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: email@example.com
"Thalia, wake up!"
Why was it that no one ever let me sleep when I wanted to?
"Thalia, the dwarves are coming. You've got to wake up and move, sweetheart."
The urgency and desperation in her voice penetrated the fog in my head, and all the fear of my nighttime flight came spilling back. I groaned and tried to stand up. Pain hit me in a wave, and I collapsed again, gasping for breath. Xena was talking to me, but it was all I could do just to stay conscious. It occurred to me that maybe I was dying after all.
Maybe I was dying.
If my head had been an empty cave, that thought would have echoed deafeningly. Maybe I was dying. I shuddered and shook my head to clear it.
NO. I was not going to die today.
I swallowed. My mouth and throat were parched, and my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. I crawled to the edge of the river and dipped my hand in, watching the water wash away the sand and blood to reveal the torn and tattered skin that was my palm. Mesmerized, I repeated the process for my other hand. I drank my fill, then splashed my face, feeling the sting on my cheek where a branch had hit me… whenever it was. Last night? I watched as bloody water dripped off my face into the current. Gods, I didn't want to see my reflection.
Turning away, I looked around, shivering, my surroundings illuminated by the first light of dawn.
Xena was standing there, fading in the growing light, watching me silently. I thought that there might be tears on her face.
The raven was perched in a tree, also watching. I wondered if ravens could cry.
But I was not going to die today. I stood up.
The dwarves came exploding out of the forest, their armor clanking loudly in the quiet morning air. There wasn't an army of them, more like twenty, but enough that I knew I couldn't escape them, not hurt the way I was. They stopped when they saw me standing by the river's edge.
I raised my arms to show that I was unarmed. "I'm not a warrior," I said, hoping that they could understand my language.
"Kill her," the leading dwarf said.
Well, on the bright side, at least they understood me.
"Wait!" I said, forcing a smile as two of them raised throwing axes. "You don't really want to do that, do you? After all, I'm the reason King Beowulf came all this way. Don't you think Loki would want to find out why?"
The two dwarves with axes looked at their leader. He scowled, stroking his long beard.
I pointed at the raven. "Odin has an interest in me. But I have no loyalty to him. I could be of great assistance to Loki." The lines from a story came to mind. "I have the gift of prophecy, and I have spoken with philosophers. I am a bard and can be of great value to you." Or something like that, anyway.
Long beard walked forward, ax in hand. I held my ground and tried not to show any more fear than I knew was already apparent. I couldn't hide the fact that I was shivering, both from the cool morning air and my fear, but I wasn't going to beg for my life. The dwarf leader, who was significantly shorter than I was, walked around me slowly, looking me up and down, like a farmer appraising a prospective piece of livestock.
Finally he snorted. He put the ax to my neck and sliced my skin with a flick of his wrist.
I flinched from the sudden movement and unexpected sting, and he laughed. "So," he said. "You tell me why the Viking dog came for you."
"The Volva said I was the key to Loki's downfall."
The dwarf laughed. "Then I can save him the effort of killing you."
"Ah," I said quickly - before he had a chance to raise his ax again, "For all anyone knows, that would actually bring about Loki's doom. Unfortunately, nobody seems to know how I'm the key. Just that I am. But you know, a key can work two ways…either to open the door or to lock it." When long beard seemed to be considering this, I continued. "Beowulf kidnapped me from Athens. I didn't volunteer for this journey." All of this was true, and I hoped that the dwarf could tell I wasn't lying.
"But you're not Loki's friend," the dwarf snarled, eyes narrowed.
"No. I'm not your friend, either," I said, again preferring the truth to any lie, hoping it wouldn't cost me my life.
The dwarf grinned. "We understand each other, then." He spat to one side. "Loki commanded we stop the Viking dog. We have. I think Loki might find you fun. You come with us. Don't slow us else I will kill you." He motioned for his companions to come forward.
My hands were promptly tied tightly behind my back and another rope was tied around my neck. This rope was handed to a dwarf with an elaborately braided beard. There was a short discussion as to where we were and where we needed to go, but eventually it was decided to follow the river until we came to a likely place to cross, at which point we would make our way back to the main road on the opposite side.
Then, without further ado, we began the worst part of my journey yet.
For all, despite being so short, the dwarves moved quickly. At least, they moved quickly enough that I had trouble keeping up at a walk. I was forced to half walk, half trot, and with my hands tied as they were, I had a hard time keeping my balance. Oh, mind you, I could see where I was going, so, unlike the night before, I didn't fall down as often. Not at first, anyway. But I was in pain, and it wasn't long before I started feeling feverish, and I was very hungry and tired. My body wasn't used to hardship, and my mind wasn't used to hardship, and it was a terrible effort just to stay upright and continue moving. Whenever I faltered, braided beard tugged the rope around my neck, yanking me forward. The first time I fell down, he dragged me slowly - choking me - for several feet before giving me a chance to struggle back up. Which was hard to do without my arms. It was horrible.
Eventually I fell into the same stupor that I'd been in the night before when Xena led me through the forest, somehow moving forward, but not very aware of what was going on around me. My world was pain, the pain of putting one foot in front of the other for eternity. I wondered if this was what it was like for King Sisyphus in Hades, forever rolling a boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down again. Step, step, step, but going nowhere, at least not anywhere I wanted to go, just farther from home and closer to my doom at the hands of Loki. Step, step, step. If I survived this, it wouldn't even make a good story. Step, step, step. How dull was that? There were only so many words for pain. Pain, suffering, sufferance, hurt, discomfort (what an understatement, that!), painfulness, malaise, nightmare, anguish, agony, torment, torture, distress… and not to forget the verbs… suffer, endure, undergo pain, ache, smart, sting… yes, all those applied, but an audience would tire of hearing them. Adventures were awful things and journeys were terrible, and dwarves stank of sweat and dirt and something I couldn't name. Step, step, step.
The sun was high overhead when the dwarves finally stopped for a break. I gathered they didn't like the bright light or the afternoon heat. The valley had narrowed with great peaks rising to either side, and we'd crossed the river some time back, but the dwarves moved off the road into the shadow of the nearby forest. I collapsed as soon as I was allowed.
Sometime later I was awakened by a kick to the ribs, and a blonde bearded dwarf offered me a strip of greasy meat.
I sniffed the meat. It smelled funny. "What is it?" I asked suspiciously.
The dwarf smiled. "Your horse. Yum. You eat."
Horse? Dear gods! I remembered cursing the fat thing I'd ridden from the marsh to the ambush, and promptly felt my stomach rebel. The poor horse hadn't deserved to be slaughtered by dwarves. Nothing did.
The other dwarves laughed, but blonde beard snatched the food away angrily. "You starve, then."
I knew I should have eaten it… I needed to maintain my strength, but I couldn't bring myself to regret it too much. I lay back down and fell into a fitful sleep.
Another kick woke me with a groan, and two dwarves hauled me to my feet. I guessed they realized I never would have made it by myself. They poured water in my mouth from a waterskin, and then the march began again. The sun had barely moved across the sky, so I knew we hadn't been resting too long. And now my ribs were aching from my two wake-up calls.
I knew I was in trouble when I began to see Xena walking beside me. I'd never seen her during the day before. I wondered if I was just dreaming her…part of my nightmare… or daymare, as the case might have been. A good part, though, to have a friendly face nearby.
She must have noticed me glancing at her. "Thalia," she began conversationally. "Did I ever tell you about my daughter, Eve?"
I shook my head. The name sounded familiar, though, and I remembered my godly visitor on the Acropolis who'd told me to ask Homer about Gabrielle's "Eve scrolls."
"Well," she continued, "it was Eve who killed your grandfather, Joxer, and here's how that happened…"
To be honest, I can't remember much of her story. I remember thinking that I needed to remember the bits about Joxer and Virgil, in order to ask how he'd met my mother, but it was all rather confusing. There was a great deal about Rome, and someone named Livia, and a temple of Eli, but the details slipped through my consciousness like bits of silk. Nothing stuck. I thought that Xena and Gabrielle's lives had been hopelessly convoluted. No wonder Gabrielle had been such a great bard. She'd had to be, just to keep the details straight. And I regretted even more losing my father so quickly. He'd met Gabrielle, too, just like Homer.
Thus went my semi-coherent thoughts as Xena continued talking to me, and the sun slowly sank towards the mountaintops.
"Take heart, little one," Xena finally whispered in my ear. "Your mom is almost here."
I wondered why Xena would think that would comfort me. "No!" I gasped. "Xena, you've got to find a way to turn her away! They'll kill her!"
"No talking!" braided beard dwarf growled, and yanked the rope around my neck. It was enough to pull me off balance, and I fell hard on the rough stones of the road, smashing my face and splitting my lip.
I blinked back tears, wondering if I could create enough of a ruckus before I got killed to warn mother that the dwarves were here before they saw her.
Xena must have sensed it. "Thalia, it will be all right. Your mom will be fine. I can't say the same for these dwarves."
"Get up," my captor ordered. Before I could comply, he dragged me forward until I thought my neck would snap, then kicked me again as I lay gasping for air. The other dwarves watched in amusement.
"Stay down," Xena said firmly.
I was fine with that, although I wasn't looking forward to another kick. Of course, with my consciousness slipping, I wasn't sure I'd be awake long enough to feel it. There was another tug on the rope around my neck, but the expected kick never landed. Instead, I heard a funny sound, a whirring sound, like a swarm of bees slicing through the air overhead. The whirring sound was followed by several screams.
I forced my eyes open, only to see braided beard tumbling backwards away from me, the rope falling from his hands, which were now clutching his neck.
"Your mom's here," Xena said.
I thought this should upset me. But Xena sounded satisfied, almost happy, and I knew I wanted to see Mother more than anything. I wanted to tell her how much I missed her. My eyes closed as a sense of peace descended. Mother would take care of everything.
She always did.
I felt gentle hands touching me, a cool cloth on my forehead, and a familiar voice, whispering soothingly through tears.
"Don't cry, Mother," I pleaded, opening my eyes.
Contrary to my request, more tears fell. "I'm so sorry," she finally managed, "this is all my fault…"
I wondered how she construed that.
"I did everything I could," she whispered, "I settled down… I changed my name… I even hid the truth from you… I was so afraid that someone would hurt you… I tried so hard to protect you…but I couldn't…" She covered her face with a hand, an unconscious attempt to hide how upset she was.
"I'm okay," I said as matter-of-factly as I could, thinking that even though I wanted nothing more in the world than to break into wildly hysterical sobs, I needed to remain calm if she was going to fall apart. "You can't help what the gods do, Mom." To prove that I wasn't lying about being okay, I grabbed her shoulder and tried to sit up. To my surprise, she helped me.
She looked at me, measuring, wiping the tears from her face. "How do you feel?" she asked softly.
"Like I've been trampled by giants." Well, actually, I felt much worse than that, but I saw that she had carefully taken care of all my injuries. I'm sure there must have been one place on my body that wasn't wrapped in an odd assortment of bandages, but I was probably sitting on it. And I was feeling better now that she was here. It might have been pure relief, but I suspected that she'd used some pinch points and medicines on me, too. Mother knew all kinds of healing tricks.
She smiled, just a little. "I think they were dwarves, sweetheart. Giants - tall; dwarves - short. But you've a terrible lump on your head; it's no wonder you're confused." She pushed a strand of hair off my forehead.
She was teasing me, and I was glad. I looked around. We were beside the river, but the road was still in sight. There was a pile of bodies off to one side. I shuddered.
"They won't hurt you any more," Mother said, seeing where my gaze had settled.
I looked back at her, noticing for the first time how strangely she was dressed. Instead of a simple blouse and skirt like she usually wore around the inn, she was wearing… well… leather…and not very much of that… beneath a cloak of sorts. With metal bracers on her arms and two funny looking weapons tucked into knee-high boots. Attached to her belt was a circular piece of metal. "Is that…?"
"My chakram," Mother said, watching my face intently.
"Xena's chakram," I said, testing the idea.
Mother smiled. "It was, once," she agreed.
"Her ghost has been with me, you know," I said, wondering what her reaction would be.
She was surprised, but not in the way I thought. In fact, for a moment I thought she would start crying again. "I'm glad," she finally said. She stood up slowly, stiffly, absently rubbing a scar on her side that I'd never seen before. I also noticed that she had a sword strapped to her back. "Do you think you can travel?" she asked. "Horseback?"
I didn't want to. I never wanted to move again. But I nodded anyway. I would do anything for her, even if it killed me.
She looked at me apologetically. "I hate to ask it of you, sweetie, but Virgil needs help."
Virgil! "You mean he's alive?" A wave of relief flowed through me.
She nodded. "He's been wounded, though, and I had to leave him to find you. I'd like to get you both back to the cave before it rains tonight."
There wasn't a cloud in the evening sky, but she said it with such certainty, I didn't doubt her.
"Stay put, love, I'm just going to get my horse."
I closed my eyes, trying to conserve my strength. By the time she came back leading a big brown mare that I vaguely recognized as belonging to farmer Diocles (the inn's closest neighbor), I was shivering again, half dreaming.
I was only half aware of her bundling me up onto the horse. She sat behind me, holding me in place.
"I need you to stay awake for me for a little while, Thalia," she said. "Why don't you tell me about Athens?"
I nodded, and started telling her about the Academy and my friends there. At least, I tried to. I was probably babbling and not making a lot of sense, but Mother didn't seem to mind.
"I had a chance to study there," she said when I started to doze off.
That caught my attention. "You did?" I perked up, wanting to turn around to see if she was teasing me, but when I tried to turn, it pulled the stitches in my back painfully.
"Uh-huh. But I decided I'd rather live the adventures rather than stay in Athens just telling about them."
"Not me. I never want to leave home again," I muttered. "I didn't think you liked stories very much," I said, focusing on my hands, which were twisted in the mare's mane of hair.
"I love your stories," she said, and I could hear the smile in her voice. "But when I was your age, I wanted to be a bard, too."
"Really?" I did not know this. I had never imagined. I thought briefly that maybe I was dreaming the whole conversation. And the dead dwarves. And Mother armed with weapons.
"Perhaps I should tell you a story," Mother said, giving my arm a little squeeze. "Did you know that Xena, your favorite warrior princess, had a son named Solon?"
"No…" I said, "But she told me about Eve." At least, I think she did.
"Oh," she said, clearly taken aback. After a moment of silence she continued, "Well, she also had a son…"
I listened in fascination as Mother told me all about Xena's son and how Gabrielle's demon daughter, Hope, had caused his death. The story held me spellbound. Mother was a superb storyteller; much better than Xena, who always left most of the descriptive details out and tended to dwell too much on the fights and battle strategies. She finished by telling about the death of Hope at the hands of the Destroyer.
When she finished, we rode in silence for a long while. "Mother?" I finally said.
"You would have been an excellent bard."
"But why tell me such a depressing story?"
"Mmmmm," she said. "For myself, I think… to remind me of the folly of mothers trying to protect their children. And to keep you awake. I know how you love Xena stories."
"I'm not dead yet."
She hugged me gently. "Thank the gods," she whispered.
Thunder was rumbling overhead when Mother finally helped me limp into a small cave in a cliff above the river, mostly concealed by forest undergrowth. She cleared a spot of the biggest rocks and unrolled a sheepskin for me to lie on. Tucking me in, she kissed my cheek. "Stay put, sweetie. There's water beside you if you're thirsty. It would do you good to drink it if you can. I'll be back with Virgil as soon as I can."
"Mother?" I asked, feeling sleep tugging at my eyelids.
"Is he really my father?"
She was quiet for a moment. "Yes," she finally nodded.
"Did you know he is a great warrior?"
She smiled slowly. "Yes, I did." She stood up, turning to look back at me from the cave entrance where raindrops were beginning fall against the flash of lightening. She grinned mischievously. "But he's an even better poet."
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