Life was good. Returning home to Thebes for th harvest was the best idea Hercules had had in a long time. Though he would never admit it to his friend, Iolaus was bone-weary from their recent adventures. The chance to be among friends and recharge his depleted reserves was a welcome one.
The hunter smiled and silently toasted his partner. He’d never been able to hid anything from Hercules, who no doubt had noticed his flagging energy. Hercules suggested the trip home almost casually, citing the need to visit his mother and Jason. Iolaus had agreed, grateful for the opportunity to rest and keep his pride intact.
Now Hercules was on the other side of the village helping to dig a new well. Iolaus had, for once, declined to help. The depths of his exhaustion had surprised him, and he felt as though he could sit contendly in his chair, legs stretched before him, eyes squinted against the afternoon sun, for the foreseeable future. In another moment, he realized he was asleep.
Iolaus awoke to the prickly feeling of being watched. Cautiously opening his eyes, he saw a concerned demi-god gazing down at him. “Herc,” he muttered with a yawn. “Been there long?”
“I wasn’t sure I should wake you,” Hercules admitted. “You look beat.”
“S’okay.” Iolaus sat up straight in the chair. “What’s going on?”
“A messenger just arrived from Phrygia,” Hercules explained. “They’re being terrorized by a warlord. But I couldn’t get much in the way of detail. The poor guy was dead on his feet.”
Iolaus hauled himself out of his chair. “Two days’ travel,” he recalled. “We’d better get started.” A large hand on his shoulders topped him, and he turned to face Hercules’ worried frown.
“Are you sure you’re up to this?” Hercules asked with concern. “Maybe you should stay here and get some rest.”
“I’m fine, Herc,” Iolaus assured him. “You’re worse than an old mother hen.”
“I’m serious, Iolaus!” Hercules protested. “If you...”
“Herc! Enough!” The hunter’s anger surprised even himself. “If you don’t want me along, just say so. Otherwise, let’s get moving!”
Hercules stared at him in astonishment, and Iolaus was immediately overcome by guilt. “Gods, Herc, I’m sorry,” he apologized. “I AM a little tired, and I guess it’s making me grouchy. But I’m fine. Okay?”
“Okay, buddy. If you say so, then I believe you.” Hercules gave his friend’s shoulder a quick squeeze before shoving Iolaus playfully towards the road. “So what are you waiting for?”
“Me?” Iolaus indignantly sputtered. ‘You’re the one who...”
Hercules, already on his way out of the village, only laughed.
Two days later, they stood on a rise overlooking a pile of ashes that had once been the village of Phrygia. There was hardly a stick standing, only burned-out rubble and the bloody, smoking remains of innocent villagers.
“We’re too late,” Iolaus sighed surveying the destruction. His voice sounded hollow, empty in his own ears.
Hercules said nothing, but set his jaw grimly and began to descend the hill.
The hunter followed, lost in his own bleak thoughts. 'What’s the point? For every warlord we stamp out, two more rise to take his place. We stop them, but men still die...women weep over biers...babies grow up without their fathers. Just what do we really accomplish?' Iolaus wearily rubbed his yes and pushed the useless thoughts away. He was tired and things were bothering him more than ususal. He glanced at his partner and briefly wondered if he was having the same doubts.
Iolaus stopped at the center of town and knelt to examine the ground. Hoofprints were visible in the churned-up bloody mud. Lots of hoofprints. “They shouldn’t be too hard to track, Herc. What do you want to do?”
The demi-god looked as though he were carved from stone, standing perfectly still and surveying the ruined village with tragic eyes. The breeze moved through his long hair and sent puffs of smoke drifting past his frozen form.
“Herc?’ Iolaus gently repeated.
It was a long moment before Hercules answered. “We’ll check for survivors first.”
Iolaus nodded but privately had little hope of finding anyone alive. 'How could anyone survive this?'
They searched the pitiful ruins for an hour, finding nothing but charred bodies. Iolaus was kneeling beside one heartbreakingly small body, burned too badly to be recognized as either boy or girl, when Hercules approached and laid a hand on his shoulder. The hunter turned bleak, damp eyes to his friend. 'I think I’m getting too old for this.'
“I found some tracks leading out of the village,” Hercules quietly announced.
Iolaus spared a final glance at the tiny corpse before rising to follow. After examining the muddy prints, he looked up at his partner with hope in his eyes. “About a dozen people...on foot. Maybe somebody survived this after all.”
They followed the tracks away from the village, neither man speaking. Both hoped more carnage wouldn’t await them at the end of the path.
Hercules pushed aside a long-hanging branch and abruptly stopped. “There’s a cave here,” he murmured.
Iolaus heard a loud crack and froze. “Herc?” he asked.
The demi-god turned around, eyes slightly crossed, and raised a hand to the welt that was rising on his forehead.
Iolaus protectively pushed ahead of his partner, one hand resting on the hilt of his sword. Something whizzed by his head, missing his nose by a finger's breadth.
“Get back, you butchers!”
Iolaus ducked another swing, holding out his hands in surrender. “Hey! Easy! We’re here to help!” Peering into the darkness, he could make out the shadowy forms of several people. “My name’s Iolaus,” he continued in a gentler voice. “This is Hercules.”
The demi-god gave his aching head a quick shake to clear it then stepped forward to stand at Iolaus’ side. “Your messenger, Proclius, asked us to help,” Hercules sadly added. “I’m sorry we were too late.”
Iolaus gave his partner a quick look then returned his gaze to the shadowy forms in front of them.
Several moments passed as Iolaus restlessly shifted from foot to foot. Finally, a middle-aged man, no taller than the hunter, edged forward from the cave’s mouth. He wore a leather apron, and the burns on his uncovered arms quickly identified him as the village blacksmith. His face was drawn with sorrow and exhaustion, but a thick stick still rested warily on his shoulders. “Senecles,” he called over his shoulder. “You saw Hercules in Athens last year. Is this him?” His cold eyes never left the two men in front of him.
A thin black-haired youth crept forward and regarded them with wide frightened eyes. “Yes! Thank the Gods! It’s him!
At once, the survivors began to emerge, fifteen in all including six small children. There were a few minor injures, but none of them were seriously hurt.
The blacksmith drew Iolaus aside. “My name is Granius. Tell me, is there anything left?” he asked. “Anything at all?”
“No,” Iolaus answered. “I’m sorry. It’s all gone.”
Granius closed his eyes as though in pain.
Iolaus gently squeezed his arm in sympathy. “Can you tell me what happened?”
“Warriors,” Granius curtly answered. “Dozens of them. Maybe even a hundred. Why in Tartarus would they attack us? We have nothing worth stealing. We’ve done nothing to anger anyone!”
“I don’t know, Granius, but we’ll find out. I promise,” Iolaus assured him. “Is there anything else you can tell me?”
“He was a handsome youth,” Granius recalled. “Long hair...light brown and curly...blue eyes. And a birthmark on his cheek.”
“What?” Iolaus’s eyes narrowed.
“A little arrow-shaped mark. Right here.” Granius pointed to a spot about an inch below his right eye.
Iolaus felt cold all over. He noticed his hands were shaking and clenched them into fists. “Are you sure?” he asked his voice barely more than a whisper.
“Of course,” Graniius nodded in confusion. “I was no farther away from him that you are to Hercules right now.”
Dredging up a smile he in no way felt, Iolaus offered his hand to the blacksmith, who was looking at him strangely. “Thank you, Granius. You’ve...been a big help.” The hunter turned and quickly walked back down the path coming to rest beside a large stone. He gratefully sank down on it and put his head in his hands. 'Please, Gods, no. It can’t be him. Please don’t let it be him.'
The grim procession wound its way down through the hills, Hercules in the lead. The demi-god frequently glanced over the heads of the survivors to where Iolaus was bringing up the rear. Something was bothering his partner, that was certain. Hercules longed to relieve his friend’s pain, but he knew from experience Iolaus wouldn’t talk until he was ready.
Hercules sighed and raised a hand to shade his eyes. “Tetrious is only another half-league in that direction,” he told Granius pointing to the horizon. “The magistrate is a friend of mine. Your people will be welcome there.”
“Thank you, Hercules.” Granius regarded his tense expression with sorrowful eyes. “Don’t blame yourself, my friend. You came as fast as you could.”
“I know,” Hercules sadly nodded. “I only wish we could have done something to help you.”
“You have,” Granius answered without hesitation. “You’ve given us hope. We’ll say among your friends for the winter season, and then we’ll return home and rebuild.” He hesitated. “What of you and Iolaus?”
“We’re heading back now,” Hercules decided. “There are still a few hours of daylight, and Iolaus can practically track in the dark. We’ll find the men responsible for destroying your village and bring them to justice.”
“But not tonight,” Granius urged. “You both traveled hard to get here. Come with us to Tetrius and stay the night. Get a fresh start in the morning.” When Hercules looked like he was going to argue, Granius hurriedly added, “Besides, I don’t think your friend is up to it. I’m afraid I said something that upset him.”
Once again Hercules found himself straining for a glimpse of Iolaus’ tousled blonde head. “Maybe you’re right,” he admitted worry evident on his face. “Keep moving, Granius. I’ll let Iolaus know we’ll be stopping with you.” He made his way down the line of weary travelers, sparing a touch or a word of encouragement for each as he passed.
Iolaus was so deep in though that he never noticed the demi-god’s presence until he felt a hand on his shoulder. “What? Are we there already?” he asked looking around.
“Not yet,” Hercules admitted. “I think we should stop for all the night and get some rest.”
The hunter frowned checking the position of the sun. “We’ve got a few hours yet,” he pointed out. “I thought you wanted to get started.”
“I changed my mind,” Hercules casually answered. “Besides, you don’t look like your mind’s on tracking. Anything you want to talk about?”
Iolaus shrugged. “I guess I’m still thinking about those people, Herc..the little kids...” It was part of the truth, but Iolaus still felt a twinge of guilt. “I’ll be fine. We can start tonight if you want.”
“Tomorrow,” Hercules decided. “I don’t want to risk losing the trail.” With that, he was off, marshaling the spirits of his followers.
All but one.
Iolaus remained uncharacteristically quiet through the evening as the citizens of Tetrius made the survivors of Phrygia welcome. The villagers didn’t have much, but they were every bit as kind and generous as Hercules remembered them to be. After setting a guard, the two heroes bunked in the magistrate’s barn, wrapping themself in soft wool blankets and nestled into the hay.
Hercules lay awake, knowing that despite his stillness, his friend was not asleep. 'Why does he have to be so stubborn? How can I help him when he won’t tell me what’s wrong?'
For his part, Iolaus devoutly wished for sleep to come and deliver him from his memories. His mind had returned to the past, to a beautiful older woman who had thought to exile her loneliness in the arms of a young wanderer. He remembered the smell of her skin, the soft sigh of her dress as it slid down her body to the bedroom floor. He remembered thinking he could probably love her if his heart hadn’t been so damaged, barren, and wasted like the ancient deserts...
Iolaus closed his eyes and thought about what Hercules would say. He would never understand...would be disgusted and justifiably so by the hunter’s shameful past. More than that, the demi-god would be hurt to think Iolaus had kept this secret from him for so long. But how could he have looked into his partner’s open honest face and admitted that he was the worst kind of man...NO!...no man at all! Iolaus felt sick just thinking about it.
The hunter curled himself into a tight ball of misery and squeezed his eyes shut. 'Maybe it’s not him. If it’s not then I won’t have to tell Hercules. No one will have to know.' The cool touch of his amulet burned against his chest like a brand. He resisted the urge to rip it from his neck and fling it across the barn.
Tomorrow they would track down the marauders, and Iolaus would see this warrior-child with his own eyes. Somewhere deep in his heart, the secret festered like an infected wound, waiting to either be painfully lanced or burst spreading black poison through the hunter’s soul.
In the middle of the night, Iolaus suddenly sat up, all his senses straining to identify what had awakened him. A quick glance to his left showed him that Hercules, though still reclining in the hay, was awake and listening as well. A few seconds later, they heard it again, the warning shout of the sentry. Both men rolled to their feet and bolted for the barn door.
By the time they reached the water tower where the guard was stationed, they could hear the rumble of hoofbeats growing steadily louder like approaching thunder. Iolaus wasted no time in nimbly climbing up the ladder and peering in the direction of the sound. “Herc! We’ve got trouble!” he shouted after a moment.
“How many?” Hercules calmly asked.
“Forty, maybe fifty men on horseback,” Iolaus evenly replied.
The Tetrian man beside the hunter was visibly shaken. “Why? What could they possibly want with us?” he asked.
Iolaus had been wondering the same thing but he had no answer. Quickly climbing back to the ground. He ran to where Hercules was already shouting directions organizing the villagers to defend their homes.
“Those of you who know how to fight, get your weapons and meet back here,” the demi-god was ordering. “The rest of you, grab buckets and be ready to put out fires. Iolaus, how many of them can you drop from the water tower?”
“We’ll find out,” the hunter grimly answered. A moment later, armed with a borrowed bow and quiver of arrows, he climbed back up the tower. From this vantage point, he could see the approaching army clearly, but they were not yet in range. He glanced below.
Closer now. They were almost in range. Blue eyes searched the ranks, considering and rejecting possible targets. He would have a limited number of shots before the army was upon them, in too close quarters for an archer to be effective. 'Take out the leader first.' It would be easy enough. Iolaus had already spotted the lone figure in the chariot, his face hidden by a sculptured metal helm. He sighed down the length of the arrow, drawing a beat on the warlord.
But if it was him....
Another breath...in...out. The riders were in range.
Iolaus swallowed hard, twitched his aim to the left, and released the arrow. A horseman cried out in agony, clutching the protruding shaft as he fell from the saddle and was trapped by his own mount. Fast as Hermes, Iolaus fired into the crowd.
Three more men had fallen before the enemy realized where the attack was coming from. Iolaus heard the cry, as several warriors point and ready bows of their own. He threw himself flat on the platform as a hail of arrows passed over his head to thunk solidly into the tank behind him. Then he rose to one knee and began firing again.
Riderless horses ran among the attackers, causing havoc in their mad rush to escape the arrows. But the army still advanced. Iolaus reached into the quiver and found it empty just as the first wildly galloping ranks reached the village. All told, he had accounted for nine men. Every one of his shots had been true.
But now he was needed on the ground where the hand-to-hand fighting had begun. Iolaus slid down the tower’s leg drawing his sword as he descended. He immediately engaged the nearest marauder as soon as his feet touch the ground. He dispatched his first opponent quickly, then spared a moment to locate his partner in the frantic crush of bodies.
True to form, Hercules had picked up one warrior and was using him to batter several others. Groaning heaps of men were already beginning to pile up around him.
Blocking a sword thrust from his right, Iolaus grinned in spite of himself. The determined farmers were holding their own. From the corner of his eye, he saw Granius armed with a shovel bellowing a challenge to any man foolish enough to approach him. The hunter brained an opponent with the flat of his sword and laid out another with a deft kick to the chest. Things were going surprisingly well. Slowly but surely, the odds wee evening out.
Alarmingly close behind him, Iolaus heard a gurgling horrible scream. Iolaus whirled around and saw the chariot approaching, its occupant swinging a battle ax and mowing down the defenders lick a scythe cutting hay. The hunter felt his stomach lurch even as his legs propelled him forward. There was no time to think...he could not stop to think. Hurling himself through the air, he brutally collided with the warlord, knocking him from the chariot and sending them both heavily to the ground.
Iolaus pinned the man down ignoring his frantic struggles. Around them, sound seemed to recede as though the battle was taking place somewhere far away. Iolaus felt as though he was moving in slow motion and saw his own hand reach up and yank the helmet away.
Blue eyes met his own defiantly, glaring at him from a youthful, hate-filled face. Iolaus gasped feeling as though he been run through with a sharp sword. The little birthmark, shaped like an arrowhead, was exactly as he’d remembered...exactly where it had been the first time he’d...
A snarl twisted the young man’s features and only Iolaus’ warrior instincts brought his arm up in time. The knife that was intended to pierce his heart was deflected off a gauntlet and sliced deeply though the flesh over his ribs. He heard himself cry out, fumbled to restrain the warrior’s hands and then a familiar flash of yellow appeared. A large hand reached pass him, seizing the youth by the front of his armor and hauling him clear off his feet.
Iolaus gripped his friend’s arm, encircling the bulging biceps with his own bloody fingers. “Herc! No! Please!”
“Are you crazy?” Hercules shouted his eyes never leaving the defiant youth’s face. “He tried to kill you, Iolaus! And he’s responsible for the slaughter we saw in Phrygia! Why are you trying to protect him?" The demi-god roughly jerked his arm free, but Iolaus latched onto it again.
“You can’t hurt him Herc! Please!” Iolaus grimly hung onto his friend’s arm.
“Why in Tartarus not?!” Hercules roared. “Iolaus, let me go or I swear...”
“HE’S MY SON!”
Both Hercules and his prisoner both stared at the hunter. Iolaus felt his strength leave him, and he sagged against the demi-god’s strong arm. He felt so tired, so old, and the slash on his abdomen burned like a brand. “He’s my son,” he repeated in a whisper.
Cold sweat broke out on Iolaus’ brow and upper lip. The world slowly began to vanish in a gray haze. He never saw Hercules drop the young warlord who leapt into his chariot and fled with the remainder of his army into the night. And he never felt his friend’s arms around him, lowering him gently to the ground as he sickly spun into the darkness.
Iolaus heard the sound of voices and cautiously opened his eyes. He groaned softly as the morning sunlight hit his eyes. He pushed himself into a sitting position, pressing his hand momentarily to his throbbing wound. Looking around the small neat room, he found himself nestled into a comfortable bed...clean, bandaged, and alone. The voices, which he now recognized as belonging to Hercules and Granius, came from just outside the door. Iolaus put his bare feet on the floor and stopped...waiting for the waves of dizziness to recede.
“Get back in that bed!”
Hercules stood framed in the doorway with his arms crossed over his chest. The look on his face made it clear he would brook no argument, and Iolaus slipped back under the blanket without a protest.
The demi-god easily sat on the side of the bed, observing his friend’s color and laying a hand on his cool forehead. Satisfied, he laced his hands together over one leather-clad knee and fastened serious eyes on the hunter. “How do you feel?” he asked.
“Okay,” Iolaus assured him. “A little weak, though. What about the village?”
“A little damage done. A few casualties,” Hercules answered. “All in all, we came through pretty well.”
“Good,” Iolaus wearily nodded.
A long moment passed, then another, as the two sat in rare uncomfortable silence. To end it, Hercules broached the subject which stood between them. “So, are you going to tell me about it?” he asked.
“About what?” Iolaus automatically answered in a defensive voice.
“Iolaus...” Hercules warned.
Sinking back into the pillows, the hunter closed his eyes. He wished he was anywhere else...anywhere. He’d been dreading this moment for years hoping it would never arrive. He deeply sighed and delved into those memories. He opened his eyes and fixed them on the wall over Hercules’ shoulder. He couldn't bear to watch the demi-god’s face. “Do you remember the summer my father died?
“Of course,” Hercules nodded. “You left Cheiron’s Academy. You were gone almost a year.”
Iolaus nodded and swallowed hard. “A few weeks before that, while you were in Corinth with Jason, he came to visit me.”
Iolaus regarded his father with barely-concealed hostility. “Looks like you haven’t changed much either,” he retorted.
Skouros’ jaw worked silently for a moment as though practicing the words he would say. “You’re coming home with me, boy. I’ll be heading to Carthage in a few days, but I promised your mother I’d bring you back before I go.”
Iolaus shook his head, blonde ringlets swaying around his face. “This is my home now. Cheiron’s teaching me how to be a warrior.”
The general snorted. “Cheiron is a filthy centaur and this so-called school is nothing but a flop-house for delinquents and thieves. NO son of mine is going to be associated with a place like this.” Skouros closed a hand around his son’s arm. “On the horse, boy. For some reason, your mother wants you back.”
Iolaus tried to break his father’s grip without success. “I’m staying here,” he repeated. “Let go, dammit!”
Several of the other cades who were practicing in the yard stopped what they were doing and watched.
Skouros tightened his fingers painfully, giving Iolaus a shake. “Don’t make a scene,” he hissed. “By Ares, you’ll get on that horse now or I’ll...”
“What?” Iolaus demanded. “Hit me? Go ahead, big man! Take your best shot!”
“Don’t push me, boy,” Skouros warned dragging him towards the great war-horse. Behind him, a cadet ran for Cheiron.
Iolaus felt the eyes of his classmates on know...knew they were waiting his father manhandle him...treat him like a child. To his everlasting shame, tears began to burn in his eyes. “I hate you,” he viciously whispered even while still struggling in Skouros’ grasp.
The general sharply looked at his son. His lip curled in disgust. “What made you think you’d ever made a decent warrior? You’re still a crybaby...a weak little fool.”
“And you’re a coward!” Iolaus shot back. The angry words poured from some place deep inside where he’d always kept that particular hurt. “Nothing but a lousy bully who has to beat up on his wife and kids to feel like a man!”
Faster than he thought possible, his father whirled and slammed a fist into his mouth, splitting his lip.
Iolaus landed hard on his back, blood running down his chin. Still, he lifted his head defiantly and regarded his furious father through narrowed eyes. “Feel better?” he sneered.
Skouros raised his fist again. But even as Iolaus tensed for another blow, a deep loud voice rang through the courtyard.
“That’s enough,” Cheiron ordered, crossing the yard in a few easy strides. Interposing his equine body between them, the centaur coldly glared at the general. “I won’t permit you to strike my cadets.”
Skouros’ face turned red. “I’m his father!” he shouted.
“I don’t care who you are. Leave now.” Cheiron turned, dismissively flicking his tail at the older man and offered Iolaus a hand up.
“Yeah, leave,” Iolaus spat. He knew and didn’t care that both is pride and jaw were hurting. “Go to Carthage. Maybe somebody will do us all a favor and stick a sword in you.”
Skouros opened his mouth then closed it. Without another words, he mounted his horse and rode away.
“Iolaus...” Cheiron began his voice urging calm.
Iolaus was too far gone to be gentled. “I hate him, Cheiron,” he seethed. “I wish he was dead.”
Hercules knew the rest of the story. He’d been there when the grizzled warrior had entered the yard, eyes searching and finding Iolaus, who immediately knew why he had come.
Iolaus stood for a small eternity, staring at the amulet and thinking bleakly that he’d finally gotten his wish. Hercules’ touch on his arm brought him out of his reverie. Without a word, he spun on his heel and headed for the barracks.
The young demi-god had followed, finding his friend stuffing things randomly into a carrysack. “You’re leaving?” he asked in surprise. When Iolaus didn’t answer, he pushed. “Iolaus, who was that man?”
“A friend of my father’s,” Iolaus curly answered. “I have to go.”
“To your father?” Hercules frowned. “Is he hurt?”
“He’s dead,” Iolaus bluntly answered. “He was killed in battle at Carthage.”
“Iolaus, I’m sorry,” Hercules murmured in sympathy.
“Well, I’m not!” Iolaus’ blue eyes blazed with fury and hurt. “He was a rotten father, and I’m better off without him!” Grabbing his sword, he slung his bag over his shoulder and stalked out.
“Iolaus, where are you going?” Hercules asked as he followed.
“Away, Herc, I gotta get out of here.” Iolaus reached the stable and saddled one of the horses.
“But...where are you going?” Hercules hurriedly asked. “When are you coming back?”
“I don’t know,” Iolaus bitterly answered. “And maybe never.” With that, Iolaus kicked the horse and galloped away leaving behind a stunned and worried friend.
“I know the feeling,” Hercules softly replied. “I went though the same thing with Zeus.”
“It was too much,” Iolaus sighed. “I felt like I would explode or go crazy. So I kept riding. I thought if I rode fast enough and far enough I could leave all those feelings behind. I might have gone on like that for days if the horse hadn’t collapsed. I was lucky not to break my leg when it rolled over me. As it was, it took me hours to limp to the nearest village.”
Iolaus’ voice sounded dry and scratchy to his ears. Hercules must have heard it too. He poured a mug of water from the pitcher at the bedside and offered it to his friend.
Iolaus gratefully drank the water glad for the chance to organize his wandering thoughts. “When I got to that village, I used the little money I had to get a hot meal and a room at the inn. That night I was sitting in the common room having an ale before calling an end to that miserable day when I over heard some men talking at the bar.”
He weakly grinned at his best friend. “It was the standard monster-threatening-nearby-village thing and they were actually on their way to Athena’s temple to ask for help. In those days, I wasn’t nearly as adventurous when you weren’t around. Normally I wouldn’t have even thought about it, but suddenly I found myself offering to slay the beast and save the village.”
Iolaus shook his head fondly recalling the bravissimo of his youth. “They had their doubts, I could tell. But they told me what they knew and gave me directions to Etrusia. The next morning I set out, not knowing why...just knowing I had to do something. Doing was better than thinking...and well, thinking has never been my strong suit anyway.”
“You had something to prove,” Hercules remarked.
“Didn’t I always?” Iolaus grinned.
The two men shared that grin for a few moments. Then Iolaus sobered remembering where this trip down memory lane would end. “Anyway, I traveled to Etrusia and took on the monster. I really didn’t care what might happen to me.”
“Here monster monster monster,” he softly called fighting back the urge to giggle. He had the most remarkable feeling of indifference. It freed him, allowing him to act without fear or worry.
“Come on out,” he called. “I’ll let you eat me.” This time the laugh made it past his lips, and he reminded himself he had a job to do. Whatever was in here had been snacking on livestock for months and had recently graduated to people. It was a sobering thought and he moved on with a little more care. His boot kicked up something on the hard ground, and he stooped to examine an assortment of dirty feathers. “What the...?”
A hideous shriek, like nails being drawn down slate, echoed though the cave. Iolaus swallowed hard and propped the torch against the wall, holding his sword in both hands.
Iolaus frowned. The sound reminded him of Cheiron’s hooves on the wooden floor of the practice hall. No...not hooves...claws.
Another scream, terrifying close, and a rotting smell putrid enough to make him gag. Still he saw nothing...
Then his vision was filled with filthy gray feathers as two enormous wings swept by him and a set of razor-sharp claws raked his chest. Iolaus cried out in shock and pain nearly losing his sword. The torch fell over, the flamed stifled in the dirt. Iolaus was left standing in the dark, bleeding and straining, for any sound beyond his own heartbeat.
He listened to his own harsh breathing and held his sword ready. 'What in Tartarus was that sound?' It took him less than a minute to bring his panic under control. Then he was cautiously moving forward in the dark.
This time he was ready. He spun on his heel and swung his sword with both hands feeling it bite solidly into flesh. The creature screamed again and thrashed while Iolaus pulled back and thrust the sword home. One convulsing wing slammed into him, and his cries joined the dying beast's as his collarbone snapped. The sword fell from his nerveless hand, and as the monster in the dark ceased its struggles at last, he sank to the floor shaking with reaction and pain.
Every movement was a new experience in agony. Holding his right arm as still and as close to his body as possible, he crawled across the cave floor until he found the spent torch. It took him several long moments of fumbling with his flint to get the flame going again. But at last he held the torch aloft and got his first good look at his kill.
A massive bird’s head, complete with vicious beak and lidless eyes, sat atop a great tawny body. The claws that had slashed him protruded from massive, cat-like paws. The beast had a long thin tail that ended in a tuft of fur and a set of wings that spanned a good ten feet across.
“I’d never seen one before,” Iolaus nodded. “That one was about the size of a centaur. But I’ve heard they can be much bigger.”
“MUCH bigger,” Hercules confirmed. “I saw one in Thrace that picked up a horse and flew away with it.”
“I once heard the gods favor the foolish,” Iolaus wearily smiled. “I guess somebody was looking out for me that day.” He paused. The rest was going to be difficult. He could only hope their friendship was strong enough to survive it.
“I really wanted to hack off its head and take it back with me,” Iolaus confided. He settled himself more comfortably in the bed. “But I wasn’t feeling that great. And the thing smelled worse than the inside of Jason’s boots.” He saw Hercules grin and wondered if that would be the last smile he ever received from his partner.
“Anyway, I left it there and headed back to the village,” Iolaus continued. “It was pretty slow going. I had nothing to bind my shoulder with and it felt like it was on fire from where I’d been clawed. A few hours later, I had a fever. A few hours after that I was too dizzy to walk. So I found a thicket a little ways off the path figuring I’d lay low until I was well enough to travel again. As soon as I hit the ground, I was out.”
“NO!” Iolaus pushed at the wings around him. But instead of feathers, he found himself clutching brambles. Seized with sudden claustrophobia, he dragged himself from the close clutches of the bushes and lay panting, sweat sheeting from his body, damp curls sticking to his face. His broken collarbone relentlessly throbbed with each breath making his stomach churn. He moaned and rolled to his uninjured side just in time to be sick. Curling into a tight ball of misery with a pitiful whimper, Iolaus closed his eyes and wished the griffin had finished him off.
“Hello? Is someone there?”
Iolaus raised his spinning head searching for the source of the feminine voice. He groped for his sword as the blurry form came closer, but found he lacked the energy to defend himself.
The gasp sounded right next to his ear and Iolaus jumped. 'How had she moved that fast?' A blessedly cool hand touched his burning forehead then pulled aside his vest to reveal his injuries.
“What in the name of Mt. Olympus happened to you?”
Iolaus tried to explain, but his tongue seemed too large for his mouth. He could only mutter thickly in her general direction.
“Never mind,” she briskly announced. “There’ll be time for that later. Right now we’ve got to get you indoors and cleaned up. Those cuts are badly infected, and your shoulder will have to be bound. If I help, can you walk?”
With a great deal of help, Iolaus somehow made it to his feet.
“My cottage isn’t far,” the woman said grunting under his weight as they inched back to the path. “Just hold on. I’ll take care of you.”
Iolaus allowed her to guide him, wishing he could thank her, or at least clearly see her face.
The rest of his body may have been uncooperative, but his nose was working just fine. As soon as they stumbled through the door of the little cottage, Iolaus could smell fresh-baked bread and a scent he hadn’t come across anywhere but in Alcmene’s house...drying rose petals.
His new friend maneuvered him through the kitchen and into the tiny bedroom where he gratefully collapsed on the quilt-covered bed. He was vaguely aware of soft hands unbuckling his belts and removing his boots. When the cool cloth began to trace a path across his fevered skin, he felt as though he’d died and gone to the Elysian Fields.
The voice was back. “I’m going to make a poultice for those scratches. They’re badly infected. How long have you had them?”
“Just today,” he rasped forcing his tongue to work. “This morning.”
“Incredible. I’ve never seen a wound go bad that fast.”
Iolaus felt a mug raised to his lips and drank deeply.
“You’re going to rest for a while,” the woman’s voice soothed. “My hired man is due to stop by soon. I’ll have him bind that shoulder while you sleep.”
Iolaus felt warm all over, his pain quickly becoming a memory. He muttered his thanks and gave in to the insistent tug of Morpheus.
Iolaus awoke in disorientation, staring stupidly around the unfamiliar room and wondering if he could fight his way out without actually moving. Trying to sit up proved to be a very bad idea and he sank back into the soft bed with a groan. HIs right arm was snugly bound to his chest. A large purple bump on his collarbone evidence of the broken bone.
“It’s about time you woke up,” came a teasing feminine voice.
Iolaus turned his gaze to the doorway a hesitant smile on his lips. The woman who stood there was easily a dozen years his senior but there was no denying it...she was beautiful. Auburn hair escaped her long braid and curled around a face that was tan and lightly dusted with freckles. Her blue eyes sparked with pleasure at finding him awake at last. “I’ve had a strange man in my bed for days, and I don’t even know his name. People are beginning to talk.”
“I’m Iolaus,” he said trying again to sit up. This time he was able to carefully wiggle into a sitting position. The woman moved to rearrange his pillows, and he favored her with a broad smile. “Thank you. For everything.”
“You’re welcome, Iolaus,” the woman smiled. “My name is Penelope, and I’ve been dying to know just what happened to you.”
He recounted his battle with the griffin, exaggerating only a little.
Penelope’s eyes widened as she listened. “Sounds like you’re lucky to be alive.”
“Yeah,” he answered unenthusiastically. “Lucky.”
Penelope curiously eyed him but let the comment pass. “Are you hungry? You’ve had nothing but herbal tea and a little broth for four days now.”
“Four days?” Iolaus’ stomach abruptly confirmed how much time had passed since his last meal.
Penelope heard the growling and laughed, patting his leg. “I’ll get you some food.”
Iolaus caught her hand as she rose meeting her gaze with his own. “Thank you, Penelope. I mean it.”
Her eyes devoured him, searching, and then she smiled. He gently squeezed his hand before leaving the room.
Iolaus watched her go wondering if he’d imagined the wistful hunger in her eyes when she’d returned his stare.
Iolaus’s blue eyes clouded as he became lost in the memory he was recalling. “One night I woke up to thunder. A terrific storm had blown up and soon the rain was pouring in through the holes in that old barn room. I shifted around looking for a dry spot. But pretty soon I was soaked to the skin. I hated the idea of waking Penelope, but I finally gave in and headed to the house. I met her at the door on her way out to get me.”
Shivering in the near-darkness of the little cottage, Iolaus bent and removed his boots. He set them on the hearth to dry. Water ran down his face and chest in rivulets. Stray drops flew from his sopping curls to sizzle out of existence in the fireplace. It was a cool night for the season, and he crouched to feed more wood onto the fire.
Penelope game up behind him, draping a blanket over his shoulders. He straightened and smiled at her as she attacked his hair with a soft cloth, rubbing briskly until he took her hands to stop her.
“It’ll frizz,” he teased, running the cloth over his dripping chest. Penelope’s eyes, illuminated by the firelight, followed its path across his pectorals and down his flat abdomen. Iolaus met her gaze, hearing the sound of her harsh breathing, feeling the heat of her body as she moved closer. Her fingertips touched his skin, sending little jolts of heat through his body that mirrored the lightning outside. The blanket fell from his shoulders as he reached for her, seeking her mouth with his, molding her body to his own.
Iolaus had been with girls before, thought with fewer than his friends presumed, but no adolescent groping in the bushes, no flirtatious roll in the hay could compare to this, this...intensity. He was unprepared for Penelope’s hunger. her need overwhelmed him, sweeping over him like a flash flood, washing away everything but his raw, physical desire and the feel of her under his trembling hands. He would never remember who led who into the bedroom or whether he pressed her into the quilts or she pulled him down. He only knew he had to touch her, taste her everywhere, even as he felt her hands and mouth take possession of his body, urging him to sate himself on her eagerly offered body.
Later, as they spiraled dizzily back to earth, Iolaus held her in his arms, kissing her tears away and stroking her auburn hair until she fell asleep. He lay awake for some time, overcome with wonder. Guilt and shame were close behind. 'Why was she crying at the end?' He’d certainly not done anything she didn’t expressly want. In fact, she’d initiated the entire encounter. 'I shouldn’t have done this. Now she’ll want me to stay.' And he couldn’t do that. He couldn’t deny he had feelings for Penelope, feelings of fonder tenderness as well as passion. But something inside him had broken when Skouros died, and there could be no peace for him...not here. Penelope couldn’t love him, for his was inherently unlovable. His father had seen him for what he truly was, a worthless failure at best, an evil death-harbinger at worst! If he stayed, Penelope would see the truth and grow to hate him. And Iolaus couldn’t stand the thought of seeing her beautiful face twisted with disgust and disappointment. Drifting to sleep at last, he resolved to heave the next morning. It was the best thing to do.
Hercules had been silently sitting by Iolaus’ side...listening and watching his friend’s face. “Why did you finally leave?” he softly asked.
The hunter’s face darkened. “During the early days of autumn, Penelope began talking a great deal about her husband. I found out from Procrestes that he was killed in the fall, and that time of year was always hard for her. I wanted to help her, but I was so wrapped up in my own pain to deal with hers, too. Then one night while we were making love, she called me by another name...her husband’s name. It was all the excuse I needed.”
Iolaus turned his face way from Hercules’ calm stare. “We parted on good terms. She thanked me for giving her a few months of happiness. She said I’d reminded her of what it was like to feel alive. I kissed her and walked away.”
Taking a deep calming breath, Iolaus continued, “I spent nearly a year wandering, trying to chase away my problems with adventures and women. But everywhere I went, Skouros followed like a shade, haunting my footsteps. One day I found myself in an opium den in the ast, out of my mind and surrounded by strangers who would kill me for a dinar. And I wondered if I could ever go home. When I came back to myself, I thought....really thought about what it was that was driving me to be so self-destructive. When it came right down to it, I was trying to prove Skouros wrong. But Skouros was dead! Dead and gone. I finally admitted that it wasn’t my fault. He died because he was a soldier, and that’s what happens to soldiers...sooner or later. And I realized I would never had gotten his approval. Not even if I’d killed a Cyclopes a week since I was a year old. And I thought of you, Herc, and the friends I’d left at the Academy. I thought of the chance I’d had to make something of myself, to have a little pride, and how I’d thrown it away out of sheer fear of failure. I hoped it wasn’t too late to go home. I didn’t know if I’d still be welcome at the Academy...if I had any friends left at all. But I decided it was time to stop running and get back to living.”
Hercules’ face had taken on a troubled frown. The ache he felt in his soul for Iolaus’ pain shone in his clear blue eyes. “I wish you’d have let me help,” he quietly said. “We were so worried. Jason, Lilith, me...for all we knew, you were dead or in prison somewhere. We would have been there for you.”
Iolaus smiled at his friend a warm rush of affection filling his heart. “I know that now, Herc. But then, I couldn’t imagine anyone would care for me. Skouros did a good job.” He sighed and pushed his unruly curls away from his face. “Once I decided to head home, I knew I had to see Penelope again. So much had been let unsaid between us, and I felt like I’d used her. Of course, she used me, but that didn’t make me feel any better.”
Iolaus dropped his head back and fixed his eyes on the ceiling, not wanting to look at Hercules while speaking of what came next. “The house looked like it hadn’t changed at all. The buildings looked in good repair and there was plenty of firewood cut and stacked by the door. I figured Procrestes was still with her. But when she opened the door, I couldn’t help but smile. She was still beautiful, Herc. But she was really surprised to see me.”
Iolaus’ smile faltered but he forced himself to meet her gaze. “I’m on my way home, but I really wanted to see you again. Penelope, I’m sorry about the way I left. I should never have...” Iolaus froze. A sound from within the house had stolen the words from his lips.
The baby’s wail grew louder.
Penelope, her face expressionless, stood to one side and opened the door. “I think you’d better come in.”
His heart in his throat, Iolaus stepped over the threshold. Inside, everything was as he remembered.
Penelope brushed past him, into the bedroom that even now brought memories flooding back, and emerged with a sleepy infant in her arms.
Iolaus stared, enthralled by the blinking blue eyes, tiny fingers, and the little birthmark on his cheek. He raised his eyes questioningly and saw confirmation in Penelope’s gaze.
“His name is Acteon,” she softly said holding the baby out to him.
Iolaus hesitated, then took the impossibly fragile bundle, holding it awkwardly to his chest.
“Acteon,” he murmured watching the little fists flail. “My son.”
The baby kicked and wiggled with surprising strength. He tightened his grip in alarm, and Acteon began to cry. Iolaus held on hopelessly, close to tears himself. “What’s wrong? Is he okay?”
Penelope extended her arms, and Iolaus surrendered his son with immense relief.
“He’s fine. Aren’t you, my little one?” Penelope rocked him soothingly until he grew quiet then took him back into the bedroom.
Iolaus made his way to a chair and shakily sat down.
“It’s alright, you know,” Penelope said from the doorway. “Neither of us planned this. I won’t ask you to stay.”
“But...Penelope, it’s my responsibility. I want to do the right thing. I...we’ll be married.” Iolaus sat up straight and squared his shoulders in resigned determination. “I’ll stay.”
Penelope regarded him with a deep sorrow in her eyes. “You should see your face,” she murmured touching his cheek. “You look as though you’ve just volunteered for a suicide mission. NO, Iolaus. I don’t want you to stay. What we have between us are a few months of passion...few happy memories...”
“And a baby!” Iolaus interrupted.
“And that’s not enough for us to base a lifetime on,” Penelope continued as though he hadn’t spoken. “I won’t let you give up your life for one mistake.”
“It’s not right,” Iolaus insisted, his distress mounting. “I should be here. He needs a father.”
“He’ll have one,” Penelope assured him. “I’m in love with Procrestes. We’re getting married.”
Iolaus’ jaw dropped and for a few moments he couldn’t speak at all. “Married? You and Procrestes?” He saw back in his chair and thought about the silent handyman raising his son. Somewhere in the back of his mind, the insidious voice began to whisper. He uttered a weak laugh and rose from the chair. “I guess he’d be a better father than me,” he said turning away. “I mean, I’ve never done one right thing in my life. This is too important to screw up.”
Penelope’s hands were on his arms, turning him to face her. “Oh, Iolaus, you are simply wonderful,” she murmured. “Any child would be lucky to have you as a father. But you’re still a child yourself. You have so much to do and see...so many adventures ahead of you. This is not your fate, Iolaus. This is not your life.” Penelope laid a gentle chaste kiss on his troubled face. “You have given me a precious gift and for that I will always be grateful. And when Acteon is old enough...when you’re both ready...I will tell him about his father.”
Iolaus felt overwhelmed. “I don’t know, Penelope. I just don’t know if this is right.”
A soft hand lovingly stroked his cheek. “Iolaus,” Penelope tenderly advised. “Go home.”
For along moment, Hercules was silent. When he finally spoke, his voice was strained, grasping for an explanation he could accept. “You thought he’d be better off,” he stammered. “You wanted him to have a better life than you could give him.”
“No, Herc,” Iolaus gently corrected. “I wanted to run away. For all my talk of doing the right thing, I was scared to death. Penelope gave me an out, and I took it.”
This time the silence lasted longer. Iolaus finally eyed the demi-god, waiting for the tirade to begin.
“How could you?” Hercules burst out leaping from the bedside to pace the room in agitation. “Gods, Iolaus! He was your son! You walked out on your own child!”
“I wasn’t any older then than Acteon is now,” Iolaus pointed out. “I was young and made a mistake.”
“Why didn’t you go back?” Hercules angrily challenged. “All this time, you knew he was there. You could have...”
“Could have what?” Iolaus wearily asked. “Marched up to him out of the blue and said, ‘Hi, kid, I’m the father who abandoned you at birth?’ Do you think that would have helped him...or me?”
“He’s your SON, Iolaus!” Hercules shouted. “A child is the most precious thing in the world, and you threw it away!”
“I know,” Iolaus whispered. Hercules was taking this every bit as badly as he’d imagined. 'All things considered, can you blame him?' Iolaus felt the weight of his guilt and knew there could be no understanding, no forgiveness possible.
Hercules abruptly turned away and ran a hand though his hair. “I can’t talk about this right now,” he said steel in his voice. “Get some rest.” Without a single glance backward, he walked away.
His mind was still trying to deny what his ears had heard. 'This can’t be true. There’s got to be more to this that what Iolaus had told me.' His friend...his best friend...was an honorable man. Perhaps not the kind to settle down, but when a child was involved...
Hercules moaned softly and leaned back letting his head fall against the wall with a soft thud. In his mind, he saw Iolaus’ face...miserable...silent...totally accepting the demi-god’s condemnation. “No, he told me the truth,” he sadly murmured. “Iolaus, how could you?”
“Hercules?” Granius called making his way down the line off stalls. “What in Tartarus are you doing in here?”
Hercules sighed. “Just looking for a place to think.”
The blacksmith tossed a newly-case of horseshoes onto a nearby bench. “You look like a man with a problem,” he observed. “Anything I can do?”
Hercules hesitated. “It wouldn’t be right,” he finally shook his head. “It’s about Iolaus, and I don’t think he’d want me telling anyone.”
“Ah,” Granius mused. “I could tell something was bothering him the first time I mentioned that young warlord. Hercules, it’s up to you. But if you’d like to talk, I give you my word it’ll go no further.”
“I just don’t know.” Hercules ran a hand through his hair. He looked at Granius in despair. “Maybe...maybe Iolaus isn’t the man I always thought him to be.” Suddenly he found himself pouring out the whole tale to the smith, rising to pace back and forth. “I don’t understand, Granius. His own father practically abandoned him! Surely he knew how Acteon would feel.”
The smith was silent for a moment then regarded Hercules with thoughtful eyes. “Do you want my honest opinion, Hercules?”
“Please,” Hercules nodded sitting back down.
“I think you’re being too hard on him,” Granius advised.
“What?” Hercules frowned.
“He was very young and in a great deal of pain,” Granius slowly reasoned. “He didn’t know how to be a father. Truthfully, Hercules, what kind of life could he have offered a child? From what you’ve told me, he could barely see a future for himself. Under those circumstances, I might have done the same.”
“I wouldn’t have,” Hercules angrily retorted.
“Are you so sure?” Granius kindly asked. “It’s easy to judge him now, with a lifetime’s experience under your belt. YOU’RE looking at his actions and comparing them to what you’d do now...not what you’d have done then.” Granius rose to his feet. “And...I think you’re taking it personally. Think about it.”
Left once more to his thoughts, Hercules considered the smith’s words. His heart was heavy with sorrow and with a start he realized why. 'It’s not about Acteon. You’re thinking about your own children. That’s why you’re so angry with Iolaus. He gave up the one thing you give almost anything to have back.'
The demi-god remembered his friend’s devastated face as he’d revealed the story. 'He expected I’d turn away from him...in anger and disgust. And I did.'
Now angry with himself, Hercules left the stable and headed back to Iolaus’ room determined to give his best friend the understanding and support a lifelong friend deserved. The lengthening afternoon shadows were already slanting towards evening as he returned to the house.
“Iolaus?” he called pushing open the door to the bedroom. Hercules frowned at the empty bed with an aching heart. 'Where in Tartarus has he gone?' He turned to leave and nearly ran into Senecles, who had just finished his turn as sentry. “Senecles, have you seen Iolaus?”
“Sure,” the skinny youth replied. “He left about a sun’s width ago.”
Hercules winced at the sudden guilt. His disapproval had driven Iolaus away. “Did you see which way he went?” he quickly asked.
Senecles opened his mouth to reply but a shout from the water tower interrupted.
“They’re coming back!”
Hercules had been busy while Iolaus had been laid up. The little village had been fortified in case of another attack. This time, when the invaders arrived, they would be ready.
Iolaus lay on his back, listening to the popping and hissing of the fire. The stars were invisible, obscured by dark and ugly clouds. The moon was veiled in sickly mists and appeared blighted, as though Artemis herself blanched at his sins.
“I wish you were here, Penelope,” he wearily murmured. “I wish you could tell me what to do.” He closed his eyes and wondered what had gone wrong. ‘Where are you, Penelope? How did our son end up in Ares’ service?’
The hunter ran a hand across his aching wound and desperately wished for sleep. Tomorrow he would face the God of War and bargain for the life of his son like a housewife haggling over a copper pot.
Iolaus was still staring sightlessly at the sky when dawn crept across the horizon.
Hercules gazed into the defiant face that was at once foreign and yet so very familiar. The demigod frowned and folded his arms, doing his best to look menacing. “Why are you attacking these villages?” he demanded.
The youth tied to the chair thrashed and spat wrathfully in his direction. “Go to Tartarus!” he yelled.
Hercules sighed, not for the first time since taking his prisoner. From the first, Acteon had set his jaw in a stubborn expression that the demigod knew only too well, refusing to answer any question put to him. Now, under the furious glare of those blue eyes, the demigod was caught between exasperation and the urge to smile. “Acteon, I don’t know what you’ve been told, but there is nothing of value in this valley,” he patiently explained. “These people are poor farmers. There is nothing for you to loot. So, I’ll ask once more. Why the raids?”
“Because Lord Ares commands it!” Acteon snarled.
“Of course...Ares,” Hercules sighed. “I should have known. What interest does Ares have in Phyrgia?”
“The God of War doesn’t explain his wishes to me,” Acteon contemptuously answered. “You’re not very bright, are you?”
In a second, Hercules had snatched the youth by the front of his breastplate and dragged him to his feet...while still attached to the chair. Keeping his voice low and calm, he said, “I want you to tell me exactly what Ares’ orders were.”
“And if I don’t?” Acteon defiantly answered.
Hercules let him drop back to the ground and gestured to the open door where Granius and the other survivors of Phrigia were staring balefully at the captive warlord. “I’ll walk away and let them ask you.”
The young warlord was every bit as stubborn as his estranged father. Hercules could see the conflicting emotions pass across his face. “If I betray Lord Ares, I’m as good as dead.” Acteon’s voice was heavy with resignation but not fear.
The demigod’s fist closed on his armor again, but his anger abruptly left him. “What did you say?” he demanded.
Acteon flushed and dropped his gaze.
Hercules gave him a silent rough shake.
Acteon angrily rolled his eyes. “Lord Ares commanded us to attack the villages in this area because he knew you were nearby. I asked him if he wanted me to capture you. But he said it was Iolaus he wanted, and that he’d go to Ares on his own. I didn’t understand why.” Acteon glanced around, his eyes lit with grudging curiosity in spite of himself. “So where is he?”
“Gone,” Hercules flatly answered. “And I know where he’s heading.”
Iolaus took a deep breath then strode purposefully into the temple. It was every bit as unpleasant as he’d expected, dimly lit by torches burning smokelessly in brackets on the many pillars. The walls were long with crossed weapons and tapestries depicting ancient, bloody battles. There was a darkly ornate throne at one end of the hall, but Iolaus ignored it. Instead, he moved to the altar along one wall. Heaps of fruit and wine lay beside more grisly offerings of swords, spears, and daggers. And over it all, staining the polished stone and dully coating the weapons, was a thick layer of blood. The stench was overpowering, but it was the thought of what he was about to do that made Iolaus’ stomach rebel. Ares had not yet appeared and would not...until the appropriate offering had been made. Iolaus clenched his teeth and laid his sword on the altar.
“What’s this?” mused a voice behind him.
Iolaus turned to see the God of War casually lounging on his throne.
“Iolaus,” Ares drawled, rising with the creak of leather and a sinuous ripple of muscles. “What brings you to my humble temple?”
“Humble” Iolaus snorted. “That’s a joke. And you know damn well why I’m here.”
“You’ve been wounded,” Ares noted with exaggerated concern. “Having trouble with raiders?”
The hunter snarled in impatience, but managed to keep hold of his temper. “Look, Ares, you know why I’m here. You practically sent me an invitation. So let’s just get to the point. What do you want with me?”
“Truth is, I’m an old softy at heart,” Ares confided. “I just can’t resist a family reunion. But this one wasn’t very heartwarming as reunions go.”
Iolaus’ tenuous control snapped and with a kick sent a rack of spears crashing to the floor. “Listen, I don’t care if you are a god!” he shouted. “I want to know how you got your hands on my son! Where’s his mother! If you’ve harmed her, I’ll...”
“You’ll what?” Suddenly Ares had moved in close his bearded face inches from Iolaus’. “Don’t think for a moment you’re in control here, little man.” Ares’ voice was pitched low and dangerous, and his dark eyes snapped. “Your son pledged himself to my service, and he’ll stay in my service until I choose to release him...or until he dies.”
Iolaus knew he was right. Ares held all the cards. “Tell me what you want,” he numbly replied.
Ares wolfishly smiled. “Not much really. Just...you.”
Hercules finished binding Acteon’s hands in front of him, leaving enough rope to serve as a short lead then anxiously checked the position of the sun. Iolaus had a half-day’s head start at best. Traveling alone, the demigod could easily catch up in a few hours’ time. But he had the strong conviction Acteon’s fate was closely tied to whatever was happening in Ares’ temple. Desperate, Hercules was about to do something he rarely ever did...beg a favor from his immortal relations.
“Aphrodite!” Hercules shouted at the clear blue sky. A moment passed, and the demigod shouted again. “Aphrodite! Please! I need your help!”
A flash of pink sparks and a swirl of gauze heralded the arrival of the Goddess of Love. “Wow! That couldn’t have been easy,” she remarked, gazing at her brother with a smile. Her eyes lit on Acteon and her perfect nose wrinkled in amusement. “Since when are you into bondage, big brother?”
Hercules had no time to waste on a clever reply. “Iolaus is in trouble,” he explained. “I need you to take us to the Halls of War.”
Aphrodite frowned, tiny creases barely marring her beautiful face. “No problem, Herkie.” She curiously stared at Acteon. “So, who’s the kid?”
“It’s a long story.” Hercules took a firm hold on the rope and jerked his unwilling traveling companion forward. “Please, Aphrodite, we don’t have time to explain.”
“Whatever,” Aphrodite shrugged, already bored. “Hand on to your codpieces, kiddies! ‘Dite’s delivery service is on the job!”
Iolaus rolled his eyes and turned away from Ares in disgust. “You know, this ‘use Iolaus to get to Hercules’ play is really getting old,” he snorted.
“I don’t want Hercules,” Ares replied, crossing his arms over his leather-clad chest. “What I want is a warlord. Acteon has potential, but there’s no substitute for experience, is there?”
“You still haven’t answered my questions,” Iolaus pointed out. “Why me?”
“You’re a man of many talents. In fact, there’s hardly a god on Olympus that hasn’t laid claim to you at one time or another,” Ares coldly smiled. “Thieving for Hermes, hunting for Artemis, blacksmithing for Hephaestus...and I think we both know exactly how enthusiastically you honor Aphrodite,” Ares smirked. Unhurriedly, he strode to the altar and lifted Iolaus’s sword. “You’ve called yourself many things, but now it’s time to admit the truth. You’re a warrior, Iolaus. You serve me. You have nearly all your life. So why keep up this charade?”
Iolaus, his back still to Ares, chewed his lower lip and said nothing.
Ares sensed an advantage and pretended nonchalance, lazily unsheathing the sword in his hands. “How many years have you followed my brother around, righting so-called wrongs and fighting losing battles against so-called evil?” he mused. “And what do you have to show for it? No home. No family. Not even a reputation! Just your sword, an impressive collection of scars, and maybe...if you’re lucky...a mention in the history scrolls as Hercules’ flunky.”
“Oh, cut the crap, Ares!” Iolaus stalked to the God’s side and grabbed his sword, baring his teeth when Ares snatched it out of his reach. “You want me to serve you because it’s the surest way to hurt Hercules. If anyone’s keep up a charade, it’s you.”
Ares’ expression transformed into one of pity. “You poor man. Living in Hercules’ shadow all these years hasn’t left you with much self-worth, has it?” He shook his head in mock sorrow. “Listen carefully, Iolaus. I’ll admit that hurting Hercules is a nice bonus. But the truth is, you have the potential to be my greatest warlord ever. I want you on your own merits.”
“Yeah, right,” Iolaus snorted.
The God of War grew serious. “I chose you by virtue of your skills, experience, and sheer guts. I swear this by the River Styx.”
The unbreakable oath of the Gods! Even Ares would never dare go back on such a vow. Iolaus didn’t know what to think. After a moment’s reflection, he realized there was only one thing that mattered. “And if I refuse?” he calmly asked.
Ares shrugged and held out the sword. “Then I’ll have to make do with your son,” he answered.
‘No matter what...Ares has my son.’ “And if I accept?” Iolaus slowly said. “If I become your warlord, what happens to Acteon?”
“I’ll release him from my service,” Ares answered. “Whether he wants it or not. He’ll be free to go.”
Slowly, Iolaus took his sword from the God of War. He closed his eyes, thinking of his best friend whom he’d disappointed...the son he’d abandoned. He owed so much to both of them...and now he had to betray one to save the other.
Iolaus unsheathed his sword. Overwhelmed with despair, he tossed it on the altar and sold his soul to Ares.
Aphrodite disappeared after depositing them outside the Halls of War. Hercules bolted up the steps practically dragging Acteon behind him. He burst into the temple just in time to witness Iolaus drop to one knee.
“NO!” Hercules crossed the room in a few long strides still dragging Acteon behind him. “I won’t let you hurt him, Ares! I’m taking Iolaus, and we’re leaving now!”
Ares reclined on his throne and regarded him smugly. “Go ahead,” he invited. “Take him...if he’ll go.”
Hercules turned to his friend who had risen to his feet. The hunter was studiously avoiding his gaze. “Iolaus?” he softly asked. “What’s going on?”
“I’ve sworn my allegiance to Ares,” Iolaus explained in an equally soft voice. He finally raised his eyes to meet his partner’s....no ex-partner’s. The regret shone in the hunter’s clear blue eyes. “I'm sorry, Herc. It has to be this way.”
Before Hercules could respond, Acteon pushed forward and fell to his knees at Ares’ feet. “My Lord Ares, I’ve done as you commanded. Iolaus is yours.”
“So he is,” Ares agreed. “He’ll make an excellent warlord.”
Acteon blinked. “Warlord?” he stammered in confusion. “But...but I’m to be your warlord, Ares! Why do you need him?”
Ares rolled his eyes in boredom. “Sorry, kid. You were merely the bait to catch a bigger fish. If you had more experience, you would have realized it. Your father figured it out right away.”
The young warrior fought to control his devastation. “You used me,” he hissed. “You never wanted me at all.”
“Don’t take it personally, “ Ares advised with a cold smile. “In a few more years you might have been as good a warrior as your father. As it is, I’ll sacrifice youth and enthusiasm for experience and ability. I’m afraid your services are no longer required.”
Acteon was stunned into silence.
Hercules turned back to his friend. “You know Ares can’t be trusted,” he urged. “Whatever he promised, it was a lie!”
“No, it wasn’t,” Iolaus shook his head. “He promised me he’d leave Acteon alone so he’d live a normal life. He promised me on the Styx, Herc.” Iolaus put a hand on the demigod’s arm. “I don’t know any other way to fix things,” he murmured. “So please, Herc, take Acteon and go. Tell him everything I told you. Be the friend to him you’ve always been to me. He needs you. I need you to do this. Please...take care of my son.”
Hercules was unaccustomed to feeling helpless. “Iolaus...”
The hunter’s blue eyes pleaded with him to understand. “Herc. Please.”
A long moment passed between them before the demigod curtly nodded. “Okay, I’ll go,” he promised. “But I’ll be back. I’m not giving up on you.”
I know,” Iolaus smiled sadly. He quickly removed his amulet and knife and handed them to the demigod. “You keep these for me.”
Ares noisily cleared his throat and stepped forward. “If we’re quite through with the teary goodbyes, can we please get on with it?”
“Get on with what?” Iolaus asked.
“Just a formality,” Ares assured him. He held out a golden goblet filled with dark red fluid. “If you’re going to lead my army, you have to swear an oath and drink the ceremonial wine.”
“Fine...whatever,” Iolaus irritably nodded. He reached for the cup, then turned to look on Acteon’s bereft face. “Ares, I want a moment alone with my son.”
Ares heaved a suffering sigh and dropped back onto his throne. “Sure, why not?” he sarcastically asked. “Take all day, why don’t you?”
Iolaus knelt beside his son and began untying the knots that bound the rope to Acteon. The motion startled Acteon, causing the young man to jerk away. But Iolaus laid a calming hand on his arm. “I know this is a lot to understand,” he quietly said. “And I’ve never given you any reason to trust me, but that’s just what I’m asking you to do. Leave here with Hercules and don’t look back.”
Acteon’s eyes blazed in anger and confusion. “I don’t even know you!”
“I know, and that’s my fault. But we don’t have time to talk about that now.” Iolaus took a deep breath. “But I need to know where your mother is.”
“Mother?” Acteon frowned. “She’s been dead for years...since I was twelve.”
Iolaus closed his eyes for a moment in grief. “What about Procrestes?”
“The hired man?” Action looked at him in confusion.
Iolaus stared at the younger man in confusion. “He didn’t marry your mother?” he finally asked.
“No. He patched holes in the roof and mended fences,” Acteon answered. “He went off to fight at Hellespont when I was just a boy. Why in Tartarus would you think he and mother were married?”
‘ She lied to me...lied to me so I would leave.’ “It doesn’t matter now,” Iolaus forced himself to say. He helped his son to his feet. “Hercules will tell you what he can.” He took a deep breath. “Acteon, I’m sorry I won’t have the chance to make things up to you.” With one last look of regret, he turned away.
Acteon caught his arm. “Iolaus?”
The hunter looked into the tortured blue eyes of his son, filled with conflicting emotions and the need to say so many things. “It’s okay,” Iolaus softly said. “I understand. I’ve been there.” He reached up and brushed his fingertips over the birthmark gracing his son’s cheek. “You may not believe this, but I love you. “ Before his emotions could overcome him, Iolaus turned and strode back to Ares’ side.
“Finally!” Ares said with exasperation. “Skip the oath. I trust your word. Just drink the wine, and let’s get going.”
Iolaus took the goblet and met his friend’s gaze one final time. “I’m sorry, Herc,” he said and raised the goblet to his lips. He closed his eyes, not wanting to see the pain and helplessness on the demigod’s face.
As soon as he swallowed the liquid, he knew something wasn’t right. Beneath the dry flavor of the wine, he could taste something else...something coppery...something unpleasant that smelled very familiar. Even as he swallowed again, his eyes widened. ‘Blood! Ares’ blood!’
Iolaus felt his veins burn as the God of War’s essence mingled with his own. It was an incredible sensation...dizzying...overpowering...almost erotic. ‘Gods, is this what it’s like to serve Ares? How did Xena escape it?’ Ares’ blood raced through his body and mind...burning away the confusion and pain leaving behind only ashes and the promise of more pleasure...more blood...
Iolaus gagged as he threw the goblet to the floor. Sobbing, he dragged air into his lungs. The last thing he heard was Ares’ triumphant laughter and then the world spun into black-red oblivion.
“IOLAUS!” Hercules screamed as Ares and Iolaus disappeared.
Acteon suddenly laughed. “Some hero! I drank it too. But I didn’t cry over it!”
Angrily, Hercules pulled Acteon to his feet. “That’s because he’s the better man!” he shouted.
‘Please...take care of my son.’
It was a weary demigod who paused at the top of the hill. He tried not to scowl as Acteon stood next to him. He kept telling himself it wasn’t the younger man’s fault that Iolaus was now pledged to Ares...that the God of War had manipulated all of them with his usual skill. But it was hard to remember those thoughts when Acteon’s lip curled in disdain at every mention of Iolaus’ name.
Hercules silently stared down at Iolaus’ forge. His first thought was to stay there for a few days before proceeding to Iphicles’ court in Corinth. Maybe if Acteon understood more about Iolaus...
“What’s this place?” Acteon asked seeing the almost fond look on the demigod’s face.
“Iolaus’ forge,” Hercules automatically replied.
“Doesn’t look like much,” Acteon scornfully replied. “Guess it fits him.”
Hercules found his fists clenching hardly before he was aware of the action. ‘This is Iolaus’ son. You can’t hit Iolaus’ son. He’d never forgive you.’ “That’s your opinion,” Hercules finally answered. “Come on.”
Acteon waited just long enough to make the silent point that he wasn’t following of his own free will. He’d quickly found out that Hercules was taking Iolaus’ request to look after him almost literally. After two tries at escaping the demigod with Hercules slinging him over his shoulder the second time, the younger man had decided to be as sullen and uncooperative as possible.
Hercules knew he shouldn’t be so abrupt with Acteon. He understood the anger and bitterness the younger man felt towards Iolaus. In many ways, it was similar to the anger and bitterness Iolaus had felt towards his own father, Skouros. Except that Skouros subjected Iolaus to physical abuse, and Hercules could never conceive of Iolaus striking any child.
“I thought we were going to Corinth,” Acteon said.
“We’re stopping at my mother’s,” Hercules replied. Telling himself yet one more time this was Iolaus’ son and not responsible for Ares’ actions, he slowed down. Looking over his shoulder, he half-smiled. “I don’t get home much as it is. We’ll stay there a day or two.”
“I don’t need the rest,” Acteon flushed.
Hercules took a deep breath. “I didn’t say you did,” he pointed out. “Why do you keep doing that?”
“Why do you care?” Acteon angrily answered. Then he smacked his forehead with his hand. “Oh, yeah, right. My father wanted you to look after me.” The words were heavily laced with sarcasm.
“That’s right,” Hercules quietly answered after a moment. “My best friend asked me to keep an eye on his son.”
The two men stared at each other for several seconds before Hercules turned on his heel. “Come on,” he said over his shoulder. “I don’t want to miss dinner.”
“Hercules!” Alcmene shouted with pleasure. She ran down the path to be scooped up into the arms of her son and twirled around. “It’s been too long.”
Acteon stood watching with a sullen expression. He saw a man approaching with a broad smile on his face and a twinkle in his dark eyes.
Hercules clasped Jason’s arm in genuine pleasure. “Far too long,” he smiled at his mother.
Alcmene and Jason saw Hercules take a deep breath before turning to the younger man. “Acteon, this is my mother, Alcmene, and her husband, Jason.” He hesitated which brought an angry flush to Acteon’s face. “Mother...Jason, this is Acteon...”
“Bastard son of Iolaus of Thebes,” Acteon brutally interrupted.
Jason instinctively grabbed Hercules’ arm.
Alcmene stared at Acteon with a troubled look on her face. “That’s hardly a proper way to introduce yourself, young man. I doubt your mother would approve,” she gently rebuked. She smiled as the younger man’s eyes flickered away. “Welcome, Acteon.”
Hercules started to say something but was interrupted by Jason’s smothered laugh. He looked at his friend in confusion...as did Alcmene and Acteon.
“Sorry,” Jason apologized with a smile. “I was thinking of something else entirely.” ‘Like how much this kid reminds me of a very young and irritating Iolaus.’ “Come on, Acteon. I’ll walk you up to the house. I’m certain Alcmene and Hercules would like some time alone.”
Acteon skirted around Hercules and Alcmene to walk with Jason towards the house. He curiously glanced up at the older man. “Are you THE Jason? The Golden Fleece Jason?”
“Among other things,” Jason chuckled.
Hercules shook his head watching the two walk away. “That won’t last,” he mumbled.
“Why not?” Alcmene asked linking her arm with her son’s.
Hercules stared in surprise at his mother. He hadn’t be aware he’d actually said the words. “As soon as Acteon realizes Jason is Iolaus’ friend, he’ll turn against him.”
“Hercules! That’s hardly fair!” Alcmene protested.
Hercules took a deep sigh. “Acteon is so bitter against Iolaus,” he explained. “He turns that bitterness against anyone who is Iolaus’ friend.” He saw his mother’s expression. “Mother, he’s Iolaus’ son. I would cherish and love him for that reason if nothing else.” His lips tightened. “But he makes it really hard.”
“Is that why Iolaus isn’t here?” Alcmene asked.
“No,” Hercules quietly answered.
Alcmene frowned at the sad look in Hercules’ eyes.
“It’s a long story, Mother,” Hercules admitted. He sat her on one of the benches in the garden then sat cross-legged on the ground by her feet much as he’d done as a boy. “You can tell Jason later. I think it’s best if I don’t talk to Jason right now. Acteon is at least being civil to him.”
“I’ve heard stories about the quest for the Golden Fleece all my life,” Acteon admitted as he sat on the edge of the bed.
“Really?” Jason’s eyebrows rose sardonically. He sat perched on Hercules’ bed.
Acteon looked flustered. “I didn’t mean...”
Jason waved a hand with a smile. “I know,” he chuckled. “It was years ago.”
“I wonder if I can see it when I get to Corinth.” For a few moments, Acteon forgot he didn’t have a choice in going to Corinth.
“I don’t see why not,” Jason smiled. “I’ll send a message to Iphicles.”
“You know King Iphicles of Corinth?” Acteon’s eyes widened.
Jason stared at the younger man in open surprise. “He’s Alcmene’s son,” he explained. “Hercules’ half-brother. And I named him as my successor when I married Alcmene.”
“Oh.” Acteon’s face hardened. “Never mind.”
Jason tried not to laugh. He saw the anger in Acteon’s eyes. “Don’t mind me,” he advised. “You just remind me of someone I knew years ago.”
“I suppose you mean Iolaus,” Acteon snapped. “The hero who abandoned his son.”
Jason noted the open scorn in the younger man’s voice. “I do mean Iolaus,” he admitted. “And he’s always been a hero. He’s one of the men who helped bring back the Golden Fleece. But that doesn’t mean he’s perfect.” He stood and kindly studied Acteon. “I don’t know the story behind what happened years ago. And until I do, I won’t judge Iolaus.” He paused. “I suggest you do the same.”
“I know what happened!” Acteon shouted.
“Do you?” Jason kindly replied. “Have you heard it from Iolaus or do you only know what others have told you?”
“I don’t need to hear his whining excuses,” Acteon muttered.
“Then you’ll never know the whole story,” Jason pointed out. “And that’s your loss.” He turned and walked towards the door. “Get some rest. If I know Hercules, he set a pretty grueling pace. You’ll know when dinner’s ready.”
As Jason closed the door, he heard the sound of Acteon’s foot kicking the table. He grinned to himself. ‘Iolaus, my friend, I think you’re about to reap what you’ve sown.’
Dinner was a strained affair. Hercules tried to be as silent as possible allowing Jason and Alcmene to do the talking with Acteon. Not surprisingly, the boy warmed to Alcmene, even offering to help her with the dishes. With a laugh, Jason grinned at him and muttered something about owing him one. Alcmene rolled her eyes and chased both Jason and Hercules outside.
Jason studied his friend as they lounged on the front porch. Hercules’ eyes were fixed on the dark horizon, his thoughts obviously far away.
“It’s very strange to see Iolaus’ amulet on someone else,” Jason finally commented.
“Yeah,” Hercules nodded. “He left his dagger behind, too...the one we forged together.” He gave a deep sigh. “I did that to him, Jason. I drove Iolaus away.”
“What in Hades’ name are you talking about?” Jason asked. “I know what you told Alcmene, and I don’t see how you can...”
“I’ve know Iolaus almost all my life. He’s been my best friend almost all my life,” Hercules miserably said. “Gods, Jason! I turned on him when he confessed! Did I offer any sort of support or understanding? NO! I moralized and lectured at him!” He shook his head as tears threatened. “I turned away from him in anger. If I hadn’t done that, Jason, if I’d only stayed with him...”
“He would have gone anyway,” Jason calmly interrupted. “This is Iolaus we’re talking about, remember? You might have been able to stop him then, but you couldn’t have stopped him forever.”
“I might have stopped him long enough to find another way!” Hercules blurted out.
“Not likely,” Jason shook his head. “If Iolaus hadn’t gone then, Ares would just have kept putting on the pressure until he did.” He glanced over his shoulder. “Acteon’s pretty bitter, isn’t he?”
“Yeah,” Hercules shrugged. “Jason, I told Mother and I’ll tell you. He’s Iolaus’ son. I would love and cherish him for that reason if nothing else. But...I can’t deal with his attitude towards Iolaus. He takes every opportunity to belittle him or say nasty things about him.”
“It never bothered you when Iolaus acted that way towards his father,” Jason pointed out.
“Iolaus isn’t Skorous!” Hercules flared. “You know what he did to Iolaus! There’s no comparison!”
“Not directly,” Jason admitted. “But in Acteon’s eyes, perhaps it is.”
“If Ares didn’t have Iolaus, maybe I could deal with Acteon better,” Hercules admitted. “I’m just so worried about Iolaus...and what Ares has planned.” He took a deep breath. “I’m taking him to Corinth. Iphicles will give him a place with his troops.”
“Why not let him stay here?” Jason asked.
Hercules shook his head. “I don’t think Ares is going to let him go that easily,” he admitted. “He was a little too casual about it for my liking.” He took a deep breath. “It’ll be harder for Ares to reach him if he’s in Corinth than here.”
‘And less a danger to me and Alcmene.’ Jason shook his head in amusement. “You know best,” he finally said.
“That’s just it, Jason, I don’t,” Hercules sadly admitted. “The last thing Iolaus asked me to do was look after Acteon. I...feel like I’ve failed Iolaus.” He shook his head when Jason started to speak. “I’ve sent messages to Xena asking her to meet me in Corinth. The last thing I need is for her to hear about Iolaus before I explain.”
Jason nodded. “At least stay a few days,” he urged. “Give both of you time to rest a little.”
Acteon turned away from the door. Neither of the men outside had known he was standing there. He angrily clenched his fists, wanting desperately to hit someone...something. ‘Always about Iolaus...everyone cares how HE feels...bastard deserted me and mother and all they care about is HIM.’
Alcmene stared in surprise as Acteon suddenly turned and ran upstairs. The angry look on his face worried her...as much as the look of sorrow on Hercules’ face worried her.
That night Hercules slept in the barn rather than in the room with Acteon.
THREE MONTHS LATER
“So that’s Acteon,” Xena mused. She glanced at Hercules who stood stiffly beside her.
“That’s Acteon,” Hercules calmly replied.
Gabrielle cocked her head to one side and studied the young man. “Does he look like Iolaus when he was younger?” she asked.
Hercules shrugged. “Not so much,” he answered. “Mostly the eyes.” 'Especially the eyes.'
“I’m glad your message finally reached us,” Xena said after a moment’s silence. “I wish we’d been here when it happened.”
“It wouldn’t have made a difference,” Hercules sighed. “Ares held all the cards this time.”
“Have you heard anything about Iolaus?” Gabrielle asked. Her heart ached at the lost look in the demi-god’s eyes.
“Not a thing,” he admitted. “And I don’t know whether to be grateful for that or not.” He glanced back at Acteon who was approaching with some of Iphicles’ men.
To Gabrielle, it seemed Hercules was almost longing for Acteon to smile at him. She inwardly sighed. It wasn’t fair to Acteon to turn him into a substitute for Iolaus, but she doubted the demi-god even realized what he was doing.
“Hercules!” Andros greeted with a smile. He clasped the demi-god’s arm in a warrior’s handshake. “I didn’t know you were here!”
“Not for long,” Hercules admitted. “A flying visit actually just to see Iphicles.” He glanced at Acteon and nodded. “How are you doing, Acteon?”
Xena frowned when the younger man scowled.
“He’s doing well enough,” Andros nodded. “Give him some time. He’ll be like...”
“I don’t want to be like HIM!” Acteon snarled. “I hope the Gods strike me dead first!” He reached up and pulled the amulet from around his neck breaking the cord. “Here!” he yelled throwing the amulet at Hercules. “You take it! I sure don’t need anything of his! I don’t want anything or anyone to remind me of him!”
Shocked, Hercules automatically caught the amulet. He head Andros quickly draw in his breath. Almost shaking with the effort not to lose control, Hercules silently turned and walked away. After a moment, Andros turned and walked in the other direction.
They’d hardly left when Xena had her hand around Acteon’s throat and his back against the stone wall.
Acteon stared at her in stunned shock mixed with more than a little fear.
“You listen to me and you listen to me good,” Xena hissed. “The only reason you’re even breathing right now is because I don’t want to fight either Iolaus or Hercules over avenging your death. But if you ever ever talk to Hercules like that again...or talk about Iolaus like that again in my presence, you’ll have a very unfortunate...and fatal accident.” She tightened her grip. “Nod if you understand me.”
Acteon quickly nodded. The sparks shooting from Xena’s cold blue eyes were enough to compel him to agree whether he wanted to or not.
“Xena, let him go,” Gabrielle softly urged. “He’s just...”
“He’s old enough to make decisions,” Xena curtly interrupted. “He’s old enough to take the consequences.” She studied him for a moment. “And he’s probably about Iolaus’ age when he fathered this worthless idiot.” She saw Acteon flush and tightened her grip. “But you can condemn him for his actions, can’t you? And expect to be excused for yours?” She shook her head in contempt. “You’re not even half the man Iolaus is.” She loosened her grip and coldly watched as Acteon gasped for air. “Just remember what I said,” she reminded him before turning and going after Hercules.
Acteon angrily glared at Xena’s retreating back. Then he looked at Gabrielle who stood watching him with concern. “What do you want?” he hoarsely asked. “Are you going to tell me how wonderful Iolaus is? Or am I the only one who cares that he abandoned me and my mother?”
“You’re not the only one who cares,” Gabrielle gently pointed out. “Iolaus cares. He sacrificed himself to Ares for you.”
“I didn’t ask him to do anything!” Acteon hotly denied. “Whatever he did, he did it to soothe his own conscience.”
“You have no idea how much Ares hates Iolaus, do you?” Gabrielle asked. “I can’t even think of all the times he’s tried to kill him. Now, he has Iolaus in a position where he can force him to do almost anything. The only way out is if Iolaus takes his own life.”
“And that would be such a great loss?” Acteon snapped.
“I think you know it would be,” Gabrielle gently answered. “But you have to choose your own path.”
Acteon snorted. “I don’t have a choice,” he snarled. “I was dragged to Corinth! I didn’t choose to come here! My...Iolaus told Hercules to watch after me. His way of doing that was to drag me here!”
“Then leave,” Gabrielle suggested. “You can go wherever you want.” She saw his uncertain look. “I’ll help you if you want. If that’s what you want.”
“Never mind,” Acteon mumbled. “I’m learning how to be a warrior here. I’ll take that knowledge.”
“Good,” Gabrielle smiled. “And maybe you could learn to smile one in a while?”
Surprised, Acteon half-grinned. Then he looked away. “I suppose you’re going to tell me I look like him when I smile.”
“A little,” Gabrielle admitted. “But not very much. Iolaus’ smile will light up an entire room.” She studied him for a minute. “But you have his eyes.”
Acteon glanced up at her in surprise then he turned away. “You’re just being nice to me because I’m his son,” he muttered.
“Well, you have to admit you haven’t given anyone much of a reason other than that,” Gabrielle pointed out. “Come on. You can accompany me to the bazaar. I love shopping in Corinth.”
Before Acteon knew what happened, Gabrielle had linked her arm through his and he was half-way out the castle gate.
Xena found Hercules leaning against one of the castle walls. He was slowly and carefully retying the cord that supported Iolaus’ amulet. “Do you want to tell me why you let that little....” She took a deep breath. “Why you let him talk to you like that?”
“He has a right to his own opinion,” Hercules calmly replied without looking up.
Xena never claimed to be the most sensitive person in Greece or in the known world. But even she could see how much Acteon’s words had hurt the demi-god...and how much he was missing Iolaus. “Hercules, I know he has a right to his own opinion, but...”
“Let it go, Xena,” Hercules interrupted. “Acteon’s not going to change his mind for you or me or anyone else.”
“He’s a little fool,” Xena angrily muttered.
Hercules gently pulled the cord over his neck smiling faintly as the amulet rested against his broad chest. “I seem to get on his nerves,” he pointed out. “He’s doing fine here as long as I stay away from him.” He suddenly sighed and looked at the setting sun. “I wish it were different. I promised Iolaus I’d look after him.”
Xena put a hand on his arm. “We’ll find a way to get Iolaus back,” she promised.
Hercules gave her a quick searching look. “Don’t go making any deals yourself,” he warned. “Iolaus will have both our hides if you do.”
Xena snorted. “No, I know better than to play that game,” she agreed. Then she grinned. “Unless we have something that Ares wants...and we can afford to give him.”
“Xena...” Hercules warned.
“Just an idea,” Xena innocently replied.
Iolaus was surprised to see Ares lounging in his tent. “What do you want?” he demanded.
Ares raised an eyebrow in surprise. “Just seeing how you’re doing,” he answered. “And I must admit. I am surprised, Iolaus. You take to commanding an army as though you were born to it.”
“I was,” Iolaus snapped. “My father was a general. Remember?”
“So he was,” Ares casually nodded. “But I’m still impressed.”
“I’m flattered,” Iolaus snorted. He turned and poured some water into a basin. Throwing some on his face to gain time, he steadied his nerves. “Why are you really here?” 'Gods, this is it. What’s he gonna tell me to do?'
“Relax,” Ares smirked. “I’m just checking up on you, that’s all.”
“What do you want, Ares?” Iolaus asked drying his face. “You didn’t go to all that trouble to get me in your service just to have me drill and train your troops.”
“True,” Ares nodded. “But that’s part of leading an army, isn’t it?” He got to his feet and casually approached Iolaus. “You have the responsibility and power here, Iolaus. No one else does.”
“Except you,” Iolaus pointed out with a barely concealed smile.
“You do like baiting me, don’t you?” Ares grinned. “Or do you figure I’ll get so mad I’ll blast you to Hades?”
Iolaus managed to shrug in an unconcerned fashion. “Is there a difference?” he pointedly asked.
Ares threw back his head and roared in laughter. “I could get to like you, Iolaus,” he admitted. “Too bad you wasted so many years with my do-gooder halfling brother.” He lowered his voice to a hiss. “It warped your natural abilities.”
Iolaus knew Ares saw the sudden flash of anger in his eyes. “You never answered my question, Ares,” he recalled. “What are you doing here?”
Ares abruptly turned away. “The troops look in good condition,” he admitted. “I want you to march northeast. Another group will meet you.” He grinned over his shoulder. “More recruits. Train them as you’ve trained these men.” He held up a hand to forestall Iolaus’ questions. “Oh, this army is going to fight,” he assured him. “And just so you won’t have any hesitation about training them to the best of your ability...” He grinned as Iolaus’ eyes flickered away. “I give you my word this army won’t be used against Attica or Corinth. I swear by the Styx.”
“What about...” Iolaus asked.
“That’s all you get,” Ares warned. He pointed at the nearby table. An ornate sword appeared next to a black leather sheathe. “A token of my esteem,” he grinned. “It doesn’t look good for my favored warlord to have such an...ordinary sword.” He looked disapprovingly at the sword strapped to Iolaus’ hip.
“I made this sword,” Iolaus protested even as he stared at the sword Ares had conjured.
“Good for you,” Ares mockingly replied. “I’m sure Hesphaestus was proud.” He disappeared in a flash of red and gold energy before Iolaus could reply.
Curiously, Iolaus walked to the table and stared down at the sword. The cold steel of the blade seemed to shine with its own inner fire. A blood red gem set in the hilt caught Iolaus’ eyes. Slowly, Iolaus picked up the sword feeling his hand settle in the grip as though it was made for him. He chuckled at the thought. 'Of course it was made for me. It’s a token of Ares’ esteem.'
Iolaus suddenly whirled bringing the sword down in front of him with a wicked slash. He whistled under his breath as the sword seemed to have a life of its own. He stared at it for several moments then laid it on the table next to its sheathe. He quickly unbuckled his own sword and tossed it on the nearby bed.
Then he quickly buckled the sheathe to his hip. Grasping Ares’ sword in his right hand, he quickly sheathed it with a flair. A token of Ares’ esteem.
NEARLY THREE MONTHS LATER
Hercules sat slumped at the long table in the royal dining hall. He idly toyed with a fork as the sumptuous meal grew cold.
Iphicles, seated at the table’s head, exchanged a concerned glance with Jason then cleared his throat. “Hercules?”
The demi-god blinked then straightened in his chair, looking a little embarrassed. “I’m sorry, Iphicles. What were you saying?”
The King of Corinth wiped his mouth with a monogrammed linen napkin and pushed his plate away. “I was just saying that Andros thinks very highly of Acteon,” he repeated. “Apparently he’s doing quite well in his training. Andros has recommended him for the elite guard. That is, if he decides to stay.”
Hercules shrugged and frowned at the fork in his hand. He finally put it next to his untouched plate. “He’ll stay. Not because he wants to, but because he has nowhere else to go. Ares has abandoned him. His mother is dead. And his father...” The demi-god’s voice trailed off as he lapsed back into the grim depression that had gripped him since Iolaus had vanished from the Halls of War.
“Hercules, he’ll be fine,” Jason quietly insisted. 'Maybe if I say it enough times we’ll all believe it.' “We’ll think of some way to help Iolaus.”
Hercules slammed his fist onto the table rattling every dish and causing the other men to jump. “Damn Ares to Tartarus! It’s been almost six months, and we haven’t come up with anything, Jason!” Rising, he began pacing the length of the room. Irritably, he ran his hand through his hair. “Every day I expect to hear Iolaus is leading some army against our friends, if not right up tot he gates of Corinth! But there hasn’t been one word or sign of him. Even if I knew where he was, he’d never leave unless I cold guarantee Acteon’s safety.”
Iphicles and Jason exchanged worried looks. Lack of sleep and constant worry for Iolaus were telling on the demi-god. Every waking moment found Hercules wracking his tired brain searching for the solution to a seemingly impossible problem.
“Gods,” Hercules muttered. “I just don’t know what to do. I’ve never felt this helpless.”
Iphicles rose and laid a hand on his brother’s shoulder. “No one’s come up with any answers, Hercules,” he admitted. “But sooner or later, we will. And when the time comes for action, you won’t be ready if you don’t take care of yourself.”
Hercules, unable to speak, simply nodded in silence.
“He’s right, Hercules,” Jason added. “You’re doing the best you can for Acteon...and that’s what Iolaus wanted. But you need to start taking care of yourself.”
Iphicles gently squeezed his brother’s arm. “Try to eat something,” he suggested. “I’ll have the court healer give you something to help you sleep. You’re not helping Iolaus by driving yourself into the ground.”
They turned suddenly as they heard the voices of the guards in the corridor challenging someone. Jason and Iphicles instinctively put their hands on the hilts of their swords.
The door was flung open to reveal a very angry Warrior Princess. The guard immediately behind her gave Iphicles an apologetic look. Iphicles waved the man away with an understanding nod. Gabrielle followed Xena a few paces behind. She, too, gave Iphicles a silent apology.
“Damn Ares!” Xena angrily shouted. “Damn him for all eternity!”
“Get in line,” Jason weakly chuckled.
“You went to see him,” Hercules wearily accused. “Xena, what kind of deal did you...”
“Damn Ares!” Xena furiously interrupted.
“He wouldn’t even talk to her,” Gabrielle calmly explained with a slight smile. She saw Jason trying not to laugh. “Completely ignored her.”
Hercules sighed. “Xena, I thought we discussed this,” he pointed out.
Iphicles silently handed Xena a goblet of wine. “Ares isn’t going to talk to anyone until he’s ready,” he quietly advised. “Until then...it’s a waiting game.” He glanced at Hercules. “We’re not doing Iolaus any good by trying to confront Ares.”
“You’re right, Iph,” Hercules nodded. “But I can’t stop looking.” He walked towards the door. “I’m not hungry.”
“I’m sending the court healer to your room!” Iphicles yelled. “With orders to make sure you take something to help you sleep!” When Hercules ignored him, the Corinthian king threatened, “Don’t make me send Xena to help him!”
Hercules swallowed the lump in his throat and wearily rubbed his eyes. Part of him wanted to tear Greece apart sone by stone until he found his best friend. Part of him wanted to rip Ares limb from limb and scatter the pieces so far and wide he’d never be a threat to anyone again. But most of him wanted to go to sleep. 'Maybe if I sleep long enough I’ll wake up...and see Iolaus asleep across the campfire...and it’ll all have just been a dream.'
But this wasn’t a dream. Iolaus was in Ares’ clutches, and there was nothing Hercules could do to help him.
This wasn’t a dream....it was a waking nightmare.
Knowing Iphicles would do as he threatened, Hercules drank the potion brought to him by the court healer. In the mood Xena had been in, she would have not only poured the potion down his throat but shoved the goblet down his throat for good measure.
So it was mid-morning before Hercules ventured out from his room. As he stepped into the hallway, he nearly collided with one of Iphicles young messengers who was running down the corridor at full speed.
“Hey, take it easy,” Hercules advised catching the boy before he fell. “Take it easy. What’s the hurry?”
“There’s going to be a war!” the boy blurted his face flushed with excitement.
Hercules’ heart stuttered. “A war? With who?”
The boy looked over his shoulder as he began running down the hall. “The army that’s attacking Thrace! I can’t talk. His Majesty sent me to find Jason!” With those words, the boy was gone.
Hercules ran towards the throne room at a dead run. 'Iolaus, is this you? Is this Ares’ plan?' His blood turned cold at the thought of battling his best friend.
He arrived just before Jason who skidded a few feet on the highly polished floor. Xena and Gabrielle arrived immediately behind them.
Iphicles glanced up at the intrusion. He’d been examining a map with Andros. Then he saw the anguish in Hercules’ eyes. “It’s not Iolaus,” he quickly assured him. “I almost wish it was.”
Jason gave him a sharp look. “That doesn’t sound good, Iphicles,” he pointed out. “Who is it?”
“The Horde,” Iphicles sighed.
Xena muttered something under her breath. Gabrielle paled slightly and stood straighter.
“In Thrace?” Hercules demanded.
“In Thrace,” Iphicles confirmed. “The other neighboring kingdoms are mobilizing to send help, but Corinth is the closest. I leave at first light.”
“I’m coming with you,” Jason stated.
“I need you here, Jason.” Iphicles shook his head. “There are a few people just waiting for my absence to cause some trouble. Hercules can help you. Xena, I’d...”
“No way, Iphicles,” Hercules interrupted. “I’m coming with you.”
Iphicles critically gazed at his brother. “Normally, I’d be glad to have you along. But you look like Tartarus. I’m just not sure you’re up to it.”
“I’m going,” Hercules repeated. “Either with you or by myself. Besides, you’ll need all the help you can get.”
Iphicles sighed. “I can’t argue with that,” he admitted. “Very well.” He glanced at Xena. “Xena, I’d like you to take part of the army here.” He jabbed at a point on the map.
Xena stared at the map then coldly smiled. “You want me to cut a possible retreat at Dareon’s Pass,” she judged. “You want to trap them against the sea.”
Iphicles nodded. “If they get through that pass, Attica is vulnerable and then Arcadia,” he reasoned. “Attica is sending troops in that direction, but we’re closer. If you can hold it until you get reinforcements...”
Xena nodded. “It’ll be held,” she grimly promised. She glanced at Gabrielle. “You stay...”
“I’ll get our gear packed,” Gabrielle smoothly interrupted. She charmingly smiled at Xena. “Don’t argue. You won’t win.” She nodded at Iphicles and Jason then gave Hercules a hug. “Be careful,” she whispered before leaving the room.
“Xena...Andros...you two coordinate which men Xena will take with her,” Iphicles ordered.
Hercules caught his brother’s wrist. “Iphicles, Acteon has to stay here.”
“He’s part of the army, Hercules,” Iphicles pointed out.
“I promised Iolaus I’d take care of him...keep him safe,” Hercules stressed. He missed the frown on Xena’s face. “And that means keeping him away from the Horde.”
Ihpicles thoughtfully chewed his bottom lip. “Okay,” he finally relented. He glanced at Andros. “Have Acteon sent to me.” He looked at Hercules. “I suggest you not be here for this conversation.”
When Acteon was admitted to the throne room, he saw Iphicles broodingly staring at the map stretched across the table. He strode to the king and stiffly stood at attention. “You sent for me, Your Majesty?”
“Yes,” Iphicles looked up. “When the army moves out in the morning, you won’t be going with it.”
Startled, the young man stammered, “But...but...sir...”
Iphicles raised a hand to silence him. “Jason will be remaining here as my regent,” he explained. “You are to guard him and assist in any way required. Is that clear/”
Acteon looked like he was going to argue, but thought better of it. “Yes, sir,” he answered.
“Dismissed.” Iphicles looked back down at the map.
Standing in the shadows of the hallway, Hercules watched as Acteon left the throne room. He started to call out but choked back the words at the look of anger on the younger man’s face.
The Corinthian army reached the outskirts of Thrace late the fourth day of their march. Dusk was beginning to fall by the time they set up camp, and Iphicles judged it too late to do much scouting. Their supply ships should make landfall the next day. If the Horde had been scouting them, they wouldn’t be expecting more men and weapons by sea. Hopefully, the slight trickery would lull them into a false sense of security.
Hercules, unaccustomed as he was to prolonged riding, was fervently glad to be out of the saddle. He followed Iphicles stiffly as they climbed a ridge and observed the valley below. They could see figures moving near the treeline, barely distinguishable from the shadows.
“Smoke,” Hercules responded.
“From the Horde camp?” Ihpicles guessed.
“No. From the east,” Hercules decided.
“I don’t see them,” Iphicles frowned.
“Neither do I,” Hercules admitted. “I’m going for a closer look. We need to know who’s over there.”
“Be careful,” Iphicles warned catching his arm.
“Don’t worry,” Hercules half-smiled. “I will.”
Hercules moved as quietly as possible though the dense underbrush, letting his nose guide him to the fire he could smell but not see. He flinched as a twig napped loudly beneath his booted foot. 'Iolaus always said I was too big to be sneaky.' He shook his head and tried to concentrate. Voices had begun to filter through the trees.
“Coulda knocked me over with a feather, Alexos,” one man was saying.
“You wouldn’t think much looking at him,” Alexos answered. “Though Vikos shoulda known. Ares don’t bother with weaklings.”
“S’truth,” the first man agreed. “When Vikos called him a runt, I thought the little fella was gonna hand him his head.”
“Damn hear did, didn’t he?” Alexos laughed. “Our little general gave him a beating he won’t soon forget.”
As the two guards laughed, Hercules at back on his heels in confusion. He’d been sure they’d been talking about Iolaus...until the last part. For all that his partner was brash, Hercules had rarely known him to be that bad-tempered. Suddenly reaching a decision, the demi-god stepped out from the brush.
“Excuse me,” he politely said.
The two guards, badly startled, swore and raised their swords.
“Halt!” Alexos ordered.
Hercules raised his hands and tried to appear non-threatening. “I’m halted.”
“State your business!” Andros ordered.
“Ummm...could you...take me to your leader?” Hercules requested.
“Forget it,” Andros snorted. “You’re not worth his time. We’ll finish you off right here.”
“Wait a minute,” the other man interrupted with amusement. “Wouldn’t you like to see the general take this guy on?”
Andros laughed. “By Ares, that’d be something to see!” He gestured towards Hercules with his sword. “Come on. Don’t want to keep the general waiting.”
Hercules allowed the guards to bind his wrists together and “escort” him through the dark camp. He ignored the suspicious stares of the scarred warriors as they passed. This was Ares’ army...vicious violent men who followed the God of War because fighting was the only life they knew. And yet the demi-god sensed a change in their demeanor...a new sense of purpose...an orderliness to their ranks he’d never seen before. Everywhere he looked, men were training, maintaining equipment, or discussing the upcoming battle in quiet tones. The fires were built on the far side of the sloping hill, downwind of the Horde army. In spite of himself, Hercules was impressed.
The tent he was taken to was just like the others but larger. Two soldiers stood guard outside. “Wait here,” Andros ordered ducking into the tent. In a few moments he was back. "The general can’t wait to see you,” he smirked holding aside the tent flap. “Move it!”
Hercules was unceremoniously shoved inside the tent. It took him a few seconds of blinking to adjust his eyes to the harsh lantern light. Then suddenly he was looking at Iolaus.
He was the same...but different. The unruly blonde birls were combed down and tied at the back of his neck with a bit of leather. Gone was the purple vest, replaced by a forbidding black leather jerkin. A small silver sword on a chain lay against his throat. Iolaus crossed his arms over his chest and regarded him for a moment. His expression was tight-lipped, and his blue eyes were icy.
“Leave us,” Iolaus coldly ordered. He didn’t move or speak again until the tent flap had closed, and they were alone.
Hercules found himself shifting under that frozen gaze. “Iolaus...”
Quick as lightning, Iolaus yanked his ornate sword from its scabbard and slammed it on the table hard enough o make Hercules jump. Slowly Iolaus leaned forward, his eyes narrowing...
...and then his face split into a wide grin. “Little jumpy, aren’t ya, Herc?”
The demi-god blinked. “You...little...” He flexed his muscles and snapped the bindings around his wrists.
“Careful, buddy,” Iolaus warned. “I outrank you these days.” He giggled and held out his forearm which Hercules gladly grasped.
“Iolaus, how are you? Has Ares hurt...”
Waving dismissivley, Iolaus flopped into a nearby chair. “I’m fine, Herc. Ares doesn’t come around much. Administrative details bore him.”
“They used to bore you, too.” Hercules couldn’t help but grin.
“True,” Iolaus admitted. “But I seem to have a knack for it. It’s not much different than when I filled in for Orestes.”
“At least you’re fighting on the right side,” Hercules said with genuine relief. “I half expected Ares to order you to march on Corinth.”
Iolaus picked up his sword and gazed at the glinting metal. “He could have,” he admitted. “But he didn’t. He’s been having me train these men. For this battle, I’m assuming.” He glanced at Hercules. “In fact, Ares has been going out of his way to make this easy for me. He hasn’t pressured me into doing anything I’m not comfortable with. And swore by the Styx this army wasn’t going to fight Attica or Corinth.”
“That doesn’t sound like Ares,” Hercules mused. “Once he has an advantage, he’s usually quick to press it.”
“I know,” Iolaus nodded. “He even told me I only have to serve him six months. And that’s going to be up day after tomorrow. I’ll be free to stay or leave as I choose.”
“Stay?” Hercules frowned. “Why in Tartarus would you want to stay?”
“Beats me, Herc,” Iolaus shrugged.
Hercules frowned. “I don’t trust him any farther than I can throw Mt. Olympus. Be careful, Iolaus. He’s up to something.”
“I know,” Iolaus quietly replied. He ran a hand over his restrained curls and sighed. “But the truth is, it doesn’t matter. Whatever he’s got in mind, I have to go along with. At least for the next two days.” They stared at each other for a few tense moments each silently acknowledging the reality of the situation. Finally, Iolaus bit his lip and raised tortured blue eyes to his friend. “How’s Acteon?” he softly asked.
“He’s doing well,” Hercules assured him. “Iphicles offered him a place in the army, and he’s been making quite a name for himself from what I’m told.” Hercules saw the sudden horror cross his partner’s face and quickly added, “He’s not here, Iolaus. He stayed behind in Corinth with Jason.”
Iolaus’ relief was evident as he settled back in his chair. “Good,” he nodded. “I know he’s no stranger to battle, but I don’t want him anywhere near the Horde.” He glanced at Hercules. “You say he’s doing well?”
Hercules heard the unspoken question. “We talked on the way to Corinth,” he explained. “I told him what I knew.” He hesitated. “He’s got a lot of anger inside him. Mostly directed at you.”
Iolaus stared at his friend for several moments. “And took it out on you,” he guessed.
Hercules shrugged. “I was there,” he admitted. “But...I thought it best if I wasn’t around all the time.” He looked away. “I’m sorry.”
“For what?” Iolaus gently smiled. “I asked you to look after him. And that’s what you’ve done. You did what was best.” He looked down at the ground. “I shouldn’t be surprised,” he muttered. “He has a right to hate me.”
“I don’t think he hates you, Iolaus,” Hercules reasoned. “He’s just angry. I think once he gets to know you...and you get to know him...I think that anger will get resolved. You two will just have to spend some time together when this is over.”
“I hope I can,” Iolaus somberly nodded. “I really hope I can.”
“WHAT?! HOW IN THE NAME OF HADES HIMSELF DID THIS HAPPEN?!”
It had been years since some of the older courtiers and guards had heard Jason bellowing like that. Most thanked the gods he wasn’t yelling at them.
The hapless guards he WAS yelling at looked at the floor in helpless anxiety.
“Well?!” Jason demanded. “I want to know how one young man...barely more than a recruit...was able to disappear from his post long enough to stow away on the supply ship and not be missed until an hour ago!”
The two guards looked at each other. Finally, one of the men took a deep breath. “We have no excuse, sir.”
“That’s right,” Jason snapped. “You don’t.” He waved an arm. “Dismissed. I’ll figure out your punishment later.”
The two guards gratefully bowed and quickly left the throne room.
“Great...just great,” Jason angrily muttered. “Hercules is going to kill me. Iphicles is going to kill me.” He grunted. “Iolaus is going to kill me for sure even if they don’t.” Despite his anger, he began chuckling. “Iolaus, you have no idea how much like you your son is.”
Iphicles was pacing the interior of his tent when he heard Hercules greet the guards. “Finally!” he exclaimed turning to face his brother. “Where were you? What did you find? I was getting ready to send half the army after you!”
Hercules held up a hand to halt Iphicles’ questions. A smile touched his lips for the first time in months, easing the lines of worry and exhaustion on his handsome face. “It’s okay, Iphicles,” he assured him. “In fact, things are starting to look up.”
Early the next morning, Iphicles received word that more of the Horde army had appeared during the night. Some of them, however, had been wounded. Then he received word the supply ships had arrived. He grinned at Hercules. “Maybe our luck’s turning,” he suggested. “Iolaus is here to help. He’ll be away from Ares after tomorrow. And we’ve got our reinforcements before the Horde is ready to attack.”
Hercules grunted. “That’s when I start to worry,” he pointed out. He stood and stretched. “I think I’ll do a little scouting myself later,” he decided. “It would be nice to know if Xena held Dareon’s Pass.”
Iphicles nodded. “It would make my strategy simpler,” he admitted.
“Their’s too,” Hercules added. He glanced up as Andros entered without ceremony.
“Pardon, Your Majesty,” Andros curtly apologized. “But I thought you’d want to see this.” He turned around and pulled someone into the tent.
“Acteon!” Hercules gasped. “What are you doing here?”
“I don’t have to...”
“Silence!” Iphicles angrily shouted. He nodded at Andros. “An explanation, if you please.”
“He was on the supply ship,” Andros coldly explained. “He obviously stowed away because he was trying to sneak into camp.”
Iphicles glanced at his brother. “It’s a wonder we didn’t hear Jason screaming all the way from Corinth,” he mused.
Hercules grimly nodded.
“That will be all, Andros,” Iphicles sternly nodded.
Andros nodded in return. He gave Acteon a cold disapproving glare then left.
“Do you have any idea how close you are to being court martialed?” Iphicles quietly asked.
Acteon took a deep breath. “Permission to speak, Your Majesty?” he requested. “Freely?” He glared at Hercules. “Privately?”
“You can speak freely,” Iphicles agreed. “But Hercules stays here. He’s what’s keeping your head on your shoulders.”
Acteon hesitated then nodded. “Jason didn’t need my protection. And I resent being kept away from here because somebody is trying to protect me.” He gave Hercules an angry glare.
“Is that what you think?” Iphicles calmly asked. “First of all, Acteon, I don’t care what you resent. That’s not my concern. My concern is that my soldiers follow my orders. And my order was that you stay in Corinth.”
“IF you stay in this army, you WILL learn, Acteon!” Iphicles suddenly shouted. “I don’t need your approval for my orders! You will do as ordered or you’ll leave! Now which is it?”
Hercules’ eyes widened at Iphicles’ temper. He took a half-step forward then stopped when Iphicles glared at him.
“And I don’t need your interference, Hercules,” he coldly warned. “You’re here only because I want a witness.” He turned back to Acteon. “You think you have no control over your life, Acteon? Well, here’s where you take control. You decide. If you want to leave, you can do so. If you stay, you obey the orders given to you.”
Acteon found himself unable to look away from Iphicles’ dark eyes. “I’d like to stay, sir,” he mumbled. “I...was wrong.”
“Yes, you were,” Iphicles nodded. He slowly relaxed. 'Hercules would have had my head if this kid had walked out.' “When we return to Corinth, you’ll present yourself to Jason. He’ll decide your punishment.” He cocked his head to one side. “And may the Gods help you then,” he ruefully added. Then he looked past Acteon as Andros walked back in. “What is it?” he demanded.
“Pardon again, Your Majesty,” Andros apologized. He walked to whisper in Iphicles’ ear. “There’s a messenger from Ares’ army. Their general wants to meet with you.”
“Tell him I’ll see their general in an hour,” Iphicles whispered back. “If that’s convenient,” he ironically added.
Andros chuckled. He gave Acteon another cold look then walked out.
Iphicles stared at Acteon. “You’re scouting with Hercules today,” he ordered. “There’s not going to be any fighting today.” He glanced at his brother. “I’m meeting with the general from our allied army in an hour.”
Hercules blinked then nodded. “We’ll see what we can find,” he agreed.
“I want you both back before sundown,” Iphicles warned.
“Yes, Your Majesty,” Hercules grinned as he left the tent.
“Your Majesty?” Acteon softly asked.
“What is it?” Iphicles frowned.
“Thank you,” Acteon muttered looking at the ground.
Iphicles hesitated then stood face to face with Acteon. “Hercules is not your enemy,” he quietly advised. “Don’t make him one.” He turned away. “You have your orders.”
Hercules found Acteon to be good company during their scouting mission. He forced himself to not think about missing Iolaus’ visit. If they hadn’t been scouting around a Horde army, he would have actually enjoyed the day in the woods with Acteon. And he thought Acteon enjoyed it as well.
Iphicles stretched out on his bed after Iolaus had left. He stared up at the tent silently reviewing the past couple of hours. Once Iolaus had dismissed his guards, he’d seemed a lot like the man Iphicles had known for years. Granted, if he was leading Ares’ army, he would have to be more ruthless than he would have otherwise been. Yet, there had been something in Iolaus’ eyes that bothered Iphicles...especially when talk turned to the upcoming battle. There had been a gleam of almost unholy delight in Iolaus’ eyes then. Iphicles sighed and wondered just what he was going to tell Hercules.
He dimly heard the shouts of victory around him. One part of his mind rejoiced that the Horde had been decisively beaten back. That was the part of his mind that still cared. The small part of his mind.
He found his arms tightening around the body of his best friend. Kneeling in the midst of blood and gore, he heard the screams of the wounded and dying...and it meant nothing to him. He held his partner close to his chest and idly wondered why his heart was beating so loudly. How could it beat at all when the best part of it had been stilled by a Horde spear?
“Let me take him.”
He heard the words. But it took him a few moments to understand. Just as he did, hands touched his best friend’s body.
“Anyone who tries to take him from me dies here and now.” He spoke the words calmly...too calmly. How could he be so calm? He felt the rage building inside him but ruthlessly reined it in. He knew if he gave vent to that rage, they would take his best friend away from him forever. And that wasn’t going to happen.
The voices seemed to go away for a while. Then he heard a very familiar voice.
“Let them take him.” Iphicles’ voice was heavy with sorrow.
“No. They’ll do something to him.”
Iphicles’ brow furrowed trying to understand. Then he shook his head. There was no way to understand how anyone would react to such a loss. “Nothing will be done to him,” Iphicles promised. “You have my word.”
He brushed the hair back from his friend’s face. If he didn’t know better, he’d swear his partner was sleeping. He silently screamed for his best friend to open his eyes...breathe...say something. Then he felt Iphicles kneel next to him.
“We’re in the middle of a battlefield,” Iphicles softly spoke. “This isn’t the place or time to honor him.” He took a deep breath. “Or try to hold onto him.”
Slowly Iolaus turned to look at Iphicles. He saw the sorrow in the Corinthian king’s eyes for the death of Hercules...for the death of his brother. But he was my brother more than he was yours. “You promise? No one will do anything?”
“I promise,” Iphicles nodded. “Let my people take him.”
“Only your people!” Iolaus’ hands clenched the demi-god’s blood-stained clothing. “Not Ares’ men!”
“Of course.” Iphicles looked surprised. “Iolaus, you know I’d never...”
“I know,” Iolaus nodded. He took a deep breath. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be.” Iphicles motioned to his personal guard. “Take my brother to my tent. No one is to touch him. Understand?”
“Yes, Your Majesty.” The captain of Iphicles’ guard motioned his men forward. They quickly rigged a stretcher and placed Hercules’ limp body on it.
Iolaus stumbled slightly as Iphicles helped him stand. “I gotta contact Hades,” he muttered. “Herc made deals for me. I gotta make one for him.”
“Iolaus...” Iphicles began.
“No!” Iolaus shouted. He felt his control slipping away as the rage inside him boiled to the surface. He pulled away and raised his face to the sky. “Hades! I know you’re here somewhere! There’s too much death for you not to be here! Now show yourself!”
Iphicles quickly ordered everyone to back away. No one needed to be standing close as Iolaus lost control...or if the Lord of the Underworld did appear.
“HADES! WHERE ARE YOU?”
Iolaus sat up with a gasp. His lungs felt starved for air, and he felt tears sliding his cheeks. Panicked, he looked around seeing the familiar environs of his tent. “Gods,” he whispered. Trying to control his breathing, he swung his legs around and settled his feet on the cool ground. “It was only a dream. Only a dream.” Repeating the words as though they were a mantra, he felt his heart begin to slow down.
Barely able to control his actions, Iolaus quickly dressed and shouted for the guard he knew was on duty outside his tent. 'Thank the gods I didn’t wake up screaming.' He turned as the guard entered.
“Go to King Iphicles’ camp,” Iolaus ordered. “Bring me Hercules.”
“Hercules? Now?” The guard scowled.
Before Iolaus realized what he was doing, he’d crossed the space between them and wrapped his hands around the guard’s throat. “Yes, Hercules,” he hissed. “When I give you an order, I expect it to be obeyed immediately! Question me again, and I’ll deliver you to Hades myself! Do you understand?!”
“Yes, General,” the guard croaked.
Iolaus dropped his hands. “Now!” he shouted. He ran a hand through his tangled hair as the guard disappeared. 'That was stupid! Why do you want to drag Herc over here? For a nightmare?'
Iolaus’ hands shook as he poured himself a goblet of wine. He grimaced as he drank half in one gulp. No matter what he told himself, the nightmare had been too real. He’d smelled the blood on Hercules’ body...felt the cooling flesh in his arms. Considering they were to face the Horde in a few hours, he was afraid the nightmare had been a warning.
'And just what are going to tell him? Hey, Herc, I had a nightmare that you get killed in this battle. So you can’t fight today.' Iolaus snorted. He knew what Hercules would say to that. He ran a hand again through his already tousled hair. He wished he hadn’t acted so impulsively. Well, you better think of something quick. Herc’s gonna be here pretty soon.
With a muttered curse, Iolaus threw the half-emptied goblet to the other side of the tent. 'Okay, he won’t stay out of the fight voluntarily. Think, Iolaus, THINK!' For a moment, he considered calling on Aphrodite to get in touch with Hesphaestus. If he could get hold of a couple of Hesphaestus’ manacles or something...
Lost in thought, Iolaus didn’t hear the sound of running footsteps. Nor did he hear the tent flap being roughly shoved aside.
“Iolaus! What’s wrong?!”
Iolaus jerked. He whirled around to stare into the concerned eyes of his best friend.
Hercules saw the shocked look on Iolaus’ face...a face that was drained of all color. He reached forward and squeezed the hunter’s shoulders. “What is it?” he asked in a gentler tone of voice. The wild look in his friend’s eyes worried him.
Iolaus blinked. He looked past Hercules to see the guard standing uncertainly behind Hercules. “Get out!” he snarled.
Hercules turned in surprise to see the guard quickly obeying. He looked back as Iolaus took a deep breath.
Before Iolaus knew what he was doing, he was explaining about the nightmare. He wound up sitting on the edge of his bed while Hercules sat on the ground in front of him. Iolaus drew comfort from the steady blue eyes fixed on him. “I don’t suppose I can convince you to stay out of this, can I?” Iolaus tried to grin.
“Afraid not,” Hercules gently answered.
Iolaus harshly laughed. “I even considered trying to get my hands on some manacles from Hesphaestus or something, “ he admitted.
Hercules looked surprised. “Iolaus...we’ve faced death before in battle,” he began.
“Before I was at your back!” Iolaus snapped. He jumped to his feet and began pacing. “I know Iphicles is a good fighter, but...”
“But he doesn’t know me like you do,” Hercules easily interrupted. He also got to his feet. “You know, I don’t exactly like the idea of you fighting without me at your back either.”
“You didn’t have that nightmare,” Iolaus muttered rubbing the back of his neck.
“If I had, I’d be acting just like you are,” Hercules assured him.
Iolaus gave him an irritated look then sighed. “Okay, okay. Hesphaestus probably wouldn’t have loaned me the manacles anyway.”
Hercules grunted. “If nothing else, today completes your deal with Ares,” he recalled. Then he wished he’d kept his mouth shut.
Iolaus’ eyes iced over. “Yeah, and if my nightmare is right...”
“Iolaus, stop it!” Hercules reached for his friend and shook him a little roughly. “We’ve been here before. This is what we do. I can’t walk away from this fight any more than you can.”
“Yeah,” Iolaus nodded. He squeezed his friend’s arm then pulled away. “I’m just glad Acteon isn’t here.”
Hercules closed his eyes. He really wished Iolaus hadn’t mentioned his son. For a moment, he considered not saying anything. Iolaus had more than enough to worry about. But he knew he couldn’t keep this from his friend. The rare times one of them had tried to keep something secret that concerned the other, disaster had overtaken them. Hercules wearily wondered if the weight Iolaus was suddenly carrying on his shoulders was starting to affect him as well.
“Acteon is here,” Hercules gently said.
“WHAT?” Iolaus spun around in astonishment. “What do you mean, Acteon’s here?! He’s supposed to be in Corinth with Jason!”
“Gods, Iolaus, he’s your son!” Hercules retorted. “He’s as drawn to a fight as you are! He stowed away on the supply ship.” He shrugged. “If it’s any consolation, I don’t imagine Jason’s real happy with Acteon slipping away from him either. Iphicles certainly wasn’t happy when he showed up here.”
Iolaus started to speak then closed his mouth. “I guess I don’t have the right to say what he does or doesn’t do,” he finally admitted.
“Iolaus, look...I’d probably feel the same way if it were one of my sons,” Hercules pointed out.
Iolaus met Hercules’ eyes. “You were a real father to them,” he bluntly answered. “I haven’t been one to Acteon.”
“Let’s just get through today,” Hercules urged. “We can worry about the rest after that. Iphicles has him in a unit fighting close to him.”
Iolaus tried to smile. “Considering that Iphicles generally gets in the thick of battle, am I supposed to be comforted by that?”
“I’ll keep an eye on both of them,” Hercules promised.
“Just keep an eye on your back,” Iolaus muttered. He took a deep breath forcing the dark thoughts away. “You’d better get back and try to get some sleep. We’ve got a few hours yet before we need to move.”
“You need to sleep as well,” Hercules pointed out. “Are you going to be able to do that?” He knew Iolaus always had trouble sleeping after a nightmare.
“If not, I’ll at least lay down and rest.” Iolaus wickedly grinned. “Will that make you happy, mother?”
“I’ll be ecstatic,” Hercules drily replied. “I can stay a while if you want.”
Iolaus shook his head. “I don’t need a nursemaid,” he argued. “You go back and get some sleep.”
“Watch yourself today,” Hercules urged holding out his arm to take Iolaus’ in a warrior’s grasp.
“You, too,” Iolaus muttered. Ignoring the outstretched hand, he wrapped his arms around his friend and hugged him. “Be safe,” he whispered.
Hercules quickly returned the hug trying to give Iolaus a sense of calm. “I WILL see you when this is over,” he murmured. “I promise.”
Iphicles lay quietly for several minutes after Hercules had been summoned to Iolaus’ camp. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust Iolaus...and he knew Hercules trusted Iolaus more than anyone else...but Iolaus had been under Ares’ command for almost six months. And anyone could change in that length of time.
With a heavy sigh, the King of Corinth rose from his pallet and began dressing. It was still hours until dawn. He knew he wouldn’t sleep again until Hercules returned. And he doubted that would be soon. So he decided to get something done that his brother certainly would not approve.
You’re being ridiculous. You’re a grown man...an accomplished warrior in your own right...and King of Corinth besides! You don’t need Hercules’ permission or approval. Iphicles smiled at the small voice in his mind. He might not need his brother’s permission or approval but neither did he want an argument with Hercules over this.
Iphicles carefully unpacked a small traveling altar and set it on the ground. He took a bloodied antique dagger and laid it on the altar while softly murmuring under his breath.
“Now this IS an added bonus.”
Iphicles swiftly stood and whirled to confront the voice behind him. His hand had half-drawn his sword before he realized who stood behind him. “Ares?”
The God of War half-smiled. “I’d love to see Hercules’ face if he’d walk in right now.”
“I certainly wouldn’t,” Iphicles managed to retort. “What do you want?”
Ares’ eyebrow rose in mock confusion. “You summoned me.”
“No, I didn’t,” Iphicles quickly answered. Then he looked away. “Not exactly.”
“Then what EXACTLY were you doing?” Ares prodded.
Iphicles hesitated then stared into the dark eyes of the War God. “Praying we would be victorious,” he answered. “And that we would live to fight another day.”
“Sounds like a summons to me,” Ares nodded. He walked around the tent casually staring at the sparse decorations with approval. “Why should I give you what you ask?”
“Because the Horde aren’t your followers,” Iphicles calmly answered. “That’s why you maneuvered Iolaus into becoming your general.”
“Is it?” Ares looked over his shoulder.
“I’m certain you have other plans for him,” Iphicles wearily added. “And for Hercules. To be honest, my first consideration right now is Corinth and Greece.” He took a deep breath. “Then, if I can help my brother and Iolaus, I will.”
“You’re smarter than I would have thought...considering who your brother is,” Ares complimented.
' Your brother, too.' Iphicles was glad he hadn’t said THAT aloud.
“So tell me, King Iphicles of Corinth, just why did I maneuver Iolaus...as you so eloquently put it?” Ares asked folding his arms across his chest.
Iphicles poured himself a mug of water. He really wanted wine but realized it would be a mistake to lower his guard in any way. “When Acteon came to you, you realized or was told who his father is,” he slowly answered. “You knew the Horde was advancing and needed someone...you could control to a certain extent. Someone whose word you could trust.” He shrugged at Ares’ feral smile. “Xena couldn’t be controlled. You would always have to be looking over her shoulder to be sure she kept her word.”
Ares frowned. “Xena keeps her word,” he pointed out.
“But could you be absolutely sure?” Iphicles shook his head. “In your position, I wouldn’t be. That let Xena out. So you decided to use Acteon to trap Iolaus into doing what you wanted. That’s why you had the time restriction. It was just long enough that Iolaus felt comfortable he could control matters to a certain degree yet long enough to whip an army into shape to fight the Horde.” He drained the mug. “And you also neutralized Hercules. As long as Iolaus didn’t become a threat, Hercules would stay away and not interfere with you or your plans.”
“Very well done,” Ares nodded approvingly. “I hadn’t realized I was so obvious.”
Iphicles coldly smiled. “You’re not.” He studied the God of War in silence. “Somehow you’re making fighting too pleasurable for him. Almost like a drunkard enjoys the taste of wine. Iolaus probably realizes it’s not good for him and something’s wrong...but the lure of bloodlust calls to him as surely as any siren song. I saw it in his eyes yesterday when we discussed the upcoming battle.” He sighed. “The question is...will that lure be enough to keep Iolaus sworn to you after today?”
“I’ve sorely underestimated you.” Ares’ dark eyes glinted. “I see I’ll have to pay more attention to you, King Iphicles.”
“Do I dare assume that means I’ll survive this battle?” Iphicles’ own dark eyes glinted in return.
Ares chuckled. “It’s possible,” he admitted. Then his expression darkened. “Don’t assume because I prefer your armies to the Horde that this battle is automatically won.”
“Of course not,” Iphicles shrugged. “I presume their War God is powerful as well.” He thought for a moment he’d gone too far when he saw the anger in Ares’ eyes. Then the God of War regained control.
“Does Hercules know you pray to me?” Ares asked.
Iphicles shrugged again. “Does he need to? Besides, I pray to whatever God whose help I need when I need it.”
I’ll definitely need to keep my eyes on you. Ares cocked his head to one side. “Our mutual brother returns,” he said with a mocking smile. “I don’t think he’s very happy. He’s fairly stomping like a Titan.” He faded from view.
Iphicles took a deep breath and replaced the traveling altar back into its chest. “Give me a little more warning next time,” he muttered. He’d just finished when Hercules entered the tent.
“Iph, what are you doing up?” the demi-god asked in surprise.
Iphicles shrugged as he turned around. “I wasn’t going to be able to sleep until you got back,” he pointed out. “Iolaus’ message sounded serious.”
Hercules sighed as he sat in a nearby chair. Iphicles poured him a mug of water and patiently waited. The demi-god nodded his thanks and sipped the water.
“How is he?” Iphicles finally asked.
“Wound just about as tight as I’ve ever seen him,” Hercules admitted. “Concerned about what happens today.”
Iphicles shrugged. “We’ve done all the planning we can,” he pointed out. “Barring new information, we can’t do anything else but wait.”
“I know.” Hercules took a deep breath. “I think Iolaus believes he had some sort of premonition.”
“Of your death?” Iphicles calmly asked. He smiled at Hercules’ reaction. “Not so hard to figure out, brother. I doubt he’d send for you in a panic if he had a premonition of his own death.” 'Or mine.'
Hercules grunted. “It was nothing more than a nightmare.”
“Why don’t you fight with his troops tomorrow?” Iphicles suggested after a moment. He grinned at Hercules’ scowl. “It’ll make both of you feel better.”
“Fight alongside Ares’ troops?” Hercules demanded.
“We’re all on the same side when it comes to the Horde,” Iphicles pointed out. “You’ll feel better with Iolaus at your back and so will he.”
Hercules seriously considered it for more than a few moments. Then he slowly shook his head. “I can do more here,” he decided.
Iphicles raised his eyebrows in surprise then quickly turned away before Hercules could see his reaction. “Don’t you think I can defend myself?”
“It’s not that, Iph,” Hercules assured him. “My style of fighting won’t mesh with Ares’ men...no matter what Iolaus has done with them. I’d just be a distraction...and Iolaus doesn’t need that.”
Iphicles turned back to stare at his brother. “Any ideas what Ares has planned for Iolaus after today?”
Hercules shook his head. “Not for sure,” he admitted.
'You may not know for sure but you suspect a nasty possibility.' Iphicles lowered his eyes then quietly spoke. “What if Ares doesn’t plan for Iolaus to survive today?”
Hercules stared at his brother with ice in his blue eyes. “Then Ares dies,” he coldly promised. “I’ll tear down every temple and shrine that bears his name.” He rose to his feet. “And all the Gods on Olympus won’t be able to protect anyone who ever prayed to him.”
Iphicles watched as his brother angrily left the tent. He guiltily glanced over his shoulder at the box containing the portable altar and cursed under his breath.
Iolaus watched with anxious eyes as the sky began to lighten. He silently went over all his battle plans automatically reviewing options. His fingers played with the sword strapped to his hip. He suddenly wished he’d kept the dagger he and Hercules had forged. He would have felt better going into this battle with something that connected him to his best friend. But he’d left the dagger with the demi-god for safe-keeping.
Iolaus tensed slightly then relaxed when he felt a burst of energy behind him. “Ares,” he greeted without turning.
“Xena’s cut off any possible retreat for the Horde if they turn to the west,” Ares advised.
“That only leaves the north, where they came, or the sea,” Iolaus mused. He coldly smiled over his shoulder. “And the sea is not an option.”
“Not for them,” Ares grinned in response.
“And a cornered animal fights the hardest,” Iolaus continued. “You should enjoy today.”
“Are you trying to insult me?” Ares asked half in amusement. “I’m the God of War. Why shouldn’t I get pleasure out of this?”
Iolaus shrugged. “If you don’t want the Horde here, you could easily defeat them,” he answered.
“Let’s just say, it’s better that I don’t engage their War God directly,” Ares pointed out. “You know, all that godly energy just might destroy humanity.”
“Thanks for your consideration,” Iolaus mockingly replied. “You’re positive about Xena?”
“Don’t you trust me?” Ares asked with a smile.
Iolaus slowly shook his head matching the smile. “Should I?”
Ares suddenly shrugged. “That depends on whether you believe I’ll release you after today.” He saw the shadow in Iolaus’ eyes and silently laughed. 'I guess I owe Morpheus for that little gem.' “Xena has the western retreat cut off. Your scouts will tell you that within a few minutes. They’re coming into camp now.”
Iolaus nodded and walked to a table. He began scribbling a message. “Shouldn’t you go impress the troops?” he asked.
“Don’t you believe you have anything left to lose?” Ares hissed. “You’re taking quite a chance baiting me.”
“Today you need me.” Iolaus glanced up and squarely met the dark eyes of the War God. “As for tomorrow...” He shrugged. “We might all be dead by then.”
“How true,” Ares nodded with a cold smile. “How very true.”
Iolaus took a deep breath when the God of War disappeared. He shouted for a messenger. When the man appeared, he handed him a rolled scroll. “Take this to King Iphicles’ camp. Give it only to King Iphicles or Hercules.” He hesitated then reached for a second rolled scroll. “Give this only to Hercules.” He stared at the man. “Don’t even think about opening them. Something very nasty could happen. It’s not polite to read something meant for a demi-god.” He coldly smiled at the messenger’s reaction. “Then return immediately.”
Iphicles was splashing cold water on his face when Acteon arrived. The young man relaxed somewhat when he saw Hercules was absent. “You sent for me?” he asked.
Iphicles nodded. Try as he might, he could see little of Iolaus in his son. The eyes perhaps and a certain way he held his head at times. He knew Hercules had almost desperately tried to befriend the young man...tried to find that spark within him that would connect him with Iolaus. Iphicles didn’t believe it was there to be found although Hercules had been optimistic after their scouting mission.
“Today you’ll fight with my guard,” Iphicles ordered.
Acteon flushed. “I was hoping...”
“It doesn’t matter what you were hoping,” Iphicles calmly interrupted. “You have your orders.”
“With all due respect, Your Majesty, I don’t want any special treatment!” Acteon angrily flared.
Iphicles suddenly advanced on the younger man and stared down into his eyes. “Do you really believe I’m giving you special treatment because you’re Iolaus’ son?” he quietly asked. “Think again.” He waited until Acteon’s eyes lowered. “You may be able to pull that sort of nonsense with Hercules. He always did have a blind spot where Iolaus is concerned. And I’m quite sure you pulled that nonsense with Jason. He has a blind spot as well.” He paused for effect. “I don’t.”
He saw the quick look of surprise that flitted across Acteon’s face. “I ask your pardon, Your Majesty,” he quickly spoke.
“I’ll say this once,” Iphicles quietly continued. “You’re here because you’ve earned it. At least back in Corinth. And I’ll take the rest on faith today. But if you turn out to be half the pain-in-the-ass as your father is, you’ll be packed back to Corinth so fast you won’t know what’s happened.” He smiled to himself at Acteon’s reaction to his description of Iolaus.
“I thought...I mean...” Acteon stammered.
“I respect your father,” Iphicles nodded taking a few steps back. “I even like him sometimes.” He glanced over his shoulder at the younger man. “But he’s still a pain-in-the-ass. And more trouble than he’s worth to my brother as far as I’m concerned.” He was silently pleased to see the younger man flush slightly.
“I’m sure Hercules wouldn’t have someone unworthy as his best friend,” Acteon stiffly replied.
Iphicles wanted to laugh at the slight emphasis Acteon placed on the word “best”. Instead he stared at him in silence. “We all make mistakes,” he calmly replied. He knew Acteon had heard plenty of stories about Iolaus from the Corinthian soldiers. Everyone, Hercules most of all, was trying so hard for Iolaus’ sake to give his son reasons to respect and like Iolaus.
They all had forgotten this was Iolaus’ son. Pressuring him into a certain course of action was guaranteed to send him flying in the opposite direction.
The tent flap swung open, and Iphicles’ guard escorted Iolaus’ messenger inside. “He has messages from Iolaus,” he announced.
The messenger handed one to Iphicles. “I’m to give this one only to Hercules,” he announced.
Iphicles nodded at the guard. “Find him,” he ordered. He glanced at Acteon. “Give him something to drink.”
As Acteon complied, Iphicles saw the dark flush on his cheeks. 'Iolaus, you’re an idiot. Messages to me and Hercules but nothing to your son? You’re not making this easy, you know.'
Surprisingly, he’d only begun to read his message when Hercules appeared. The messenger sullenly handed the demi-god the scroll then curtly nodded at Iphicles. Without another word, he turned and walked out.
“Xena’s cut off their western escape route,” Iphicles announced as he read Iolaus’ words.
Hercules nodded. “I know. I just met the scouts as they came in. Xena’s army fought long and hard to close that pass. They probably won’t be able to help us directly, but they’ll hold it.”
“Makes things a lot simpler,” Iphicles sighed tossing the scroll onto the table. He noticed from the corner of his eyes that Acteon started to reach for it. He turned and stared at the younger man. “Come with me. You can help with my armor.” He gave his brother a half-amused look. “Some of us have common sense, you know.”
The jibe was lost on the demi-god as he was concentrating on Iolaus’ message.
I don’t know if that dream was a premonition or a warning or just a reaction to lousy cooking. (The food in this army isn’t much better than in any other, by the way.) But I can’t take the chance that it’s the cooking. And I have no idea what Ares has planned after today. I can’t believe he’ll just let me go.
If the worst happens and you fall today, I swear I’ll carry on. I don’t care what Ares has planned. I’ll continue to fight the good fight like we swore we’d do.
If something happens to me, I need you to make sure Acteon gets my amulet. (You didn’t think it worth mentioning that you’re wearing it?) Try to make him understand it’s not just my amulet...but that it belonged to my father and grandfather. If he won’t take it, then I want you to have it.
But I want you to keep the dagger we forged. That belongs to us. If someday you think Acteon deserves it, give it to him. But I wish you’d keep it instead. (Yeah, I know you don’t like to carry weapons but maybe just this once?)
Give Jason my boot dagger. Tell him it’s all he deserves. (Okay I’m joking. But he’ll understand. It’s sort of a private joke between us.)
There are two items in my forge I intended to give Alcmene and Iphicles at Winter Solstice. The dagger with the silver handle is Iphicles’. (I don’t think Jason would like it if I gave that to Alcmene!)
The two large flower pots are for Alcmene. I thought they’d look nice filled with her flowers.
If nothing else, Herc, keep an eye on Acteon. There’s good in him. You brought it out in me and you brought it out in Xena. It can’t be that hard to bring it out in him. It’d be nice to think he’d take my place and watch your back for me. I understand now what you were trying to tell me months ago. I did make the best choice when I left him...even if it wasn’t what I was really doing. But it was better that I never went back. He would have been a target for Hera to use against us. I mean, Ares is bad enough...
Whatever happens today, Herc, remember this. You are the best person in my life. You gave me hope and confidence in myself when I had none...when I had no reason to believe I should have any. And whenever I faltered, you were there to help me...to keep me from losing my way.
The only real regret I have is that we weren’t born blood brothers. But I’ve always known you meant more to me than any blood brother ever could.
When this is over, can we go home? To Jason and your mother? We deserve to be pampered a little.
Watch your back today.
Hercules stood for several minutes simply staring at the writing on the scroll. Then he slowly rolled it and gently placed it in his carrysack. Instinctively, his fingers curled around the amulet at his neck.
Iphicles, clad in his dark armor, stepped into the room and quietly eyed his brother. “We’ll be outside,” he softly told his brother.
Acteon saw the demi-god crouched holding Iolaus’ amulet. Stunned by the expression on Hercules’ face, he looked at Iphicles in confusion.
The King of Corinth motioned for the younger man to follow him outside. The guards snapped to attention as they appeared. “Form the guard. Hercules will follow.” Iphicles briskly ordered. He saw Acteon glancing back at the closed tent flap. “You honestly don’t understand, do you?”
Acteon flushed and turned his attention back to Iphicles. “He deserted my mother,” he sullenly replied.
Iphicles inwardly sighed. “Believe what you will,” he stated. “I know Iolaus better than that. He had good reasons for what he did.” He gave Acteon a solemn look. “Have you ever considered he never returned in order to protect you from Hera’s wrath...and Ares’? Given that my brother lost his entire family to Hera...don’t you think maybe Iolaus didn’t want you or your mother to die like that?”
“I thought you said...” Acteon closed his mouth with an almost audible snap.
“I was wrong,” Iphicles answered with a ghost of a smile. “Iolaus isn’t a pain-in-the-ass.” He, too, glanced back at the closed tent flap. “He’s a paranoid over-protective pain-in-the-ass.” Then he looked at Acteon. “For the longest time I resented how close Iolaus was to Hercules and Hercules to Iolaus. My brother was...is...and always will be closer to Iolaus than to me.” He shrugged. “I accept that now.” He waited until the younger man met his eyes. “You can either waste your life in bitterness and anger towards your father... which, by the way, was exactly what Iolaus did...or you can accept that he’s your father...that he had reasons to do what he did whether you like them or agree with them...and move on with your life.”
“What do you mean? I’m not acting like Iol...like him,” Acteon denied.
Iphicles chuckled. “Let me tell you about your grandfather, General Skouros.” Nudging Acteon, they walked away from the tent.
'He’s saying good-bye. He doesn’t think he’ll see tomorrow. Maybe it WAS his death he saw and not mine. Back-to-back...back-to-back...Gods, Iolaus...I can’t lose you. The past six months have been bad enough...'
Hercules sighed suddenly aware Iphicles and Acteon had been gone for several minutes. He heard the activity outside the tent and realized the army was moving into position. He instinctively wanted to go to Iolaus’ side...to face whatever happened with his best friend at his back...protecting his best friend.
Hercules’ hand clenched the amulet then he slowly released it. The cool stone of the amulet felt warm against his chest. He reached into his carrysack and pulled out the dagger he and Iolaus had forged. The Horde were vicious fighters and never surrendered. Today he would use this weapon as well.
He stood and strapped on the sword Iphicles had given him. Iolaus had to do what was necessary today. And so would he. Armed with Iolaus’ weapon and amulet, he told himself he at least was carrying a part of his friend with him into battle.
The early dawn stretched lazily across the sky, painting the horizon with hues of pink and orange. Iphicles stood once more upon the ridge, gazing down at the valley below. Dew covered every blade of grass, sparkling in the light of the rising sun like the tears of the gods themselves. A sound behind him drew his attention, and he turned to see Hercules move easily to his side.
He noted the sword and dagger his brother carried and silently thanked whatever god had convinced his brother to use some common sense and carry weapons. Now if they’d only convince him to wear some armor...
Hercules eyed the ceremonial armor his brother was wearing and silently wished one of the gods would strike Iphicles with common sense. There was no need to wear such armor. It would only make him a target for the Horde.
The sons of Alcmene stood in silence while the sun crept over the mountains that lined the other side of the valley. With any luck, the Horde hadn’t seen their reinforcements and knew nothing about Iolaus’ army. They knew the small army the Horde could see looked pitiful and outnumbered.
All the plans had been made...the strategy determined...all they could do was wait and watch as the Horde began advancing. The howls from the throats of the Horde warriors turned many mens’ blood to ice. The Horde took no prisoners and fought as long as they breathed. This would be a battle of no mercy on either side.
Hercules glanced to his right to see Iphicles mounting his black war stallion. He had to admit his brother cut an awesome sight and that it was good for the Corinthian troops to see him. He just wished his brother would use a little more common sense.
Iphicles glanced around one final time automatically checking to see all formations were in place. He raised his sword, and a corresponding shout came from his army...a shout that was derisively answered by the advancing Horde army.
Suddenly a savage scream sounded from their left. All eyes turned to see a blonde-haired black-clad figure on a horse appear on the ridge, his ornate sword raised high above his head. All sound and movement seemed to halt for a long moment.
Acteon’s jaw dropped. For a few seconds, he was in awe of his father. He dimly remembered a story from his childhood about death on horseback...and wondered if that was what his father had become.
Then Iolaus sharply brought his sword down. The still morning air was suddenly filled with the deafening shouts of Ares’ army as it swarmed over the ridge and poured into the valley.
Iphicles suddenly brought his sword down in a crashing arc screaming for his army to advance. The Corinthian army charged forward, mingling with the warriors of Ares’ army and crashed into the Horde advance like a tidal wave.
The Horde’s advancing army staggered momentarily under the onslaught then savagely began fighting back.
Iphicles again raised his sword. The sun caught the cold metal and seemed to follow it as the Corinthian king again brought it slashing towards the ground.
From their right came the Corinthian reinforcements. Caught unawares, the Horde army again stumbled then fought with renewed fury. One group struggled to cut their way through to where Iphicles had joined the battle.
Hercules intercepted a spear intended for his chest and yanked it from its owner’s hands. He used the blunt end to strike down three Horde warriors in a single sweeping blow. The Horde was fighting as viciously as their reputation proclaimed...and they fought to the death. The demigod’s heart ached for the senseless loss of life that surrounded him like a churning sea, even as he used his sword and knife to block a sword thrust aimed at his side. Using his strength to throw his attacker off balance, he quickly ended the Horde warrior’s life with a quick thrust of the sword through his heart. The tide of combatants around him ebbed for a moment, and his eyes sought familiar faces in the crowd.
Iphicles and his honor guard were being hard pressed, but the king refused to leave the field. He was bleeding from a gash on his cheek, but seemed otherwise unharmed and fought furiously. Part of Hercules’ mind acknowledged that Iphicles’ presence was vital to the spirit of his army even as the rest of him wished his stubborn brother would use some common sense and retreat from the melee and concentrate on the overall strategy of the battle.
Hercules dispatched another attacker with a vicious kick that snapped the Horde warrior’s neck. Then he let his gaze skip over the sea of bloody dirty faces. For a long terrifying moment he could not locate Iolaus in the chaos. At least he glimpsed a flash of unruly blonde hair in the area where the fighting was at is most vicious, and his breath caught in his throat.
Splattered with blood and gore, Iolaus hacked his way through the cream of the Horde army. His teeth were bard in a feral smile as man after man fell before his stained blade. ‘The bloodlust...Ares’ bloodlust...that’s what Iph saw.’
Gritting his teeth as more Horde warriors advanced, Hercules silently damned Ares. The bloodlust was as intoxicating and addictive as any potent mead or wine ever could be. Unless Iolaus had the strength to fight it, he would never be able to free himself from Ares’ domination.
A sudden shout of alarm caught Hercules’ attention. Several of the Horde warriors had broken through the lines and were running towards Iphicles. The Corinthian king braced himself for their attack even as his elite guard protectively formed around him.
For one split second, Hercules saw the fear flash in Acteon’s eyes before it was replaced with a hot glare of rage. Even as he began running towards his brother, he saw the protective formation collapse under the Horde onslaught. The Corinthian flag fluttered momentarily in the slight breeze then began slowly falling towards the ground. Hercules saw both Iphicles and Acteon disappear under the attacking wave of Horde soldiers.
Somehow, across the bloody valley, Iolaus heard that cry. He glanced to his right and saw Hercules diving towards what looked like half the Horde army. He saw the Corinthian flag nearly fall to the ground before being snatched up and held high as a beacon for the army.
‘Herc...Iphicles...Acteon...’ Iolaus didn’t stop to question the priority of the names.
Instead, he felt the hot singing of fire in his blood as it screamed for revenge...for retribution...for death. Iolaus threw back his head and howled a wicked battle cry. As he plunged forward, he knew without looking his army followed. He didn’t care. ‘By Ares! The Horde will be stopped here and now!’
His opponents ceased being men who followed another God of War. They became animals, and he meant to slaughter every last living one of them. With each life that ended on his blade...with every drop of blood that splattered his clothes...he felt the power and exhilaration that came with holding life and death itself in his hands.
Hercules grabbed two of the attacking Horde and knocked their heads together with killing force. Ignoring the sword that lay at his feet, he reclaimed Iolaus’ knife and pulled another Horde warrior from the pack surrounding Iphicles. As he drove the dagger into the Horde warrior’s heart, he saw the rest of the Horde stumble back as reinforcements arrived.
Iphicles quickly stood and remounted his horse so his army could see him. A resounding cheer from his men heralded their advance.
Hercules took a quick look at his brother. He was covered in blood but now wasn’t the time to find out whose it was. At least Iphicles was moving without too much difficulty. He spared a glance towards Acteon who was stumbling to his feet and breathing hard.
Acteon raised his sword to block the downward sweep of a Horde axe. He glanced to his right to be sure the man who was suddenly standing next to him was an ally. Even as he did so, he realized his mistake.
“NO!” Hercules screamed as a Horde sword thrust through Acteon’s chest.
Iphicles swung his head around to see Hercules diving to catch Iolaus’ son. “Destroy them!” he angrily ordered his guard.
The Horde warrior caught Acteon’s limp body by the hair. He raised his sword to remove Acteon’s head for a trophy. Before he could start the downward swing, Hercules smashed into him. They rolled for several feet before Hercules managed to get his hands around the Horde warrior’s neck and snap it.
Iphicles almost flinched. Hercules had killed his opponent with little more thought than writing the neck of a checked slated to be dinner. Even as Hercules stumbled back to Acteon’s body, the Corinthian king searched the battlefield for Iolaus. Finding him, he took a deep breath. ‘Don’t get yourself killed out there. If you die, there’s no one that will be able to keep Hercules from going out of his mind.’
Iphicles quickly dismounted and knelt by Hercules. One look at Acteon told him what he needed to know. “Hercules!” He tugged on his brother’s arm. “We still have to win this battle!”
“He’s dead,” Hercules murmured. “How am I going to tell Iolaus?”
“Let’s worry about surviving this battle,” Iphicles grimly suggested. “Now come on!” He used every bit of authority in his voice with that command.
Hercules automatically stood and nodded as Iphicles remounted. They stared at the battlefield, quickly noting the ebb and flow of the battle. Hercules’ heart stopped as he saw Iolaus fighting at the heart of the Horde army.
“If he eliminates their leader, this could end without too much more bloodshed,” Iphicles shouted. He motioned for a messenger and ordered part of his men to reinforce Ares’ army. Then he nudged Hercules with his knee. “Come on! We need to keep pressure on them!”
Hercules grimly nodded and waded back into the battle.
Iolaus faced off against the Horde commander. The man was almost as bloody as Iolaus. As he was as eager for battle as Iolaus.
Circling the Horde commander, Iolaus was aware of Ares’ ghostly presence. He wondered if the Horde commander was being seconded by his God of War. He smiled with an almost evil grin. It didn’t matter.
Iolaus’ sword clashed with the Horde commander’s battle ax. The Horde commander was taller and stronger than Iolaus. He laughed as he used his size and weight advantage to push down on Iolaus’ sword.
Iolaus laughed his own insane laugh as he quickly slid his sword along the shaft of the battle ax. If the Horde commander hadn’t quickly moved, Iolaus would have speared him.
The backed off from one another. Circling. Iolaus cockily twirled his sword and motioned for the Horde commander to come at him again.
With a defiant roar, the Horde commander charged Iolaus. Iolaus waited until the last second, then dove under the swinging battle ax. Coming out of his roll, he sliced his sword across the back of the Horde commander’s legs effectively hamstringing him.
The Horde commander screamed even as he tried to get to his feet. He then tried to roll binging his battle ax up in defense.
Iolaus quickly kicked the battle ax away. From the corner of his eyes, he saw one of his men grab it just ahead of a Horde warrior. Twirling his sword with an evil laugh, he straddled the Horde commander.
“Do you have a Tartarus?” he asked. He smiled as the Horde commander shouted something at him. “Guess you’re gonna find out, huh?”
Flipping the sword in his hand, he brought it down driving the blade through the heart of the Horde commander.
Iphicles heard a triumphant roar from the field. His dark eyes saw the Horde army suddenly fleeing back north. Almost like the sea leaving the shoreline, the rest of the Horde army began pulling back as they saw their commander’s head being waved by Iolaus as a trophy.
Iphicles glanced to see if Hercules had seen. He repressed a sigh when he saw the demigod’s eyes almost mesmerized by Iolaus’ actions.
“Andros!” Iphicles yelled. “Get the healers up here! We have wounded!”
“What about the Horde army?” Andros asked.
Iphicles shrugged even as he noted Andros favoring his right leg. “Let Ares’ army pursue them if they want,” he decided. “Personally, I don’t think they’re going to stop until they reach their homeland.”
Hercules stared at the carnage around him. Bodies lay strewn across the valley...some dead...some dying...all bloody. He stared down at his hands and saw they were coated with blood. He started to throw the knife in his hands to the ground, but caught himself. ‘That’s Iolaus’ knife. I have to keep Iolaus’ knife. I have to keep it for him.’
The demigod raised wide eyes to see his brother standing in front of him.
“Come with me, Hercules,” Iphicles gently urged. He knew what was going through Hercules’ mind. All his life, his brother had worked hard to maintain control over his strength. He did not kill unless forced. ‘I bet he’s killed more in this one day than he has in his entire life.’ Right now, the demigod looked as shocked as any raw recruit.
“Iolaus...” Hercules muttered.
“Still belongs to Ares,” Iphicles firmly replied. He took hold for Hercules’ arm and was surprised he was able to lead him back towards camp. “Until sunset, he belongs to Ares. And not even you can fight the Horde and Ares all in one day.”
Iphicles deliberately led his brother away from where Acteon lay staring sightlessly up at the sky. “Go to my tent,” he ordered. “I’ll be there shortly. You get cleaned up.” He waited until he was sure Hercules was obeying then turned to see Andros staring down at Acteon.
“He was a good man,” Andros quietly said as Iphicles joined him. “Just so much anger.”
“He would have made a good warrior,” Iphicles judged. “And an even better man.” He took a deep breath. “He was just very very young.” He quickly touched Andros’ arm. “Have him put aside from the others. As soon as the sun sets, Iolaus will be here.”
“Are you sure about that?” Andros wryly asked.
Iphicles shrugged. “If not, Hercules will go after him,” he added. He turned away and began organizing the survivors and calling for messengers.
Hercules had scrubbed every inch of his body and still believed he could feel the blood caking his skin. He’d put on clean clothing after throwing his bloodied clothing into the fire. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he was glad his mother had made him take a second pair of pants and shirt this time. He wondered how she knew he’d need them.
He lay curled on Iphicles’ bed hoping his brother wouldn’t mind. He covered himself with the blanket trying to get warm. He knew he was suffering from battle shock. It had happened before years ago to both he and Iolaus. But it had been a long time since he’d been in a battle as vicious as this one...where he had no choice but to kill.
He closed his eyes, trying not to see the faces of the men he’d killed this day. He tried not to remember the fear he saw in Acteon’s eyes when the Horde had advanced. And he didn’t want to imagine the look on Iolaus’ face when he told him about his son’s death. He knew he should get up and do something...but he just wanted to lay on Iphicles’ bed and close his eyes.
Hours later, Iphicles had scrubbed the blood from his own body and changed into clean clothing. He stared down at Hercules who lay curled on his bed like a small child trying to escape a nightmare.
Iphicles had long ago come to grips with the fact he would kill people. He’d been a soldier long before becoming a king. He saw matters very simply. You went into a battle and you either survived or died. And if surviving meant killing your enemy, then your enemy died. Better him than you.
But Hercules saw matters differently. And Iphicles knew it would take a long time for his brother to heal from this day.
Restraining the urge to tuck the blanket around his brother, Iphicles quietly left the bedchamber for the outer section of the tent. He glanced at the sun lowering in the western sky. ‘Let him sleep. Sundown will be here soon enough.’
Iolaus drank the entire mug of water in one gulp. He couldn’t remember being this thirsty...or tired...or confused.
The Horde army was in full retreat. He’d ordered most of his army to harry them back to the border...and beyond if they felt like it. The rest of his army followed him back to camp where the wounded were being tended. He’d set out sentries even though he doubted the Horde would double back. And he knew he hand nothing to worry about from Iphicles’ army.
He slowly unbuckled the ornate sword and pulled the blade from its sheathe. He stared at the blood drying on the cold metal. Curiously, he ran his finger through it, shivering as it seemed to burn his skin.
“Very well done.”
Iolaus slowly sheathed the sword and turned around. “Ares,” he acknowledged. “I’m so glad you approve.”
Ares’ dark eyebrows rose. “Baiting me again, Iolaus?” he asked.
Iolaus shrugged. He walked to the water barrel and began dipping up water into a basin. “I’m too tired to care,” he admitted. “I just want to get clean.”
“You DID surprise me, Iolaus,” Ares admitted, crossing his arms over his chest. He watched as Iolaus stripped off his armor then shirt and began cleaning the blood from his body. “I didn’t expect you to send your army after Horde with orders to cross the border if they felt like it.”
Iolaus shrugged again. “They won’t reach the border before sundown,” he pointed out. “Then they become your army again. If you don’t want them to cross the border, you stop them.”
Ares grunted. “I’ll have to think about that one,” he admitted. “I take it from your statement you’re leaving my service.”
Iolaus calmly nodded even though he felt his muscles tightening. “That was the deal, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah, that was the deal,” Ares agreed.
'His voice is too smooth...too agreeable.’ Despite himself, Iolaus glanced over his shoulder.
“But it’s not sundown yet,” Ares pointed out with a smile. “And there’s something you need to see before you make that decision.”
“It’s already made,” Iolaus wearily assured him.
“But there’s time to change your mind if you want,”Ares grinned. He waved his hand at Iolaus.
Feeling a tingle, Iolaus glanced down at himself to see he was cleaned of all the blood and wearing his own familiar clothing. Even his old sword was strapped to his hip. “I hate it when the gods to that,” he muttered.
Ares laughed. “We know.” He waved his hand a second time, and Iolaus saw the tent disappear...
...and saw it reappear. Then he looked around. This was a different tent. Bodies covered with shrouds and blankets lay neatly in rows on the ground. Iolaus spun around, glaring at Ares. “What is this?” he demanded.
“Where Iphicles put the dead.” Ares casually glanced around. “Well, some of them. There are more tents.” He grinned. “Hades is going to be busy for quite a while.”
Iolaus took a deep breath remembering Hercules’ cry during the battle...seeing the Corinthian flag nearly fall. “Why did you bring me here, Ares?”
“So you can see what the Horde did,” Ares smoothly replied. “Follow me.”
For a second, Iolaus thought about refusing, then realized he had no choice. Even if he wasn’t still sworn to Ares, the god would make him follow whether he wanted to or not. Looking past Ares, the hunter saw one body lying on a cot covered with a finely woven blanket that could have come from Iphicles’ own tent.
‘It was just a dream...just a dream...just a dream...’ Iolaus took a deep breath as Ares stopped next to the body.
Realizing Iolaus wasn’t going to move any closer, Ares reached down and pulled the blanket away from the body.
Iolaus felt his knees shake then give away as he fell to the ground. “Acteon,” he muttered, putting a hand on his son’s forehead. He shivered when his fingers touched the cold flesh. He wondered who had put the coins on Acteon’s eyes for Charon’s fee.
“He died bravely,” Ares idly commented. “But he was young and made a mistake. And it cost him his life.”
Iolaus swallowed hard, feeling the rage building inside him. He felt his blood run hot and wondered if the Horde warrior who killed his son survived the battle.
Ares materialized behind Iolaus. His breath was hot against Iolaus’ neck as he whispered, “This is what the Horde did you. It’s your son who lies here dead. Hercules couldn’t save him. Iphicles couldn’t save him. You couldn’t save him.”
Iolaus closed his eyes as pain washed over him.
“But you can avenge him, Iolaus,” Ares whispered. “The Horde will be back, you know. Maybe not this year. Maybe the next. Or the next. But they’ll be back, won’t they? And more will die.” He smiled as he felt Iolaus shaking against him. “Unless you go after them. Get revenge for your son’s death and keep them from killing anyone else’s son. Isn’t that a worthy cause, Iolaus?”
Slowly Iolaus opened his eyes. He stared at his son’s dead body for several seconds. Slowly he covered his son’s face and stood. He felt Ares following him as he left the tent. He stared at the setting sun for a few seconds.
“Do it yourself, Ares,” Iolaus finally answered. “I’m done.”
“Be sure, Iolaus,” Ares hissed. “Be very sure. I don’t make offers a second time.”
“You make it too easy,” Iolaus whispered. “You make me crave the blood and fighting.” He turned to face the God of War. “And that would make me your slave.” He slowly shook his head. “I won’t do it.”
Ares stared at the sun which disappeared over the horizon. “So be it,” he coldly nodded. “I leave you to the dead.”
Iolaus flinched as the God of War disappeared in a burst of red energy. He stood there for several moments as though waiting for a fireball to come streaking in his direction. But all he heard was a gentle voice behind him.
“That was quite a decision.”
Iolaus spun around and saw Iphicles quietly watching him.
“I don’t know that I could have made that decision,” Iphicles admitted as he stepped forward. He glanced at the tent. “I’m sorry, Iolaus. I had standing orders you were to be brought to me as soon as you arrived. I didn’t want to send a message about Acteon.” He hesitated. “I thought you should be told before...”
“It’s okay,” Iolaus interrupted. “Ares knew and brought me here.” He took a deep breath. “Where’s Hercules?”
“My tent,” Iphicles quietly answered. He saw the concern in Iolaus’ eyes and put a hand on the hunter’s arm. “He’s not injured. But...he killed too many men today to just shrug it off.”
Iolaus nodded. “I’ll go to him,” he decided, then looked at Iphicles’ tired face. “You okay?
Iphicles shrugged. “I don’t think any of us will be okay until we get home,” he judged. He glanced back at the tent. “There are too many bodies to transport, Iolaus. There’ll be funeral pyres tomorrow. But if you want, I’ll have Acteon’s body taken back to Corinth.”
“He’d hate that,” Iolaus half-smiled. “I don’t imagine he wanted special favors because he’s my son.”
“No, he didn’t,” Iphicles admitted. “But if he starts arguing with me now, I’ll certainly listen.”
Iolaus looked away with a half-laugh half-sob. “No.” He shook his head. “Tomorrow is fine.” He started to walk away.
“Iolaus,” Iphicles called. When the hunter stopped but didn’t turn around, Iphicles joined him. He put a hand on his arm and gently squeezed. “Part of the Horde got though the lines to where we were. We were able to push them back, but we were out of formation. We were trying to regroup when it happened.” He took a deep breath. “Hercules tried to get to him. He just...wasn’t in time.” He waited for Iolaus to say something. When the hunter remained silent, Iphicles continued. “If it’s any consolation, Hercules killed the Horde warrior who did it.”
Iolaus swallowed deeply then curtly nodded before pulling away.
Iphicles watched until the hunter disappeared into the darkness. Then he turned around and continued his walk through camp.
Iolaus sat quietly on the ground next to Iphicles’ bed. He’d been staring at his sleeping partner for some time. The strain of the day clearly showed on Hercules’ face even as he slept. The one difference between the two partners was that Iolaus acknowledged that sometimes it was necessary to kill. Hercules believed there was always a way to keep from killing if you could just find it. Today, he hadn’t been able to find a way to keep from killing. And Iolaus knew that had torn a huge hole in his friend’ heart.
Iolaus refused to think about Acteon. That would have to wait. Hercules needed to know he was with him and safe...that Ares had no more control over him. His grief for Acteon would wait until later...until his friend and partner was healed and safe.
Iolaus lithely got to his feet and went into the outer chamber. He silently piled a plate with bread, cheese, and fruit. Grabbing two mugs and a water pitcher, he carefully balanced them in his arms and returned to his friend’s bedside.
As he settled back on the ground, the sight of the food caused his stomach to curdle. But he knew he’d never get Hercules to eat if he didn’t. He reached out and gently touched his friend’s arm. “Hey, Herc. Time to wake up, buddy.”
Hercules’ blue eyes flew open, and he saw up with a jerk.
“Easy. It’s just me,” Iolaus half-smiled.
“Iolaus.” Hercules stared at his partner in confusion.
“Last time I checked,” Iolaus assured him. He raised the plate. “Have a grape.”
“A grape?” Hercules shook his head. “Wait a...what time is it?”
Iolaus shrugged. “Long past sundown,” he admitted. “Look, I ate earlier, but you’ve got to eat. Iphicles says you haven’t eaten all day.” He hoped his partner was too confused to catch the lie. Iolaus had never been able to lie well.
“Iphicles should have woken me," Hercules grumbled even as he took a few grapes from the plate.
“Iphicles has been awfully busy,” Iolaus pointed out with a sad smile. “Trust me. I know how hard it is to run an army.”
Hercules grunted. He picked up a piece of cheese and nibbled on it. Then he took the mug of water Iolaus handed to him. “What about Ares?” he asked.
“Gone,” Iolaus explained. “He made one final pitch. I turned him down. End of story.”
‘Somehow I doubt that.’ Hercules anxiously stared at his partner. “Iolaus...”
“I know about Acteon, Herc,” Iolaus softly interrupted. He heard the sharp intake of breath. “Ares brought me to him. He wanted me to lead his army against the Horde for revenge.”
“And you said no.” Hercules’ words were half-statement half-question.
“I said no,” Iolaus nodded. He stared at the food on the plate. “I lost my son today. I didn’t want to lose you as well.”
Hercules closed his eyes to keep the tears from falling.
“Iphicles told me what happened,” Iolaus continued. “I know you tried, Herc. You would have saved him if you could have.”
“I did try, Iolaus, I swear I did,” Hercules whispered.
Iolaus quickly glanced up at his partner. He reached and took the mug from Hercules’ nerveless fingers. “I know, buddy,” he assured him. “I know you did.” He gently pushed Hercules back onto the bed. “C’mon, lay down. We’re both tired.”
Iolaus slid across his friend’s body and lay on the bed next to Hercules. He stared up at the tent ceiling and tried to relax.
“I swear by the Styx, Iolaus, I tried to do what you asked me to do.” Hercules’ voice shook slightly. “But he seemed to do better away from me. That’s why he was in Corinth.”
“I know, Herc,” Iolaus replied.
“If I hadn’t taken him there...if I had kept trying...” Hercules continued.
“Don’t, Herc,” Iolaus interrupted. “You would have been there today no matter what.” He took a deep breath. “And so would Acteon. And he would have been with Iphicles today because that’s where you were.” Then, knowing Hercules better than he knew himself, he added, “There’s nothing to forgive, Herc. You did the best you could And that’s always been good enough for me.”
Hercules turned his head and stared at Iolaus. He silently squeezed his friend’s arm.
“Get some sleep, Herc,” Iolaus pleaded as he closed his eyes. “I’m really tired.
A few hours later, Iphicles tried to find a comfortable spot on the small cot where he was trying to sleep. ‘How is it that I’m the King of Corinth...commander of this army...and I don’t even get to sleep in my own bed?’
He glanced again at the two restlessly sleeping figures in his bed and sighed. He rolled over and stared into the darkness. Silently, he prayed to Athena to grant his brother and friend the wisdom to understand what had happened.
Hercules anxiously watched as Iolaus accompanied Acteon’s body to the funeral pyre. His friend had spent the better part of the morning alone with his son’s body. Hercules had waited outside the tent until Iphicles convinced him that Iolaus needed to be alone with his son.
‘When did Iphicles get to be so wise?’ Hercules studied his brother for a few moments as the bodies were being arranged. “Iph...” he hesitated.
Iphicles glanced at him. “What?” he finally asked.
Hercules shook his head and glanced away. “Would you take offense if I told you I’m proud of you?”
“There was a time I would have,” Iphicles admitted. “But not now.” He half-smiled. “Proud, huh?”
“Yeah, proud,” Hercules nodded. He watched as Iolaus reached out to touch Acteon’s cheek one final time.
Iphicles saw his brother’s fist clench. “Give him time, Hercules,” he murmured.
“I know, Iph,” Hercules nodded. “I just...I’ve never been able to see him in pain without...”
Iphicles silently touched his brother’s arm as Iolaus approached. Iolaus gave the Corinthian king a silent curd nod and took his place next to Hercules.
Iphicles took a deep breath and nodded at Andros.
The order was given, and the funeral pyres were lit. The Corinthian army stood silently as the flames took the bodies of their fallen comrades.
Hercules glanced several times at Iolaus who stared at Acteon’s blazing bier without flinching. For the first time since he’d known Iolaus, he couldn’t read his friend...and he realized it wasn’t because he didn’t understand what Iolaus was feeling. He knew it all too well. It was Iolaus who was putting up a barrier between them.
Slowly, the men began to walk away, leaving the flames to complete their job. Iphicles glanced at Hercules, then walked away.
Iolaus took a few steps towards Acteon’s bier, then stopped.
Hercules hesitated, then stood behind his friend, gently putting his hands on Iolaus’ shoulders.
“You think Acteon went to the Elysian Fields, Herc?” Iolaus quietly asked. “He did some awful things, you know.” He took a deep breath and stroked the amulet at his neck. “I wonder if the last couple of months made up for it.”
“I’m sure he did,” Hercules automatically answered.
‘You’re right. He did go to the Elysian Fields. By the skin of his teeth, I’ll admit. But he made it.’
‘Hades?’ Hercules quickly looked around.
‘Who else? Tell Iolaus Acteon is safe in the Elysian Fields. I took him there myself.’
“Do you really think so, Herc?”
Hercules glanced down to see Iolaus had half-turned and was staring up at him with a challenging look in his eyes.
“I know he did,” Hercules assured him. “Trust me. It’s a half-god thing.” When Iolaus hesitated, he gently squeezed his partner’s shoulders. “I wouldn’t lie to you, Iolaus. I know it. Hades told me.”
Iolaus nodded and turned back around to watch the flames. “I’m glad,” he finally whispered.
Iphicles decided the army would return to Corinth in the ships. The men were just too exhausted for the march home. The wounded would go first. Then other ships would return in a few days for the rest of the army.
Hercules was amused and reassured to find Iolaus stepping in to handle some of the administrative details for Iphicles. His time as Ares’ warlord had given the hunter some insight into what was necessary to keep an army running.
It warmed his heart to see his brother and best friend working closely together. For the first time, he felt they had truly become friends in their own right and didn’t just tolerate each other for his sake. He felt so good about it, he didn’t care when they handed him a list of things to be done before for the wounded could be taken aboard ship.
But he couldn’t keep from laughing when Iolaus convinced Iphicles he needed to return to Corinth with the wounded. From the look on Iphicles’ face even as he boarded the ship, he was still trying to figure out how the hunter had out-argued him. The best he could figure, it happened when Iolaus pointed out the sooner Iphicles returned to Corinth, the sooner Jason could return to Alcmene who was probably missing Jason very much. Of course, if it didn’t matter about Alcmene...
‘If you figure out how he does it, Iph, let me know,’ Hercules silently wished. He’d been on the losing end of a few of those arguments himself.
The two heroes stood and watched as Iphicles’ ships sailed away. “C’mon, Herc, there’s plenty of work to be done.” Iolaus turned away.
Well aware that Iolaus was using the work to keep from thinking about Acteon, Hercules put a hand on his friend’s arm. “Not so much work,” he pointed out. “It’ll be at least three days before the ships return.”
Iolaus shrugged and moved away. “The sooner it’s done, the sooner we’re ready to go,” he answered. “With luck, we can have the ships loaded and be out of here on the same tide.”
FIVE DAYS LATER
Hercules really wasn’t surprised when Iolaus stopped at the crossroads. Dismayed but not surprised.
“I better get to my place,” Iolaus decided. “The gods only know what kind of shape it’s in.”
“Why don’t you come to Mother’s with me for tonight?” Hercules casually offered. “Then we’ll head over to your place tomorrow. You know you won’t have any food at your place.”
Iolaus half-smiled. “Don’t think I can catch my own food?” He shook his head and shouldered his sword. “Thanks anyway.”
“Okay,” Hercules sadly nodded. “See you tomorrow.”
“Whatever,” Iolaus called back as he walked away.
Hercules was tempted to trail his partner just to make sure he went home. Then, with a sigh, he resolutely turned and walked away. He wanted his mother.
Alcmene was heading for the door to call Jason in to eat when it opened, and Hercules slowly entered. “Hercules!” Alcmene smiled. “Welcome home! We weren’t expecting you so soon!” As she wrapped her arms around her tall son, she felt him shudder then close his arms tightly around her.
“It’s good to be home, Mother,” Hercules whispered.
Alcmene stood in the circle of his strong arms for several moments until Hercules took a deep breath. Looking up at her son, she quickly asked, “Where’s Iolaus? He’s not...”
Hercules shook his head. “Iolaus is...” He hesitated unsure of how to answer.
The back door slammed shut startling both of them. Alcmene smiled as she heard Jason mutter something about a “blasted gopher”. She glanced up at Hercules who had a puzzled expression on his face. “Jason’s been trying to catch the gopher that’s digging up the garden,” she explained with a twinkle in her eyes.
“Ah,”Hercules nodded feeling his tired muscles starting to relax. “Mother, can we talk about all this later? I just want to get clean.”
Alcmene nodded. “Jason! Hercules is home! I need the big buckets filled and water heated!”
“Sure,” Jason called back. They heard him muttering something about possibly drowning the “blasted gopher”.
Alcmene stared worriedly at her son as she and Jason carried food to the table. He had taken a long time to bathe and was now sitting at the table with an exhausted look on his face. She glanced at Jason who shrugged.
“From what I’ve heard, the fighting was vicious and brutal,” Jason quietly explained. He wondered just how much he should tell her. “Something like that is going to affect him a lot.”
“But why isn’t Iolaus here?” Alcmene hissed.
“If he’d been hurt, Hercules would have dragged him here even if Iolaus kicked and screamed the entire way.” Jason squeezed his wife’s arm although he silently questioned the hunter’s absence. “Maybe Iolaus just needed some time alone. He’s had a lot to deal with as well.”
The conversation during dinner was limited to Hercules’ obvious satisfaction of eating a home-cooked meal. To Alcmene Iolaus’ absence was even more ominous. The hunter never missed an opportunity to eat something she cooked.
“So, Jason, I hear you have a gopher problem,” Hercules finally said with a slight smile.
Jason scowled as Alcmene hid her own smile. “I’ve commanded the Argo, ruled Corinth, and if that blasted gopher thinks he’s going to get the best of me...” He shook his head. “If I didn’t know better, I’d swear he’s one of Ares’ creations. Sneaky little...” He froze at the angry look on Hercules’ face. “I take it Ares is a sore subject right now.”
“Yeah,” Hercules slowly answered. He forced his hands to unclench before he broke the mug he was holding.
Alcmene gently laid a hand on her son’s arm.
Slowly, haltingly, Hercules explained about the final battle with the Horde. Out of defense to his mother, Hercules glossed over the bloody details. He saw the knowing look in Jason’s eyes and felt relieved. That would be something he could talk over with Jason later if needed. His voice faltered when he told them about Acteon’s death.
“He’s never said a word about it,” Hercules half-whispered. “Even when the funeral pyre was lit. He just...stood there.” He shook his head. “All the way home, I don’t think he said more than a dozen words. I kept waiting for it to hit him, you know?” He looked at his mother and Jason for understanding.
“Not even nightmares?” Jason’s voice was comforting although the pain of his own losses glittered in his dark eyes.
“I stayed awake two nights thinking that’s when the grief would take hold. But it didn’t.” Hercules shook his head. “When we landed in Corinth, we stayed one night with Iphicles. There was a lot of celebrating going on. I figured he might get drunk or get into a fight or something.” He sighed again. “But he didn’t.”
“Why didn’t you bring him here?” Alcmene demanded.
“I tried, Mother,” Hercules helplessly answered. “But it’s like he’s put up a wall around himself. “And I’m scared to push him too hard right now.” He squeezed her hand. “I told him I’d see him tomorrow.”
“Hercules, you remember when Ania died? And the baby?” Alcmene recalled. “He closed himself off then.”
Hercules nodded. “It’s worse this time.” He took a deep breath. “Iolaus feels guilty about not being a father to Acteon.” He choked off the rest of his thoughts.
“And about Ares using his son,” Jason quietly finished the unspoken words. He saw the flash in Hercules’ eyes. “He feels guilty about being who and what he is. He feels he set his son up as a target.”
“Yeah,” Hercules nodded lowering his eyes.
Alcmene exchanged a worried look with Jason. “Time enough to worry about Iolaus tomorrow,” she briskly decided. “You need a good night’s sleep yourself.”
“Maybe I should walk over there,” Hercules suggested.
“You’re going to bed,” Alcmene ordered in her best no-nonsense tone. “You’ll be able to think better after a restful sleep in your own bed.” She saw her son hesitate. “Don’t argue with me. Now go.”
Hercules squeezed his mother’s hand again then slowly walked upstairs.
Jason sighed and shook his head. “This isn’t something Iolaus is going to get over quickly.” He glanced a the stairs. “And Hercules wants to fix it quickly.”
Alcmene absently nodded. “I’ll pack a basket of food,” she decided. “You can take it to Iolaus tonight.” She patted his hand at his reaction. “We both know there’s no food in that house, and he probably didn’t forage for any either. I’m not going to be able to sleep knowing Iolaus doesn’t have any food.”
'And that means I won’t get any sleep either,' Jason ruefully admitted. “At your service, my dear,” he gallantly offered.
All Jason could see was the barely flickering light from the fireplace through one window as he approached Iolaus’ house. Hoping the hunter wasn’t asleep, he loudly banged on the front door. “Iolaus! It’s Jason!”
After a few moments, the door opened. Iolaus was rubbing his eyes. “Jason? Is anything wrong?”
In the dim light, Jason wasn’t sure if his friend was rubbing sleep or tears from his eyes. He hoped it was tears and that Iolaus was finally allowing his grief to outweigh the guilt. Silently, he held out the basket. “Did you think Alcmene wasn’t going to feed you?” he teased.
“She didn’t have to do this,” Iolaus mumbled even as he lifted the linen cover and sniffed. He glanced up at Jason. “She made you bring it tonight?”
“I wanted to be able to get some sleep,” Jason wryly explained. He shook his head at Iolaus’ obvious confusion. “Never mind.”
“Herc okay?” Iolaus asked rubbing his eyes again.
Jason shrugged. “He will be,” he carefully answered. “From what I heard, it was brutal up there.”
Iolaus slowly nodded. “You want to come in or something?” he asked.
Jason inwardly smiled. Iolaus was at least remembering some of the manners he was sure Alcmene had drummed into him. “Thanks, but I’ll be getting back home,” he grinned. “My good deed’s done for the day.” He hesitated. “Hercules said he’d see you tomorrow.”
“Umm..tell him I’m going hunting.” Iolaus looked down at the basket. “You can’t keep bringing food over here.”
“Then come over to the farm,” Jason invited. “It’ll save me walking back and forth.” He hesitated then put a hand on his friend’s arm. He inwardly frowned as Iolaus seemed to withdraw from the touch even though he didn’t move. “Whenever you’re ready.” Without waiting for an answer, he turned and walked away. He openly frowned when he heard the door gently close behind him.
Hercules walked over to Iolaus’ house late the next day and waited until long past moonrise. But Iolaus didn’t return. His heart heavy but not completely worried, the demi-god slowly walked home. If Iolaus had gone hunting, he might be away for a day or two.
'Maybe he does need some time alone,' Hercules considered. After the destruction and devastation he’d witnessed, his own solitude felt good. He knew it was at Jason’s urging Alcmene hadn’t fussed too much over him.
He worked at Jason’s side the next day knowing the hard physical labor would help ease his mind. It did. He felt much more like himself by late afternoon. He even managed to keep from laughing at Jason’s fury when the gopher-from-Hades skillfully evaded all the traps the former King of Corinth had set.
The house was quiet early the next morning as Alcmene began making breakfast. She halted with a pan in her hand. Glancing cautiously at the nearby door, she took a step forward. Something had gently nudged the door making a slight scraping sound. She hesitated wondering if she should call her husband and son to investigate. 'Oh, don’t be ridiculous!' Alcmene chided herself.
Taking a deep breath, she opened the door and looked around. Then glancing down, she saw the basket she’d sent to Iolaus. She reached down and lifted the linen cover then smiled. Inside were two freshly dressed rabbits along with an assortment of berries and nuts.
Stepping outside, Alcmene looked around. “Iolaus, where are you?” she laughingly called. “It’s too early to play hide-and-seek.” She looked around the corner of the house convinced she’d see the hunter standing there with a wide grin and a twinkle in his eyes. But no one was there.
Disappointed, she ran to the front of the house and looked down the path to the main road. “Iolaus!” she called even though she saw no one. After a few moments, she slowly walked back to the house.
Jason and Hercules were coming down the stairs when she entered the kitchen with the basket.
“Mother, did I hear you calling Iolaus?” Hercules eagerly asked. “Where is he?”
“I didn’t see him,” Alcmene sadly answered. “I heard a noise at the door. When I opened it, all I saw was this basket. I thought he was hiding and called out to him.”
Jason glanced inside the basket and smiled. “Well, at least we know he’s back from hunting.”
Alcmene looked up from the basket to her son. “As soon as you eat, you’re going over there,” she quietly ordered. “I want you to bring Iolaus back here.”
“Mother...” Hercules began.
“Alcmene...” Jason began.
“I don’t want to hear another word!” Alcmene angrily interrupted. “I don’t want to hear about the horrors of war and the need for solitude!” She stared at her son with a steely glare. “I want Iolaus found and brought back to me!” She took a deep breath. “Now do the two of you want breakfast or not?”
“I’ll get some water,” Jason mumbled heading for the door.
“I’ll get some wood,” Hercules mumbled following his friend.
Not finding Iolaus at his house, Hercules walked into town hoping someone had seen the hunter. He even hoped Iolaus had managed to get into some kind of brawl this early in the morning. At least, he’d be able to get his hands on his partner.
But no one in town had seen Iolaus. In fact, the innkeeper at the tavern was surprised to learn Iolaus was back. Usually, the tavern was one of the first places Iolaus appeared.
Hercules filled in the rest of the day scouting places he knew Iolaus was likely to go. 'I should’ve tracked him early this morning,' Hercules angrily told himself. 'No. I should never have let him go off alone. I should have just tossed him over my shoulder and taken him to Mother’s to begin with.'
He slowly walked back towards Iolaus’ house silently debating on whether to spend the night there or return home. He wasn’t looking forward to Alcmene’s reaction if he returned home without Iolaus. It was nearly dusk when he arrived at his friend’s house after deciding to spend the night there.
Hercules stopped a few yards from the house. Like Jason, he saw the flickering light through the window from the fireplace. He took a deep breath and gently knocked on the door. Not waiting for an answer, he opened the door.
Iolaus was sitting in front of the fireplace. He glanced up as Hercules closed the door behind him. “Herc? Anything wrong?” he asked.
Hercules studied the carefully neutral face of his best friend. “Yeah,” he admitted. “I can’t go home.” He sat down next to his friend.
“Why not?” Iolaus asked.
Hercules smiled. “Mother told me to come and get you. And I’m certainly not going home without you.”
Iolaus shrugged. “I’m okay,” he answered. “I’m just not good company right now. Tell Alcmene I’ll be over in a few days.”
“Then I hope you hunted up enough food for the both of us,” Hercules grinned. “I told you. I can’t go back without you. I’ll face a Hydra or sea serpent any day before I’ll face Mother when she’s angry.”
“Why is she angry?” Iolaus asked.
“She’s worried about you and angry with me for not bringing you home earlier,” Hercules softly answered. “Why didn’t you stay this morning?”
Iolaus shrugged and stared into the fire.
'Gods, what this was I was like when Deianeira and the kids died? Did I build this big a wall around me?' “It’s not just Mother who wants you there,” he continued. “Jason needs you. Not that he’d ever admit it, of course. But he’s about to explode over this gopher-from-Hades.” He watched Iolaus dismayed at the blank expression he saw. “That’s the nicest thing Jason calls it when Mother’s around. You can imagine what he calls it when she’s not around.”
Hercules waited for Iolaus to speak. When he didn’t, the demi-god crouched behind his friend and lightly put his hands on Iolaus’ shoulders. “I never realized how hard it must have been for you when I lost my family,” he quietly spoke. “I shut you out so completely when you wanted to help. But you never gave up on me. And I don’t want you thinking I’m giving up on you.”
Hercules felt Iolaus’ shoulders tense under his hands. “Iolaus, please don’t shut me out just because I shut you out those times. I was wrong to do that.”
Iolaus lowered his head. “It’s not your fault, Herc,” he mumbled.
“It’s not your fault either!” Hercules retorted. Despite himself, his fingers tightened on his friend’s shoulders. “Ares used Acteon. Just like he’s used countless of others. Just like he manipulated both of us.” He took a deep breath. “And maybe, in a way, it is my fault. If you weren’t such a big part of my life...of who I am and what we do...Ares might not have ever known about him.”
“It’s not your fault,” Iolaus repeated. “I wasn’t there when I should have been. Not when he was born...not when he lived...and not when he died.”
Hercules heard the choke of emotion in his friend’s voice and sat down behind him. He loosely wrapped his arms around his friend. “You were a kid yourself when he was born,” Hercules quietly recalled. “And I think Acteon died the way he wanted to live...as a warrior.”
“Does Alcmene know about all this?” Iolaus whispered.
“Yeah,” Hercules admitted.
“She must hate me. All of you must hate me.” Iolaus shook his head. “Deserting my own son.”
“Iolaus, do you really believe Mother would ever hate you? For anything?” Hercules shook his head. “I told you. She ordered me to bring you back to her. I don’t dare go home without you. She’d probably toss me out of the house until I brought you back.” He took a deep breath. “As for Jason, he remembers what you went through when Skouros died. He doesn’t hate you, and he never will.” He gave Iolaus a brief hug. “Mother’s worried sick about you. Jason’s going crazy trying to kill this gopher-from-Hades.” He rested his forehead against the back of Iolaus’ head. “And I need you, too,” he murmured. “Just...please let us help you.”
“I never should have left,” Iolaus half-sobbed. “It doesn’t matter I wasn’t hardly more than a kid. I had a son, and I walked away. Even a bad father is better than no father.”
Hercules took a deep breath feeling tears sting his own eyes. “Iolaus, I grew up without a father,” he quietly replied. “You grew up with a...with Skouros.” He hesitated. “You tell me which was better.”
Hercules felt then heard the deep sob escaping from his friend. Iolaus violently shook as grief and guilt warred within him. He suddenly howled as both emotions tore through him.
Hercules pulled his friend close to him wrapping his arms tightly around Iolaus. The hunter’s blonde head rested against Hercules’ chest even as Iolaus began striking Hercules’ arm, shoulders, and back as he sobbed.
“Let it go,” Hercules murmured through his own tears. “It’s okay, Iolaus. I’ve got you now.” He knew the blows landing on his body weren’t meant for him. He gently rocked his partner back and forth murmuring soothingly each time Iolaus flogged himself with guilt.
They sat together for house as Iolaus tried to purge himself of his anger...his grief...his guilt. Hercules willingly shouldered the outpouring of emotions even as he willingly absorbed the blows his friend landed on his body.
Finally Iolaus lay exhausted against his friend. Hercules kept gently rocking him for a few more minutes. Then he looked down to see Iolaus’ eyes were closed. Hoping his partner was asleep, Hercules carefully got to his feet holding him close to his chest. Iolaus briefly stirred when Hercules gently lay him on the rumpled bed. As the demi-god soothingly brushed the blonde hair away from his friend’s forehead, Iolaus’ eyes half-opened.
“Shhh...go back to sleep,” Hercules murmured. “I’m not leaving.”
Iolaus tried to nod but his eyes closed, and he fell back to sleep.
Hercules sat on the floor next to the bed. His shoulders slumped, and he wiped his eyes. Looking over his shoulder at Iolaus, he hoped his friend was beginning to mend. He knew this outpouring of emotion would leave Iolaus drained and lethargic tomorrow. Despite himself, he smiled. Maybe he could use that lethargy to his advantage.
Hercules woke early the next morning. After quickly reassuring himself that Iolaus was peacefully sleeping, he quietly went into the other room. He saw the food Alcmene had sent days earlier. Hardly any had been touched. 'I knew I should have dragged him home to Mother,' he told himself in exasperation.
Hercules busied himself tidying up all the time trying not to imagine what his mother would say about Iolaus’ housekeeping skills...or lack of them. Then he brought in water to heat for a bath. He knew Iolaus’ cathartic explosion would leave the hunter with a monster of a headache if nothing else.
The steaming water was in the tub when he heard Iolaus stirring. He slowly rejoined his friend eyeing him closely.
Iolaus was looking around in confusion as though trying to decide how he’d gotten into bed.
“Morning, sleepyhead,” Hercules quietly greeted.
Iolaus looked in his direction then blinked. “Herc? What are you...” He suddenly flushed.
“C’mon.” Hercules gently pulled his friend to his feet. He smiled to himself as Iolaus put a hand to his head. “A hot soak will help that.”
Silently, the hunter allowed himself to be led to the tub. “What are you still doing here?” he asked.
Hercules didn’t answer. “I’ll get you something for that headache,” he said.
Iolaus quickly undressed and slid into the hot water. He felt his tired and strained muscles slowly relaxing. After a few moments, he felt something nudging his hand. Opening his eyes, he saw Hercules trying to hand him a mug.
“Drink it,” Hercules advised. “It’ll help.”
Before Iolaus could say anything, the demi-god turned away. “I’ll be outside,” Hercules advised. “Take your time.”
With a grimace, Iolaus sipped the tea. It did help his headache but did nothing for his empty stomach. He closed his eyes and sank deeper into the water.
Hercules busied himself splitting wood and stacking it. Then he puttered around the forge putting tools in their place. When he finally entered the house, he heard Iolaus dragging the tub. He joined his friend to drag the tub outside and drain it.
“Herc, what are you still doing here?” Iolaus asked again.
Hercules grinned at his friend. “I told you,” he patiently explained. “I can’t go home unless I bring you with me. Mother won’t let me back in.”
“I thought you were joking.” Iolaus’ blue eyes were wide.
“Nope.” Hercules shook his head. “I think she likes you best,” he teased.
Iolaus turned away. “I can’t, Herc,” he muttered.
“Then I guess we better go hunting,” Hercules advised. “You’re gonna have me as a houseguest.” He saw Iolaus’ uncertain look. “Mother’s serious! There’s no way I’m going back without you.” He grinned. “And if I don’t show up with you by...oh, tomorrow, she’s probably going to show up here. Probably dragging Jason with her, by the way. And you know how happy that’s gonna make him.”
“She shouldn’t...I’m not...” Iolaus stammered.
Hercules put his hand on his partner’s shoulders and gently squeezed. “Don’t you dare tell me you’re not worth her worry,” he warned. After a moment, he released Iolaus. “So...if we’re not going to Mother’s, we need to get some food in here. I’m hungry so I know you’ve got to be hungry.”
Just then Iolaus’ stomach rumbled. The hunter shot his friend an aggrieved look. “That’s because of that vile tea you had me drink,” he accused. “I’ve been eating fine.”
Hercules nodded with a straight face. “How’s the headache?”
Iolaus shrugged and took a deep breath. “Okay, let’s get you out of trouble and go see your mother.” He stared to turn away then stopped. Eyeing his friend closely, he saw a bruise on his friend’s upper arm.
Hercules followed Iolaus’ eyes and sighed.
“Sorry,” Iolaus mumbled.
“Don’t be.” Hercules squeezed his friend’s shoulder. “You know, I need to apologize for always shutting you out when I’m hurting like that. I never realized how make I make it for you when all you want to do is help me.”
“I guess now I know it’s not so easy to ask for help,” Iolaus nodded. “Or even know you need it.” He shrugged. “It’s okay.”
“C’mon,” Hercules grinned. “Let’s go see if Jason’s caught the gopher by now.”
They heard Jason raging as they approached the house. “I don’t believe this!” He shouted. “I’ve spent almost a week trying to catch that little monster!”
Hercules and Iolaus exchanged wary glances as they edged closer to the door. They heard Alcmene murmur something.
“No!” Jason shouted. “I tell you, I won’t have it!”
Hercules gave Iolaus a worried look then opened the door. “Mother? Jason?” he called.
“Hercules! Come here and tell your mother she’s not keeping that blasted gopher as a pet!” Jason shouted.
“I guess he caught the gopher,” Iolaus muttered with a masked grin. He hid behind his partner as Hercules walked into the kitchen.
“How’d you catch him, Jason?” Hercules asked aware of Iolaus’ actions.
“He was sitting by the door,” Alcmene explained. The gopher lay trustingly in her arms. “Poor little thing was hungry.” She glared at her husband. “And scared.”
“How could it possibly be hungry?” Jason demanded. “That ‘poor little thing’ has done nothing but continuously eat. It’s as bad as Iolaus!”
“Speaking of which,” Hercules grinned. “Don’t tell me I never brought you anything, Mother.” He reached around and pulled Iolaus in front of him.
“Iolaus!” Alcmene shouted. In her eagerness to hug him, she loosened her grip on the gopher. The animal quickly shot across the floor and out the half-opened door.
“No!” Jason shouted. He took a few steps after the gopher then shook his head.
In the meantime, Alcmene had wrapped Iolaus in her arms and was hugging him closely. After a second’s hesitation, Iolaus began hugging her back.
“C’mon, Jason,” Hercules grinned. “Let’s go see if we can catch Mother’s gopher.”
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