THE OTHER SIDE OF LIFE





“Hey, Herc! How many Spartans does it take to light a torch?”

Hercules rolled his eyes. Uttering a deep sigh, he shook his head. “Iolaus, why would I want to know how many Spartans it takes to light a torch?”

“Aw, c’mon,!” Iolaus grinned. “Work with me here.”

Repressing a smile, the demigod sighed again. “Okay, how many Spartans DOES it take to light a torch?”

Before Iolaus could answer, they heard a high-pitched piercing shriek.

“I don’t believe this,” Iolaus muttered even as he followed the running demigod down the path. “Every time...”

By the time the hunter caught up to his partner, he saw two bandits lying unconscious on the ground. Immediately spinning and catching another bandit with a heel kick to the side of his head, Iolaus quickly counted their opponents. He noticed an overturned cart and the body of a young woman lying in a pool of blood.

As another two bandits flew overhead, Iolaus maneuvered so he covered his partner’s back. The demigod simultaneously stepped to one side to avoid a sword thrust in his direction. He looked over his shoulder in stunned shock when Iolaus suddenly gasped and fell to his knees. The bandit’s sword had thrust past him into Iolaus’ back.

Enraged, the demigod grabbed the bandit and threw him against a nearby tree with brutal force. “Iolaus!” he yelled.

Iolaus struggled to breathe. He instinctively tried to reach the wound...to staunch the flow of blood he felt pouring from the wound.

Anxiously, Hercules spun around tossing another bandit away. “Iolaus! Answer me!” he demanded.

Suddenly the demigod heard a howl from the nearby woods. The bandits immediately broke off their attack and fled into the nearby woods.

Hercules hesitated only long enough to make sure the bandits weren’t returning before kneeling by his partner.

On his knees, Iolaus stared at his partner almost in shock. “Hey, Herc,” he managed to whisper.

“Take it easy,” Hercules urged. He gently lowered the smaller man to the ground. “Just...don’t move. And keep breathing!”

“Sounds good to me,” Iolaus muttered. He tried to smile but found he had enough problems just staying conscious.

“Don’t you dare quit on me,” Hercules warned in a biting tone of voice. “You hear me, Iolaus? I am NOT going through this again.” He quickly ran to the overturned cart and tossed various objects from side to side.

“It’s okay.” Iolaus tried to reassure him. “I’ve died before. I know what it feels like. It doesn’t feel like this.”

Hercules returned with some clean cloth he tore into strips. Grimacing slightly, he pressed the wadded material against the open wound and pressed. He heard the hiss from Iolaus and patted his arm. “It’s gonna be okay.”

“Yeah.” Iolaus took a deep breath. “What about the woman?”

Hercules looked surprised then guiltily looked over his shoulder. “One thing at a time,” he muttered.

“Herc...” Iolaus shook his head.

“You don’t move! Not an inch!” the demigod sternly ordered.

“No problem,” Iolaus wheezed.

Hercules quickly ran to the woman and knelt by her side. After a few seconds, he returned to Iolaus shaking his head. “She’s dead. Looks like they slit her throat.”

“Why? What could...” Iolaus closed his eyes as his back spasmed.

“I don’t know,” Hercules admitted. “But right now I’m more interested in keeping the body count as low as possible.” He guiltily glanced to where one bandit’s body lay crumpled against a nearby tree. Tying another strip of cloth around his friend’s body, he saw blood was already seeping through the makeshift bandage.

Rising, he ran back to the wagon and righted it. The animals that had been pulling it were long gone. Wrapping the woman’s body in her cloak, he put her in the back then made room for Iolaus. “Iolaus! You still with me?” he demanded as he returned.

“Not like I can go anyplace right now, Herc,” Iolaus grunted.

“Good. Keep that in mind.” Hercules gently picked his partner up in his arms and carefully walked to the wagon.

“Herc, this isn’t your fault,” Iolaus mumbled as the demigod gently lowered him into the back of the wagon.

“Don’t move around a lot,” Hercules ordered. “You’re still bleeding.”

“Herc...” Iolaus groaned in exasperation as the demigod walked to the front of the wagon.

Taking a deep breath, Hercules grabbed the front part of the wagon, raised it, and began pulling it as fast as he could.

----------------------------

The sun was starting to set when Hercules saw a young woman with long dark hair and a child of perhaps six summers standing by a nearby well. A horse stood next to them, drinking from a water barrel. The woman cautiously looked at him, then hesitantly smiled. “You’ve quite a ways to go to the next village,” she called. “Would you like some water?”

“Thank you.” Hercules gratefully set the front part of the wagon onto the ground. As the young woman approached, he quickly walked to the back of the wagon.

He grimly saw that Iolaus’ wound was still bleeding. But he was thankful the hunter had lapsed into unconsciousness. At least the jolting motion of the wagon wasn’t causing him any more pain.

“By the Gods! What happened?”

Hercules saw the young woman’s startled look. “Bandits,” he explained. “They must have attacked her.” He indicated the covered body. “We were too late. My friend...got hurt in the fight.”

The young woman thrust the waterskin into the demigod’s hands as she climbed into the wagon. “He’s feverish. And this wound needs tending.” She stood and looked back at the well towards the small girl. “Alita! Run back to the cottage and get a fire going! Put fresh linen on the bed!”

The child immediately pulled herself onto the horses’ back and kicked the horse into a trot down a small well-used path.

“You’ll have to carry him,” the woman decided. “The path’s not big enough for the wagon.” She lithely jumped to the ground. “I don’t think he’s going to die right now, but you won’t reach the next village until sometime tomorrow. And going that long without tending that wound just might kill him.” Her dark eyes crinkled in concern.

“Thank you,” Hercules gratefully returned her smile. He dragged the wagon next to the well. “I’ll come back for her.”

“Any idea who she is?” the woman curiously asked. “Poor lady.”

“No,” Hercules shook his head. “I’ll take her onto the village and let the magistrate know in case someone comes looking for her.” He carefully picked Iolaus up in his arms, frightened by the heat of his partner’s body. “We’re grateful for your help.”

The young woman smiled showing deep dimples. “My cottage isn’t much, but it’s snug from the weather and we have plenty of provisions.” She grabbed the bucket sitting by the well and started down the path. “My name is Sophia.”

“I’m Hercules. And this is my partner, Iolaus.” Hercules glanced down at his friend to reassure himself the hunter was still breathing.

Sophia abruptly turned around, surprise easily visible on her face. “Hercules?” After a moment, she smiled. “My daughter will be so impressed.” She turned back around and began walking more rapidly. “It’s not far.”

---------------------------

Hercules carefully placed Iolaus on the clean narrow bed.

“Momma, is he going to die?”

“Hush, Alita. No one’s going to die,” Sophia assured her. “Bring me my medicine box and needles. Then you need to get to your chores.”

The child obediently left the room. Sophia grabbed some clean cloths and knelt next to the bed.

Hercules carefully removed Iolaus’ vest wincing as his friend moaned. “Sorry, Iolaus,” he murmured. Brushing back the hunter’s blonde hair, he watched as Sophia poured water into a bowl and brought it to the bed.

“Get that bandage off,” she ordered as Alita brought two boxes to her mother. “Let’s see how bad it looks.”

“Can I watch?” Alita curiously peered at the man in her mother’s bed.

“You may not,” Sophia firmly answered. “Now go do your chores.”

Alita pouted but obeyed.

Hercules removed the blood-soaked bandage as gently as possible. “Where’s your husband?”

“He died not long after Alita was born,” Sophia curtly answered. She examined Iolaus’ wound. “It doesn’t look infected. You did a good job with it.”

“I’ve had plenty of practice,” Hercules grimly answered. He took one of the cloths and dipped it into the water. He gently wiped Iolaus’ face.

“If half the stories I’ve heard are true, I’m sure you have,” Sophia muttered. “The wound’s pretty clean. It’s the loss of blood that worries me.”

Hercules watched closely for a few moments. Then, deciding Sophia knew what she was doing, he turned his attention to try to keep his partner’s body temperature from rising. He gently patted Iolaus’ face, arms, and chest with cloths soaked in the cool well water. A few times, Hercules saw Alita’s curious face peeking in through the window, but the child always drew back when she spotted him looking at her.

Finally, Sophia finished bandaging the wound and sat back with a sigh. “That’s the best we can do,” she admitted. “Unless he develops a nasty fever, he should recover nicely.”

Hercules let out the breath he didn’t even realize he’d been holding inside his chest. “Thank you.”

Sophia shrugged. “He has a strong constitution. He’ll be up and around in no time.”

“Yeah. I know,” Hercules ruefully nodded. Then he hesitated. “I need to take that woman’s body into the village.”

“Go on,” Sophia briskly nodded. “I doubt he’ll open his eyes much before morning. When he does, I’ll explain where you’ve gone. You won’t reach the village until sometime late tomorrow even if you leave now and travel all night.”

Hercules silently nodded. “Tell him...I’ll be back for him.” He half-smiled. “You’ll probably need to convince him of it.” He hesitated once again. “Tell him I know it was an accident. It’ll keep him quiet for a little while.”

----------------------------

Iolaus slowly opened his eyes. He frowned, feeling the soft bedding beneath him. Seconds later, he felt a stab of pain as he tried to move. “Herc?” he whispered.

“Hush.”

Iolaus blinked in the dim light as a shadow passed between him and the low fire in the fireplace. Someone sat on the edge of the bed, and a cool damp cloth was laid on his forehead.

“He’ll be back soon.”

Iolaus tried to focus...tried to put a face to the soft, gentle voice he heard. The firelight illuminated the dark-haired woman’s head.

“You need to rest.”

“Ania...what...what happened?”

Sophia frowned. Tentatively, she stroked Iolaus’ cheek. “Sleep.” “You need to sleep,” Sophia gently urged. “Sleep for me, Iolaus.” She soothingly stroked the hair from his face.

Iolaus gently smiled and closed his eyes.

---------------------------

When Iolaus opened his eyes, it was to the smell of hot soup and a gentle touch on his shoulder. Blinded by the sunlight streaming in the nearby window, the hunter blinked while looking up at the shadowy figure.

“I hate to wake you, but you need to get some food inside you.”

The figure moved, and Iolaus could see the woman more clearly. Long dark hair was braided over one shoulder. Her dark eyes studied him closely. “My name is Sophia.”

Iolaus felt a sharp stab of disappointment but pushed it aside without examining it. As she helped him sit, he quickly looked around.

“Hercules will be back soon,” Sophia explained. She saw him relax and lean back against the wall. “He took that poor woman’s body into the next village. The soonest he could be back is sometime tomorrow.”

“I remember.” Iolaus ran a hand through his hair, wincing as the movement pulled at the wound in his back. “They’d killed her before we could get there. Bandits, I think.”

“Here.” Sophia handed Iolaus a bowl. “You may feed yourself as long as you don’t move around. When you’re done, I’ll check on that wound.”

“Was Hercules hurt?” Iolaus frowned. “I can’t remember too much about that fight.”

Sophia hesitated then smiled. “I saw no wounds. He stayed until we got your wound bandaged. He said to tell you he would be back...and that he knew what happened was an accident.” Her smile broadened. “He hinted you would be a difficult patient. Is he always right?”

Seeing that smile, Iolaus felt a warmth inside him that he’d not felt in many years. While it puzzled him, he enjoyed it. “Not always.”

“Good. I have chores to take care of.” Sophia nodded. “I’m glad I can trust you to say quiet.”

-----------------------------

Despite what Sophia had thought, Hercules could travel fast when he needed to. Relieved of the necessity of traveling slowly because of Iolaus’ wound, he covered the distance between Sophia’s cottage and the village with speed. The sun had barely traveled two sunwidths over the horizon when Hercules pulled the wagon into the village.

As the demigod set the front of the wagon onto the ground, he saw several men approaching. The oldest man, greyed and bent with age frowned, then smiled. “Hercules.” When the demigod stared at him in confusion, he continued. “You probably don’t remember me. But I served with Jason when he retook Corinth from his uncle.” He held out his hand. “My name is Dorian.”

“I think I do remember you.” Hercules took the man’s arm and gently squeezed. “You were in charge of the chariot horses, weren’t you?”

Dorian smiled. “Aye.” He watched as another man stepped back in surprise from the back of the wagon. “My wife was from this village. We returned here after I completed my service in Corinth.”

“What happened?” A stout man demanded as he replaced the cloak over the dead woman.

“She was attacked on the road,” Hercules wearily explained. “We heard her scream. But she was dead by the time we got to her.”

“Hercules, this is Phraden, the village magistrate,” Dorian explained. Then he glanced at Hercules. “We?”

“Iolaus was injured in the fight,” Hercules grimly answered. “He’s recovering at a cottage some hours’ away.” He watched as the woman’s body was carried away. “Any idea who she is?”

Phraden shook his head. “We will bury her here. Her possessions will be protected in case someone comes searching for her.” He angrily shook his head. “If bandits are attacking travelers along the main road, they could attack our village as well. They’ve been getting bolder and bolder.”

“I’m going to try and track those that attacked that woman,” Hercules advised. “Hopefully, I’ll find them soon.”

“If Iolaus can be moved, it might be better to bring him here,” Dorian suggested. “We can provide better protection than leaving him out there.”

Hercules slowly nodded. “There’s a young woman and her daughter living at that cottage. They’d be better off here as well.”

“You rest while I get you some food,” Phraden urged. When the demigod hesitated, he smiled. “It won’t take long. Even you need to rest.”

-----------------------------------

Iolaus patiently waited as Sophia finished tying the bandage. “Am I going to live?” he joked.

Sophia smiled. “I’d say so.” She sat back in satisfaction. “Hercules did a good job keeping the wound clean. There’s no infection, and your fever’s gone.”

“Does that mean I can get up?” Iolaus eagerly asked. “At least to sit outside?” He grinned, sneaking a look to one side. “At least to meet that pretty girl over there?”

Sophia followed his glance, then motioned for the little girl to join this. “This is my daughter, Alita.”

“Hello, Alita,” Ioluas smiled as the little girl shyly walked to the bed. “I’m Iolaus.”

“Does it hurt?” Alita asked with wide eyes, pointing to his bandaged wound.

“Nah,” Iolaus shook his head with a smile.

“Come on, Alita.” Sophia held out her hand. “Iolaus needs to rest. If he does that, he can come outside to sit this afternoon.”

“Sophia...” Iolaus hesitated until she shooed Alita from the room. “Last night...” He looked out the window. “I guess I must have been...delirious. I’m sorry if I...”

“She must have been someone very special to you,” Sophia gently interrupted. Perched on the side of the bed, she hesitantly touched his arm. “Very special.”

“She was,” Iolaus whispered. Looking out the window, he took a deep breath. “My wife. She died a long time ago.” He hesitated. “You...resemble her a little.”

“It...can’t be easy. Traveling with Hercules,” Sophia half-frowned. “Don’t you miss...not having a home?”

“I do have a home.” Iolaus shakily smiled. “I don’t get back too often. Well, neither of us get home much.” His brow furrowed. “We should try, though.” He slowly smiled when Sophia gently squeezed his hand. “You do remind me of her so much,” he whispered.

Hesitantly, Sophia leaned forward and gently pressed her mouth against Iolaus’. She moaned softly as he hand cupped the back of her head and he returned the kiss. As they slowly moved apart, Sophia’s dark eyes widened in surprise.

“I’m sorry.” Iolaus quickly apologized. “I shouldn’t...”

“Please don’t apologize,” Sophia said at the same moment. “I had no right...”

They looked at each other in amusement. Iolaus gently traced her lips with his thumb.

“You need to rest,” Sophia briskly said as she stood. “I...need to see if Alita’s finished her chores.”

Iolaus leaned back against the wall. With a deep sigh, he frowned and stared out the window.

------------------------

It was late afternoon when Hercules returned to where the bandits had ambused the unknown woman. Kneeling by the side of the road, he barely touched the footprints leading into the woods. Wishing that Iolaus was there, he started following the footprints. The demigod could track as well as the next man, but Iolaus had a knack for following tracks that were close to invisible.

The bandits, however, seemed to have felt no need to hide their tracks. It was almost absurdly easy to follow their flight into the woods. After a couple of miles, the demigod found a cold campsite. Figuring this was where they had camped the night before, Hercules circled until he found two sets of tracks. One set, indicating perhaps a dozen men, led deeper into the woods. One set of tracks, however, led in the direction of Sophia’s cottage.

Without hesitation, Hercules began following that set of tracks.

-----------------------------

“Are you sure you don’t need my help?” Iolaus frowned as he studied the small child’s wagon and the four buckets sitting inside it.

“I’m sure,” Sophia smiled. “There’s a nearby spring we get most of our water from. I’ve already brought back almost enough for the rest of the day. She picked up the rope and began pulling the wagon behind her. “I trust the two of you won’t get into any trouble while I’m gone.”

Alita and Iolaus exchanged almost exact grins. “We promise,” they chorused.

----------------------------

Sophia placed the last bucket into the wagon and wiped her brow. Turning back towards the spring, intending to wash her face, she gasped at the sight of a heavily-armed warrior standing between her and the water.

“Rielan!” Sophia smiled. Running towards the man, she threw her arms around him, hugging him tightly.

“Hello, sister. How’s my beautiful little niece?” Rielan hugged his sister, then stepped back.

“Anxious as always to see you,” Sophia answered. Then she frowned. “But you musn’t stay. Hercules is here.”

“I know,” Rielan grimly nodded. “When I realized that’s who my men were fighting, I gave them the signal to pull away.”

“His partner, Iolaus, is at home. Recovering from his wound,” Sophia warned. “You must stay away until they’re gone.”

Rielan grunted. “Hercules will come after us. Killing the woman was a mistake, I admit.”

“Then leave. Hercules has taken her to the village. You and the others can be long gone before he comes back.” Stepping back, Sophia almost wrung her hands.

“I thought about that,” Rielan admitted. “But he’ll keep coming, sister. He doesn’t stop.”

“If he can’t find you, he’ll wind up helping someone else,” Sophia argued. “He’ll forget.”

Rielan shook his head. “No. He won’t.” His darkly handsome features hardened. “Besides, I haven’t forgotten the debt the village owes you...us. It’s time they paid.”

“And Hercules?” Sophia fearfully asked.

Rielan frowned. “I wonder how eager he’d be to help them, if we held his partner as hostage?”

“No! Rielan, leave Iolaus alone!” Sophia snapped.

“What’s this?” Rieland half-smiled. “Fallen in love, little sister?”

Sophia flushed. “Maybe I’m tired of living alone. Of raising my daughter alone.”

Rielan reached out and gently shook her by the shoulders. “Think, Sophia. Do you honestly believe Iolaus will stand aside while we destroy Hercules? Or do you think all the stories about them are exaggerated?”

“If he doesn’t come after you, you could leave him alone,” Sophia urged. “If he doesn’t know it was you who destroyed Hercules, he’d have no reason to come after you.”

Rielan studied his sister closely. “You just met him,” he pointed out. “He means so much to you already?”

“He could,” Sophia nodded. “Please, Rielan. You’ve always looked out for me. Please...do this for me.”

“Can you keep him out of the fighting?” Rielan asked after several moments of silence. “We will take the village. If Hercules is there, he’s a dead man. He can’t stand against us all. If he’s not there, we’ll move on. But if Hercules...or Iolaus comes after us, I won’t stop my men from killing them.”

“I’ll keep Iolaus at the cottage,” Sophia promised. “He’s wounded. He can get around somewhat, but he’s in no shape to fight.”

Rielan gently kissed his sister on the forehead. “Someday I’ll be back,” he promised. “Soon.”

“Be careful,” Sophia begged, hugging her brother tightly. “Please.”

--------------------------

Hercules peered through the trees just in time to see Sophia and a stranger hug. Before, he could move, the man turned and quickly ran into the forest. Sophia wiped her eyes, then began pulling a cart laden with water buckets back towards her cottage.

The demigod hesitated, then started tracking the man. He hadn’t gone far when he lost the tracks. Cursing softly under his breath, the demigod spent time circling, trying to pick up the man’s tracks. Finally admitting defeat, he turned and began running to catch up to Sophia.

--------------------------

Sophia stopped at the rise to catch her breath. Kneeling, she splashed some water on her face, hoping to clear the remains of the tear tracks down her cheeks. She glanced down towards the cottage, smiling as she saw Iolaus and Alita sitting next to each other laughing about something.

“Who is he?”

Startled, Sophia jumped to her feet. “Hercules! You scared me!” She fearfully studied the grim expression on the demigod’s face.

“Who is he, Sophia? The man you met at the spring,” Hercules repeated.

“I don’t know...”

“Don’t lie.” Hercules stepped forward. “I tracked him from where we fought those bandits. To a campsite and then to the spring where he met you.” Staring down into her dark eyes, he quietly repeated. “Who. Is. He?”

“My brother,” Sophia breathlessly admitted. She stepped back a few steps to regain her composure.

“Your brother is one of the bandits?” Hercules demanded.

“Their leader.” Sophia defiantly looked him in the eyes. “You call them bandits. But men do what they need to do.”

“And they need to attack an innocent, defenseless woman?” Hercules angrily shot back. “They needed to slit her throat?”

“That was a mistake,” Sophia flushed. “He admitted it.”

“That wasn’t a mistake,” Hercules argued. “That was cold-blooded murder.”

“And so was my husband’s death!” Sophia angrily charged. “But did anyone bring his murderers to justice? No! They hide behind the law!”

“What are you talking about?” Hercules asked.

“Just after Alita was born,” Sophia explained. “A warlord threatened the village. We were living there at the time. Phraden and Dorian, the village leaders, convinced my husband to negotiate with the warlord. My brother, Rielan, said it was a suicide mission. But they convinced my husband to be a hero.” She almost spat out the last word. “The warlord killed him and sent his body back to us. Fortunately, other villages had raised an army and came to our defense.” She mockingly smiled. “The village was saved. But no one paid for my husband’s death.”

“That warlord killed your husband,” Hercules gently pointed out.

“They killed him!” Sophia angrily pointed in the direction of the village. “They sent him to his death!” She caught her breath. “From the time our parents died, Rielan looked after me. He joined armies to earn money to send back for my care. Then, when I married Jonlil, Rielan was ready to hang up his sword...to settle down.” She turned her angry eyes on Hercules. “Then they killed him.”

“Why did Rielan become a bandit? If he was as good a soldier as you say, he would have been welcome in any army,” Hercules pointed out. “He could have gone to Attica or Corinth. Where you and Alita could live as well.”

“He went back to soldiering,” Sophia explained. “He tried to get someone...anyone to listen. To bring the village to justice.” She gave a short bitter laugh. “But no one listened. No one cared.” She took a deep breath. “But Rielan found others...others who couldn’t get justice. They banded together...to find justice.”

“And now they’re here. They’re going to attack the village,” Hercules guessed. He glanced down at the cottage where Iolaus was pointing out a bird in flight to Alita.

“Stay out of it, Hercules,” Sophia warned. “Rielan promised he wouldn’t fight you or Iolaus if you stayed away.”

“We can’t do that,” Hercules shook his head. He started down the hill.

“You’ll lead him to his death, you know,” Sophia warned.

The words stopped the demigod in his tracks. He whirled around in surprise.

“I saw the scars on his body last night.” Sophia stepped closer. “You’ll convince him to be a hero once too often.”

“Nobody tells Iolaus what to do,” Hercules retorted. “He makes up his own mind.” He looked away briefly then gazed at Sophia. “He always has.”

“Look at him, Hercules,” Sophia urged. “Look.” When the demigod glanced over his shoulder, she continued. “He’s happy. He could be happy here...with me...with Alita.” When he didn’t reply, she shook his arm. “What right do you have to lead him into danger?”

Hercules angrily shook her hand from his arm. “I told you...nobody tells Iolaus what to do. He won’t allow it. Not from you...and not from me.” He stepped away regaining control of his emotions. He wondered if he did have the right to take away the possibility of Iolaus settling down with a family. He turned around to face Sophia. “If you truly care for Iolaus, you’ll tell him the truth.” He turned and started walking away.

“Where are you going?” Sophia demanded, taking several steps after him.

“To stop your brother,” Hercules quietly answered. He hesitated, then turned. “Iolaus can forgive just about anything,” he advised. “Except a lie.”

Sophia watched in silence as the demigod began running in the direction of the village. She stood, rooted to the spot, long after the demigod had disappeared.

“Sophia? Was that Hercules?”

Startled, she spun around to see Iolaus and Alita standing behind her. Alita ran to her mother’s side even as Iolaus stared in the direction where the demigod had been standing.

“Alita. Take the wagon to the house,” Sophia gently ordered.

The little girl silently went to the wagon and nudged it down the rise. She held onto the rope to prevent it from rolling away. Iolaus watched in concern until the wagon reached level ground. Then he turned back to Sophia. “Where’s Hercules going?” he quietly asked.

“He came to see how you were,” Sophia quickly answered. “He’s going back to the village.”

“Why?” Iolaus’ blue eyes narrowed. “Why didn’t he come down to the cottage?”

“Iolaus, you should be resting,” Sophia smiled. She started to slide an arm around his waist, but the hunter stopped her.

“He’s going after the bandits, isn’t he?” Iolaus accused. “By himself?” He turned around and headed down the rise towards the cottage. “I swear. Sometimes he...”

“Iolaus! Wait! You’re hurt! You’re in no condition to go after him!” Sophia tugged on his arm.

“Sophia, it’s okay,” Iolaus smiled. “I’ve been hurt worse than this and fought by his side.”

“He doesn’t need you!” Sophia clung to his arm. “Let him be the hero! Not you!”

Iolaus stared into her dark eyes. “Sophia. It’s what we do. It’s what I do...help people.”

“Let them help themselves!” Sophia half-cried. “Iolaus. Stay here. Stay with me and Alita. We could be happy. Just us. Let Hercules be a hero if he wants. Heroes just get killed!”

“You didn’t tell Hercules that, did you?” Iolaus demanded grabbing her by the shoulders. “Sophia!” He caught his angry words and shook his head. “No wonder he just took off.” He stepped back and walked towards the cottage.

Alita silently watched as Iolaus exited the cottage buckling his sword around his waist. “Did Hercules say where he was going?” he asked Sophia.

“Alita go into the cottage,” Sophia ordered. When the girl hesitated, she snapped, “Now!”

Iolaus waited until the door closed behind the girl then looked at Sophia. “Did he?” When she refused to answer, he headed towards the barn. “I won’t have any trouble tracking him, Sophia. It’ll just be easier if you tell me.” When she still didn’t answer, he sighed. “I’ll bring back the horse as soon as I can.”

“Iolaus! No!” Sophia begged as he began saddling the horse. “Why do you have to go? Why?”

“Because it’s who I am!” Iolaus angrily snapped. He settled the saddle on the horse’s back and pulled the cinch tight. “Sophia, you have to understand that! And if you can’t, then...” He took a deep breath. “Then you’ll never understand me.”

“Iolaus...if you go...I don’t want you coming back,” Sophia shakily threatened. “I lost one husband who tried to be a hero. I don’t want to lose anyone else.”

Iolaus hesitated then led the horse from the barn. “Sophia, I don’t know if we could have been happy. This is all happening so fast.” He grimly looked at her, then pulled himself into the saddle. “But I do know this. Hercules is my best friend. And I’m not letting him face a bunch of murdering bandits without me at his side.” He kicked the horse into a trot heading up the rise.

“Iolaus! Don’t go!” Sophia screamed. Sobbing, she put her hands to her mouth. “Please don’t go,” she sobbed.

------------------------

Hercules found the village under attack. The villagers were giving a good account of themselves, but it was obvious the bandits were making use of their former military training. With a sigh, Hercules waded into the battle.

Grabbing one bandit by the arm, he used the man as a battering ram, taking out several of the man’s companions. An arrow flew through the air, passing the startled demigod. The arrow found it’s mark in the chest of one of the bandits. Hercules saw several younger men from the village on rooftops carefully taking aim with their arrows.

Sensing two of the bandits running up behind him, he raised his fists, catching both men in the jaw. As the two bandits slid unconscious into the dirt, something blonde and familiar flew past the demigod slamming into a bandit ready to smash a heavy mace onto the demigod’s head.

Two quick punches to the bandit’s jaw left him sprawled unconscious in the dirt. Iolaus jumped to his feet, drawing his sword. Glancing over his shoulder as Iolaus positioned himself at the demigod’s back, Hercules frowned. “I thought you were recuperating.”

“I am,” Iolaus assured him with a grin.

Both heroes saw the two bandits approaching at the same time. Back-to-back they each lashed out with devastating kicks to the stomach of each bandit. As the bandits flew backwards, Hercules grabbed Iolaus’ vest and pulled him down. A volley of arrows flew over their heads finding targets in the bandits.

Suddenly one of the bandits gave an ear-splitting howl. Those bandits who could, began to retreat from the village. As Hercules got to his feet, another arrow buried itself in the bandit leader’s chest.

Rielan stared down at the arrow in surprise then collapsed to the ground. Those bandits who were able to escape disappeared into the forest.

As Iolaus slowly got to his feet, he saw Hercules standing over the body of the bandit leader. Holding his side, he joined his partner along with an older man.

“By the gods. Rielan.”

Hercules glanced at Dorian but didn’t reply. He glanced at Iolaus who had joined them. He saw the hunter’s eyes narrow before he abruptly turned away. Hercules put a hand on Dorian’s arm. “I doubt his sister knew anything about it.”

Dorian studied the demigod for several moments. “If you say so,” he reluctantly nodded. Iolaus glanced up as the demigod approached. “He looks like Sophia.”

Hercules’ shoulders slumped. “He’s her brother.”

Iolaus stared past the demigod then took the horse’s reins. “I need to return her horse.”

“Iolaus...you’re still hurt. I’ll return the horse,” Hercules tentatively suggested.

Iolaus briefly smiled. “You knew, didn’t you? That’s why you came on your own?”

Hercules sighed, lowering his head before nodding. “I thought...Sophia should tell you.”

Iolaus grimly nodded. “I’ll see you later, Herc.”

--------------------------

No one emerged from the cottage while Iolaus unsaddled the horse in the barn and combed him. Finally, Iolaus closed the barn door and slowly walked towards the cottage. As he reached the door, it swung open. Iolaus instinctively stepped back at the sight of Sophia’s angry expression.

“He’s dead, isn’t he? My brother?” she demanded.

Slowly Iolaus nodded. “I’m sorry.”

Sophia leaned against the door, half-hidden from his sight. “Did you kill him?”

“No.” Iolaus spread his hands to either side. “He and his men attacked the village. Of course they defended themselves.”

“Congratulations, hero. You saved the village. You must be proud.” Sophia’s dark eyes flashed in anger.

Iolaus took a deep breath and looked away. “We’ll talk to the villagers. Make sure they understand you had nothing to do with him.”

“Don’t bother. This village murdered my husband and now my brother. Alita and I are leaving.” Sophia looked back into the cottage as they heard Alita sobbing.

Iolaus stepped forward. “Sophia, I don’t know if we could have had something or not. But...I can’t be other than what I am.”

Suddenly Sophia opened the door all the way. She clutched a carving knife in one hand. “Don’t you DARE come any closer!” she fiercely ordered. When Iolaus backed away, she jabbed at the air between them with the knife. “Don’t you ever come near us again. And if I ever see you again, Iolaus...I’ll kill you.”

Stunned, Iolaus watched as Sophia slammed the door. Slowly, he turned and walked away.

---------------------------

Hercules leaned against the well by the road. Arms folded across his chest, the demigod studied the toes of his boots in silent contemplation. He turned his head when he heard Iolaus approach. When Iolaus leaned against the well next to the demigod, Hercules wrapped his arms closer against his chest. “I’m sorry. I should have told you,” he finally murmured.

Iolaus shrugged. “Sophia should have told me.” He studied his partner’s profile. “What is it, Herc?”

Startled, the demigod shrugged. “I can’t help...but wonder if...” He glanced over his shoulder at the path leading to Sophia’s cottage. He took a deep breath.

“Herc, you remember what you told me about walking down this road? And maybe someday finding a place where you’d want to stop?” Iolaus asked. When the demigod nodded, he wearily smiled. “I haven’t found that place either.”

Hercules gently squeezed his partner’s shoulder. “You okay?”

“Yeah.” Iolaus gingerly touched his wounded side. “It’s okay.” He knew Hercules understood the deliberate evasion. “I’d like to just get as far away as we can before dark.”

“Sure.” Hercules nodded.

They slowly began walking down the road, the demigod shortening his stride to match his partner’s. They’d walked for a few minutes, when Hercules quietly spoke. “Iolaus. Can I ask you something?”

“Sure, Herc,” Iolaus frowned.

“How many Spartans DOES it take to light a torch?”



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