30 October 2014

Excerpt Thursday: HAND OF FIRE by Judith Starkston

This week, we're pleased to welcome author and Unusual Historicals contributor JUDITH STARKSTON with her newest novel, HAND OF FIRE. Join us again on Sunday for an author interview, with more details about the story behind the story. One lucky visitor will get a free copy of Hand of Fire. Be sure to leave your email address in the comments of today's post or Sunday's author interview for a chance to win. Winner(s) are contacted privately by email. Here's the blurb.

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.

**An Excerpt from Hand of Fire**

That’s what it’s come to, Briseis thought, women defending the palace with cooking pots. She reached up to the burning places on her cheek and chest where Mynes’s whip had struck her.
She sent Eurome to warn Maira and prepare Hatepa, though they would keep what was happening from the queen for now. Then Briseis started up the ladder to a defense tower.
A tremendous crack rang out and the ground shook beneath her. It felt like a lightning strike, dangerously close, but the sky was clear blue. What had happened? She climbed to the top and looked toward the Great Gate of Lyrnessos. Where the wooden beams and stone supports should have been, a cloud of dust and debris arose.
What force could have pulled down the massive gate in so little time? The men, few as they were, could harry the attackers from above the gate, inflicting enemy losses so great most leaders would choose to withdraw.
She saw a huge warrior standing on the rubble, his sword held high, the morning light reflecting fiery gold off his full-length shield. She knew then. Nothing stood between Achilles and her city.
She raced down the ladder.
As she reached the ground she yelled to the servants hurrying to their posts. “The Great Gate is down. We must gather everyone and escape from the city and head to the sheep camps. No point defending the palace. Achilles knocked down the city gate as if it were a pile of kindling.”
Servants ran to call the others from the walls. Briseis hurried inside to get Eurome, Maira and Hatepa. She tried to appear calm. The less frantic Hatepa became, the faster they could escape.
Briseis pushed aside the door curtain. “Lady Hatepa, your son has asked you to come with me quickly outside the city.”
The queen fidgeted in her chair. “Mynes? Outside the city? What are you saying? What is that noise I heard? What is that cut on your face?”
“Your son commanded me to take you to safety.” They pulled the queen to her feet, ignoring her protests. Eurome handed Briseis her healing satchel.
Hatepa began to cough. “I must sit down. Why are you dragging me around?” She batted at Maira and Eurome.
Eurome looked the queen in the eye. “Queen Hatepa, unless you wish to be skewered by a Greek spear, you’d better walk. There are no servants left in the palace. Come with us or stay alone to greet the Greeks.”
Hatepa’s eyes bulged wider than usual. Her mouth opened and closed like a fish stranded on the shore. For a moment Briseis wondered if she was unable to breathe, but then she squawked, “How dare you—”
“Eurome is right, Queen Hatepa,” Briseis interrupted. “We wish no disrespect, but you can come now or be left behind. We cannot endanger others to suit you.” Hatepa stopped resisting.
Outside in the main courtyard, the remainder of the household staff had gathered, men and women with some children. Such a large group would have trouble getting through streets jammed with fleeing townspeople. She could hear screams rising from the lower city. They had to get out. Greek warriors could be climbing the hill toward the palace right now. Everyone looked at her.
“We must leave the city. Go from the back of the palace away from the fighting that is centered on the Great Gate. We’ll escape the other way, out the Stag Gate.”
She hoped that by starting their journey on the steep backside of the palace hill, well above the packed neighborhoods, they could avoid both Greeks and crowds. By the time they dropped into the populated area, they would be near the Stag Gate.
The menservants had knives, clubs and other weapons snatched from the work sheds or kitchens, but she said a prayer that enough of the guard had survived to keep the Greeks busy so that her household and the townspeople could escape without a fight. The shrieks from the battle kept increasing. Had the fighting spread this far? As they unbarred the gate, Briseis held her breath.
The street lay empty. They hurried along the road that hugged the back of the palace. The children held tight to their mothers and moved silently with the adults. All went well until they reached a side road with houses and shops on either side.
Other fleeing people crowded in so that she lost sight of the servants at the front of her group. Family groups trying to stay together got pushed to the sides by faster moving men. Briseis glanced behind and saw Hatepa stumbling forward, her eyes wide with terror.
Maira walked next to the queen, holding her arm, but Briseis couldn’t find Eurome. She tried to go back to look for her, but the flow of the crowd made it impossible, and in the confusion her old nurse could have passed her. Briseis pressed on, fighting back tears.
Other paths and alleys led to the gate, but she stayed on the main road, hoping her household and Eurome had also. The crowd pushed her faster, and she could no longer see Maira. A few of her servants ran near her. Two of the men, armed with a club and a butchering knife, stayed on either side of her. How had they clung to her when she had lost both Eurome and Maira?
Suddenly she heard screams. The crowd in front turned back, driven by something. The serving man with the knife took her arm. “Down this alley.”
She ran up several stone steps and into a narrow passage between the buildings. Some of her serving women ran after her in single file, the men behind them. She heard a man bellow in agony and looked back. The man with the club was on the ground. Close behind she saw the horsehair plume of a Greek helmet.

Learn more about author Judith Starkston
Twitter: @JudithStarkston
Facebook: JudithStarkston
Google+: +JudithStarkston

Current Book List
Hand of Fire, (Fireship Press, 2014)
SoWest: Desert Justice, story entitled “Season for Death” (Desert Sleuths Sisters in Crime Anthology)