenus stood stiffly while Grymas recited the prayer in a low, steady voice. Although he was just a spectator, he preferred to be present on such occasions. At least, it looked like he was Artemis’ priest and not just her temple’s housekeeper.

Creusa and Aeneas stood at a short distance, their eyes fixed on the altar. They had married the previous year and her belly was now quite visible under her robe.

When the sacrifice was over, Helenus walked them back to the door.

Before leaving, Creusa took his arm and lowered her voice to a whisper.

“Cassandra is still not doing well, Helenus. Maybe you should pay her a visit”

He looked at her, frowning.

Still not doing well? What does that mean?”

Creusa gaped at him. “Don’t you know?” she asked, shocked. “She had a terrible crisis almost a month ago!”

“What?”

“We honestly thought that she would die. She spent more than a day in bed without moving… Hector said she looked awful. And… she hasn’t been her normal self ever since. We fear that she might have gone insane. But I thought you knew, it’s public knowledge” she explained.

“Of course not. Nobody bothered to tell me!” he replied angrily.

She jumped back.

“Well, it is not my fault! And if you really want to know things, you can visit sometimes!” she answered just as angrily.

She left without another word.

He wondered whether he should visit Cassandra. Since they had concluded their education, they had barely spoken to one another. What was he supposed to say to her?

He decided to wait. Maybe Creusa was only exaggerating: it was known that Cassandra, like many servants of Apollo, had epilepsy. Maybe it was normal to behave in an unusual way after a crisis.

A few days later, however, he saw her buying some fabric in the market square.

She looked like a shell of her former self. She was very pale, had lost weight and her braids were unusually untidy. She looked unfocused, as if thinking about something else. When the cloth merchant asked her a question, she didn’t even notice.

Helenus noticed that people around her were whispering to each other, but she looked oblivious. He didn’t dare to greet her. He could see why his family was worried.

That evening, in his bed, he was kept awake by a feeling he could not name.

Finally, he understood.

He was smug.

Now Cassandra was an outcast, too. Now she had to stand people whispering, laughing behind her back and avoiding her. Now she wasn’t cheerful and confident anymore!

Helenus shivered. How could he rejoice in his own sister’s misfortunes? Only a coward could take satisfaction from something like that.

But there was no way he could pretend otherwise. He felt smug.

OOO

The market square was even more packed with people than usual, Helenus thought. Hermes’ feast was right after the grape harvest, and the people wanted to have a good time after the hard work.

As a prince, he didn’t need to work his way through the crowd. Most people recognized him and gave way, although unwillingly. Everybody was talking loudly to overcome the noise, and he overheard bits of several conversations.

“…my brother-in-law won’t earn much from the grape harvest, given how much he drinks…”, “…ah, there is princess Creusa with her young baby!”, “…between my wife, my mother and my daughter, there is never silence in my house, I’ll tell you”, “…so that good-for-nothing prince Paris is not here, maybe he’s finally…”

Helenus turned to the source of this voice with a glare, and the man who had been speaking went silent.

“I should slap you but I won’t bother” he said harshly, without even stopping.

Why should he take the time to defend his family?

On the shorter side of the market square, a platform had been arranged for the royal family. As that man had mentioned, Paris wasn’t there.

Several months before, during the city games, Paris had joined the family again. He had come to sell cheese during the games, and Priam had soon recognized that young man who looked so much like Hecuba.

His parents had welcomed him warmly, seeing his return as a sign from the gods. But word had reached Helenus that his brothers were much less impressed. The last time he had seen Hector, at Apollo and Artemis’ feast, his older brother had been complaining that Paris was impulsive and quick-tempered. Deiphobus had brought him along while serving for the Hittite king, and Paris had allegedly made several enemies among the other warriors.

Now he had to greet his family. It was better to get over with it before the ceremony started.

“Good morning Father, Mother” he said to his parents, bowing slightly. They answered in the same way, and his mother offered her hand for him to kiss.

Hector, close to them, looked grave.

It had been a strenuous year for him. First Cassandra’s madness, then Paris’ return – and Andromache hadn’t carried any of her pregnancies to the end.

Now Hector wasn’t all smiles anymore. Now he had trouble, didn’t he? Oh, it tasted sweet

The violence of that thought shocked him, and Helenus gasped.

“What’s the matter?” asked Hector, visibly forcing himself to smile.

“…I meant to ask where Paris is” replied Helenus, not knowing what else to say.

Father had decided to send him away on a mission. To Salamina” explained Hector. He didn’t say anything more, but the way he had stressed the word “Father” said clearly that he didn’t agree.

“What mission?”

“He should try and take back our aunt Hesyone, who had been kidnapped by Salamina’s king” said his older brother.

Helenus thought that it was strange to send Paris on such a mission. He had no experience with diplomatic missions and he didn’t even speak Achaean.

His surprise had to be clear on his face, because Hector went on.

“The truth is that Paris’ continuous presence at the royal palace is causing some disappointment. It is very hard for us to get along with him. So Father sent him on a mission where even he can’t cause any serious trouble”

Cassandra was sitting behind Hector, clearly listening to their conversation. She looked like she wanted to say something, but eventually she bit her lip and stayed silent. Helenus saw her clenching her knuckles until they turned white.

For a moment, he felt the urge to laugh at her. He had been the one who always bit his lip while she talked… and now she was insane!

He swallowed hard and looked away.

His life consisted of doing the housework at Artemis’ temple while Cassandra had resumed her duties of priestess after the crisis. Although insane, she was still more competent than he was.

He greeted the rest of his family wishing that the ceremony would start soon. He wanted to go back to his temple and be alone.

OOO

Helenus couldn’t sleep.

It happened more and more often lately. And when he could sleep, he kept having disturbing dreams.

In one of them, his father banished him from the city in front of everybody. People started throwing stones at him and he ran to the city doors but they were already closed. So he just stood there, aware that the Trojans would soon stone him to death. In another one, he had to celebrate the feast of Artemis but he forgot what he had to say. Everybody started laughing, and Aesacus laughed louder than everybody else. He noticed that he was getting shorter and shorter and people towered on him. When he was as big as a mouse, someone crashed him with his foot.

He often awoke in a cold sweat, his heart beating so wildly that he could barely catch his breath.

But there was another recurrent dream, even more terrible. He sat with the Achaean chieftains, Agamemnon and Achilles, while his city burned. He knew that his family was inside, yet he watched it burn to the ground. And he felt nothing. Every time this dream came to him, he felt so ashamed that he only wished to be in pain. Why couldn’t Zeritos whip him again? Now he deserved it.

Almost a year before, Paris had come back from Salamina with Helen of Sparta, wife of Menelaus.

After that, the Achaens tried several times to sack the city and to burn their ships and their harbor. In the spring, they put up their tents not far away from Troy and stayed there. Now they had left for the winter, but Helenus had a feeling that they would not give up. Their relationship with the Achaeans had always been tense. It was no mystery that the city of Troy disturbed the Achaeans’ trade.

And the idea that Troy could prevail was just ridiculous.

The Achaean lords were many and powerful. Troy only had a small army and a handful of allies on the coast. The Hittite king was too busy with his wars in the east to help them as he would have done once, no matter what the Hittite ambassador had once promised to Priam. The Achaeans wanted to see the city fall, and the city would fall.

And Helenus couldn’t care less.

At first, this realization shocked him. How could a son of Priam think that the city was doomed and remain indifferent?

He often felt a malicious glee. He had felt so bad about being such a disappointment. Well, not anymore! Now he couldn’t care less about them. They had treated him like a renegade for years: well, now he was one!

But then he was overcome by shame.

Enjoying his family’s misfortune was all he was able to do. He was just a filthy little coward.

He didn’t know what was happening to him.

It was becoming more and more hard for him to keep control. Once he had been able to keep his mouth shut, except from when he was really angry. Now he had to force himself not to snap at people, and he didn’t always succeed. Sometimes, the bitter words were out of his mouth before he could think. It was like there was something ready to catch fire inside him. His discomfort with worshippers was becoming even more evident: it was growing more difficult to conceal his stuttering and his blush.

He wished that there could be a way to fix it.

But there was.

He turned over in bed with a sigh. He didn’t want to think about that, but the thought kept coming back…

There was a simple way to fix it all. There was a way to stop being petty and coward and miserable and everything else.

Everything would go away. And it was not like he could expect anything good from his life, anyway.

But he didn’t dare.

He wasn’t scared of the pain, he knew that it wouldn’t last long. And besides, the pain was a relief. If anything, Helenus wished that he could hurt more.

But what would everybody say, afterwards?

They would say that he had been weak once again. They would say finally, it was time.

He couldn’t bring himself to make that decision, not yet. But he had no alternative.

He could go to Hermes’ temple and ask for Aesacus’ advice.

No.

He was never going to do that, never ever.

He knew Aesacus. Hermes’ priest would dig in his dreams, make him talk, find out everything. Helenus felt ashamed at the very thought of it.

No. He would keep everything to himself, whatever the cost.

OOO

In the megaron there was complete silence.

For a long time, Molossus didn’t even move, covering his mouth with his hand.

Finally, Helenus broke the silence.

“You are beginning to see why I haven’t told you anything about myself until now” he said flatly.

Molossus finally turned to look at him.

“I don’t believe that you didn’t care about your city and your family. You care for this city, and it’s not even yours. I’m not even your son.” he said defiantly.

“Don’t try to make me look better than I am” Helenus replied in a warning tone.

“You are doing that again!” yelled Molossus. “I say something nice, something that I really believe, and you snap at me! Stop that!”

He expected his stepfather to get angry, but Helenus shook his head.

“You are right. Sometimes I can’t help it” he whispered.

There was another long silence.

“Did you… did you really almost take your life?” Molossus asked hesitantly.

“I came very close a few times” his stepfather answered tersely.

“And what made you change your mind?”


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