Violence - There is some mild violence.
Many thanks to my excellent beta readers, Jill and the members of the Bardic Circle.
All comments are welcomed at: firstname.lastname@example.org
I wish I could tell you what the battle was like as a first hand witness. Unfortunately, my part consisted entirely of lying on the rocky ground - unconscious and bleeding - as horses reared around me and warriors shouted and Beowulf tried to organize a defense against the ambush. Apparently, Loki's dwarven allies had pursued Beowulf all this way, and they'd waited for us patiently - for who knows how long - hiding in the rocks and trees beside the road. I'd been hit by the shaft of a throwing ax (another half a spin and I'm certain I would have been split in two like a log…except messier, of course), but I still had a nasty gash across my back where the blade had sliced me. And I should mention that I landed on my head when I fell off the horse… the same head, I might add, that was still sore from having been knocked unconscious in Athens.
At any rate, I missed the part where Beowulf and his men dismounted to charge on foot in a counter attack against an enemy that had carefully chosen its ground for the best advantage against a mounted foe. And I missed the brutal, bloody battle in which the Vikings made the dwarves pay dearly for their attack, even though they were heavily outnumbered.
It was Virgil who scooped me up and made a break for it in the middle of the battle. To give him credit, it is what Beowulf wanted - what was in fact the main purpose behind the king's counterattack - to give him time and opportunity to spirit me away before the dwarves could kill us all. Of course, I didn't know that at the time. All I knew was that I had the extreme misfortune of waking up in the middle of that twilight retreat, thrown over Virgil's shoulder like a sack of grain as he fled through the forest in the valley.
If I thought sailing and horseback riding had both been torturous, I was clearly running out of words to describe the agony inflicted by various modes of transport. The normal pain factor of being flung over a bony shoulder was not helped by the fact that it felt like my back was on fire and my head had about four of Zeus's thunderbolts bouncing around inside. After a moment of trying to get oriented, I realized that the warm sticky substance running down my arm and dripping off my fingers was blood, which scared me more than the pain did.
"What's happening?" I tried to ask, but it came out more like, "wzzss mssmft…"
"Thalia!" Virgil gasped without stopping. "Thank the Gods! Hang on just a minute, I think there's a clearing up ahead."
I must have lost consciousness again because the next thing I knew, I was lying on my back with Virgil leaning over me.
"Huh?" I asked, trying to focus my eyes on his face despite the growing darkness.
"Thanks Gods," Virgil said again, wiping his forehead. "Can you sit up? I need to look at your back."
"What happened?" I asked, letting him help me up. I bit my lip, trying not to cry.
"We were attacked by dwarves. Beowulf and his men are fighting them, but a small group broke off to follow me."
I gasped as he poked at the wound on my back.
"You'll need stitches, but no time for that now. At least the bleeding has slowed. Are you hurt anywhere else?"
"My head…" I said, reaching up to gingerly touch the tender spot, only to feel more stickiness there. Great, no wonder Virgil sounded relieved to hear me wake up. I must have looked like a bloody mess.
"Unfortunately, there's nothing I can do for that, either, right now. It's good that you're awake. Do you think you can stand up? We need to move, but we'd go faster if I weren't carrying you. And I'm getting too old and out of shape to keep it up much longer..." He grinned at me wryly.
I nodded, even though I wasn't sure at all. But the way Virgil was panting for breath - and the thought of murderous dwarves chasing us - provided a fair amount of incentive for me to try. It is amazing what stark terror will enable a body to do. But, even with that, I wouldn't have made it without Virgil's assistance, literally pulling me to my feet and holding me there for a moment while I regained the use of my wobbly legs.
The sound of harsh voices in the forest behind us made my heart stop momentarily. I didn't wait for Virgil's "let's go," to break into a run - a panicked dash across the clearing with Virgil step by step at my side. Unfortunately, my sureness of footing disappeared with absence of light once we reached the trees on the other side of clearing. It was very dark under the thick canopy of the forest, and Virgil quickly took the lead, crashing through the underbrush ahead of me.
I had never practiced fleeing through a forest at night while being pursued by dwarves. Not that I could blame this particular lack of experience on my mother. I could understand how it might have eluded her that I would need to learn how to do this. In any case, much to both Virgil's and my dismay, it seemed that I was very bad at it. And, while I wish I could blame it on my head injury, or my terror, or the gash on my back, I think the truth lay as much in the simple fact that I have always been a little clumsy. The injuries and fear and lack of light only acerbated that unfortunate trait. (Either that or tree roots had an unnatural affinity for my feet, and those tree limbs really did jump in front of me from out of nowhere, and the earth shifted deliberately beneath me in order to make me fall...). I kept falling down like some kind of idiot drunkard, and Virgil kept coming back to pick me up again. And every time, the sound of the dwarves behind us got just a little bit closer.
"Go on without me," I finally sobbed as he knelt beside me for the umpteenth time. Though they paled in comparison to my back, I could feel cuts and scrapes all over my arms and legs from my many falls. I was tired beyond words, and my whole body felt like one giant, throbbing wound.
"Thalia," he said, taking my face between his hands, "you've got to keep going. Your mother will find you if you just keep going…" There was hard determination in his voice. "I'll take care of the dwarves."
I grabbed his hands, panicking. "No! You can't leave me! You… you don't even have a weapon!"
I was lifted to my feet, and Virgil steadied me with strong hands on my shoulders. "Great warriors don't need weapons, Thalia," he said. "Just ask Xena."
"You've got to trust me this time, Thalia. I'll stop the dwarves."
"No…" I whispered through my tears, shaking my head.
"I'm so grateful I finally got the chance to meet you," he said, kissing my cheek. "I love you. I've always loved you." And then my father was gone, disappearing toward the sound of snapping branches and crackling leaves that announced the approach of a large number of pursuers not too far away.
"I love you, too," I whispered.
I'm ashamed to say that I just stood there, paralyzed by fear and pain and indecision. I wanted to follow my father, to tell him that I loved him, to thank him for, well, being willing to fight a horde of dwarves on my behalf and to very probably die for me. That sort of thing should not have gone un-thanked. But he was going towards danger and death, and I was just too terrified to follow. No matter how heroic the notion of being there with him at the end in some sort of bittersweet family reunion, I didn't want to die. And so, I should have turned and continued running. Unfortunately, that required a clarity of mind and body that I did not possess at the moment. All I could do was stand there, shaking, teeth chattering, with tears streaming down my face.
Until Xena showed up. She glowed like a candle, illuminating even the trees around her.
She was a beacon of hope, and I cried out in sheer relief.
"Follow me," she said.
"But… my father…!"
"Thalia, he really is a great warrior. He'll be all right."
As if to prove the point, I heard cries of pain behind me, and shouting. I didn't think any of the voices sounded like my father, but I couldn't be sure.
"C'mon!" Xena said.
I staggered after her.
The first time I fell down, Xena came back for me just like Virgil had. Unlike Virgil, she couldn't help me back up again.
"Come on, Thalia, you can do it," she said, looking sickeningly upbeat.
I groaned and somehow managed to climb back to my feet.
"That's my girl," Xena said.
I stumbled on.
Eventually it became apparent I could not keep up, and Xena slowed our pace to a walk.
"Keep going, Thalia, we're almost there," she smiled
I wondered fleetingly where "there" was, and what it meant. I just hoped that a warm bed would be involved, although the part of my brain that was still semi-coherent chided me that this was very wishful thinking.
After what seemed like ages, Xena said, "Not much further, Thalia, just keep it up. You're doing great."
And so it went.
I had no sense of time or distance. I didn't notice the moon rising overhead, or its slow march across the sky as we continued on. My world consisted of following the blurry glow that was Xena, her voice quietly urging me to go on - step after step - through a dark, nightmarish haze of pain and despair.
I was rudely jolted from my daze when I stepped into icy water, the sudden shock of it making me gasp. I stepped back, slipped on slick rocks and fell on my back. Sharp pain shot through my body, and I closed my eyes tightly. Enough… I'd had enough.
"Thalia! Thalia!" Xena was at my side. "Don't pass out on me!"
I didn't even have the strength to answer her.
"Thalia, if you get up and follow this river around the bend, you'll find a cave in the cliff face where you can lie down to rest. But you're too exposed right here, sweetheart. You've got to move."
It didn't matter. Let the dwarves find me. It was over.
"Did you know that your grandfather was Joxer the Mighty?"
"Thalia, listen to me. Did you know that your grandfather was Joxer the Mighty?"
Yes, Xena was wise enough to know that this stunningly unexpected statement would bring me back even from the brink of death. Not that I was really dying, mind you - at least, I don't think I was - but the shock value alone was enough to make me open my eyes to look at her.
She grinned. "If you want more, you'll have to stand up."
Xena, I decided, was a mean, heartless bitch. Pillaging villages paled beside the simple cruelty of this small request.
Xena started singing. "Joxer the Mighty / Roams through the countryside / He never needs a place to hide / With Gabby as his sidekick / Fighting with her little stick / Righting wrongs and singing songs / Being mighty all day long / He's Joxer-he's Joxer the Mighty! Ooooohhhhh…"
I groaned, rolling over onto my shredded hands and knees, wincing at the pain. "Dear gods, make it stop…!"
Xena leaned over to look at me. "What, the pain or my singing?"
"I can't help the pain, but I will stop singing just as soon as you're standing. Oooohhhhh / He's Joxer the Mighty / He's really tidy / Everybody likes him / 'Cause he has a funny grin / Joxer- Joxer the Mighty!"
Somehow, I managed to make it to my feet.
"That's my girl!" Xena said. "This way," she said, leading me down a pebbly beach beside the river.
"Joxer?" I reminded her.
"He's your grandfather," she said seriously. "Virgil's father. Married to Meg, one of my twins. Not in blood, of course, just looks."
"Joxer… the buffoon from Gabrielle's scrolls…?"
"Hey," Xena said, frowning, "Don't be insulting my friend. Joxer was a good man, with a good and courageous heart. He died trying to help your mother, you know."
"No…" I said, thinking absently that it was not a good thing to be hearing long-hidden family secrets whilst exhausted, hurting, and feeling decidedly unwell. I was having such a hard time focusing. I could barely walk, much less think clearly. I wondered if I would even remember this conversation in the morning.
Dear Gods, please let me remember this conversation in the morning!
"Careful, Thalia, why don't you come back this way," Xena cautioned, and I realized I had drifted back to the river's edge. Xena grinned at me. "Let's keep you out of the water, eh? Given how much you take after your mom, I'm sure you'd find some way to drown."
I had a very vivid flashback to one of my childhood expeditions with Mother. We'd stopped to eat lunch near a waterfall. The afternoon was warm, and I'd begged to go swimming. Mother had laughed and agreed to let me go, but she'd admonished me to be extra careful. "If you're anything like me," she'd said, "the Fates will try to find some way to drown you."
"How did you almost drown, Mother?" I asked.
"Well, once, I was staring so hard at my reflection in a lake that I fell in. Headfirst! Splash! Just like that! And I almost drowned from it!"
I laughed. "Just like Narcissus! Only he was turned into a flower!"
She laughed too, and kissed my cheek. "That's right, sweetie. So don't be staring at your reflection, all right? Vanity is not rewarded kindly. And no diving or jumping in!"
I smiled at the memory.
"What?" Xena asked, but I could tell she was pleased that I was feeling well enough to smile.
"I was just remembering something that Mother told me once. She said she fell into a lake staring at her reflection and almost drowned."
"It's true," Xena said. "Of course, she was under a spell from Aphrodite at the time."
Aphrodite? Spell? Mother? Those were three words that definitely did not belong together. Unless, of course, "heartbreak" somehow followed after.
"Did Joxer save her?" I asked, thinking that all these events had to have been related. And that at some point in the past, Mother had obviously had a real adventure!
"Mmmmm. Not that time. But he did save her from drowning once after that. Come to think of it, Aphrodite was involved that time, too."
"There has to be a beautiful metaphor there, somewhere," I said, feeling suddenly lightheaded. "The goddess of love trying to drown my mother… You've got to tell me the whole story, Xena!"
"I will when we get to… Careful!" she warned, but too late, as I tripped over a driftwood log.
"Just like grandpa Joxer," I muttered through a mouthful of sand. Suddenly, it all struck me as incredibly funny. Joxer, Xena, me collapsing a million miles from home on the sandbank of some god-forsaken river with a herd of dwarves chasing me. It was just so ridiculous. It had to be a dream. I chuckled, feeling myself fading out. And what a dream it was, too. My last thought was a disjointed repeat of my earlier prayer that I would remember it all when I woke up in the morning.
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