Alexander the Great ruled the greatest Empire of the ancient world, but he was ruled by his mother, called Olympias. There are as many legends about this powerful Queen as there are of her famous son, and the stories began long before she even met Philip of Macedon.
Priestess of the Great Goddess, daughter of ruling house of Epiros, witch, and familiar of Serpents...she was a figure of mystery, fascination, and fear even during her own lifetime. Author Judith Tarr weaves the legends into an intensely romantic fantasy novel set in ancient Greece and Macedon.
About the Author
JUDITH TARR is the author of more than twenty fantasy novels, including her Hound and Falcon series and the Avaryan Rising books. Her most recent novel for Tor was Queen of the Amazons in 2006. Tarr lives in Vail, Arizona, where she breeds Lipizzan horses at Dancing Horse Farm.
Read an Excerpt
Bring Down the Sun
By Judith Tarr
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2008 Judith Tarr
All rights reserved.
Every morning, even so early in spring, the young men ran in a mob out of the king's house to the practice field. There was still snow in the hollows; the mountains above them were white from crown to foot. But as the sun came up, it warmed, and they stripped off their chitons and ran and fought and danced naked on the new grass.
One particular morning, the late king's daughter watched from the hillside, hidden in the shadows of the sacred grove. She should have been down in the temple, sweeping the floor and tending the lamps like a proper acolyte, and so she would be before anyone happened to catch her. These few moments were hers, stolen from the day and its duties.
The air was almost as warm as summer. It would not last: her bones could feel the cold at the back of it, the final blast of winter waiting to roll off the mountains. Still, today was blessed with beauty, like the men playing at war on the field below her.
The unaccustomed warmth made them lazy. Their dance was slower than usual, their blades clashing almost softly, without their usual ringing clangor. Sweat ran down the long muscled backs and flew like sparks from the curls of hair and beards.
Polyxena leaned forward slightly. Her breath came quick; she was warm inside, melting from her breastbone to her knees. Her hand pressed against rough bark, but in her heart she stroked smooth living flesh. She could feel the blood pulsing in it, and the muscles rolling under the skin. Her tongue curled as if it could taste the salt of sweat; her nostrils twitched at the imagined musk.
She thrust herself away from the tree. Something in the air was making her thoughts all strange. Instead of simple pleasure and appreciation of art well performed, she could only think of what a man's body was best suited for.
It must be that it was spring. The mares were all in season, and the heifers were lowing for the bull. She wanted a bull of her own, a man as strong as she: a hero, a king, a god.
There was no such creature here. As lovely as these young men were, they were merely mortal. She wanted more.
She turned her back on the field. The clash of bronze on bronze went on behind her. Her fingers twitched of their own accord, remembering the weight of a sword.
Deliberately she stilled them. Swiftly, almost running, she descended the hill to the temple that stood in the grove's heart.
* * *
Nikandra watched her brother's daughter as she swept the sanctuary. Polyxena seemed unaware of the scrutiny: her head was bowed, her face hidden behind a curtain of red-gold hair. Her movements were brisk, not quite angry; her back was a fraction more upright than it strictly needed to be.
She had been as cross-grained as a she-bear in the spring since well before winter's snows retreated to the mountains. Last spring she had been very much a child still, with a child's frets and rebellions. This was different: she had grown into a woman, and the powers that woke in her were strong, as befit a daughter of queens.
Too strong, Nikandra thought. If the girl discovered what she truly was, or more perilously, if others discovered it ...
She, and they, would not. Nikandra had labored long and hard to make sure of it. And so she would do again, as she had done so often before — for the girl's own good, and for everyone else's, too. She wrapped shadows about her and withdrew from the shrine.
* * *
Polyxena dawdled as long as she could over her sweeping. She had known all too well that Nikandra was there, watching her. When that keen scrutiny withdrew, she was only slightly reassured.
Her aunt was plotting something. There was a little too much tension in her, and rather too sharp a sense of decisions made and plans set in motion.
That had been true ever since Polyxena could remember. It was a little stronger now, the strangeness a little clearer — as if everyone else knew a secret, but no one would share it with her. Often she felt eyes on her, as if someone or something watched her from afar, and waited, and bided its time; but it was never more than a feeling.
It could drive her mad if she let it. Anger she would allow herself, but madness, no. She was never as weak as that.
She pondered the wisdom of slipping away and hiding in the grove until her aunt's thoughts turned elsewhere, but she had not been born or raised a coward. The floor gleamed as brightly as grey stone could.
Pilgrims were already straggling into the shrine, waiting with varying degrees of patience for the day's priestess to come out of the house she shared with her sisters. There were no great embassies today, no wealthy man or woman with chattering retinue, and no prince or archon in silks and gold. Mostly these were simple people, come to ask the god of the grove or — more rarely now — the Mother to give them good fortune and sage advice.
It was not Nikandra's day to interpret the omens, or she would have stayed in the temple and Polyxena would have had a day's reprieve. She paused to greet the eldest of the temple's snakes, which had come out of its basket to greet the sun. Its tongue flicked her hand, dry and soft; its scales were as smooth as beading under her finger. She bowed and murmured a reverence, then made her way out into the clear morning air.
* * *
Just past the threshold she met the eldest priestess, whose name and title was Promeneia. Polyxena bowed as she had to the snake. The old woman stared through her, lost already in the half-trance of her office.
Someday, if Nikandra had her way, Polyxena would walk that same path and perform those same duties. The prospect did not strike her with horror, but in her heart she knew she was meant for other things.
Nikandra was in the priestesses' house with the second eldest of the three priestesses, dark Timarete. They stood at the tall upright loom, weaving the tapestry that had been taking shape since Polyxena was old enough to remember. Every time she saw it, it was a little different: larger or smaller, simpler or more ornate, full of fire and shadow or bright with sunlight and greenery.
Today a skein of fire ran through the new green of spring. It began in darkness and bloomed into the brilliance of a sun.
Polyxena's breath caught. For a moment she was dizzy, reeling as if cast into empty air. Then the earth was solid under her again, and the weaving was simple colored threads on the wooden frame of the loom.
She sat, or rather sank down on weakened knees, on the stool by the door. Timarete smiled in the way she had, as if she knew everything there was to know about everyone she saw — and good or ill, none of it troubled her serenity. She ran the shuttle through to the edge and lodged it there, nodded to Nikandra, and left the two of them together.
Polyxena waited for the blow to fall, for there must be one. Nikandra was clearly in no hurry to strike. She studied her brother's daughter for some time, with no expression that Polyxena could read.
At last she said, "Fetch your veil and come with me."
Polyxena's head was full of questions, but she knew better than to speak any of them aloud. She found when she stood that her knees would hold her up; her steps were steady as she retreated not only to find her veil but, on consideration, to put on a less threadbare gown. When she emerged from her tiny box of a room, Nikandra arched a brow at the transformation but offered no objection.
She led Polyxena out of the priestesses' house and past the temple and the sacred oak. It was the same path Polyxena had taken just this morning, where the grove thinned into the field that lapped the feet of the city wall.
The young men were gone now, back into the king's house. The gate was open as it was every day, with a broadening stream of pilgrims making their way to the oracle. Already Polyxena heard the ringing of bronze as the oracle woke and began to speak; she almost fancied that she could make out words in that eerie, metallic singing.
She made herself stop straining to hear. It only gave her a headache, and made her stumble as she tried to walk.
None of the pilgrims appeared to recognize Nikandra or her acolyte. Nikandra paid no heed to them, an example Polyxena judged wise to follow. She shivered as they passed under the shadow of the gate, surprising herself with that rush of sudden cold; then she was out in the sun again. The sky was bright and clear overhead, though walls rose around her.
The streets were full of people. It was a market day, and pilgrims as well as townsfolk crowded the square. The Greek habit of keeping women locked in their houses had yet to find its way into Molossia; even women of rank flocked to the market, mingling and chattering and basking in the rising warmth.
Nikandra passed through them without pausing. Polyxena's curiosity had risen, but so had her stubbornness. She would not ask; Nikandra would have to speak.
It seemed they were going to the king's house. That raised Polyxena's brows. They could have gone another way, around about to a much less populated gate, which meant that this must be a lesson. Polyxena was meant to learn something from it.
She knew better than to ask Nikandra what it was. Her aunt would only tell her to think for herself.
The men in the palace and the women in the temple crossed paths less often than Polyxena would like. The king came to the temple when duty or ritual commanded. The priestesses had no such obligations in the king's house, although they could be invited there to give counsel, attend a feast, or — and this Polyxena liked best — to attend the queen.
They were never summoned. That would be lacking in respect. They could choose to go, or they might refuse, which they did far too often for Polyxena's taste.
Polyxena had been born in the temple. If she had been male, she would have been taken directly to the palace and raised as befit a king's son. Because she was a younger daughter of the ancient line, the priestesses had laid claim to her.
Her elder sister Troas had been given to their uncle the king when she was old enough to marry. Their younger brother was still barely old enough to live among the men, but when he was a man, gods and his uncle and the royal council willing, he would be king. Polyxena was the odd one, the gift to the Mother whose grove had stood since long before human memory.
No one had asked her whether she wanted the life that had been chosen for her. She had a calling to the Mother; of that she had no doubt. But she was not called to be one of the oracles here in Dodona. That too she knew in her heart.
Her aunt would not hear these thoughts: she called them childish fancies. Polyxena had learned long since to keep them to herself. If she pressed too hard, she was kept at home when a message came from the king's house; and that, she could not bear. She loved that other world, with its strange horizons and myriad temptations.
It was a world of stone and bronze, hardened leather and hammered gold. The huge dogs of Molossia padded through the corridors and sprawled on the floors. Their masters were of much the same kind: big, tawny-skinned, and irresistibly lazy.
There were no women in the public halls. They kept to their own house and their own counsels. All the visible power here belonged to men.
That was the world's way, but the truth was not so simple. If Polyxena turned her mind to it, she could feel the thread that ran beneath, the subtle force that was the queen. Sometimes it was almost too subtle to find, but it was always there.
Nikandra in her black robe and bare feet walked through these halls like a shadow out of an older world. Those she met bowed — not always with good grace — and murmured words of respect. Whether that respect was real mattered less than that they acknowledged the need for it.
Polyxena attracted a different kind of attention, one that made her raise her chin and straighten her back. She had beauty: her mirror showed it, and so did people's faces. Her aunt never mentioned it, probably for her own good, but Polyxena was blessed or cursed with clear sight.
She knew better than to stare baldly at the men who stared at her. She drew up her veil until it half hid her face. That made them work harder to see the beauty that was there.
Nikandra troubled with no such artifice. She was blessed with height that Polyxena did not have, and she was still beautiful though she was past thirty: a beauty of broad clear brow and long straight profile and waving gold-red hair. She walked as straight as a man, with her head uncovered and her face bare to the world. Few men could meet those cold blue eyes.
Those same men suffered no such compunction when it came to Polyxena. She was enjoying herself much too much; she nearly let down her guard and smiled at a strong young thing who gaped unabashed as she passed. He must be new: she had not seen his face before.
Almost too late she flicked her eyes away and fixed them on the upright, black-clad back in front of her. When they reached the passage that turned toward the queen's house, Nikandra walked on past, somewhat to Polyxena's surprise. She was aiming toward the king's rooms.
Polyxena had never been this far into the palace. She knew the queen's house well and the great hall well enough, but had glimpsed the rooms beyond it rarely and never so close.
They were not as open or airy as the queen's rooms, nor were they as well kept. They were clean enough, but there was a certain air of dishevelment about them, a careless clutter of weapons, clothing, and oddments cast wherever their owners had let them fall. Those owners must be out and about: Polyxena saw only a servant or two struggling against the tide of disorder, and once a woman barely covered with a bit of gauze, who squeaked and fled at the sight of them.
Nikandra took no notice of her or, as far as Polyxena could see, of anything else. She threaded the maze of corridors as if she knew them well, emerging at last into a place that startled Polyxena with familiarity: the lesser hall where the king's Companions spent such idle hours as they had.
Polyxena had been there once before, following Nikandra to a gathering in the greater hall, but for that she had come in through the outer regions of the palace. This much more circuitous path was part of the lesson, then. It seemed Polyxena was to remark and remember, and take thought for the ways people lived outside the temple.
Or else she was to reflect that men were untidy, barely domesticated, and sorely in need of setting to rights. That would be a familiar lesson.
The Companions' hall was in much less disarray than the rooms behind it. Here the weapons on display were kept bright and polished, and the floor was as clean as it could be when there were dogs underfoot. Only a handful of men stood or sat or lounged on couches: half a dozen in all, and one was the king.
Polyxena spared her uncle a glance, but the others caught more of her attention. They bore a striking resemblance to one another: tall men, light and lean like gazehounds, with hair so fair it was nearly white. Arybbas beside them seemed as darkly massive as one of the Mother's oaks, though in any other company he was a tall and rangy man with hair more red than brown.
He greeted Nikandra with due respect, but the others offered her the full obeisance, kneeling and bowing their heads as if she had been the Mother herself. That was a rarity in these days. Polyxena saw how Arybbas' lips tightened at it, but Nikandra smiled and laid her hand on the eldest man's head. "May the Mother bless and keep you," she said.
The strangers bowed even lower at that. Nikandra raised the eldest, who was old enough to have fathered the rest; they followed suit, as carefully in unison as dancers in a temple. Once they were upright, they all kept their eyes fixed on their feet, even the youngest, who might have been expected to show a glimmer of curiosity.
"Your manners do you credit," Nikandra said. "Be at ease now; it's not the year-king we want you for."
Most of them stiffened at that, but the youngest looked up quickly. His eyes were clear deep blue, and they sparkled with mirth before he lowered them again.
"These are Hymeneia's children," Nikandra said, "from the vale of Acheron. She was never blessed with daughters, but the Mother sent her loyal and obedient sons."
Polyxena wondered about the youngest, but the rest seemed as demure as a maiden was supposed to be. They were lovely boys, soft in their movements, well-spoken and gentle. If they had been a litter of puppies, Polyxena would have been pleased.
Excerpted from Bring Down the Sun by Judith Tarr. Copyright © 2008 Judith Tarr. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part I: Polyxena,
Part II: Myrtale,
Part III: Olympias,
About the Author,
Historical Novels by Judith Tarr,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A powerful current of the sacred feminine runs through this novel, as it has in other Judith Tarr novels. Polyxena is the future mother of Alexander the Great, who reached almost mythical status in later times. So it's fitting that Polyxena has mystical powers beyond even those of her sister priestesses and mentors in the temple of the Mother. For sheer strength of will, she meets her match in Philip of Macedon, whom she later marries. But even he eventually bows to her overwhelming personality. The novel takes us through a period of only about a year, which includes her pregnancy and the birth of Alexander. History records that Alexander and his mother had a powerful but conflicted bond, which made me wish the story had continued into epic length. Perhaps a sequel is in the works?
The flirtatious Polyxena knows she is a beauty and acts accordingly though that is not normal behavior of an acolyte of the Mother goddess. When Philip of Macedon meets the enticing playful Polyxena, he is enchanted by her beauty and her sexual lure. He calls her Myrtale the ¿crowned one¿ and pledges to make her his queen when he becomes king.----------- No longer using the name Polyxena, Myrtale ruthlessly uses her sexual appeal and her connection to the Mother goddess to further the ambitions of her now husband Philip. Her plan is to do likewise when her unborn son the heir is old enough. No one will stand in the way of Myrtale as she plots power and greatness for her family.--------- The power behind the throne of Philip is his ambitious cunning wife that is the essence of this engaging biographical fictional account of the mother of Alexander the Great. The story line actually ends with the birth of Alexander so expect a sequel when her son becomes the ruler and her ambition is as strong as ever. Although the opening sequence when she is still Polyxena pales next to her as Myrtale, fans will appreciate this deep look at a woman the history texts ignore, but proves as powerful in her way as her more famous husband and son.--------------- Harriet Klausner