Disclaimers - This story is set about 20 years after FIN.
Violence - There is some mild violence, but nothing too graphic or
Many thanks to my excellent beta readers, Jill, Kam, Extra and the members of the Bardic Circle. Thanks also to Jess for prodding me to finish this every now and then, and to Verrath for providing me with the inspiration.
All comments are welcomed at: email@example.com
The Viking Chick's Reading Room
What Mother Never Told Me
by Leslie Ann Miller
“Things change, people change. Some things you don’t need to know.” These were two of my mother’s favorite sayings. The first was true, at least according to my Aunt Lila who told me once before she died that my cousin, Sarah, (who was more like a second mother to me than a cousin, really) was ashamed of some of the cruel things she had done in her past. While the specifics of what she had done were carefully guarded secrets hidden from me under the auspices of one of those many “things I didn’t need to know,” it was hard for me to imagine Sarah being mean to another human being, seeing as she was even unwilling to kill the mice that managed to get trapped in the grain bins in the stables behind the inn. And it wasn’t because Sarah was afraid of them. I didn’t think that Sarah was afraid of anything. Whenever we had unruly customers in the inn, Sarah was quick to handle the situation. I’d seen her physically toss drunks twice her size out the front door. But she was also one of the nicest people I knew, and I loved her as much as Mother. Though, in a different way, of course, because, well, Mother was Mother.
Sarah, for example, was the one who took me to the summer festivals every year. I loved going to the festivals because I got to hear so many stories from the bards and other performers there. If Mother had her way, I’d never have left the inn. Well, at least not to do anything that involved other people. Mother hated crowds. We often went on short trips into the countryside together, but I was never allowed to roam by myself. “You might be captured by slavers!” she’d say (like there were slavers coming through Amphipolis every day… NOT!). Or – “You never know when you might run into a warlord’s band.” Then she’d touch my cheek in that way that she does, and she’d smile at me to make it all better. “You’re growing up to be very pretty, Thalia. There are evil men out there who might try to hurt you. You must be very careful around strangers.” And I would roll my eyes and mumble in protest, saying that it would make a great story if slavers did come around, but I never would wander off very far, no matter how badly I wanted adventure, because I didn’t want Mother to worry.
But I did get to go to the festivals with Sarah.
It was also Sarah who convinced Mother to let me fulfill my lifelong dream of coming to study at the Athens City Academy of Performing Bards. It happened like this. About a year ago, when I was only fifteen, an old man came to stay at the inn. He looked like he might be a scholar or philosopher from Athens, being dressed in a simple, white wool tunic. I was serving his dinner when he asked me my name. I told him it was Thalia, and he laughed in delight. “So, whom do you inspire?” he smiled, obviously referring to the fact that I was named after a muse.
“Aunt Lila once told me that my mother named me Thalia because I was to be her source of joy and laughter,” I said quietly, not wanting Mother to overhear me in the kitchen. Sometimes she seemed to have the most uncanny hearing. I didn’t think I was supposed to know the story about my name because Aunt Lila had said it was “our little secret.” She’d told me about it many years ago when I was crying, to try to get me to stop. It worked. I desperately wanted Mother to be happy. She seemed so sad sometimes.
The man chuckled, not unkindly. “And who is your lucky mother?” he asked.
“Her name is Ella,” I answered, glancing back towards the kitchen. “She’s the cook. And the owner.”
“Ah, then she’s the one I need to speak to. I was hoping I might perform tonight in exchange for my stay.”
“I’m a bard, you see.”
I know my eyes must have lit up with excitement. “Really?” I asked with glee.
He nodded gravely.
“Oh wow! This is so great! I LOVE telling stories, and Aunt Lila always said I’m very good at it. I’d love to be a bard someday, too!”
The man rubbed his chin thoughtfully, and instead of laughing at my enthusiastic outburst, as many men would have done, he merely smiled. “Well, then, you shall have to tell me one of your stories before I leave.”
“Oh! Might I?” I clapped my hands together, unable to contain myself. “But,” I said in perfect seriousness, “you must promise to be honest with me about my performance. I don’t want you to tell me I’m good if I’m not. And… and, well, I’d rather know the truth, even if it means hearing that I’m terrible.” I didn’t like all the “things I didn’t need to know,” and I especially hated it when people lied to me.
The man nodded approvingly. “That is very noble of you. I promise to be honest in my assessment.”
“I’ll go ask Mother if you can perform tonight,” I said happily, fighting the urge to skip all the way to the kitchen. Then I remembered, “What is your name?”
“Homer,” he said.
I almost dropped my tray. Even I had heard of the famous bard, Homer, who was head of the Athens Academy of Performing Bards. I couldn’t believe it… oh, it had to be Fate! I practically ran to find Mother to tell her the news.
She turned from the counter where she was skinning a rabbit for the evening stew. “Thalia!” she admonished as I dropped the tray on a table in my excitement. “What on earth is it?”
“Homer is here! The bard, Homer! He’s staying here at the inn tonight!”
Mother had turned back to her task, and I noticed that the knife in her hand froze mid air for the barest moment. Then it came down with a heavy thunk, decapitating the rabbit and narrowly missing her one of her fingers.
“Careful, Mother,” I teased her.
She smiled at me. “Sorry, sweetheart, I was just surprised to hear that we have such a famous guest.”
“I know! Isn’t it great? And he wants to perform tonight in exchange for his room!”
Mother shook her head emphatically. “No, no stories tonight.”
My heart sank; I couldn’t believe it. “But you’ve let people perform in the past!”
“You were younger then,” she said automatically, and I had to wonder why my age would matter.
“No ‘buts,’ Thalia. I don’t have enough stew to feed a crowd tonight.”
It was a lame excuse. She could always make more stew. It wasn’t every day that a famous bard came to town. I wanted to argue with her, but I could see from the firm set to her jaw that her mind was made up. Mother could be very stubborn about the oddest things sometimes.
“No,” she said as soon as I opened my mouth.
“I was just going to say that I would go tell him,” I said, trying not to sound as hurt as I felt.
Her expression softened. “I’m sorry, sweetheart. It’s just… I don’t feel up to it tonight. Tell him he can have the room for free, anyway.”
I smiled, glad that I could offer the old man that, at least. But I would dearly have loved to hear him tell a story… maybe about Hercules or Xena and Gabrielle. For as long as I could remember I’d been fascinated by stories about Xena and Gabrielle. Xena had been born in Amphipolis, too, and Gabrielle had been from a small village nearby. In fact, supposedly, our inn’s former proprietor had been Xena’s mother. I couldn’t help but fantasize that the famous warrior princess had grown up here, just like me. When I was much younger, I used to imagine a tall, dark haired warrior woman watching over my bed at night, a ghostly figure in the moonlight. Sometimes we would even play together, and she whispered stories to me about her adventures with Gabrielle. Often, I would make up my own stories about them, pretending that I had been there with them as they traveled around the world. The warrior woman always seemed to like those. I’m not quite sure how I dreamed up such amazing stories as such a young child, but I supposed they were a gift from my own muse. I never shared them with anyone else because I knew that they weren’t true, but I couldn’t hear enough about the two women I admired so much. It would have been grand to hear Homer relate a story about them.
As it was, the old bard was very gracious about my mother’s refusal to let him perform and very grateful for the free room. “Do you have time to join me for lunch?” he asked, as I looked for an excuse to linger by his table.
The common room was nearly empty; it was mid-winter, after all, and few people were traveling the muddy roads. Sarah was busy stoking the fire in the fireplace, and Mother had the stew under control in the kitchen. I eventually needed to finish my usual chores before the evening regulars came from the town, but I had some spare time, and I knew that neither Mother nor Sarah would care if I took a short break. I pulled out the chair and sat down across from him.
“Have you eaten?” he asked.
“Well, then, would you mind entertaining me with a tale while I finish my meal?”
I’d secretly been hoping he would say something like that, but now that the invitation was actually out, I felt the terror settle in my stomach like a stone. This was one of the greatest bards in the world! And he was asking me for a story!
He must have seen it in my face, because he smiled. “It’s all right if you’d rather not. I will be here until morning. Perhaps this evening sometime.”
“No!” I squeaked. “I want to… I mean…” My brain was racing. I had to slow down or my mouth would never keep up, and I would just sputter nonsense. I took a deep breath and leaned forward in my chair, catching his eye. “Did you know that Xena the Warrior Princess’s mother used to be the proprietor of this very inn?”
“I had no idea,” Homer shook his head, obviously surprised.
Seeing that I had his attention hooked, I launched into the local legend of Cyrene, who’d had an affair with Ares to give birth to Xena, and who had eventually been burned as a witch for opening up the gateway to the underworld with her supernatural powers. Mother hated it when I told this story, and she always insisted that it wasn’t true, but I couldn’t resist. It was such a great story. “…and that,” I concluded, “is why many of the locals jokingly call this inn ‘the Gates of Hell.’” That much, I knew, was the truth.
“Do they indeed?” Homer chuckled. “It is a good tale, and very well told.”
I blushed at the praise.
“With such a history, it surprises me that your mother decided to reclaim the place.”
“Well,” I shrugged, “She says that the stories aren’t true, and that Cyrene was just an ordinary person with an extraordinary daughter. And the locals exaggerate… a lot.” I rolled my eyes. I had often wondered myself, though, why Mother had decided to refurbish the place. True, she was the best cook in all of Thrace, and the inn prospered because of it, but she never really seemed to get… well… any joy from doing it (except, of course, when we were cooking together – then it was always fun). I’d once asked Mother why she’d moved to Amphipolis, and she’d just said that she wanted to be near her loved ones, and that Sarah wasn’t suited to life on a farm. Of course, any further questions had been brushed off as “things I didn’t need to know” - with the same brusqueness that met any inquiries about my father. (My knowledge of him was limited to the fact that he was a poet living in Rome. I guess that’s where I got my talent for words, but that’s about all I really knew of him. Oh, and that I supposedly looked a lot like his mother - my grandmother - who I gathered had also been an innkeeper. But she’d had black hair and blue eyes whereas I had blonde hair and green eyes. I sometimes wished I’d gotten that unusual combination of features myself, but I’d have to be satisfied with getting her height, instead. I’d felt funny when I’d outgrown both Mother and Sarah at age eleven, but now I kind of liked it… that is, when I wasn’t feeling gangly and awkward… which thankfully wasn’t as often as it used to be.)
Homer and I chatted after that. I asked him lots of questions about Athens and the Academy of Bards, and he answered them without ever saying that I didn’t need to know something. It was wonderful. I was in Elysia.
Eventually, Mother surprised me by coming out of the kitchen. “Thalia,” she said as Master Homer looked up with an expression of surprise. “It’s time to finish your chores. And I’d like to speak to our distinguished guest about his evening arrangements.” She pulled out a chair with a smile. “I’m Ella,” she said, introducing herself, “the proprietor and the cook. Did you enjoy your lunch?”
Knowing I’d been dismissed, I headed up the stairs to empty the water from one of our guest’s bath. When I came down several minutes later, I noticed that both Mother and Homer were watching me as I crossed the room to the kitchen. Self-conscious, I almost tripped over a bench sticking out from one of the tables. Blushing, I fled outside to finish my chores out back.
I was still chopping wood when I heard Sarah and mother arguing in the kitchen sometime later. It was very unusual for Mother to get upset enough to raise her voice, and I was appalled when I heard my name come up. Were they fighting about me? Suddenly, I had to know what they were saying, and I edged closer to the door so I could hear.
“…she can’t stay here forever,” Sarah was saying.
“Why not? She’s happy here, isn’t she?” Mother said, and suddenly I knew that this was all about me. Mother wouldn’t have sounded so upset, otherwise. “I’ve given her a good, safe home. Why would she want to leave?”
Sarah laughed. “Listen to yourself, Ella. Think of what you were like at that age. You couldn’t wait to escape the farm. And we both know she’s always dreamed about being a bard. She comes by it honestly. How could you deny her this?”
By this time, I had my ear pressed up against the door, holding my breath. Deny me what?
“Athens isn’t safe. I wouldn’t be there to protect her.”
“The Academy of Bards is hardly Gurkan’s palace.”
I gasped. The Academy of Bards! The Fates were smiling on me today! Oh, but surely mother would never let me go!
“She’s so beautiful, Sarah, and there will be all those boys…”
“You’ve taught her to take care of herself. Your daughter is no fool, and she could talk her way out of a minotaur’s labyrinth. And if that fails, you’ve made sure she is physically strong and knows how to defend herself.”
“Against groping customers! What if someone has a weapon?”
“I thought we were talking about the boys at the Academy.”
Mother was silent for several heartbeats. “I can’t bear the thought of losing her.”
“You wouldn’t be losing her. Gods, Ella, children grow up, but that doesn’t mean you’ve lost them. That child’s talents are wasted here. She belongs at the Academy. Even Master Homer could see that.”
Again, my mother was silent. I thought I might faint from lack of air. I forced myself to breath.
“At least give her the choice,” Sarah said, so quietly that I almost couldn’t hear.
When footsteps finally headed toward the door, I grabbed my ax and stumbled back to the woodpile, trying to pretend that my heart wasn’t racing like a runner’s.
Sarah’s graying head appeared in the doorway. “Thalia? Are you almost finished?”
I nodded at the unsplit logs at my feet. “Four to go,” I said, wondering if Mother would let me take the ax to Athens to defend myself with. I was certain I could split an attacker’s head with it if I needed to. And then she wouldn’t have to worry about me so much.
“When you’re done, your mother would like to speak to you.”
“Yes, m’am,” I said, and logs have never been split so fast in the history of Greece.
I wanted to leave the ax by the woodpile instead of taking the time to put it up in the stables, but I knew I would get in trouble if mother found it. And I didn’t want to give her any excuse to get upset with me today, so I did as I was expected, and hung it between the pegs on the wall just inside the stable door.
Finally finished with the chore, I went to find my mother. I found her sitting in the small room just off the kitchen where she sometimes slept at night but which usually served as a second pantry. She was holding an old wooden lamb I’d often played with as a child (and had actually thought I’d lost), and her eyes were closed.
The sight of her tears was my undoing. My heart sank. I was her source of joy and laughter. How could I possibly leave her?
“Mother, are you all right?” I asked quietly, even though I knew, of course, that she wasn’t.
She started as if she hadn’t heard me coming (which was almost as much of a surprise as her tears had been… once again, given her unnatural ability to hear the slightest sound from miles away), and she sat up straighter in her chair, setting the sheep down on the table next to a sack of flour. She wiped her cheeks with one hand. “I’m sorry,” she said, trying to smile, but failing miserably. “I was just remembering…” She shook her head, and I could see her dismiss her emotions with the same efficiency that she used to run the inn. I’d gotten used to that over the years, seeing mother put aside her sadness like an amphora of wine being locked away in a cellar. She smiled at me – a real smile this time. “Master Homer was very impressed with the story you told him this afternoon.”
“Really?” I asked with as much enthusiasm as I could muster given that I was trying to lock away my hopes and dreams in much the same way that mother had locked away her sadness. Like mother, like daughter, I suppose.
She nodded, and stood up, moving to the small cot against the wall. She patted the space beside her, inviting me to sit next to her.
“He has offered to take you to the Athens City Academy of Performing Bards as his own apprentice.”
Master Homer - the legend, the greatest bard in all of Greece - wanted me to be his apprentice? I couldn’t believe it!
“It’s a very high honor,” Mother continued when I said nothing. “And… you may go if you wish.”
I had intended to say no, that I wasn’t interested in leaving the inn. But I couldn’t quite get the words out of my mouth. To be Master Homer’s apprentice!
Mother squeezed my leg with a smile. “Think about it, sweetie. He said he would be willing to stay another few nights if you decided to go to Athens with him. That would give you time to pack and prepare for the journey.”
I was still sitting on the cot, playing with the wooden sheep when Sarah came to find me. “Mind if I join you?” she asked.
I shook my head.
“What’s the matter, Thalia? You should be bouncing all over the inn in excitement.”
“I can’t leave Mother,” I said slowly. “She needs me.”
Sarah took a deep breath. “She’ll always have me, you know. It’s hard for her to let you go because she’s lost so much…” She stopped, suddenly realizing that she was coming close to revealing some of those things that I didn’t need to know. I desperately wanted her to go on, to tell me what my mother had lost, so I could understand her better, so I would know why she clung to me sometimes like I might disappear before her very eyes - so I could comprehend why the sight of a fiery sunset so often made her cry.
As if understanding, Sarah took my chin in her hands and tilted my head down to look into her face. I could see tears in her eyes. “You have to live your own life, Thalia. You need to follow your own heart, find your own way. She knows that and understands it. That’s why she’s agreed to let you go.”
She smiled sadly when I didn’t say anything and released my chin. “Did my mother ever tell you that Ella ran away from home when she was just a little older than you are now?”
“No!” I breathed. My mother had run away from home? My mother, who was so afraid of strangers that she refused to do the shopping in town? My mother?
Sarah nodded. “Not too long after she escaped from slavers.”
My eyes grew wide until I realized that cousin Sarah was pulling my leg. I slapped her arm. “Oh, right,” I said, laughing despite myself. “I believe that. Mother in the hands of slavers? What did she do, shake a spoon at them?” I laughed again at the ridiculousness of the thought.
Sarah cocked her head to the side as if puzzled. “Why do you say that?” she asked.
I shrugged, bewildered that she didn’t seem to understand. “It’s just… you know Mother… she’s afraid of everything… such a worrywart. And you know how she hates the idea of violence and fighting. ‘Follow the path of peace, Thalia,’” I said, imitating mother’s serious voice. “‘When you pick up a sword, you become a target.’ ‘To live by the sword is to die by the sword.’ ‘The world is not a kind place.’ Do I really need to go on…?”
“Your mother is the wisest person I know,” Sarah said slowly.
“Well, she may be wise,” I said, although I’d never really thought of her that way before, and I knew I would have to give the idea some serious consideration later, “But she’s not exactly an Amazon warrior, now is she?”
“Well,” Sarah sighed heavily, a thoughtful expression on her face. “I do see how you might think that. But people change, Thalia. Remember that.”
It was odd to hear those words from Sarah.
“And the world is not always a kind place. You mother understands that better than most.”
“She wants to protect me.”
Sarah nodded. “But she also wants you to follow your dreams.”
“I want to protect her,” I said softly.
Sarah gathered me into her arms. “Oh, I know you do sweetheart. But you know what? Your Mother can protect herself. Truly.” She released me and looked at me seriously. “Do you dream of becoming an innkeeper, Thalia?”
I shook my head slowly. Always, my dream had been to become a bard. “But I would do anything to make her happy.”
Sarah smiled sadly. “I know. But you know what? I think it would make her happy to see you happy. I’m afraid if you stay here now, eventually you will start to resent it. You’re still young, but…things change as you get older.”
I felt torn, but I knew Sarah was right. I would resent it if I stayed. Part of me - that adventurous side, the side with the dreams of fame and fortune - already resented the thought of staying.
“Will she forgive me if I leave?”
Sarah laughed. “Of course. Although I make no promises if you forget to write her from Athens.”
“Oh, I will! I will!” I said, feeling the joy well up as I unlocked those dreams again. They sailed into my heart. I was going to Athens to become a bard!
“Thalia?” My thoughts were interrupted by my mentor’s voice bringing me back to the present, and I blushed, knowing that he’d caught me daydreaming.
“I’m sorry, Master Homer,” I said, returning my attention to the scroll I was supposed to be transcribing. Virgil, founder of the Roman Academy of Performing Arts and Poetry, had written the scroll, and it detailed his adventures with Gabrielle - yes, the Gabrielle, the infamous Battling Bard of Potidaea - during the Egyptian-Persian wars. This particular section described how the Egyptians had tried to make Gabrielle their Queen-Empress, and how she, Virgil, and two of their close Egyptian friends had sneaked out of Alexandria the night before the priests had planned to consecrate her as their ruler. From other stories, I knew that they had wandered the Mediterranean together for almost two years, doing battle for the greater good. After the death of one of their Egyptian friends during a sea battle with Moroccan pirates, they returned to Rome. After only a brief stay, Virgil and Gabrielle had journeyed to Gaul alone. It was Virgil’s poignant description of Gabrielle’s last battle and heroic death at the hands of barbarians that brought him recognition throughout the civilized world and earned him the wealth and reputation to open the Roman Academy.
I touched the vellum reverently. It amazed me to be holding something that once had been in the possession of Virgil. He had touched this, written these words. And he had laughed, slept, and eaten with Gabrielle herself. Maybe she had even read this scroll. Xena, Gabrielle, Virgil. These people had changed the world. It was history in my hands, and I was thrilled to be copying it so the story it told would never be lost. It was part of the students’ duties to copy the fading scrolls in the library. Someday I hoped Master Homer would trust me with one of Gabrielle’s scrolls. I’d heard that the ink from her early period scrolls, some now nearly fifty years old, was beginning to fade and become illegible. I would dearly have loved to transcribe one of them!
“Master Homer?” I asked, not caring if I bothered the other two students in the workroom.
He cocked an eyebrow; an expression intended to be intimidating, but which actually made his pointed face rather comical.
“Is it true that you once met Gabrielle of Potidaea?”
He frowned, glaring at the other two students who looked up in interest at this question. Obviously, they found him as intimidating as I did, making no pretense of returning to their work. He sighed. “Yes, it is.”
“What was she like?”
He closed his eyes, as if to picture her better. He had the same habit when telling stories. “Vivacious, idealistic, and very, very talented,” he said. He opened his eyes and looked at me with a half smile. “You remind me of her, a bit.”
He could not have offered me higher praise as far as I was concerned, and I know I blushed furiously.
“Though,” he continued, “unlike her, sometimes you are too afraid to take risks. A good bard must know when to break the rules, and when to go against tradition to achieve greater effect.”
Master Homer then launched into a fascinating lecture on how Gabrielle had challenged the establishment that had been, at that time, the Athens Academy of Performing Bards, not only in the way she told her stories in such an impromptu fashion, but in her actions as well. “Sometimes,” he finally concluded, “the best way to get your message across is with a whisper rather than a shout.”
“Or visa versa,” I said, understanding.
Homer nodded. “Very true.”
“When I changed my poem this morning to better match the prescribed rhythm of the form, you think I should have left it as it was?”
Homer smiled. “The original version was far more powerful.”
Considering that my poem had been about nothing more substantial than the slowly deteriorating exterior of the Parthenon, it hardly seemed worthy of the designation “powerful.”
“And your assignment tonight is to explore the relationship between the exterior of the Parthenon and the interior of the Parthenon,” Homer said.
When he stood up to leave, I knew I had been dismissed. I gathered my materials, carefully re-rolling the original scroll and replacing it in its leather case. I would finish transcribing it tomorrow. My two companions were not so lucky and returned with sighs to their respective scribal tasks.
Since I had some time before the evening meal, I decided to go to the Parthenon for some inspiration for my assignment. I thought I might do some shopping along the way, as well. Gods know where I got my love for shopping - it must have been from my father’s side of the family (it’s funny how I thought about him so often, now that I was at the Academy) - but there were few things I enjoyed more than dickering for a good deal in one of Athens’ many shops. Even though I was known to drive a hard bargain, Mother was generous with my monthly allowance, and the merchants were always happy to see me.
It was late afternoon when I finally reached the long stairs leading up to the temple complex dedicated to the goddess Athena. The Parthenon was intended to be awe-inspiring, and certainly it was. However, two of the metopes on the exterior had fallen down many years ago, and they had never been replaced. The poem I had written yesterday bemoaned the fact that the story the frieze told had been broken, originally comparing it to the fading of ink on an ancient scroll (the version Homer liked better), and then changing it to a storyteller who had forgotten the words to a story. As I climbed the stairs to the Acropolis, I wondered why he thought the one simile better than the other, and why he wanted me to compare the outside of the Parthenon to the inside. I began to review everything I knew about the Parthenon, the priests and priestesses, and the goddess Athena herself.
“Gods are worse than spoiled children,” my Mother once said after I brought home a token of Apollo, God of the sun and music, from one of the festivals. “Make your own destiny, Thalia, don’t rely on them to do it for you.”
I’d given the token to an unhappy little boy staying at the inn to try to cheer him up. And I’d never set foot inside a temple since, even here in Athens.
Yet, if I were going to worship a goddess, Athena might be my first choice. Wisdom and warfare… yeah, I could admire her, despite my Mother’s words. After passing through the Propylaea, I followed the main way past the bronze statue of Athena until I found a spot to sit where I could be out of the way of the comings and goings of the Acropolis and yet still see the Parthenon.
Watching a small knot of priests and priestesses busily herding a small group of people towards the Temple of Nike, I wondered what it would be like to dedicate my life to a deity. I did not doubt the existence of immortals – enough people had witnessed them to convince me of that – but I wondered what rewards such a life provided. Did Athena thank them for their service? Provide them with gifts? Or were mortals beneath the attention of such beings?
“Heya kiddo,” a voice said beside me, and I looked up into the face of a very beautiful woman with wavy blonde hair. She was dressed rather outrageously even for Athens, in a silky, almost see-through garment that would have made me blush. Well, okay, it did make me blush, even though I wasn’t the one wearing it. She was very beautiful… and… er… rather well endowed. Anyway, she sat down next to me with a smile. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” She was looking at the Parthenon, looming huge and imposing in front of us.
“Uh… yes, it is,” I said, wondering if she had escaped some brothel near the port. Was this one of the crazy people mother had always warned me about? “It’s a shame about the fallen metopes, though. I wonder why they haven’t been replaced?”
“They can’t afford to get it fixed,” the woman said with a shrug. “And it’s such a shame, too. Athena would never have let the place get run down like this.”
I hadn’t really expected her to answer my question, and the answer she did provide made me stare at her. She was definitely crazy, but she didn’t look too threatening, either. “The temple is poor?” I asked, curious if she could provide an explanation for that.
“Oh, sure… look around, who do you see here?”
Aside from the clump of individuals who had disappeared into the Temple of Nike, it was mostly priests and priestesses hurrying about on their business. There weren’t very many of them, either.
“Not many visitors,” the woman said sadly, when I said nothing. “Why bother worshipping a dead goddess?”
“Dead?” I asked in surprise.
“Uh-huh. Xena killed her. You should ask Homer about Gabrielle’s “Eve scrolls.” Most of them were burned by an indignant student years ago, but Homer read them before that happened.”
I stared at her. Xena killed Athena? Gabrielle… scrolls… Homer! … “W-Who are you?” I finally stuttered.
She smiled brilliantly. “A friend of your family.”
Mother had a friend in Athens? What else had she never told me? “I’m sorry, I don’t believe my mother ever mentioned you before. And… how did you recognize me? Have we met?”
The woman giggled and touched my nose with her finger, making it tingle. “I would know you anywhere, little one. And I thought you might like some help on your homework.” She winked at me. “Not all mortals are beneath the notice of immortals. Oh, look at that!”
She pointed at the Temple of Nike where a large bull was being led for a sacrifice. When I glanced back at her, she was gone. I stood up hastily, looking around for her everywhere, but she had vanished.
I sat back down heavily, holding my head in my hands. I was losing my mind. It was one thing to dream up an imaginary warrior woman for a playmate as a child, but hallucinating a beautiful, scantily clad… whatever she was - family friend – was quite another. I groaned.
Hoping to forget the entire weird encounter, I decided to enter the Parthenon. Maybe seeing the giant statue of Athena would provide me with the inspiration I needed. Walking between the huge pillars, I entered the building. It was quiet, and my footsteps echoed hollowly as I approached the 40-foot tall gold and ivory statue of the goddess. The first thing I noticed was that the bronze decorations in the temple were tarnishing. The second thing I noticed was that I was all alone in the huge building. And not just alone in the sense that there were no other people present. There was no spark of divinity in this temple, no living presence of an immortal goddess. The tarnished metal, the dust in the corners - it was as neglected on the inside as it was on the exterior. There was only a scattering of poor offerings on the altar.
Athena was dead. I believed it because it made perfect sense, standing there in the abandoned building. And Homer had known. He knew what I would discover when I came here… neglect inside and out. Had he read a long-lost Gabrielle scroll that described the death of Athena? And if so, why hadn’t he told the story to the world? This was an earth-shattering revelation! Especially to the city that still proclaimed Athena’s protection!
That sobered me immediately. Athens was enamored of Athena. To admit she was dead was to admit… what? That they no longer had their guardian…? That they were vulnerable…? That no one was guiding the city’s destiny and fortune? My head spun. The first bard that had the courage to openly proclaim Athena’s death was sure to get jeered and heckled. Even though… I looked around me… even though everyone already apparently knew – at least in their hearts - that she was gone. But somebody had to make them admit the truth!
I turned and left the temple. All the pieces were falling into place. The woman who had come to talk to me - obviously she had been an immortal to have disappeared so instantly. And she came to help me… inspire me! She must have been a muse - my muse - a friend of my father’s, no doubt, since he was or had been a poet. She would help me with this… this huge undertaking. This, too, was why Homer had lectured me about taking risks and the courage needed to be a great bard. Obviously it was my destiny to break the news to Athens that their goddess was dead, to get them to accept the truth. I would teach Athens what Mother had taught me (a point in favor of Sarah’s assessment that mother was wise!) – that we shouldn’t look to the gods for our protection and guidance, and that we had to look out for ourselves. Of course, we still needed to thank them for their help when they gave it, like in the case of my muse today - after all, I didn’t want to offend her!
I wrote my own destiny as I flew down the path from the Acropolis to the city below, my sandals pounding the stone steps. I would have a difficult time of it, at first, of course. Heroes always had their trials. But the beauty and inspiration of my words would prevail, and eventually I would make them see the truth and be beloved to them for freeing them from the LIE. I saw fame and fortune in my future. I saw crowds elbowing each other to get a glimpse of me on the street. I saw merchants giving me gifts that they might otherwise have offered to the gods. I saw myself standing in front of a crowd of people whose attention lingered on my every word. I was so busy seeing these things, in fact, that I didn’t see the extremely large, bearded man dressed in foreign armor standing in the middle of the street at the base of the Acropolis until I ran squarely into him. I might as well have run into a wall. And with all the grace of the infamous fool, Joxer the Mighty (a favorite subject of one of my fellow students at the academy who was specializing in comedy), I bounced off the man and fell squarely on my bottom. “Sorry!” I mumbled, climbing awkwardly to my feet, blushing in embarrassment.
Somebody shouted excitedly to my side. Turning to see who had spoken, I saw another man, similarly dressed in foreign attire, pointing directly at me. Thinking there must be somebody behind me, I glanced over my shoulder. Two more barbarians were approaching from that direction, but no one else was in sight.
Now, it may sound like I was a little bit slow on the uptake, but really, all of this happened very quickly, and I wasn’t in the habit of being afraid of strangers, despite the warnings I’d grown up with. By the time I figured out that I had, in fact, been mistaken for someone else (after all, I hadn’t written my epic about the downfall of Athena yet, and there was no reason under the sun that strange barbarians should be interested in me), I was surrounded by five rather large and menacing warriors.
With no clear path of escape, I did what my mother taught me. I dissembled; hoping that they’d listen to me long enough to figure out that I wasn’t the person they were looking for. “Hello,” I said with a big grin, keeping any trace of fear from my voice. “Are you boys new in town? Were you looking for a guide to the city? I’m afraid I’m just a lowly student at the Athens Academy of Performing Bards, but might I recommend a trip to the top of the Acropolis? The view of Athens is beautiful from up there, and the Parthenon is a classic example of the best architecture in all of Greece.”
Three of them looked up at the hill behind us when I pointed. The other two just stared at me.
The bigger of the two, the man I had run into, frowned. “Are you Thalia, daughter of the innkeeper of Amphipolis?” he asked in a strong accent.
If I had been really quick-witted at this point, I would have lied. Unfortunately, I was not in the habit of lying, and, as I’ve already mentioned, I didn’t like it when other people lied to me, so all I did was gape at the man, trying to figure out how he knew my name.
“There are only three girls at the academy,” one of the other men said. “The other two were shorter.”
The big man nodded. “You are wanted by our king,” he said.
The next thing I knew, the back of my head exploded in pain and stars, and I knew no more.
It’s funny (in a definitely not ha-ha kind of way) how one can go from being on top of the world - or the Acropolis, as the case may have been – planning and plotting one’s future and destiny in perfect, detailed clarity, and the next moment wake up on the damp, fish-smelling deck of a ship, cold, terrified, with a splitting headache, not knowing one’s fate at all, and completely uncertain of what the future held, much less the immediate present. Fear was the taste of bile in my mouth, and my head was throbbing so hard I could hardly think.
I was lying on my side near the mast of the ship, and eventually I became aware of the fact that the ship appeared to be a small merchant vessel like the ones that often traveled between Athens and Rome. From the actions of the ship’s crew - dressed more like Roman sailors than barbarian warriors - I gathered that we were just casting off the dock. Men bustled about, ignoring me like they might a stray fish left for dead on their deck. When I tried to move, I realized that my hands were tied in front but my feet were not bound at all. That gave me hope… and an idea.
Without taking the time to evaluate the wisdom of it, I leapt to my feet and dashed for the side of the ship. I was an excellent swimmer and even with my hands tied I figured I was better off in the water than on this ship bound for gods-knew-where with a bunch of foreign barbarians. I was about to launch myself overboard when strong arms caught me from behind.
“Thalia, no!” a strong voice said in my ear as I was wrestled to the deck. I tried to struggle, and I might have landed a good kick or two on my assailants (of whom there were at least three), but with my hands tied and my head spinning I really didn’t have much of a chance. It wasn’t long before I was laid out on my back with my legs tied too.
“Let me go!” I cried, despising myself for my tears. I didn’t want to cry in front of these men, but I couldn’t help myself. “Please let me go…!”
“Ulf, Torfi, let me speak with her.” A tall man with sandy blonde hair motioned for the two barbarians to leave. He was not dressed like the others, wearing instead the comfortable shirt and pants of a middle-aged Roman tradesman. His face was clean-shaven, and I thought that he might have looked sympathetic to my plight. Taking a deep breath, he knelt beside me.
“Thalia, please…” he started, then stopped, looking almost as distressed as I felt. “I’m sorry… but… please, don’t be afraid. I won’t let anyone hurt you…” He looked up as another man approached.
“Too late,” I muttered, tears still streaming, feeling sick to my stomach.
The newcomer was also clean-shaven, but clearly a barbarian based on his dress. He was broad-shouldered and stout, with thick arms and serious, dark eyes. He frowned at me as I rolled onto my side and promptly vomited on the deck in front of his boots.
To my surprise, he bent over and lifted me in his arms with a gentleness that belied his rugged appearance. “It would be unwise of you to try to jump ship with your hands tied,” he said, carrying me towards a doorway at the rear of the ship. “And Virgil spoke truthfully. You have no need to be afraid. I’m sorry that Torfi hit your head. I gave orders not to hurt you. I believe your unexpected height may have frightened them.”
I was placed on a hammock inside the small cabin. I kept my eyes closed because that seemed to help my headache, but I knew the two men were hovering nearby, watching me. I sniffed and wiped the tears from my face, trying to get a hold of my raging emotions. “Where are you taking me?” I finally asked. “Why?”
“We are going north to my country, Denmark,” the barbarian answered. “The ‘why’ is a bit more complicated.”
“I’ll tell her if you won’t,” the man named Virgil snapped.
I opened my eyes, wondering if I was hearing all of this correctly. Virgil was looking at the barbarian angrily.
The barbarian nodded, meeting my eyes. “You are a means to an end, I’m afraid. I need your mother’s help, and I believe the only way to get it is through you.”
Gods but my head hurt. None of this was making any sense.
Virgil must have seen it in my face. “King Beowulf here is an old friend of your mother’s, Thalia. And he knows that the only thing on earth that would get her to leave that inn of hers and travel to Denmark is you.”
Well, that was probably true, I reflected, but I still didn’t understand why anyone - especially a barbarian king from Denmark - would need my mother’s help…or how they would have met in the first place. Unless he had come through the inn at some point… but I was fairly certain I would have remembered someone so unusual even if I had been very little. Then it dawned on me that maybe they had mistaken me for Sarah’s daughter. Certainly they wouldn’t have been the first people to do so. Mother was so reclusive that half of Amphipolis only saw me with Sarah. And I knew that Sarah had traveled in her youth.
I was tempted to correct his error, but I saw no point in it, really. I couldn’t see Mother traveling alone, so Sarah would no doubt be coming to my rescue with her, anyway. And I think that maybe, just maybe, some small part of me really wanted to be Sarah’s daughter, because of her mysterious past. I mean, Mother’s past had the great tragedy that no one wanted to talk about (A lost child? A dead lover? My father who had left her?), but Sarah’s history smacked of intrigue, oriental spice, exotic adventure, and someone named Gurkan. I could see Sarah having enchanted this Beowulf at some point her past, but not my humdrum Mum, no matter how efficient and effective she was at running an inn. “Are you going to hurt her?” I finally managed to ask.
Beowulf smiled. “No. But I’m hoping she’ll help me set some things right.”
“What sort of things?”
Beowulf began to pace.
Virgil gave him a warning look. “I told you what she doesn’t know, Beowulf. And it’s not our place to tell her.”
Oh great, I thought. More secrets. I wanted to scream. Obviously this was a family matter. In my year at the Academy I had come to realize that all families had their weird habits, bizarre neuroses, and odd histories. What I knew of my family was strikingly dull in comparison, with no tales for me to share about the wild antics of crazy uncle Poticles or forgetful aunt Esmeralda. It had never occurred to me before that it wasn’t normal for parents to hide important elements of their past from their children, and that not every child in the world heard “some things you don’t need to know,” on a routine basis. While I had plenty of stories to tell about various customers at the inn, I had nothing to share about my own family. I finally decided that my family’s weird neurosis was the compulsive need to keep me from knowing certain things.
I decided right there and then that the next time I saw Mother and Sarah, I was going to insist that they tell me everything… EVERYTHING… because the past that they had decided I didn’t need to know about had just hit me over the head and was dragging me off to Denmark.
I didn’t even know exactly where Denmark was. The name conjured up a vague memory of a story told to me by my ghostly warrior woman about female warriors riding on horses galloping through the air, but I discounted that as pure fancy. I was fairly certain, however (probably from one of Mother’s or Sarah’s many lessons), that Denmark was in the far northern regions of the known world; a place subjected to long, dark winters and bitter cold, populated by barbarians who liked to fight with long-handled axes.
I sat up in the hammock, no longer frightened, just very, very angry. “I don’t want to go to Denmark,” I said very succinctly. “You have no right to do this without my willing participation. And you will turn this boat around and take me back to Amphipolis where you will discuss this with my mother in person.”
For a moment, I thought it was going to work. Beowulf stared at me, hard, and he even looked away first, with guilt in his eyes. He started to pace again.
“She’s right,” Virgil said quietly. “It’s the right thing to do.”
Finally Beowulf stopped and shook his head. “No. No, this is too important. And you said yourself she wouldn’t leave without good reason.”
“Your friendship might be enough,” Virgil said. “She spoke highly of you.”
My ears perked up at that. Virgil knew my mother, too? Or Sarah?
“No. It’s been too long. I have nothing to offer her… can do nothing but beg. She may not even believe my story. I can’t risk not succeeding. Too much is at stake.” He looked at me again, sorrowfully. “I’m sorry, but we must go on.” With that, he left, closing the door behind him.
Virgil stayed in the room with me, staring at the wooden planks of the floor. “I’m sorry, too,” he finally said.
I shrugged, looking at the ropes binding my wrists. “I don’t suppose you’re any relation to Virgil the poet, are you?” I asked. It was mostly just to make conversation; he didn’t look old enough to be the Virgil, and he had an insecurity about him that I couldn’t imagine in the founder of a respected scholastic academy.
He coughed as if the question had made him choke. “Who? Me?” he asked, thumping his chest as if to clear it. “Uh… Do I look like a poet?”
I examined him closely. Mother had taught me to guess the occupations of our guests at the inn, turning it into a game we played. Over the years I had gotten quite good at reading people. Not just their occupations, but their emotions and personalities as well. “No,” I said truthfully. “You look more like a blacksmith.” The burn marks on his boots had given it away. There was something else oddly familiar about him, too, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
He smiled. “You’re right. I am a blacksmith.”
“You know my mother.”
The smile faded. “Yes.”
“How? Where did you meet? When?”
He swallowed. “I met her at an inn many years ago. Before you were born.”
“Where was this inn?”
“Just outside of Rome.”
Mother had been to Rome? That was news to me. But I supposed it was possible, since my father lived there. “What was she doing there?”
“It’s really not my place to tell you,” he said after a moment’s consideration. “It’s Ella’s decision, not mine,” he said with such conviction that I knew I wasn’t going to get any more from him.
Ella. So much for my theory that they were really after Sarah. I groaned, falling back in the hammock. “Why do I feel so sick?” I asked. My anger had helped clear my head somewhat, but I still felt sick to my stomach.
“Have you ever been on a ship before?” Virgil asked.
“Are you kidding? There might be a storm, or a tsunami, or we might run into Sirens or Charybdis, or some giant sea monster with a sudden craving for ships…” I ticked off the first of many reasons Mother absolutely forbid me from setting foot on a boat.
He chuckled. “If I had to guess, then, you’re probably seasick.”
“Seasick?” I repeated.
“You mean, I’m going to feel this way the entire journey to Denmark?” I asked in horror.
“Well, I don’t think Beowulf is planning to sail all the way there.”
“But you don’t know for certain?”
He shook his head. “I’m almost as much his prisoner in this as you are.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. He certainly didn’t look like he was being coerced.
“He enlisted my help by threatening my wife and two children.”
“Do you think… Do you really believe he would hurt them?” I asked. Beowulf had seemed desperate, but not cruel.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Perhaps not now, but when he first came to my shop in Rome, I’d never met him before. I knew only what your mother had told me about him, and she’d known him before he’d become a king. Power can change people. He seemed very convincing at the time. And he left three of his warriors behind to keep an eye on my family.” He shook his head ruefully.
“Then you’ll help me escape! We’ll escape together!”
Virgil smiled sadly. “No.”
“What? Why not?”
“I don’t expect you to understand this, and it’s really not fair to you,” he said slowly, pulling a knife from his boot to cut the ropes around my legs and wrists, “but Beowulf has convinced me that it’s for the greater good.” With those cryptic words, he turned and left, and I heard a key turn in the lock when the door closed behind him.
I leaned on the railing of the ship watching a school of dolphins racing along beside us. I wanted to throw up, but there was nothing left in my stomach after the last time. For the most part, I was kept locked in the cabin, and I didn’t particularly want to leave the relative comfort of my hammock, but Virgil had insisted that I get some fresh air today… the fifth day since I’d been kidnapped from Athens.
He was leaning back against the railing beside me, arms crossed. “It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it? Believe it or not, it’s a wonderful day for sailing.”
I grunted. If there had been any sign of land in sight, I would have pitched myself overboard. In fact, even without the promise of land, the thought of drowning was starting to have its own unspeakable appeal.
“Feeling any better?” he asked.
“No,” I croaked. It was the longest conversation I’d had with anyone that day. Apparently, the Roman crew had been given orders not to talk with me, and whenever I tried to speak with the barbarians, they slunk away, quickly finding an excuse to be somewhere else. I wondered if Beowulf had punished them severely for hitting me over the head. Beowulf himself had been avoiding me, positively radiating guilt whenever I glimpsed him. If I hadn’t been feeling so sick, I’m sure I would have found it funny. Virgil, though… he’d been the one trying to get me to eat and drink, cajoling me into doing it despite my nausea. He’d also tried to engage me in conversation, but for my part, I felt that if he wasn’t going to answer the questions I wanted answered, I didn’t particularly want to talk.
Unfortunately (or fortunately, perhaps), that resolve was starting to fade. I had never imagined that being kidnapped by barbarians would be so mind-numbingly boring. I had rarely been sick as a child, and aside from the usual childhood illnesses and a broken arm resulting from a horse’s kick when I was ten, I couldn’t remember ever feeling this awful for so long, and the solitude was definitely making it worse.
“Didn’t your mother ever teach you the pressure points for seasickness?” Virgil asked.
I looked up at him, then straightened, turning around to lean against the rail, unconsciously mimicking his cross-armed stance. I realized with a little surprise that I was almost as tall as he was. “She taught me several,” I said, “but not one for seasickness. And I was never really interested in becoming a healer. I was always kind of grossed out by blood.”
Virgil chuckled. “I guess she didn’t have to worry about you wanting to run off to become a warrior, then, huh?”
“Well,” I shrugged, “in theory, becoming a hero would be really neat, but in reality, I never even liked killing chickens. One of the things I like about becoming a bard is the potential to change the world with words rather than weapons.”
“That’s a nice way of putting it,” Virgil nodded, still smiling. “And I’m sure your mother would approve. So… did you like Athens and the Academy?”
“Oh yes! Master Homer is wonderful, I’ve learned so much. And Athens… well, Athens is just amazing. There’s always so much to see and do… it’s almost too much. It’s so different from Amphipolis!”
“You’ll have to visit Rome someday. I bet you’d like it, too.”
I looked at him, wondering if it was an invitation. “I’d like that,” I said seriously. “My father is there,” I added, almost as an afterthought. It was funny; I didn’t even know the man’s name, but somehow knowing that Rome was his home created a tentative connection to the city in my heart.
Virgil looked at me with an odd expression, then quickly looked away again. He shifted his weight against the railing. “Hm,” he grunted noncommittally, furrowing his eyebrows.
It didn’t take a genius to see that he knew more than he was letting on. I stared at him. “You know who he is, don’t you?” I asked.
He blushed. “What? Huh? I… um…”
“Oh please,” I begged, grabbing his arm. “You’ve got to tell me something about him! What’s his name? Where does he live? What does he look like? How did he meet my mother?”
“I …uhh…umm,” he said, taking a step away from me. “Uh… he’s… uh… he’s a…”
“How tall is he?”
He shrugged, waving his hand vaguely in the air somewhere over my head.
Okay, so he was tall. That was something! “What’s his name?”
“I… uh…. well… I don’t think I…”
“…should tell me that,” I finished for him, rolling my eyes. “Okay, I get it. Uh… how did he meet Mother? Surely you can tell me that!”
“Well, no, I don’t think that I should…”
I groaned and stomped my foot in frustration. “Does he have any other relatives? Brothers? Sisters? That has to be vague enough that you can answer!”
“A couple brothers and sisters,” Virgil said with a sigh.
“Is he married?”
“Yes, with children.”
“Children…” I breathed. I had half-siblings?! Half siblings and aunts and uncles. My family had just expanded exponentially! Now I was really on a roll!
He must have seen the wonder in my face because he grasped one of my hands and squeezed it. “Thalia,” he said quietly, shaking his head. “No more.”
I nodded, trying to swallow my disappointment. He might as well have punched me in the stomach. I felt tears stinging my eyes. It wasn’t fair. He knew, and he wouldn’t tell me, and I didn’t understand why he wouldn’t tell me. “Did he break my mother’s heart?” I finally asked. It was the only question that really mattered. The only one I really needed to know.
A great sadness filled his eyes as he wiped a tear off my cheek. “No,” he said, and smiled crookedly, because he knew I hadn’t expected him to answer. “I think… I think he’d like to believe that he gave her great joy and happiness.” He squeezed my hand again before letting it loose, then turned to look out at the dolphins. “It was someone else who broke her heart.”
I digested that for a moment. I wanted to ask who it was, but I knew the question and answer session was over for the day. Perhaps forever, but I wasn’t going to give up that easily. This blacksmith from Rome knew more about my mother’s history than I did, and I was going to do my best to weasel it out of him.
“It’s a beautiful day for sailing,” Virgil said.
I nodded, watching a seagull fly overhead.
“How’s your stomach?”
It was better, I realized. I smiled. “Like I might be able to eat something.”
“I told you the fresh air would do you good,” Virgil grinned. “Come on, kiddo,” he said, wrapping an arm around my shoulder. “Let’s go find the cook.”
“Please throw me overboard,” I begged when Virgil blew into my cabin three days later with a blast of wind. We’d hit a storm the day after our long talk, and though it had apparently decided to stop raining today, the wind and waves were still tossing the ship. And my stomach. I had never felt so nauseous in my life. I thought I was going to die. Actually, that was just wishful thinking. I knew that this torture would last forever, my own private Tartarus-on-a-ship.
He looked at the bowl in his hands. “Not hungry, I guess, huh?”
“Don’t even think of bringing that close enough for me to smell.”
“Yeah, I was afraid of that. Even some of the crew got sick last night,” he nodded. “Good news, though. According to Beowulf, we should be landing tomorrow.”
I could have cried for joy.
Land, unfortunately, turned out to be more of a marsh. And the marsh turned into another long boat ride, this time in much smaller boats being rowed by more of Beowulf’s henchmen who came to meet us. Sitting in the damp, rocking bottom of the tiny vessel, I almost longed for the relative stability of the larger ship. It was with decidedly mixed emotions that I watched my former “floating palace of pain” disappearing behind the tall marsh grass.
“You don’t look so good,” one of the new barbarians said as he pulled on his oar.
“Seasick,” Beowulf said from the front of the boat. Both Virgil and Beowulf were sharing the boat with me. Torfi, Snori, and Ulf were in the next boat over. I hadn’t learned the names of the other two men who’d captured me in Athens, but they had stayed on the ship, anyway. I assumed they were returning to Rome to join their companions watching Virgil’s family.
The man snorted. “You could never be a Viking,” he said.
“I don’t want to be a Viking,” I said. I didn’t know what a Viking was, but if it had anything to do with boats, I knew I was speaking the truth.
The man laughed, as did his rowing companion who had bright red hair of a shade I’d never seen before.
“My name is Arngrim, son of Arnfinn, son of Arnkel” the red-haired man said, smiling at me broadly, revealing two missing teeth.
“She’s off limits, Arni,” Beowulf said in a bored monotone from the bow.
Arngrim laughed again, and winked.
I was bemused. Was he trying to flirt with me? I was usually amused when patrons tried to flirt with me, but I hadn’t bathed in days, and I knew I must have looked (and smelled) just as awful as I felt. Besides which, he was doing it very badly.
“That goes for you, too, Gudvær,” Beowulf muttered.
“Yes, your majesty,” the other man said crisply, also winking at me. Gudvær still had all of his teeth, but it looked like part of his breakfast was still clinging to his bushy mustache.
Behind me, Virgil made a growling sound.
I fought the urge to hide my face in my hands. I heartily wished myself a hundred miles away… and on very firm ground. From now on, I knew I would be perfectly content to weave stories about other people’s adventures without ever feeling the need to participate in one myself.
Eventually we reached solid ground and a camp filled with horses, tents, and more barbarians. Beowulf hadn’t exactly brought an army with him, but he had brought a sizeable escort.
To me, dirt had never looked or felt so good.
I was exhausted, relieved, and my legs felt like noodles. Beowulf and Virgil pulled me out of the boat and bundled me off to a tent where I was given blankets and a sheepskin rug to lie on. I was asleep before I could wonder what would happen next.
I woke after a restful sleep, feeling wonderfully in control of my digestive system. Except, of course, that I was starving. Perhaps literally… I hadn’t been able to keep much down on the journey here. Wherever here was. I stretched, stomach growling, and decided to go in search of the food that I could smell wafting tantalizingly on the air.
It was night, but the full moon was just rising as I poked my head out the flap of cloth that served as a door to my tent. It appeared that most of the camp was still awake and gathered around three or four campfires, the closest of which was merely a stone’s toss away.
“Good evening,” Beowulf said, looking up from where he was roasting something on a stick.
“How are you feeling?” Virgil asked.
“Hungry,” I said, walking to the fire. Torfi, Snori, and Ulf were there, too, and they shifted aside to make room for me.
They chuckled, and Beowulf pulled his stick from the fire, offering me a chunk of roasted meat. “Fresh duck,” he said.
I gingerly pulled the meat from the stick (it was very hot) and made a show of enjoying every mouthwatering bite of it, licking my fingers when I finished. “Any more where that came from?” I asked hopefully. They laughed at my enthusiasm.
“Torfi, go get the girl a bowl of stew and bring the Volva, with you.”
I didn’t know what a Volva was, but I hadn’t expected it to be a person, so I was surprised to see Torfi returning with a bowl in one hand, leading a small, feminine figure wrapped in a cloak and hood with the other. When they reached the campfire, Torfi stopped to place the woman’s hand in Beowulf’s before walking around the fire to hand me my bowl of stew.
Despite my hunger, I was far too fascinated by the figure across the fire from me to pay any attention to the food in my hands. With a delicate hand she tossed back her scarlet, fur-trimmed hood to reveal a pale face framed by wild dark hair. Her eyes were a peculiar shade of silver, and I realized after a moment that she was blind.
“The one we seek is here,” she said.
The entire camp fell silent except for the crackling of the campfires. I sensed, more than saw, all eyes seeking me out, even from the other fires.
Beowulf cleared his throat. “No, Volva, this is her daughter. The wielder of the chakram is her mother.”
Volva, or the Volva, whatever the case might have been, shook her head. “No, I can feel her here. There!” She pointed dramatically across the fire. Every eye followed the direction of her sightless gaze…to a spot about five feet to my right where there was… nothing. Absolutely nothing. I breathed a ridiculous sigh of relief. It was one thing to be the hapless bait in this insane little venture; it was another to have the expectations of - whatever it was that this was all about - suddenly pinned on me.
“You point at shadows,” Beowulf said quietly.
“Only the wielder of the chakram can stop our destruction,” the woman said, her hand falling back to her side.
“Yet there is nothing, nobody standing where you point, my lady,” Beowulf said.
I could sense the growing nervousness of the men around me as they shifted uncomfortably. I wondered if they might let me go, seeing that it was all (woohoo!) one big mistake.
The woman’s eyes suddenly rolled back in their sockets, and she seemed to have some sort of convulsive fit. She threw her hands up above her head and started to chant unintelligibly in a loud, singsong voice.
It was apparently all very dramatic for the men around me because they watched with bated breath. To me, it looked, well, ridiculous. Normal people did not behave like this; it was clear to me that this woman was as loony as a five-sided dinar. I wondered if it had been a similar performance that had led them on this wild goose chase in the first place. Unimpressed, I remembered my stew, and dove in with enthusiasm.
I was scraping the bottom of the bowl with my spoon when the woman finally finished her bizarre performance. There was a whooshing in the air above us, and a shadow crossed the moon. Suddenly, a huge black raven landed on top of her head. Everyone jumped in startled surprise, including myself.
Beside me, Torfi whispered reverently, “One of Odin’s ravens!”
The woman dropped her arms and the raven hopped onto her shoulder, appearing for all the world to be whispering in her ear.
Now that was an act worth watching.
Her face hardened. “It is too late!” she said. “Soon Skoll will devour the sun, and Hati will swallow the moon. The Æsir are imprisoned in Urdarbrunnr at Yggdrasil’s root, and Loki leads the Jotens to Asgard!”
It sounded like gibberish to me, but her words had a profound effect upon the men. The other fires were abandoned as the men quickly gathered around us.
The raven flapped its wings and squawked, and Beowulf shouted for silence.
“The wielder of the chakram comes north,” he said, “just as you said must happen to prevent this. Why then, this sudden failure?”
“Hel has deceived us,” the Volva said, “and she helped her father free Fenrir. The Norns have been chased from their wheels, and Loki has tampered with Fate! The woman we sought is dead before her time.”
The Volva was really getting worked up now, and I was liking the situation less and less. These men were genuinely upset. The air was electric. In fact, the hair on the back of my neck was standing up straight, like I was about to get struck by lightning.
The raven took flight and soared across the campfire, landing on my shoulder, talons digging in painfully. The woman pointed straight at me as I froze for fear of upsetting the large bird. “Odin says that the Norns have foreseen that SHE is the key to our salvation.”
To say that I suddenly became very popular with the men in camp would have been an understatement. If they treated the Volva with respect and awe, they treated me like a priceless, fragile vase. Or something to be feared. Or maybe a little bit of both. I was given plenty to eat (and I think I impressed them all with my amazing ability to pack it all away), and though Beowulf queried the Volva about my supposed role in saving the world (or whatever it was I was supposed to do, I still wasn’t clear about the whole fenrir, norn, asser, udbruner, oogy thing), she provided very few answers. Feigning exhaustion from her fit, she retired shortly thereafter. The raven didn’t help much, either, apparently content to sit on my shoulder and peck at my hair and earlobe. I had a feeling I was going to grow to hate the bird if it didn’t go away. Soon. And if it didn’t, I was going to be bald by the time we reached Denmark.
I lay in my tent that night, unable to sleep. The moonlight was bright enough that I could see shadows from the light filtering in through the doors on either end of the tent. The raven’s eyes glittered at me coldly from its perch on a saddle at the foot of my bed. Beowulf had not set a guard outside my tent, saying that Odin’s servant would watch over me. I wondered who Odin was, and if ravens ever slept.
The whole campfire scene repeated itself over and over in my head, but it made no more sense the fifth time, or the sixth time, or the fifteen time than it did the first time around. The only difference was that I was now worrying about the woman with the chakram who Beowulf obviously thought was my mother, but whom the Volva said was dead before her time. Surely that couldn’t be my mother. For one thing, Mother didn’t have a chakram. Okay, technically, she was the caretaker of Xena’s family’s tomb (which was on the property of the inn), and I supposed that it was possible that Xena’s chakram (the only chakram I’d ever heard about) had somehow made it back to Amphipolis along with her ashes. But the tomb was locked up tight, and I wasn’t even sure if Mother knew how to get in.
But I was still scared. I couldn’t bear the thought of Mother dying or being hurt.
I was trying very hard not to start crying when I noticed the raven’s eyes tracking the length of the tent as if it were watching something invisible moving beside me. I had that hair-standing-up-on-the-back-of-my-neck feeling again and the sudden sensation that I wasn’t alone in the tent with just a raven.
“Odin?” I whispered, feeling halfway foolish, but not enough to stop me. I sat up nervously, pulling a blanket around my shoulders.
I might have imagined it, but I thought I saw a shadow cross in front of one of the doors. Just a flickering of light, or more like a dimming of light, but it was enough to send me scooting backwards towards the raven. Not that I really thought the raven would do much more than provide me with moral support. If that. But it was a known entity, if not an entirely welcome one. I considered calling out for Beowulf or Virgil, but since I wasn’t entirely sure that this wasn’t all a product of my overactive, overly stressed imagination, I hesitated. One crazy woman was probably enough for this company.
I strained my eyes, trying to see in the darkness. The raven hopped into my lap, staring at the door. “What do you see, huh?” I whispered at it, stroking its head lightly.
It made a soft, croaking sound.
I froze in terror, beginning to see the ghostly outline of a figure. Then I realized that it was taking a familiar shape… a shape from my early childhood, haunting my room on moonlit nights just like this. It was my warrior woman, the one who played with me and told me stories. And right now she was watching me intently.
“Can you see me?” she asked.
If I had been a fragile vase, I would have shattered. Her voice was as soft and ghostly as the rest of her, but just seeing her there and hearing her again was enough to send my pieces flying. I jumped, and the raven flapped its wings.
“You can see me!” my warrior woman said.
I rubbed my eyes. Obviously, I was dreaming. When I opened them again, she was still there. Okay, so it was a very persistent dream.
The warrior woman reached her hand out towards my face, and there was no mistaking the look of wonder on her face. “Thalia,” she whispered.
I pulled back from her hand. “Who are you?” I breathed. “What are you?”
“Don’t you remember?” she asked.
“You played with me and told me stories. But that doesn’t answer my questions!” I felt badly for not returning her obvious joy at seeing me, but really! The last thing on earth I needed right now was more weirdness. And this was going right off the end of the cosmic weirdness scale.
“I’m your friend,” she said, the same answer she’d given me eleven, twelve years ago. “Xena.”
Given my fascination with all things Xena and Gabrielle, I suppose I should have been thrilled by this answer. However, having convinced myself long ago that I had dreamed her up as a child, I wasn’t just going to blindly accept this statement – or her actual existence – without some serious questioning. “Xena is dead.” (So, it wasn’t exactly a question, but it was definitely to the point.)
“Do I look alive to you?” she asked, quirking an eyebrow.
Okay, I had to give her that. “Well, why aren’t you in Tartarus?” Then, realizing that that might have sounded insulting, “…or Elysia, or the Amazon happy hunting grounds, or wherever it is that dead souls go?”
“I’m not entirely certain, but I’m starting to have my suspicions.”
“Suspicions?” I prompted when she fell silent.
She smiled and sat down beside my bed. “How about I tell you a bedtime story?” she said.
The familiar routine made me grin despite myself. It brought me the same warm, fuzzy feeling that it had when I was younger. I decided to go with it, allowing myself to feel safe, forgetting my doubts and fears for a moment. I poked and prodded the raven until it hopped off my lap indignantly, then lay down on my side, facing her.
I nodded. She always asked me that, too.
“Once upon a time, Xena and Gabrielle…” she stopped. “Oh, Hades, you’re not going to critique me on this now that you’re going to bard school, are you?”
I looked at her in surprise; then grinned. “Well, for starters, asking your audience a question like that will always blow the mood as well as your credibility as a storyteller…”
She laughed. “Point taken. You know, Gabrielle was the bard, not me. And I always felt funny talking about myself in the third person.”
“So why?” I asked.
“Why did you tell me stories when I was little?”
Xena smiled. “Besides the fact that you were the only person who could see and hear me? You had such an incredible imagination. You always imagined all sorts of monsters in the darkness. Then you’d call out for your mom. But… well…your mother always had such a hard time sleeping that I didn’t want you to wake her up. So I’d tell you stories until you went back to sleep.”
Oddly enough, it made perfect sense. “Thank you,” I said.
“You’re welcome,” Xena said. “You know, I would give you a hug now, if I could.”
“That would be nice, but I’ll settle for a story,” I smiled.
Xena sighed. “You always were persistent… Very well, let me try again. So, once upon a time, I was the Empress of Rome, and Gabrielle was a playwright who lived in a vinyard by the sea…”
Xena’s story left me with too much to think about, and far too sleepy to do it. As soon as she finished, I drifted off into a deep, dreamless sleep.
“Thalia, wake up!”
I opened my eyes blearily and stared up at Virgil. Or what I thought was Virgil, based on the voice. It was pitch dark in the tent.
“Time to get up,” he said. “Beowulf is heading north as fast as the horses will take us.”
I groaned. I hated getting up in the morning. Especially before the sun rose. What kind of sadomasochistic king would force his men to get up and ride before dawn? “Tell him he’s free to go on without me…” I muttered, pulling the blanket over my head.
“Come on,” Virgil said. “They’re ready to take down your tent.”
“You’re worse than Mother,” I groaned.
“I was going to say the same thing about you. She never liked getting up in the morning either.”
I lowered the blanket enough to stare at him with one eye. “Are you sure we’re talking about the same woman?” I asked. “Meaning, my mother, Ella, who is up before dawn every single day whether she needs to be or not? At least she always took pity on me and let me sleep until sunrise.”
Virgil was thoughtful for a moment before grinning mischievously. “Breakfast is ready, and if you don’t get up now, you’ll miss it.”
Ouch! He’d already figured out my weak spot. I supposed I needed to get up, lest the barbarians decided to pack me up tent and all. “Hungry?” I asked the raven after Virgil left. I knew I was.
If I thought the journey from Athens aboard the boat had been the worst form of torture, I was mistaken. On the ship, I’d been in misery from the hips up. On the horse, I was in misery from the hips down. It was a comparison between nausea and pain. And the pain of horseback riding, at least to my mind at that moment, was worse.
Mother had taught me to ride at a young age. We didn’t actually own a horse, but it was one of those useful skills that she had decided I needed to know - like sewing, weaving, leatherworking, navigating by the stars, basic healing and pinch points, swimming, building a fire, finding food in a forest, setting snares and traps, and learning Persian and Latin. (Now that I thought about it, I was remarkably well prepared for being kidnapped by barbarians, at least if I managed to escape…) However, despite having been taught how to ride, it had been almost six years since I’d been allowed near a horse. My relationship with equines ended with the same kick that broke my arm. After that, Mother had hired one of the boys from Amphipolis to take care of the stable duties. Thus, I was quite unprepared to spend even a candlemark - much less an entire Gods cursed day – riding on what I was certain must have been the fattest, most uncomfortable horse in all of Greece… or wherever it was that we were.
My hips hurt. My knees hurt. My ankles hurt. My thighs felt like raw meat. When we finally stopped for a late afternoon break, and I slid to the ground, my legs - literally - would not hold me up.
Of course, the horse spooked when I fell to my knees, and it created quite a stir. I think a few barbarian hearts nearly stopped when they envisioned their last hope being trampled to death by hooves. As it was, Beowulf pulled me to my feet while Virgil calmed the horse, and Snori and Torfi and Arni put themselves between me and harm’s way. It was comforting, really, to have so many willing protectors, but I probably would have been more appreciative if I hadn’t been in so much pain.
“What wrong?” Beowulf asked as he helped me limp to the side.
I was torn between embarrassment and anger. “I haven’t ridden a horse in years.”
Beowulf looked mortified. “I’m sorry,” he said, rubbing the scar on his cheek. “I didn’t think… You should have said something.”
“Well, after being wrestled out of bed before the crack of dawn, I didn’t think complaining would do much good,” I snapped. “It’s not like I chose to come along on this trip.”
He looked up as the raven landed on the branch of a nearby tree.
“Ragnarok is the doom of Gods,” a voice said behind me, and I turned to see the Volva standing there. “Ragnarok is when the earth will shudder with earthquakes, and every bond and fetter will burst, freeing Loki’s son, the wolf, Fenrir. The sea will rear up as Jormungand, the Midgard Serpent, makes his way toward the land. His every breath will stain the soil and the sky with poison. The ice giants will sail to the battlefield. From the realm of the dead another ship will set sail carrying the inhabitants of hell, with Loki as their helmsman. The fire giants will join against the gods.
“In answer, the god, Heimdall, will sound his horn, calling the sons of Odin, King of the Gods, and the heroes to the battlefield. From all the corners of the world, gods, giants, dwarves, demons and elves will ride towards the huge plain of Vigrid where the last battle will be fought. Odin will engage Fenrir in battle, and Thor will attack Jormungand. Thor will be victorious, but the serpent's poison will gradually kill him. Loki and Heimdall, age-old enemies, will meet for a final time, and neither will survive their encounter. The fight between Odin and Fenrir will rage for a long time, but finally Fenrir will seize Odin and swallow him. Odin's son Vidar will kill the wolf with his bare hands in revenge. The Gods and their enemies are doomed to destroy each other, with neither winning victory.
“This is Ragnarok, the doom of the Gods as set by Fate. But Loki has found a way to cheat this fate. Now, he has ensured victory for his children and the giants. Odin has compassion and cares for humanity. Loki despises us. Soon, our destruction will follow. First to fall will be the northlands, Beowulf’s kingdom and his people. But Loki will not stop there. He will move south, and west, and east, and eventually, even to your home in Greece. Loki’s might and power will grow until none can stop him.
“When first we began this journey, the Norns themselves asked us to seek the wielder of the chakram, to send her north to foil Loki’s plans. But now the evil god’s plans have come to be, despite our efforts. The Norns, imprisoned with the rest of the gods, told Odin that they have foreseen that you are the key to reversing this doom, and Odin sent his raven to warn us.”
I listened to the Volva’s words with dismay. So I really was supposed to save the world. No pressure there! “So, what do I have to do?” I asked with trepidation.
“I do not know,” the Volva answered. “Perhaps nothing. Perhaps it will be that your mother - the new wielder of the chakram – will be the answer after all.”
“Well, unless you’re expecting Loki to be defeated by good cooking, I’m not sure what my mother could do,” I said slowly. “And unless you’re expecting me to talk him to death, I’m not sure what I can do. Are you quite certain that these Norns are talking about me?”
The Volva smiled, looking over my left shoulder. “I am quite certain. Perhaps it will be your late night visitor who will save us.”
I stared at her, wondering if she meant who I thought.
“What late night visitor?” Virgil asked, stepping forward.
I blushed, feeling like I had been caught doing something naughty.
“What late night visitor?” Virgil repeated. “So help me, Beowulf…”
“Nobody,” I said quickly. “I mean… it wasn’t any of Beowulf’s men, if that’s what you’re concerned about…”
“Explain yourself,” Beowulf said calmly.
I had to give the man credit. He seemed unflappable, always in control. I could understand how he became a king. And, unfortunately, I knew there wasn’t any way I was going to get out of explaining this one. “Well…” I started awkwardly. Homer would have been displeased. “I grew up in the inn of Amphipolis. Amphipolis…” I repeated for emphasis. “The same inn where Xena, the Warrior Princess, grew up. Her family’s ancestral tomb is on the land. And…” Gods, I almost couldn’t bring myself to say it. If it hadn’t been for the Volva’s encouraging nod, I would have been too embarrassed to go on. “Well… when I was very little, I used to see Xena’s ghost on moonlit nights. I hadn’t seen her in years… really! I didn’t even think she was real. But… last night she appeared again.”
“Xena!” the Volva said. “Yes, that would explain much.”
To my surprise, Virgil and Beowulf didn’t appear to think I was crazy, either.
“So you can talk to her?” Virgil asked.
“Well, yes, when I can see her…”
“She is near you, always,” the Volva said. “Like a shadow.”
I shivered, not sure if I liked that idea very well.
“You must ask her what she knows of Loki’s plans,” Beowulf said.
“If I see her again…” I agreed, shrugging.
There was a moment of silence, then Virgil spoke thoughtfully. “Xena is the woman you came to get, isn’t she, Volva? The woman dead before her time?”
“Yes,” she said.
Beowulf shook his head. “You might have told me her name. I knew Xena was dead. You could have saved us this journey.”
“I did not know her name,” the woman said calmly. “I saw only the chakram. And the journey has not been wasted. Have you not been listening? The key to our salvation is here.”
I looked at Beowulf. “And you believe her?” I asked. “Do I really look like the hero type? I mean, I’ve never even held a sword in my entire life…” I was still convinced there had to be a mistake here, somewhere.
Beowulf looked amused. “Not all heroes wield swords,” he said. “But yes, I believe her. My friend Wiglaf saw the ice giants attacking our settlements on the Isle of Ice. He sailed across dangerous winter seas to bring me warning, and I have little doubt they will follow him soon enough. Perhaps they have already arrived. And the spirit of Brunhilde came to me in a dream telling me to seek Ga…” he choked, and swallowed, “…your mother’s help. The writhing of the Midgard Serpent collapsed my castle around my ears. Many of my people are already dead, others are scattered. We did battle with dwarves outside the valley of the Rhine maidens on our journey here. The prophecies of the Volva may be vague, but she is a true servant of the Norns, the keepers of the wheels of Fate.”
“You didn’t tell me all of this in Rome,” Virgil said slowly.
“Would you have helped me if I had?” Beowulf asked.
“Of course not. We agreed that Thalia would not be placed in any danger.”
The Danish King shrugged. “If Loki goes unchallenged, there will be no place in the world that is safe.”
“You tricked me into this.”
“If I had known you planned to drag her into a war zone, I would never have helped you find her,” Virgil continued angrily. “Regardless of what you threatened to do to my family.”
Beowulf looked at me, measuring me, then back at Virgil. He nodded. “We will camp here today.” He looked me in the eye. “If you do not wish to continue with us in the morning, I will not force you. I ask only that, if you decide to return home, you will tell your mother the whole story of what has happened.”
For the remainder of that day, the men treated me not only as if I were a precious vase, but a precious vase that had once been broken and then painstakingly glued back together again and might fall apart at the slightest touch. They were solicitous, kind, caring, and ever so helpful. They prepared a warm bath for me (sheer bliss!), and they gave me a clean set of clothes to wear, complete with men’s breeches, belt, and boots. I felt odd wearing them, accustomed as I was to wearing a standard Greek chiton cut short around my knees. Arni even volunteered to rub some sort of salve into my chafed thighs. It was harmless flirting, but several of his companions dragged him away with apologetic looks. I did not see him again that day.
I lay in my bed that night, waiting for moonrise. I was almost dozing off when my friendly ghost finally appeared. “Xena!”
“Hiya, munchkin,” she grinned.
“Munchkin? I’m almost as tall as you are,” I said, feigning hurt.
“Hard to believe,” she smiled. “You must have gotten it from Meg and your father.”
“Your grandmother – your father’s mother.”
“Oh,” I said, thinking absently that the dead really did know things about the dead. At least I had a name to go with my image of the tall innkeeper, now. “Do you really follow me around all day?” I asked, thinking about the Volva’s comment.
She looked surprised. “Since you were kidnapped, yes. Of course, there wasn’t anything I could do to help you, but I didn’t want you to… well…be alone… even if you didn’t know I was here.”
Her answer warmed my heart. “What do you think about this Volva woman?” I asked, voicing the thought that had been repeating itself in my head.
“I don’t trust her.”
“You don’t? Do you think she’s lying?”
Xena shook her head. “No, she’s a true prophetess. But I don’t trust anyone who is beholden to the gods like that. And I don’t trust the Norns any more than I trusted the three Greek Fates.”
The raven squawked in protest from the foot of my bed.
“Hush,” Xena told it, and I was surprised when the raven obeyed.
“Do you understand it?” I asked curiously.
“It’s one of Odin’s spies. I don’t understand it, but I have no doubt it understands us.”
“Oh,” I said, looking at the bird. It didn’t look magical, but it certainly didn’t act like an ordinary bird, either. “So… Beowulf said I could leave in the morning if I wanted to…”
“Do you want to?” Xena asked. Her voice was carefully neutral.
“I don’t know. I mean… I’m not looking forward to more horseback riding… and I don’t know how I could really be of any help in the end, but if what Beowulf says is true…”
“It is true,” Xena said seriously. “Loki has taken over Asgard and Valhalla, Odin’s palace.”
I swallowed. “Then I have to continue, don’t I?”
“No,” Xena said. “You have the right to choose your own path, Thalia. The further north you go, the greater the danger will be. Maybe you will save Beowulf’s people by leaving now and returning to Greece. There’s no way to know.”
I liked the sound of that. “Do you really think so?”
“In my experience, prophecies are always double edged. The most important thing is to do what your heart tells you is right. You’re the one who has to live with yourself, whatever you decide.”
I closed my eyes. “I’m scared,” I confessed, hoping she wouldn’t think less of me for it.
When she didn’t say anything, I forced my eyes open.
I was half expecting to see scorn or disgust on her ghostly face, but instead I saw… what? Sympathy? With something else mixed in there, too. It confused me.
“I’d be worried if you weren’t afraid, Thalia,” Xena said. “You’ve handled all of this with a great deal of courage, but it’s only natural to be frightened.”
“What would you do?” I asked, knowing fully well that Xena and Gabrielle would both have jumped at the chance to ride north to save the world. There was no doubt in my mind that they wouldn’t have hesitated even a second to go with Beowulf. As Virgil said, it was for the greater good.
Xena chuckled. “Once upon a time, I would have gone north. But I have many skills that you do not, and my circumstances are quite different from yours. I’m not going to tell you what to do, Thalia, and I’m not going to judge you for whatever decision you make.”
“That’s not very helpful,” I muttered.
Xena smiled, then frowned, looking over her shoulder. “Someone is coming.” She stood up and stuck her head through the door. “It’s Virgil,” she said, turning back to me.
“Come in, Virgil,” I said when his shadow fell across the door.
He poked his head in. “How….?” he began, then shook his head. “Nevermind,” he whispered, stepping through Xena into the tent. “Come on, I’m getting you out of here.”
“What?” I asked.
“We’re getting out of here before Beowulf has a chance to change his mind. We’re going back to Greece.”
“We are?” I asked in confusion. Wasn’t he the one who had first mentioned that this journey was for the greater good?
“Yes. Your mother would never forgive me if something happened to you. For that matter, I could never forgive myself.”
“Um, forgive me for being blunt, but I think you should have thought about that before you helped Beowulf kidnap me.”
“Hush!” Virgil said, motioning for me to keep my voice down. “We don’t want to wake the whole camp up.”
“No,” I said, “You don’t want to wake the whole camp up. I don’t really care.”
“Come on, Thalia. Don’t be like this. You wanted to escape, so now I’m going to help you.”
“That was before I knew what was going on!” I protested.
“Oh, so now that you know that there’s a very real possibility of being killed, you want to continue?”
“I didn’t say that,” I said, confused again.
“Come on, get dressed.”
“If I decide to leave, I’d rather do it in the morning.”
“If we wait til morning, there’s no guarantee these men will actually let you leave, no matter what Beowulf has said. It’s better to go now.”
“He’s got a point,” Xena said. “Beowulf’s a good man, but I don’t think he believes you’ll really leave. If you actually decide to go, his men may try to pressure him into keeping you with them. If nothing else, it may cause his men to question his ability to lead in this time of crisis.”
“Do you trust him?” I asked her, meaning Virgil.
Virgil answered, thinking I’d been talking to him. “Beowulf? No, I don’t trust him. Or, at least, I don’t trust all of his men.”
“Yeah,” Xena shrugged. “Virgil really does have your best interests in mind.”
Virgil picked up my pants and boots from where I had folded them at the bottom of my bed, eyeing the raven warily. “Thalia, we’ve got to leave. If we go straight west before heading south into Greece, we’ll probably meet your mother coming north. You two can go on from there, and you’ll never have to see me again.”
I wasn’t sure what I thought of that. While it would be wonderful to see Mother, I sort of liked Virgil in a “he’s okay for an old blacksmith” kind of way. Except when he was trying to roust me out of bed. Like he was doing now. Although it did occur to me that if we went off alone together, it might be easier to pick his brain about Mother and my father. But I still wasn’t sure if I felt right about abandoning Beowulf and his cause.
Virgil dropped the clothes in my lap. “Get dressed, now,” he finally said, losing patience.
I bristled at the tone he used. “Why should I?” I asked.
“Because I’m …” His jaw clamped shut.
“You have no right to tell me what to do,” I continued, seeing that I had upset him. “Why should I trust you, anyway? How do I know you’re not working for Loki?” Well, he didn’t know that Xena had already eased my mind about that. But I still didn’t like being ordering around.
“Just get dressed,” he said.
“I’m tired,” I said, stalling for time, trying to decide if I could live with myself if I left now.
“We’ll leave now, travel until we find a safe place and then you can rest. You can sleep all morning if you like.” When I didn’t respond, he continued. “I’m not going to let you go into this kind of danger. I can’t. We’re leaving, and we’re leaving tonight, and that’s final.”
“No it’s not,” I said.
“Yes, it is,” he said, his face determined.
I couldn’t believe he actually said it. “I am not a child,” I said, standing up, “And I am quite capable of making my own decisions when I’m given the opportunity! Get out!”
He grimaced at the volume of my voice. “Listen, Thalia…”
“I don’t have to obey you,” I said, louder, almost hoping that Beowulf would hear me this time. “You’re not my father, so get out!” I repeated.
“But I am,” he finally said.
I stared at him. “You are what?” I asked, not understanding.
He shifted uncomfortably. “I am your father,” he said.
Okay, that was unexpected.
I took a moment to regroup. He must have been lying. “My father is a poet!” He couldn’t be my father. He was… he was… I couldn’t think what he was… but he wasn’t my father.
“What can I say?” he shrugged. “Your mother liked my poetry.”
Xena covered her face with her hand and shook her head. “Oh, Virgil…” She looked at me with a pained expression. “I’ll let you two hash this out in private,” she said, fading out.
I barely noticed. I couldn’t believe this was happening. I didn’t know what to think or feel. Well, actually, that wasn’t true. I was suddenly very angry. Really mad. I felt totally betrayed. “Get out!” I said, shoving him towards the door.
“Hey, just a minute, now…” Virgil started.
“Out!” I shouted. If the entire camp hadn’t been awake before, they would be, now.
“Thalia, please listen to me…”
“No! Get out!” I gave him another shove, and he flew backwards through the thin curtain door.
“Let her be,” Beowulf’s voice said from outside.
I didn’t hear if Virgil made any reply because I threw myself down on my bed, burying my face and tears in the rolled up cloak that I used as a pillow. How had my life gotten so rotten and out of control so fast?
I was dimly aware of someone entering my tent and kneeling down beside me. A hand touched the back of my head, tentatively.
“Thalia,” Beowulf said quietly.
“Leave me alone,” I sobbed into my pillow.
“It would be wrong of me to honor that request, I think,” Beowulf said slowly.
I sobbed harder. I wanted to hate Beowulf for stealing me away from my happy life in Athens, but I couldn’t. He genuinely cared about me, I could tell.
He sat there while I cried myself out, just a presence letting me know that I wasn’t alone. It wasn’t until the raven hopped onto my back and started to peck at my hair that I finally rolled over, trying to wrestle the bird off of me.
Beowulf helped, and the raven beat at him with its wings, but we finally managed to herd it back to the foot of my bed.
I sat there, dejectedly, staring at my hands in my lap, barely visible in the darkness.
“I’m sorry,” Beowulf finally said.
“I know,” I sniffed, wiping the moisture from my cheeks.
We sat there in silence for what seemed a long time, long enough for it to start to feel awkward to me.
“Is he really my father?” I finally asked.
“I do not know,” Beowulf said. “But, it seems… likely. I do not think he would lie about such a thing.”
I started to cry again. I guess maybe it’s because I’d always had this romantic notion of my father… you know, the obscure but revered (in elite circles, anyway) Roman poet who scholars admired and women secretly worshipped… the man who didn’t know that I existed but who would be thrilled to find out…who would adopt me into his family with joy and exuberance when I showed up unexpectedly on his doorstep to follow in the footsteps of his bardic and poetic excellence. To find out instead that he was really a blacksmith… a blacksmith who’d apparently known all along that I existed but had never even tried to meet me… and who had then betrayed me to Beowulf without apparently thinking of my feelings… who hadn’t even bothered to admit to me who he was until he had to manipulate me into doing something… well, that was devastating. And that’s exactly how I felt. Devastated.
I cried myself to sleep in Beowulf’s strong arms.
I woke in the morning feeling worse than ever, but, because I didn’t want to give myself a chance to chicken out over breakfast, I promptly informed Beowulf – in a voice that I knew most of the camp would hear - that I intended to continue on with him.
My pronouncement wasn’t met with any cheers, but I did see relief – and respect – in many of the eyes around the quiet breakfast fire that morning. It made me feel a little less miserable. Virgil scowled while packing up his few belongings, but said nothing to me. I had decided to ignore him no matter what, but I confess I was relieved when it appeared that he had decided to do the same. I had no idea what I would say to him. Ever. I didn’t even want to think about him.
It was Beowulf who came to me as I was packing my borrowed cloak in my saddlebag to ask me if I was certain about my decision.
There was a lump in my throat, but I nodded.
“I will do everything I can to protect you,” he said.
I nodded again, still unable to speak.
“Your mother, I think, would be very proud of you,” he finally said before heading toward his own horse.
My mother, I thought, would be absolutely, positively, and utterly furious with me. I could almost hear her voice. “Thalia,” she’d say in horror. “I raised you to be smarter than that! You run away from danger not towards it!”
I swung into the saddle, head hanging. She was probably right. What could I do against the gods? I wasn’t a warrior. I wasn’t a hero. Apparently, I didn’t even like to travel. I could shop, and I could tell stories, but I couldn’t see how those would be particularly useful skills in a quest to overthrow an evil, usurping god. On the other hand, the idea of traveling alone with Virgil now had about as much appeal as having dinner in Tartarus. So… I was stuck. Maybe Mother or Sarah - against all odds - would somehow find me, and we could go home together before any of us got hurt. It was wishful thinking, I knew, but it did make me feel a little better.
The next four days were a blur in my mind. A blur of misery and pain, mostly, but Beowulf did endeavor to give me frequent breaks, and by sunset the fourth evening, I had started to become accustomed to riding the horse. Or, at least, I wasn’t noticing the pain quite as much. Thank the gods.
We had been traveling through mountainous country, and the temperatures were getting colder, particularly once the sun went down. I’d been given a green wool tunic and thicker socks to ward against the chill, and I was starting to get used to feeling grubby and hungry most of the time. While part of me thought that the necessity of getting used to being grubby and hungry most of the time probably wasn’t a good or desirable thing, it was still better than being constantly conscious of it. And it’s not like I was alone in my grubbiness.
I still wasn’t talking to Virgil, but then, for the most part, the entire company rode in silence. And the farther north we went, the more brooding the silence became. Even the Volva’s normally stoic expression turned into more of a frown as we progressed. It was disconcerting. I wanted to fill the silence with chatter, but it didn’t seem appropriate. So on we went… in silence.
I hoped we would stop to camp soon, because I was tired, sore, and hungry. Besides, it was almost dark, and the valley we were riding through followed a lovely river through the forest. There would be plenty of wood for fires and maybe fresh food in the morning if somebody set traps overnight. Or had some luck hunting deer that night.
I was thinking longingly of venison when I heard the raven cry out overhead. Looking up, I saw it in a dive against the darkening sky before I lost it against the black background of the mountains. I didn’t even have a chance to wonder at this odd behavior before something hit my shoulder hard and painfully, and with enough force to throw me from my saddle. Before I knew what was happening I fell headfirst towards the rocky ground.
I wish I could tell you what the battle was like as a first hand witness. Unfortunately, my part consisted entirely of lying on the rocky ground – unconscious and bleeding - as horses reared around me and warriors shouted and Beowulf tried to organize a defense against the ambush. Apparently, Loki’s dwarven allies had pursued Beowulf all this way, and they’d waited for us patiently - for who knows how long - hiding in the rocks and trees beside the road. I’d been hit by the shaft of a throwing ax (another half a spin and I’m certain I would have been split in two like a log…except messier, of course), but I still had a nasty gash across my back where the blade had sliced me. And I should mention that I landed on my head when I fell off the horse… the same head, I might add, that was still sore from having been knocked unconscious back in Athens.
At any rate, I missed the part where Beowulf and his men dismounted to charge on foot in a counter attack against an enemy that had carefully chosen its ground for the best advantage against a mounted foe. And I missed the brutal, bloody battle in which the Vikings made the dwarves pay dearly for their attack, even though they were heavily outnumbered.
It was Virgil who scooped me up and made a break for it in the middle of the battle. To give him credit, it is what Beowulf wanted - what was in fact the main purpose behind the king’s counterattack - to give him time and opportunity to spirit me away before the dwarves could kill us all. Of course, I didn’t know that at the time. All I knew was that I had the extreme misfortune of waking up in the middle of that twilight retreat, thrown over Virgil’s shoulder like a sack of grain as he fled through the forest in the valley.
If I thought sailing and horseback riding had both been hideously unpleasant, I was clearly running out of words to describe the agony inflicted by various modes of transport. The normal pain factor of being flung over a bony shoulder was not helped by the fact that my back was on fire and my head had about four of Zeus’s thunderbolts bouncing around inside. After a moment of trying to get oriented, I realized that the warm sticky substance running down my arm and dripping off my fingers was blood, which scared me more than the pain did.
“What’s happening?” I tried to ask, but it came out more like, “wzzss mssmft…”
“Thalia!” Virgil gasped without stopping. “Thank the Gods! Hang on just a minute, I think there’s a clearing up ahead.”
I must have lost consciousness again because the next thing I knew, I was lying on my back with Virgil leaning over me.
“Huh?” I asked, trying to focus my eyes on his face despite the growing darkness.
“Thanks Gods,” Virgil said again, wiping his forehead. “Can you sit up? I need to look at your back.”
“What happened?” I asked, letting him help me up. I bit my lip, trying not to cry.
“We were attacked by dwarves. Beowulf and his men are fighting them, but a group broke off to follow us.”
I gasped as he poked at the wound on my back.
“You need stitches, but no time for that now. At least the bleeding has slowed. Are you hurt anywhere else?”
“My head…” I said, reaching up to gingerly touch the tender spot, only to feel more stickiness there. Great, no wonder Virgil sounded relieved to hear me wake up. I must have looked like a bloody mess.
“Unfortunately, there’s nothing I can do for that, either, right now. It’s good that you’re awake. Do you think you can stand up? We need to move, but we’d go faster if I weren’t carrying you. I’m getting too old and out of shape to keep it up much longer...” He grinned at me wryly.
I nodded, even though I wasn’t sure at all. But the way Virgil was panting for breath - and the thought of murderous dwarves chasing us - provided a fair amount of incentive for me to try. It is amazing what stark terror will enable a body to do. But, even with that, I wouldn’t have made it without Virgil’s assistance, literally pulling me to my feet and holding me there for a moment while I regained the use of my wobbly legs.
The sound of harsh voices in the forest behind us made my heart stop momentarily. I didn’t wait for Virgil’s “Let’s go,” to break into a run – a panicked dash across the clearing with him step by step at my side. Unfortunately, my sureness of footing disappeared with absence of light once we reached the trees on the other side of clearing. It was very dark under the thick canopy of the forest, and Virgil quickly took the lead, crashing through the underbrush ahead of me.
I had never practiced fleeing through a forest at night while being pursued by dwarves. Not that I could blame this particular lack of experience on my mother. I could understand how it might have eluded her that I would need to learn how to do this. In any case, much to both Virgil’s and my dismay, it seemed that I was very bad at it. And, while I wish I could blame it on my head injury, or my terror, or the gash on my back, I think the truth lay as much in the simple fact that I have always been a little clumsy. The injuries and fear and lack of light only acerbated that unfortunate trait. (Either that or tree roots had an unnatural affinity for my feet, and those tree limbs really did jump in front of me from out of nowhere, and the earth shifted deliberately beneath me in order to make me fall...). I kept falling down like some kind of idiot drunkard, and Virgil kept coming back to pick me up again. And every time, the sound of the dwarves behind us got just a little bit closer.
“Go on without me,” I finally sobbed as he knelt beside me for the umpteenth time. Though they paled in comparison to my back, I could feel cuts and scrapes all over my arms and legs from my many falls. I was tired beyond words, and my whole body felt like one giant, throbbing wound.
“Thalia,” he said, taking my face between his hands, “you’ve got to keep going. Your mother will find you if you just keep going…” There was hard determination in his voice. “I’ll take care of the dwarves.”
I grabbed his hands, panicking. “No! You can’t leave me! You… you don’t even have a weapon!”
I was lifted to my feet, and Virgil steadied me with strong hands on my shoulders. “Great warriors don’t need weapons, Thalia,” he said. “Just ask Xena.”
“You’ve got to trust me this time, Thalia. I’ll stop the dwarves.”
“No…” I whispered through my tears, shaking my head.
“I’m so grateful I finally got the chance to meet you,” he said, kissing my cheek. “I love you. I’ve always loved you.” And then my father was gone, disappearing toward the sound of snapping branches and crackling leaves that announced the approach of a large number of pursuers not too far away.
“I love you, too,” I whispered.
I’m ashamed to say that I just stood there, paralyzed by fear and pain and indecision. I wanted to follow my father, to tell him that I loved him, to thank him for, well, being willing to fight a horde of dwarves on my behalf and to very probably die for me. That sort of thing should not have gone un-thanked. But he was going towards danger and death, and I was just too terrified to follow. No matter how heroic the notion of being there with him at the end in some sort of bittersweet family reunion, I didn’t want to die. And so, I should have turned and continued running. Unfortunately, that required a clarity of mind and body that I did not possess at the moment. All I could do was stand there, shaking, teeth chattering, with tears streaming down my face.
Until Xena showed up. She glowed, illuminating even the trees around her.
She was a beacon of hope, and I cried out in relief.
“Follow me,” she said.
“But… my father…!”
“Thalia, he really is a great warrior. He’ll be all right.”
As if to prove the point, I heard cries of pain behind me, and shouting. I didn’t think any of the voices sounded like my father, but I couldn’t be sure.
“C’mon!” Xena said.
I staggered after her.
The first time I fell down, Xena came back for me just like Virgil had. Unlike Virgil, she couldn’t help me back up again.
“Come on, Thalia, you can do it,” she said, looking sickeningly upbeat.
I groaned and somehow managed to climb back to my feet.
“That’s my girl,” Xena said.
I stumbled on.
Eventually it became apparent I could not keep up, and Xena slowed our pace to a walk.
“Keep going, Thalia, we’re almost there,” she smiled
I wondered fleetingly where “there” was, and what it meant. I just hoped that a warm bed would be involved, although the part of my brain that was still semi-coherent told me firmly that this was very wishful thinking.
After what seemed like ages, Xena said, “Not much further, Thalia, just keep it up. You’re doing great.”
And so it went.
I had no sense of time or distance. I didn’t notice the moon rising overhead, or its slow march across the sky as we continued on. My world consisted of following the blurry glow that was Xena, her voice quietly urging me to go on - step after step - through a dark, nightmarish haze of pain and despair.
I was rudely jolted from my daze when I stepped into icy water, the sudden shock of it making me gasp. I stepped back, slipped on slick rocks and fell on my back. Sharp pain shot through my body, and I closed my eyes tightly. Enough… I’d had enough.
“Thalia! Thalia!” Xena was at my side. “Don’t pass out on me!”
I didn’t even have the strength to answer her.
“Thalia, if you get up and follow this river around the bend, you’ll find a cave in the cliff face where you can lie down to rest. But you’re too exposed right here, sweetheart. You’ve got to move.”
It didn’t matter. Let the dwarves find me. It was over.
“Did you know that your grandfather was Joxer the Mighty?”
“Thalia, listen to me. Did you know that your grandfather was Joxer the Mighty?”
Yes, Xena was wise enough to know that this stunningly unexpected statement would bring me back even from the brink of death. Not that I was really dying, mind you - at least, I don’t think I was – but the shock value alone was enough to make me open my eyes to look at her.
She grinned. “If you want more, you’ll have to stand up.”
Xena, I decided, was a mean, heartless bitch. Pillaging villages paled beside the simple cruelty of this small request.
Xena started singing. “Joxer the Mighty / Roams through the countryside / He never needs a place to hide / With Gabby as his sidekick / Fighting with her little stick / Righting wrongs and singing songs / Being mighty all day long / He's Joxer—he's Joxer the Mighty! Ooooohhhhh…”
I groaned, rolling over onto my shredded hands and knees, wincing at the pain. “Dear gods, make it stop…!”
Xena leaned over to look at me. “What, the pain or my singing?”
“I can’t help the pain, but I will stop singing just as soon as you’re standing. Oooohhhhh / He's Joxer the Mighty / He's really tidy / Everybody likes him / 'Cause he has a funny grin / Joxer— Joxer the Mighty!”
Somehow, I managed to make it to my feet.
“That’s my girl!” Xena said. “This way,” she said, leading me down a pebbly beach beside the river.
“Joxer?” I reminded her.
“He’s your grandfather,” she said seriously. “Virgil’s father. Married to Meg, one of my twins. Not in blood, of course, just looks.”
“Joxer… the buffoon from Gabrielle’s scrolls…?”
“Hey,” Xena said, frowning, “Don’t be insulting my friend. Joxer was a good man, with a good and courageous heart. He died trying to help your mother, you know.”
“No…” I said, thinking absently that it was not a good thing to be hearing long-hidden family secrets whilst exhausted, hurting, and feeling decidedly unwell. I was having such a hard time focusing. I could barely walk, much less think clearly. I wondered if I would even remember this conversation in the morning.
Dear Gods, please let me remember this conversation in the morning!
“Careful, Thalia, why don’t you come back this way,” Xena cautioned, and I realized I had drifted back to the river’s edge. Xena grinned at me. “Let’s keep you out of the water, eh? Given how much you take after your mom, I’m sure you’d find some way to drown.”
I had a very vivid flashback to one of my childhood expeditions with Mother. We’d stopped to eat lunch near a waterfall. The afternoon was warm, and I’d begged to go swimming. Mother had laughed and agreed to let me go, but she’d admonished me to be extra careful. “If you’re anything like me,” she’d said, “the Fates will try to find some way to drown you.”
“How did you almost drown, Mother?” I’d asked.
“Well, once, I was staring so hard at my reflection in a lake that I fell in. Headfirst! Splash! Just like that! And I almost drowned from it!”
I laughed. “Just like Narcissus! Only he was turned into a flower!”
She laughed too, and kissed my cheek. “That’s right, sweetie. So don’t be staring at your reflection, all right? Vanity is not rewarded kindly. And no diving or jumping in!”
I smiled at the memory.
“What?” Xena asked, but I could tell she was pleased that I was feeling well enough to smile.
“I was just remembering something that Mother told me once. She said she fell into a lake staring at her reflection and almost drowned.”
“It’s true,” Xena said. “Of course, she was under a spell from Aphrodite at the time.”
Aphrodite? Spell? Mother? Those were three words that definitely did not belong together. Unless, of course, “heartbreak” somehow followed after.
“Did Joxer save her?” I asked, thinking that all these events must have been related. And that at some point in the past, Mother had obviously had a real adventure!
“Mmmmm. Not that time. But he did save her from drowning once after that. Come to think of it, Aphrodite was involved that time, too.”
“There has to be a great metaphor there, somewhere,” I said, feeling suddenly lightheaded. “The goddess of love trying to drown my mother… You’ve got to tell me the whole story, Xena!”
“I will when we get to… Careful!” she warned, but too late, as I tripped over a driftwood log.
“Just like grandpa Joxer,” I muttered through a mouthful of sand. Suddenly, it all struck me as incredibly funny. Joxer, Xena, me collapsing a million miles from home on the sandbank of some god-forsaken river with a herd of dwarves chasing me. It was just so ridiculous. It had to be a dream. I chuckled, feeling myself fading out. And what a dream it was, too. My last thought was a disjointed repeat of my earlier prayer that I would remember it all when I woke up in the morning.
“Thalia, wake up!”
Why was it that no one ever let me sleep when I wanted to?
“Thalia, the dwarves are coming. You’ve got to wake up and move, sweetheart.”
The urgency and desperation in her voice penetrated the fog in my head, and all the fear of my nighttime flight came spilling back. I groaned and tried to stand up. Pain hit me in a wave, and I collapsed again, gasping for breath. Xena was talking to me, but it was all I could do just to stay conscious. It occurred to me that maybe I was dying after all.
Maybe I was dying.
If my head had been an empty cave, that thought would have echoed deafeningly. Maybe I was dying. I shuddered and shook my head to clear it.
NO. I was not going to die today.
I swallowed. My mouth and throat were parched, and my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. I crawled to the edge of the river and dipped my hand in, watching the water wash away the sand and blood to reveal the torn and tattered skin that was my palm. Mesmerized, I repeated the process for my other hand. I drank my fill, then splashed my face, feeling the sting on my cheek where a branch had hit me… whenever it was. Last night? I watched as bloody water dripped off my face into the current. Gods, I didn’t want to see my reflection.
Turning away, I looked around, shivering, my surroundings illuminated by the first light of dawn.
Xena was standing there, fading in the growing light, watching me silently. I thought that there might be tears on her face.
The raven was perched in a tree, also watching. I wondered if ravens could cry.
But I was not going to die today. I stood up.
The dwarves came exploding out of the forest, their armor clanking loudly in the quiet morning air. There wasn’t an army of them, more like twenty, but enough that I knew I couldn’t escape them, not hurt the way I was. They stopped when they saw me standing by the river’s edge.
I raised my arms to show that I was unarmed. “I’m not a warrior,” I said, hoping that they could understand my language.
“Kill her,” the leading dwarf said.
Well, on the bright side, at least they understood me.
“Wait!” I said, forcing a smile as two of them raised throwing axes. “You don’t really want to do that, do you? After all, I’m the reason King Beowulf came all this way. Don’t you think Loki would want to find out why?”
The two dwarves with axes looked at their leader. He scowled, stroking his long beard.
I pointed at the raven. “Odin has an interest in me. But I have no loyalty to him. I could be of great assistance to Loki.” The lines from a story came to mind. “I have the gift of prophecy, and I have spoken with philosophers. I am a bard and can be of great value to you.” I thought it went something like that, anyway.
Long beard walked forward, ax in hand. I held my ground and tried not to show any more fear than I knew was already apparent. I couldn’t hide the fact that I was shivering, both from the cool morning air and my fear, but I wasn’t going to beg for my life. The dwarf leader, who was significantly shorter than I was, walked around me slowly, looking me up and down, like a farmer appraising a prospective piece of livestock.
Finally, he snorted. He put the ax to my neck and sliced my skin with a flick of his wrist.
I flinched from the sudden movement and unexpected sting, and he laughed. “So,” he said. “You tell me why the Viking dog came for you.”
“The Volva said I was the key to Loki’s downfall.”
The dwarf laughed. “Then I can save him the effort of killing you.”
“Ah,” I said quickly - before he had a chance to raise his ax again, “But that might actually bring about Loki’s doom. Unfortunately, nobody seems to know how I’m the key. Just that I am. After all, a key can work two ways…either to open the door or to lock it.” When long beard seemed to be considering this, I continued. “Beowulf kidnapped me from Athens. I didn’t leave with him willingly.” All of this was true, and I hoped that the dwarf could tell I wasn’t lying.
“But you’re not Loki’s friend,” the dwarf snarled, eyes narrowed.
“No.” I said truthfully, hoping it wouldn’t cost me my life.
The dwarf grinned. “We understand each other, then.” He spat to one side. “Loki commanded we stop the Viking dog. We have. I think Loki might find you fun. You come with us. Don’t slow us else I will kill you.” He motioned for his companions to come forward.
My hands were promptly tied tightly behind my back and another rope was tied around my neck. This rope was handed to a dwarf with an elaborately braided beard. There was a short discussion as to where we were and where we needed to go, but eventually it was decided to follow the river until we came to a likely place to cross, at which point we would make our way back to the main road on the opposite side.
Then, without further ado, began the worst part of my journey yet.
For all, despite being so short, the dwarves moved quickly. At least, they moved quickly enough that I had trouble keeping up at a walk. I was forced to half walk, half trot, and with my hands tied as they were, I had a hard time keeping my balance. Oh, mind you, I could see where I was going, so, unlike the night before, I didn’t fall down as often. Not at first, anyway. But I was in pain, and it wasn’t long before I started feeling feverish, and I was very hungry and tired. My body wasn’t used to hardship, and my mind wasn’t used to hardship, and it was a terrible effort just to stay upright and continue moving. Whenever I faltered, braided beard tugged the rope around my neck, yanking me forward. The first time I fell down, he dragged me slowly - choking me – for several feet before giving me a chance to struggle back up. Which was hard to do without my arms. It was horrible.
Eventually I fell into the same stupor that I’d been in the night before when Xena led me through the forest, somehow moving forward, but not very aware of what was going on around me. My world was pain, the pain of putting one foot in front of the other for eternity. I wondered if this was what it was like for King Sisyphus in Hades, forever rolling a boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down again. Step, step, step, but going nowhere, at least not anywhere I wanted to go, just farther from home and closer to my doom at the hands of Loki. Step, step, step. If I survived this, it wouldn’t even make a good story. Step, step, step. How dull was that? There were only so many words for pain. Pain, suffering, sufferance, hurt, discomfort (what an understatement, that!), painfulness, malaise, nightmare, anguish, agony, torment, torture, distress… and not to forget the verbs… suffer, endure, undergo pain, ache, smart, sting… yes, all those applied, but an audience would tire of hearing them. Adventures were awful things and journeys were terrible, and dwarves stank of sweat and dirt and something I couldn’t name. Step, step, step.
The sun was high overhead when the dwarves finally stopped for a break. I gathered they didn’t like the bright light or the afternoon heat. The valley had narrowed with great peaks rising to either side, and we’d crossed the river some time back, but the dwarves moved off the road into the shadow of the nearby forest. I collapsed as soon as I was allowed.
Sometime later I was awakened by a kick to the ribs, and a blonde bearded dwarf offered me a strip of greasy meat.
I sniffed the meat. It smelled funny. “What is it?” I asked suspiciously.
The dwarf smiled. “Your horse. Yum. You eat.”
Horse? Dear gods! I remembered cursing the fat thing I’d ridden from the marsh to the ambush, and promptly felt my stomach rebel.
The other dwarves laughed, but blonde beard snatched the food away angrily. “You starve, then.”
I knew I should have eaten it… I needed to maintain my strength, but I couldn’t bring myself to regret it. I lay back down and fell into a fitful sleep.
Another kick woke me with a groan, and two dwarves hauled me to my feet. I guessed they realized I never would have made it by myself. They poured water in my mouth from a waterskin, and then the march began again. The sun had barely moved across the sky, so I knew we hadn’t been resting too long. And now my ribs were aching from my two wake-up calls.
I knew I was in trouble when I began to see Xena walking beside me. I’d never seen her during the day before. I wondered if I was just dreaming her…part of my nightmare… or daymare, as the case might have been. A good part, though, to have a friendly face nearby.
She must have noticed me glancing at her. “Thalia,” she began conversationally. “Did I ever tell you about my daughter, Eve?”
I shook my head. The name sounded familiar, though, and I remembered my godly visitor on the Acropolis who’d told me to ask Homer about Gabrielle’s “Eve scrolls.”
“Well,” she continued, “it was Eve who killed your grandfather, Joxer, and here’s how that happened…”
To be honest, I can’t remember much of her story. I remember thinking that I needed to remember the bits about Joxer and Virgil, in order to find out how they’d met my mother, and the parts about Athena for my epic about her downfall, but it was all rather confusing. There was a great deal about Rome, and someone named Livia, and a temple of Eli, but the details slipped through my consciousness like bits of silk. I thought that Xena and Gabrielle’s lives had been hopelessly convoluted. No wonder Gabrielle had been such a great bard. She’d had to be, just to keep the details straight. And I regretted even more losing my father so quickly. He’d met Gabrielle, too, just like Homer.
Thus went my semi-coherent thoughts as Xena continued talking to me, and the sun slowly sank towards the mountaintops.
“Take heart, little one,” Xena finally whispered in my ear. “Your mom is almost here.”
I wondered why Xena would think that would comfort me. “No!” I gasped. “Xena, you’ve got to find a way to turn her away! They’ll kill her!”
“No talking!” braided beard dwarf growled, and yanked the rope around my neck. It was enough to pull me off balance, and I fell hard on the rough stones of the road, smashing my face and splitting my lip.
I blinked back tears, wondering if I could create enough of a ruckus before I got killed to warn mother that the dwarves were here before they saw her.
Xena must have sensed it. “Thalia, it will be all right. Your mom will be fine. I can’t say the same for these dwarves.”
“Get up,” my captor ordered. Before I could comply, he dragged me forward until I thought my neck would snap, then kicked me again as I lay gasping for air. The other dwarves watched in amusement.
“Stay down,” Xena said firmly.
I was fine with that, although I wasn’t looking forward to another kick. Of course, with my consciousness slipping, I wasn’t sure I’d be awake long enough to feel it. There was another tug on the rope around my neck, but the expected kick never landed. Instead, I heard a funny sound, a whirring sound, like something slicing through the air overhead. The whirring sound was followed by several screams.
I forced my eyes open, only to see braided beard tumbling backwards away from me, the rope falling from his hands, which were now clutching his neck.
“Your mom’s here,” Xena said.
I thought this should upset me. But Xena sounded satisfied, almost happy, and I knew I wanted to see Mother more than anything. I wanted to tell her how much I missed her. My eyes closed as a sense of peace descended. Mother would take care of everything.
She always did.
I felt gentle hands touching me, a cool cloth on my forehead, and a familiar voice, whispering soothingly through tears.
“Don’t cry, Mother,” I pleaded, opening my eyes.
Contrary to my request, more tears fell. “I’m so sorry,” she finally managed, “this is all my fault…”
I wondered how she construed that.
“I did everything I could,” she whispered, “I settled down… I changed my name… I even hid the truth from you… I was so afraid that someone would hurt you… I tried so hard to protect you…but I couldn’t…” She covered her face with a hand, an unconscious attempt to hide how upset she was.
“I’m okay,” I said as matter-of-factly as I could, thinking that even though I wanted nothing more in the world than to break into wildly hysterical sobs, I needed to remain calm if she was going to fall apart. “You can’t help what the gods do, Mom.” To prove that I wasn’t lying about being okay, I grabbed her shoulder and tried to sit up. To my surprise, she helped me.
She looked at me, measuring, wiping the tears from her face. “How do you feel?” she asked softly.
“Like I’ve been trampled by giants.” Well, actually, I felt much worse than that, but I saw that she had carefully taken care of all my injuries. I’m sure that there must have been at least one place on my body that wasn’t wrapped in an odd assortment of bandages, but I was probably sitting on it. And I was feeling better now that she was here. It might have been pure relief, but I suspected that she’d used some pinch points and medicines on me, too. Mother knew all kinds of healing tricks.
She smiled, just a little. “I think they were dwarves, sweetheart. Giants - tall; dwarves - short. But you’ve a terrible lump on your head; it’s no wonder you’re confused.” She pushed a strand of hair off my forehead.
She was teasing me, and I was glad. I looked around. We were beside the river, but the road was still in sight. There was a pile of bodies off to one side. I shuddered.
“They won’t hurt you any more,” Mother said, seeing where my gaze had settled.
I looked back at her, noticing for the first time how strangely she was dressed. Instead of a simple blouse and skirt like she usually wore around the inn, she was wearing… well… leather…and not very much of that… beneath a cloak of sorts. With metal bracers on her arms and two funny looking weapons tucked into knee-high boots. Attached to her belt was a circular piece of metal. “Is that…?”
“My chakram,” Mother said, watching my face intently.
“Xena’s chakram,” I said, testing the idea.
Mother smiled. “It was, once,” she agreed.
“Her ghost has been with me, you know,” I said, wondering what her reaction would be.
She was surprised, but not in the way I thought. In fact, for a moment I thought she would start crying again. “I’m glad,” she finally said. She stood up slowly, stiffly, absently rubbing a scar on her side that I’d never seen before. I also noticed that she had a sword strapped to her back. “Do you think you can travel?” she asked. “Horseback?”
I didn’t want to. I never wanted to move again. But I nodded anyway. I would do anything for her, even if it killed me.
She looked at me apologetically. “I hate to ask it of you, sweetie, but Virgil needs help.”
Virgil! “You mean he’s alive?” An overwhelming sense of relief flowed through me.
She nodded. “He’s been wounded, though, and I had to leave him to find you. I’d like to get you both back to the cave before it rains tonight.”
There wasn’t a cloud in the evening sky, but she said it with such certainty, I didn’t doubt her.
“Stay put, love, I’m just going to get my horse.”
I closed my eyes, trying to conserve my strength. By the time she came back leading a big brown mare that I vaguely recognized as belonging to farmer Diocles (the inn’s closest neighbor) I was shivering again, half dreaming.
I was only half aware of her bundling me up onto the horse. She sat behind me, holding me in place.
“I need you to stay awake for me for a little while, Thalia,” she said. “Why don’t you tell me about Athens?”
I nodded, and started telling her about the Academy and my friends there. At least, I tried to. I was probably babbling and not making a lot of sense, but Mother didn’t seem to mind.
“I had a chance to study there,” she said when I started to doze off.
That caught my attention. “You did?” I perked up, wanting to turn around to see if she was teasing me, but when I tried to turn, it pulled the stitches in my back painfully.
“Uh-huh. But I decided I’d rather live the adventures than stay in Athens just telling about them.”
“Not me. I never want to leave home again,” I muttered. “I didn’t think you liked stories very much,” I said, focusing on my hands, which were twisted in the mare’s mane of hair.
“I love your stories,” she said, and I could hear the smile in her voice. “But when I was your age, I wanted to be a bard, too.”
“Really?” I did not know this. I had never imagined. I thought briefly that maybe I was dreaming the whole conversation. And the dead dwarves. And Mother armed with a chakram and a sword.
“Perhaps I should tell you a story,” Mother said, giving my arm a little squeeze. “Did you know that Xena, your favorite warrior princess, had a son named Solon?”
“No…” I said, “But she told me about Eve. At least, I think she did.”
“Oh,” she said, clearly taken aback. After a moment of silence she continued, “Well, she also had a son…”
I listened in fascination as Mother told me all about Xena’s son and how Gabrielle’s demon daughter, Hope, had caused his death. The story held me spellbound. Mother was a superb storyteller; much better than Xena, who always left most of the descriptive details out and tended to dwell too much on the fights and battle strategies. She finished by telling about the death of Hope at the hands of the Destroyer.
When she finished, we rode in silence for a long while. “Mother?” I finally said.
“You would have been an excellent bard.”
“But why tell me such a depressing story?”
“Mmmmm,” she said. “For myself, I think… to remind me of the folly of mothers trying to protect their children. Sarah has long accused me of being overprotective of you. But sweetie, I’ve been so afraid…” She hesitated, then drew a deep breath. “And to keep you awake. I know how you love Xena stories.”
“I’m not dead yet.”
She hugged me gently. “Thank the gods,” she whispered.
Thunder was rumbling overhead when Mother finally helped me limp into a small cave in a cliff above the river, mostly concealed by forest undergrowth. She cleared a spot of the biggest rocks and unrolled a sheepskin for me to lie on. Tucking me in, she kissed my cheek. “Stay put, sweetie. There’s water beside you if you’re thirsty. It would do you good to drink it if you can. I’ll be back with Virgil as soon as I can.”
“Mother?” I asked, feeling sleep tugging at my eyelids.
“Is he really my father?”
She was quiet for a moment. “Yes,” she finally nodded.
“Did you know he is a great warrior?”
She smiled slowly. “Yes, I did.” She stood up, turning to look back at me from the cave entrance where raindrops were beginning fall against the flash of lightning. She grinned mischievously. “But he’s an even better poet.”
The sound of voices roused me from a stupor. I felt strange, disconnected. It took too much effort to open my eyes, so I just lay there, floating in the limbo between waking and unconsciousness.
“Hold still, Virgil,” Mother was saying. “Iola will have my hide if my stitching leaves you with a ragged scar.”
“Just like old times, huh?” my father said. “Don’t worry. Iola thinks my scars are sexy.”
Mother murmured something noncommittal. “I’m glad she’s made you so happy,” she said after a few moments. “It would be fun to meet your children.”
“I’d like that,” Virgil said. “You should bring Thalia to Rome. I bet she’d love to… Ouch! What was that for?”
“That was for breaking your promise and telling her who you are,” Mother said, though she didn’t really sound angry.
“Like I told you, I was trying to convince her to leave with me to go someplace safe…”
“I know, Virgil, and for that I’m very grateful. But I confess that when I saw her being beaten by those dwarves I was ready to kill you as well as them…” Her tone was only partially teasing.
“I’m sorry,” Virgil said seriously. “I…I was afraid for Iola and the kids. I wasn’t thinking clearly. And I knew you’d get to us before we reached Denmark. If I had known…”
“Shhhhh,” Mother said. “What’s done is done. She’s young. She’ll recover and have a great story to tell.”
“Are you sure?” Virgil asked quietly.
Mother sighed. “I should have told her the truth a long time ago. I’ve just been so afraid of the past catching up to me… I should be thankful it didn’t happen sooner. There, I’m done. Rest if you can. I need to check on her. The wound on her back is infected, and she’s running a fever.”
“You should be proud of her,” Virgil said. “She’s handled herself with a level head through all of this.”
“I’ve always been proud of her,” my mother said. “She’s my daughter.”
“She’s our daughter,” Virgil said quietly. “I know we both agreed that I wasn’t going to have any part in her upbringing. But you can’t… I can’t do that any more… not now that I’ve met her.”
I smiled to myself and tried to open my eyes when her cool hand touched my forehead.
“It’s all right, love,” Mother said softly. “It’s just me. I’m going to roll you over so I can clean the wound on your shoulder.”
Her ministrations were gentle, but I still had to bite my lip to keep from crying out. I had to smile, though, when Virgil started snoring on the other side of the cave.
She sighed. “You want to know about me and your father.”
She knew me too well. “Yes…”
“I’m done here. Do you want to lie on your stomach or your back?”
“This is fine,” I mumbled, hoping she wasn’t trying to change the subject.
She sighed again. “Virgil and I were close friends. We’d journeyed to Rome to find the sister of a friend who’d been killed by raiders. We needed to tell her the bad news. Her name was Iola, and she was very beautiful, half Egyptian. Iola took the news about her brother very hard, and Virgil took it upon himself to console her. After only a week it became obvious to me that they were… well, very special together. I knew they’d fall in love.” Mother hesitated here, and I could hear the pain in her voice as she continued. “I’d lost so many people who were dear to me, you see, that… oh, how do I explain it?”
“Were you in love with him?”
“I loved him as a friend, but no more, just as he loved me as a friend, but no more. Even so, it was hard for me to lose him to Iola.”
“But… why wouldn’t he have still been your friend?” I asked, not understanding.
“Oh, sweetie, he will always be my friend. But Iola lived in Rome, and I knew Virgil would want to stay with her. He wanted to have a family, to settle down. And, well, I did too. But not in Rome. And not with him. Greece was my home, and your Aunt Lila was getting older and needed me.”
She stopped there, as if that was the end of the story, but there was still so much missing.
“So…. what, you seduced him?” I asked, only half teasing.
Mother chuckled softly, and I imagined her blushing at my forwardness. “Not exactly. No, it was, um, more deliberate than that. But I wanted a child, and he agreed to be the father.” She took a deep breath. “I asked him to stay out of our lives, Thalia. The reasons are complicated, but I also knew that if he believed I wanted and needed him to be your father, he would never have stayed in Rome, and he would never have courted Iola. He would have denied his love for her to be with me, and I was not going to be responsible for his unhappiness.”
“She also knew I was just enough of a fool to get you killed,” Virgil said softly from the other side of the cave. “And she was right.”
I wished I had decided to roll over onto my back because I couldn’t see either of their faces, and the silence in the cave was deafening. They were sharing a moment together, and I wanted to be a part of it, if only as an observer.
I finally groaned when it became too uncomfortable. “Not…. dead…. yet…!” I mumbled into my makeshift pillow.
Mother laughed. “You goof,” she said. “I named you so well.”
“Hey,” Virgil protested. “I picked her name.”
“You did not!”
“I did, too! Remember, you gave me a list, and I had to choose a boy’s name and a girl’s name…”
“Oh, gods, you’re right…” Mother said. “Thalia, if you hate your name, you can blame your father.”
“I’ve always liked my name,” I said.
“Ha!” Virgil said triumphantly. Then, “Oh… my ribs! Okay… gloating… not good…”
Mother chuckled. “You both need to rest. No more talk, tonight.”
She stroked my cheek when I started to protest. “I’ll answer all your questions when you’re feeling better, love. I promise.”
End of discussion. But it was probably for the best. I was more likely to remember the details if we waited until I didn’t have such a terrible headache.
I think it was a crash of thunder that fully woke me. I had been aware of the crackling of a fire before my bleary consciousness identified it as such. I could feel the heat warming my face. I was lying on my side, and I still felt exhausted, though I knew I’d been asleep. Virgil was snoring again. I was afraid to move, but I did open my eyes. Mother was sitting next to a small fire, the smoke venting out the entrance to the cave. She was stirring something in a small pot. It was still dark outside. She looked tired. I wondered how long it had been since she’d last slept. She smiled when she noticed me watching her.
“How do you feel?” she asked quietly.
“Okay,” I tried to say. I don’t think it came out coherently, though. Besides, it was a lie.
Mother understood, anyway. “I have something here to help with the fever and pain,” she said, pouring some liquid from the pot into a ceramic mug. Moving to my side, she helped me roll over onto my back, and then supported me while I sipped from the mug.
“Slowly,” Mother cautioned me. “Let’s see how it settles on your stomach.”
Under normal circumstances, I might have found the taste noxious, but the promise of pain relief transformed it into ambrosia. Well, not so bad that I couldn’t drink it, anyway.
“When was the last time you ate?” Mother asked.
I tried to think. I wasn’t sure how much time had passed. And I was getting very sleepy again.
“Was it with Virgil?”
Mother touched my face. “Sleep, sweetheart. I’ll have some soup ready when you wake up.”
“You need rest, too,” I mumbled. “You look awful.”
She chuckled softly. “Always looking out for me, aren’t you? Don’t worry; as soon as I get the soup on the fire, I’ll be following you into Morpheus’s realm. I am tired. This saving-the-world business gets harder as you get older.”
“I think it’s already hard,” I whispered to myself, but Mother’s sympathetic smile told me that she’d heard it anyway.
Sleep came quickly.
I have only vague memories of the next day or two – Mother forcing me to eat even though I wasn’t hungry; the painful cleaning of various cuts, wounds, and abrasions; Virgil’s curses and complaints from the other side of the fire; Xena singing to me; and the oddest picture of Mother entering the cave with a dead boar slung over her shoulder. She looked more like an Amazon than an innkeeper. And I was never very comfortable, always too hot or too cold, with rocks jabbing me painfully no matter how many times I shifted, and a constant throbbing headache that none of Mother’s potent medicines seemed to touch.
Then, one day, I just woke up feeling remarkably more like myself.
Of course, Mother was soon by my side, mug in hand. “How are you feeling?” she asked.
“Better,” I said. Even my headache had dulled.
She nodded. “You fever broke last night.” She smiled. “You still need more rest, but I’m sure I’ll have trouble keeping you down in no time.”
“How’s Virgil?” I asked, concerned that he didn’t seem to be moving – or snoring – where he lay.
“He’ll be fine. He won’t be well enough to travel for a few more days, though.”
I thought about asking if we were going to go back to Greece, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to have that discussion at the moment. I just wanted to enjoy having a clear head without worrying about the future. Without worrying about what would happen next.
“Are you hungry?” Mother asked.
I nodded, and she chuckled at my enthusiasm.
“That’s more like the daughter I know,” she grinned.
After eating a bowl of stew, Mother helped me stand up and go outside the cave to do my toilet. For the first time, I was able to really look around and appreciate the view. The cave overlooked the river, and it had a breathtaking view of the snow capped mountains on the other side of the valley. I wondered if this was the cave that Xena had been leading me to. I noticed smoke rising across the way and turned to see if Mother had noticed it, too.
“Beowulf,” she said in answer to my unspoken question.
“He’s alive?” I asked, thinking it had to be too good to be true.
She nodded. “He lost many of his men, but such a large group of dwarves followed you and Virgil that they were able to defeat the remainder.”
I was glad, very glad. I had been avoiding thinking about Beowulf… and Arni and the other Vikings who had been so nice to me. “Does he know we’re here?”
Mother nodded. “I met them on the road last night. They’re traveling slowly because of wounded, but they decided to camp until we determine what to do next.”
Next. To go on or go back to Greece. Here was that discussion again, but I didn’t want to start it now any more than I had before. Glancing at Mother, I realized that she didn’t look particularly eager to start it, either.
With a sigh I sat down gingerly in a patch of bright sunlight. It felt good to be outside in the open air, and the sun chased away a few of the shadows lingering in my mind.
Mother sat down beside me, absently readjusting the weapons tucked into her boots.
For a while we just watched the river flowing below us, listening to the slight breeze whispering through the trees at our back.
It occurred to me that she was waiting for me to start asking questions. And I knew, this time, she would answer them all.
Trouble was, it was like being handed Pandora’s box. Once I opened the box, things would never be the same again. I loved my mother, and I didn’t want things to change between us. She had kept her past hidden from me for a reason. And I was starting to realize that whatever her secrets were, they had the power and potential to hurt me. To hurt both of us. Truth be told, sitting there with her comforting presence beside me, I realized that I was terrified of opening that box. I was still having trouble reconciling the shy innkeeper who had raised me with the warrior-like woman sitting beside me. I didn’t know what I would be turning loose.
But I was fairly certain it would turn my world inside out. And I wasn’t ready for that.
“The stew was delicious,” I said.
Mother gave me an odd look, then smiled. “Thank you.”
“Did you kill the boar?” I asked.
“Could you teach me how to hunt boars?” I asked.
Again, that odd look. “Do you want to learn?”
I thought about it. I couldn’t imagine myself trying to kill a boar, even if I was hungry. “No, I guess not.”
“Well,” Mother grinned knowingly, “If you ever change your mind, I’d be happy to teach you.”
“What else can you teach me that I didn’t know you could do?” I teased.
She raised an eyebrow. “I have many skills,” she said.
It was another invitation to talk, but my mind screamed, “Don’t open the box! Don’t open the box!” I closed my eyes.
When I opened them again, she was watching me with something almost akin to dread, as if she feared the questions would finally come. But the dread quickly vanished in a smile that was intended to be reassuring, but nearly broke my heart for its sadness.
“Mother?” I whispered.
“Thank you for saving me.”
She took me in a hug. “Oh sweetie, I love you so much.”
“I love you, too.”
It was all that needed to be said.
That evening I was feeling well enough to help her prepare dinner. Apparently she had given the remainder of the boar to Beowulf and his men, but she had caught several fish for our own meal. I was given the task of preparing a few vegetables to go with them.
Once I was done, and the fish started to sizzle in the frying pan (and how did Mother manage to hide all that gear in a pair of saddle bags?), Virgil woke up as if on cue.
“Mmmmm,” he said, sitting up and stretching. He grinned when he saw me. “You’re looking better,” he said.
“I feel better,” I said, returning his grin.
“So what do I smell cooking?” he asked, looking at the pan. “Fish?”
“Wonderful! Nobody makes better fish than your mom.” He looked around. “Where is she, by the way?”
“Out taking care of the horse.”
“Ah,” he nodded.
An awkward silence ensued.
Finally, he took a deep breath. “Listen, Thalia… I’m really sorry about all this…”
I shook my head and waved my hand to keep him from going on. “No, it’s okay. You didn’t mean for it to happen. I understand. Really, it’s not your fault. In fact, I… I’m kind of glad it did. You have no idea how badly I’ve always wanted to meet you… I’m sorry I didn’t react very well when you told me.”
His face broke into a smile that warmed my heart. “Can we start over with a clean slate, then?”
I nodded happily, and we just sat there grinning stupidly at each other for a moment until Mother appeared in the cave entrance with a load of firewood in her arms.
“Thalia, you’re letting the fish burn,” she said as she dropped her load of wood near the fire.
Hastily I moved to turn the fish.
“How are you feeling, Virgil?” Mother asked as she arranged the wood in a compact stack.
“The leg is still pretty sore,” he said. “But my ribs are feeling better. I can take a deep breath without it hurting too badly. I could probably travel with a crutch. Or on horseback.”
Mother shook her head. “Not for at least another three days,” she said. “I don’t want you tearing those stitches out.”
“Beowulf won’t want to wait that long,” my father said.
Mother sat down crossed legged beside me. “Beowulf isn’t going anywhere until he knows what we plan to do.”
“And that is…?” Virgil asked without hesitation, causing me to almost laugh. Apparently he had no idea that Mother and I had been deliberately avoiding the subject all day, and I briefly wondered if this was what Joxer had been like with Xena and Gabrielle, always plunging ahead with complete obliviousness to the sensitivity of certain topics.
Or maybe it was just a guy thing.
In any case, I was glad I wasn’t the one bringing it up. Especially given Mother’s scowl.
Interestingly, Xena chose that moment to step out of the shadows at the back of the cave.
“Heya kiddo,” she said. “Glad to see you sitting up. You had me pretty scared a couple times there.”
“Sorry,” I said. “Thanks for helping me.” I was glad I was being given the opportunity to get all those “thank you’s” out of the way.
“Anytime. You did well.”
I grinned at the praise. “Well, I wouldn’t have gotten very far without you.”
“Thalia?” Mother said, interrupting Xena’s reply. “Who are you talking to?”
I know I must have turned beet red. “Oh, uh…” I waved my hand in Xena’s direction. “Xena’s ghost… She just appeared over there…”
The blood drained from Mother’s face. I had never seen another human being go so completely ashen so quickly.
“Mother?” I asked in alarm.
She looked in the direction I had pointed and swallowed. “Is she really here?” she finally asked.
I was so shaken by her reaction that I was unsure of what to say. “Uh… well… I see her… and I hear her… and the Volva sensed her presence. And she told me that Joxer was my grandfather… So… if that’s true, I guess she is.”
Virgil nodded thoughtfully, but Mother’s face twisted in unbearable pain.
I looked to Xena for some sort of explanation. But her attention was entirely focused on Mother, and her expression was no less agonized.
In a brilliant bit of deduction, I suddenly realized that they must have known each other.
In fact, it appeared that they must have cared for each other.
“Tell her I’m sorry I stopped believing in ghosts,” Mother whispered.
“Tell her I’m sorry I left,” Xena said softly at the same time.
In a second bit of brilliant deduction - based on the anguish on both their faces - I came to the astonishing conclusion that here was the source of my Mother’s pain.
“It was someone else who broke her heart,” Virgil had said.
Xena had broken my mother’s heart.
Not my father. Who was Joxer’s son. Who had been Xena and Gabrielle’s good friend and traveling companion.
Who… my gods…
Virgil was the Virgil, Xena and Gabrielle’s friend, the great poet of Rome. My father… was Virgil, the poet. It fit. It made sense. It was as if one critical piece of a giant puzzle had finally snapped into place. It was a glorious piece, and a glorious fit, and a glorious thought.
“Honey, are you all right?” my mother asked, concerned, her focus firmly back on me.
But not half so glorious as the promise of the third revelation that was staring me in the face at that moment. Xena, warrior princess, had no doubt broken many hearts over the years of her life, but I could think of only one short, blonde haired woman who figured prominently enough in her stories to evoke the reaction I had just seen on her face.
For a moment, I couldn’t find any words. It was so improbable, so impossible, that I could hardly even think it. Certainly, I couldn’t give voice to such a thought.
After all, Gabrielle, the infamous Battling Bard of Potidaea, was dead, killed seventeen years ago by barbarians in Gaul.
Everybody knew that. The whole world knew it. It was recorded as historical fact.
Virgil, my father, wouldn’t have lied about such a thing, would he? He couldn’t possibly have built a career and a Roman academy on nothing but a lie, could he?
“Sweetheart, what’s wrong?” Mother asked again, “You’re scaring me, love.”
Xena, on the other hand, started to grin. “Go ahead and ask her.”
I looked at Mother dazedly. “Do you have a tattoo?” I finally blurted. Okay, so it wasn’t the most direct thing I could have asked, and probably not the question that Xena was prompting me to ask, but the story of Xena’s demise in Japa was the second-most heart rending tragedy of all time, in which Gabrielle’s dragon tattoo played an important roll. It had also gotten her named the “Golden Dragon” of Egypt by the storytellers of that land. And I couldn’t just come out and ask my mother, the innkeeper of Amphipolis, the shy and reclusive and overprotective innkeeper of Amphipolis, if she just happened to be the supposedly long dead subject of twelve years of my unadulterated hero worship.
“Yes, I do,” she said with half a smile.
“A… a dragon tattoo… on… on your back? From Japa?”
Her smile deepened, but her eyes were still sad. “The dye has faded over the years.”
“Oh my gods,” I breathed. “Oh my gods. You’re… you… you… you’re still alive!”
My mother raised an eyebrow.
“I mean… I don’t know what I mean! I’m sick, aren’t I? Delirious? I can’t be thinking what I’m thinking, can I?”
Mother chuckled, and kissed my forehead. “No, no fever,” she said.
“Then… you’re… you’re… you’re really….?”
“Gabrielle, the ‘infamous’ Battling Bard of Potidaea, as you’re so fond of calling me?” my mother supplied when I couldn’t say the name. “Yes, I’m afraid so.”
“Oh my gods! Oh my gods!” My head spun. The world spun. Everything that I knew about the universe had just been turned on its ear. “Oh my gods!” But even the gods couldn’t have stopped the laughter that boiled up inside me. My mother was Gabrielle of Potidaea!
Mother grinned as I sat there, giggling in ridiculous delight.
My mother was one of the greatest heroes of all time!
Eventually I couldn’t contain myself any longer, and I threw myself into her arms. “I can’t believe it! I just can’t believe it!”
She chuckled. “Does this mean I’m forgiven for not telling you sooner?”
“Are you kidding?” I asked, pulling away, still grinning broadly. “I intend to milk this for the rest of my life…! What a great-awesome-incredible story!”
Mother’s smile faded, but it was Xena who violently shook her head. “No Thalia, don’t you understand? If people realize who your mother is, even after all this time, it will make you a target. They’ll hurt you to hurt her. That’s why she hid her identity so carefully all these years. To protect you. She still has many enemies out there. And even more people who would come to her asking for her help, making her feel guilty if she didn’t… getting angry when she refused.”
“Thalia,” Mother said slowly, but I interrupted her.
“No, no… it’s not a story I can tell, is it?” I said. “This is what will keep happening to me if people know… isn’t it? This time Denmark…next time Persia… then who knows who would come looking for me…”
Mother nodded, relief flooding her eyes.
“Don’t worry, your secret is safe with me. But…don’t you want to be who you really are…? I mean… I know you don’t love the inn like Sarah does.”
“Oh sweetie, I do love the inn. These past sixteen years have been very happy for me.” She tapped my nose. “Although I do miss shopping,” she grinned.
Shopping. Telling stories. Sleeping late. Chatting with strangers. Hobnobbing with kings and queens. Saving the world. In an instant I chronicled all the things I knew about Gabrielle of Potidaea – the things she loved to do in her stories – things that my mother never did. Things she’d given up to hide her identity, to protect me. And, for a moment, I was completely staggered by her sacrifice.
“Hey,” she said gently. “Why the sudden long face?”
“You gave up… everything… so much…” I stammered.
Mother smiled, and took my hand. “Sweetheart, someday you may have children of your own, and then you’ll understand why it was not as much of a hardship as you think. I don’t regret a bit of it.”
I thought about that while she leaned forward to fuss with the fish.
I swallowed, then grinned to myself. “But you could have been Queen of Egypt, and I could have been a princess!” I said, pretending to be indignant.
She laughed. “Well, I guess you’ll just have to settle for being an Amazon princess, instead.”
By the gods, Gabrielle had been an Amazon queen.
My mother was an Amazon queen.
And I was an Amazon princess?
An Amazon princess?
Across the fire, Virgil started laughing. Xena chuckled from the back of the cave. Mother reached over and physically closed my hanging jaw. “Trust me, love, being royalty isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.” She began dishing up the fish onto metal plates. I wondered for a moment if she might not magically produce a dining table and chairs as well.
“Eat,” she said, handing me the plate.
It seemed like such an incongruous command given the magnitude of recent revelations that I just stared at my food, still trying to process all the information screaming for attention inside my head. Then my stomach growled, and I became aware of what my body was trying to tell me.
I was hungry.
So I ate.
After all, who could disobey an order given by the infamous Battling Bard of Potidaea?
The next morning was one of the few times in my life that I actually awoke before my mother. I watched her sleeping for a moment, still hardly able to believe that she was Gabrielle of Potidaea. My Mother! It was the best story ever.
I went outside the cave to watch the sun rise. As I settled on a grassy spot with a good view of the river, Xena appeared and sat down beside me.
“Hey,” she said.
“Hey yourself,” I said.
“How are you feeling?”
“Okay,” I said. “My back still hurts whenever I move, but it isn’t unbearable.”
“Recovering from wounds is never fun.”
I looked at her, as if seeing her for the first time. This really was Xena, the Xena, the warrior Xena who had had many wounds in her life, and had been the love of my mother’s life. “Why did you never tell me?” I asked.
There were probably a zillion and a half dozen things that she had never told me, but she knew which one I meant.
“It wasn’t my place,” she said. "And I agreed she was right not to tell you until you were old enough to understand the reasons for the deception.”
“If all this hadn’t happened, she might never have told me!”
Xena smiled. “I don’t believe that’s true, Thalia. It was only a matter of time. She wanted you to know. She just didn’t know how to tell you.”
I guess I could understand that. If she had just blurted it out over dinner sometime I probably would have died from shock right there on the spot. Or not believed her at all. And that would have been hard for her. Maybe it was better that I figured it out for myself.
We sat in silence for a few moments. I could see the light growing behind the mountains to the east. Sunrise was not far away, and it would be a different world today than it had ever been before.
“You’re not going to leave us, are you?” I asked, suddenly afraid that she would disappear with the light, and I would never see her again.
“Well, the sun is almost up,” she said nodding in that direction.
“But… I mean… you’ll be back tonight, won’t you?”
“Of course,” she said, seriously. “I won’t leave your mom again.”
I hesitated for a second, but I really wanted to know the answer, so I asked, “So… why did you? I mean… leave her? In Japa…”
Xena thought for a moment before answering. “I thought it was my chance to redeem myself. Ten thousand souls depended on me. It was for the greater good.” I could hear the grief in her voice as she answered, though none of it showed on her face.
“It was for the greater good,” a voice echoed behind me, and I turned to see Mother standing there. She smiled at me. “I never blamed her for her choice.”
Mother was looking directly at Xena, and Xena had an expression of excruciating pain on her face. I felt caught in a wave of emotion. Were things always this way between them? It was like being caught between a tempest and a tidal wave. Such power…. No wonder they had changed the course of history together. No wonder they did not bow down even to the gods. Their very presence together was a tangible force. You could get a sense of it from Gabrielle’s stories, of how they battled anyone or anything that stood in their way. Overthrowing tyrants, monsters, kings, and emperors. Yes, even shaking the foundations of Olympus and burning the loom of the Fates. But experiencing it in person, watching the expressions on their faces… well, even given the eloquence of all the greatest bards of history, I could never put it into words. Not adequately. But the hair on my arms was standing on end in mute testimony to the charged atmosphere, and a shiver ran down my spine.
“I can see you, Xena,” my Mother said softly.
Xena nodded wordlessly.
“Did I stop because I stopped believing?” Mother asked.
Xena shook her head. “No. I left. You know why, I think.”
Mother wiped a tear from her cheek. “Yes.” She sat down beside Xena.
Xena reached out towards her cheek. “Gabrielle…”
The sun peeked above the mountaintops, and I blinked in the sudden light. When I looked again, Xena was gone.
Mother’s head sank. “Now I must hate sunrises, too," she whispered.
After a moment, unable to bear her grief, I moved to Mother’s side and put my arm around her shoulders. “She’ll be back,” I told her. “She promised me.”
Mother lifted her head and smiled at me.
Gods, how did she do that? Click, the sadness was gone and the smile was on her face. The pain only lingered in her eyes for a moment as she looked at me.
“I’m glad you’re here,” she said, putting her arm around my waist and giving me a squeeze.
We sat that way for a long time, taking comfort from each other as the sun slowly rose. It felt good. Usually Mother was the one consoling me. It was nice to be able to return the favor.
“Is the greater good worth it?” I asked.
Mother sighed and turned towards me. “Wow. That’s… a difficult question…”
I looked at her and saw the pain had returned, and I cursed myself for bringing it up. “Nevermind,” I said. “Forget I asked.”
“No,” Mother shook her head. “It’s a good question, and a relevant one. And it’s good to know those knocks on your head didn’t slow you down a bit.” She grinned at me, ruffling my hair. “I just… I have to think about the answer for a moment.”
I pulled my knees up and rested my chin on them.
“The simple answer, of course, is ‘yes,’” Mother said. “If goodness could be measured on a scale, who could argue that ‘greater’ good was not worth more than ‘lesser’ good… or any measure of evil, for that matter, right?”
“The problem comes when you try to define what’s good, what’s bad, and how… and who…. is measuring it.”
Yeah. That was the catch.
“Take Xena, for example,” Mother continued. “For so many years, she thought only of herself. She defined ‘good’ by what was good for her, not other people. Sacking villages…. well, that was good for her. But then Hercules taught her to see things differently. He made her see that serving the ‘greater good’ often meant sacrificing oneself for others. In Japa, Xena sacrificed herself for the good of ten thousand souls. One for ten thousand… to her, it was redemption for all the harm she had done before.”
“But it hurt you both so much,” I said, thinking out loud. Thinking about everything and everyone who Mother had lost…. Xena, Aunt Lila, grandma and grandpa… the stories flashed through my mind… Eli, Joxer, Hope, Ephiny, all those Amazons… everyone she’d ever loved… except me, Sarah, and Virgil.
Mother smiled. “That’s why it’s called ‘sacrifice.’”
“You were meant to be together,” I said. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t fair.
Mother looked at me, and I could almost hear her thoughts. No, we obviously weren’t meant to be together, because we aren’t together. Finally, she sighed. “We each have to choose our paths in life, Thalia. Xena chose the path of the warrior, and she was the best ever. She lived as a warrior and died as a warrior. That was her way, her path, her truth. What happened in Japa was the fulfillment of her life. How can I not respect and admire that?” She smiled. “Besides, if Xena had lived, I might never have had you.”
I know that she intended that to be a comfort to me; that somehow I made all of it worthwhile to her, but I also knew she had never gotten over her love for Xena… the grief was still with her even after all these years. Xena’s path had been that of a warrior. But what was Mother’s path? Bard, warrior, mother? I thought back to some of her early scrolls. Disciple of Eli? Amazon queen? Had Mother ever found her path? She’d given up her whole identity to become my mom. And that couldn’t be right. Though I was most certainly grateful for it.
“Thalia, look at me,” she said, turning my chin so I had no choice. “Xena would do it again. And so would I.”
Funny, but I didn’t find that a bit comforting. “So it was worth it,” I finally said slowly.
“Yes,” she said.
“And you’re going to go on with Beowulf?” I asked. “Because it’s for the greater good?”
She was silent for a moment, realizing, perhaps, that this was where I had been heading all along. “Yes,” she sighed.
“Then I’m going to go with you.”
The sadness filled her eyes like spring water, but she nodded her consent. “I need to feed the horse,” she said hoarsely, standing.
I didn’t follow. I hated it when mother cried. I hated it more than anything. Except maybe Loki, because this was all his fault. None of this was right. It was all wrong. Horribly wrong. I hid my face in my hands and started crying.
“I’m not very good at this, am I?” I asked sadly, looking at the staff in my hands. I’d asked Mother to teach me how to use it while we were still waiting for Virgil to heal. Er…for my father to heal. I still thought of him as Virgil more often than not, but I was trying to change that. Anyway, perhaps realizing that we were going to be traveling into more and greater danger, Mother decided that it wouldn’t hurt to teach me how to defend myself with a staff, since I requested it. We’d spent a morning making it. But I knew that actually using it was turning out to be a pointless exercise. Unless, of course, my opponent was more of a bumbling idiot than me…or perhaps already incapacitated - you know, knocked over the head and stumbling around blind. Otherwise I would be too slow, too awkward, too…. ineffective. Face it. I was a goner in a real fight.
“Well, I don’t think we need to worry about Ares trying to push you into being his chosen champion any time soon,” Mother teased me.
“I’m sorry,” I said, hoping she wasn’t too disappointed in me.
Mother frowned. “Thalia, I never wanted you to take the path of the warrior. If I had, I would have had a sword in your hand by age two. You have nothing to be ashamed of. You have other gifts, love… wonderful talents. And with time and practice at this, you will improve.”
“But never enough to be great at it, like you.”
“Only time will tell.”
“But not likely,” I pushed.
“It takes a wise person to realize their weaknesses, and a great person to admit to them,” she said.
I thought about that for a minute. I could really understand why Sarah thought Mother was wise, now. How had I not seen it before? “That’s why people considered Joxer to be such a fool, isn’t it?”
Mother looked surprised by the reference. “Possibly.” She hugged me. “You, however, will never be considered a fool.”
“Just a clumsy oaf.”
“Not even that. You can’t expect to shoot up like a beanstalk without a little awkwardness, Thalia. You’re just not used to your height yet. But you’ll grow into it eventually.”
If Loki doesn’t kill us. Now there was a cheerful thought. “Nevertheless,” I said, “I think I’ll stick to the path of the bard.” I held the staff out to her. “I’ll never be a warrior, Mother.”
She smiled, and I could tell she was proud of me. “You don’t need to be. Keep it,” she said. “It may yet come in handy.”
I looked at her. “Mother?”
“What was… er… is your path?”
She frowned, and it took her so long to answer that I started to think that she wouldn’t. “I think my path is to go where I am needed,” she finally sighed. “Come on,” she said, “let’s make lunch.”
But for some reason, I wasn’t really hungry.
Beowulf crossed the river the next day to visit us. I threw myself into his arms, and he hugged me tightly.
“Thalia,” he said, pushing me away. “You look well. It is good.”
“Oh Beowulf,” I said, “I’m so glad you’re all right. I… I was afraid you’d all been killed…”
“We lost many, including the Volva,” Beowulf said seriously, “Others, like Gudvær, were seriously wounded. But the dwarves paid dearly for their attack.”
The Volva was dead? I shivered … surely that couldn’t be a good omen. I wondered if the Vikings felt the same way, and if she’d foreseen her own death. Surely not, or she would have warned Beowulf about the attack. And I was sorry to hear about Gudvær.
“I must speak with Gabrielle,” Beowulf said, looking around for Mother.
For one second, I wondered whom he meant; I wasn’t used to hearing her called by that name. Then I grinned. “She’s changing Virgil’s… I mean… my father’s… bandages,” I said, nodding towards the cave entrance.
I followed Beowulf into the cave. Mother stood up to greet him. I didn’t really mean to eavesdrop on their conversation, but I couldn’t help but overhear bits and pieces as I tidied up after breakfast.
It was odd to hear the King of Denmark asking my mother for advice. It was even odder to hear her take control, discussing military strategy and tactics like an army general. I mean, sure, she commanded the inn’s staff and operations with a firm yet subtle hand, but this was a little different. Although my father made an occasional comment, and Beowulf asked a few questions and made a few suggestions, for the most part, Mother talked and Beowulf listened. All in all, this was bigger, more important than running the inn. This was leading an army, saving the world. It was so complex. It was how to move the wounded; how to supply the troops. It was discussing what routes to take for the best protection balanced against the best possible travel times. And this time, her audience was a king. I was thrilled… I was watching Gabrielle of Potidaea in action!
It was finally decided that we would leave in two days. Only the wounded who could keep up on horseback would come. The others would stay behind, here, in the shelter of the cave until they were well enough to raise other troops for the battle against Loki in the event we failed.
I didn’t like to think about that. If we failed, I’d never see Gudvær and the others again.
There was a happy reunion on the day we packed to leave. I was surprised by the tears that sprang to my eyes at the sight of Beowulf leading my old horse to me, no longer quite so fat. It looked decidedly unhappy at being saddled again after so many days without, and I had to laugh, thinking that it would have been much unhappier to have been eaten for dinner by a ravenous bunch of dwarves.
“Be grateful you’re alive,” I whispered in its ear.
Beowulf laughed when I told him the story why.
We moved north rather slowly, traveling only as fast as the safety of the slightly injured (such as my father) would allow us. I knew Mother was simultaneously frustrated by and glad of the slow speed… frustrated because she knew that Loki’s strength grew daily, glad because it meant spending more time together with me… postponing the inevitable, I suppose.
She told me stories as we rode side-by-side… lots of stories. Stories of her youth. Stories about her journeys with Xena. Stories about her adventures after Xena died. I was in Elysium. Mother was an excellent storyteller, and though I was familiar with some of her tales from her scrolls and Xena’s midnight ramblings, many of them were new, and even those that weren’t took on a fresh perspective when told from her own lips. I wished that I had parchment and pen to take notes.
It was many days later when we heard the sound of hoofbeats approaching. We were in the middle of a dense forest. There was a cold mist in the air and the stench of a bog nearby. The place was already a bit creepy, but the sound of the warriors around me drawing their swords from their scabbards made my hair stand on end.
Out of the mist rode a small army of women warriors. My breath caught at the sight, and I was afraid for a moment until Beowulf gave a glad cry. “Reginleif!” he said in obvious relief.
Mother smiled at me. “Valkyries,” she said, answering my unspoken question. “Stay here,” she told me before trotting up beside Beowulf and my father.
I was a little disappointed. Hadn’t Xena said that the Valkyries’ horses rode through the air? But I had to admit that they looked impressive in their armor, bristling with weapons. There seemed to be a lot of them.
“King Beowulf, greetings!” the tallest of the women said, urging her horse a few steps in front of the others. She nodded at Gabrielle. “Gabrielle, it gives me great hope to see you. We had heard you died many years ago, and we toasted your valor with mead in the Hall of Heroes. I am Reginleif, leader of the Valkyries in Grimhild’s absence. We met once when you visited Valhalla long ago.”
Mother nodded. “I remember. It is good to see you again. I wish it were under more pleasant circumstances.”
“I, too,” the tall woman said. “Unfortunately, we do not have time to celebrate. We have ridden long and hard to meet you and King Beowulf.”
“How did you know where to find us?” my father asked curiously.
The Valkyrie pointed at a tree. The raven was perched there on a bare branch. If birds could look smug, this one did. I wanted to roll my eyes. I was actually becoming fond of the thing.
“Ah,” Mother said. “Have you come to help us free Odin?”
“Indeed. I also bring news to Beowulf.” She looked at him with a serious expression that I suspected did not bode well for happy tidings.
“Say what you must,” Beowulf said.
“Wiglaf leads your army in battle against Loki’s giants and dwarves. They’ve been forced to retreat steadily with great losses. I’m afraid they’re making a desperate stand barely two days north of here…”
“Denmark is no more, then,” Beowulf said grimly, and the Vikings around me muttered in dismay.
Reginleif nodded sadly. “I’m afraid the bad news doesn’t end there. Another large force has flanked them and is heading this way, following us. They will prevent us from joining your army.”
“That was not our intention, anyway,” Beowulf said slowly. “We planned to take the fight to Asgard and Valhalla. We hoped to find you so you could take us there. It will work in our favor if most of Loki’s armies are battling here in Midgard. ”
“We don’t have enough horses for all of us to ride to Valhalla,” Reginleif said. I frowned, gathering that she meant “flying” horses, because all of us were mounted.
“Loki is prepared for a mounted attack,” Xena said, suddenly appearing beside Mother in the mist. “Fenrir is guarding the Bifrost bridge to prevent any Valkyries from returning that way. Even their horses will panic when facing that wolf.”
Mother repeated Xena’s words for the benefit of everyone else. “We’ll be badly outnumbered wherever we go,” Mother continued. “We need surprise on our side. And our first priority needs to be freeing Odin. Without him, we can’t hope to win.”
“Odin and our sisters have been imprisoned in the Well of Fate, Urdarbrunnr, at the base of Yggdrasil,” Reginleif said.
“So we need to get to the World Tree as quickly as possible,” father said thoughtfully.
“It, too, will be well guarded,” Beowulf said.
“But it won’t be as easily defended as Valhalla itself,” Mother said. “Reginleif, is there any other way to get to Asgard besides riding your horses?”
The raven stretched its wings in the tree and gave a chorus of odd croaks.
“I know the way that must be taken,” the Valkyrie nodded, her eyes on the raven. “The roots of Yggdrasil are many and far reaching,” she said. “They will lead us to the Tree. But I do not know where to find them.”
“Grendel’s cave,” Xena said, a light dawning in her eyes. “I can lead the way. It’s not far, and Loki’s giants won’t be able to follow us in there if they find us, only the dwarves.”
Xena’s ability to walk through rock walls proved invaluable to our cause, and she led us through the mines and caves by routes that avoided our enemies. We’d left our horses behind, trusting the Valkyries’ steeds to lead the others to safety. Occasionally we could hear pursuit behind us…echoes of shouts and clanking armor… but remarkably, we managed to stay ahead. For a while, anyway. Unfortunately, the dwarves were used to being underground. This was home to them, and we knew it was only a matter of time before they caught us. I was tired of running from dwarves, but I’d also experienced their cruelty first hand. The longer we wandered around underground, the more nervous I became.
Mother must have sensed it, because she kept a comforting hand on my shoulder. “Xena will keep us safe,” she whispered.
Eventually we came to a huge cavern, large enough that all of us could fit into the same space with plenty of room left over. Though the roof of the cave was so high that it was barely touched by the flickering light of our torches, I thought I saw spidery shadows hanging down from above. Roots, I realized. As Beowulf’s men explored, I saw gaps in the walls revealing pale, tree-sized roots twisting and worming their way through the rock from floor to ceiling. In some places the dirt and stone had fallen away around the roots, forming narrow openings and holes.
While Beowulf sent men to explore the largest of the root passages, hoping that one or more would lead to the surface of Asgard, Mother posted sentries in the tunnels behind us to warn of any approaching dwarves. Even if a way upwards was found, it would take time for all of us to wiggle our ways up…. however far up one had to climb to reach another plane of existence… It didn’t take a genius to figure out that the dwarves were going to get here before we all could escape. And if they followed us up, we’d be attacked from behind as well as from in front.
Eventually, an excited shout sounded from one of the passages, and a dirt-covered Viking reappeared in an avalanche of small rocks. I gathered from his gestures that he’d found a way to the surface. Reginleif quickly disappeared into the hole followed shortly after by Beowulf. My father began ushering the others into an orderly line, waiting for their chance to climb after their leaders.
“Gabrielle,” Xena said, waving from the main cavern entrance. “Come with me a moment.”
Mother grabbed a torch from the closest Viking. Uninvited, I followed them both out of the cavern and back down the tunnel.
“Stay here,” Mother told the sentries when they started to go with us.
Once we were well away from the sentries, Xena stopped. “The dwarves are coming,” she said. “A lot of them. An army.”
Gabrielle nodded. “Thalia, go back to your father. I’ll stop them here.”
I started to protest, but Xena beat me to it. “No, that’s not necessary,” she said. “I’m going to pull Brunhild’s trick and turn into a wall of flame. That will stop the dwarves from following you up. You can find the Well of Fate, free Odin, and then attack Loki without worrying about an attack from behind.”
“No!” Mother whispered, shaking her head. “There must be another way…”
“There are too many of them, Gabrielle.”
They stood staring at each other, hands on hips, Mother looking miserable, Xena looking determined.
“I’m not underestimating your skills,” Xena finally said. “There are five hundred enemies coming down this passageway, and you are desperately needed for the battle in Asgard. Who will free Odin if you’re fighting down here?”
“Um…” I said fearfully, “Can you come back from that, Xena?” I mean, she was a ghost after all. It’s not like she was going to die…. Was it?
Xena looked at me, then back at Mother. “I don’t know,” she finally said.
“Xena…!” Mother said, pleading.
“You know I’m right, Gabrielle.”
“That doesn’t mean I have to like it.”
“The world is at stake.”
“Screw the world, Xena.”
To my surprise, Xena smiled at that, and after a moment, so did my mother. They stood smiling at each other for what seemed like an eternity until the clanking of armor and the shouts of dwarves rapidly approaching interrupted their silent communication and reminded them of our predicament.
Xena turned to me. “Take care of your mother, Thalia, and know that I love you.” She looked at Mother, stepping back away from her, her back towards the approaching army. “I love you Gabrielle.”
“I love you, too, Xena,” Mother whispered, her voice cracking.
With a wry smile, Xena closed her eyes and raised her arms…. And burst into flames. I stepped back as a blast of heat hit my skin. The flames spread wall to wall and floor to ceiling, completely sealing off the tunnel.
Mother grabbed my hand, and I saw her trying to lock away the grief, but this time she failed. Her face twisted in pain as she angrily wiped away the tears from her cheeks. She pushed me towards the cavern. “Go Thalia,” she said, gently. “We have to free Odin!”
When we reached the cavern again, many of the Valkyries had already disappeared, but the majority of Beowulf’s men were still waiting for their chance to climb. Father ushered Mother and me forward.
“Go,” he told us. “I’ll guard the rear and make sure the others follow.”
Mother nodded. “You don’t have to worry about attack from behind,” she said. “Xena is protecting our back.” She squeezed my shoulder as I peered up into the narrow opening. I grimaced at the feel of the cold, slightly fuzzy root of the World Tree winding its way through the dark depths of the earth. “Up you go, love,” she said.
I looked at her nervously, and she smiled. I smiled back.
And then I climbed. Up the tunnels formed by the roots of Yggdrasil, up the roots of the World Tree to Asgard…. to free Odin and fight Loki. Up, up, up. I was still sore from my previous batterings, and it wasn’t long before my arms were aching from blindly pulling my weight upwards. Once again the rocks began to take their toll upon my skin as I wormed my way through narrow openings, scratching and clawing. Only the sounds of Mother following close behind and below kept me from stopping in exhaustion.
Eventually, I heard excited voices and shouts coming from above, and natural light began to filter down. As I reached the top, strong hands pulled me out into the open air, and a cacophony of noise assaulted me. Temporarily blinded by the light, I was pushed backwards and down, my back scraping painfully against something hard and unyielding behind me.
“Down, Thalia!” a Viking said, and I realized that he was trying to shelter me with his body. Apparently, the battle had already started.
I heard a piercing battle cry (was that my mother’s voice?) followed by shouts and screams and the clanging of weapons. “To Odin! To Odin!” That, I thought, had been Beowulf. I held my breath as the sound of battle slowly edged away.
I was beginning to wonder if the Viking on top of me had somehow managed to pass out (or gods forbid, been killed in a very strange position), and I was becoming a bit concerned about the possibility of suffocating under his weight when he finally shifted, allowing me to breath freely again.
He moved to crouch beside me, and I sat up warily, finally allowed my first real view of Asgard. The hard and unyielding thing at my back turned out to be a huge tree… the widest, tallest tree I had ever seen. Looking up, I could not even see the top; it seemed to stretch into the sky itself, eventually lost in a blur of branches and green leaves. The trunk was so wide that our inn would easily fit inside it. Clearly, this was the World Tree.
“We make progress,” the Viking grinned. “Your mother turned the tide!”
Good for Mom! I sought her out in the surrounding combat. A line of Vikings and Valkyries were battling a large group of dwarves and several giants (some of whom, terrifyingly, appeared to be breathing fire and others who appeared to be covered in frost, yet were unharmed by it). Our forces were gradually pushing them down the slope away from the Tree. I found my mother in the middle of the battle… saw her fling her chakram. Two giants fell, blood spilling from their throats… I covered my eyes in horror, suddenly feeling sick.
This was war… this was death. This was what it meant to be a warrior. This was what it meant that my mother was a warrior. I felt my stomach heave involuntarily. And this was why I would never, ever follow in her footsteps… At least not on this particular path…
“Thalia!” Suddenly, my father was beside me. He shook my shoulder, and I realized I had curled up into a tiny ball, having totally lost track of the passing of time.
I blinked up at him.
“Are you hurt?” he asked.
I shook my head.
His eyes told me that he understood my terror. “Stay here,” he said. “Stay small and inconspicuous. If we lose the battle, hide… go back down the hole… run away… Whatever you do, stay safe and don’t try to fight.”
I swallowed. He didn’t have to worry about that. My hands were shaking as hard as the ground from all the giants stomping around. It felt like there were hundreds of them stampeding towards us.
“Loki is bringing reinforcements; I have to go help your mom,” he said.
I nodded, still unable to speak.
He kissed my cheek. “I love you, Thalia.”
“I love you, too,” I said.
He grinned, then turned away, sword in hand. I looked back at my feet as he joined the fray.
I took a deep breath, try to calm my fears. So much for me being the key to saving the world. I couldn’t even watch like a good bard to record the details of the battle. I felt perfectly useless… cowardly and pathetic. Unfortunately, berating myself didn’t make me feel any braver.
A rapidly-approaching, high-pitched, sizzling sound rudely interrupted my bout of private introspection, and I looked up to see a ball of fire shooting towards me. With a gasp I rolled out of the way, and it exploded on the ground in front of the Tree where I had been sitting. I crawled away from the intense heat, scanning to see if one of the fire giants had deliberately targeted me. I didn’t notice any of them looking my way.
I debated if I should try to move around to the other side of the Tree where I might be more sheltered. But that would take me further from my bolt hole. Nervously I watched as the flames from the fireball started to lick at the base of the Tree. Nobody was paying it any attention. The battle continued to rage in a terrifying blur of chaos. Fire and ice flew through air. Screams, snarls, and screeches deafened me. Somewhere in the middle of that horrible mess were my mother… and my father, and Beowulf and the remaining Valkyries. It was hard to tell for certain, but it looked as if Odin and his allies might be winning.
My attention returned to the flames inching forward and upward. I wondered what would happen if the World Tree caught on fire and burned down. Somehow, I didn’t think it would be a good thing. I surveyed the immediate area, spying a stone well off to the side, and I wondered if it had water in the bottom. If so, perhaps I could put the fire out before it hurt the tree. I crawled towards it, trying not to think about what might happen if a giant or dwarf noticed me.
I reached the well and pulled myself to my feet, grasping the low stone side of the well. It was then that I noticed the spinning wheels. There were three of them nestled between the great roots on either side of the well, with a grotesque tangle of threads spilled upon the ground around them. Some of the threads ran up and over the sides of the well disappearing into the darkness within. They pulsed and glowed with a sickly yellow light. I realized in shock that I was staring at the Wheels of Fortune, and the spinning of the Norns. This, then, was the Well of Fate, Urdarbrunnr, in which the gods had been imprisoned. And it wasn’t likely to have any water in it.
I glanced back at the flames. To my relief, it looked as if they were dying out on their own, at least those that threatened the tree. Yggdrasil would be spared. And so would the Norns’ wheels.
I stared at the twisted threads in fascination, sickened by their chaos.
…Once upon a time, I was the Empress of Rome, and Gabrielle was a playwright who lived in a vinyard by the sea… Xena’s story suddenly came to mind. In that reality, Caesar had tampered with the Loom of the Fates. He’d changed things, to suit his purposes. It hadn’t been meant to be that way. Mother and Xena had been meant to be together. And Mother had set things right when she burned the loom.
And, like that reality, this was not how it was supposed to be.
Loki had tampered with Fate.
Xena was dead before her time.
The gods were supposed to destroy each other in Ragnarok, not one side win a victory.
I remembered Athena’s empty temple, and Mother’s admonishment. “Gods are worse than spoiled children. Make your own destiny, Thalia, don’t rely on them to do it for you.” She’d taught me to follow my own path.
Suddenly I was angry. Mother was right. She knew. She understood. Her destiny had been tampered with once before. What had Loki done to it this time? Xena was dead before her time. How had he tampered with the past? Had he burned a village in Japa? Or spun a simple lie about the destiny of souls from the mouth of a ghost? The possibilities were endless.
The gods had no right to do this! That bastard Loki had caused my mother’s heartbreak. All those years without her soulmate. All those years of grief. Mother’s path had been with Xena. Where Xena went, she followed. And though she’d filled her void of grief with love for me, she’d given up herself to do it.
I didn’t care what monster might have seen me as I turned and ran back to the patch that still burned at the base of the Tree. I stuck my staff into the flames until it caught fire, then walked resolutely back to the well.
I wasn’t surprised to see three women standing there. Maiden, mother, crone, my mind supplied. Guarding the wheels. As if they knew what I intended.
“I am Urd,” the first one said.
“I am Skuld,” the second nodded.
“And I am Verdandi,” said the third.
“I don’t really care,” I said.
“Have you thought what would happen to you if the Wheels of Fortune burned?” the old woman asked.
Well, no, this was sort of a spur of the moment thing, you know.
“If Xena hadn’t died, would your mother have had a child?” the Skuld asked.
I didn’t know. But then I remembered Mother’s voice saying, “Besides, if Xena had lived, I might never have had you.” If this reality was not how it was supposed to be, there was no guarantee that I was meant to be, either.
“Odin will defeat Loki,” Urd said.
“You mother will survive,” Skuld added.
“Your father will be wounded again, but will not die,” Verandi finished.
So, if I did nothing, we’d all survive. Well, assuming I wasn’t hit by a random fireball or get squashed by a passing giant while things were winding down. They hadn’t actually said anything about me. But maybe that was implied.
It would be a happy ending.
Except… Xena would still be dead.
And my mother would still be heartbroken.
And there would never be a Ragnarok, and the gods would continue to toy with us (for better or worse) probably for all eternity.
And I would always know that I had had the chance to return things to how they were meant to be, but didn’t.
“Can you fix this mess?” I asked the Norns.
“Can what is done be undone?” Skuld asked.
“We cannot see,” Verandi said.
“We do not know,” Urd finished.
I rolled my eyes. I should have expected such non-helpful non-answers.
But I did know that I had to live with whatever I decided. To be, or risk not being… that was the question. It would have made a great line in a story.
“Thalia!” I picked my name out of the jumble of noise around me.
I looked up and met my mother’s frantic eyes. She was running towards me across the battlefield.
My mother, Gabrielle. Amazon Queen, warrior, and bard. She would stop me from doing this, I knew. She would not risk losing me, not even for the chance to get Xena back. But the story of Xena and Gabrielle was the greatest love story in all of history, and it had ended tragically. I was a bard, named after the muse of comedy. And this was a story I had a chance to rewrite… to rewrite the way it was supposed to be. Hopefully, to give it the happy ending it deserved.
“Thalia, no!” my mother shouted, ducking the swinging blade of a frost giant. “Don’t do it!”
Always, I had been an obedient child. But Homer had taught me that sometimes you had to break the rules to be a better poet, and Mother had taught me to follow my path. I wasn’t a warrior. I was a bard. And now was my chance to put this staff to use. “I love you,” I mouthed at her, knowing she would see and understand, then turned away with tears stinging my eyes. Blindly, I pushed the burning end of my staff into the twisted threads. The Norns didn’t stop me.
Together we watched as the flames consumed the tangles hungrily, heading quickly towards the looms.
“It is done,” Urd said.
“For better or worse,” Verandi said.
“Shut up!” I said, panicking, wondering what I had done, before Skuld could speak.
She looked at me, amused. “So be it.”
And then the world exploded.
Maybe you’ve already guessed that if I had ceased to exist, there wouldn’t have been anybody to tell this story. Or maybe it comes as a pleasant surprise. I hope so. In either case, it certainly came as a surprise to me, to find myself standing on a stage in a theater with my brain suddenly stuffed full with two sets of memories. Two times sixteen years worth of memories. Or would it make more sense to say thirty-two years worth of memories? I hardly knew who I was, or what I was doing.
I looked to my mothers for reassurance in the front row, and I could tell from their expressions that they were experiencing the same sense of overwhelming confusion. Xena, in particular, looked perplexed and amazed, staring at her hands like she’d never seen them before. Mom just looked stunned. But Virgil looked like a proud father, despite his long journey from Rome, and my cousin, Sarah, sitting next to him, smiled at me encouragingly, as if she hadn’t noticed anything. I couldn’t remember if she was the Sarah who was like my second mother, or the Sarah who I barely knew, having visited her only a few times over the years at her inn in Amphipolis. I’d spent most of my life traveling the world with my mothers. While they’d given up pursuing dangerous adventures once I’d been born, the traveling bug had never left them. And if they stopped a warlord or two in between destinations, they made sure I stayed safe in the process.
Mothers. I saw them look at each other, and, embarrassingly, Mom burst into tears, burying her face in Xena’s shoulder. Xena hugged her closely, kissing the top of her head.
Gods, how mushy, and in public, too!
But then I had to grin, remembering why they were being so mushy.
“You may begin any time, Thalia,” Homer prompted from the side of the stage. Suddenly, I knew him. He was my mentor, wasn’t he? No, I’d never met him before. I was hoping to impress him today. Today…the competition to get into the Athens City Academy of Performing Bards. It was my dream, to become a bard. Wasn’t it? I was supposed to tell a story, wasn’t I? About Xena killing Athena… Or was that from a different life?
Mom was looking at me now, her hands covering her mouth, her eyes overflowing with tears. I could see the gratitude and undying love in her expression, as if she, too, remembered what I had done at the foot of the World Tree in Asgard, in a different reality, in a different life in which Xena had died before I had been born. Xena looked a little teary, as well, and I tried to remember if I’d ever seen her cry before. I didn’t think so. Our life was generally happy, filled with laughter and love.
And even as I stood there, I felt the memories of that second life fading fast, almost as if it all had been a dream…. A dream of growing up in an inn without Xena, and of a mother who kept the truth from me to protect me from her past. I realized that I had a new story to tell, even though I hadn’t had time to practice it. And I needed to get it out, get it out before I forgot the details.
Besides, it was such a great story!
And so I began. “I sing a song of another world,” I said confidently. “This world, but not. I sing a song of what my mother never told me, and how I found it out…”
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