Disclaimers I apologize for butchering Norse mythology and European geography in the upcoming sections. Its all done in the spirit of the show, I promise!
What Mother Never Told Me, part 4
by Leslie Ann Miller
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 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 wasnt clear about the whole fenris, norn, asser, udbruner, oogy thing), she provided very few answers. Feigning exhaustion from her fit, she retired shortly thereafter. The raven didnt 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 hate the bird if it didnt go away. Soon. And if it didnt, 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 ravens 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 Odins 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 must have thought was my mother, but whom the Volva said was dead before her time. Surely that couldnt be my mother. For one thing, Mother didnt have a chakram. Okay, technically, she was the caretaker of Xenas familys tomb (which was on the property of the inn), and I supposed that it was possible that Xenas chakram (the only chakram Id ever heard about) had somehow made it back to Amphipolis along with her ashes. But the tomb was locked up tight, and I wasnt even sure if Mother knew how to get in.
But I was still scared. I couldnt bear the thought of Mother dying or being hurt.
I was trying very hard not to start crying when I noticed the ravens 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 wasnt 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 may 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 back 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 wasnt entirely sure that this wasnt all just the 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?"
"Dont you remember?" she asked.
"You played with me and told me stories. But that doesnt 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.
"Im your friend," she said, the same answer shed 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 wasnt just going to blindly accept this statement or her actual existence without some serious questioning. "Xena is dead." (So, it wasnt 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 arent 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?"
"Im not entirely certain, but Im 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, youre not going to critique me on this now that youre 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. Youd often wake up at night, and youd be frightened by the monsters you imagined in the darkness. Then youd call out for your mom. But well your mother always had such a hard time sleeping that I didnt want you to wake her up. So Id tell you stories until you went back to sleep."
Oddly enough, it made perfect sense. "Thank you," I said.
"Youre welcome," Xena said. "You know, I would give you a hug now, if I could."
"That would be nice, but Ill 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 "
Xenas 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 hes free to go on without me " I muttered, pulling the blanket over my head.
"Come on," Virgil said. "Theyre ready to take down your tent."
"Youre 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 were talking about the same woman?" I asked. "Meaning, my mother, Ella, who is up before dawn every single day even when she doesnt have to be? 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 dont get up now, youll miss it."
Ouch! Hed 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 pure torture, I was running out of words to describe the agony inflicted by various modes of transport. On the ship, Id been in misery from the hips up. On the horse, I was in misery from the hips down.
Mother had taught me to ride at a young age. We didnt 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 over six years since Id been allowed near a horse. My relationship with equines ended with the same kick that broke my arm. After that, Mother 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 harms way. It was comforting, really, to have so many willing protectors, but I probably would have been more appreciative if I hadnt 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 havent ridden a horse in years."
Beowulf looked mortified. "Im sorry," he said, rubbing the scar on his cheek. "I didnt think You should have said something."
"Well, after being wrestled out of bed before the crack of dawn, I didnt think complaining would do much good," I snapped. "Its 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 Lokis son, the wolf, Fenris. 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. 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.
ﾒ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 Fenris 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 Fenris will rage for a long time, but finally Fenris 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, Beowulfs 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. Lokis might and power will grow until none can stop him.
"When first we began this journey, the Norns told me to seek the wielder of the chakram, to send her north to foil Lokis plans. But now the evil gods 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 tell us."
I listened to the Volvas 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 youre expecting Loki to be defeated by good cooking, Im not sure what my mother could do," I said slowly. "And unless youre expecting me to talk him to death, Im 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 wasnt any of Beowulfs men, if thats what youre 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 wasnt 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 grew up. Her familys ancestral tomb is on the land. And " Gods, I almost couldnt bring myself to say it. If it hadnt been for the Volvas encouraging nod, I would have been too embarrassed to go on. "Well when I was very little, I used to see Xenas ghost on moonlit nights. I hadnt seen her in years really! I didnt 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 didnt 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 Lokis 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, isnt 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, Ive 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 mothers 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."
"You didnt tell me all of this in Rome," Virgil snapped.
"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."
"I openly forced you," Beowulf corrected.
"If I had known you planned to drag her into a war zone, I would never have helped you find her," Virgil said angrily.
Beowulf looked at me, measuring me, then back at Virgil. He nodded. "Very well," he said. "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."
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