For the remainder of that day, the men (who apparently called themselves Vikings) 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 mens 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? Im 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 fathers mother."
"Oh," I said, thinking 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 Volvas comment.
She looked surprised. "Since you were kidnapped, yes. Of course, there wasnt anything I could do to help you, but I didnt want you to well be alone even if you didnt know I was here."
Her answer flattered me. "What do you think about this Volva woman?"
"I dont trust her."
"You dont? Do you think shes lying?"
Xena shook her head. "No, shes a true prophetess. But I dont trust anyone who is beholden to the gods like that. And I dont 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.
"Its one of Odins spies. I dont understand it, but I have no doubt it understands us."
"Oh," I said, looking at the bird. It didnt look magical, but it certainly didnt 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 dont know. I mean Im not looking forward to more horseback riding and I dont 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."
I swallowed. "Then I have to continue, dont 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 Beowulfs people by leaving now and returning to Greece. Theres 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. Youre the one who has to live with yourself, whatever you decide."
I closed my eyes. "Im scared," I confessed, hoping she wouldnt think less of me for it.
When she didnt say anything, I forced my eyes open.
I was expecting to see scorn or disgust on her ghostly face, but instead I saw what? Sympathy? With something else mixed in there, too. Like maybe a touch of pride. It confused me.
"Id be worried if you werent afraid, Thalia," Xena said. "Youve handled all of this with a great deal of courage, but its 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 wouldnt 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. Im not going to tell you what to do, Thalia, and Im not going to judge you for whatever decision you make."
"Thats 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. "Its 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, Im getting you out of here."
"What?" I asked.
"Were getting out of here before Beowulf has a chance to change his mind. Were going back to Greece."
"We are?" I asked in confusion. Wasnt 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 dont want to wake the whole camp up."
"No," I said, "You dont want to wake the whole camp up. I dont really care."
"Come on, Thalia. Dont be like this. You wanted to escape, so now Im going to help you."
"That was before I knew what was going on!" I protested.
"Oh, so now that you know that theres a very real possibility of being killed, you want to continue?"
"I didnt say that," I said, confused again.
"Come on, get dressed."
"If I decide to leave, Id rather do it in the morning."
"If we wait til morning, theres no guarantee these men will actually let you leave, no matter what Beowulf has said. Its better to go now."
"Hes got a point," Xena said. "Beowulfs a good man, but I dont think he believes youll 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 Id been talking to him. "Beowulf? No, I dont trust him. Or, at least, I dont 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, weve got to leave. If we go straight west before heading south into Greece, well probably meet your mother coming north. You two can go on from there, and youll never have to see me again."
I wasnt sure what I thought of that. While it would be wonderful to see Mother, I sort of liked Virgil (in a "hes okay for an old married guy" sort 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 wasnt 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. "Youre not my mother," I said.
"No, Im not, but I " 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 youre not working for Loki?" Well, he didnt know that Xena had already eased my mind about that. But I still didnt like being ordering around.
"Just get dressed," he said.
"Im tired," I said, stalling for time, trying to decide if I could live with myself if I left now.
"Well leave now, travel until we find a safe place and then you can rest. You can sleep all morning if you like." When I didnt respond, he continued. "Im not going to let you go into this kind of danger. I cant. Were leaving, and were leaving tonight, and thats final."
"No its not," I said.
"Yes, it is," he said, his face determined.
I couldnt 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 Im given the opportunity!"
He grimaced at the volume of my voice. "Listen, Thalia "
"Why should I?" I asked, louder, almost hoping that Beowulf would hear me this time.
"Because Im your father," he finally sighed.
Okay, that was unexpected.
I stared at him. "What?" I finally asked in disbelief.
He shifted uncomfortably. "Because Im your father," he repeated.
"My father is a poet!" He must have been lying. He couldnt be my father. He was he was I couldnt think what he was but he wasnt 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. "Ill let you two hash this out in private," she said, fading out.
I barely noticed. I couldnt believe this was happening. I didnt know what to think or feel. Well, actually, that wasnt true. I was mad. 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 hadnt 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.
"I think it is time you retired for the night," Beowulfs voice said from outside.
I didnt 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 couldnt. He genuinely cared about me, I could tell.
He sat there while I cried myself out, just a presence letting me know that I wasnt alone. It wasnt 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.
"Im 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 its because Id 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 didnt 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 whod 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 and who hadnt even bothered to admit to me who he was until he was trying to manipulate me into doing something well, that was devastating. And thats exactly how I felt. Devastated.
I cried myself to sleep in Beowulfs strong arms.
I woke in the morning feeling worse than ever, but, because I didnt 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 wasnt 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, 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 ever say to him. Ever. I didnt want to even think about him, or why mother had never told me about him, or why he hadnt said anything sooner, or I just didnt want to think. About anything.
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," shed say in horror. "Youre not a warrior! 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 wasnt a warrior. I wasnt a hero. Apparently, I didnt even like to travel. I could shop, and I could tell stories, but I couldnt see how those would be particularly useful skills on this particular quest. 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 give me something to hope for.
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 the horse. Or, at least, I wasnt 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. Id 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 feeling grubby and hungry probably wasnt a good or desirable thing, it was still better than being conscious of it all the time. And its not like I was alone in my grubbiness. But who could blame us for not wanting to bathe in icy cold rivers? Yuck!
I still wasnt 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 Volvas normally stoic expression turned into more of a frown as we progressed. It was disconcerting. Normally, I would have wanted to fill the silence with chatter, but I just didnt have it in me. That alone should speak volumes about how unhappy I was. 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 for the morning if somebody set traps overnight. Or had some luck hunting deer.
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 didnt even have a chance to wonder at this odd behavior before something slammed my shoulder from behind with enough force to throw me from my saddle. Before I knew what was happening I fell headfirst towards the rocky ground.
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