I'd been living with my uncle, King Tyndareus, for as long as I could remember, but no afternoon sticks out from my mind, save this one.

. "But I don't want to get married, Penelope!" Helen protested. I sighed.
"You should feel lucky, Helen! In a month or so, suitors will form a line a mile long, all for the chance to marry you! Great kings will value your hand above any other. Your future will be secure and happy."
"I'm too young."
"You're no such thing. You're twelve now; practically thirteen. It's time to grow up, Helen."
"You're sixteen, and you're not married yet!"
"That's different. You're a great beauty."
"You can have my suitors. I don't want them. Oh, Penelope, you're so clever! Can't you think of any way out of marriage?" I sighed and hugged Helen.
"Really, Helen. Even you have enough sense to see that marriage is better than being an old maid."
"If they had any sense, they'd marry you. You're so quick and smart! Athena's blessed you, truly." Helen looked up at me, eyes full of adoration. I brushed one of her famous golden locks behind her ear.
"If the goddess did bless me with sharp wits, it was a wasted gift. No man wants a woman smarter than he is." She hugged me again, and we grew silent.
Our moment, however, was interrupted by one of the slaves, screaming and running towards us, as though Cerberus was chasing him.
"Pirates! Pirates, looting and pillaging and headed this way!"
Helen's eyes grew wide. "Should we show them to the storeroom?"
"With you here and the men at the hunt? No, we have to hide you. We have to protect your virtue. It's the most valuable thing in the palace."
"My virtue? What's that?" I sighed impatiently.
"Your nurse will explain it to you before your wedding night; there's no time to explain now. We've got to hide you so they don't know you're here...quick, follow me to the stables!"
We raced down the hill; everyone else in the palace seemed to have hidden already. All the horses, save one old mare, were being ridden by the men, off hunting as usual.
"Penelope, it smells something awful in here..."
"Exactly. They'd never look for a princess amidst all this filth. Now, quickly, get under the haystack." I helped pile hay over her, and by the time I was finished, not even the sharpest eye could have found her.
"All right.I'm leaving now to try and keep them away from here. Don't come out of there until I come for you personally to tell you it's safe. And whatever you hear, don't make a sound. Not a sneeze, nor a cough, nor a whisper, even. Understand?"
"Yes, Penelope," came her muffled consent.
"All right...goodbye." I ran out of there and up to the castle as quickly as possible. Rushing to the window, I saw that the raiding party was almost to our gates. "Athena grant me wisdom," I whispered quickly. It wasn't much of a prayer, but hopefully, it would be enough. I hurried to the bronze mirror and straightened myself up. My beauty might've paled in comparison to Helen's, but perhaps, coupled with my wits, I could distract the men long enough. Perhaps.
With one final brush, I swept the door open. "Welcome!" I called out. "Welcome, sailors, to the kingdom of Sparta."
The pirates, now naught but 50 paces away from me, stopped in confusion. I took advantage of their silence to keep talking.
"It is with great regret that I inform you, of course, that Lord Tyndareus is not yet returned. He's expected back any moment, however, so if you'd care to wait for him, I'll gladly welcome you into the hall." I paused for effect. "Then again, considering what you've done to our village, perhaps it'd be wisest for you to not be here when he returns?" The pirates stood, dumbfounded, and for a moment, I thought I'd won. But then, their captain stepped forward, a man as wily as any I'd ever encountered, to be sure. He bowed before speaking.
"Lady Penelope, I presume? You honor us with your offers of hospitality. However, it is with deepest regret that I inform you that our reason for coming is not leisure, but business."
"Business, my lord?"
"Yes. We've come for your cousin, Helen."
"I'm not certain I understand you, my Lord." I understood him perfectly, but let him think me dull. It would make stalling easier.
"We're here," the captain repeated slowly, "to kidnap and ransom your cousin, Helen of Sparta." Some of the men chuckled as I feigned shock.
"Kidnap! How barbaric, to kidnap the princess of a castle that has opened its doors in hospitality to you and your ocean-weary men. How would the gods look upon such ruthlessness?" My outburst had its desired effect on all but the captain. While his men grew uneasy, he merely laughed.
"I've done many barbaric things in my time, Lady. One more will hardly put me out of favor with the gods."
"I wouldn't be so sure of myself if I were you, Lord.?"
"Theseus, Lady. Lord Theseus." This time, my shock was genuine.
"Lord Theseus! Oh, but I've heard the stories!"
"No doubt, Lady, you have. But stories rarely tell all."
"Oh, but then you must tell me of your exploits! How, pray tell, did you get through the Labyrinth?"
"The Labyrinth? Bah, that was easy. If you really want to hear a story- "
"Oh, I do!" My interruption caused him to look at me strangely. Damn, he'd seen through me; I'd been too eager.
Theseus laughed. "You're stalling me, Lady! Hoping that your beloved uncle returns before I've found my loot. Oh, you're a clever one, Penelope." He turned to his men. "Search the entire castle. Don't loot, just search. All his men ran past him, and past me, through the doors. Amidst the confusion, one man grabbed me, and I screamed.
"Leave her! Just find Helen, now!" After all the men had gone, Theseus stepped towards me. "Will you show me inside, Lady Penelope?"
"Your men won't find her," I said, trying to sound confident as I walked inside.
"Really?" Theseus asked, following me. "They're rather good at finding valuables."
"Is that so? Even ones not present in the house they're searching?"
Theseus laughed. "She's here."
"As it so happens, Lady Helen is abroad, visiting her sister, Clytemnestra, and her brother-in-law, Agamemnon, King of Greece. You might try kidnapping her whilst she's there; if you like being cut to ribbons, that is. Agamemnon loves nothing more than slaughtering the barbaric pigs that wrong his family." Theseus sighed.
"A clever lie, milady. You almost had me fooled. You made two mistakes, however. One, as a pirate, I know of all sea affairs. If Helen were traveling, I'd know."
"And the second?" I asked, trying to keep the anger out of my voice.
"The second, Lady, is that with all your stalling earlier, you practically told me you were keeping us from her. I admire your wit, though. You certainly had the rest of the men intimidated. You remind me of my late wife, Hippolyta, in some ways. Have you heard of her?"
"The Amazon? Yes, I've heard."
"Your spirit almost matches hers. Oh, she dealt with things differently--she would've run a sword through us all, not tried so much trickery. But both methods are equally brave. When you threw open that door, you looked ready to face down Zeus himself. She was like that." He shook his head. "I'm talking too much. All I mean is that I admire your bravery, fruitless as its efforts will be. And if you'll excuse me now, I've got a princess to find." He brushed past me, heading towards the stairway. I sat on one of the palace's sofas, trying to maintain my air of confidence, and silently vowed that I'd hold them off all day, if necessary.

* * * * *

"Lord Theseus! Lord Theseus, she's nowhere to be found!" The cry came from above, after two hours of searching. Theseus stormed into the greeting hall.
"One girl, practically full grown! You've found the most well hidden jewels, and a girl is a hundred times the size of a jewel. She should be a hundred times easier to find, you fools."
"I swear, my lord, she's not in this building," claimed the man as he came down the stairs. "The wench must have been telling the truth. Let's go before Tyndareus gets back. I don't fancy my throat slit." He looked at the door uneasily.
"Leaving so soon?" I asked. "What a pity. Allow me to be a good hostess and show you to the door. I'll be sure to pass along your well- wishes to my honored uncle."
Theseus' men practically ran to the door, pouring out of the palace rooms, hastily mumbling insincere farewell blessings.
"Stop, you fools!" Theseus shouted. "Can't you see the chit is hiding something? Am I the only one of us with a full wit about him? Now see here, there must have been some place you didn't look. Well?"
The men scuffled their feet.
"Did they try the attic?" I asked, unable to stop sounding smug. They'd never find her. Not while I was here. That moment was the proudest and finest of my life. I, a sixteen year old girl, had faced down the mighty King Theseus himself! True, he was past his prime; his adventures were over, had been over since the tragic death of Hippolyta. And, true, he was more pirate than king. But it was certainly more of a success than most girls my age could brag of.
"Aye, the attic! Who searched the attic?" One of the men asked.
"There was no attic! Only storerooms and we searched those. Twice, even!"
Theseus turned towards me. "You are the most.impertinent girl I have ever known." He was completely serious, but not angry. Not with me, anyway. He seemed almost.amused. I looked him in the eye and smirked.
"So I've been told."
"There isn't an attic, is there? This is another one of your stalling ploys."
"What makes you so certain?"
"You don't have a secret attic. We would've seen the extra floor when we were outside. Men," he said, "have you searched the surrounding buildings? Outside kitchens? Temples?"
"Oh, aye. But there's naught but a few temples and a stable." My eyes couldn't have lost their confidence for more than a second--but it was enough for Theseus.
"And did you think to search the stable, perhaps?"
The man actually scoffed. "A princess in a stable? Come, Theseus."
Theseus smiled. "Lady Penelope, if you'd be so kind as to escort me to your fine stable?"
Almighty Zeus! Could this man see my every thought?
"Right this way.my Lord" I hissed through clenched teeth, placing as much sarcasm on the word 'Lord' as possible. He laughed as I led him out.
"Really, Lord Theseus, I'm surprised at you. I hadn't counted on you being such a simpleton. One girl, and the best place you can look for her is a stable?" I asked him on the way down. He sighed.
"Lady Penelope, you may have sharp wits about you, but you're untrained in the ways of logic. If you had indeed counted on me looking in, as you say, better places than a stable, then that's all the more reason for me to suspect that you've hidden Helen there. You've been one of my more formidable opponents in this battle of the wits, but I've won. I've been here over two hours, and I'd like to get back home. It's very simple. I take your cousin. Your uncle pays the ransom, and gets his precious daughter back in time to marry her off, while I go back to ruling Athens. The world is restored to its natural order. Now, really, why must you fight that?"
We reached the stables before I had a chance to answer, but I don't know how I would've responded, anyway. A few men followed us, and they scurried into the stable before us.
Please, Athena, I prayed silently, let Helen still be hiding. Let her remember not to make a sound. Better yet, let her have fallen asleep.
I didn't dare look at the haystack; instead, I watched the men. They made a ridiculous amount of noise, and the old mare finally got startled and whinnied. One man rushed to search her stall, but of course found nothing.
"Imagine that! Searching a stable, your men brilliantly find, wonder of wonders, a horse! Now, I'll tell you this one more time. My uncle will be back soon, and if you are still here by the time her returns, your lives won't be in my hands."
Now his men were downright scared. "Come Theseus, let's go!" one cried.
"One moment." He strode about the stable slowly, stopping at random points. I was certain to mask my emotions, but it wasn't enough.
"Nice haystack."
"You'd call it nice," I responded, doing my best to sound careless. "It's no doubt filled with bugs and dirt, in my opinion."
"Well, certainly the last place to hide a princess, hmm?"
"Certainly," I whispered. He had me, damn him, had Helen, and what's more, he knew it. He was toying with me; why, I did not know.
Theseus grasped the hilt of his sword and pulled it from its scabbard slowly, making sure the sound of the metal scraping against the hilt was audible. "You wouldn't mind me running my sword through here, would you, then?"
So that was it. Did he think me a fool, to not see through this? He wanted me to cry out, to give Helen away. He'd get no such satisfaction.
"Why should I care?" Why, indeed? Theseus obviously thought Helen was there, but even he wouldn't dare call me on my bluff when the life of a daughter of Zeus was on the line.
"All right, then." With a vicious, barbaric cry, he heaved his sword towards the haystack. I bit my lip to keep from shouting out, but I needn't have bothered, because--
"No! No, let me out Penelope, I don't care, I don't want to die!" Helen cried.
Of course! Theseus hadn't been trying to scare me, he'd been trying to scare Helen-and it had worked.
I rushed towards Helen and helped pull her out. I did my best to brush the hay out of her dress and hair as she rubbed tears of fear from her eyes.
"My Lady Helen," Theseus said, bowing. "'Tis an honor to finally meet you. Your cousin made it quite difficult, you know. I am King Theseus, and these fine Athenians are my loyal crew." Helen's eyes grew wide with recognition.
"King Theseus?" she asked, unable to contain her genuine curiosity. "If you're King Theseus, why are you trying to kidnap me?"
He laughed heartily at that. "It's a long story, milady. I'll recount it upon the voyage to Athens." Helen practically clutched my skirts at this.
"My uncle will not stand for this. Even if you escape, he won't pay. If you take Helen, you threaten her honor, and then all hope of marrying her off is lost. Why should my uncle pay a ransom for that?"
Theseus looked at me, as though to say, you're still fighting? "I'm sure he'd pay to have his beloved daughter back, Lady, and I suspect there would still be a few men in Greece willing to marry the most beautiful woman in the world, even if that beauty had been dishonored. However, you're right. It would lower the ransom quite a bit, and I can't have that. Tell me, has the chit got a nursemaid of some kind?"
I sighed, relieved. It was too much to hope to trick Theseus into leaving her here, but at least Helen would be safe and in the company of a familiar face. I'd protected her at least that much.
"Yes, she does. You," I said, pointing at the farm boy, "get out of that ridiculous hiding place and come here. Now," I continued, "go to Nurse's quarters and inform her.inform her that she'll be accompanying Lady Helen on a vacation to the great walled city of Athens, with none other than King Theseus as her gracious host." The boy scurried off, and I looked down at Helen, forcing a smile. "That sounds like fun, doesn't it? Shh, Helen," I whispered, hugging her, "we're Spartan women. We're strong. Can you be strong?"
"Yes, Penelope," she whispered back.
"I'm sorry."
"It's not your fault."
"Yes, it is. I failed you. But you'll be safe. And think of it this way: The longer you're gone, the longer until you have to get married."
Helen laughed, and I let her go. Theseus stepped towards me as his men led Helen away.
"Cheer up, Lady. You held me off for a good two hours; that's more than most can brag of."
I glared at him. "What do you want from me now? You found her; you've won."
"I need you to give this to your uncle. It's the terms for her release." He held out a piece of paper. I snatched it away angrily and tucked it into a pocket. "What's this? You're not going to read it?"
"I can't read."
"A smart girl like you? I'm surprised."
"Don't patronize me, you barbaric, dried up--"
"Surely, milady, I'm not worthy of such compliments from one as sharp and fine as you. Zeus Almighty, but you do remind me more and more of my dear Hippolyta. But even she knew how to pick her battles." With that, Theseus turned and walked out of the stable.
I slumped against the wall, suddenly extremely tired. I almost cried out all my frustration then and there, but I was to prideful to cry, even in the privacy of the abandoned stable. Stupid, stupid, stupid! I thought. How could I have thought I was a match for Theseus? Oh, I was so sure I had him.the gods are surely punishing me for such arrogance.
Standing up, I grabbed the mare's bridle from the hook on the wall. I had to find my uncle and his hunting party. I bridled the horse as quickly as I could, but didn't bother with the saddle; 'twas improper, but I was in a hurry. I knew I wouldn't reach Tyndareus in time, but I still felt responsible for getting Theseus' terms to him as quickly as possible.
Fueled by anger and determination, I mounted and urged the mare towards the woods.
Today, for the first time ever, a man had bested me in a battle of the wits. Glaring defiantly at the heavens, towards Mount Olympus, I vowed to never let it happen again.