What Mother Never Told Me

by Leslie Ann Miller

Disclaimers - This story is set over 20 years after FIN.

Violence - There is some mild violence, but nothing too graphic or gory.

Many thanks to my excellent beta readers, Jill and the members of the Bardic Circle. Also thanks to Verrath for providing me with the inspiration!

All comments are welcomed at: gunhilda@brightok.net

"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 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. Over 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.

"Mother! Mother!"

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.

I nodded.

"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 like a stone in my stomach. 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 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 guessed 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 guessed 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. 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!

Continued in Part 2.

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