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: firstname.lastname@example.org
"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 impromptu stories, 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 song."
"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 rerolling 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 he 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 harassed. 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 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 a crushing weight on my chest. 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 but my feet were not.
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 (there were at least three of them), 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. Me, frighten a group of warriors? Ha! 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 on 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 and oriental spice and exotic adventure, and somebody 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….and here it was again.
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 quietly.
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 when I wanted to. 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 gone 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.
Continued in Part 3.