I leaned on the railing of the ship watching a school of dolphins racing along beside us. I wanted to puke, but there was nothing left in my stomach. For the most part, I was kept locked in the cabin, and I didnt 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 Id been kidnapped from Athens.
He was leaning back against the railing beside me, arms crossed. "Its a beautiful day, isnt it? Believe it or not, its 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 Id 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 hadnt been feeling so sick, Im sure I would have found it funny. Virgil, though hed been the one trying to get me to eat and drink, cajoling me into doing it despite my nausea. Hed also tried to engage me in conversation, but for my part, I felt that if he wasnt going to answer the questions I wanted answered, I didnt 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 horses kick when I was ten, I couldnt remember ever feeling this awful for so long, and the solitude was definitely making it worse.
"Didnt 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 didnt 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."
"Thats a nice way of putting it," Virgil nodded, still smiling. "And Im sure your mother would approve. So did you like Athens and the Academy?"
"Oh yes! Master Homer is wonderful, Ive learned so much. And Athens well, Athens is just amazing. Theres always so much to see and do its almost too much. Its so different from Amphipolis!"
"Youll have to visit Rome someday. I bet youd like it, too."
I looked at him, wondering if it was an invitation. "Id like that," I said seriously. "My father is there," I added, almost as an afterthought. It was funny; I didnt even know the mans 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 didnt take a genius to see that he knew more than he was letting on. I stared at him. "You know who he is, dont you?" I asked.
He blushed. "What? Huh? I um "
"Oh please," I begged, grabbing his arm. "Youve got to tell me something about him! Whats 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 hes uh hes a "
"Well, yes "
"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! "Whats his name?"
"I uh . well I dont 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 dont 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 quadrupled in size! 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 gut. I felt tears stinging my eyes. It wasnt fair. He knew, and he wouldnt tell me, and I didnt understand why he wouldnt tell me. "Did he break my mothers 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 hadnt expected him to answer. "I think I think hed 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 wasnt going to give up that easily. This blacksmith from Rome knew more about my mothers history than I did, and I was going to do my best to weasel it out of him.
"Its a beautiful day for sailing," Virgil said.
I nodded, watching a seagull fly overhead.
"Hows 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. "Lets go find the cook."
"Please throw me overboard," I begged when Virgil blew into my cabin three days later with a blast of cool wind. Wed 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?"
"Dont 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 Beowulfs 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 dont 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 hadnt learned the names of the other two men whod captured me in Athens, but they had stayed on the ship, anyway. I assumed they were returning to Rome to join their companions watching Virgils family.
The man snorted. "You could never be a Viking," he said.
"I dont want to be a Viking," I said. I didnt 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 Id 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.
"Shes 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 hadnt 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 peoples 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 hadnt 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 hadnt 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 stones 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, two, 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 didnt know what a Volva was, but I hadnt 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 womans hand in Beowulfs before proceeding 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 womans 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 yowling. 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 Odins 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 a performance 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 Yggdrasils 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 gathered around the Volva in distress.
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, and helped her father free Fenris. 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 bird. "The Norns have foreseen that SHE is the key to our salvation."
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