A/N – well, I've finally finished it!! It's been long enough, I know, and I humbly beg your forgiveness for that. But now it's done, and if you even remember what the story was about, please read it and tell me what you think! And the last paragraph was stolen from 'Shakespeare in Love', which, incidentally, is a wonderful film, and I advise you to all go out and see it. All my love, my dears, and I hope this doesn't disappoint!
Chapter 14 – The Beginning
And God shall wipe away all the tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying; neither shall there be any more pain; for the former things are passed away
The years passed, and one blustery spring morning found Briseis standing quietly on the docks, watching a ship draw in. To a casual observer she looked the very image of a princess - serene, placid, breathtakingly beautiful - but the few who knew her would see the tightness in her jaw, the stiffness in her shoulders that betrayed a multitude of emotions racing through her slight frame.
The ship docked, and a tall, handsome man swung down onto the quay. He had dark blond hair, and a scar on his cheek gave him a cruel, mocking look. Belted around his waist was a sword, and Briseis could see two more knives protruding from the backs of his boots.
"Lady Briseis," he said as he approached her, lifting her hand and inclining his head slightly.
"My Lord Neoptolemus," Briseis responded, her voice never faltering as she curtseyed.
"How is she?" Neoptolemus asked in an anxious voice as he led Briseis to the waiting carriage.
"Very ill," Briseis replied quietly. "She's been hanging in to see you, I think."
The young warlord nodded tightly, and Briseis could see the flash of pain in his eyes.
"She's not in any pain," she continued. "But she has not got much time left."
Neoptolemus nodded again as he handed Briseis up into her carriage. "You do not mind if I ride ahead?" he asked.
Briseis shook her head. "I'd hurry," she advised. "She's been asking for you. I think she knew that you'd be coming today."
With a curt nod Neoptolemus turned and swung up onto the stallion a groom was holding for him.
"My Lady," he said by way of farewell, and moments later he was pushing his horse forwards into a fast canter up towards the palace.
Briseis followed more sedately in her carriage, struggling to keep her emotions in check. It had been four years since he had left her in this strange land, and today was the first time she had seen him since then. And yet despite the years that had passed, his mere presence was enough to send a fresh wave of grief through her. If anything, Briseis mused, the years had made the resemblance to his father even stronger.
Briseis gave herself a shake. Achilles was dead and gone. His mother, Thetis, who had cared for Briseis like her own daughter since her son's death, would soon be with Achilles, leaving Briseis alone in the world. No, not alone. Worse. Leaving her at the mercy of the brutal warlord who had just landed in Phthia. Now was not the time to be grieving for a long-dead past. Now was the time to be fearing for her future.
When Neoptolemus emerged from his grandmother's room it was early evening, and the palace was lit up in a spectacular array of reds and golds by the setting sun. He joined Briseis in the small room that she and Thetis regularly passed their evenings, talking and reading.
"How is she?" Briseis asked as the young warlord entered.
Neoptolemus sat heavily down onto one of the seats, and in the few hours since he had arrived it looked like he had aged several years.
"She's sleeping now," he told her. "I don't think she'll wake again."
Briseis nodded, looking down at her lap. "Did you speak with her?" she asked after a moment.
There was silence again.
Suddenly Neoptolemus jerked his head up to look at Briseis. "Thank you," he said stiffly. "For everything you've done for her in the past weeks. She said…" his voice broke off as he choked up, and Briseis suddenly felt a rush of compassion for the young man sitting opposite her. He may be one of the most feared men in the Agean, but he was still little more than a boy, overtaken by the grief of losing his last remaining family member.
Briseis stood up impulsively and moved to sit down next to him. She slipped one arm around his shoulders, and felt him stiffen with surprise at the sudden contact, but a moment later he relaxed and leant against her. Briseis pulled him against her, one hand moving to run through his hair. She felt him exhale heavily as he leaned against her chest, welcoming the comfort, and he closed his eyes as she rested her chin on the top of his head.
"It's going to be alright," Briseis murmured to him, though she wasn't entirely sure to which one of them the words of comfort were meant. "It's going to be alright."
They sat like that – two children, forced to grow up too fast – curled up together on the couch as the sun set, and the glorious golden light dimmed. It was almost completely dark by the time Briseis realised that Neoptolemus was asleep, and she carefully extracted herself from him before standing up. She took a couple of blankets from a cupboard, and covered him, careful not to wake him. She smiled briefly as she watched him sleeping, and then moved to her original seat, and curled up in it; asleep in minutes.
When Briseis woke the next morning, she was back in her bed. She stretched sleepily, yawning and wondering who had brought her up here. She rubbed her eyes and swung herself up onto her feet just as there was a knock at the door, and a timid-looking slave peered in.
"Lord Neoptolemus wishes to see you my Lady," she said, bobbing a curtsey.
Briseis nodded. "Tell my Lord I'll be with him in a minute," she told the girl, and turned to brush her hair and freshen herself up.
Neoptolemus, son of Achilles, Lord of Phthia and dread warlord of the Agean, lounged in a red-cushioned couch at the far end on a large plain room. My Lord wore a simple blue linen robe, severe and unadorned. Though Briseis knew that he was still a young man, his eyes betrayed a kind of dead weariness, devoid of any joy or even any interest in life. Curled in his lap lay a common tabby cat, her eyes closed, and her forepaws alternately kneading his thigh.
"My Lady Briseis," said the messenger, introducing her as she stepped into the room.
The young warlord's eyes flickered up to look at her, and he waved carelessly to a chair near his, beckoning her to sit. Briseis moved forwards nervously, and sat down.
"As you see, my cat's been unfaithful to me again," Neoptolemus said with mock distress, indicating the swollen belly of his cat.
Briseis smile lightly, and had she been looking, she would have been able to see my lord's eyes soften slightly as he watched her, and some of the lifelessness fall from his eyes.
"My grandmother died last night," he said after a moment's silence.
Briseis said nothing, but looked down at her hands, tightly clasped together, and nodded slightly.
"Which leaves us with the problem of your future," he continued, though his voice was somewhat thicker than before. "It was my father's wish that you should live with his mother until her death, and then go to the care of King Odysseus. However, if you would prefer to stay here, then of course I would not turn you away."
Briseis took a deep breath, sniffed, and raised her eyes. Now was not the time to get emotional. She had anticipated the death of Thetis for months. She could grieve later.
"Would Lord Odysseus still be willing to take me in?" she asked, fighting to keep her voice steady and business-like.
Neoptolemus nodded. "I was with him when I got the news about my mother, and I spoke to him about it then. He said that he was perfectly happy to take you in, if you should desire it."
Briseis nodded. "I would be grateful if you could give me time to think about it my Lord," she asked, raising her beseeching eyes to his.
Neoptolemus shook his head. "Talk to me," he commanded.
"Talk to me, explain why you want to go and why you want to stay."
Slightly taken aback by the request, Briseis frowned slightly, and then spoke. "Well, you see, ever since they took me from the temple, I haven't had a home," she began haltingly, but gathered confidence as she spoke. "Not a proper one, at least. This is the closest place I've had to that, and I don't want to start out again."
"But," Neoptolemus prompted her when she fell silent.
"But," Briseis continued. "This place…there's too many memories of him. It still hurts."
"You're still in love with him?" Neoptolemus asked, faintly surprised.
Briseis shook her head. "No. Not in love with him. I think…I think I still love him though. Enough for it to still hurt, at least. But not in love with him. Everything fades with time," she said somewhat sadly. "Even love."
Silence fell. Neoptolemus finally broke it. "What do you want Briseis?" he asked roughly.
Briseis looked up. "I want…oh Gods, all I want is my life back! I want to start again. To be able to forget the hell I lived through; to move on, to find a man who can love me, and to be happy with him. I want them to forget who I am, who I was. I want them to stop judging me long enough to see that what they thought they could see in me died all those years ago on a windswept beach at Troy. I want a new life."
Neoptolemus sighed, and then nodded. "I'll send word to Odysseus. He'll be here within a month," he promised, standing and walking out of the room, leaving Briseis curled over, her fists clenched tightly as she fought to keep the tears at bay.
The weeks passed with dreadful sluggishness for Briseis, but eventually she was once more down at the harbour, looking up at the ship that was to transport her to a new home.
She turned back to Neoptolemus, who was standing a little way behind her. They had hardly spoken in the time elapsed since it had been decided that Briseis should leave, and, truth be told, they had been avoiding each other, although for different reasons.
"I…" Briseis began hesitantly, raising her eyes to his somewhat forbidding face. "I wish to thank you, my Lord, for the kindnesses that both your mother and yourself have shown me."
He nodded, and Briseis waited a moment before realising that he wasn't going to reply, and began to turn. But his hand whipped out and caught her by the wrist sharply, pulling her into him.
"Take care of yourself," he said huskily, clasping her hands tightly. He forced a smile, and released her. "Give my regards to King Odysseus."
Briseis frowned, then reached out, and touched his cheek. "Be happy," she said in a soft voice, and then she was gone – up the gangplank and onto the ship, before she was swallowed up by the mass of sailors as they prepared to cast off.
The young warlord swallowed thickly, nodded, and then turned briskly away and swung himself up onto his horse, pushing the beast into a trot and heading back towards the palace. She was not going to look back, so neither would he.
That night, as the boat tossed and turned in the violent throes of a summer storm, Briseis dreamed. She dreamed of her parents, of her childhood in Troy, of the peace she found at the temple. And then she dreamed of Achilles and the peace turned to inner turmoil as she was faced with emotions she had not felt in years. And then, through all the pain and the fear, she saw his face. he was smiling at her, and all the doubts washed away and there was no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying; nor was there any more pain, for all the former things had passed away, and when she woke, there were fresh tears on her cheeks, but she was smiling.
My story starts at sea... a perilous voyage to a distant land... a shipwreck... the wild waters roar and heave... the brave vessel is dashed all to pieces, and all the helpless souls within her drowned... all save one... a lady... whose soul is greater than the ocean... and her spirit stronger than the sea's embrace... not for her a watery end, but a new life beginning on a stranger shore.