Authors: J.A. Coffey
Cover image: “The Favourite Poet, 1888” Sir
Text copyright © 2013 Julie A. Coffey
All Rights Reserved
A portion of the
proceeds from sales of this book are donated by the author to combat human
trafficking and modern-day slavery. To find out more, including how you can
help, please visit Polaris Project at
As is the way of
writers, we recognize that we stand on the shoulders of others to achieve our
dreams. This book would not have been possible without the following people:
To my mother, a
stalwart champion of all my endeavors. You are the model for following my
To my sister, she
of the red-gold hair, whom I always admired and aspired to be. You are a
Thracian in my heart.
To the many authors
and editors who encouraged me to persevere in an industry which often doesn’t
support budding authors--the incomparable Jody Wallace (sorry it took me so
long to get it right!) and my critique partners of RWA; editor Mary Theresa
Hussey, for comparing me to one of my giants and thereby giving me hope; editor
Anna Genoese (for calling me out and making me want to be better); to authors
Mary Renault and Jacqueline Carey-women who showed me it was possible to write
the book of my heart; to Sarah for an eagle’s eye and a red pen (and whose work
I hope to one day read--you have been called!); and to Hope for friendship and
To STM for the
mistakes and pain—both given and received.
But mostly to my
husband, Robert, for unfailing love and with whom the yoke of a marriage bed is
a most joyous and lighthearted place. I love you, I love you. I couldn’t do it
What soul can say for certain where her trail will
end, or upon which paths the sands of her life will blow? My life was one of
humble beginnings and yet I find myself at the point of scribing my name with
gods and murderers in the tombs of kings.
I have been given many titles in my life -
daughter, slave, and lover. Never have I held a child of my own in my arms. How
strange to think, then, she who has never borne life shall mother an entire
How I came to Egypt is not a mystery, in itself. I
was born in a coastal village in Thrace, near the shoreline fortress of
Perperek. We were often subject to slave raids from the neighboring Greeks and
Macedonians, the Spartans to the west, and the Persians across the cold salt
waters of the Sea of Marmara. All of them hungered for the strength of our
backs and the fire in our Thracian blood.
But, though we labored on the rocky slopes of the
Rhodopes Mountains, we loved as fiercely as we fought in homage to our honored
Dionysus, god of death, rebirth and of passion--my downfall.
Life in Perperek’s shadow was not easy. There were
those in our village who gained sustenance from the providence of the
sacred priests in the temple. Fashioners of precious metals. And holy ones,
priestesses like my mother, a Bacchae, who crept the treacherous mountain paths
to worship the gods with wild beauty and song. Someday, I hoped I would be like
her. I dreamed of a time when I could live in leisure, with enough food to fill
my belly and, perhaps, lovely adornments for my body. Thracians have a love of
beauty, and I was no exception.
The village was filled with simple folk. We
tended, planted and gathered. But of all who toiled within the village, our warriors
were most revered. Warriors like my father. With pride I remember him, foremost
of those who fought for Perperek. His powerful arms. The precise color of his
red-gold hair, my legacy, shorn from his head in the warrior topknot. His
laughter. How much I loved him. But in my twelfth year, I set my feet upon a
course that would forever change us.
“What harm can there be in one last trip to the
temple before the storms come, Delus?” my mother asked. “There is talk in the
village of her.” She jerked her chin at me. “And of us.” She continued pulling
provisions from our dry storage for the evening meal.
“Sita, please. There is always the chatter of
crows in Perperek.” Milk of the gods, red and thick as blood, clotted my
father’s close-cropped beard. He motioned for her to refill the wineskin. “Let
the women talk. The Bacchae can wait. Perhaps in another year, we can spare
“The devotees of Dionysus will
is time I took Doricha with me to the temple. She is nigh a woman and must earn
her place, as I once did. She is of an age that she can be taught the temple
My father smiled at me, his agate blue eyes
sparkling like sunlight on the waves of the sea. One large hand pawed the air
as he motioned for me to come forth. He seemed uncomfortable without the shaft
, his long spear.
“Have you memorized your mother’s teachings,
I nodded and ran to him. Twining my fingers into
the long tresses of his topknot, I marveled in the rich, warm protection of his
broad shoulders. His arms encircled me like bronze bands. The scent of roasting
goat wafted from the spit where my mother buried onions and garlic in the
tender meat, and I felt safe and as peaceful as I can remember being in my
“You are a treasure, Doricha,” my father said. I
loved him for it. “I cannot let you go to the temples yet. Do you hate me for
denying you your birthright?”
“No, Papita.” And I didn’t.
His teeth flashed white against his ruddy skin as
I snuggled like a wolf kit into his lap. Though we were a spear’s point away to
starving as any in the village, my father saw a king’s ransom when he looked at
I knew what starving was. Starving was thin,
patched wool cloth, and no meat. Starving meant freezing to death on the
mountainside at night, for lack of shelter and fire. True, we did not share the
luxuries of those who lived within the shoreline fortress of Perperek--but we
were not starving. Not quite yet. Once I was temple trained, my future would be
determined by my efforts to pay homage to the gods with my grace and beauty—or
the strength of my husband’s spear.
Still, I could not deny the warmth of my father’s
smile as he winked at me behind my mother’s back.
“The girl must take her place in the temple, as
others before her have done.” My mother wiped the fat grease from her hands
with a sharp, brittle movement. “Please, Delus. You must see the reason in
this. We can ill afford to anger them a second time.” She put away the scraps
from preparing our meal.
“I care not whom I anger. I am still your husband.
Or have you forgotten?” My father shook his head again and took another long
pull at the wineskin.
I burrowed further under the space beneath his
chin, tucking the skirt of my chiton around my knees. My mother’s lips
tightened and I confess I feared to see it, for it meant she was resolved to
have her way.
Do not mistake my heart in this. I loved my mother
as well as any daughter can, but in her eyes, I was first and foremost a
servant to Dionysus. It was heresy for me to refuse the path to temple service
when it was offered, when so many others had already been pressed into the
fold. Especially the daughter of a Bacchae. Yet to my mother, it seemed, I was
dissimilar to a king’s ransom as could be. I crouched there, safe and content
in my father’s arms, and glared at my mother’s back as she smoothed her hands
on her skirts, and turned to the chest containing her things.
“I have not forgotten, Delus,” she murmured. Her
movements were fluid and beautiful, as were those of all the Bacchae.
My father’s eyes were on her as she bustled around
our small hut. She knew it well, too. Maintaining her slight distance, she
uncoiled her bound hair until it fell in a shimmering crimson curtain in front
of her face, and picked up a carved wooden comb. Her limbs unfurled with canny
grace, mesmerizing to my eyes and to my father’s. With long strokes she brushed
her hair until it crackled with life, and the blue tattooed patterns on her
hands undulated in the firelight.
“Temple training has served us well, my love.” She
stared at him as her hands stroked up and down her exquisite silken locks. Her
voice was breathy and low. “And you are my husband. Still, we have a duty to
our people, Delus. We should not invite trouble where trouble does not dwell.”
I shifted in my father’s lap, uncertain of what
was to come next. His eyes never left my mother, but he took another long pull
at the wineskin. Some of the liquid dribbled out the side of his mouth and he
flicked a red-stained tongue to catch it. I was uneasy then, and acutely aware
of the smoking cook fire, my father’s unwashed but not unpleasant scent, and
the odor of soured grapes.
The firewood snapped, and I flinched. Father
laughed and embraced me even tighter. He crushed me against his barrel chest in
a bear-like embrace, while his rough whiskers tickled my cheek. “Very well,
Sita. You may take Doricha, but not until tomorrow. Tonight,” he smiled wide,
“we celebrate our victory over the Greeks!”
Mother’s cheeks were flushed. “Whist, Delus, for
shame! The battle has not yet begun, and will not until the moon shines bright
in the sky and the blood of Dionysus flows in your veins.”
My father’s laughter rattled the walls. “Think
you, they can best a Thracian? Come to me, Sita, that I may impress you with
the strength of my spear.”
My mother ran to him, her lovely face alight with
inner fire. She giggled like a young girl, sweeping herbs from the table onto
the floor in her haste. Father nudged me out of his lap to make room for her. I
huddled on the floor by their feet, forgotten, and busied myself with
separating the plants, until their soft laughter ceased. They rose and drew the
goatskin curtain back from the sleeping quarters. Father grabbed the wine.
“Doricha, go and fetch some water from the well. And
stay clear of the trees. There are Greeks about.” Father’s voice thickened with
so much wine in him. A glance revealed naught of my mother save her long,
slender limbs disappearing under the animal hides in the sleeping alcove.
I sighed, and grabbed the heavy wooden bucket from
its customary place, feeling surly from his oft repeated warning not to venture
into the unknown cypress groves at night. I’d never penetrated the thick trees
that hid us from the west, but kept always to the low bracken on the forest’s
edge as I made my way to the well.
Life in our village was ever solitary and
unchanging. In my few years of life, I’d busied myself with toiling at
gathering herbs or tending the small animals, as the villagers eschewed playing
with the daughter of a Bacchae. Now, here I was poised on the precipice of
womanhood. The pale moon hung just above the forest line, as I slipped from our
hut with a strange tight knot forming in the pit of my stomach, feeling both
loved and unwanted at the same time. In the twelve winters I lived in
Perperek’s shadow, I had yet to disobey my father, but tonight, with the soft
mewlings of my mother erupting from our tiny hut, I felt a burning in my middle
I could not explain.
With tears pricking my eyes, I entered the bower
of midnight cypress just beyond our village. I wandered through the silent
trees and scuffed up the dried fallen leaves that filled the air with a musty
scent of decay.
An image of my father’s face flashed before my
eyes and I hurled the bucket into the trees. I tromped further into the grove,
taking no pains to be quiet. So, there were Greeks about? Well, they never came
so close to our village and our men would raise the alarm if they did. Besides,
my father was so enthralled with my mother’s company, he would not even notice
if I was taken. Such were my thoughts and I am heartily sorry for them now.
Many times I have wished to recapture that moment
when first I chose to leave the safety of the path, but I was a child then and
had not a woman’s experience to make me wary.
I walked on in a night-blind stupor, until the
crack of a twig pierced my solitude. With a start, I realized I was much
further into the forest than I’d thought. Perhaps, too far. Where were my
bucket and the path that would lead me home?
I wandered for what seemed hours, thinking one
way, and then the next was the path I sought. Scuttling blindly through the
underbrush, rising panic beat a steady tattoo in my chest. Surely my father
would search for me? His concern over my tardiness would steal him from my
mother’s embrace, I thought. He loved me. He would come.
I waited, but he did not appear.
Unable to find my way home, I climbed the bough of
the nearest tree and sought refuge from the cold night and the prowling beasts
that preyed on human flesh. Perhaps in the morning light I would recognize the
way back to the village. Insects and other creatures of the forest clicked and
chirruped. Long moments passed, how many I cannot say, whilst I shivered and
sniffled into my damp woolen chiton, cursing the passion between the two people
I loved most in this world.
At once, I heard a strange noise, like a scuffle
in the underbrush, and held my breath. Who was about? Could it be my father? Then
another thudding hiss.
At the soft jangle of unsheathed metal, I thought
with a child’s hope it might be my father come to claim me. Slipping from my
perch, I crept toward the footsteps and whispers that emanated from the forest
?” I called softly.
Closer I moved toward the sounds and closer still,
until at last, I came upon a sight that burnt itself behind my eyes forever. It
was not one man, but many gathered in the woods that night.
The Greeks had come.
A group of twenty men from the village, men I had
known most of my life, burst from the trees. Their faces were painted with mud
and gore. They erupted in a wild frenzy, and howled like wild beasts as they
fought a horde of armored Grecian invaders. The odor of blood and filth
infiltrated the night air.
Blood poured like red wine from split skin and
bones. Someone bellowed behind me and I scrambled behind the nearest tree trunk
and covered my mouth with my hands to stifle a scream as the sounds of battle
grew nearer. I did not want to look, but somewhere my father might be fighting
nearby. Keeping my back safely against the cypress trunk, I peered through the
dark at the carnage.
Some men carried swords, others their long spears,
but nowhere did I see my own father’s sarisa. All sounds froze in my ears, and
feeling fled from my limbs. I heard only my own ragged breathing as I watched
men screaming, hacking and dying.
, I begged the unhearing gods,
as if my entreaty could move their immortal hearts.
Let him be home
enjoying the embrace of my mother’s body. Spare him
But Bendis, Huntress of the Earth, and Dionysus
turned their cruel faces away from me.
My father entered the starlit clearing. He towered
over the Greek invaders. The gore of battle covered his ruddy skin. With a wild
cry, he thrust his
into the neck of the nearest Greek. A
spout of night-black crimson spattered his face and tunic, transforming him to
a living specter of Death.
He bared his teeth and growled a challenge. Two
Greeks attacked, swinging their swords and hacking at him. Father dispatched
them at once, his movements strong and sure. Another Greek, and yet another
succumbed to the tip of his spear. He was a fearsome sight. The men from our
village cheered as the grove began to clear of invaders. Bracing his stained
leather boots against the helm of a fallen raider, Father jerked his
free and leapt out of the reach of the next invader. He veered into the worst
of the battle and spun. There, he jabbed with the tip of his long spear, to
worry the men who followed him. I’d never been so afraid, nor so proud. My
father, Delus, the pride of Perperek.