Over to you, Judith...
Briseis, the heroine of my novel, Hand of Fire, was originally presented to the world as a largely voiceless captive woman in a 3,000-year-old epic poem, the Iliad, set within the Trojan War. I believed it was past time for her to tell her own story. I crafted Hand of Fire so that a reader had no need to be familiar with the Iliad. I wanted to bring to life both the woman and her world.
A puzzle drew me originally to Briseis. The tradition indicates she is sorrowful when forced to leave Achilles, the warrior who took her captive. She loves him. Mind you, Achilles has destroyed her city, killed her husband and brothers and turned her from princess to slave. Not exactly a heartwarming courtship. So how does this bond between them arise? Achilles isn’t a brainwasher, so no easy answer that way. My novel explores the many-layered answer to this puzzle.One source of getting to know Briseis lay in the extraordinary archaeological discoveries of the last few decades that brought me a rich knowledge of what a historical woman of this place and time could accomplish—her powerful and authoritative role as a healing priestess, even within her patriarchal society.
The deepest revelation in this search came when Briseis faced her darkest sides and grew to trust them—the darkness is not always filled with the worst possibilities in life. She realized that she shared those frightening aspects with this impossible, sexually alluring man whom tragedy had caused her to hate. He was getting harder to hate.
That kind of revelation only comes from knowing a character as a living person—a writer’s imagination is filled at its best with creations of free will, who tell the author what goes on the page. How did I come to hear Briseis clearly enough so she could reclaim her voice? And Achilles’ voice, also?
Briseis’s voice came to me gradually by writing back earlier and earlier into her life. I later deleted most of that early girlhood, but without those scenes she wouldn’t have spoken aloud. I had to think like a Bronze Age healing priestess who kept the mortal and divine worlds in harmony, outsmarted her violent husband, and earlier, coped as a frightened girl left motherless with the weight of her city’s fate on her shoulders.
Getting to know Briseis’s voice was an intimate process. Achilles’ voice came to me in an entirely different way, but was just as necessary to understand Briseis’s feelings for him. He was so mythic and unapproachable. So I wrote my first attempts at Achilles in iambic pentameter—an English version of the Iliad’s Greek poetic lines. He was willing to step on that mighty and distant stage. I watched and learned. Eventually I heard his vulnerabilities, the contradictions that literally burned inside. Then I could write him without poetry. He’s still not a “normal” human being, but then he’s the son of a boundless goddess who can change shape at will. It took a powerful woman like Briseis to understand him and to renew her strength through her love for him—and to hold onto her independence.
The Trojan War threatens Troy’s allies and the Greek supply raids spread. A young healing priestess, designated as future queen, must defend her city against both divine anger and invading Greeks. She finds strength in visions of a handsome warrior god. Will that be enough when the half-immortal Achilles attacks? Hand of Fire, a tale of resilience and hope, blends history and legend in the untold story of Achilles’s famous captive, Briseis.
They gathered by the door and a guard pulled it open. Ash rained down and smoke assailed them. The linen masks created weird disfigurements as if the men had lost their mouths.
They stumbled along the narrow lane, but when they came to the main road where they should have turned toward the far side of the city, flames and unbearable heat sidetracked them, forcing them back toward the marketplace. She thought they would still be able to reach the Stag Gate, but they would have to climb up the palace hill and go down the back way. With the Greeks gathering their loot at the Great Gate, she could think of no other choice.
The man with the chest wound struggled and his pace was slowest, even with Iatros and another man supporting him. Briseis stayed next to her brother.
She wondered, as they started up the hill, if the palace remained intact. With all the smoke, she could not see the top, but as they ascended, the sound of the firestorm lessened and the air became more breathable. She hoped the Greeks had finished pillaging.
As they climbed, she listened to the heavy breathing of the man with the calf injury a few steps in front of her. Next to her Iatros stopped. Blood dribbled through the linen covering the mouth of the man with the chest injury. Iatros and the guardsman caught the man as he collapsed. Why had they thought this man could walk?
They would have to make a litter. She saw a nearby gate ajar, opening into the courtyard of a large home.
"Let's bring him in here." She helped her brother and the two other guardsmen carry the injured man inside. They laid him by the well.
"We'll need something to make a litter," Iatros said.
Briseis pulled off her cloak. "If you can find some stakes to tie my cloak to, that should work." The men scattered to search the stable and storerooms that opened onto the courtyard. The man with the calf injury started to limp away. She stopped him. "Rest now." He lowered himself onto the low wall surrounding the well.
She drew some water and Iatros washed the face and mouth of the man with the chest injury. His eyes were closed, but he breathed. She turned toward the gate.
"We should close the gate so no Greeks will find-" She stopped. A shadow had fallen across the opening.
The guardsman sitting on the well drew his sword. Iatros pushed her down so she was hidden behind the well and drew his sword. She heard the sounds as bronze-nailed footsteps rushed. Swords clashed. A man fell.
Then a voice called out in Greek, "Lord Achilles, come over-" There was a grunt, a thud. The voice fell silent. A Greek warrior lay against the well. His hand loosened its grip on his sword.
She lifted her head to see over the well. Iatros stared at his bloody sword and the dead Greek. The man with the leg wound was on the ground, his sword arm still outstretched, but his innards poured out onto the hard dirt.
Other guardsmen came out of the stables, but it did not matter, for the gate filled with a huge form, and Achilles plunged towards Iatros. Her brother lifted his sword to meet the oncoming stroke. A rage rose up in her, the sound of a hundred bees filled her head. In one motion she swept the dead Greek's sword off the ground and leapt from behind the well. Achilles' blade flashed in the air above her. She saw his hands grasping the hilt and sensed their power, then saw his look of astonishment as she raised her blade against the blow aimed at her brother. A new, invincible strength coursed through her arms. The desire to strike - raw and terrifying - drove out her helplessness. Her blade met his. A bolt shot through her, and she reeled from the force. Achilles jerked his chest backwards even as the momentum of his swing carried him forward. Achilles' sword cut through the unprotected joint of her brother's armour between the neck and shoulder. Iatros' head fell to the side. As the weight of Iatros's body carried her to the ground, she heard an anguished cry and could not tell if it was hers or Achilles'.