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
The sound of voices roused me from a stupor. I felt strange, disconnected. It took too much effort to open my eyes, so I just lay there, floating in the limbo between waking and unconsciousness.
"Hold still, Virgil," Mother was saying. "Iola will have my hide if my stitching leaves you with a ragged scar."
"Just like old times, huh?" my father said. "Don't worry. Iola thinks my scars are sexy."
Mother murmured something noncommittal. "I'm glad she's made you so happy," she said after a few moments. "It would be fun to meet your children."
"I'd like that," Virgil said. "You should bring Thalia to Rome. I bet she'd love to… Ouch! What was that for?"
"That was for breaking your promise and telling her who you are," Mother said, though she didn't really sound angry.
"Like I told you, I was trying to convince her to leave with me to go someplace safe…"
"I know, Virgil, and for that I'm very grateful. But I confess that when I saw her being beaten by those dwarves I was ready to kill you as well as them…" Her tone was only partially teasing.
"I'm sorry," Virgil said seriously. "I…I was afraid for Iola and the kids. I wasn't thinking clearly. And I knew you'd get to us before we reached Denmark. If I had known…"
"Shhhhh," Mother said. "What's done is done. She's young. She'll recover and have a great story to tell."
"Are you sure you want that?" Virgil asked quietly.
Mother sighed. "I should have told her the truth a long time ago. I've just been so afraid of the past catching up to me… I should be thankful it didn't happen sooner. There, I'm done. Rest if you can. I need to check on her. The wound on her back is infected, and she's running a fever."
"You should be proud of her," Virgil said. "She's handled herself with a level head through all of this."
"I've always been proud of her," my mother said. "She's my daughter."
"She's our daughter," Virgil said quietly. "I know we both agreed that I wasn't going to have any part in her upbringing. But you can't… I can't do that any more… not now that I've met her."
I smiled to myself and tried to open my eyes when her cool hand touched my forehead.
"It's all right, love," Mother said softly. "It's just me. I'm going to roll you over so I can clean the wound on your shoulder."
Her ministrations were gentle, but I still had to bite my lip to keep from crying out. I had to smile, though, when Virgil started snoring on the other side of the cave.
She sighed. "You want to know about me and your father."
She knew me too well. "Yes…"
"I'm done here. Do you want to lie on your stomach or your back?"
"This is fine," I mumbled, hoping she wasn't trying to change the subject.
She sighed again. "Virgil and I were close friends. We'd journeyed to Rome to find the sister of a friend who'd been killed by raiders. We needed to tell her the bad news. Her name was Iola, and she was very beautiful, half Egyptian. Iola took the news about her brother very hard, and Virgil took it upon himself to console her. After only a week it became obvious to me that they were… well, very special together. I knew they'd fall in love." Mother hesitated here, and I could hear the pain in her voice as she continued. "I'd lost so many people who were dear to me, you see, that… oh, how do I explain it?"
"Were you in love with him?"
"I loved him as a friend, but no more, just as he loved me as a friend, but no more. Even so, it was hard for me to lose him to Iola."
"But… why wouldn't he have still been your friend?" I asked, not understanding.
"Oh, sweetie, he will always be my friend. But Iola lived in Rome, and I knew Virgil would want to stay with her. He wanted to have a family, to settle down. And, well, I did too. But not in Rome. And not with him. Greece was my home, and your Aunt Lila was getting older and needed me."
She stopped there, as if that was the end of the story, but there was still so much missing.
"So…. what, you seduced him?" I asked, only half teasing.
Mother chuckled softly, and I imagined her blushing at my forwardness. "Not exactly. No, it was, um, more deliberate than that. But I wanted a child, and he agreed to be the father." She took a deep breath. "I asked him to stay out of our lives, Thalia. The reasons are complicated, but I also knew that if he believed I wanted and needed him to be your father, he would never have stayed in Rome, and he would never have courted Iola. He would have denied his love for her to be with me, and I was not going to be responsible for his unhappiness."
"She also knew I was just enough of a fool to get you killed," Virgil said softly from the other side of the cave. "And she was right."
I wished I had decided to roll over onto my back because I couldn't see either of their faces, and the silence in the cave was pregnant with meaning. They were sharing a moment together, and I wanted to be a part of it, if only as an observer.
I finally groaned when it became too uncomfortable. "Not…. dead…. yet…!" I mumbled into my pillow.
Mother laughed. "You goof," she said, lightly smacking an uninjured spot on my back. "I named you so well."
"Hey," Virgil protested. "I picked her name."
"You did not!"
"I did, too! Remember, you gave me a list, and I had to choose a boy's name and a girl's name…"
"Oh, gods, you're right…" Mother said. "Thalia, if you hate your name, you can blame your father."
"I've always liked my name," I said.
"Ha!" Virgil said triumphantly. Then, "Oh… my ribs! Okay… gloating… not good…"
Mother chuckled. "You both need to rest. No more talk, tonight."
She stroked my cheek when I started to protest. "I'll answer all your questions when you're feeling better, love. I promise."
End of discussion. But it was probably for the best. I was more likely to remember the details if we waited until I didn't have such a terrible headache.
I think it was a crash of thunder that fully woke me. I had been aware of the crackling of a fire before my bleary consciousness identified it as such. I could feel the heat warming my face. I was lying on my side, and I still felt exhausted, though I knew I'd been asleep. Virgil was snoring again. I was afraid to move, but I did open my eyes. Mother was sitting next to a small fire, the smoke venting out the entrance to the cave. She was stirring something in a small pot. It was still dark outside. She looked tired. I wondered how long it had been since she'd last slept. She smiled when she noticed me watching her.
"How do you feel?" she asked quietly.
"Okay," I tried to say. I don't think it came out coherently, though. Besides, it was a lie.
Mother understood, anyway. "I have something here to help with the fever and pain," she said, pouring some liquid from the pot into a ceramic mug. Moving to my side, she helped me roll over onto my back, and then supported me while I sipped from the mug.
"Slowly," Mother cautioned me. "Let's see how it settles on your stomach."
Under normal circumstances, I might have found the taste noxious, but the promise of pain relief transformed it into ambrosia. Well, not so bad that I couldn't drink it, anyway.
"When was the last time you ate?" Mother asked.
I tried to think. I wasn't sure how much time had passed. And I was getting very sleepy again.
"Was it with Virgil?"
Mother touched my face. "Sleep, sweetheart. I'll have some soup ready when you wake up."
"You need rest, too," I mumbled. "You look awful."
She chuckled softly. "Always looking out for me, aren't you? Don't worry; as soon as I get the soup on the fire, I'll be following you into Morpheus's realm. I am tired. This saving-the-world business gets harder as you get older."
"I think it's already hard," I whispered to myself, but Mother's sympathetic smile told me that she'd heard it anyway.
Sleep came quickly.
I have only vague memories of the next day or two - Mother forcing me to eat even though I wasn't hungry; the painful cleaning of various cuts, wounds, and abrasions; Virgil's curses and complaints from the other side of the fire; Xena singing to me; and the oddest picture of Mother entering the cave with a dead boar slung over her shoulder. She looked more like an Amazon than an innkeeper. And I was never very comfortable, always too hot or too cold, with rocks jabbing me painfully no matter how many times I shifted, and a constant throbbing headache that none of Mother's potent medicines seemed to touch.
Then, one day, I just woke up feeling remarkably more like myself.
Of course, Mother was soon by my side, mug in hand. "How are you feeling?" she asked.
"Better," I said. Even my headache had dulled.
She nodded. "You fever broke last night." She smiled. "You still need more rest, but tomorrow I'm sure I'll have trouble keeping you down."
"How's Virgil?" I asked, concerned that he didn't seem to be moving - or snoring - where he lay.
"He'll be fine. I gave him a sleeping drought not too long ago. He won't be well enough to travel for a few more days, though."
I thought about asking if we were going to go back to Greece, but I wasn't sure I wanted to have that discussion at the moment. I just wanted to enjoy having a clear head without worrying about the future.
"Are you hungry?" Mother asked.
I nodded, and she chuckled at my enthusiasm.
"That's more like the daughter I know," she grinned.
After eating a bowl of stew, Mother helped me stand up and go outside the cave to do my toilet. For the first time, I was able to really look around and appreciate the view. The cave overlooked the river, and it had a breathtaking view of the snow capped mountains on the other side of the valley. I wondered if this was the cave that Xena had been leading me to. I noticed smoke rising across the way and turned to see if Mother had noticed it, too.
"Beowulf," she said in answer to my unspoken question.
"He's alive?" I asked, thinking it had to be too good to be true.
She nodded. "He lost many of his men, but such a large group of dwarves followed you and Virgil that they were able to defeat the remainder."
I was glad, very glad. I had been avoiding thinking about Beowulf… and Arni and the other Vikings who had been so nice to me. "Does he know we're here?"
Mother nodded. "I met them on the road last night. They're traveling slowly because of wounded, but they decided to camp until we determine what to do next."
Next. Here was that discussion again, but I didn't want to start it now any more than I had before. Glancing at Mother, I realized that she didn't look particularly eager to start it, either.
With a sigh I sat down gingerly in a patch of bright sunlight. It felt good to be outside in the open air, and the sun chased away a few of the shadows lingering in my mind.
Mother sat down beside me.
For a while we just watched the river flowing below us, listening to the slight breeze whispering through the trees at our back.
It occurred to me that she was waiting for me to start asking questions. And I knew, this time, she would answer them all.
Trouble was, it was like being handed Pandora's box. Once I opened the box, things would never be the same again. I loved my mother, and I didn't want things to change between us. She had kept her past hidden from me for a reason. And I was starting to realize that whatever her secrets were, they had the power and potential to hurt me. To hurt both of us. Truth be told, sitting there with her comforting presence beside me, I realized that I was terrified of opening that box. I didn't know what I would be turning loose.
But I was fairly certain it would turn my world inside out. And I wasn't ready for that.
"The stew was delicious," I said.
Mother gave me an odd look, then smiled. "Thank you."
"Did you kill the boar?" I asked.
"Could you teach me how to hunt boars?" I asked.
Again, that odd look. "Do you want to learn?"
I thought about it. I couldn't imagine myself trying to kill a boar, even if I was hungry. There was less dangerous prey one could hunt. "No, I guess not."
"Well," Mother grinned knowingly, "If you ever change your mind, I'd be happy to teach you."
"What else can you teach me that I didn't know you could do?" I teased.
She raised an eyebrow. "I have many skills," she said.
It was another invitation to talk, but my mind screamed, "Don't open the box! Don't open the box! " I closed my eyes. My emotions were in turmoil.
When I opened them again, she was watching me with something almost akin to dread, as if she was afraid the questions would finally come. But the dread quickly vanished in a smile that was intended to be reassuring, but nearly broke my heart for its sadness.
"Mother?" I whispered.
"Thank you for saving me."
She took me in a hug. "Oh sweetie, I love you so much."
"I love you, too."
It was all that needed to be said.
That evening I was feeling well enough to help her prepare dinner. Apparently she had given the remainder of the boar to Beowulf and his men, but she had caught several fish for our own meal. I was given the task of preparing a few vegetables to go with them.
Once I was done, and the fish started to sizzle in the frying pan (and how did Mother manage to hide all that gear in a pair of saddle bags?), Virgil woke up as if on cue.
"Mmmmm," he said, sitting up and stretching. He grinned when he saw me. "You're looking better," he said.
"I feel better," I said, returning his grin.
"So what do I smell cooking?" he asked, looking at the pan. "Fish?"
"Wonderful! Nobody makes better fish than your mom." He looked around. "Where is she, by the way?"
"Out taking care of the horse."
"Ah," he nodded.
An awkward silence ensued.
Finally, he took a deep breath. "Listen, Thalia… I'm really sorry about all this…"
I shook my head and waved my hand to keep him from going on. "No, it's okay. You didn't mean for it to happen. I understand. Really, it's not your fault. In fact, I… I'm kind of glad it did. You have no idea how badly I've always wanted to meet you… I'm sorry I didn't react very well when you told me."
His face broke into a smile that warmed my heart. "Can we start over with a clean slate, then?"
I nodded happily, and we just sat there grinning stupidly at each other for a moment until Mother appeared in the cave entrance with a load of firewood in her arms.
"Thalia, you're letting the fish burn," she said as she dropped her load of wood near the fire.
Hastily I moved to turn the fish.
"How are you feeling, Virgil?" Mother asked as she arranged the wood in a compact stack.
"The leg is still pretty sore," he said. "But my ribs are feeling better. I can take a deep breath without it hurting too badly. I could probably travel with a crutch. Or on horseback."
Mother shook her head. "Not for at least another three days," she said. "I don't want you tearing those stitches out."
"Beowulf won't want to wait that long," my father said.
Mother sat down crossed legged beside me. "Beowulf isn't going anywhere until he knows what we plan to do."
"…And what is that?" Virgil said without hesitation, causing me to almost laugh. Apparently he had no clue that the subject might be an awkward one, and I briefly wondered if this was what Joxer had been like with Xena and Gabrielle, always plunging ahead with complete obliviousness to the sensitivity of certain topics.
Or maybe it was just a guy thing.
In any case, I was glad I wasn't the one bringing it up. Especially given Mother's scowl.
Interestingly, Xena chose that moment to step out of the shadows at the back of the cave.
"Heya kiddo," she said. "Glad to see you sitting up. You had me pretty scared a couple times there."
"Sorry," I said. "Thanks for helping me." I was glad I was being given the opportunity to get all those "thank you's" out of the way.
"Anytime. You did well."
I grinned at the praise. "Well, I wouldn't have gotten very far without you."
"Thalia?" Mother said, interrupting Xena's reply. "Who are you talking to?"
I know I must have turned beet red. "Oh, uh…" I waved my hand in Xena's direction. "Xena's ghost… She just appeared over there…"
The blood drained from Mother's face. I had never seen another human being go so completely ashen.
"Mother?" I asked in alarm.
She looked in the direction I had pointed and swallowed. "Is she really here?" she finally asked.
I was shaken by her reaction, unsure of how to answer. "Uh… well… I see her… and I hear her… and the Volva sensed her presence. And she told me that Joxer was my grandfather… So… if that's true, I guess she is."
Virgil nodded thoughtfully, but Mother's face twisted in unbearable pain.
I looked to Xena for some sort of explanation. But her attention was entirely focused on Mother, and her expression was no less agonized.
In a brilliant bit of deduction, I suddenly realized that they must have known each other.
In fact, it appeared that they must have cared for each other.
"Tell her I'm sorry I stopped believing in ghosts," Mother whispered.
"Tell her I'm sorry I left," Xena said softly at the same time.
In a second bit of brilliant deduction - based on the anguish on both their faces - I came to the astonishing conclusion that here was the source of my Mother's pain.
"It was someone else who broke her heart, " Virgil had said.
Xena had broken my mother's heart.
Not my father. Who was Joxer's son. Who had been Xena and Gabrielle's good friend and traveling companion.
Who… my gods…
Virgil was the Virgil, Xena and Gabrielle's friend, the great poet of Rome. My father… was Virgil, the poet. It fit. It made sense. It was as if one critical piece of a giant puzzle had finally snapped into place. It was a glorious piece, and a glorious fit, and a glorious thought.
"Honey, are you all right?" my mother asked, concerned, her focus firmly back on me.
But not half so glorious as the promise of the third revelation that was staring me in the face at that moment. Xena, warrior princess, had no doubt broken many hearts over the years of her life, but I could think of only one short, blonde haired woman who figured prominently enough in her stories to evoke the reaction I had just seen on her face.
For a moment, I couldn't find any words. It was so improbable, so impossible, that I could hardly even think it. Certainly, I couldn't give voice to such a thought.
After all, Gabrielle, the infamous Battling Bard of Potidaea, was dead, killed seventeen years ago by barbarians in Gaul.
Everybody knew that. The whole world knew it. It was recorded as historical fact.
Virgil, my father, wouldn't have lied about such a thing, would he? He couldn't possibly have built a career and a Roman academy on nothing but a lie, could he?
"Sweetheart, what's wrong?" Mother asked again, "You're scaring me, love."
Xena, on the other hand, had started to grin. "Go ahead and ask her."
"Do you have a tattoo?" I finally blurted. Okay, so it wasn't the most direct thing I could have asked, and probably not the question that Xena was prompting me to ask, but the story of Xena's demise in Japa was the most heart rending tragedy of all time, in which Gabrielle's dragon tattoo played an important roll. It had also gotten her named the "Golden Dragon" of Egypt by the storytellers of that land. And I couldn't just come out and ask my mother, the innkeeper of Amphipolis, the shy and reclusive and overprotective innkeeper of Amphipolis, if she just happened to be the supposedly long dead subject of twelve years of my unadulterated hero worship.
"Yes, I do," she said with half a smile.
"A… a dragon tattoo… on your back? From Japa?"
Her smile deepened, but her eyes were still sad. "The dye has faded over the years."
"Oh my gods," I breathed. "Oh my gods. You're… you… you… you're still alive!"
My mother raised an eyebrow.
"I mean… I don't know what I mean! I'm delirious, aren't I?"
Mother chuckled, and kissed my forehead. "No doubt," she said.
"But… you're… you're… you're really….?"
"Gabrielle, the 'infamous' Battling Bard of Potidaea, as you're so fond of calling me?" my mother supplied when I couldn't say the name. "Yes, I'm afraid so."
"Oh my gods! Oh my gods!" My head spun. The world spun. Everything that I knew about the universe had just been turned on its ear. "Oh my gods!" But even the gods couldn't have stopped the laughter that boiled up inside me. My mother was Gabrielle of Potidaea!
Mother grinned as I sat there, giggling in ridiculous delight.
My mother was one of the greatest heroes of all time!
Eventually I couldn't contain myself any longer, and I threw myself into her arms. "I can't believe it! I just can't believe it!"
She chuckled. "Does this mean I'm forgiven for not telling you sooner?"
"Are you kidding?" I asked, pulling away, still grinning broadly. "I intend to milk this for the rest of my life…! What a great story!"
Mother's smile faded, but it was Xena who violently shook her head. "No Thalia, don't you understand? If people realize who your mother is, even after all this time, it will make you a target. They'll hurt you to hurt her. That's why she hid her identity so carefully all these years. To protect you. She still has many enemies out there. And even more people who would come to her asking for her help, making her feel guilty if she didn't… getting angry when she refused."
"Thalia," Mother said slowly, but I interrupted her.
"No, no… it's not a story I can tell, is it?" I said. "This is what will keep happening to me if people know… isn't it? This time Denmark…next time Persia… then who knows who would come looking for me…"
Mother nodded, relief flooding her eyes.
"Don't worry, your secret is safe with me. But…don't you want to be who you really are…? I mean… I know you don't love the inn like Sarah does."
"Oh sweetie, I do love the inn. These past sixteen years have been very happy for me." She tapped my nose. "Although I do miss shopping," she grinned.
Shopping. Telling stories. Sleeping late. Chatting with strangers. Hobnobbing with kings and queens. Saving the world. In an instant I chronicled all the things I knew about Gabrielle of Potidaea - the things she loved to do in her stories - things that my mother never did. Things she'd given up to hide her identity, to protect me. And, for a moment, I was completely staggered by her sacrifice.
"Hey," she said gently. "Why the long face?"
"You gave up… everything… so much…" I stammered.
Mother smiled, and took my hand. "Sweetheart, someday you may have children of your own, and then you'll understand why it was not as much of a hardship as you think. I don't regret any of it."
I thought about that while she leaned forward to fuss with the fish.
I swallowed, then grinned to myself. "But you could have been Queen of Egypt, and I could have been a princess!" I said, pretending to be indignant.
She laughed. "Well, I guess you'll just have to settle for being an Amazon princess, instead."
By the gods, Gabrielle had been an Amazon queen.
My mother was an Amazon queen.
And I was an Amazon princess?
An Amazon princess?
Across the fire, Virgil started laughing. Xena chuckled from the back of the cave. Mother reached over and physically closed my hanging jaw. "Trust me, sweetie, being royalty isn't all it's cracked up to be." She began dishing up the fish onto metal plates. I wondered for a moment if she might not magically produce a dining table and chairs as well.
"Eat," she said, handing me the plate.
It seemed like such an incongruous command given the magnitude of recent revelations that I just stared at my food, still trying to process all the information screaming for attention inside my head. Then my stomach growled, and I became aware of what my body was trying to tell me.
I was hungry.
So I ate.
After all, who could disobey an order given by the infamous Battling Bard of Potidaea?
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