Disclaimers - This story is set over twenty years after FIN. Please forgive my butchery of Norse mythology and European geography in general.
Violence - There is some mild violence, but nothing too graphic or gory. Many thanks to my excellent beta readers, Jill, Kam, Extra, and the other members of the Bardic Circle. Jess, thank you for prodding me to work on this every now and then. Kam, Extra, I really don't know what I'd do without you. All comments are welcomed at: email@example.com
The next morning was one of the few times in my life that I actually awoke before my mother. I watched her sleeping for a moment, still hardly able to believe that she was Gabrielle of Potidaea. My Mother! It was the best story ever.
I went outside the cave to watch the sun rise. As I settled on a grassy spot with a good view of the river, Xena appeared and sat down beside me.
"Hey," she said.
"Hey yourself," I said.
"How are you feeling?"
"Okay," I said. "My back still hurts whenever I move, but it isn't unbearable."
"Recovering from wounds is never fun."
I looked at her, as if seeing her for the first time. This really was Xena, the Xena, the warrior Xena who had had many wounds in her life, and had been the love of my mother's life. "Why did you never tell me?" I asked.
There were probably a zillion and a half dozen things that she had never told me, but she knew which one I meant.
"It wasn't my place," she said. "And I agreed she was right not to tell you until you were old enough to understand the reasons for the deception."
"If all this hadn't happened, she might never have told me!"
Xena smiled. "I don't believe that's true, Thalia. It was only a matter of time. She wanted you to know. She just didn't know how to tell you."
I guess I could understand that. If she had just blurted it out over dinner sometime I probably would have died from shock right there on the spot. Or not believed her at all. And that would have been hard for her. Maybe it was better that I figured it out for myself.
We sat in silence for a few moments. I could see the light growing behind the mountains to the east. Sunrise was not far away, and it would be a different world today than it had ever been before.
"You're not going to leave us, are you?" I asked, suddenly afraid that she would disappear with the light, and I would never see her again.
"Well, the sun is almost up," she said nodding in that direction.
"But… I mean… you'll be back tonight, won't you?"
"Of course," she said, seriously. "I won't leave your mom again."
I hesitated for a second, but I really wanted to know the answer, so I asked, "So… why did you? I mean… leave her? In Japa…"
Xena thought for a moment before answering. "I thought it was my chance to redeem myself. Ten thousand souls depended on me. It was for the greater good." I could hear the grief in her voice as she answered, though none of it showed on her face.
"It was for the greater good," a voice echoed behind me, and I turned to see Mother standing there. She smiled at me. "I never blamed her for her choice."
Mother was looking directly at Xena, and Xena had an expression of excruciating pain on her face. I felt caught in a wave of emotion. Were things always this way between them? It was like being caught between a tempest and a tidal wave. Such power…. No wonder they had changed the course of history together. No wonder they did not bow down even to the gods. Their very presence together was a tangible force. You could get a sense of it from Gabrielle's stories, of how they battled anyone or anything that stood in their way. Overthrowing tyrants, monsters, kings, and emperors. Yes, even shaking the foundations of Olympus and burning the loom of the Fates. But experiencing it in person, watching the expressions on their faces… well, even given the eloquence of all the greatest bards of history, I could never put it into words. Not adequately. But the hair on my arms was standing on end in mute testimony to the charged atmosphere, and a shiver ran down my spine.
"I can see you, Xena," my Mother said softly.
Xena nodded wordlessly.
"Did I stop because I stopped believing?" Mother asked.
Xena shook her head. "No. I left. You know why, I think."
Mother wiped a tear from her cheek. "Yes." She sat down beside Xena.
Xena reached out towards her cheek. "Gabrielle…"
The sun peeked above the mountaintops, and I blinked in the sudden light. When I looked again, Xena was gone.
Mother's head sank. "Now I must hate sunrises, too," she whispered.
After a moment, unable to bear her grief, I moved to Mother's side and put my arm around her shoulders. "She'll be back," I told her. "She promised me."
Mother lifted her head and smiled at me.
Gods, how did she do that? Click, the sadness was gone and the smile was on her face. The pain only lingered in her eyes for a moment as she looked at me.
"I'm glad you're here," she said, putting her arm around my waist and giving me a squeeze.
We sat that way for a long time, taking comfort from each other as the sun slowly rose. It felt good. Usually Mother was the one consoling me. It was nice to be able to return the favor.
"Is the greater good worth it?" I asked.
Mother sighed and turned towards me. "Wow. That's… a difficult question…"
I looked at her and saw the pain had returned, and I cursed myself for bringing it up. "Nevermind," I said. "Forget I asked."
"No," Mother shook her head. "It's a good question, and a relevant one. And it's good to know those knocks on your head didn't slow you down a bit." She grinned at me, ruffling my hair. "I just… I have to think about the answer for a moment."
I pulled my knees up and rested my chin on them.
"The simple answer, of course, is ‘yes,'" Mother said. "If goodness could be measured on a scale, who could argue that ‘greater' good was not worth more than ‘lesser' good… or any measure of evil, for that matter, right?"
"The problem comes when you try to define what's good, what's bad, and how… and who…. is measuring it."
Yeah. That was the catch.
"Take Xena, for example," Mother continued. "For so many years, she thought only of herself. She defined ‘good' by what was good for her, not other people. Sacking villages…. well, that was good for her. But then Hercules taught her to see things differently. He made her see that serving the ‘greater good' often meant sacrificing oneself for others. In Japa, Xena sacrificed herself for the good of ten thousand souls. One for ten thousand… to her, it was redemption for all the harm she had done before."
"But it hurt you both so much," I said, thinking out loud. Thinking about everything and everyone who Mother had lost…. Xena, Aunt Lila, grandma and grandpa… the stories flashed through my mind… Eli, Joxer, Hope, Ephiny, all those Amazons… everyone she'd ever loved… except me, Sarah, and Virgil.
Mother smiled. "That's why it's called ‘sacrifice.'"
"You were meant to be together," I said. It wasn't right. It wasn't fair.
Mother looked at me, and I could almost hear her thoughts. No, we obviously weren't meant to be together, because we aren't together. Finally, she sighed. "We each have to choose our paths in life, Thalia. Xena chose the path of the warrior, and she was the best ever. She lived as a warrior and died as a warrior. That was her way, her path, her truth. What happened in Japa was the fulfillment of her life. How can I not respect and admire that?" She smiled. "Besides, if Xena had lived, I might never have had you."
I know that she intended that to be a comfort to me; that somehow I made all of it worthwhile to her, but I also knew she had never gotten over her love for Xena… the grief was still with her even after all these years. Xena's path had been that of a warrior. But what was Mother's path? Bard, warrior, mother? I thought back to some of her early scrolls. Disciple of Eli? Amazon queen? Had Mother ever found her path? She'd given up her whole identity to become my mom. And that couldn't be right. Though I was most certainly grateful for it.
"Thalia, look at me," she said, turning my chin so I had no choice. "Xena would do it again. And so would I."
Funny, but I didn't find that a bit comforting. "So it was worth it," I finally said slowly.
"Yes," she said.
"And you're going to go on with Beowulf?" I asked. "Because it's for the greater good?"
She was silent for a moment, realizing, perhaps, that this was where I had been heading all along. "Yes," she sighed.
"Then I'm going to go with you."
The sadness filled her eyes like spring water, but she nodded her consent. "I need to feed the horse," she said hoarsely, standing.
I didn't follow. I hated it when mother cried. I hated it more than anything. Except maybe Loki, because this was all his fault. None of this was right. It was all wrong. Horribly wrong. I hid my face in my hands and started crying.
"I'm not very good at this, am I?" I asked sadly, looking at the staff in my hands. I'd asked Mother to teach me how to use it while we were still waiting for Virgil to heal. Er…for my father to heal. I still thought of him as Virgil more often than not, but I was trying to change that. Anyway, perhaps realizing that we were going to be traveling into more and greater danger, Mother decided that it wouldn't hurt to teach me how to defend myself with a staff, since I requested it. We'd spent a morning making it. But I knew that actually using it was turning out to be a pointless exercise. Unless, of course, my opponent was more of a bumbling idiot than me…or perhaps already incapacitated - you know, knocked over the head and stumbling around blind. Otherwise I would be too slow, too awkward, too…. ineffective. Face it. I was a goner in a real fight.
"Well, I don't think we need to worry about Ares trying to push you into being his chosen champion any time soon," Mother teased me.
"I'm sorry," I said, hoping she wasn't too disappointed in me.
Mother frowned. "Thalia, I never wanted you to take the path of the warrior. If I had, I would have had a sword in your hand by age two. You have nothing to be ashamed of. You have other gifts, love… wonderful talents. And with time and practice at this, you will improve."
"But never enough to be great at it, like you."
"Only time will tell."
"But not likely," I pushed.
"It takes a wise person to realize their weaknesses, and a great person to admit to them," she said.
I thought about that for a minute. I could really understand why Sarah thought Mother was wise, now. How had I not seen it before? "That's why people considered Joxer to be such a fool, isn't it?"
Mother looked surprised by the reference. "Possibly." She hugged me. "You, however, will never be considered a fool."
"Just a clumsy oaf."
"Not even that. You can't expect to shoot up like a beanstalk without a little awkwardness, Thalia. You're just not used to your height yet. But you'll grow into it eventually."
If Loki doesn't kill us. Now there was a cheerful thought. "Nevertheless," I said, "I think I'll stick to the path of the bard." I held the staff out to her. "I'll never be a warrior, Mother."
She smiled, and I could tell she was proud of me. "You don't need to be. Keep it," she said. "It may yet come in handy."
I looked at her. "Mother?"
"What was… er… is your path?"
She frowned, and it took her so long to answer that I started to think that she wouldn't. "I think my path is to go where I am needed," she finally sighed. "Come on," she said, "let's make lunch."
But for some reason, I wasn't really hungry.
Beowulf crossed the river the next day to visit us. I threw myself into his arms, and he hugged me tightly.
"Thalia," he said, pushing me away. "You look well. It is good."
"Oh Beowulf," I said, "I'm so glad you're all right. I… I was afraid you'd all been killed…"
"We lost many, including the Volva," Beowulf said seriously, "Others, like Gudvær, were seriously wounded. But the dwarves paid dearly for their attack."
The Volva was dead? I shivered … surely that couldn't be a good omen. I wondered if the Vikings felt the same way, and if she'd foreseen her own death. Surely not, or she would have warned Beowulf about the attack. And I was sorry to hear about Gudvær.
"I must speak with Gabrielle," Beowulf said, looking around for Mother.
For one second, I wondered whom he meant; I wasn't used to hearing her called by that name. Then I grinned. "She's changing Virgil's… I mean… my father's… bandages," I said, nodding towards the cave entrance.
I followed Beowulf into the cave. Mother stood up to greet him. I didn't really mean to eavesdrop on their conversation, but I couldn't help but overhear bits and pieces as I tidied up after breakfast.
It was odd to hear the King of Denmark asking my mother for advice. It was even odder to hear her take control, discussing military strategy and tactics like an army general. I mean, sure, she commanded the inn's staff and operations with a firm yet subtle hand, but this was a little different. Although my father made an occasional comment, and Beowulf asked a few questions and made a few suggestions, for the most part, Mother talked and Beowulf listened. All in all, this was bigger, more important than running the inn. This was leading an army, saving the world. It was so complex. It was how to move the wounded; how to supply the troops. It was discussing what routes to take for the best protection balanced against the best possible travel times. And this time, her audience was a king. I was thrilled… I was watching Gabrielle of Potidaea in action!
It was finally decided that we would leave in two days. Only the wounded who could keep up on horseback would come. The others would stay behind, here, in the shelter of the cave until they were well enough to raise other troops for the battle against Loki in the event we failed.
I didn't like to think about that. If we failed, I'd never see Gudvær and the others again.
There was a happy reunion on the day we packed to leave. I was surprised by the tears that sprang to my eyes at the sight of Beowulf leading my old horse to me, no longer quite so fat. It looked decidedly unhappy at being saddled again after so many days without, and I had to laugh, thinking that it would have been much unhappier to have been eaten for dinner by a ravenous bunch of dwarves.
"Be grateful you're alive," I whispered in its ear.
Beowulf laughed when I told him the story why.
We moved north rather slowly, traveling only as fast as the safety of the slightly injured (such as my father) would allow us. I knew Mother was simultaneously frustrated by and glad of the slow speed… frustrated because she knew that Loki's strength grew daily, glad because it meant spending more time together with me… postponing the inevitable, I suppose.
She told me stories as we rode side-by-side… lots of stories. Stories of her youth. Stories about her journeys with Xena. Stories about her adventures after Xena died. I was in Elysium. Mother was an excellent storyteller, and though I was familiar with some of her tales from her scrolls and Xena's midnight ramblings, many of them were new, and even those that weren't took on a fresh perspective when told from her own lips. I wished that I had parchment and pen to take notes.
It was many days later when we heard the sound of hoofbeats approaching. We were in the middle of a dense forest. There was a cold mist in the air and the stench of a bog nearby. The place was already a bit creepy, but the sound of the warriors around me drawing their swords from their scabbards made my hair stand on end.
Out of the mist rode a small army of women warriors. My breath caught at the sight, and I was afraid for a moment until Beowulf gave a glad cry. "Reginleif!" he said in obvious relief.
Mother smiled at me. "Valkyries," she said, answering my unspoken question. "Stay here," she told me before trotting up beside Beowulf and my father.
I was a little disappointed. Hadn't Xena said that the Valkyries' horses rode through the air? But I had to admit that they looked impressive in their armor, bristling with weapons. There seemed to be a lot of them.
"King Beowulf, greetings!" the tallest of the women said, urging her horse a few steps in front of the others. She nodded at Gabrielle. "Gabrielle, it gives me great hope to see you. We had heard you died many years ago, and we toasted your valor with mead in the Hall of Heroes. I am Reginleif, leader of the Valkyries in Grimhild's absence. We met once when you visited Valhalla long ago."
Mother nodded. "I remember. It is good to see you again. I wish it were under more pleasant circumstances."
"I, too," the tall woman said. "Unfortunately, we do not have time to celebrate. We have ridden long and hard to meet you and King Beowulf."
"How did you know where to find us?" my father asked curiously.
The Valkyrie pointed at a tree. The raven was perched there on a bare branch. If birds could look smug, this one did. I wanted to roll my eyes. I was actually becoming fond of the thing.
"Ah," Mother said. "Have you come to help us free Odin?"
"Indeed. I also bring news to Beowulf." She looked at him with a serious expression that I suspected did not bode well for happy tidings.
"Say what you must," Beowulf said.
"Wiglaf leads your army in battle against Loki's giants and dwarves. They've been forced to retreat steadily with great losses. I'm afraid they're making a desperate stand barely two days north of here…"
"Denmark is no more, then," Beowulf said grimly, and the Vikings around me muttered in dismay.
Reginleif nodded sadly. "I'm afraid the bad news doesn't end there. Another large force has flanked them and is heading this way, following us. They will prevent us from joining your army."
"That was not our intention, anyway," Beowulf said slowly. "We planned to take the fight to Asgard and Valhalla. We hoped to find you so you could take us there. It will work in our favor if most of Loki's armies are battling here in Midgard. "
"We don't have enough horses for all of us to ride to Valhalla," Reginleif said. I frowned, gathering that she meant "flying" horses, because all of us were mounted.
"Loki is prepared for a mounted attack," Xena said, suddenly appearing beside Mother in the mist. "Fenrir is guarding the Bifrost bridge to prevent any Valkyries from returning that way. Even their horses will panic when facing that wolf."
Mother repeated Xena's words for the benefit of everyone else. "We'll be badly outnumbered wherever we go," Mother continued. "We need surprise on our side. And our first priority needs to be freeing Odin. Without him, we can't hope to win."
"Odin and our sisters have been imprisoned in the Well of Fate, Urdarbrunnr, at the base of Yggdrasil," Reginleif said.
"So we need to get to the World Tree as quickly as possible," father said thoughtfully.
"It, too, will be well guarded," Beowulf said.
"But it won't be as easily defended as Valhalla itself," Mother said. "Reginleif, is there any other way to get to Asgard besides riding your horses?"
The raven stretched its wings in the tree and gave a chorus of odd croaks.
"I know the way that must be taken," the Valkyrie nodded, her eyes on the raven. "The roots of Yggdrasil are many and far reaching," she said. "They will lead us to the Tree. But I do not know where to find them."
"Grendel's cave," Xena said, a light dawning in her eyes. "I can lead the way. It's not far, and Loki's giants won't be able to follow us in there if they find us, only the dwarves."
Xena's ability to walk through rock walls proved invaluable to our cause, and she led us through the mines and caves by routes that avoided our enemies. We'd left our horses behind, trusting the Valkyries' steeds to lead the others to safety. Occasionally we could hear pursuit behind us…echoes of shouts and clanking armor… but remarkably, we managed to stay ahead. For a while, anyway. Unfortunately, the dwarves were used to being underground. This was home to them, and we knew it was only a matter of time before they caught us. I was tired of running from dwarves, but I'd also experienced their cruelty first hand. The longer we wandered around underground, the more nervous I became.
Mother must have sensed it, because she kept a comforting hand on my shoulder. "Xena will keep us safe," she whispered.
Eventually we came to a huge cavern, large enough that all of us could fit into the same space with plenty of room left over. Though the roof of the cave was so high that it was barely touched by the flickering light of our torches, I thought I saw spidery shadows hanging down from above. Roots, I realized. As Beowulf's men explored, I saw gaps in the walls revealing pale, tree-sized roots twisting and worming their way through the rock from floor to ceiling. In some places the dirt and stone had fallen away around the roots, forming narrow openings and holes.
While Beowulf sent men to explore the largest of the root passages, hoping that one or more would lead to the surface of Asgard, Mother posted sentries in the tunnels behind us to warn of any approaching dwarves. Even if a way upwards was found, it would take time for all of us to wiggle our ways up…. however far up one had to climb to reach another plane of existence… It didn't take a genius to figure out that the dwarves were going to get here before we all could escape. And if they followed us up, we'd be attacked from behind as well as from in front.
Eventually, an excited shout sounded from one of the passages, and a dirt-covered Viking reappeared in an avalanche of small rocks. I gathered from his gestures that he'd found a way to the surface. Reginleif quickly disappeared into the hole followed shortly after by Beowulf. My father began ushering the others into an orderly line, waiting for their chance to climb after their leaders.
"Gabrielle," Xena said, waving from the main cavern entrance. "Come with me a moment."
Mother grabbed a torch from the closest Viking. Uninvited, I followed them both out of the cavern and back down the tunnel.
"Stay here," Mother told the sentries when they started to go with us.
Once we were well away from the sentries, Xena stopped. "The dwarves are coming," she said. "A lot of them. An army."
Gabrielle nodded. "Thalia, go back to your father. I'll stop them here."
I started to protest, but Xena beat me to it. "No, that's not necessary," she said. "I'm going to pull Brunhild's trick and turn into a wall of flame. That will stop the dwarves from following you up. You can find the Well of Fate, free Odin, and then attack Loki without worrying about an attack from behind."
"No!" Mother whispered, shaking her head. "There must be another way…"
"There are too many of them, Gabrielle."
They stood staring at each other, hands on hips, Mother looking miserable, Xena looking determined.
"I'm not underestimating your skills," Xena finally said. "There are five hundred enemies coming down this passageway, and you are desperately needed for the battle in Asgard. Who will free Odin if you're fighting down here?"
"Um…" I said fearfully, "Can you come back from that, Xena?" I mean, she was a ghost after all. It's not like she was going to die…. Was it?
Xena looked at me, then back at Mother. "I don't know," she finally said.
"Xena…!" Mother said, pleading.
"You know I'm right, Gabrielle."
"That doesn't mean I have to like it."
"The world is at stake."
"Screw the world, Xena."
To my surprise, Xena smiled at that, and after a moment, so did my mother. They stood smiling at each other for what seemed like an eternity until the clanking of armor and the shouts of dwarves rapidly approaching interrupted their silent communication and reminded them of our predicament.
Xena turned to me. "Take care of your mother, Thalia, and know that I love you." She looked at Mother, stepping back away from her, her back towards the approaching army. "I love you Gabrielle."
"I love you, too, Xena," Mother whispered, her voice cracking.
With a wry smile, Xena closed her eyes and raised her arms…. And burst into flames. I stepped back as a blast of heat hit my skin. The flames spread wall to wall and floor to ceiling, completely sealing off the tunnel.
Mother grabbed my hand, and I saw her trying to lock away the grief, but this time she failed. Her face twisted in pain as she angrily wiped away the tears from her cheeks. She pushed me towards the cavern. "Go Thalia," she said, gently. "We have to free Odin!"
When we reached the cavern again, many of the Valkyries had already disappeared, but the majority of Beowulf's men were still waiting for their chance to climb. Father ushered Mother and me forward.
"Go," he told us. "I'll guard the rear and make sure the others follow."
Mother nodded. "You don't have to worry about attack from behind," she said. "Xena is protecting our back." She squeezed my shoulder as I peered up into the narrow opening. I grimaced at the feel of the cold, slightly fuzzy root of the World Tree winding its way through the dark depths of the earth. "Up you go, love," she said.
I looked at her nervously, and she smiled. I smiled back.
And then I climbed. Up the tunnels formed by the roots of Yggdrasil, up the roots of the World Tree to Asgard…. to free Odin and fight Loki. Up, up, up. I was still sore from my previous batterings, and it wasn't long before my arms were aching from blindly pulling my weight upwards. Once again the rocks began to take their toll upon my skin as I wormed my way through narrow openings, scratching and clawing. Only the sounds of Mother following close behind and below kept me from stopping in exhaustion.
Eventually, I heard excited voices and shouts coming from above, and natural light began to filter down. As I reached the top, strong hands pulled me out into the open air, and a cacophony of noise assaulted me. Temporarily blinded by the light, I was pushed backwards and down, my back scraping painfully against something hard and unyielding behind me.
"Down, Thalia!" a Viking said, and I realized that he was trying to shelter me with his body. Apparently, the battle had already started.
I heard a piercing battle cry (was that my mother's voice?) followed by shouts and screams and the clanging of weapons. "To Odin! To Odin!" That, I thought, had been Beowulf. I held my breath as the sound of battle slowly edged away.
I was beginning to wonder if the Viking on top of me had somehow managed to pass out (or gods forbid, been killed in a very strange position), and I was becoming a bit concerned about the possibility of suffocating under his weight when he finally shifted, allowing me to breath freely again.
He moved to crouch beside me, and I sat up warily, finally allowed my first real view of Asgard. The hard and unyielding thing at my back turned out to be a huge tree… the widest, tallest tree I had ever seen. Looking up, I could not even see the top; it seemed to stretch into the sky itself, eventually lost in a blur of branches and green leaves. The trunk was so wide that our inn would easily fit inside it. Clearly, this was the World Tree.
"We make progress," the Viking grinned. "Your mother turned the tide!"
Good for Mom! I sought her out in the surrounding combat. A line of Vikings and Valkyries were battling a large group of dwarves and several giants (some of whom, terrifyingly, appeared to be breathing fire and others who appeared to be covered in frost, yet were unharmed by it). Our forces were gradually pushing them down the slope away from the Tree. I found my mother in the middle of the battle… saw her fling her chakram. Two giants fell, blood spilling from their throats… I covered my eyes in horror, suddenly feeling sick.
This was war… this was death. This was what it meant to be a warrior. This was what it meant that my mother was a warrior. I felt my stomach heave involuntarily. And this was why I would never, ever follow in her footsteps… At least not on this particular path…
"Thalia!" Suddenly, my father was beside me. He shook my shoulder, and I realized I had curled up into a tiny ball, having totally lost track of the passing of time.
I blinked up at him.
"Are you hurt?" he asked.
I shook my head.
His eyes told me that he understood my terror. "Stay here," he said. "Stay small and inconspicuous. If we lose the battle, hide… go back down the hole… run away… Whatever you do, stay safe and don't try to fight."
I swallowed. He didn't have to worry about that. My hands were shaking as hard as the ground from all the giants stomping around. It felt like there were hundreds of them stampeding towards us.
"Loki is bringing reinforcements; I have to go help your mom," he said.
I nodded, still unable to speak.
He kissed my cheek. "I love you, Thalia."
"I love you, too," I said.
He grinned, then turned away, sword in hand. I looked back at my feet as he joined the fray.
I took a deep breath, try to calm my fears. So much for me being the key to saving the world. I couldn't even watch like a good bard to record the details of the battle. I felt perfectly useless… cowardly and pathetic. Unfortunately, berating myself didn't make me feel any braver.
A rapidly-approaching, high-pitched, sizzling sound rudely interrupted my bout of private introspection, and I looked up to see a ball of fire shooting towards me. With a gasp I rolled out of the way, and it exploded on the ground in front of the Tree where I had been sitting. I crawled away from the intense heat, scanning to see if one of the fire giants had deliberately targeted me. I didn't notice any of them looking my way.
I debated if I should try to move around to the other side of the Tree where I might be more sheltered. But that would take me further from my bolt hole. Nervously I watched as the flames from the fireball started to lick at the base of the Tree. Nobody was paying it any attention. The battle continued to rage in a terrifying blur of chaos. Fire and ice flew through air. Screams, snarls, and screeches deafened me. Somewhere in the middle of that horrible mess were my mother… and my father, and Beowulf and the remaining Valkyries. It was hard to tell for certain, but it looked as if Odin and his allies might be winning.
My attention returned to the flames inching forward and upward. I wondered what would happen if the World Tree caught on fire and burned down. Somehow, I didn't think it would be a good thing. I surveyed the immediate area, spying a stone well off to the side, and I wondered if it had water in the bottom. If so, perhaps I could put the fire out before it hurt the tree. I crawled towards it, trying not to think about what might happen if a giant or dwarf noticed me.
I reached the well and pulled myself to my feet, grasping the low stone side of the well. It was then that I noticed the spinning wheels. There were three of them nestled between the great roots on either side of the well, with a grotesque tangle of threads spilled upon the ground around them. Some of the threads ran up and over the sides of the well disappearing into the darkness within. They pulsed and glowed with a sickly yellow light. I realized in shock that I was staring at the Wheels of Fortune, and the spinning of the Norns. This, then, was the Well of Fate, Urdarbrunnr, in which the gods had been imprisoned. And it wasn't likely to have any water in it.
I glanced back at the flames. To my relief, it looked as if they were dying out on their own, at least those that threatened the tree. Yggdrasil would be spared. And so would the Norns' wheels.
I stared at the twisted threads in fascination, sickened by their chaos.
…Once upon a time, I was the Empress of Rome, and Gabrielle was a playwright who lived in a vinyard by the sea… Xena's story suddenly came to mind. In that reality, Caesar had tampered with the Loom of the Fates. He'd changed things, to suit his purposes. It hadn't been meant to be that way. Mother and Xena had been meant to be together. And Mother had set things right when she burned the loom.
And, like that reality, this was not how it was supposed to be.
Loki had tampered with Fate.
Xena was dead before her time.
The gods were supposed to destroy each other in Ragnarok, not one side win a victory.
I remembered Athena's empty temple, and Mother's admonishment. "Gods are worse than spoiled children. Make your own destiny, Thalia, don't rely on them to do it for you." She'd taught me to follow my own path.
Suddenly I was angry. Mother was right. She knew. She understood. Her destiny had been tampered with once before. What had Loki done to it this time? Xena was dead before her time. How had he tampered with the past? Had he burned a village in Japa? Or spun a simple lie about the destiny of souls from the mouth of a ghost? The possibilities were endless.
The gods had no right to do this! That bastard Loki had caused my mother's heartbreak. All those years without her soulmate. All those years of grief. Mother's path had been with Xena. Where Xena went, she followed. And though she'd filled her void of grief with love for me, she'd given up herself to do it.
I didn't care what monster might have seen me as I turned and ran back to the patch that still burned at the base of the Tree. I stuck my staff into the flames until it caught fire, then walked resolutely back to the well.
I wasn't surprised to see three women standing there. Maiden, mother, crone, my mind supplied. Guarding the wheels. As if they knew what I intended.
"I am Urd," the first one said.
"I am Skuld," the second nodded.
"And I am Verdandi," said the third.
"I don't really care," I said.
"Have you thought what would happen to you if the Wheels of Fortune burned?" the old woman asked.
Well, no, this was sort of a spur of the moment thing, you know.
"If Xena hadn't died, would your mother have had a child?" the Skuld asked.
I didn't know. But then I remembered Mother's voice saying, "Besides, if Xena had lived, I might never have had you." If this reality was not how it was supposed to be, there was no guarantee that I was meant to be, either.
"Odin will defeat Loki," Urd said.
"You mother will survive," Skuld added.
"Your father will be wounded again, but will not die," Verandi finished.
So, if I did nothing, we'd all survive. Well, assuming I wasn't hit by a random fireball or get squashed by a passing giant while things were winding down. They hadn't actually said anything about me. But maybe that was implied.
It would be a happy ending.
Except… Xena would still be dead.
And my mother would still be heartbroken.
And there would never be a Ragnarok, and the gods would continue to toy with us (for better or worse) probably for all eternity.
And I would always know that I had had the chance to return things to how they were meant to be, but didn't.
"Can you fix this mess?" I asked the Norns.
"Can what is done be undone?" Skuld asked.
"We cannot see," Verandi said.
"We do not know," Urd finished.
I rolled my eyes. I should have expected such non-helpful non-answers.
But I did know that I had to live with whatever I decided. To be, or risk not being… that was the question. It would have made a great line in a story.
"Thalia!" I picked my name out of the jumble of noise around me.
I looked up and met my mother's frantic eyes. She was running towards me across the battlefield.
My mother, Gabrielle. Amazon Queen, warrior, and bard. She would stop me from doing this, I knew. She would not risk losing me, not even for the chance to get Xena back. But the story of Xena and Gabrielle was the greatest love story in all of history, and it had ended tragically. I was a bard, named after the muse of comedy. And this was a story I had a chance to rewrite… to rewrite the way it was supposed to be. Hopefully, to give it the happy ending it deserved.
"Thalia, no!" my mother shouted, ducking the swinging blade of a frost giant. "Don't do it!"
Always, I had been an obedient child. But Homer had taught me that sometimes you had to break the rules to be a better poet, and Mother had taught me to follow my path. I wasn't a warrior. I was a bard. And now was my chance to put this staff to use. "I love you," I mouthed at her, knowing she would see and understand, then turned away with tears stinging my eyes. Blindly, I pushed the burning end of my staff into the twisted threads. The Norns didn't stop me.
Together we watched as the flames consumed the tangles hungrily, heading quickly towards the looms.
"It is done," Urd said.
"For better or worse," Verandi said.
"Shut up!" I said, panicking, wondering what I had done, before Skuld could speak.
She looked at me, amused. "So be it."
And then the world exploded.
Maybe you've already guessed that if I had ceased to exist, there wouldn't have been anybody to tell this story. Or maybe it comes as a pleasant surprise. I hope so. In either case, it certainly came as a surprise to me, to find myself standing on a stage in a theater with my brain suddenly stuffed full with two sets of memories. Two times sixteen years worth of memories. Or would it make more sense to say thirty-two years worth of memories? I hardly knew who I was, or what I was doing.
I looked to my mothers for reassurance in the front row, and I could tell from their expressions that they were experiencing the same sense of overwhelming confusion. Xena, in particular, looked perplexed and amazed, staring at her hands like she'd never seen them before. Mom just looked stunned. But Virgil looked like a proud father, despite his long journey from Rome, and my cousin, Sarah, sitting next to him, smiled at me encouragingly, as if she hadn't noticed anything. I couldn't remember if she was the Sarah who was like my second mother, or the Sarah who I barely knew, having visited her only a few times over the years at her inn in Amphipolis. I'd spent most of my life traveling the world with my mothers. While they'd given up pursuing dangerous adventures once I'd been born, the traveling bug had never left them. And if they stopped a warlord or two in between destinations, they made sure I stayed safe in the process.
Mothers. I saw them look at each other, and, embarrassingly, Mom burst into tears, burying her face in Xena's shoulder. Xena hugged her closely, kissing the top of her head.
Gods, how mushy, and in public, too!
But then I had to grin, remembering why they were being so mushy.
"You may begin any time, Thalia," Homer prompted from the side of the stage. Suddenly, I knew him. He was my mentor, wasn't he? No, I'd never met him before. I was hoping to impress him today. Today…the competition to get into the Athens City Academy of Performing Bards. It was my dream, to become a bard. Wasn't it? I was supposed to tell a story, wasn't I? About Xena killing Athena… Or was that from a different life?
Mom was looking at me now, her hands covering her mouth, her eyes overflowing with tears. I could see the gratitude and undying love in her expression, as if she, too, remembered what I had done at the foot of the Tree of Life in Asgard, in a different reality, in a different life in which Xena had died before I had been born. Xena looked a little teary, as well, and I tried to remember if I'd ever seen her cry before. I didn't think so. Our life was generally happy, filled with laughter and love.
And even as I stood there, I felt the memories of that second life fading fast, almost as if it all had been a dream…. A dream of growing up in an inn without Xena, and of a mother who kept the truth from me to protect me from her past. I realized that I had a new story to tell, even though I hadn't had time to practice it. And I needed to get it out, get it out before I forgot the details.
Besides, it was such a great story!
And so I began. "I sing a song of another world," I said confidently. "This world, but not. I sing a song of what my mother never told me, and how I found it out…"
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