" Franklin grants to Briseis a fresh, wry voice and a way with a descriptive phrase that breathes life into the historical material. . . with strong secondary characters, pillagers who reveal their sensitive sides behind closed tent-flaps, and a gracefully structured narrative. " - Publishers Weekly
" The overall impression is one of acutely described humanity, which brings characters like Aeneas, Hector, even mighty Achilles, to vivid life. . . From teenage amours to full maturity, joy, and loss, Briseis and her world seem very real indeed." - Locus
" In this rich and tightly woven tapestry of story and history, we witness the grandeur and the destruction of Troy . . . Well recommended for all lovers of historical fiction. " - Library Journal
Nothing remained of the day except a red wound between earth and sky. Dark and Storm were rushing down together from the peaks as I stumbled through the ruins of Mycenae--thorns and thistles, fallen walls and gaping cellars whose charred timbers still bore the rank stench of a funeral when the pyre is quenched.
My destination was the skeleton ruin of the citadel that crouched on the hilltop above me like a sphinx guarding the pass. My chances of reaching it before the storm struck seemed slim. Between cursing my bruised shins and wrenched ankles, I called out prayers to Hermes, reminding him of the lamb I had sacrificed to him that morning. The Pathfinder must have heard me, for as I passed a tangle of thorns a voice spoke almost at my ear:
I jumped wildly and grabbed for the hilt of my sword. With my eyes full of tears, I had completely failed to see the speaker, and all the terrible tales of perils both human and inhuman that molest travelers flashed through my mind. I decided with relief that she was merely a very ancient woman, bent under a bundle of faggots, leaning on a staff. The wind roiled her dark gown and wisps of snowy hair.
"Grandmother, you scared me!"
She cackled shrilly. "Then you are timid indeed. I had appraised you as a most valiant hero, seeing as you seem bound for the palace."
"I seek shelter for the night."
"You will find a resting place for all eternity if you venture into that den of brigands."
"I heard it had fallen on hard times," I admitted. "Fabled Mycenae, rich in gold? My grandfather went there once, entering through the Lion Gate. He passed by many fine houses and the graves of fabled heroes on his way up to the palace. He marveled all his life at the splendors he saw there."
"Gone now! Sacked, rebuilt, and sacked again." She repeated her sinister cackle, sounding well pleased. "Aye, its walls will stand there until the ending of the world, but its kingly halls are destroyed. Those who dwell upon that hill now will cut that slender throat of yours for the cloak off your back, let alone the sword you bear."
I wondered if her eyes and wits could possibly be sharp enough to recognize just how valuable my sword was, for it was of the new sort--iron, not bronze--traded from valleys of the far north. Unfortunately, my skill with it did not match its quality.
"I am no Heracles to clean them out," I admitted. "You suggest I look elsewhere for hospitality?"
"I recommend it strongly." She waited for my offer.
"The gods enjoin charity to strangers."
"The gods know naught of hunger!"
The rain was starting, so I decided to trust her, although for all I knew she was housekeeper to a dozen brigands worse than any dwelling on the hilltop. I was very young in those days. "If you have a roof to share, grandmother, I have a bag of beans and a lump of cheese. Lead me to your palace, that we may converse in comfort."
"Palace? I have dwelt in palaces in my time, lad, but the latest is not the greatest of them. Come then." She lunged forward with an awkward, scuttling gait, moving her three legs in a pattern complicated enough to puzzle the sphinx itself. In moments she vanished, faggots and all, into a hole like the mouth of a beast‘s lair.
I followed, slithering down the remains of what had once been a staircase and crawling under an ox hide drape to find her on hands and knees, blowing up a tiny fire. The sickly gleam was enough to illuminate her entire residence, part of a large room whose ceiling had fallen bodily except in this one corner, where it now curved overhead like the roof of a tent. Even a heavy rain might bring the rest of the load crashing down. The place reeked of rot and smoke.
"Welcome to my megaron, stranger!" she croaked cheerfully. "Admire the frieze of griffins and lions behind you. The floor mosaic depicts an octopus motif in the Cretan style, although I admit it isn‘t visible, so you must take my word for it. But relax your limbs on a soft couch and I shall call the bard to sing for you."
There was barely room for two of us in her smelly kennel, together with a few cracked pots, a heap of rags to serve as bedding, and the sticks she had just brought in. I made myself as comfortable as possible on a fragment of masonry, my back to the wall.
My hostess raised herself painfully. "Beans, you said?"
I tossed the bag over the fire to her. "Beans and cheese. No wine, no flesh. Praise the Immortals."
She uttered her peculiar chuckle again and fumbled with the cord. Already my eyes watered so hard in the smoke that I was barely less blind than she.
"So who rules now in the halls of Atreus?" I demanded. "Who sits on the throne of Perseus?"
For a moment she made no reply, one claw scrabbling to locate a crock. At length she mumbled, "The Kind Ones."
I shuddered, thinking of Orestes. "Hush, woman! Do not speak of them lest they hear you!"
"Bats, then. Hawks mew in the halls of Agamemnon."
The storm hammered on the ruins, its flashes through the chinks showing that she was indeed ancient, her face a wasteland of cruel wrinkles, her hands twisted like knotted cords, white cobwebs of hair hung about her shoulders. Yet, she was still tall. I wondered how she had seemed in her youth, before time flattened her dugs. In the flicker of the fire I tried to replace the lost flesh, smooth out the wrinkles, straighten the joints. Her eyes were dark, so I imagined her hair black. Long and shining. She did not bear herself like a slave, nor speak like one. Once, certainly, she had been young.
"Have you lived long in golden Mycenae, grandmother?"
"Knew you Tisamenus, the king?"
"Well, seeing from afar is not knowing. But yes, I was here when Orestes‘ son ruled, and also Orestes himself, of unlucky memory."
She was even older than I had thought, then, for Tisamenus reigned in my grandfather‘s day. "Tell me of those men! Or tell me of yourself. Had you a husband? Did you bear no sons to ease your old age?" It was a thoughtless query, for gory Ares had sent many goodly men to the halls of Hades in her lifetime.
"No sons." She bared her gums in a Gorgon leer. "Many men have entered me, but none ever emerged. Lovers aplenty. . . Nay, one love and many men. But enough man-juice to water all the Argolid never quickened my womb. Seeing me now in my decrepitude, stranger, are you surprised that my body once inflamed men‘s desires? Does the thought disgust you?"
"No, no!" I said hastily. "The maiden who cannot inflame men must be a fearful hag, and I do not believe you were that. You have a nobility of speech that tells me you were not the child of a swineherd."
"Ah, you seek to turn my head with flattery." She went back to stirring the crock in the fire.
It must have been a lifetime since she had smelled flattery, and no perfume is cheaper. "Grandmother, you have not always dwelt in such humble surroundings. Deny that once you ate off gold in palaces and adorned the bed of a noble warrior."
She cackled. "That is more true than you would believe, stranger. Hordes of great warriors have struggled to subdue my frail flesh, thrusting their spears into it until they were exhausted, and yet I always survived to vanquish the next. King Theseus of olden times never laid low so many heroes as I. Were I to tell you the truth of it, you would suppose my wits to be as wasted as my womb."
"As Father Zeus is my witness, I swear I shall not doubt a word you tell me. Come, then," I coaxed. "Was it Orestes himself?"
"The mother-slayer? Aye, he was one, although so drunk he thought I was a man and treated me as such. I doubt he remembered by morning."
"It is true, that tale? He killed his own mother?"
"He did, and just for killing his father! She cut down her husband when he returned from the Trojan War. I would not blame her for that. Agamemnon was a boor."
I laughed. "Oh, come, my lady! You do not expect me to believe that you knew Agamemnon, king of men?"
Her stick rattled angrily in the pot. Thunder roared directly overhead, shaking a shower of plaster from the looming ceiling. I flinched, as well I might.
"Alas! Here I vowed to the Lord of Storms that I would believe everything you said and then at once foreswear myself. Tell me, and I shall not doubt. You knew the son of Atreus?"
"I knew him," she mumbled. She twisted around painfully to grope for another pot. "Two sons of Atreus--Agamemnon, king of men, and red-haired Menelaus, lord of Sparta. I knew them both. They shared a royal gift for getting into trouble over women." Wrapping a hand in her rags, she lifted the crock from the fire and pushed it a small way across the floor in my direction. She laid an empty bowl beside it.
My scalp prickled. "But if you knew Menelaus. Just how old are you, lady?"
"Too old to waste time talking about times that are forever dead."
"Nay!" I cried. "Those times shall live for ever! The bards sing wondrous tales of the great heroes who went to Troy. Their deeds will never be forgotten while the wind blows, the great days before the palaces burned. Menelaus and Agamemnon, Diomedes and Ajax, the ingenious Odysseus--wondrous heroes all! You knew these giants?"
When she did not answer, I reached for my supper. I first took out a mouthful on the stick and tossed it into the embers for the gods. Then I tipped out a fair share into the bowl for the old woman--not a half, certainly, but a good third. Suddenly her voice rang out louder than I had yet heard it, lit by a scorn I could not have expected.
"Giants? Heroes? They were but men who ate and pissed and slept as you do, who fornicated as you would like to. Do not believe all that the bards sing, young man! I have heard those songs myself; they summon ghosts to Troy, heroes dead for centuries raised up to fight in battles they never knew. Bards! Do they mourn for Troy, the great city laid waste? Do they count the slain or the wretched captives? They sing of heroism and glory, and forget the pain, the shame, the suffering."
"You were there?"
She sighed with the wind. "I was there."
"And you say that Agamemnon and the rest were not giants, not great heroes?"
"I say that the bards sing only of triumph. They do not tell you that Agamemnon almost lost the war." She mumbled angrily and reached for her supper, snatching the hot food from the pot with her gnarled fingers and mashing it with her gums.
"There was another we have not mentioned," I said. "The greatest of them all--Achilles, sacker of cities and more than human, for his mother was a goddess . . . or is that an exaggeration also?"
She looked up then, her milky eyes shining like a cat‘s in the last glow of the dying embers, so almost it seemed that the brightness in those eyes was a glow of power and her size was that of an Immortal. I cringed back with my former mockery bitter in my throat.
"No, little man. The son of Peleus was more than all of the rest of them put together. There has never been a hero like Achilles, nor will be again. To see Achilles was to look upon a god."
"You knew him also?" I whispered. "Achilles?"
"Oh yes! I knew Achilles."
"You speak marvels in my ear! The storm still rages, and we have a long night ahead of us, lady. Take pity on a young man born in times so much less than yours, for there are no such heroes now. I shall never see men worthy to tread on their shadows, so tell me what manner of people they were. I know that Paris, son of King Priam, stole Helen, the wife of Menelaus of Sparta, and carried her home to Troy. I know that Menelaus‘ brother, Agamemnon, king of men, rallied the Greeks to go and bring her back, and thus the war began--that much surely is true?"
"It is not the whole truth. Even the sons of Atreus could not raise all that much trouble over a woman. But that tale will serve."
"Oh? So the Greeks sailed after her to Troy. . . ?"
She sighed and settled herself upon her leprous bedding. Her voice came again as a whisper, hardly audible over the wail of the wind and the babble of rain. "They sailed to Troy. They ravaged many lesser cities first, gathering chariots and horses, before closing in on Troy itself. None sacked more fair towns than Achilles and his Myrmidons."
"And you knew the son of Peleus?"
"I knew Achilles, little man. Truly a great spearman!" She sighed deeply. "Even mother-naked, he was a great spearman! You ask if I bedded with a warrior? I tell you I bedded the greatest of them all. Listen, and I will tell you how it was at Troy."