Author's Note: No copyright infringement intended on characters owned by Universal Studios or RenPics.
To read a summary of the previous chapters, click here
September 7, 2003
Chapter twenty-four of a continuing arc. Comments and criticisms are always welcome.
When the sun comes up
The moon goes down
You can find your way back home
If you wait 'til the sun comes round
“When the Sun Comes Up” - John Entwistle
Iolaus knocked softly on the door before he opened it and stuck his head through.
“It’s just me, Lis.”
The healer invited him in, and the hunter entered the room, pausing to drink in the sight before him. Elissa was feeding their daughter, illuminated by a shaft of sunlight that was streaming in through the open window. Iolaus felt his breath catch in his throat, never failing to be entranced by the beauty of his wife providing life giving nourishment to their child.
“Pandion’s going into town,” he told her, finding his voice as he moved to sit beside her on the bed. “He wanted me to ask you if you needed anything.”
“Not that I can think of,” Elissa said, raising the baby up to her shoulder and patting her gently on the back. “Although you two might want to put your heads together and see if you can come up with something your mother would like. We need to try and tempt her appetite. She’s far too thin.”
“I haven’t been in to see her yet today,” Iolaus confessed, picking at some stray threads in the blanket that covered the bed.
“I was hoping she’d be doing a bit better, but there isn’t much change.”
“Do you think you can help her?”
“Well, I should be able to clear up the fluid in her lungs, but I can’t make her any younger, unfortunately.” The healer reached out and took her husband’s hand, squeezing it in support. “I promised her I’d bring Cale in to see her after I fed her. Why don’t you take her in?”
The hunter took the baby from Elissa, but remained seated.
“What’s the matter?” the healer asked, glancing at him as she did up the lacings on the front of her blouse.
“I don’t know what to say to her,” the hunter sighed. “All those years I was gone put such a distance between us. I’ve apologized to her, and she’s forgiven me, but that can’t repair all the damage that’s been done. And now, with her so sick, I just don’t know how to talk to her.”
“Maybe it’s not that you don’t know what to say,” Elissa suggested gently. “Maybe its that you’re afraid to say what you need to.”
“What do you mean by that?” Iolaus looked at his wife, his brow wrinkled in confusion.
“Iolaus, I know that you love your mother. And I know how much you regret hurting her. But I also think there’s something left unsaid between you, that you need to get out into the open. You might not want to deal with it, but you are never going to get past it until you do.”
The hunter rose from the bed and went to the window, rocking his daughter as he looked out into the bright, sunny morning. As always, the woman he loved had seen into his soul and had read the pain in his heart, no matter how hard he’d tried to hide it away. And she was right, there would always be a touch of awkwardness between him and his mother until it was resolved. But the healer was also correct in that it was something he didn’t want to deal with, especially not now that his mother was ill.
Always understanding, Elissa approached her husband from behind, rubbing his shoulders lightly.
“I have to go make her some barberry tea,” she told him. “Take Cale in for her. It really lifts her spirits to see her granddaughter.”
Iolaus nodded, and followed the healer out of the bedroom they had been using for the past two nights. Elissa busied herself in the kitchen, and the hunter made a quick detour outside to tell Pandion that they didn’t need anything from the marketplace. The poet nodded, and with a whistle to summon Hero to him, he set off down the road toward town. Pandion and the small dog had instantly become fast friends, and it made the hunter grin to see them keeping each other entertained while he and Elissa were preoccupied with caring for Erythia.
With no other stalling techniques left him, Iolaus went back inside and entered his mother’s room. She was very thin and pale, and seemed to have aged quite a lot since he’d last seen her. Which had been years ago, at his wedding, the hunter realized with a stab of guilt. But Erythia beamed to see him, the happiness dancing out of her faded blue eyes as she held out trembling arms for her granddaughter. Iolaus sat beside her on the bed and gave her the baby, ready to help her hold the child. But he’d underestimated the determination of a grandmother. Erythia found the strength to cradle Cale securely against her chest, tears forming in her eyes as she smiled at her granddaughter.
“She’s so beautiful, Iolaus,” Erythia whispered.
“Just like her mother,” the hunter agreed, looking down at his daughter with his own proud smile.
“Thank the fates for letting me live long enough to see her,” she continued. “I hope you know how lucky you are, Son. Some people go their whole lives without ever having something as precious as this to love. Treasure her, always.”
“I will,” Iolaus vowed solemnly.
“What’s wrong?” Erythia asked, glancing up to catch her son’s troubled expression.
“Don’t lie to your mother,” she scolded him fondly. “I can tell something’s bothering you.”
“Really, it’s nothing,” the hunter insisted. “We can talk about it when you’re feeling stronger.”
“Iolaus, take Cale, please.” When he did so, Erythia reached out a thin hand and cupped his cheek. “I’m growing old and tired, my son. The time we have left to talk is running out.” She shushed him when he tried to protest. “So whatever you need to say, please, say it now. While I can still hear you.”
The hunter was silent for a long time, but finally he raised his head and met his mother’s gaze.
“Having a child changed my life,” he began hesitantly. “Before Cale was born, I just didn’t know it was possible to love anything as much as I love her. From the first moment I held her, I vowed that I would do whatever it took to protect her, and that I would give my life before I’d ever let anyone hurt her.”
“And now you want to know why I never did the same for you,” Erythia finished for him, turning her head away. “I was no match for your father, Iolaus.”
“I know that,” he said quietly. “No more than Elissa would be a match for me. But I also know that if I ever tried to do to our daughter what Dad did to me, nothing would stop her... until she stopped me.”
“What are you suggesting? That I should have killed your father?”
“No, of course not. But we could have left.” Iolaus struggled to force the words out past his throat, which had started to tighten. “We had no reason to stay. There was nothing for us, and Dad hardly ever sent money back for us. We had nothing to lose, and our freedom to gain. But you wouldn’t go.”
“I know you can’t understand it, Iolaus,” Erythia whispered, tears forming in her eyes. “But that’s because you’re strong. Me, I’m weak. I couldn’t protect you from your father, but I didn’t have the courage to leave him, either. And I knew that he was the real reason you were always in trouble, and why you ran away. When you finally came back, full of apologies, I just played the martyr and let you take the blame for everything that happened between us. I just couldn’t admit to myself that it was my weakness that drove you away. Nobody could blame you for wanting to get away from that tyrant, or even doing what you had to in order to survive. No one but me, because I couldn’t bear the thought that I only had myself to blame. But if you believe nothing else, please believe this, Iolaus. I hated myself for not having the courage to help you, but I did love you. I’ve always loved you, and I’ve always been proud to call you my son. I just hope that someday you can forgive me.”
“There’s nothing to forgive,” Iolaus told her. He shifted the baby into the crook of his arm so that he could lean down and hug his mother tightly. “And I do love you, Mother.”
Erythia clung to him, sobs wracking her frail body as the hunter tried to calm her, whispering reassurances and pleading with her to stop before she made herself sick. But his warning came too late, and she began gasping and coughing, unable to get enough air into her saturated lungs. Elissa quickly came running to help her, and after she assured him there was nothing he could do, Iolaus left the room, pausing only to lay Cale down in her basket before going outside to take some deep breaths and try to stop the tears from falling.
Late that evening, after darkness had blanketed the land, Elissa went in search of her husband who had disappeared after dinner, saying he was going to check on the horses. She found him down the road in the stable where they’d housed Boreas and Chestnut, sitting on a bale of hay and looking out into the night.
“Are you ok?” the healer asked softly.
“Yeah,” he replied, giving her a sad smile. “I just wanted to do a little thinking.”
“Iolaus, I’m sorry,” Elissa told him.
“For pushing you into confronting your mother. It obviously upset both of you a great deal, and I shouldn’t have meddled into what’s between the two of you.”
“No, you were right,” Iolaus sighed, reaching out a hand to his wife. She came forward to sit beside him, snuggling into his warm embrace. “I said what needed to be said, and I’m glad I got it off my chest. But I thought doing so would have brought me a kind of peace with all that happened, and it just didn’t.”
“Why not?” The healer asked, running a finger along the smooth, polished surface of his talisman. “What’s still bothering you?”
“I don’t know,” he sighed again. “I guess because it didn’t change anything. And I can’t understand why I’m feeling so... disappointed. I mean, I was never able to stop my father from turning on her. Why should I blame my mother for not doing for me what I couldn’t do for her?”
“Because parents are supposed to protect their children,” Elissa told him. “She didn’t do that for you. She failed you, in a sense.”
“Maybe we failed each other,” Iolaus said slowly. “I mean, I certainly didn’t make it easy for her. Practically from the day I learned to talk I was mouthing off to the old man. Once he made it clear how he felt about me, I pretty much did everything I could to instigate the fights. Mother used to beg me to stay quiet. To just let him rant and get it out of his system, and to ignore him when he started cutting me down. Pleading with me to stay out of his way. But I never could. It wasn’t much, but it was all I had to fight back with. So I’d get in his way, purposely annoy him, and throw all his insults back in his face. It only made things that much worse, but at least I felt like I was keeping the last shred of dignity that I had left. It used to make me sick to see my mother hanging her head in shame and cowering before him, like she believed she deserved his abuse and agreed with all those horrible things he was saying to her.”
The healer felt her eyes burn with tears, but she blinked them back, not wanting to cry and make Iolaus feel like he needed to comfort her, when he was dealing with so much of his own pain. But her sensitive heart broke at the thought of all the man she loved beyond all others had suffered as a young, defenseless child. He generally didn’t like to talk about his childhood, unless it involved young adventures with Hercules, but each time she was given one of these little glimpses, her heart ached a little more for all he had endured, at the same time her soul marveled at how he had come through it all to become the caring, gentle, noble hero that she, and the rest of Greece, loved. Elissa hugged him tighter, letting him know that she was listening and offering her silent support.
“But maybe I’m not giving my mother enough credit,” the hunter continued, after a moment of reflection. “Maybe she didn’t just bury her head in the sand. She probably tried to protect me as much as she could. More than I realized at the time.”
“How do you mean?”
“She wasn’t really a passive person,” he said thoughtfully. “She’d certainly speak her mind to me, or anyone else that warranted it. Maybe by playing the submissive victim with my father, she was just trying to calm him, to take the focus off of me. She certainly went all out to placate him in other ways. Acting every bit the loving wife to that hard bastard, long after I knew she stopped loving him. I never knew why she treated him so well when all she ever got in return was humiliated and ridiculed and taken advantage of. But maybe it was all to distract him from me, hoping that she could keep him happy enough to forget about the worthless runt for awhile.”
“Maybe you’re right,” Elissa murmured. “I can’t imagine any mother turning a completely blind eye to her child’s suffering. And I can see that Erythia does love you very much, Iolaus. I’ll bet she did what she could, and probably now regrets that it wasn’t more.”
“Maybe.” Iolaus ran a hand wearily over his face. “I just don’t know what to think anymore. Everything that happened all those years ago... it’s just such a mess. And all the talking and rationalizing and justifying in the world isn’t going to change that.”
“You can’t change the past,” the healer reminded him, sitting up a little so she could look him in the eyes. “But it is in the past, Iolaus, and its all over now. You’ve made your peace with it as best you could, and now all that’s left is to move on and look to the future.”
“You’re right, again,” the hunter whispered, drinking in the warmth from the sparkling emerald eyes that shone with the reflection of his own soul, letting himself be comforted by it. He leaned in to kiss her soft lips, gently at first, then more demanding as the passion started to rise within him. “And right now, my future is definitely looking up.”
“You think so?” Elissa teased, having caught the familiar gleam in the depths of her husband’s blue eyes. “But the horses are watching.”
“We can go back to the house,” Iolaus suggested, his voice muffled as he planted a string of light kisses down her neck.
“With your mother in the next room?” the healer demanded, shivering unconsciously at his touch.
“Well, if you would just control yourself a little, she’d never know.”
“Me?” Elissa said incredulously. “You’re the one who can’t control himself, my brave warrior.” To prove her point, she slid her hands down his smooth chest to settle lower on his body, eliciting a loud groan.
“What can I say?” the hunter grinned. “You bring out the animal in me.”
“Obviously,” she replied wryly. “Since your future isn’t the only thing that’s looking up. Unfortunately, I left Cale with Pandion, so I have to get back and feed her and put her down for the night. We can finish this discussion when you get back to the house. If I’m still awake, that is.”
The healer slipped out of his grasp and left the barn, a deliberate sashay to her walk, knowing his eyes would be following her. Iolaus laughed, shaking his head at her hard-to-get routine, knowing from long experience that her passion equaled his and that she would be waiting for him when he returned.
Rising, the hunter dusted off his pants and continued with his task of caring for the horses, his mood considerably brighter, and not just from the anticipation of satisfying his primal urges. Talking about those long ago but deep rooted hurts had been the first step in healing them, and Iolaus realized he was lucky. He had gotten to confront both his parents on the issue, including his dead father, which was a feat unobtainable to most. And his beautiful healer, as always, had known how to comfort him. All that had happened was a part of the past. A past he couldn’t change, but one that he could make peace with. And a past that really didn’t figure at all into a present and future that was devoted to his loving wife and beautiful little girl.
Throughout his life, the young boy who had been so hurt and betrayed by his father had always remained a whispery voice in the back of his mind. Blaming him for what had happened, telling him that he deserved it, and that everything good and pure in life was beyond reach for someone like him. But over the years, as the child grew into a man, he was enveloped by the unconditional love of his family and friends, starting with Alcmene and Hercules. And eventually, the numbers of those that supported him grew too high to be ignored, and began to override the negative voice inside. For why would so many good people feel so strongly about him if he were a worthless coward or a no-good thief? And gradually, Iolaus began to realize that he was merely the victim of his circumstances, but that he didn’t cause what had happened to him and he certainly didn’t deserve it. Now, after the conversation with his mother, painful as it was for both of them, he was able to find the peace he’d so desperately been seeking. The last ghost had been laid to rest, and the hunter was finally able to close the book on that part of his life. He’d never forget it, but he was done reliving it, and was content to let it fade into a pale afterthought compared to his bright and vibrant future.
Two weeks had passed before Elissa felt comfortable enough leaving Erythia. The older woman was still very weak and frail, but she was up and around and had recovered some of her good humor, so the healer decided they were able to leave her in Pandion’s capable hands and return home to Acheron. But first they took a detour to nearby Thebes, where they had left Hercules at his mother’s house with Jason. The demigod hadn’t wanted to come all the way with them when they’d gotten word that Erythia was ill, preferring not to intrude in the family matters when he knew things were still somewhat strained between Iolaus and his mother, and feeling partly to blame for dragging the hunter all over Greece, keeping him away and adding to that strain. But, he also wanted to be close by, in case his friends needed him for anything, or needed his support if things took a turn for the worse. So he and Jason had remained in Thebes, ordering Iolaus and Elissa to send for them immediately if they could be the slightest help. They had been telling themselves that no news was good news, and their optimism was confirmed on the sunny afternoon when their friends arrived to tell them that all had gone well.
Jason had been working on the beginnings of the evening meal, but he soon turned that task over to Elissa, preferring to busy himself with Cale. The baby had inherited her father’s sunny disposition and she was mostly content to sit back and placidly watch the world revolve around her. The Argonaut took great delight in showing her that world, and he considered it one of his greatest accomplishments to get her to smile and laugh.
Hercules remained outside, choosing to help his friend unhitch the horses from the wagon and get them settled in the barn. They made small talk as they led the animals inside and brushed them down before filling up water troughs and distributing the grain and hay. The chores were second nature to the two warriors, who had been caring for horses ever since their Academy days, so many years ago, and they both found it to be relaxing, reassuring work.
“I’m glad your mother’s feeling better,” the demigod told his friend, giving Chestnut a soft pat on the neck.
“Yeah.” Iolaus looked over at his partner, having heard the faint note of sadness in his voice, knowing Hercules was thinking of his own mother. “I don’t know for how long, though. Elissa doesn’t think she has much time left. And well, I have to agree with her. I could see it in my mother’s eyes. She’s starting to wind down.”
“I’m sorry.” Hercules moved to stand behind his friend, putting a comforting hand on his shoulder.
“The thing is,” Iolaus murmured, turning around to face his partner. “I feel like I don’t even know my own mother. I love her, and I know she loves me, but there was all that stuff with my father when I was growing up. Between dodging him, and her having to work so hard all the time, we missed each other a lot. Then after I lit out of there, I was gone for so long. Even after we reconciled, we still hardly ever saw each other. All my life, Alcmene was more of a mother to me than my own was. I’m not blaming my mother for that, and I don’t feel guilty about it all. I just feel... sad, I guess. Sad that it all worked out this way. And regretful that after all these years, my own mother is still a stranger to me in a lot of ways.”
“I know exactly how you’re feeling,” Hercules empathized. “But you did the best you could with what you had, Iolaus. You owe your mother your love, and you’ve given that to her. You don’t owe her your life, too. That’s something that should be given only to those people that you love and trust and that you want to share in it with you. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned in all my years, it’s that blood doesn’t enter into it. My mother loved you with all her heart, and she considered you her third son. And I do know how much you loved her. You were able to share something with her that you couldn’t with your mother, but that doesn’t make it wrong. It’s like me and Iphicles. I guess that sometimes I do regret that he and I aren’t closer. But just because we shared the same womb doesn’t automatically bond us. We’re different people with different ideas and different ways of looking at things, and we had to work through a lot just to become friends. I love Iphicles, because he’s my brother by blood. But you, Iolaus, are my brother by choice. The one my heart and soul chose, and the only one I trust and depend on, and love, like no one else.”
“Thanks, Herc,” the hunter whispered. He took a step forward and the demigod caught him up in a tight hug. “You know I feel the same way about you, right?”
“You’d better,” Hercules grinned, letting him go. “Otherwise I’m going to feel like a real idiot.”
Iolaus laughed, his formerly troubled cerulean eyes now flashing with merriment.
“Come on,” he urged, heaving the heavy grain bag up to his shoulder and moving toward Boreas’ stall. “Let’s hurry up and finish here. I’m starving.”
“What else is new?” the demigod muttered, following his partner with a flake of hay. But his words were fond and were said with a smile that was always reserved for the brother of his heart.
They stayed in Thebes with Jason for a few days before packing up once again and heading home to Acheron. Elissa was content to ride in the back of the wagon with Cale, allowing the two men to ride together in the front as Hero bounded along behind them. Although he didn’t verbalize it, Iolaus was beyond happy that Hercules was returning home with them. In the months since Cale was born, the demigod had been spending a lot of time at the great stone house in Acheron. He still went out helping people, but generally he would return for a visit in between adventures, and the hunter couldn’t help but wonder if his days of journeying the earth far and wide were over. Iolaus knew that Greece still needed Hercules, and he would never begrudge the people their legendary hero. But he missed his friend terribly when he was gone, worrying about him and feeling the loss of their separation. The hunter never regretted giving up his life on the road for his home and family, but he could not deny the strength of the bond that was between him and his partner. He felt it tug at him when they weren’t together, and Iolaus guessed that the demigod felt it too, which was why he made sure to come home often.
The hunter knew it was only a matter of time before someone else would turn up requesting Hercules’ help, so he made sure to enjoy their time together. He drove the horses leisurely, since they weren’t in any hurry and all three of them were enjoying the mild weather. They passed the time on the journey with hours of long conversation, peppered with laughter and good natured teasing. And when they camped at night, Iolaus was in his element, getting the chance to hunt and fish with his partner for their evening meal. Then again later, relaxing next to the crackling fire, looking up at the bright stars as his wife cuddled up beside him and his best friend grinned at him from across the dancing flames as he rocked his little namesake in his arms. The hunter was actually sad when their trip came to an end. He would have suggested extending it a bit, but he knew that Elissa was getting antsy with being gone so long and was looking forward to being back home. So he kept the wagon on course, and soon they arrived in Acheron.
Elissa hurried into the house with Cale, who was loudly announcing her growing hunger. Iolaus followed her in to light some candles and get a fire started as Hercules drove the wagon around the house through the encroaching dusk to unhitch the horses and get them settled in the barn. But he returned in a matter of moments, asking his friend to accompany him.
“What’s going on?” the hunter asked as he dropped an armful of wood into the box next to the fireplace.
“Just come out to the barn with me,” the demigod told him. “There’s something you need to see.”
Puzzled, Iolaus followed his partner outside. As they entered the barn, Hercules pointed to the small hay mound in the corner. Taking the lantern that his partner had lit and hung on the wall, the hunter approached, spying a figure curled up among the straw.
“Aurora?” he gasped in surprise. Kneeling down beside the sleeping girl, he touched her shoulder gently, calling her name again. She awoke with a start, bolting up in a panic, and Iolaus caught her arm as she tried to back away. “Aurora, it’s ok, it’s just me,” he soothed her. “You’re all right. Just calm down.”
“Iolaus?” she whispered, settling down some as she identified the man before her.
“I’m sorry I scared you,” he murmured, looking at the girl with a critical eye. Even in the faint lamp light, he could see that she was too thin and did not look well. “Come on, let’s go inside.” He helped her up, putting a strong arm around her as he started leading her out of the barn. “Herc, do you mind?”
The demigod followed his friend’s nod toward the horses.
“Go on,” he said softly. “I’ll finish up here.”
Iolaus took the girl inside, sitting her down in front of the fireplace and disappearing back into the bedroom for a quick, hushed discussion with the healer. He returned with a warm blanket, which he placed around the girl’s shoulders before he resumed his task of starting a fire. Once he had it going, building it up to cast light and heat into the room, the hunter dashed out to the spring, filling up a bucket with water. When he returned, he poured some of it into a pot, setting it over the fire to heat.
“Elissa will be out in a minute,” he announced, squatting on his haunches in front of the girl. “She’s taking care of the baby. We’ve been away, so I’m afraid we don’t have much here in the way of supplies. But I think we can probably scrounge up something for dinner, if you’re hungry.”
“Please don’t go to any trouble,” Aurora begged him.
“It’s no trouble,” the healer assured her as she entered the room. “We all have to eat, too.”
“Hi, Elissa.” The girl managed a faint smile for the healer. “I’m sorry for just barging in on you like this.”
“Hey,” Iolaus told her sternly. “You have nothing to be sorry for. I told you that you could come here any time you wanted, and I meant it. Ok?”
“Ok,” she whispered.
The hunter reached out a hand to stroke her cheek gently, then got up to take the baby from his wife. Elissa gave the girl an encouraging nod that emphasized her husband’s words before she began riffling through the kitchen to try and find something with which she could make a meal. Iolaus returned to the girl to introduce her to Cale. Aurora reacted politely, but it was clear she was disinterested in the child. It was also clear to the hunter that something was deeply troubling the young woman. When Hercules came in from the barn, Iolaus passed his daughter to him and busied himself with making tea, which Aurora took gratefully. But she only picked at the simple meal that Elissa laid out, barely taking a bite or two as the three adults exchanged worried glances. When everyone finished eating, Elissa excused herself to put Cale to bed and Hercules quietly slipped out of the door. Once they were alone, Iolaus brought Aurora another mug of tea and sat down beside her.
“Do you want to tell me what’s wrong now?”
She sighed, glancing at him briefly before turning her focus onto the mug in her hands, taking a sip of the hot brew.
“I was caught again,” she confessed. “Stealing in the Corinthian marketplace. King Iphicles remembered me and he summoned my aunt and uncle. He said I had to go home with them, and if he ever saw me there again he was going to lock me up for good.” Aurora looked up to meet the concerned blue eyes, her own filled with worry and fatigue and hurt. “But I can’t stay there, Iolaus. I just can’t. I didn’t know what else to do, and I didn’t have anywhere else to go. Please, Iolaus, if it isn’t too much of a burden, could I just stay here for a few days? I won’t be any trouble, I swear. I just need a few days to think and figure out what to do.”
“Of course you can stay,” the hunter said, drawing her into his warm embrace. “You can stay as long as you want, Aurora. You aren’t any kind of burden, and Elissa and I want to help you, if you’ll let us.”
The girl hugged him back tightly, shuddering slightly as she fought to hold in a sob. For a second, Iolaus thought that she was going to break and tell him what had happened. But then she let go and sat up, taking in a deep breath as she pushed her hair back.
Iolaus saw the lines of exhaustion on her young face and suggested that they call it a night. She agreed, and he escorted her down the corridor to the empty bedroom. Aurora started to enter, but she paused in the doorway.
“I was just thinking,” she said slowly, turning around to face the hunter. “Of the last time I was here. All those years ago.”
“What about it?”
“We’ve switched places.” Aurora gave him a genuine smile. “I was in there with Elissa, and you were in here.”
“Funny how things work out, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is.” Her smile faltered and a shadow passed over her face, but then she looked up at him earnestly. “Iolaus, you don’t know how glad I am for you that you ended up with Elissa. I was so young back then, but even I could see how much you two loved each other, and I knew you were meant to be together. Seeing you with her now, starting a family... it just makes me happy, somehow. Gives me a sense of peace.”
“Aurora,” he began, but she quickly said goodnight and ducked into the room, closing the door behind her. The hunter sighed, running a hand through his hair as he went outside to find Hercules and tell him it was all right to come back in. The demigod assured his friend that he didn’t mind sleeping on a pallet in front of the fire, so after a few minutes, Iolaus bid his partner good night and headed for his own room. Elissa was already in bed, but she wasn’t asleep, so Iolaus relayed what Aurora had told him.
“I know she’s holding something back,” he muttered as he climbed into bed. “Something she doesn’t want to talk about. Last time I saw her, in Corinth, she had this tough front going. But that’s all gone now. She just looks scared and lost and hopeless and I don’t know what to do to help her!”
“You can’t help her unless she wants to be helped,” Elissa reminded him. “You once told me that yourself.”
“I’m worried about her,” the hunter said in a small voice, welcoming the warmth of his wife’s arms slipping around him. “Something’s wrong with her, I can see it.”
“All you can do is just be there for her,” the healer told him. “Let her know she’s safe here, and that she’s loved. With time, she’ll come around.”
But Iolaus didn’t take comfort from her words, getting a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach that Aurora didn’t have time. There was something wrong, and if he couldn’t get her to let him help her soon, it would be too late.
The hunter entered the house, setting down his load of parcels on the table. When he didn’t see anybody around, he exited and went around the side to the back, spying Elissa working in the garden. He paused to check the nearby basket where his daughter was napping in the shade before easing himself to the ground next to his wife.
“Did you get everything?” she asked, pulling up a clump of weeds and shaking it gently to remove the loose dirt before adding it to the pile.
“Yes,” he replied with a grin. “But I only brought half of it back.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Hercules has the rest of the supplies,” Iolaus explained. “And he was a bit detained.”
“Not what, who. Polymede ambushed him in the marketplace.”
Elissa tried to suppress a smile as she focused her attentions back to her plants.
“She’s going to make him regret the day he told her if she ever needed anything, all she had to do was ask.”
“I think he already regrets it,” the hunter giggled. “Today it was a tree limb on her henhouse. I stopped by with him to look at it, and it’s a pretty simple job, but you know she’s going to make him catch up all her chickens once he’s patched it up. Next thing you know she’ll be calling on him to get her cat down out of a tree.”
“That’s about all that’s left,” Elissa said wryly. “I mean, that poor woman is a walking catastrophe.”
“Tell me about it,” Iolaus agreed, thinking of all the work he’d done for the widow, starting way back on his first stay in Acheron when he helped to rebuild her house after a fire. He’d done quite a number of odd repairs for her in the following years, more so than Hercules. But he suspected it gave the old woman something of a thrill to be able to command Greece’s legendary hero to do her bidding. She was a bit eccentric and rather cantankerous, but basically she was a good hearted person. And the hunter never minded helping her, for she had no one else to call upon and did seem to be quite adept at attracting more than her share of mishaps.
“How did you manage to get out of today’s little project?” the healer asked him.
“Oh, you know I’m invisible as far as Polymede’s concerned whenever Hercules is here,” he replied airily. “And Herc didn’t think he’d be long, so he told me to go on ahead. We splurged on a few treats, and he was hoping that if I got back here with them early enough, you might be able to incorporate them into dinner.”
“Hercules was hoping that, was he?” Elissa inquired, arching an eyebrow.
“Who else?” The hunter wore the mask of total innocence that would have snowed anyone who didn’t know him as well as his wife, who definitely knew better.
“I’ll see what I can do,” she promised with a straight face. “After all, I wouldn’t want to disappoint Hercules. So I guess asparagus will feature heavily in the menu.”
“Unfortunately, I could not talk him out of that particular purchase,” Iolaus sighed. “However, I do believe that the asparagus is firmly tucked away into one of the parcels in Hercules’ possession. So I think we’re going to have to substitute it with something else tonight.”
“You’re incorrigible,” the healer admonished fondly.
“Thank you.” Iolaus stood up as Cale began to wail and retrieved her from the basket, rocking her gently as he soothed her. “How’s Aurora seem today?”
“I don’t know,” Elissa replied, her mood abruptly sobering. “She’s been holed up in her room most of the day.”
“Is she sick?” the hunter asked in concern.
“I’m not sure,” the healer answered. “She came out for a few minutes this morning, right after you and Hercules left. She really didn’t look well, but she wouldn’t let me get anywhere near her. She said that she was tired and was going to go lie back down for awhile, and she just kept telling me she was fine from behind the door whenever I tried to check on her.”
Iolaus didn’t answer, for he had already voiced his fears and had gotten nowhere. He knew he couldn’t force the girl to tell him what was wrong, but a cold uneasiness had flooded through him the minute he’d first seen Aurora. Always one to put complete confidence in his instincts, he was convinced the girl was in trouble and he vowed to get to the bottom of things, somehow, and do whatever he could to make it all right.
“Well,” he said finally. “I’m going to take Cale inside and change her. Do you want me to bring these in, too?”
At his wife’s nod, he picked up the bowl of peas that she’d picked and headed for the house. He could hear Hero whining and scratching at the door, and the small dog bolted outside as soon as he opened it. Iolaus glanced after the canine, then went inside with a shrug. He set the bowl of vegetables on the table and started toward the bedroom, when something caught his eye. There was a small spot of something on the floor, and upon investigation, the hunter determined it looked suspiciously like blood. Moving down the hallway, he found another spot on the floor and a larger spot in Aurora’s empty room. Pausing to lay Cale down on a blanket on the floor of his bedroom, Iolaus dashed out of the house, fear constricting his heart.
As he flew out of the door, he heard Hero urgently barking at something in the woods. Following the sound, he called out to the dog. The barking ceased, replaced with a pitiful whine. Iolaus found Hero next to the small stream, pawing at the still form of Aurora and licking at her white face.
“By the gods,” the hunter gasped in horror. He turned around and sprinted back toward the house to get Elissa as the small dog began to howl mournfully.
“I know,” Iolaus murmured, gently rocking his daughter as he patted her on the back. But the baby was inconsolable, crying harder and harder as she was denied the milk that she demanded. The hunter did his best to soothe her as he paced restlessly up and down the hallway, until the door finally opened a crack and Elissa stuck her head out.
“I’ll take her,” she said quietly.
Iolaus handed Cale over to her, trying to peer through the small opening.
“How is she?” he whispered.
“She’s doing all right. I’ll be out in a little while.” The healer disappeared back inside the bedroom, and after a few moments, the baby’s wails stopped. Iolaus pressed his ear to the door and could hear his wife’s voice, but could not make out any words. In frustration, he went out to the kitchen and busied himself with putting away the supplies that were still scattered on the table. Never one to wait patiently, the hunter was almost beside himself by the time Elissa emerged from the room with Cale in her arms and a look of sorrow in her eyes.
“Well?” he demanded.
“She took a high dose of shepherd’s purse,” the healer explained, sliding onto the bench at the table. “Apparently she heard about it from another girl on the street and raided my supply the first chance she got.”
“But that’s not fatal, is it?” Iolaus asked anxiously.
“No,” Elissa replied with a small shake of her head. “It’s making her pretty miserable right now, but I’ve never heard of an overdose causing any permanent harm. She’s sick to her stomach and weathering some cramps, but she should be ok once the drug wears off. I was more worried about the blood loss, but that seems to have slowed a great deal and should stop entirely soon.”
“Why did she do this?” the hunter muttered, closing his eyes and trying to will away from his mind the picture of the young girl unconscious and hemorrhaging, his heart aching at the thought of the degree of desperation that had driven her to such a state. “Why didn’t she just go to you?”
“She’s ashamed,” the healer said softly. “She didn’t want either of us to know she was pregnant.”
“Why not?” Iolaus argued. “After all, if anyone can understand about doing what you need to do to survive on the streets, its me.”
“Because it didn’t happen in Corinth,” Elissa whispered, a tremor in her voice. “It was her uncle.”
The hunter’s jaw dropped open as he stared at his wife, trying to comprehend what she was telling him. He jumped up from the table, pacing in tight, quick circles, before abruptly turning and lunging toward the door, grabbing his sword as he left the house.
“Iolaus!” Elissa cried. “What are you doing?” She tried to go after him, but he came bursting out of the barn riding Boreas, giving the animal free reign to fly like the wind he was aptly named after. The healer’s heart froze as they rushed past her and she saw the look of cold rage on her husband’s face. It scared her, and she hugged their daughter tightly to her as she went back inside, tears slipping down her face as she prayed that he would cool off during the ride and come to his senses before he did something they would all regret.
The demigod startled as the healer came rushing at him as he entered the great stone house.
“Thank the gods,” she sobbed. “You have to go after Iolaus before its too late.”
“Whoa, slow down,” Hercules urged, dropping the parcels he was carrying and taking her by the arms. “What are you talking about?”
Elissa gave him a brief explanation of the events that had transpired that afternoon.
“You have to stop him,” she begged. “He had this wild look in his eyes and I’m afraid of what he’ll do.”
“All right,” the demigod reassured her. “How long ago did he leave?”
“Not long,” the healer replied. “Please, Hercules, you have to catch him and talk some sense into him.”
“I will,” he promised, giving her a tight hug and kissing her on the cheek. She followed him out to the barn, giving him directions as he saddled up Chestnut, and then the demigod was off and galloping down the road. Elissa was still frightened, for Iolaus had a head start, and the faster horse. But Hercules had the determination of a demigod, so she was also hopeful that he would be able to stop her impetuous husband before his anger got the better of him.
“Iolaus.” There was obvious surprise in Petria’s voice as she opened the door in answer to the insistent pounding. “What are you doing...?” She trailed off as the hunter pushed his way into the small house.
“Where is he?” he demanded.
“Iolaus, what is going on here?” the woman asked in annoyance.
“Don’t give me that,” the hunter spat. “Don’t even try to pretend you didn’t know what was happening.”
“What are you talking about?” But Petria had paled, and her eyes were darting around the room nervously.
“How could you let him do that to her?” Iolaus shouted, grabbing her by the arm. “Your sister’s only child. The one you promised me you were going to take care of. Damn it, Petria!” He let her go and spun around to pace angrily around the room. “You had me go after her after she ran away. Begged me to bring her back to this, and I fell for it. It wasn’t enough that you let it go on, but then you wanted her back after she escaped? For the love of Zeus, woman!”
“What in Tartarus is going on in here?”
The hunter turned to face Dolichus, who had entered the room, not looking pleased to see their disruptive guest.
“Justice,” Iolaus told him, drawing his sword and advancing as Petria let out a bloodcurdling scream.
The man was bigger and stronger, but he was not much of a fighter, so the skilled warrior quickly got the advantage, pinning him up against the wall with his sword against his throat.
“How could you do that?” he seethed, his blue eyes colder than ice. “She was just a little girl. And she trusted you. What in Tartarus is wrong with you?”
The hunter flinched slightly, but he didn’t take his eyes off the terrified man before him.
“Get out of here, Hercules.”
“Come on, Iolaus,” the demigod cajoled, stepping through the open door and entering the house. “You know you don’t want to kill him.”
“Oh, I have no intention of killing him,” the hunter insisted. “I just want to make sure he’s never going to be able to do this to anyone else ever again.” Iolaus lowered his sword, pressing the blade against the man’s groin. Dolichus went white as a small sob of fear escaped his throat.
“Please,” he whispered. “Don’t do this.”
“Is that what Aurora said?” Iolaus asked coldly, putting a little more pressure on his blade. “Did she beg you not to do it? Well, I think I’ll show you the same compassion you showed her.”
The hunter finally spared a quick glance behind him to where the demigod was waiting. He turned back to the terrified man and clamped an iron fist around his throat.
“If I ever hear of anything like this ever happening again,” he threatened in a low voice. “Then I’m coming back and next time there won’t be anyone to stop me. Do you understand?”
Gasping, unable to breathe, Dolichus nodded slightly.
“And I’m sure it goes without saying, but you stay away from Aurora.” Iolaus released the man, shoving him aside. “Both of you,” he clarified, giving Petria a cool glare as he passed her. Hercules lingered for a minute, his own semidivine stare driving home the point his partner had made, just in case there was any confusion. Then he left the house, closing the door behind him.
“You know,” the demigod began, walking up to the tethered horses. “I thought Elissa was overreacting when she insisted that I had to go after you. But when I came through that door and saw the look on your face... You’re scary when you’re pissed.”
Iolaus gave his friend a faint grin as he swung up onto Boreas’ broad back.
“Let’s get out of here,” he suggested, urging the horse into a brisk trot.
Hercules swung up onto his own mount and encouraged the slower Chestnut to catch up with the black stallion, reigning him in beside his partner so they were riding side by side.
“Iolaus,” the demigod said hesitantly, not wanting to offend his friend. “You weren’t really going to...”
“Do a little harvesting? No, I wouldn’t have gone through with it. Although the gods know, that bastard deserves to spend the rest of his miserable life as a eunuch.”
“Do you think we should have taken him into town before the magistrate?”
“No.” The hunter shook his head slightly. “Then they’d have to drag Aurora into it, and I think she’d prefer not to have to relive it.”
“You’re probably right about that,” Hercules agreed. “Besides, I think Dolichus got your point.”
“More ways than one,” Iolaus grinned, giving the sword at his hip a fond pat.
The hunter knocked on the bedroom door, pushing it open and entering the room even though he received no answer. Aurora was lying curled up in a ball, facing away from him, and she did not respond as he came in, although she did flinch unconsciously when he sat down on the edge of the bed. Iolaus bit back a curse, for a moment wishing he had inflicted some form of violence on the man who had betrayed the innocent child so terribly. But he took a deep breath, setting the mug of tea he carried on the table beside the bed before clasping his hands in front of him, eyes fixed on the floor.
“I’m sorry, Aurora.”
Apparently, those weren’t the words that the girl had been expecting, and she turned slightly to look at him.
“Sorry for what?”
“For trying to send you back to those people.” He sighed, running a hand through his hair. “I guess for ever letting you go off with them in the first place.”
“You didn’t know,” Aurora whispered. “You couldn’t have.” She sat up, drawing her knees up to her chest and wrapping her arms around her legs. “And really, things were fine at first. When I was little, I was happy there. They were good to me, and I loved them both. It was when I started getting older that things changed. My uncle started to look at me funny. I thought maybe I was imagining it at first, until he started to...” She trailed off and was silent for a moment, then shook her head. “But none of this was your fault, Iolaus. You were just doing what you thought was best for me. You can’t blame yourself for what happened.”
“I’ll make a deal with you,” the hunter offered, looking her in the eye. “I’ll try not to blame myself if you promise to do the same.”
The girl quickly looked away, and Iolaus reached out and covered her hands with one of his own.
“Aurora, what happened to you... Well, it happened to you. But you didn’t cause it, and you certainly didn’t deserve it, and it’s not your fault, either. You shouldn’t blame yourself for any of it.”
“That’s a lot easier to tell someone else than it is to tell yourself,” she muttered.
“I know,” the hunter consoled her. “But, Aurora, you have no reason to feel ashamed. What happened was a terrible thing, but you don’t have to let it define you. Don’t let it kill the good inside you, and don’t sacrifice the rest of your life to it. You’re worth more than that.”
“I don’t know what to do,” the girl confessed, tears beginning to spill from her eyes.
“Let me help you,” Iolaus advised, reaching out and drawing her into his arms. “Stay here with us, Aurora. We love you and we want you here. I’ll help you through this, and I promise you things will get better. You can trust me, Little One. I’ll take care of you, and I’m not going to let anyone hurt you again.”
She broke down, sobs wracking her slight frame as she clung to him. The hunter rocked her gently, stroking her hair, and Aurora collapsed in his arms. She had been afraid for so long, so wary and not wanting to let herself trust anyone, too scared to leave herself vulnerable to anymore hurt or betrayal. But Iolaus had only ever shown her love and kindness, and she felt safe in his warm embrace, knowing he spoke the truth. She did trust him, almost in spite of herself, and she knew that if there was one person on earth that could help her heal the scars of what she had suffered, Iolaus was the one.
The demigod looked up as the girl entered the barn, which was just the distraction the hunter needed. Iolaus hooked him behind the knees with his pitchfork, sending him crashing down into a pile of hay. But Hercules managed to block the hunter’s attack, catching him as he tried to leap on top of him and sending Iolaus flying over the hay to sprawl into the corner of the barn.
“Yes?” the demigod asked, getting to his feet and brushing the hay from his clothes and hair.
Aurora stood hesitantly for a moment, watching the hunter pick himself up with a groan. She wasn’t sure what she had just walked into, but Iolaus gave her a wink as he stretched the kinks out of his back and she decided that the fearsome exhibition had merely been a show of horseplay. A bit rough by her standards, but she figured it was probably fitting for two seasoned warriors.
“This came for you,” she told Hercules, handing him a rolled up scroll.
Aurora left as the demigod unrolled the parchment and scanned the message.
“What’s up?” Iolaus asked, absently rubbing a shoulder as he approached his friend.
“Monster in Imbros,” Hercules explained, passing the scroll to him so he could read it himself. “Don’t suppose you’d be interested in that?”
“Well, Imbros isn’t very far,” the hunter said thoughtfully. “We wouldn’t be gone long.” His blue eyes narrowed as his partner turned away from him. “And besides, you need someone to watch your back.”
Iolaus leapt at his friend, getting unceremoniously swatted back down to the ground.
“You were saying?” the demigod asked, giving him a challenging grin.
The hunter had a ready reply, but it had to wait until he could suck some air back into his lungs.
“You’re going with him?”
“Yeah,” Iolaus answered, removing the lid from the bubbling pot hanging over the fire and inhaling the enticing aromas wafting out.
“Just like that? Without even talking to me first?”
“I didn’t think you’d mind,” the hunter told his wife, puzzled by her tone. “It never mattered to you before.”
“It was different before, Iolaus,” the healer argued, picking up a stack of plates and arranging them on the table, with a bit more force then necessary.
“I don’t understand what you’re mad about,” he protested. “We’re just going to Imbros. It’s only going to take a week, at most.”
“You promised me you were going to stop adventuring with Hercules,” she sighed. “You’ve had a forge out there for almost a year now, and you haven’t even so much as lit the first fire yet. And you have a daughter now, Iolaus. Your place is at home, with us, not out risking your life by playing hero to the world.”
“Elissa, I know what I promised you,” the hunter said calmly. “And I wasn’t lying. I don’t want to abandon my family while I’m out helping strangers. But the fact is, it isn’t something I can just give up. Because it’s not just what I do, it’s who I am. So if I can still go out once and awhile and do some good without being gone too long, then I feel its my responsibility to help. I would never expect you to refuse to go to Imbros if they needed a healer.”
“It’s not the same thing,” she insisted. “What I do isn’t going to get me killed.”
“What if you walked into an epidemic?” Iolaus prodded. “There’s every chance that you could be exposed to some horrible disease that would end up killing you. And I hate to see you risk that, but I don’t deny you what’s in your nature.” He softened his tone, taking his wife’s hand. “Please try to understand, Lis. I don’t want to upset you. But I need to do this. For me, and for Hercules.”
“Hercules can handle it,” Elissa snapped.
“You’re probably right,” the hunter agreed, not bothering to try and hide his hurt feelings. “But I just feel like I need to be there. I’m sorry I didn’t talk it over with you first, but my mind’s made up. I’m going with him.”
“Do what you want,” she muttered, grabbing a towel and using it to pull the heavy pot out of the fireplace. “Just try and remember you have a family back home while you’re out saving the world, and try not to get yourself killed.”
It was a tensely quiet dinner that night, and the healer retreated to the bedroom as soon as the meal was over. Hercules took Iolaus aside, suggesting that perhaps he should sit this adventure out. But the hunter was adamant, and as the sun dawned the following morning, he and the demigod set out on their quest. They had not gotten far, however, when Elissa caught up to them. As she caught her breath, Hercules discreetly moved away, giving them some privacy.
“I’m not happy about this,” the healer told her husband. “But I can’t let you leave like this. I’d never forgive myself if something happened to you.”
“Nothing’s going to happen,” Iolaus assured her, but she put up a hand to stop him.
“That’s for the fates to decide,” she reminded him. “Don’t make any promises you can’t keep.”
“Lis,” he murmured, pulling her into his arms. “Everything will be ok.”
“You be careful,” Elissa ordered, hugging him tightly. “And come back safely to me, my brave warrior.”
“I love you,” he whispered, kissing her softly before reluctantly letting her go. He started to walk toward Hercules, turning back to wave to her. She was tempted to call out to the demigod, to beg him to keep her husband safe, but she knew how much Iolaus would resent that. So instead the healer offered up a silent prayer to any god who might be listening, asking for the safe return of her golden hunter. As she went back to the house, she tried to tell herself that everything would be fine, and that the experienced warriors could probably dispatch the monster in their sleep. But Elissa’s self-reassurances were not enough to quell the nagging feeling of dread that was chilling her to her very soul.
“Herc,” the hunter called out, motioning his friend over. The demigod approached and knelt beside him, examining the print in the soft earth. “That’s got to be our monster, wouldn’t you say?”
“Sure doesn’t look like anything that’s supposed to be living in these hills,” Hercules agreed. He shaded his eyes, glancing up at the mountain looming beside them. “It probably has a cave up there somewhere, and comes down at night to hunt.”
“Then why don’t we go up and introduce ourselves?”
The demigod nodded, rising to his feet and taking the lead as they headed up the mountain trail.
“Do you have any idea what we’re up against?”
“No,” Hercules replied, shaking his head. “That print doesn’t look like anything I’ve ever seen before, and the villager descriptions were all pretty vague.”
“Good,” the hunter grinned, tossing his sheathed sword in the air and catching it with his opposite hand. “I love surprises.”
“You know,” the demigod said, attempting casualness. “It’s not too late to turn back.”
“You mean because of Elissa?”
“I just can’t remember ever seeing you two fight before. Not for real, not like this. I really don’t want to be the cause of anything...”
“It’s not you,” Iolaus assured him. “To be honest, I’m not sure what it is.”
“She’s a new mother,” Hercules reasoned. “She’s just feeling a bit overprotective these days.”
“Maybe.” The hunter strapped his sword around his waist and plucked a blade of grass, chewing on it thoughtfully. “Elissa used to love going out with us. I guess that maybe she grew out of that, and now she’s content to stay home and raise a family. But I just can’t do that, Herc. No matter how good my intentions were, I realized I can’t give it up. Not entirely. We’ve been doing this for so many years, well, it’s a part of me. I love Elissa, and the gods know, Cale’s the best thing that ever happened to me. But I love this, too. Out here, with you, doing what we’ve always done and trying to make a difference in the world. I can’t pretend that I can turn my back on it, or I’ll end up driving myself nuts, and probably take Elissa along with me. I just need to find the balance between this and home. And Elissa will have to learn to accept it.”
“I don’t think that will take her as long as you think,” the demigod told him. “She loves you too much to ever want to see you unhappy. Once she realizes that you’re miserable cooped up in the forge all the time, I think you’ll have her blessing to go out when you need to.”
“We’ll see,” the hunter grinned. “But just keep your ‘Why I Need Iolaus’ speech handy, in case we need to sell her on the idea from time to time.”
“I’ll give her the abridged version,” Hercules grinned back, looping an arm around his partner. “Because the reasons are endless, my friend.”
“What do you think?” Iolaus whispered, peering around the boulder they were crouching behind and trying to see into the dark recesses of the cave.
“I think this is definitely the place,” the demigod answered, glancing around at the bones littering the rocky slope. “As to whether or not our friend is home, that’s up for debate.”
“The sun is starting to set,” the hunter observed. “Do you want to...” He trailed off as he heard a noise from the depths of the cave. They sat silently, and after a minute, the creature they sought emerged. It was a dull gray, scaley beast, walking on all fours, but it stretched out a pair of wings as it came out of the cave. Opening the blunt jaws in a yawn, the two heroes plainly saw the rows of razor sharp teeth. “Maybe we should follow it to low ground. More room to maneuver.”
“I don’t think that’s going to be an option,” Hercules murmured as the monster sniffed the air and turned it’s head toward them, yellow eyes seeking out the prey it could smell.
“So, what’s the plan?” Iolaus asked, tightening his grip on his sword.
“The usual,” the demigod announced, jumping out from behind the boulder and running to the right of the creature.
“So in other words, we don’t have one,” the hunter muttered, dashing out to run to the left.
They held defensive positions at first, letting the beast come at them so they could determine its strengths and weaknesses.
“Watch the tail,” Hercules yelled, dodging the barbed tip as it came rushing toward him. “It’s probably venomous.”
“Aren’t they all?” Iolaus called back. But he ran at the monster, deciding to eliminate the dangers one step at a time. Leaping into the air, he sailed past the vibrating tail, slicing it cleanly with his sword and rolling expertly as he hit the ground to avoid the spray of ichor that came spurting out of the wound. However, the severed end of the tail twitched and writhed on the ground and finally sprang up and flew toward the hunter. He stumbled as the force impacted with him, staring in astonishment as the tail wrapped itself firmly around his torso, pinning his arms to his side. “They don’t all do that,” he said in surprise, before calling for Hercules.
The demigod ducked as a claw laden paw came swinging his way, rolling under the blow and darting behind the creature to where his partner was struggling to free himself. Hercules pushed him out of the line of fire behind a group of rocks and unwound him, throwing the remains of the tail down and grinding it to dust underneath his boot.
“Are you all right?”
“I think... I think it got me, Herc.” The hunter’s voice was calm, but his blue eyes held a tinge of fear.
Hercules turned him around, sliding the vest down over his shoulder to reveal a small puncture that was already turning an angry red.
“Ok,” he said quietly. “Just stay back here. Let me take care of that thing, and then we’ll get you some help. You’ll be all right, Iolaus.”
The hunter nodded, not reassured but understanding that his partner had more pressing matters to attend to. Hercules went back to the creature with renewed purpose, trying to channel the rage he felt over what the beast had done to his friend into his strength. But the monster was hungry and was quickly growing impatient with the meal that was giving it so much trouble. It struck back with everything the demigod hit it with, and Hercules found that dispatching the beast on his own was not going to be as easy as he planned. But he battled valiantly, gaining the upper hand for a moment until he slipped on some moss covered rock and the creature swatted him down with a heavy paw. Grabbing the monster’s salivating jaws, Hercules strained to keep him at bay, pushing back for all he was worth as he lay on the ground, sharp rocks biting into his back as his arms trembled with effort. Amid his struggle, he saw something out of the corner of his eye. Turning his head, he spied his partner approaching, sword loose but ready in his hand.
“I’m a dead man anyway, Herc,” the hunter said with calm resignation. The poison of the monster’s sting was already causing a fiery agony in his flesh, and his right arm tingled with encroaching numbness. He knew it was only a matter of time before he succumbed, the venom tightening his chest, choking the breath from his lungs. And he couldn’t see the sense of preserving his own rapidly shortening life at the expense of his best friend. Gathering up his remaining energy, Iolaus scrambled up on top of a large rock and launched himself off, flipping through the air to land on the creature’s back, between the membranous wings. Raising his sword high in his left hand, the hunter plunged his blade steady and true into the base of the beast’s neck. It reared back with a mighty roar, rising up on it’s hind feet in a pain induced arch.
“Iolaus!” Hercules screamed as he saw the ledge of the cliff start to crumble underneath the monster’s paws. The hunter tried to jump clear, but the ledge gave way and the dying creature took him with it as it tumbled down the side of the mountain.
Heart frozen in fear, the demigod crawled to the edge and almost went over the side as more of the unstable cliff began crumbling beneath him. He scooted back quickly, regaining his balance on a more solid part of the ledge. Desperately, his gaze swept the ground below as he shouted his friend’s name. But there was no answering shout, and he could see nothing beyond the thick cloud of dust that was rising up the mountainside.
Hercules didn’t remember how he got down from the mountain. But somehow he found himself at the bottom, still calling for his partner as he searched through the rubble. He skirted around the dead beast, idly thinking that Imbros was safe, but the price had been too high. Willing away the waves of nausea that were washing over him, he also choked back the sobs in his throat, and he finally spied his friend’s crumpled body lying half buried in a pile of loose dirt and gravel. In an instant, he was beside the hunter, gently turning him over and placing his fingers against his neck.
“By the gods,” he whispered, eyes going wide with shock as he felt the weak, thready pulse under his hand. Although he had been continuously amazed over the years at his friend’s capacity for surviving the worst disasters, Hercules had been sure that this time had been too much for his brave, stubborn partner. But once again, Iolaus had surprised him with his sheer determination to cling to life, and had survived the devastating fall. The demigod wondered if the monster had absorbed most of the impact on the way down, for there didn’t seem to be any bones broken. He quickly treated the bleeding gash on the hunter’s forehead, realizing that it was relatively superficial, like the rest of the cuts and bruises. Hercules breathed out a momentary sigh of relief, but it didn’t last long. His friend was unconscious, and there was no way to tell how badly he might have been hurt on the inside. And there was still the matter of the creature’s venom-laced sting to contend with, and the demigod knew that Iolaus’ tenacious will wouldn’t be enough to sustain him if they couldn’t counteract the poison. Although he could have found a healer in Imbros, Hercules was convinced that his partner would need the best if he stood a chance of making it. So he gently gathered up his friend’s limp body in his arms and began the journey back to Acheron.
“Here,” Elissa commanded briskly, entering the room with a steaming mug. “Help me get this into him.”
Hercules was sitting on the edge of the bed and he slid over to raise Iolaus up, supporting him against his chest and holding him steady as the healer worked to get the tea into him. It took some time, with the demigod rubbing his throat to encourage him to swallow, but finally he had taken the whole dose. For long minutes, Hercules watched with baited breath, a huge grin creeping over his face as the hunter’s restless convulsions ceased and he visibly relaxed.
“You did it!” he exclaimed, jumping up to hug Elissa. “I knew you could do it.”
But the healer pushed him away and ran a hand through her auburn hair, her face a mask of worry.
“I didn’t do anything,” she said, frustration thick in her voice. “That was just a sedative to help relax him and take his muscles out of spasm. But it’s not going to save his life. Nothing is.”
“What are you saying?” the demigod asked, a cold knot of fear settling around his heart at the hopelessness in her tone.
“I’m saying I don’t know what to do,” the healer snapped, her eyes filling with tears of anger at her own inadequacy. “I don’t know how to help him.”
“Come on, Elissa,” Hercules urged. “You can do this. Just calm down and focus...”
“What do you expect me to do?” she cried. “You don’t even know what kind of monster it was! Why do you think I’ll be able to come up with a cure?”
“Because he’s going to die if you don’t,” the demigod whispered. He glanced at his stricken friend briefly and then turned back to the distraught healer. “Please, Elissa, just don’t give up on him yet. Just try, that’s all I’m asking.”
She buried her face in her hands, trying to hold back the sobs of fear and sorrow that were threatening to break forth. Hercules wrapped his strong arms around her, and for a moment the healer melted against his chest, shaking in his warm embrace. But then she stepped away, wiping the tears from her cheeks. The demigod had been right. She couldn’t let her husband down. Iolaus wasn’t dead yet, and as long as he was alive, there was hope. Hope that she could somehow stumble across something that would save him.
“I need a minute to think,” she told him. “Let me go check on Cale, and I’ll send Aurora to Aricia’s and see if Amyntas will go to Thebes for Jason.”
“He’d want to be here,” the demigod agreed.
Elissa knelt down beside the bed, stroking the golden curls back from her husband’s face.
“I knew something was going to go wrong,” she murmured. “I should have tried harder to keep him home. I just had a feeling...”
With a sigh, she rose and stepped out of the room, leaving Hercules to resume his seat on the edge of the bed.
“You had a feeling, too, didn’t you, buddy?” he whispered, reaching out to adjust the blanket that was covering his partner. “That’s why you insisted on going with me. You knew I was going to need you watching my back.” The demigod rose abruptly and started pacing around the bed. “Damn it, Iolaus, you can’t keep doing this! It was bad enough when you risked your life for me when you were single, but you have a wife and a baby now. What are you thinking, willing to orphan your daughter on my account?” He paused, leaning over the still figure in the bed. “You’d better make it through this,” he threatened sternly, blinking back his tears. “Because you’ve got some serious lecturing coming to you.”
Hercules stood up, tossing the cloth back into the nearly empty bowl before stretching broadly. He picked up the water bucket that was in the corner of the room and quietly exited. The main room of the house was ablaze with candles, and he found Elissa sprawled on the floor, surrounded by piles of scrolls.
“How is he?” she asked, barely looking up from the parchment in her hands.
“His fever’s climbing,” the demigod replied. “And it’s getting harder for him to breathe.”
The healer tossed the scroll to the floor with a sigh, rubbing a hand wearily across her eyes.
“I’m guessing you’re not having much luck,” Hercules stated, trying to keep the disappointment out of his voice. Elissa was under enough pressure without him adding to it.
“No.” She sighed again, waving a hand at the mess around her. “I even dug out my father’s old scrolls, hoping he’d have something written somewhere that I could use. I thought I transcribed all of the important information from them years ago, but frankly, I don’t know what else to do.”
“Keep trying,” the demigod encouraged her. “I need to run out and get some more water.”
“Be careful where you step,” Elissa advised. “Some of these are so old they’re crumbling when I try to unroll them.”
Moving gingerly, Hercules made his way around the piles of parchment and slipped out the door, going around the house to the spring in the back and filling up his bucket. He spent a few moments taking in deep breaths of the cool night air and trying to find some semblance of peace before he went back inside. The demigod poured some of the water into the pot above the fire, and when it was boiling he used it to make tea. He handed Elissa a mug and she thanked him distractedly, preoccupied with her desperate search for a miracle in the old scrolls. Hercules took his own mug and the water bucket and went down the hallway, entering the bedroom, setting the bucket down and closing the door before he realized that he wasn’t alone.
“Hebe!” he gasped as he caught sight of the goddess sitting so still beside his unconscious friend.
“Hello, Hercules.” She gave him a sad smile, holding up a hand to shush him. “Before you ask, no. I can’t do anything to help him. I’m sorry.”
“Then why are you here?” the demigod demanded, looking away, the dashing of his hopes lending bitterness to his words.
“Because I care about him,” she replied, fixing her even gaze on him. “I care about all of you.”
“Yeah, right,” he scoffed. “Because you gods are such a caring lot.”
Hebe stood up, a hint of anger flashing in her violet eyes.
“I’ve explained to you why I went to Olympus,” she told him hotly. “If you can’t find your way past that, fine. But don’t you dare insinuate that I don’t care about the people in this house. Without Elissa and Iolaus... and you, I never would have gotten away from Calais. Not only did Iolaus save me from that monster, but he also helped me see that I was worthy of my freedom and deserving of friendship and love. I will always be grateful for that, and I’ll thank you not to question my motives for wanting to pay my respects to a brave, decent, noble, compassionate hero.”
“I’m sorry,” Hercules apologized, instantly chastised. “I didn’t mean what I said. It’s just that Iolaus is running out of time, and I’m going half crazy sitting here watching him slip away.”
“I understand,” Hebe said softly. “I guess I was a little defensive myself. But I owe all of you my life, and I do love each and every one of you.”
“I know that you do,” the demigod murmured, losing himself for a moment in the comforting warmth of her sparkling eyes. He sat down on the edge of the bed, dropping his head down to rest in his hands. “I can’t lose him, Hebe. This happened because he was trying to protect me. It will kill me if he doesn’t pull through.” Looking up, he beseeched her with aching, haunted eyes. “Please, isn’t there anything you can do?”
“There is something,” she began slowly after a moment’s hesitation. “But I’m not sure if it will work...”
“What?” Hercules asked eagerly, feeling a new surge of hope. “I’ll try anything.”
“I don’t have any healing powers,” Hebe explained. “In fact, I barely have enough power to be considered a goddess. But Hera made me the goddess of youth, and with youth comes certain strengths and energies.”
“I don’t get how this is helping Iolaus,” the demigod said in confusion.
“If you’re willing, I might be able to transfer your youthful energy into Iolaus,” she told him. “It won’t save his life, but it will buy him a little more time.”
“Do it,” he commanded without pause.
“Hercules, you need to give this some consideration,” she cautioned. “If you give your energy to Iolaus, you’ll be weakened. And theoretically, if you give him too much, it could kill you.”
“He risked his life to save mine,” the demigod reminded her. “I owe it to him to do the same.”
“Well, I can see that you’ve thought this through carefully,” the goddess commented wryly. “Are you sure?”
“No guarantees, but let’s give it a try. Place your hands over his heart, and make yourself comfortable.”
Hercules moved so that he was sitting on the bed next to his friend. He slid a couple pillows behind his back and reached out, covering his partner’s heart with his hands. Hebe put her hands on his broad chest, sending a warm glow into him that spread out through his chest, down into his arms, through his hands into Iolaus. The golden glow faded quickly, but the demigod was left with a tingling sensation flowing through his hands.
“It’s done,” she told him. “As long as you keep in contact, he’ll draw strength from your energy. Once you let go, the spell will be broken.”
“Thank you, Hebe,” he said gratefully, seeing that Iolaus was already seeming to breathe a bit easier.
“I’m going to go back to Olympus,” the goddess informed him. “Hera was gloating about her latest triumph. The gods tend to ignore me while I’m pouring their wine, and I overhear a lot of things that way. Maybe she’ll slip up and I’ll be able to find something out that can help.”
“Be careful,” the demigod advised.
“You, too. Don’t hold on too long,” she warned. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.” The beautiful goddess took advantage of his helpless position to lean in and softly kiss his lips before she disappeared.
“Hurry,” Hercules murmured, disturbed by the weakness he could already feel building inside.
“I’ve got it!”
The demigod jumped, startled as the healer burst into the room.
“I think I’ve found it,” Elissa told him excitedly. “One of my father’s old scrolls talked about a man who was suffering from increasing paralysis. In that case, it was caused by the thorns of a poisonous plant, but the symptoms and even the time line are identical to what’s happening to Iolaus. Dad basically just hit the guy with all he had, but he managed to try something that reversed the effects of the poison. The only problem is that the plant doesn’t grow around here. I’ve seen it in the valley below Mt. Helicon, though. How fast do you think you could get there and back?”
“I can’t leave here,” Hercules confessed tiredly, glancing down at his hands which were still resting over his friend’s heart before meeting the healer’s gaze. “You have to do it.”
Aurora crept into the room, hovering for a moment next to the bed. She had been a little wary of Hercules at first, finding the kindness in his blue eyes and his reputation of the champion of mankind not enough to get her past her fear of men, especially large, imposing men. But now her heart ached at the sight of him, lying side by side with his best friend, willingly giving away his own life force so that his partner would live.
“Hercules,” she called to him, touching him gently on the arm.
The demigod’s eyes cracked open in his ashen face.
“Elissa?” he whispered.
“She’s not back yet,” the girl told him. “Here, I brought you some water.” She slipped a small hand behind his head, raising him up enough so that he could take a sip.
“Thank you,” Hercules murmured, a slight moan escaping his lips as she eased him back down against the pillow.
“You can’t keep this up much longer,” Aurora warned him, wondering if she should take the initiative and make him break the contact he held with Iolaus.
“Can’t let go,” the demigod sighed, his eyes closing once more.
Feeling helpless and afraid, Aurora reached for the bowl of water on the table, wringing out the cloth and using it to wipe the sweat from Hercules’ face. For at the moment, he needed more care than his partner
The demigod let out a yawn that ended in a groan as he reached up and scrubbed a hand wearily over his eyes. He propped himself up on his elbows, blinking sleepily at the fire and trying to figure out why he felt so absolutely drained.
“Morning.” Hebe knelt down on the floor beside him and handed him a mug. “I was wondering if you were ever going to wake up.”
“What happened?” Hercules demanded, setting the mug on the floor as everything came rushing back to him. “Where’s Iolaus? How did I get out here?”
“You mean you don’t remember that little episode last night?” The goddess grinned, tucking a stray lock of dark hair behind her ear. “Well, I guess I’m not surprised. You were about dead on your feet.”
The demigod frowned, trying to dredge up his last conscious memories. And he vaguely recalled Hebe trying to get him to let go of Iolaus, and him fighting her tooth and nail with everything he had. Which hadn’t been much by that point.
“You should have left me be,” he said crossly. “It was my decision to make.”
“Sounds like someone could use a little more sleep,” she declared lightly, getting a glare in return. “Hercules, if you had held onto him any longer, it would have killed you. And don’t bother giving me the line about willing to make that sacrifice. We aren’t at the point yet where such extremes are necessary, so I wasn’t about to let you martyr yourself prematurely.” The goddess picked up the mug and put it back into his hands. “Now drink this.”
“What is it?” he asked, sniffing the liquid gingerly.
“Something that will help you start getting your strength back.”
Hercules took a sip, finding the brew wasn’t that bad, and he drank the rest of it quickly.
“How is he?” he inquired, handing her the empty mug.
“He’s still hanging in there.” Hebe nodded toward the hallway that led to the bedrooms. “Go back and see for yourself.”
The demigod clambered to his feet, a bit unsteadily, and began making his way to the bedroom, a hand on the wall for support. But as he pushed the door open, he was shocked to see that Aurora had taken his place. The girl was sitting cross legged on the bed next to the hunter, her small hands firmly in place over his heart.
“How could you let her do this?” Hercules hissed at the goddess who had come up behind him.
“She wanted to do it,” Hebe told him. “She said that Iolaus meant everything to her, and she was willing to do anything to help him. I couldn’t deny her free will, no more than I could deny you yours.”
The demigod opened his mouth to argue, realizing that he couldn’t really refute that bit of logic. She turned and headed back to the kitchen, and after a moment, he followed her.
“Well, how long has she been at it?”
“Hours,” the goddess answered, refilling his mug and handing it back to him.
“Hours?” he echoed in disbelief. “How is that possible?”
“Because she’s young,” Hebe explained. “She’s got an abundant store of youthful energy. I suspect you being half god had something to do with how long you were able to last. But really, a girl her age should be able to withstand it infinitely longer than a man of your age.” The goddess placed a comforting hand on his shoulder. “Don’t worry, Hercules. I’m keeping a close eye on her, and I’m not going to let her get anywhere near to the point you were last night. So why don’t you sit down and drink your tea, and try and get a little more rest? When Aurora’s had enough, you’ll have to take over again. And Iolaus is going to need your strength.”
Obediently, Hercules stretched out next to the fire and sipped his tea, knowing that the goddess made sense. But he sat up straight as something occurred to him.
"Hebe, this trick of yours isn't going to have any long term consequences, is it? I mean, on down the line this isn't going to cost Aurora any years off her life or anything."
"I don't know," she replied softly. "I've never done this before, remember? But I think she'll be all right. She's still young enough where her energies are easily replaced, as long as we don't let her get too worn down. And I'll stop her well before she gets there."
"I still don't like it," the demigod muttered.
"But it's not your decision," the goddess reminded him. "She knew the risks, and she chose to accept them. Just like Iolaus did. So don't go blaming yourself for things you have no control over."
Hercules sighed, lying back down and folding his arms behind his head. He was not in the mood to get into that conversation, so he didn't argue with her.
"Can't you do anything to help Elissa?"
"You know I can't," Hebe told him. "All I can do is what I'm doing, and even that's arguably crossing the line. But since I'm technically not directly interfering in mortal lives, just giving you a little boost so you can do it yourselves, I'll probably get away with it."
"I'm sure a little smile and wink at my father goes a long way to persuading him," the demigod said, more weary than bitter.
"That's not entirely untrue," the goddess grinned. "Besides, Elissa doesn't need my help. She's on her way back her now. And if you don't mind, I think I'll take my leave before she gets here. She is really not happy with the both of us."
"A slight understatement," Hercules agreed. The healer had been furious with him when he'd explained to her what he'd done, and plenty angry at Hebe for even suggesting it. She was already frantic that she was going to lose her husband, and she didn't see why the demigod had found it necessary to add to her worry. But Hercules was sure all would be forgiven when everything turned out all right. And it would turn out all right. He just couldn't allow any other outcome.
Hercules tucked the blanket in tighter around Aurora and gently stroked her hair. She didn't stir, and the demigod tiptoed out of the room, knowing from experience that the poor kid deserved a well earned rest. He stepped across the hallway and ducked into the next room where Elissa was bathing her husband.
"The fever broke," she whispered. There was no need, for Iolaus was still unconscious. But in the predawn stillness, a regular voice just seemed inappropriately loud. Hercules silently helped her as she finished with him and changed the blankets on the bed. When they were through, Elissa picked up her daughter from her basket, bouncing her on her lap as she sat down with an exhausted sigh.
"It worked, right?" the demigod asked for clarification, taking in her troubled expression.
"It appears so," she answered. "His fever's gone and he's breathing normally. The swelling around the wound is starting to go down. I think the plant was able to counteract the poison."
"But?" he prodded.
"I still have a bad feeling," she confessed worriedly. "There's no telling what kind of injuries he sustained during that fall down the mountain."
"How bad do you think it is?" Hercules demanded, getting a sinking feeling of his own.
"We won't know that for sure until he wakes up."
The demigod sat next to the healer and put a strong arm around her. She leaned into his embrace, resting her head against his shoulder. And they waited, watching the sun rise and hoping that the new day would herald the arousal of the golden hunter.
Disclaimer: No monsters or monster hunters took a tumble down a mountain during the production of this story.
The Iolausian Library