I will sing of Heracles, the son of Zeus and much the mightiest of men on earth.
"Hey, Herc," Iolaus gasped from somewhere behind him and to his right. "Do you think maybe you want to slow down a little?"
"We've almost got it, Iolaus!" Hercules said sharply. "We're not slowing now, when we can finish this for good. If it gets away and has time to recover, and hide, we'll just have to go through this again in six months." He put on more speed, reached the hill's edge in three more huge strides, and found himself confronted with a rocky slope that curved around, and down, into a grass-bottomed ravine. At the bottom of the hill, against an almost sheer wall of granite, sheltered their foe: ten feet tall and over twenty feet long, tail included, with a thick, leathery hide that had deflected almost any spear the people of Axius had thrown at it.
Hercules' own spear had left its mark, as well as his sword. The beast's left side was badly torn and bleeding, an injury serious enough to cause the monster to rethink its attack in favor of an amazingly swift retreat, given its size and bulk. They had been chasing it for three miles now, and Hercules was ready to end this.
Stealth was impossible. Small avalanches of pebbles preceded him down the hill with each step he took. Alerted to his presence, the monster brought its head around, heaving huge bellowing breaths. He had a glimpse of one huge, rolling eye, set in a red-rimmed and sunken socket, before it brought its strongest weapons to bear – three enormous jagged horns that protruded from its wide, flat face – and charged.
Hercules swung his sword up, stepped forward, and went down flat on his back, as half his footing swept away under him. He lay flat, too stunned for a moment to even curse his own stupidity, and was saved only by the fact that his prey was as tired and desperate as he was. It moved too fast, and its eyes, set on the sides of its skull, failed to track where he'd fallen. Its leathery stomach stretched in and out like a bellows, only inches above his face, as it shifted slightly, puzzled by his disappearance. Iolaus screamed his name from somewhere above. Hercules grimaced. He imagined that from Iolaus' vantage, it might look like he'd been well and truly squashed.
He held his breath as the monster turned its head towards Iolaus' voice. He had a choice now – stab from below or just try and get himself out of this ridiculous position. The stomach was a tempting vulnerable target, but did he really want to be flat on his back underneath a creature this dangerous when it went mad with pain? He looked over at one round tree-trunk like leg. No, not really.
"Herc!" Iolaus' voice was much closer now, and the sound of another small pebble-storm started up. The decision on how to extricate himself abruptly became urgent as the monster started a turn towards the approaching new threat. One enormous leg lifted and began to descend again, only inches from his head, and he found himself reflexively tucking into a tight ball. Two more monstrous steps crunched rock and dirt, sunlight found his face, and he discovered he'd closed his eyes and that opening them again required a lot of blinking.
He rolled to the right as the bulk above him moved left, and found that at some point along the way he'd lost his borrowed sword. This really wasn't going as well as he had hoped.
"HERC!" And here came Iolaus, clearly only a few yards away. The monster was picking up speed, trying to charge his partner, but was hampered by the terrain and the short distances. Hercules spotted a glimpse of purple and leather, as Iolaus gracefully evaded its bulk and continued on his way.
The color was obviously just as attractive to the monster. Hercules marveled again at how quickly such a mass could turn, as it swiveled and followed his apparently oblivious partner. He heaved himself to his feet. Iolaus spotted him as he rose from the ground, and relief chased fear and tension from his mouth and eyes. "Thank the gods! Are you hurt?" He started towards Hercules.
Leathery grey flesh and sharp horns rose up to loom above him, and in that instant, Hercules found his sword and moved without thought, fear choking his throat closed. He dragged Iolaus around and behind himself even as he lunged, the blade going into the easiest, choicest target – the monster's eye, and past that, deep, deep into the skull.
For a moment he thought the entire cliff side would come down on them. The scream blotted out everything. He knew Iolaus was shouting, a mere foot away, he could see his mouth moving, the look in his eyes. The air was full of flying pebbles that stung his face and arms from all directions. It occurred to him his sword was gone again, and if this hadn't done the trick, he was in trouble.
And then almost as quickly, it was over. The monster lay on its side against the slope, injured eye down, legs unmoving and breath slowing, as though in sleep. Within seconds the movement had ceased completely, and the remaining eye had rolled to the side and dimmed.
The breath of relief he found himself heaving seemed to come all the way from his toes, emptying his lungs along the way. "Well, that was certainly something, but at least it's over… even if I suspect that's the last I'll see of that sword until the seasons have come and gone again." He shook his head. "What were you thinking, anyway, walking past it like that? Have you lost all sense of self-preservation?"
He swung around, prepared to lecture on carelessness to alleviate his own fears, or mock in pre-emptive retribution if necessary, to divert attention from his own foolhardy dive beneath the monster's belly.
He was not prepared for the look on Iolaus' face.
Hercules' face ached.
He was beginning to wish for a handy Gorgon to freeze him solid, because he didn't think he could keep up the polite smile for much longer. Occasionally he would realize he was grinding his teeth, and stop himself. Beside him, Iolaus had long since given up the pretense of caring, and was yawning widely, slumped a full foot lower in his chair than he should have been. Luckily, no one was really paying that much attention to him. On the other side of the table, Jason's chief advisor was still arguing vehemently with the lead diplomat in the visiting delegation, while Jason sat next to him, ramrod straight, but with a look that implied he had eaten something that was disagreeing with him severely.
"I don't know why we're here," Iolaus muttered.
"Shut up," Hercules hissed in response.
"They don't care, Herc. You're here as window decoration and… why am I here again?"
"Shut up, Iolaus. This is a very important treaty. We're here to show honor to the presence of our guests."
"Oh, yeah? What was that treaty for, again?" Iolaus was watching him from the corner of his eye, a small twist of amusement at the edge of his lips.
"Travel… trading rights… they were… just shut up."
It had been hours, and this chair was too small for him, like so many chairs were, and his knee was locking up from trying not to accidentally kick anyone under the table. Jason had asked them to help this go smoothly, and he was going to do exactly that, but by the Gods, these negotiations were tedious. He couldn't remember the last time a group of diplomats had haggled the details so much. Every little detail and every possible provision, they were demanding be set in stone in advance. And Iolaus was right, he didn't understand why their presence had been requested, since they'd more or less been ignored after the initial round of greetings.
Movement caught his eye. Iolaus was snaking out a hand toward the carefully constructed fruit arrangement in the middle of the table. When they'd started this discussion, the fruit had been bright, fresh, and artfully arranged to entice nibbling, if not outright gorging. In the humid, oppressive, non-circulating air of this official room, the melon was losing its color, the grapes were shriveling, and the pear slices were going brown. It was an incredible waste, Hercules admitted, but their guests had done nothing but sip from goblets of water, declining anything else, and no one else could help themselves without giving offense.
"Iolaus!" he whispered.
Iolaus' hand hovered between the figs and the persimmons.
The hand had decided on the figs.
Hercules kicked out in the direction of Iolaus' legs, and felt his foot connect with something too solid to be flesh. He had a moment of triumph at the shocked look on Iolaus' face as the chair shuddered, and then a moment when time slowed down, and realization hit too late, as the chair leg broke with an audible crack, collapsing and taking Iolaus down with it – but not without a fight. Iolaus' hand, once intent on figs, scrabbled desperately for purchase, found the edge of the fruit tray and dragged the entire assembly off the table after his vanishing form. Fruit sprayed everywhere. Hercules closed his eyes and tried to will himself elsewhere.
When he opened them again, he was still without the godly power of instantaneous transportation, there were seven shocked faces staring at him, and he was covered in slices of orange. Something cold trickled down his forehead and started to drip from the tip of his nose.
"Um." His smile was fairly weak.
The villagers of Axius held a celebration, of course, starting with a parade that led them back from the woods where the beast's body still lay, and through the center of their small village.
Hercules didn't bother to argue for once. These people had suffered greatly, and it showed in their faces; the tight, haunted, pinched looks they wore despite the cheers and thanks spoke of hard times and losses. They needed this for themselves; it was more catharsis than reward, a way of gaining some relief, and moving on with their lives.
Alone, at the edge of the crowd, a small girl was sobbing – deep, wracking sobs, while she clutched a small wooden toy tightly to her chest. Hercules felt a pang somewhere deep. He ignored Iolaus' grasping hands as he tried to pull him back to the center of the street, pushed his way through the circle of men surrounding them despite their surprised protests and worried cries, approached the girl and squatted carefully besides her. She couldn't have been more than five.
"What's wrong, sweetheart?" he asked gently.
"Thebuba! Thebuba!" she wailed, and sobbed harder.
"The…" Hercules looked up, bewildered, at the woman who was hurrying over.
"Alcina!" She grasped the girl by the shoulders. "I'm so sorry, sir. She's just a child, she doesn't understand."
"Neither do I," Hercules replied, bemused.
"It's just… just her word for our… for the monster. That's what… the children called it."
"Oh! Well, that's all right then." He turned his head back down to the child. "Thebuba's gone now, Alcina. He can't ever hurt you or anyone else again." The girl opened her eyes for the first time, looked at him, threw back her head, and screamed. Hercules frantically backed up, losing his balance, and falling backwards with a thump. He stared, distraught, as the girl's mother scooped her up and began to hurry away. She turned back for just one moment. "She's just a child! She doesn't understand! Please forgive her!"
"Forgive her for what?" Hercules called after, but the woman had ducked around a wooden structure and vanished, the child's cries diminishing with distance.
"Hercules, come on." Iolaus was at his arm, tugging him to stand up. "The village leader is waiting for us. There's nothing you can do for her… her mother will explain it to her. She'll be okay."
"But, Iolaus," Hercules turned a bewildered face toward him. "What just happened?"
"It's okay," said Iolaus. "It's just the crowd. Think how it would be if you were little, and your town were being terrorized by something like that. Every time she's seen men march off before, it's been because something bad has happened, or was about to happen. She just doesn't know what a parade is."
"Oh," Hercules felt foolish, and began to pick himself up. Something in the dust by his foot caught his eye. The girl's wooden toy. "Hey, she left her—"
"Hercules!" Iolaus was pulling now, and gesturing with his other arm to someone further along the road. "We're being rude!"
"Since when do you care about manners?" Hercules asked testily. He snatched up the toy and climbed to his feet. "Okay, okay, I'm coming." He tucked the toy away. He'd find the girl's mother later, and return it.
Iolaus laughed so hard, and was so incapable of stopping, that eventually Jason gave up on yelling at them and just threw them out.
"Just go home! Maybe if you're not here to remind them, we can salvage something from this!" He stormed off in the direction his steward had hustled their guests, in search of less fruit-covered premises.
Hercules grabbed the giggling, prone Iolaus by one arm, hauled him to his feet, and then rather desperately down a hallway and out of the castle as fast as he could. Iolaus hung from his arm like a large, lumpy, gasping sack of flour.
They stopped just before the front gate, so Iolaus could curl up on his side on the ground and try and recover his breath, and Hercules could pick the remaining segments of orange from his hair.
He carefully aimed each piece at Iolaus as he pitched them away.
"Could you stop, already?" he demanded.
Iolaus waved one arm at him weakly, wheezed a little, and flopped over onto his belly.
"Lord Hercules! My Lord!"
Hercules jerked around and found an overdressed figured hurrying down the path toward them. "Oh, no, what now?" he asked the air over Iolaus in dismay.
"What?" Iolaus asked the packed dirt.
"I don't know… it's one of the members of the delegation." Hercules prodded Iolaus in the ribs with his leather-toed boot. "Can you just… I don't know… roll into the bushes and disappear or something?"
"Excuse me?" Iolaus was pure indignation.
"You don't think you've caused enough trouble? This visit is important to Jason."
"Hey, who exactly kicked that chair--"
Hercules prodded him more desperately. More of a kick, really. "Just roll!" Iolaus rolled, with a muffled curse as he hit a particularly thorny patch of bush, and vanished only feet away.
"Lord Hercules!" And here was the lead diplomat, having escaped from Jason's attentions, and Hercules could not, for the life of him, remember his name. Dromun? Draumen? From the Province of…? He hastily pasted on yet another polite smile.
"It's just Hercules, actually, Lord, er, Lord Drooaaaum." Oh great. That's just great. Smile wider. That's what you meant to say.
Lord Drowhatever didn't seem to notice. "It's very magnanimous of you to go title-less, of course, Lord Hercules, but even we in Carystus have heard tales of your deeds and heritage. Are you leaving so soon? We would like to apologize if there has been any offense given, any at all, that would cause you to leave at this time, and ask your forgiveness."
Hercules blinked, honestly astonished by this turn of events. A strange squeaking sound was coming from the bushes, but he chose to ignore it.
"We were afraid we were the ones who had given offense, with, um, that unfortunate incident. Back there. With the… fruit." Where was Jason when you needed him?
"And, if you'll forgive my saying, I don't think we were really adding all that much to the negotiations. We hope we haven't caused you to think less of the hospitality of our city." Hercules tried for a winning smile, but suspected he ended up with something along the lines of lopsided.
"It was inexcusable of us to presume on your time as we did." The diplomat dismissed his attempts at apology. "We were honored by your presence, and look forward to an agreement which will benefit us all and help both our lands to prosper."
"Oh, well. Yes. Of course, of course." Hercules floundered. Lord Dromunorother leaned in, grasping him by the upper arms. Hercules looked down, startled, and suddenly deeply uncomfortable.
"We would like to express to your our admiration and thanks for your part in these talks." Intent dark eyes gleamed, the Lord's face mere inches from his own.
The bushes had gone suspiciously silent.
Hercules cleared his throat. "You… would?" He tried to take a step back, but couldn't find a way to do so that wouldn't end up pulling the man off balance.
"Indeed." The moment stretched and stretched, and just as Hercules opened his mouth without any real idea as to what might come out, Lord Drometh stepped back and reached around his back. Hercules prepared to flinch, in the absence of any other obvious response. Lord Dromenar flipped his cloak back with a flourish, and whipped his arm around with surprising speed and accuracy for a deskbound legislator, a small, wooden box with intricate carvings appeared; inside it nestled a delicately painted amphora brought to bear for Hercules' inspection.
He leaned forward to get a better look, relieved by the absence of anything sharp or threatening, and impressed with the craftsmanship.
"They're magnificent work. Lord Dr… er… you can't mean for me to accept such a generous—"
"We could present nothing less, nor would our God forgive us if we tried," the Lord pressed them into his arms. "It is no less than our duty, and we thank you for your time." There was a flourish of cloth, a gesture that was half bow, half wave, and the man turned on his heel and was gone back down the path before Hercules could find the words to respond. He clutched the treasures to his vest and stared dazedly after him.
"Wow!" Iolaus burst up from the foliage, and lunged for the gifts. "That was just bizarre. Is that wine?"
"Is that all you want to know, after… after that?" He tried to turn away from Iolaus' prying fingers, but gave up half-heartedly after a few seconds, and let him take the amphora away for examination. It looked far too fragile to get into a wrestling match over. "Don't you even wonder what that was all about?" He traced the carvings on the box lightly with his finger. Grape vines and Dionysus, in amazing detail.
"I try not to wonder too much about politics. It makes my head hurt. It's all the same anyway, they're just trying to woo Jason through you. Although, for a moment there," Iolaus paused to sniff the amphora's seal, "I thought it might be a more personal wooing going on. This is wine, and from the looks of this, it's probably worth half this city. Maybe it was worth the trip out here after all."
Hercules heaved what he knew to be an overly dramatic sigh. "Is that all that matters to you? The wine? After all of…" he gestured wildly with his free hand… "and then the… and did you notice how close he got? Do you think that's some regional thing? Because that was a little… well, let's just say I was with you on that point. All you care about is the wine?"
"It's important to have priorities."
"I don't drink wine." Hercules suspected his polite smile was beginning to take on a strained quality.
The Axians had treated them to quite a feast, for such a small community. Hercules had to admit, he enjoyed a few comforts these days, as their journeys took them further and further from civilization. The food had been excellent, and the musicians surprisingly talented for such a far flung village. They'd left the barbeque pit and outdoor tables and moved in to the local tavern, to avoid the arrival of evening insects. Unfortunately, the personality of the tavern mistress was no substitute for the lovely serving wench who had been making eyes at them all through the meal.
"It's all the way from Ambracia," she told him. "The best we have! We might not be the biggest village, but we can provide for our guests."
"No, really, I'm sure it's wonderful." Hercules carefully slid the glass back to her. "It's just… it's never been to my taste, really. It's a personal thing, not… I'm sure it's excellent wine."
She took the wine back, her expression making it clear she didn't believe a word of it. "You'll be wanting mead, then."
"Well, er. Mead is actually rather similar to--"
"The brew tastes like pigs have bathed in it." She crossed her arms as though defying him to argue with the statement.
"I don't suppose you have any cider…"
Insulted dignity and stubborn irritation gave way to wide-eyed disbelief. "And would you also like some milk to go with that? Are you a newborn babe still at your ma's teat?" "The brew will be fine. I'm sure it's… I find local beer to be quite good, usually. Superior to what you can get in the city, really. Really." He had been told by none too few women that he had a winning smile, but it was clear no proof of that would be found here.
She tossed him one final unimpressed look, huffed, and passed the glass of wine along to another customer before vanishing into the back room. Hercules sighed and settled with his back to the bar.
The crowd was surprisingly reticent. While he was used to a certain degree of hero worship and awe, he was also used to a certain degree of braggadocio and tale-telling from younger men who wished to see what he was really made of, and if they could match him; insolence and sneering from older men who didn't really believe anything bards told them anyway; and flirting from women. While the villagers seemed friendly enough, there was an underlying sense of reluctance and strain in the faces around him, as they sat in groups of threes and fours, occasionally glancing his way, and talking in hushed voices. With the exception of the tavern mistress, no one seemed to have the requisite courage to break bread with the man they'd summoned to save them.
He turned his head, searching the room for Iolaus, but his friend had vanished, drawn away by some local petty official. Hercules imagined he was probably talking the man down from offering them some kind of reward.
He felt awkward and far too noticeable sitting alone. He cast a glance at the nearest group of men, farmers from the look of them, with hands and faces leathery from hard work and exposure to sun. He shifted uneasily. There was still no sign of Iolaus.
Well, someone was going to have to make a move here. The mistress had returned, beer in hand, scowl on face.
"How about a round for the house, on me?" he asked.
Her eyes grew huge. "A round for the—"
"I'm good for it!" he assured her.
She stared at him for another moment, before snapping into action. "Yes, of course, or course. A round for the house." She swept an entire armful of empty mugs off the counter in one easy, well-practiced maneuver. "I'll get right on that." She hurried towards the back once more. "That fool, Marnes," he heard her spit out on the way. "Making promises…" He comforted himself with the thought that he was not the unlucky Marnes, then took the initiative, and slid his stool down the floor, until he was adjacent the nearest group of men. They shifted slightly to acknowledge his presence.
"Mikkos." Mikkos introduced himself brusquely. "That's Talaos there, and Pelonis and Medus." The men nodded at him.
"I'm Hercules," Hercules offered, for the sake of politeness.
"We know," came Medus' curt response.
Hercules laughed awkwardly. "Yes, well, guess that wasn't really necessary. But you never know, I could have been Iolaus!"
Not so much as a flicker. Hercules took a desperate swig from his mug to hide his consternation. Their hostess arrived then, laden with tankards that slopped over their sides. She set the armful down on the table with enough force to endanger the rickety structure, and splash Pelonis. The men eyed her in surprise.
"On the house then, isn't it?" she snapped at them.
"What're we, in Elysium then?" Mikkos gave her a look of incredulity. "Since when in your life have you ever—"
"His treat," she snarled.
"Ah!" Understanding dawned on his face, and an actual smile broke out, twisting his cheeks into unpracticed positions. "Well, in that case, blessings on you, Raisa!"
Hercules watched confounded, as the cheerful words seemed to throw Raisa into an even deeper rage. Pelonis and Medus were quick to rear back as her hand shot out, and found only Talaos close enough to clip on the side of the head, before she whirled and stormed back to the bar, followed by shouts and whoops of laughter from the men. Talaos rubbed ruefully at his ear.
"Ah, don't mind her then." Mikkos retrieved a mug for himself. "She's just like that."
Hercules nodded, happy to coast on the goodwill of the gesture, despite any mystifying behavior being exhibited. Village folk just did not get out enough.
"So then," Mikkos started, clearly more willing to attempt a conversation now that he had something to help him past his normal reserved state. "Can you tell us…" he hesitated, appearing to reexamine his question. "Been traveling much?"
"A little," Hercules admitted, with a grin. "Apollonia to Dyrrachium to Epidauros, and what feels like every village in between."
"Epidauros?" Talaos straightened up. "I have family in a village not far from there. Lyehnidnus. Did you visit there, by any chance? Can you tell me any news of how they're faring? They had a terrible harsh winter, last year."
Hercules nodded. "We didn't spend much time there, just passed through, but they were having a spring festival, and seemed to be doing well. Had a new Mayor, I think the old one had just passed on."
If there was one thing small villages longed for, it was news from the rest of the world. The men leaned close, listening attentively, and nodding, no doubt trying to remember as much of the news as they could to pass along. They grilled Hercules for details until his voice ran hoarse, and then they shouted for Raisa to bring them more beer to help him along.
"Where'll you be heading next, then?" Mikkos finally asked, leaning back and resting his hands across his belly.
"I'm not entirely sure." Hercules frowned. "I think… Iolaus said something about Jason wanting us to head to Naissus. Said we didn't have the details yet though, we were waiting for a messenger."
"Jason?" Mikkos repeated back at him, blankly.
"The one and only! He advises my brother Iphicles now, mostly, with affairs of state."
The look grew blanker.
"Of the Argonauts," he added, irritably. "Golden Fleece. Had a big ship named the Argo?"
"Aaah." Comprehension slid slowly and painfully across the craggy visage. "I 'member the story. Ain't he dead now though? And I heard he'd turned drunkard. Was a long time ago, and men aren't what they once were—"
"Some men are still exactly what they were!" He slapped the table with the flat of his hand, shaking mugs and spilling beer. "Jason is a great man. He advises the King of Corinth on the running of the country. He's saved countless lives and done any number of great deeds, and all you choose to remember are the hard times he fell upon after a terrible tragedy befell him and his loved ones. He was a hero, and you should remember and respect that!"
There was an uncomfortable shuffling around the table, and he became abruptly aware that the level of conversation in the rest of the room had fallen sharply, as his own volume had risen and caught their neighbors' attention. A movement to one side caught his eye, and he noted the arrival of Raisa, her knuckles gripping the handles of the mugs so tightly they'd gone white. He glanced around the table, but no one seemed willing to make eye contact. Mikkos was hunched over, staring at the sticky, scratched up table top. "I meant no disrespect then. Truly." His voice was low and gruff.
Hercules could feel his ears turning red, and coughed, embarrassed. "Sorry, that was a bit passionate. He's a friend and he… means a great deal to me."
Mikkos nodded tensely and lifted his head, but seemed to be focused on something just past Hercules' shoulder.
The high-pitched titter from the other end of the bar was almost a welcome distraction. Hercules turned to spot what turned out to be an entire clutch of young women, dressed out in what would have been everyday casual attire in Corinth or Athens, but was undoubtedly meant to impress and encourage in this backwoods village. They were not so subtly casting their own glances in his direction.
He felt an easing in his shoulders, and the first stirrings of interest. Anything to get out of this uncomfortable conversation, this tavern with its surly, strange, unfriendly townsfolk and their odd manners. And if the way out involved a few hours with a warm and willing set of curves, well, what could be a better celebration than that?
Halfway between Corinth and Thebes they found a farmer and wife willing to lend them their barn for the evening. The farmer knew who they were, and offered them his own bed, but the house was tiny, and neither of them was about to put the owners out of their own bedroom. Hercules felt this arrangement was superior, anyway, and could tell Iolaus agreed. The farmer's wife understood what the farmer did not.
"There's only one spare mug, I'm afraid." She handed it to Iolaus.
"More than enough," he assured her, shifting the basket of food in his arms to make room.
"Have you got enough blankets there then?" She peered at Hercules.
"This is enough for bedding," he replied. "It's a warm evening. We would've slept on rocky ground tonight if not for your hospitality."
"I found the lamp." The farmer came around the side of the house, lamp and flint in hand. "It should be safe enough, even in the barn, as long as you don't set it near the hay."
He was a large, leathery looking man, as tall and broad as Hercules, but with a surprisingly anxious and gentle nature. "If you won't take the bed, we could lay out the blankets by the fireplace. Surely…."
"Nico!" His wife took the lamp from him and passed it on to Hercules, while shooting him a stern look. "Let them be, they're healthy lads, they'll be fine in the barn."
"But, 'Lassa…" he protested, darting a nervous half-awed look in their direction.
"Go on, go around and finish up with the chores, so you're not up and about and bothering them when they're trying to sleep, will you?" She sent him back in the direction he'd come with a firm shove between the shoulders and turned back to her guests. "You'll be okay till morning, then? You know where the earth closet is, and the well?"
"We're fine," Hercules promised. "Couldn't be better if we were back at the palace. In fact, I'm fairly sure we'll be far more comfortable here, all things considered."
"Well, then, we'll see you in the morning. And if you need anything, just come round in, whatever time it is." She gave them a wink. "I'm sure I can find what you need."
Hercules followed Iolaus' lead across the yard, past a goat that eyed them suspiciously, but decided they weren't worth the trouble of chasing, past a plow that Iolaus had to stop and mutter over ("we should take that back, and I could fix the blade for him"), and finally into the barn, where they looked around and silently and immediately agreed on the loft. Hercules simply tossed the blankets straight up and through the hatch, and Iolaus hung the basket around his neck and handed Hercules the jug of beer while he climbed up. Hercules handed various items up after him until he was empty-handed, and followed.
Together they spread the blankets out, one on top of the other, for padding, and then spread out the contents of the basket. Iolaus had the amphora out and open and was sniffing it suspiciously.
"I might have wanted to save that for an occasion, you know," Hercules objected mildly.
"This is an occasion," Iolaus responded. "Or it will be, soon enough. Anyway, this smells fruity." He stuck out his tongue, touched it to the rim of the amphora. "And tastes syrupy," he wrinkled his nose and handed it back to Hercules. "I'll stick with the beer, thanks."
"Ah, Iolaus, you've got no palate," Hercules grinned and accepted it back. "Have some of this beef, it's really good."
"Immf gofff," Iolaus replied through a mouthful of bread, and then swallowed. "Nothing wrong with my palate, I know the value of a good home brew over that fancy crap, that's all."
"Mmmm." Hercules sniffed the wine. "You may have a point. Pass that mug over." He restoppered the amphora.
Iolaus leaned over, passed the mug of beer, and tore off a chunk of bread for him. After a moment's thought, he handed over the rest of the bread, and scootched around to sit next to Hercules, leaning against the bale of hay Hercules had dragged over for back support. "Now this," he accepted the mug back, "is more like it."
They ate in companionable silence, listening to the farmer finish up, his wife call him in, and the animals, wild and domestic, settle down and still as the sun slipped down and darkness blanketed the area, leaving them in a small pocket of shaky gold lit hay radiating out from their flickering lamp.
Iolaus passed the mug back to Hercules, and finished off the contents of the jug directly.
"Trip was hardly worth it, was it?" Hercules mused. "We did more harm than good. Got a few gifts out of it, ruined all sorts of delicate negotiations…"
"Oh, you know what they say."
Hercules raised an eyebrow at Iolaus. "What?"
"It's the journey that matters, not the destination." Iolaus' grin was huge.
"It's been a while, hasn't it?" Hercules felt himself smiling in return. "I'm sorry, you know, it's just Dei, and the kids, and hell, Jason calling every new moon for idiot politics…"
"No, I know." Iolaus' voice was soft, and serious. "Family first. But I've missed…." He reached out, and incredibly softly, drew one hand along Hercules' arm.
"Yeah." Hercules found his answer was shaky. "Me too." He put the mug down carefully, and pushed it far to the side. It was their hostess' only spare. When he turned back, he found Iolaus had pushed jug and basket far to the side as well, and was blowing out the lamp. Darkness swallowed their small patch abruptly, and left them blinking until the transition was made, and the moonlight coming through the open side of the barn was enough to let Hercules see the curve of Iolaus' cheek.
"Had our number, that Thalassa," Iolaus said.
"We're really going to have to do something for her. Maybe the wine." Hercules suggested.
"No, something nice would be a better idea," Iolaus' voice was full of wicked glee, and Hercules snorted, and he reached for the body next to his, and drew it down, into softness, and darkness, and comfort.
Iolaus was in a foul mood, and Hercules' attempts to cheer him only seemed to make it worse.
He'd finally located him a couple hours after his departure from the tavern. His bedmate had been more than willing for him to stay the night, but it felt disloyal somehow, when he knew Iolaus would probably have to suffer much rougher accommodations.
"He'd want his friend to be comfortable," she suggested, stroking his hair.
"True, if he knew where his friend had got to," he admitted, with a laugh.
"You can't stay even a bit more…" she cajoled.
"I, uh. I never meant to imply that, well, that we'd, uh, I mean—"
"Relax," she said. "I'm not asking for a ceremony, just saying you're a comfortable bedwarmer, is all. What're you so nervous about? Married?"
"No." He sighed at the loss of the relaxation he'd dwelt in just a moment before. He rose from the bed and began hunting for his clothes. "My wife… my family died long ago. The gods turned on us." The last words were bitter, harsh.
"As they do on us all, in the end," she agreed, not understanding.
He dressed quickly, feeling guilt at leaving her there, but pressed by the need to flee the memories she'd evoked.
He found Iolaus by the town's central well, in an argument with the same petty official he'd left with so many hours ago. Both seemed edgy and frantic, and were gesturing emphatically at one another. Words drifted his way.
"…allowed this only because you gave…. in your keeping…"
"And I've kept it!" Iolaus responded, with a heat Hercules rarely heard in his words. "In full!"
"Iolaus!" he called. Both heads whipped around to face him. "Did I keep you waiting?" he asked mildly, as he joined them. "I thought you said you'd just be gone a minute, at the tavern?" he couldn't stop himself from adding, with a tinge of irritation.
"Things took a bit longer than I expected. You couldn't have waited a little longer before vanishing like an apparition?"
"Not really. And this isn't a place I'd really want to haunt if I were one." The man beside Iolaus made an odd noise, deep in his throat. "Meaning no insult," Hercules said quickly. "It's just… not all your people are used to strangers, I think."
"Well, I can't argue that, sir." The man nodded slightly. "We just don't get that many visitors in these parts, I'm afraid." Wispy grey hair framed milky blue eyes and a weak chin. "I hope no one troubled you."
"No, not at all. In fact, some were downright welcoming, actually." Hercules adjusted his belt, just the slightest. "Er, I'm sorry…?"
"Marnes," Iolaus said, tightly. "This is Marnes, who… Marnes takes care of most matters for the city."
"Ah, I've heard of you!" Hercules told Marnes.
"You have?" Marnes blanched.
"Yes, and I'd avoid the tavern for a while if I were you. Raisa seemed capable of handling your monster quite handily on her own."
"Ah!" Understanding brightened his face, followed quickly by realization. "Ah. Not unwise advice, that. Well. In any case then." He cast a look at Iolaus.
"We'll be turning in for the night," Iolaus said. "We're both pretty tired from today's… activities."
Marnes nodded. "If you need anything, you know where I can be found." He hurried away into the deepening dusk.
Iolaus watched him go, then led them to the very outskirts of the town, to a small two-room hut. One room was packed tight with stores. The other, not much bigger than a closet, held a single narrow cot. Iolaus spread his own thin bedroll on the dirt-packed floor. The set of his shoulders and the intentional way he failed to look at Hercules pretty much said it all.
Hercules tried for conciliatory. "I'm sorry if you spent time searching for me."
"You might have let me know where you'd be," Iolaus replied, shucking vest and boots.
"Well, I'm pretty sure half the town could have told you if you'd asked," Hercules answered. "Surprising, actually. The married ones usually show more discretion."
Iolaus froze, boot in hand. "Should we be expecting company, then?" he asked. "Because I'd rather not have to deal with an angry armed husband in such close quarters."
Hercules shrugged. "You never know, I suppose, but he'd be just that much of a fool to seek me out, wouldn't he? She wasn't worried, so I don't see why we should concern ourselves."
Iolaus put his boot down with a thump, and turned to lie with his back to Hercules.
Hercules tried again. "If you're angry about today, well, I've done worse and survived."
"That's certainly true," Iolaus said, without a trace of humor.
"Look, I really am sorry. You probably needed a rest as much as I did, if not more." He brightened. "Actually, if you needed what I did, there was this pretty brunette—"
"Where would I bring her?" Iolaus cut him off bitterly. Hercules frowned. The attitude was wearing on his nerves.
"You know, this isn't a rich town, and they've suffered a lot of losses recently," Hercules reminded him sharply. "This is probably one of the best spare rooms they have. Perhaps if you'd hinted a bit, they could have supplied you for a tryst."
Iolaus responded with stony silence
Hercules tried again. "I don't know what's got you in such a temper. Are you getting so old and out of shape that sleeping on the floor is really that terrible a hardship?"
Iolaus remained obstinately mute, refusing to rise to the provocation.
"You know, I took the ground last time, and I will the next! What do you expect me to do, share the bed with you? It's not that big, you know!"
Iolaus was on his feet in a second, the bedroll kicked to one side, where it tangled with their packs, and knocked the entire assortment over.
Hercules lifted himself into a half-sitting position with one arm, prepared for an assault, verbal or otherwise.
Instead he found nothing but loneliness and utter despair on his friend's face.
It was gone so quickly, replaced by cold indifference, that for a moment Hercules wondered if he'd imagined it.
"I'm going outside," Iolaus announced. "Make a circuit of the village, check out the woods a bit. It's too confining in here, too much city."
"Too much city?" Hercules asked, disbelieving. "If you go fifteen feet from the door, you'll find yourself stepping in a foxes' den. This isn't exactly Corinth—"
"Close enough," Iolaus snapped. "I need air." He stormed his way out. Hercules was left staring at the after-image of his silhouette, for all of half a minute, before Iolaus' blond head poked back through the door. "I… try to get some sleep." Iolaus shook his head. "I just need to stretch my legs a bit, I guess. But we'll need to get moving in the morning, so don't let my argument with Morpheus stop you."
"There's no need to leave so quickly," Hercules said. "This is a nice town, you could sleep in, we could let a few bruises heal, check out the local fishing spots—"
"I won't be long," Iolaus cut him off. "Get some sleep, and we'll talk about it in the morning." The head vanished once more, and left him alone.
Aeson saw him coming, and shouted the alert. Hercules shunted his bags and bedroll to one side just in time to make room for the tangle of arms and legs and small energetic bodies that pounded down the path, and then climbed up his body, demanding attention and hugs and kisses all at once.
"Da! Da!" Aeson hauled on one leg, trying to pull him toward the field. "Come and see what I built!"
"I lost a tooth!" Ilea shrieked, more or less in his ear, one arm hooked around his neck, the other hand firmly latched to his hair, and tugging.
"DA!" Klonus hung from his left arm. "You promised when you came back, to teach me to shoot! You promised!"
Hercules looked up to see Deianeira leaning against the door frame, shaking her head slightly and smiling.
"Are you going to rescue me?" he called.
"Rescue yourself!" she retorted. "I hear you're good at that sort of thing. Some of us have work to do." She turned and vanished back inside the house.
There was nothing for it, then, but a three-on-one wrestling match, in which the Great and Mighty Hercules was both outnumbered, and tragically defeated. He shouted for mercy breathlessly while Ilea straddled his neck, and tugged at his ears, shrieking victory and refusing to be overlooked in favor of her brothers.
"Enough, enough!" He rose from the depths, shedding small boys as he went. Ilea simply clung tighter, and found herself with the best view around.
"Home, now!" she demanded imperiously, pointing the way.
"You know, I've met queens less presumptuous than you, young lady," he informed her.
"But not as pretty," she declared, haughtily. She paused a moment, hands resting on his head. "Were they?"
"No, that's true," he admitted. "Nowhere near as beautiful."
"I thought so." She lifted her head proudly.
"The dogs Cyrillus raises are prettier than her," Klonus said slyly, knowing himself to be safely out of kicking range.
"And they're good for more, too," Aeson agreed, running a hand through his hair and dislodging a number of small twigs and bugs picked up in the scuffle.
"YOU! Daddy! Hit them!" Ilea shrilled furiously, tugging at his hair again. Hercules winced.
"Leave my scalp on there, please," he said mildly. "And that's hardly the way we do things, you know that."
"It's the way she does things," Aeson said ruefully. "You should see my bruises."
"Hmmm. We're going to have to talk about that behavior, I can see, Ilea.."
Ilea sniffed. He could feel the ire of a six-year-old who felt unjustly accused radiate from the small body, and shook his head. She was every bit as willful as her mother already.
"Da." Hercules looked over. Klonus was practically shaking with the effort not to tug at him and ask again. He'd shot up again, Hercules noted. The trousers he wore were halfway up his shins, the shirt ragged from energetic wear. He was clearly taking his newfound stature to heart. Only children begged.
"I did promise, didn't I," he mused. "Well, give me a few days to settle in first, and check on what chores your Ma has stored up for me. Then we'll go around, see what Borus can provide in a simple bow for someone with your height and grip."
"Really?" Klonus eyes shone. "You won't forget and leave again? What if the King calls."
"I can't promise not to leave, you know that," Hercules warned. "Not if I'm needed urgently." Klonus stared at the ground. "But I see no reason I won't be around for a bit. Jason banished us from the city, all's well in the land as far as I know, and there's shooting skills to be learned."
"Da," Aeson interrupted, impatient. "I built a fort."
"Really? A fort? What kind? You know, Iolaus and I used to have an old fort we built together. Fought off entire armies there." Ilea squeaked. "Okay, maybe not real ones."
"This is mine. It's almost finished." Aeson scowled.
"You'll share with your brother and sister, I'd hope," Hercules chastened mildly.
"Would you like some help finishing it?"
"Just you?" Aeson asked.
"Who else?" Hercules answered, mystified.
Aeson considered, for all of a second. "Yes! The greatest fort ever!" He grabbed his father by the arm. "Lift!" He shouted. Hercules lifted. Aeson hung in the air and giggled. Klonus struggled with his dignity for another moment, then grabbed him by the other arm. Hercules obliging lifted and walked, the boys swinging and whooping as he walked the last few steps up the path, Ilea shouting to be heard over them.
"Hey innkeeper!" he shouted, as they trooped through the door. "We're here for the evening meal!
"Honestly! You couldn't have cleaned up just a bit before coming in?" Deianeira surveyed them disapprovingly. "You've brought half the fields in with you."
Hercules shook, dog-like. Bits of dirt and small boys fell from him, peppering the floor around him. He grinned in response to Deianeira's glare, and reached for Ilea, even as she reached for the broom. "Run and clean yourselves up them," he told the three children. "Quick, before your Ma takes that broom to me."
"Don't tempt me," said Deianeira, watching the three trample a new line of dust and dirt through the kitchen as they ran. She leaned forward, and Hercules kissed her cheek, but heeded her warning look and held his dirt encrusted body at a distance. Instead, he leaned forward slightly more, and she laid her lips lightly on his forehead.
She smiled at him as he pulled back. "You've been away too long."
"I can tell. They're growing like weeds." He felt slightly amazed at just how much Klonus had sprouted.
"Klonus is," she agreed. "But actually, I'm a little worried Aeson's going to be a bit short. He certainly feels he is."
"Short doesn't matter. Iolaus has never said he minded being short."
"Iolaus has nothing to prove," Deianeira said pointedly. "What's this?" She watched as he reached into his bag, producing box and amphora. "Oh, what a beautiful box. Did you bring the children anything?"
"Klonus and I are going over to see Borus tomorrow, get him fit for a bow," Hercules said. He moved over to the sink and stripped off his shirt. "It's well past time he learned."
"Truly fine work." Deianeira set the box carefully to one side. "Use the rags on the bottom shelf, the bottom shelf, how many times have I said that now? Leave the ones above alone."
"Yes, Aello," he said mildly as he put the clean towel back and reached for another.
"This amphora has been restoppered." Deianeira's fingers rested lightly on the rim.
"The seal took some damage on the way home. We'll need to drink it before it goes bad."
Deianeira made a face at him, but let it pass, turning away. Hercules cast a quick glance at her back, then focused on dipping the cloth into a bucket and wiping grime from his face and chest.
"We thought you would be longer still, from the message you sent," Deianeira noted, as she began setting out plates, and the offspring returned in a rush of pushing and quarreling. "Aeson! That is not what I call clean. Go over to your father, there. Did it not go well?"
"No, it was fine," he responded absently, bending over to scrub at Aeson's chin. "What is this?" he asked Aeson. "What have you been eating? I'm sure it's nothing good if it can leave this kind of stain." He gave up, and tossed the rag into the bucket. "And it would have been fine without us. I think Jason misjudged the situation. I'm not even sure why we went, really."
"Aren't you? I can make a few guesses." The last few words were muttered, as Deianeira intentionally dropped her voice, a lure Hercules knew better than to chase.
"I went because I was asked," he said carefully.
"And you always will," she agreed. She sighed. "I'm not saying I don't understand. But I don't think Jason appreciates all the demands on your time as much as he might." She handed him a new shirt. "Look out, here they come."
"Daddy!" Ilea shouted. "Sit here, sit next to me!" She shook the chair next to her own. Hercules obliged, and wondered if she had some of his strength as the chair crackled slightly when he came to rest on it.
Deianeira dished out stew, while Hercules reached for the amphora, and began pouring.
"Water it down for the children," Deianeira warned.
"I haven't forgotten," he lied. "Anyway Klonus is old enough not to be coddled."
Klonus beamed. Aeson's head shot up. "What about me!"
"Maybe in a year or two?" Hercules suggested, hastily.
Aeson scowled at him.
Deianeira put her hands on her hips. Aeson lowered his gaze to the table. Hercules carefully mixed the proportions in his mug, Klonus failed not to look smug, and Ilea babbled on, oblivious. Deianeira sat and joined them, breaking off one piece of bread. She lifted an eyebrow at Hercules, who hurried to do the same.
"To Hestia," he intoned. "To Hestia," his family chorused. They bit down and chewed, and then washed it down with wine. There was a moment of peaceful silence.
"Sweet!" proclaimed Ilea, happily, and had some more.
"Thick," said Deianeira, and wrinkled her nose. "It's going off already. Next time finish what you start, or don't open it."
Hercules hid his face in his cup as babble broke out around him, Aeson describing his fort, Klonus begging for the same bow he'd seen his friends carrying, and Ilea voicing her suspicions about the edibility of the stew.
"Carrots," Deianeira said to her, "are good for you." Aeson jabbed his brother with his wooden spoon, and Hercules took it away from him.
"I need that," Aeson objected.
"Then you shouldn't have abused the privilege," Hercules told him. "No manners, these children of yours," he said to Deianeira.
"Mine when they're contrary, I see," she said. "Maybe if you'd stay around longer than a day or two you could teach them a few. Do you know if you'll be able to stay a while, this time?" She gave him an anxious look. "It would be a good thing. There are a few things--"
"Chores, I know, I know." He jabbed Aeson in the side, while keeping his eyes straightforward.
"Hey!" came Aeson's complaint, but despite his narrow-eyed examination of his father, he could find no evidence of his missing spoon. He turned his gaze on Klonus
"I was telling Klonus I think I'll be here a while this time. Jason was happy to see our backsides leaving the city, and from the looks of things, I've been away too long. Klonus is practically in rags there, you know."
"I don't eat orange things," Ilea said.
"Then you won't want the oranges I bought for after sunset," Deianeira noted. "Klonus is in rags because I've no time to travel to buy more cloth, much less sew new clothing. I don't suppose Jason paid you a king's ransom for your time, out there, by any chance?"
"I don't eat orange things that grow in the ground," Ilea corrected.
"We had to leave the city very quickly," Hercules said. "For… political reasons."
"Jason didn't pay you at all?" Deianeira put her cup down. "And what, exactly, did you plan to purchase Klonus' bow with?"
"What? We can still get my bow, can't we?" Klonus looked up, anxiously, drawn away from his under-table battle with Aeson. "You promised. You promised."
"I can't eat without my spoon, Da," Aeson whined.
"We have good credit in the town," Hercules objected. "There'll be no problem—"
"It's been months! What do you think we've been living on! You're never here, and they look like urchins, because I'm on my own, and we do have to eat!"
"You're not really going to not give me an orange, are you?" Ilea asked, anxiously.
Aeson crossed his arms across his chest. "I'm not a baby."
"Look," Hercules stopped, and rubbed his forehead. An hour home, and a worse headache than getting his skull bashed in by a giant. "It'll be okay. I'll send word to Jason that we could use some help here, and we'll put off going to get the bow—just a day, Klonus, just a day—"
"Send word we need help," Deianeira spat. "As though we're some charity. Our neighbors probably think we are. The things you do for them, they take for granted, what difference does it make if your family ever sees you? Why hire men, when you'll handle it for the glory and the cheers to feed your ego?" She'd gone flushed and red, and was holding her face in her hands.
"Everyone my age has a bow," Klonus seemed to be on the edge of tears. "All of them, and younger. You should hear the things they say. And you promised."
"But I want one," cried Ilea.
"I will send word tomorrow," Hercules repeated, spacing out his words deliberately, in the sullen, oppressive atmosphere of the room. "And after that, I'll send for Iolaus, he can help finish up the basic chores in half the time—"
"And you can have your fun with him when you're done?" Deianeira's voice was low and angry. Her face seemed to swim hazily in his vision. "Why is it really that you choose to leap and run to do their bidding whenever they so much as utter your name?"
"You always lie," said Klonus. "You always promise."
"I do what I must. I do my duty by the land. What I do is important, it saves lives--"
"Your duty, to everyone but us. Save them all, and leave us here with nothing, and expect us to be grateful when you show up for half a day." Deianeira said unevenly, as she swayed in her chair. "We're never what you wanted. You want the fame, and the bards to sing your name. And you want him."
"Daddy. Daddy. You're not listening to me." He turned to look at his daughter as she kneeled on her chair and shrilled, a small, ugly version of her mother.
He silenced her.
Iolaus was gone long enough that Hercules began to wonder if he'd sought out the brunette's companionship after all. If so, he hoped a good roll in the hay was what was needed to take the edge off his unexplained temper, and bring back the cheerful traveling companion he was more accustomed to.
The bed was not particularly comfortable, the blanket threadbare, and the hut they were housed in really might as well have been in the middle of a bog. There were no normal evening sounds of chores being finished up, families settling down for the night. Nothing but the rustle of the occasional small animal, determined to move through before a predator took notice, and the incessant crick of cicadas. There was no evenly spaced susurration of breath, as familiar as his own, no rise and fall of another's chest to watch and be soothed by while letting darkness overcome him. He rolled futilely in the other direction.
Something sharp jabbed him in the hip. He pushed off the wall irritably, and groped about, searching for the object. He rolled in the other direction, and was jabbed in the back. He sat up, reached around, and found it; small and sharp and wooden. He blinked at it in the dim light, confounded.
It was Thebuba. A perfectly carved replica, with scalloped head plates, and three horns on the face… carefully dulled down at the ends, instead of whittled to points, just as he would have done, if making a toy for a very young child.
Memory jolted him. This was the toy he'd forgotten to return, abandoned by its small mistress in the street.
"Why on earth would anyone carve a monster for their daughter's plaything?" he asked the empty room. Something scurried across the floor, but otherwise the nighttime orchestra was uninterrupted. "I would never have made something like this for—"
Ilea's face rose before him, beside the road, beside his chair, sobbing.
He faltered. "I would never have… "
The sky was very blue.
Hercules blinked, and tears escaped, ran down the sides of his face, feeling enormous and out of proportion. His senses seemed skewed. Everything was noise, and blurriness, and smell was the clearest sense of all, and hurt. He couldn't seem to draw in his breath properly.
Someone had their hand on his shoulder, and was saying something to him, but the words were muffled and too loud at the same time, and he couldn't bring himself to care.
Someone was trying to make him drink water, but he stared at the sky, so bright and clear, and felt wetness dribble down his chin. There was a wispy grey streak stretched across his line of sight.
Iolaus was near. He was shouting, and although the words made no more sense than anything else, Hercules could tell they were full of anger and fear. Mostly fear. He felt a flicker of concern.
He closed his eyes.
"It wasn't his fault." Iolaus' voice was ragged, hoarse, desperate, and somewhere very close by. He opened his eyes, and now the sky was purple and leaning towards black, the sun inexplicably absent.
"What difference does that make?" The question came from an unfamiliar voice. "When my Amarus had the water-sickness, it weren't his fault. But we took the knife to him, none-the-same, and without delay, poor faithful boy. He'd have had our throats out, and so will your'n."
"You don't know that. We don't know that yet." Iolaus' voice seemed softer, as though he'd moved a bit further away. "You have to give him a chance."
"Will his chance cost us our lives?"
"After all he's done for you, you have to give him a chance. He's a hero. He's saved you all…"
The smell was something burnt. Not sharp like before, but it still hung in the air, made his eyes itch, scratched at the back of his throat. Panic seemed to be trying to beat its way out of his chest. There was something he needed to do, and he couldn't make his body work.
"He might be right, and he might be wrong." Another voice he didn't know. "But Cyrillus has the right of it as well. Look at around, at what's been done here. It's not a risk we can take."
If he lifted his head, he was sure he would see that which the speaker was talking about. He lay, and stared at the sky, the stars now emerging, so far away.
"He can't stay here."
He blinked, and it changed again. Dark blue, but lightening. There was a blanket, coarse and hairy, wrapped around his shoulders, and strong hands were wrapped around him, grasping his arms, and maneuvering, nudging, shoving him along. He noted, from a distance, that he was walking. There seemed to be no connection between his thoughts and his body, as the feet shuffled along automatically, separate and remote and without the requirement of his awareness.
"Iolaus?" He wondered if he'd managed the words aloud, for a moment, or if they were just another random thought, but Iolaus replied almost instantly.
"I'm right here, Herc." The hands on his arms tightened slightly. He was happy he could feel them. His legs were beginning to worry him.
"Where are we going?"
"We're just… we're going to go down the road, stay with some friends for a bit. I've sent a message back to Jason."
Iolaus didn't respond immediately. Hercules forgot he was waiting for an answer after a moment The blanket had a musty, animal musk to it, but there was still another smell, underneath, on him. In his hair, on his clothing, permeating his skin.
There was pressure at his side, and he stumbled slightly as they left the path for a moment before regaining their footing.
"We'll just go up the road," Iolaus said. He seemed to be breathing heavily. "I don't think Corinth is the best idea, right now. But Jason will help us. And then we'll find… we'll just do that, first."
"All right," Hercules agreed, beginning to worry about Iolaus, and looking to soothe him. He was starting to feel his feet again, and although that was all for the best, he was sure, they were also starting to hurt. How long had they been walking? A thought struck him.
"What about the chores I said we'd do for Dei?"
The hands were so tight they were almost painful now.
"It's all right," Iolaus finally said. "We took care of that, already, remember?"
"Oh." Hercules felt just the slightest bit better; it was easier to breathe. "That's fine then." He probably just needed new shoes. "Jason… needed us, for something?"
"A mission," Iolaus agreed.
"So soon," Hercules said. He brought his hands up and rubbed them together for warmth. They were peeling, and he shook them before pulling the blanket a little closer around his shoulders. "But they'll understand. Jason wouldn't have sent a message so soon if it wasn't important."
Iolaus just nodded, the movement of his head relayed through his grasp on Hercules. They walked on in silence.
He ran the entire way. It wasn't that far, but he was breathless and lightheaded by the time he reached the top of the hill.
Thebuba was still there, of course. When a creature that size died in a spot, it stayed in that spot, until time and the scavengers cleared the area. The vultures and rock-climbers hadn't arrived yet though, and the body was much as it had been. The reason for that was clear. It hadn't been alone.
The carcass was covered with offerings. Most of them were simple, small bundles of white flowers. A more intricate chain of flowers and leaves wrapped around the neck, and someone had left nothing less than a full bale of feed by the head.
He found himself on his knees, shaking. There was movement at his side, and a hand on his shoulder, only an instant later.
"What was it?" he asked. "A pet? A friend?"
"She was more like… a neighbor," Iolaus said, voice soft, gentle.
He felt true horror rise up in him as he turned to look at the figure beside him, barely visible in the moonlight. He frantically searched for the words, forced them out. "Was she… did she understand? Was she—"
"She was just an animal." Iolaus voice was firm now, as he leaned closer, and Hercules' vision improved enough in the dim light to let him see the concern on his face. "She had been here a long time, longer than some of the elders in the village, and they loved her, but she wasn't… she wasn't a person. She was just an animal."
"They thought she was. And she was scared of us. Terrified. She never attacked us, or anyone else at all, did she? She couldn't understand why we were hurting her." Hercules swayed slightly, and Iolaus caught him, kneeled beside him and held him strongly
"They would bring her treats sometimes." Iolaus' voice was level, cautious. He was searching for something. "She stopped worrying about people coming close a long time ago." There was silence then, that stretched on, while Hercules tried to make sense of what was being said.
"Have we done this before?" He searched Iolaus' face desperately. "Have I asked you these questions before?"
"Will I remember this in the morning?"
"Probably not. Maybe. But probably not. You never have before. But you'll be… happy, again, in the morning. And we'll set off for the next town. They've already sent a runner to warn them we're on our way."
"Has any of it been real at all? Were all my battles nothing but…nothing…" He felt a flicker of fear, recalling his conversation in the tavern, Mikkos' blank face. "Which parts of it are true?" he whispered.
"You are a great man," Iolaus said. "That part is true. A hero. We fought together side-by-side, and we will again. You just need… time to get well. You've been sick. It wasn't your fault, it was something that was done to you."
"Why are you doing this?" It was hopeless. "Why don't you kill me?"
"You're going to get better. I asked. I asked the gods—"
"Did they answer?"
"When you're better, we'll go home again." Iolaus said. "It'll be… it won't be like it was. But it will be good again." He could feel Iolaus straighten up beside him, his resolve an almost physical thing.
"When you're better, we'll go home again."
It was a beautiful morning, and despite the messenger's arrival telling them that, indeed, there was a warlord in Naissus that Jason wanted them to have a word or two with, forcibly if necessary, Hercules couldn't help but look forward to getting back on the road. The townsfolk had been there to see them off, with new supplies and good-wishes. Marnes had fussed at them, but Iolaus had waved him off good-naturedly.
"Oh, wait, we have to go back!" Hercules said, half a mile out.
"What? Herc, they just gave us a huge, formal sendoff—"
"I—some little wooden thing that little girl I met dropped, I meant to return it to her." He fumbled in his pouch, and found its well-worn smooth surface. "Here." He handed it to Iolaus.
Iolaus stared at it, for just a moment, expressions chasing across his face too closely for Hercules to follow.
"We can run back. It'll be fast." Hercules said.
Iolaus started, as though waking up. "No, keep it."
"What? It's not—"
"Trust me, it'll be okay, her father will make her another just like it." He pressed the toy back into Hercules' hand. "Put it away, and hold onto it. Maybe it will… help you remember this place, someday."
Hercules fingered it for a moment, considering. "I think I'd like a souvenir, actually." He cast a glance back, and tucked the toy away again. "I think… We'll probably never stop here again, will we? It'd be good to… have a keepsake." He looked up and smiled at Iolaus. "Let's get moving then. We wouldn't want to keep the next adventure waiting."