No copyright infringements intended with my non-profit use of characters owned by Universal Studios and RenPics. Just having a little fun with the guys... January 24, 2002
The sounds of a crash and a muffled curse came drifting through the open shutters. Iolaus glanced at his friend and gave a small nod towards the house. Jason smiled understandingly and sat down to wait as the hunter went inside.
“Are you all right?”
Elissa looked up at her husband, tears filling her emerald eyes, before glancing back down at the shattered remains of the bowl she’d dropped.
“I thought you and Jason were going fishing,” she accused him, a tremor in her voice.
“We are,” Iolaus replied, kneeling down to pick up the shards of pottery. “I just heard a crash and wanted to make sure nothing had happened to you.”
“I’m all right,” the healer laughed bitterly. “I only ruined what I just spent an hour preparing.”
“Lis, it’s ok. You don’t need to do this.”
“I just wanted to do something special for your birthday,” she wailed.
Iolaus had quickly become accustomed to his wife’s rapid fire emotions, and he’d found the best way to deal with them was to offer support and let her ride them out. Quickly, he got up from the floor and wiped off his hands before pulling her into his arms.
“You don’t have to go to all this trouble for me,” he soothed. “My birthday’s special enough just having you here to spend it with me.”
“All I wanted was to make you a nice dinner,” Elissa sighed, leaning into his embrace. “I know that to say I’ve been moody lately is probably a very large understatement. I just wanted to do something to try and make it up to you a little, and show you that I love you, despite what you might think when I yell at you all the time.”
“I know that,” the hunter whispered in her ear.
“You’ve been so sweet to me,” the healer continued, pulling away from him. “Honestly, Iolaus, I don’t know how you put up with me. I wouldn’t blame you if you left me and went back to Attica to Niobe.”
“I won’t insult you by trying to tell you that I understand how you feel,” Iolaus told her softly. “But I know that you’re uncomfortable. And I know that you’re feeling awkward and clumsy. And I know that you’re exhausted. I know being pregnant is not easy, Elissa, so it’s not hard to forgive a little grumpiness here and there.”
The healer looked at her husband and caught his loving gaze.
“How can you still look at me like that?” she asked in wonder. “When I look like this?” Her hands motioned to her distended abdomen.
“You’ve never looked more beautiful,” Iolaus said with heartfelt sincerely. He hugged her tightly to him before placing his own hands on her belly. The hunter never failed to feel amazed as he caressed the swell of her stomach. Each time he did, he felt in awe of the fact that Elissa was growing a child, HIS child, inside her womb. Together they had created a life, and she was harboring it until it was ready to be born into the world. Truly, there was nothing more beautiful than that.
“I don’t feel beautiful,” she groaned, making a face.
“Trust me,” the hunter grinned. He pushed a few stray strands of hair back from her face. “Why don’t you go and lie down for awhile? I’ll clean this up, then Jase and I will go fishing and get out of your hair for the afternoon. Get some rest, and then we can all go into town for dinner at the inn. What do you think?”
The healer readily agreed, for she was exhausted. Iolaus quickly cleaned up the mess in the kitchen and went outside to where Jason was still patiently waiting.
“Is she ok?”
“Yes, she’s just tired,” Iolaus answered. “She keeps trying to push herself and push herself until she’s ready to collapse. I just can’t get it through her stubborn head that she needs to be taking it easy now.”
“Hmmm, that sounds familiar.” Jason scratched his head in an obvious expression of a man deep in thought. “I think I know somebody like that. Now who could it be...?”
“All right,” the hunter grinned. “Point taken.”
They set off, poles in hand, each looking forward to a lazy afternoon of fishing. But as they walked, Iolaus kept stealing glances down the road behind them. These gestures did not go unnoticed by the Argonaut, and he immediately understood the cause.
“You’re checking for Hercules, aren’t you?”
Iolaus started a bit guiltily at having been caught.
“How did you know?”
“After all these years?” Jason cocked an eyebrow at his friend. “I think I’ve just about figured you out.”
“I just thought he might come here today,” the hunter confessed, trying not to sound like an eager child desperately hoping for something. “I thought that maybe he’d come and visit us for...”
“Your birthday,” the Argonaut finished.
“Maybe he forgot,” Iolaus said with a casual shrug.
“Hercules would never forget,” Jason reassured him. “And if he’s not here for it, then you know he’s busy saving a village from a warlord or a monster. And stop trying to pretend like you don’t care one way or the other.”
The hunter smiled at his friend’s sharp command, knowing he was teasing. With a practice born of long association, they had learned to read each other well. Iolaus had never been very good at hiding his feelings anyway, so it was a bit ridiculous for him to try and mask his disappointment from his old friend.
“Things just don’t seem right without him here,” he explained with a sigh. “I really miss him. I hate not knowing where he is or if he’s ok. And I hate not being with him. It doesn’t even feel like my birthday without him here.” The hunter blushed slightly as he realized who he was talking to. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m really glad you came, Jase,” he put in hastily.
“It’s all right,” the Argonaut chuckled. “I’ve known for a long time that you guys shared something special. At the Academy, we were all friends. Then I got tied down to my duties at Corinth, and I had to watch you two and share in your adventures from afar. You ceased to become friends and became brothers instead. There was a link there between you, and I couldn’t be a part of that. I was jealous for awhile, feeling left out, you know? But eventually I grew to accept the fact that my destiny took a different path from yours, and I was just glad that you had each other to rely on through all the trials you each went through. You and Hercules are a part of each other, and I know how badly you must miss him.”
Iolaus didn’t know what to say. The former king was eloquent in his words, as always, but the hunter remained speechless.
“I’m glad to be here, Iolaus,” Jason continued. “And I’m grateful that you and Elissa invite me into your lives.”
“You know that you’re always welcome,” the hunter murmured sincerely. “We both love having you in our lives.”
“I know.” The Argonaut clapped his hand across his old friend’s back. “Come on. The fish are waiting.”
The afternoon passed by peacefully for the two men. They fished contentedly, enjoying the balmy weather and passing the hours in comfortable silence, punctuated by easy conversation, reminiscing about past adventures and discussing the future, occasionally arguing good naturedly about the other’s alleged selective memory. Iolaus had no recollections of being as careless and boisterous as Jason had remembered, while the former king thoroughly denied the hunter’s claims of his youthful superiority. But by the time the golden sun had begun to dip lower in the clear blue sky, the two old friends were weak from laughter, hungry, and sporting a line of fish between them.
“Jason, Jason,” Iolaus chided. “When will you ever learn?”
The Argonaut’s grumbled response was inaudible as he gathered up his gear. Once again, he had foolishly bet that he would be the one angling the biggest fish, and once again, he had been bested. Iolaus had reeled in a monster, and he was not hesitating to remind his friend of it, repeatedly.
“When are you going to give in and admit that Herc and I are just superior fishermen? Maybe if you’d stop all this childish competition and just watch, you’d learn a thing or two.”
“I just let you beat me,” Jason retorted. “Since it’s your birthday and all. I know you’re probably age conscious today, and I didn’t want you dwelling on the fact that you’re getting old and slowing down.”
“You’d know all about it,” Iolaus teased. “And when I get to your age, then maybe I’ll turn into a grumpy old man, too.”
The Argonaut responded by whipping a fish at the hunter. Iolaus caught the slippery trout effortlessly and reattached it to his line before tossing the whole string to his friend.
“Just don’t forget the terms of our bet. Loser carries and cleans.”
Jason grumbled a bit more, but he obligingly took up their catch and the pair began the short walk back to the great stone house. When they arrived, Iolaus disappeared to check on Elissa and to clean up before they ventured into town, while the Argonaut began gutting the fish and scraping scales. Despite his gruff display, he was in a good mood and whistled as he worked. His fingers moved deftly over the catch, his small knife flashing in the dying sunlight as he prepared one fish after another. A whistle sounded behind him, matching the tune issuing from his lips. At first he ignored it, assuming it was Iolaus, but then a deep voice startled him.
“Now there’s a song I haven’t heard in awhile.”
“Hercules!” Jason clambered to his feet excitedly, holding out a hand to his old friend. “You made it. It’s good to see you.”
The demigod winced a bit, nodded his head slightly at the Argonaut’s hand. Jason laughed, wiping the fish slime from his fingers before reaching out again and clasping his friend’s gauntleted forearm tightly.
“How are you, Jason?”
“Can’t complain,” the Argonaut murmured, distracted by the furry creature that had taken an interest in the fish he’d been working on. “Who’s your friend?”
“He’s for Iolaus,” Hercules replied wryly, watching the scrawny puppy seize and devour the largest of the fish. “I don’t know why, but they remind me of each other.”
Jason laughed again, pausing to pat the canine before rescuing the remaining trout.
“Well, you’re just in time. I’m going to go string these up to dry. Iolaus is inside.”
The Argonaut moved off to store the fish in the small smokehouse that the hunter had built behind the garden. Hercules started toward the door of the great stone house, but Iolaus came flying out of it before he got there.
“I knew you’d come,” he yelled, unable to hide his delight at seeing his partner.
“Did you really think I’d miss your birthday?” Hercules demanded, grinning broadly as he absorbed the impact of his small, but powerful, friend. They hugged tightly, both talking rapidly at the same time, which set them both to laughter. Iolaus was finally distracted by the small animal barking at his feet and he bent down to scratch the silky ears.
“He’s cute, Herc. What’s his name?”
“Whatever you decided to call him. He’s all yours, buddy. Happy birthday”
The hunter’s throat tightened as he scooped up the wriggling bundle in his arms. A waving tail beat against his arm as a pink tongue lapped his face. Iolaus pressed his forehead into the warm fur to hide the tears stinging his eyes. It wasn’t the puppy that was affecting him so, but rather, what he represented. With this gift, Hercules had been consciously closing an old wound for his friend.
“Thank you, Hercules.”
“Come on,” the demigod grinned, understanding perfectly. “Let’s go inside so I can say hi to Elissa.”
The healer was just as delighted to receive their guest, and proclaimed the puppy to be adorable. Hercules had been a bit worried, not sure of whether Elissa would approve of such an addition to the family, especially with a new baby on the way. But she was immediately enamored of the rambunctious little canine, even though someone had to hold him up for her to pet him, as she was not very capable of bending over anymore.
“Wow,” Hercules sighed, measuring the size of her swollen stomach. “We really are getting close now, aren’t we?”
“Not close enough,” Elissa replied, making a face as her arms cradled the weight in front of her. “Still about another month to go. I don’t know how I’m going to make it.” She sent a fond look across the room to where Iolaus was romping on the floor with his puppy. “I don’t know how poor Iolaus is going to make it.”
Her words were soft, but her husband had heard her. Rising from the floor, he straightened his clothing and ran a hand through his tangled curls.
“Elissa has some misguided notion that she’s been unbearable while she’s been pregnant,” he explained to Hercules. “I don’t know what I have to do to convince her she’s wrong..” He moved forward, to take his beloved healer’s hands in his own as his eyes latched onto hers. “Lis, you’ve been taking care of me since the day we met. Just this once, why not sit back and relax and let me take care of you? I want to do whatever I can to help you .”
“Do you mean that?” she whispered.
“Of course I do.”
An amused smile played over her lips.
“Then you can start by taking care of that dog of yours.”
Iolaus glanced over to the fireplace, where his new friend was leaving his mark, as puppies tend to do.
“Guess we’d better leave him in the barn while we’re gone,” the hunter grinned, hurrying to clean up after his pet.
As Jason finished getting ready and Iolaus got his puppy settled in the barn, Hercules took Elissa aside.
“How are you really doing?” he asked, concerned.
“Miserable,” she replied with a soft smile. “But I’m fine. I’ve been to the midwife in town and she says everything is progressing well. She thinks it will be an uncomplicated birth.”
“Well, you look great,” the demigod told her. “That’s a beautiful dress.”
“Niobe sent it,” the healer explained. “She tried to give Iolaus a bag of dinars when we left Attica, but he refused to take it. So a few weeks after we arrived home, a group of men showed up. They said that Niobe had sent them, and they were ordered not to return until they had completed a forge according to Iolaus’ specifications. They wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer, so in a matter of days, we had a new forge. They also brought a trunk of things for the baby, and some clothing to accommodate my expanding waistline. Which was a good thing, since I had pretty much outgrown everything I owned. Niobe’s been so generous to us. I wish we had a way of repaying her.”
“I get the feeling it makes her happy to be able to do these things for you,” Hercules reasoned. “It’s nothing for her, so I’m sure she’s happy to see to the people she cares about.”
“I think it makes Iolaus a little uncomfortable,” Elissa confessed. “He’s not easy with accepting help.”
“Don’t I know it,” the demigod agreed vehemently.
“Know what?” the hunter asked, coming in through the door.
“That I’m hungry, and that the inn is going to be closed by the time we get there,” Hercules announced, giving the healer a confidential wink.
“I’m coming,” Jason grumbled, following Iolaus through the door. “It was either wait a few minutes or complain that I smelled like fish all night.”
“And that would be unusual because....?”
Elissa smacked her husband lightly.
“Behave yourself,” she scolded, but there was a smile in her eyes.
“All right,” he conceded. “But I’m with Herc. Let’s go!”
Iolaus wanted to take the wagon, but it was only a short piece into Acheron, and Elissa assured him that the walk would do her good. They went leisurely, enjoying the pleasant evening. Hercules and Jason exchanged a grin as they watched the hunter and the healer strolling in front of them, hand in hand, silhouetted against the setting sun. It was heartwarming to see them still so in love, after so many years.
The inn was crowded when they arrived, but they managed to find a table and their orders were taken fairly quickly. Many of the townspeople who were there stopped by their table to say hello and inquire after Elissa. The villagers all loved their healer dearly, and they had long since embraced Iolaus as one of their own. Hercules and Jason had been frequent visitors to the town, so that the people no longer appeared star struck around them. They greeted the former King of Corinth and the heroic son of Zeus as old friends. The people of Acheron were a spirited, fun-loving bunch, and they all genuinely cared about one another. It was easy to see why Elissa and Iolaus made their home in the charming town, and also why Hercules and Jason felt so comfortable there. But in the midst of all the relaxed atmosphere and the boisterous cheer, nobody noticed the black-haired man huddled alone at a table in the dark corner of the inn. None of the happy-go-lucky patrons realized that there was one among them that did not share in their merriment, glaring sullenly at them from the hostile confines of his private isolation.
As for the heroes and the healer, they were just glad to be there with each other. The whole family was together again, united by the anticipation of welcoming their newest member. And the fact that they were all safe under one roof, healthy and happy, made for a light-hearted meal indeed. There was a lot of laughter and a lot of teasing, and they lost count of the number of toasts that were proposed. By the time they were ready to return home, the hour had grown late.
Iolaus detoured by the barn when they arrived back at the great stone house to free his puppy from exile. The canine leapt excitedly around his feet, tripping him as he tried to make his way inside. Jason was waiting for him, handing him a parcel and a glass of wine simultaneously.
“What’s this?” the hunter asked, indicating the cloth bundle.
“Just a little something for your birthday,” the Argonaut told him fondly.
Iolaus carefully unwrapped the linen to find large pieces of cinnamon bark. His blue eyes glowed with delight as he inhaled the sweet scent of his favorite spice, then he turned to his old friend.
“You shouldn’t have, Jase. It’s too much!”
“Don’t worry about that,” the Argonaut said easily. “Besides, I still have a few connections in Corinth. I may be a former king, but I still get the deals of a reigning monarch.”
Iolaus wrapped the gift back up neatly, feeling a little guilty. He knew, no matter how his friend tried to play it off, that Jason had spent a great deal of money for such a luxury.
“Thank you.” The words were simple, but very heartfelt, and the Argonaut could plainly read the gratitude and love shining in the hunter’s expressive blue eyes.
“You’re welcome, my friend.” They exchanged a quick hug. “Although I have to say I’m impressed that you’ve made it to this ripe old age. Back in the Academy, with the stunts you pulled, I never thought you’d live to see graduation.”
“I wasn’t that bad,” Iolaus protested, prompting a loud snort from Hercules, who had been building up the fire. “Ok, maybe I was a little reckless...”
“What do you mean ‘was’?” Elissa demanded. “You’re not exactly a study of caution these days, either.”
“Isn’t there a rule that says you can’t pick on a guy on his birthday?” the hunter pouted, but his eyes were twinkling.
“I think your birthday is about over, buddy,” Hercules told him, arranging his bulky frame into a comfortable position in front of the fire.
“Well, before it officially ends, I have something for you, too,” the healer murmured. “Come into the bedroom with me.”
“Ooooooh,” the demigod sang out. “A present in the bedroom. What could it be?”
“Grow up, Herc,” Iolaus commanded, but he was amused, not angry. Hercules was showing no outward signs of intoxication, but the hunter knew his partner never would have made such comments if he were totally sober. His words were tame and inoffensive, but the modest demigod often blushed at the mere thought of sex and never would have voiced them if he hadn’t taken his share of wine at dinner. Grinning at the thought of the mortification Hercules would suffer in the morning when he remembered what he’d said in front of Elissa, the hunter followed his wife into the room they shared and closed the door behind them.
“Happy birthday,” she said softly, handing him a small, wooden box.
Iolaus opened it to find a silver ring, shining in the faint light of the candles in the room. He carefully removed it from the box and moved closer to one of the flickering flames to get a better look. It was excellent craftsmanship and a high grade of silver. Slowly, he traced one finger over the perfect image of his sword, etched into the band of the ring.
“This is a reminder,” Elissa explained. “You and I are starting a new path in our lives. A path where you are a husband, a blacksmith, and soon to be a father. But I want you to remember, you will always be my brave warrior.”
“I love it.” The hunter slid the ring onto his finger. “And I love you, Lis.”
He took her in his arms, running his hands through the softness of her auburn hair and kissing her gently, before sliding his hands down to caress her swollen belly.
“It won’t be long now,” she sighed, twining her fingers through his. “Oh, that feels good.”
Iolaus had been kneading the muscles of her stretched abdomen, which he knew were aching with the strain of the weight they carried.
“Why don’t you lie down?” he suggested. “You’d be more comfortable and I can do a better job.”
Elissa dropped her head back to rest on her husband’s shoulder for a moment before she untangled herself from his warm, loving arms.
“Why don’t you go back out with your guests and I’ll just go to bed?”
“Because I want to help you,” he argued.
“Iolaus, I’m all right. I’m just tired and I want to sleep. You don’t need to sit in here and fuss over me when Hercules and Jason are waiting for you.”
“Are you sure?” he asked hesitantly.
“Yes.” The healer gave her husband a loving smile. “Go get drunk with your friends.”
Iolaus grinned and exchanged good nights with his wife before heading out for a night of reliving and reminiscing with his two oldest companions.
Elissa awoke to a furry bundle of energy leaping onto the bed, showering her face with a wet, pink tongue.
“Iolaus,” she moaned, shoving at the puppy and trying to pick out her husband through the darkness.
“Sorry,” he whispered, pulling the canine off of her and trying to calm him.
“I don’t want that dog in bed with us,” she declared with a yawn.
“He’s just a baby, Elissa, and he was crying. What else was I supposed to do? Come on, it’s just for tonight.” His voice held the sentimentality of wine, but he was not overtly drunk.
“All right,” the healer relented. “But just for tonight.” She reached out and stroked the furry back of the frisky puppy, and eventually he calmed down, falling asleep cuddled securely between the two of them. “Whatever possessed Hercules to bring you a dog, anyway?”
“I’ve always wanted one,” Iolaus confessed. “It was all I wanted when I was little. I even worked up the nerve to ask my father, and I had long since learned not to ask him for anything. To my absolute amazement, he said he’d bring me one next time he came home. Well, I was beyond excited, counting the days before his campaign ended. Usually I dreaded his homecomings, but that time I ran out to meet him.”
“Did he have a dog for you?” Elissa asked softly.
“No,” the hunter sighed. “And he screamed at me when I asked about it. Said he had more important things to worry about then getting a damn dog. Well, it had meant the world to me, and I just couldn’t hold back the tears, even though I knew that would really make him mad. And it did. He hit me that time, hard. Went into the usual routine, that I was a worthless crybaby. An embarrassment. That I didn’t deserve to have a dog and I should get myself a pet mouse.”
“How old were you?”
“Probably about eight or so. I ran off and hid in the woods until night, when I knew that he’d have left for the tavern. My mother cried when she saw me. My left eye was swollen shut and my lip was cut. I guess even my father felt bad about that. He didn’t apologize or anything, but when he left he promised me that next time he came home he’d have a dog for me. Of course, he didn’t, but by then I had learned not to get my hopes up. Honey, please don’t cry.”
Iolaus reached out to wipe the tears from Elissa’s cheeks. She snuggled closer to him, mindful of the sleeping puppy, and buried her face in his chest.
“I shouldn’t have told you this,” he berated himself. “I didn’t mean to get you upset.”
“I’m glad you told me,” the healer whispered. It broke her heart to think that the man she loved with her whole heart and soul had been treated and betrayed so horribly by his own father. And yet, he seemed to carry no scars. Despite all the pain of his childhood, he was a happy, loving, brave, noble, hero who made a wonderful husband and who was about to make, she was quite certain, an even better father. That knowledge only served to increase the love she had for her golden hunter.
“My mother did offer to get me a puppy from the village,” Iolaus continued. “But I didn’t want it. I guess there was always some part of me that wanted to believe in my father. Wanted to believe that he cared enough about me to keep his promise. I guess Hercules just figured I had waited long enough.”
“He’s a good friend,” Elissa murmured. “He knows you, better than I do. You know he’d do anything for you.”
“I know,” the hunter sighed. “And I’d do the same. I’m glad he’s here.”
Iolaus held his wife, listening as her breathing slowed and she settled back into sleep. He relaxed, comforted by her warm presence, giving a small prayer of thanks to the fates. So many years ago, he had spent his birthday in the company of the cold, unforgiving streets, headed down the path to nowhere that his father had always said was his destiny. At that time, he’d never dreamed he’d have a life like the one he was living. A beautiful wife, an expected child, great friends, a warm home, a forge of his own, and even a dog. He had lived a full life of adventure, and had left a legacy of heroics and good deeds behind him. A worthless crybaby could never have accomplished that, and this realization was enough to forever silence the spectral voice of his father in Iolaus’ head. With an air of satisfaction and optimism for the future, the hunter gave himself over to a sound, dreamless sleep.
Iolaus was the first one up in the morning, and he silently dressed and slipped out of the house to take the puppy outside. He watched in amusement as his small dog leapt through the dew covered grass, chasing a brilliantly covered butterfly that hovered just high enough to be out of his reach. When the insect finally fluttered away, the poor canine looked so dejected that the hunter laughed out loud.
“Come on,” he urged the puppy. “Let’s go out to the barn. You can chase the cats around.”
The little dog did have a grand time, chasing the barn cats and barking at them as they stared balefully down from the rafters. Iolaus went to work, cleaning out the stalls and giving fresh water and food to Chestnut, Boreas, and Jason’s trusty stallion. He was ravenous when he was finished, and he decided the rest of the chores could wait until after breakfast. The hunter gathered up a bucket of cold water from the garden spring and was just heading inside with it when he saw a rider on a horse approaching.
Something was wrong, he decided, shielding his eyes from the bright morning sun with his hand as he watched the horse near. The rider was hunched over in the saddle, lying against the horse’s neck. It was not an uncommon sight, as Elissa was a healer and they often had ill or injured people coming to seek her help. But the hairs stood up on the back of Iolaus’ neck as he watched this man approaching. He didn’t know why, but he had a bad feeling about this.
As the horse trotted down the path to the great stone house, the rider picked his head up and Iolaus finally identified him. He walked up to meet his guest, catching the horse by the bridle and halting it as the man slid from the saddle. The hunter reached out a quick hand to steady him.
“Iolaus,” he gasped. “My whole family is sick. We need Elissa’s help.”
“Ok, Peturius,” the hunter reassured him. He decided that for the moment the horse was happy enough nibbling grass along the house, so he chose to leave it and get the sick man inside before he collapsed. “Why don’t you come in the house?”
“I left my family alone,” he said hesitantly. “I told them I’d bring Elissa back.”
“I promise that we’ll help you,” Iolaus told him. “Just come inside with me for a minute. Everything’s going to be all right.”
The hunter escorted the villager inside and made him sit down by the fireplace, even though there was no fire burning. He quickly started one, asking questions as he worked. But as the ill man answered him, an alarm began to go off in Iolaus’ mind.
“Just sit here and rest for a moment, ok Peturius? I’m going to go get Elissa.”
Iolaus dashed down the hallway and entered their room. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he shook his wife’s shoulder gently.
“Lis, wake up. We have a problem.”
“What is it?” she murmured sleepily, propping up on her elbows and wiping her eyes.
“Peturius is here. He and his family are sick. I can’t be sure, but it reminds me an awful lot of what happened in Eustria.”
Elissa was immediately awake, struggling to sit up. Iolaus assisted her in rising, waiting as she quickly dressed, hoping that he was wrong.
The hunter sighed, shifting himself slightly to try and get more comfortable. Elissa had confirmed his suspicions that the illness rapidly sweeping through Acheron was caused by poison, just as it had been in Eustria six months prior. She had reasoned that whoever was responsible for these acts would have to repeatedly replenish the well with whatever he had been using to make the people ill, so Hercules, Jason, and Iolaus were keeping watch, ready to burst out of hiding if he returned.
“Do you think that maybe he caught on that we know what’s going on and left town?” Jason whispered. They had warned the townspeople to avoid the well water, but had not given them any specifics, lest they start a panic and scare off their target.
“Maybe.” Iolaus glanced up at the sky. It was still a few hours until dawn, but they had already spent a long, eventful night keeping watch.
“Do you want to call it a night?”
“No.” The hunter was very adamant. “I want to catch this guy. Who knows how many other villages he’s attacked? Or how many more he will attack if he gets away from us. I’m not going to let that happen.”
The very thought of what this individual had been doing made Iolaus’ blood boil. Water was the purest substance in the world. And the most valuable, for no man or beast could go for long without it. The idea that someone had enough evil in their hearts to taint a town’s water supply, watching as the helpless villagers succumbed to illness, infuriated him. And he vowed to himself that he would remain diligent, keeping watch until the sick person behind this scheme surfaced. No matter how long it took.
Iolaus kept watching through the night, even after Jason had nodded off. He was tired himself, but he stayed alert, the stars overhead keeping him company. But eventually, they began to dim and he knew the rising sun was not far off. The shadows would disappear and the town would begin to stir and they would have to abandon their hiding places. Iolaus rubbed a hand wearily over his face and yawned, deciding to start packing everything up. They would try again tomorrow night.
The hunter stood and stretched, but quickly fell back down to the ground. Someone was coming up the road, carrying a small torch to light his way through the darkness. Iolaus reached back and gave the Argonaut’s knee a little shake, knowing that his old friend wouldn’t make any noise upon awakening. Jason was a warrior, and like all good warriors, he was trained to come out of sleep alert and silent and ready to fight. The hunter moved his hand up to rest lightly on the Argonaut’s arm, which Jason understood as a signal to hold back, but be ready to act. As quietly as he could, Jason slid his fingers around the hilt of his sword and moved up so that he was kneeling next to his friend, trying to peer through the blackness of the night.
The figure approached the well and anchored his torch on the handle of the windlass. They could hear him softly whistling a jaunty tune. Reaching down, he picked up the bucket he carried and set it up on the edge of the well.
“He’s not getting water, is he?” Jason whispered. “We should warn him.”
“Wait,” Iolaus whispered back.
They hovered anxiously, both focused intently on the shadowy figure in front of them. He reached down into the bucket, and pulled out a sack. Holding it up to his face, he deeply breathed in the aroma of its contents. Laughing quietly, he held up the bag over the mouth of the well.
“That’s our guy,” Iolaus hissed. “Come on.”
The hunter burst out of his hiding spot in the bushes and sprinted towards the well.
“Hey!” he yelled as he ran. “Hold it right there.”
The stranger whirled in alarm at the voice behind him. As Iolaus neared, he picked up the handle of the bucket and began swinging it wildly in front of him.
“Get away from me,” he cried in a high pitched voice. “Leave me alone.”
“Give it up, friend,” Jason advised, approaching from the side with his sword poised. “It’s over.”
The man hurled the bucket at the Argonaut and turned to run, only to collided with a solid wall of demigod. He began flailing and screaming incoherently, but Hercules restrained him easily enough.
“I’ll go get the magistrate,” Jason said, slipping his sword back in its sheath.
Hercules nodded, and as the Argonaut trotted off Iolaus approached and ripped the bag out of the man’s hand, eliciting a series of oaths. He knew Elissa would be very interested in the contents.
“Baneberry,” the healer said in disgust, tossing the plant stem back into the bag. “Well, I suppose it could have been worse.”
“How do you mean?” Iolaus asked.
“Baneberry sap is poisonous, and it can be fatal in large amounts. Fortunately, to try and poison a whole well, he would have needed a lot more than he had to induce death. Making everybody sick was bad enough, but thankfully he didn’t use something stronger, that would have caused more damage in lesser amounts.”
“I guess we can be grateful for that,” the hunter conceded. “But personally, I’m glad he’s in custody. He deserves whatever fate he gets.” He scooped up the bag of baneberry and headed for the door, intent on disposing of the toxic plants. The hunter walked around the side of the great stone house and passed through the garden until he came to the cliff that overlooked the valley below. With a mighty toss, he sent the plants, bag and all, sailing out of sight. He detoured back by way of the barn where Jason had been seeing to the horses, and he helped the Argonaut finish the chores. As they were returning to the house, they met up with Hercules, on his way back from town.
“Did you get anything out of him?” Jason inquired.
The magistrate had asked for the demigod’s help in questioning the unruly prisoner, hoping that his impressive physique would scare the man into cooperating.
“We got his name, but not much more than that,” he replied. “The guy is completely insane. Ranting and raving about the perversion of humanity and how he was sent by the gods to end it. He’s not a real people person.”
“Do you think he could be right?” Iolaus asked anxiously. “Do you think the gods could be behind this?”
“I doubt it,” Hercules answered with a shake of his head. “The gods might toy with people’s lives, but they have too much vanity to end humanity all together. They need humanity to worship them.”
“I guess you’re right,” the hunter sighed. “So what’s going to happen to this whacko now?”
“Two men volunteered to take Culperius, that’s what he calls himself, to Athens for trial. They’re leaving with the magistrate at first light tomorrow morning.”
“Hey,” Iolaus cried out as a sharp set of puppy teeth clamped onto his boot. “That’s not fair.” The canine growled playfully as the hunter shook him off and pounced on him. They wrestled on the floor until Iolaus was forced to give up as his companion flopped on his chest, staring at his master with adoring eyes.
“Excuse me for pointing out the obvious,” Jason stated wryly. “But we still don’t have anything to call your little friend. Are you going to give him a name anytime soon?”
“Oh, I don’t know. How about ‘Ruff’?”
“Ugh.” Hercules made a face as he turned to Elissa. “Please tell me that you are not going to let him name the baby.”
“I don’t even want to get into that,” she said firmly.
“Just because you didn’t like any of the names I chose doesn’t mean they weren’t any good,” the hunter told her.
“Iolissa?” the healer reminded him.
“What? It’s a cool name. You know, half me and half you. Come on guys, help me out here.”
“It’s... interesting,” Hercules said politely as Jason bit his tongue.
“Excuse me for being creative.” Iolaus sat up, giving the puppy a scratch behind the ears. “I suppose we could name him Spot.”
“The dog or the baby?”
“Oh, you’re a riot, Jase,” the hunter deadpanned. “And speaking of riots, there’s going to be one if we don’t soon get to town. You know that everyone’s counting on the mighty Hercules to lend his famous strength.”
“He’s right,” Jason agreed. “And it doesn’t happen often, so I think we should listen to the man.”
Elissa had assured everyone that the baneberry sap would dissipate out of the well with time, but the townspeople decided that they did not want to wait to restore the quality of their water. The decision was made to bail the majority of the tainted water out of the well and let it refill with fresh groundwater. As was the nature of the people of Acheron, they had decided to make the task into a celebration. All the men of the town were ready to take their turns at the windlass, amid a festival-like atmosphere with food and music and a few games for the spectators. And Hercules had indeed promised to lend his tireless strength to the task.
“Why don’t you guys just go on without me,” Elissa suggested, pulling Iolaus aside.
“Are you all right?” he asked, concerned.
“Yes, I’m fine,” she assured him. “I’m just a little tired. I’m not really up for a party right now. I’d rather just stay here and relax by the fire.”
Iolaus looked at his wife with sympathy. He knew it couldn’t have been easy carrying that load around all day, not to mention dealing with the other complications pregnancy brought on. The hunter glanced down at her swollen ankles and was actually glad she was being sensible for once, wanting to take it easy instead of pushing herself on.
“I don’t have to go,” he told her. “Do you want me to stay here with you?”
“No,” she told him. “Go on with the others.”
“Are you sure? You’re going to be all right alone?”
“Stop worrying,” Elissa commanded. “I’ll be fine. Go help out in town, and have a good time.”
“All right,” the hunter agreed. “But I’m just going to go and take my turn at the windlass, then I’m coming back here.”
“If you want to hurry back and watch me sleep,” she said airily.
Iolaus gave her a golden grin.
“Now why would I want to be anyplace else?”
“Here.” Hercules nudged his partner to get him to take the mug he was offering. “Would you look at Jason go!”
“I know,” Iolaus agreed, taking a sip of the fragrant, spicy brew. “I didn’t know he still had it in him.”
The Argonaut was taking his turn at the windlass, winding up the buckets with an impressive show of speed. A tally was being kept of how many buckets each man was able to pull up in his allotted time, and Jason had already bested many of the younger men that had gone before him. A sheen of sweat was glistening on the aging Argonaut’s brow and he was panting a bit, but he kept hauling up the heavy buckets of water at a steady rate.
“Listen, Herc, I’m taking my turn next and then I’m going to go back home.”
“Already?” The disappointment was evident in the demigod’s voice.
“I just don’t like leaving Elissa alone,” the hunter told his friend.
“Iolaus, she can take care of herself.”
“I know, but in her condition...”
“She’s not the first woman to become pregnant, you know. My mother was alone the entire time she was pregnant with me, and she survived. Elissa will be fine, and you know she wants you to stay and enjoy yourself.”
“I guess,” Iolaus sighed.
The last grains of sand dribbled out of the large hourglass next to the well, and Jason finished bringing up his last bucket, which he used to dump over his head. Shaking vigorously, he began walking toward his friends as the crowd cheered and applauded wildly.
“You dumped poisoned water all over yourself?” the hunter asked him.
“I didn’t drink any of it,” the Argonaut shrugged. He reached out and took the mug that Hercules had for him and drank the contents in two big swallows.
“Nice work, Jason,” the demigod told him with sincere admiration.
“Yeah,” he grinned, proud of himself. “Not bad for an old man, was it?”
“Well, step aside, old man,” Iolaus announced. “It’s my turn.”
Shrugging out of his well worn vest, he tossed the garment to Hercules and took his place at the windlass.
The popping of a log in the fireplace jolted Elissa awake. She yawned and stretched before struggling awkwardly to her feet. The healer had always possessed a natural grace, but being pregnant had pretty much cured her of that. With another yawn, she shook out the blanket she’d been covered with and folded it neatly, leaving it in the chair by the fire. Pressing her hands against the ache in her back, she waddled down the hallway to her room, with the puppy padding along behind her.
It was dark in the bedroom, but she could have sworn that she left a candle burning on the table. Elissa assumed that she had been asleep longer than she’d thought and that it had simply burnt itself out. She began feeling her way toward the bed, crying out as she unexpectedly stepped on something sharp. Her eyes were beginning to become accustomed to the blackness, and she was able to make her way to the table beside the bed and get the candle lit. Her swollen stomach made seeing her feet difficult, but the glowing flame illuminated pieces of glass from a broken mirror on the floor.
“Now how do you suppose that happened?” she muttered to herself. She reached down to gently probe the pain in her foot, and her fingers came back wet with blood. “Great,” the healer sighed. “Just what I needed.”
She began to limp, which wasn’t an easy thing when she was already waddling to begin with, out towards the kitchen where she kept all her medical supplies, but as she reached the doorway to the bedroom an arm clamped around her and something sharp was placed against her throat.
“Who are you?” she cried out. “What do you want?”
“You know who I am,” a voice growled in her ear, hot breath against her cheek. “And I know who you are. They never would have caught me if it wasn’t for you. You ruined everything for me, and now you’re going to pay.”
“Mmm. I should get some of these to take back for Elissa.” Iolaus took another huge bite of the sweet bread that was filled with nuts and fruit. He was hungry after his turn at the windlass, having deservedly worked up an appetite. Everyone had watched in amazement as the compact hunter poured everything he had into hauling up the buckets, turning the crank so fast that it was a blur. In his time, he had brought up fourteen more buckets than Jason, making him the current champion, probably to remain so until Hercules was up.
“Think you can make it all the way home without eating the ones you’re bringing her?” the demigod asked, watching his friend pack the food away even faster than he’d worked the windlass.
“Good point,” the hunter agreed, his mouth full. “Guess I’d better give them to you to carry.”
“Guys,” Jason said suddenly, pointing through the crowd. “Isn’t that the magistrate? What’s he doing back here?”
“Hercules,” the man sighed with relief as the demigod approached him. “Thank the gods I’ve found you all.”
“What happened?” Iolaus asked, taking in the man’s disheveled appearance and bruised temple.
“Culperius has escaped. He vowed his vengeance on Acheron, and I thought you boys might be in danger. Thank the gods I was able to get back and warn you in time. I don’t know... Where is he going?”
The magistrate watched in confusion as Iolaus turned and fled, pushing his way through the crowd with Hercules close behind him.
“Elissa,” Jason called over his shoulder in explanation as he began to follow. “We left her home alone.” The Argonaut turned and began running, getting swallowed up by the bewildered crowd.
The hunter’s feet barely touched the ground as he raced back to the great stone house, flying so fast that Hercules was having a hard time keeping up with him. Jason trailed along behind them, but dogged them persistently. Iolaus berated himself as he ran, cursing his stupidity for not listening to the intuition that was nagging him all evening. He’d had a feeling something was wrong, and now Elissa might be in danger because he hadn’t acted on it. The hunter tried to convince himself that she was fine, that Culperius was probably long gone. But his heart was in his mouth as he sped home, and he knew he wouldn’t calm down until he saw for himself that his beloved wife was all right.
Iolaus burst through the door of the house, seeing nothing amiss at first.
“Elissa!” he shouted, dashing down the hallway.
“Iolaus, be careful.” Her voice, with a note of fear.
Completely disregarding her warning, the hunter propelled himself through the bedroom door. Elissa was backed up in the corner, clutching a snarling puppy and brandishing a long, black whip. Facing her was Culperius, clutching a razor sharp shard of glass in his fist. Blood was trickling over his fingers from where the glass had cut into his palm, but he didn’t seem to notice.
“Don’t move, Culperius,” the hunter said in a low, threatening voice.
The dark haired man turned toward him with an evil hiss. His eyes were wild, and a twisted leer came over his sallow face. With a snarl of rage, he hoisted the glass above his head and charged. Iolaus ducked as the man slashed at him, using the momentum of his swing to knock him to the floor. Culperius sprang to his feet, but he found himself confronted with the hunter and the demigod.
“You can’t keep me from my destiny,” he shrieked. “The will of the gods will be done.”
He charged again, but this time Hercules caught him by the arm. The demigod slammed his hand back against the wall, forcing him to drop his weapon. As the man lashed out and cursed, Hercules restrained him while Iolaus ran to fetch a length of rope. Together, the partners tied the madman up soundly.
“Go take care of Elissa,” Hercules told his friend. “I’ll get this garbage out of here.”
The hunter needed no more encouragement, scurrying to see to his wife, having already noticed the wound on her foot. He helped her over to the bed, making her comfortable before getting more candles so he could see the injury better.
“There’s a piece of glass embedded in there,” he told her, examining her foot. “I’ll have to get it out, and it’s probably going to need a few stitches.”
“I’ll bring you some water,” Jason offered. The Argonaut had been sweeping up the broken glass from the floor, but now he ran off to the kitchen , eager to help. In a few minutes he returned, bringing a small knife, towels, a needle and thread, and a bowl of steaming water.
“Thank you, Jason,” Iolaus said absently, taking the supplies and arranging them on the table next to the bed.
“I’m going to go and make some tea,” the Argonaut announced. “Holler if you need anything else.” He winked at the healer and backed out of the room, closing the door partway behind him.
“Ready?” Iolaus asked, wishing he didn’t have to do what needed to be done.
“Yes,” the healer said in a tight voice. “Go ahead.”
As carefully as he could, the hunter probed the gash with the knife, trying to extract the piece of glass without cutting her further. He managed to get the knife underneath the sliver, pulling it out as Elissa gave a little cry.
“Why don’t you tell me what happened?” he suggested, dipping the towel into the bowl of water and gently washing the wound.
“I’m not sure,” she whispered. “He must have gotten in through the window, although I can’t believe I wouldn’t have heard him break the mirror. Anyway, when I came in here, he surprised me from behind. He had his arm around my throat and I couldn’t get away. He told me that he was going to kill me. That death would be my penance.”
Elissa flinched a little and gasped as she felt the needle slide through her skin.
“I’m sorry,” Iolaus murmured, reaching up a hand to stroke her calf reassuringly. “I’ll try and do this quick. So how did you get away from him?”
“The puppy attacked him,” Elissa continued, with a sound that was a half-laugh, half-sob. “He latched onto Culperius’ leg, growling like a tiger. Culperius kicked him off, but it was enough of a distraction for me to elbow him in the ribs and get free for a second to pull my whip out of the drawer. We were at a bit of a stalemate, and that’s about the time that you showed up.”
“Well,” Iolaus grinned, looking up at the puppy. The dog was lying with Elissa, his head on her shoulder, and he looked at his master with his deep brown eyes. “I guess we’ve got ourselves a little hero, here, don’t we?” The puppy thumped his tail against the bed, as if in agreement.
The hunter finished sewing up the wound and washed it once more. He went into the kitchen, coming back with a salve to prevent infection and some bandage strips. Jason followed him, bringing Elissa a hot mug of tea.
“Thank you, Jason, but I can’t. The baby...”
“It’s all right,” he assured her. “It’s just a little sweet tea. I didn’t put any herbs in it that would hurt the baby.”
Elissa gave him a grateful smile and took a sip from the mug.
“Well,” the Argonaut yawned. “If there’s nothing else I can do, I think I’ll go on to bed.”
“Thanks for all your help, Jase,” Iolaus told him.
Jason bent down to stroke the healer’s auburn hair.
“Good night, Elissa. I’m glad that you’re safe.”
He kissed her cheek and let himself out of the room.
“So,” she said, setting the mug down on the table. “What’s the verdict?”
“You’ll live,” the hunter replied. “Stay off it for a few days and keep it clean and dry.”
“Thank you, Mr. Healer,” she giggled.
Iolaus finished bandaging the injury and he moved up to sit next to her on the bed.
“Now, how are you doing?”
“I’m all right.”
“I know you are physically,” he said softly, tracing a finger along her cheek. “But how are you doing on the inside?”
“I was so scared,” the healer confessed, tears filling her emerald eyes. Iolaus pulled her into his arms, comforting her as she began to cry. “He was going to kill me. He had that glass pressed against my throat, and all I could think about was what was going to happen to the baby. Gods, Iolaus. It hasn’t even been born yet, and I already love it so much. When I think about what could have happened...”
“It’s all right, Lis,” he soothed, running a hand up and down her back. “Everything’s ok. We’re together and the baby’s fine. And Culperius isn’t ever going to hurt anyone ever again. I promise you that.”
“He’d apparently been fighting them the whole day,” Hercules explained to his friends. “The magistrate didn’t even see him get loose. He just got hit on the head from behind, and when he came to, Culperius was gone and Broneus and Plethos were dead.”
“I hate these nutcases,” Iolaus muttered. “Insanity just gives them strength. They never get tired and they never quit.”
“Well, I volunteered to go with him this time,” the demigod told them. “I’ll make sure that he gets to the Athenian prison safe and sound.”
“I hate to see you go so soon, Herc,” the hunter sighed. “But its probably a good idea.”
“I don’t want to risk anyone else’s safety. The magistrate said that what he did to those two men was inhuman. Broneus was completely disemboweled, and he found Plethos’ eyes...”
Hercules stopped abruptly as Jason cleared his throat and nodded toward the doorway.
“Morning,” Elissa greeted them, gingerly making her way into the kitchen.
“How are you feeling?” the demigod asked.
“I’m getting so tired of that question,” she said with a smile. “I’m fine, really.”
“You shouldn’t be up and walking,” Iolaus admonished her, leaping from the table to take the mug from her hand. “Go sit down.”
“Iolaus, please. I’m all right. It’s just a cut.”
But she obediently made her way over to the table. Jason slid over on the bench to make room for her as Iolaus brought her a mug of tea and a plate of bread and cheese.
“You know, Hercules,” Elissa began as she helped herself to breakfast. “I could give you something that would calm Culperius down. You could take the wagon and the horses, and just let him ride in the back. He’d be a lot less trouble that way.”
“That’s not a bad idea,” the demigod said thoughtfully. “What did you have in mind?”
“A little phu root in some wine should do it. It’ll calm him down and make him a little groggy, but it won’t completely incapacitate him.”
“Sounds good to me,” Hercules agreed. “The road to Athens is too long to be listening to a raving lunatic.”
“I’ll give you some root extract,” the healer told him. “You can dose him first thing before you leave.”
During the course of the day, Jason decided that he was in the mood for an adventure and that he wanted to accompany the demigod to Athens. Hercules was certainly capable of managing the situation on his own, but he was glad for the company. Both men promised their friends that they would rush the trip and hurry back in time before the baby was born.
Iolaus went with them at first light into Acheron. He carried the wine jug that was laced with the sedative, planning on seeing his friends off and walking back home. But the hunter returned to the great stone house much later than expected, with the wagon and a sober expression on his usually cheerful face.
“What’s wrong?” Elissa asked, immediately sensing something.
“Culperius is dead,” Iolaus told her.
“How?” The healer sat down on the bench at the kitchen table, and her husband joined her.
“We don’t know exactly. Herc and Jason were getting ready to go, and we tried loading him up in the wagon. He was sweating, and he got really pale. Jason took his restraints off because he was having trouble breathing, and he just curled in a ball in the back of the wagon. We were going to bring him back here to you, but then he started gasping, like he couldn’t get any air. I tried to help him, but a few minutes later, he was dead. The magistrate wanted to know if you would come into town and look at him.”
“Was it like he went into shock?” Elissa asked softly.
“Yeah,” Iolaus confirmed. “Do you think that maybe he poisoned himself, rather than face imprisonment?”
“No,” the healer sighed, kneading her fingers along her brow. “This is my fault.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ll come and look at him, but I can guess what happened. He had a reaction to the phu plant. I’ve seen it a few times before. Some people are sensitive to different medicines, and they react to them. They go into shock, and if they’re really sensitive, then it can kill them.”
“If you think that’s what happened, then you don’t have to go into town,” the hunter told her. “I’ll go back and tell them.”
“No, I’ll go.” Elissa rose from the table and went to get her cloak. “It’s my responsibility.”
Iolaus stopped her before they went out the door.
“I just don’t want to hear you say that this is your fault, Lis,” he said, looking intently into her eyes. “You didn’t mean to kill him and you did nothing wrong. Don’t beat yourself up or shed any tears over Culperius. If he would have had his way, we’d all be dead now, so he’s certainly not worth your compassion.”
The healer nodded but remained silent as she went outside and climbed up into the wagon.
The hunter leaned up against the wall, arms crossed over his chest as he studied his partner.
“So, what do you think?”
Hercules cast an appraising eye all around the forge. He’d been helping his friend finish up the last details of the structure, and now he could see no more flaws or last minute adjustments to attend to.
“I think you are ready to open for business, buddy.”
Iolaus grinned, nodding proudly in agreement.
“I’m going to hold off for a just a little bit longer. I want to wait until Elissa has the baby, so I can spend a little time with them before I have to start spending my days locked up in here. But I think you’re right. She’s good to go.”
“Well, since we have some time now, why don’t we lay in a good store of wood? You’re going to have to eventually get these fires burning, and you’re going to need a supply of fuel.”
“Ok. Let me just run in and tell Elissa and see if she wants anything while we’re out.”
“I’ll run out to the barn and see if I can drag Jason away from his horse. I know he won’t want to miss out on hauling logs.”
Iolaus grinned at his friend and began loping toward the house. Things had gone back to normal ever since the chaos Culperius had created. Hercules and Jason had taken the man’s body to the village where he’d told the magistrate he was from. They’d found his family and explained what had happened, trying to be gentle but telling the truth. Once they returned to Acheron, they’d gone to work helping Iolaus in the forge or with chores while Elissa busied herself with readying the house for the baby’s arrival. The days were ticking by, and everyone, especially the proud father, was waiting anxiously for the time to come.
The hunter found his wife sitting at the window, looking outside, her sewing needle lying on the table beside her, still for the first time in days.
“Hey,” he greeted, standing behind her to rub her shoulders. “Hercules and I are going out to get wood for the forge. Do you want me to bring anything back for you?”
“Chaste tree,” she replied. “And some yarrow if you can find any.”
“Sure.” He leaned down to kiss her cheek. “Are you feeling all right?”
“Yes, just a little tired. This baby’s really kicking up a storm today. I think it’s safe to say he’s got your energy.”
Iolaus grinned, dropping to his knees to caress her swollen stomach.
“My little warrior just wants out, that’s all.”
“What did you say?”
The hunter looked up, surprised by the sharpness in her voice.
“Don’t call the baby that!”
“Little warrior?” Iolaus was confused by the distress he saw in his wife. “Elissa, what is the matter?”
“I didn’t want to tell you,” she began, very hesitantly. “But with everything that’s happened lately I’ve been worrying and worrying about this and I don’t know what to do.”
“Tell me what?” The hunter was beginning to grow alarmed.
“Ares came to me when we were in Eustria,” the healer confessed. “Remember when everyone had taken ill and I couldn’t figure out why?” At his nod, she continued. “Ares told me he’d give me the answer. He told me that he tell me how to help everyone, and that he would leave you and Hercules alone forever if I...”
“If what?” Iolaus demanded, his blue eyes narrowing.
“If I gave him the baby,” she whispered.
“Elissa! Why didn’t you tell me this before?”
“I couldn’t tell you in Eustria, while you were so sick,” she reasoned, shrinking back a little. “And after that.... Well, I guess I just didn’t want to worry you. But I just can’t deal with this alone anymore.”
“You don’t have to. But what in the name of Zeus would Ares want with our child?”
“He said that the baby would go up to be a great warrior. That he could feel it’s warrior heart beating strong, even so early. He wants the baby as a warrior to serve him.”
“Well, if he thinks he’s getting our baby, he’d just better think again. You know that I’m not going to let that happen. But I can’t believe you didn’t tell me about this. This was definitely not something to hide from me, Elissa. What if Ares had tried to kidnap you or something? How can I protect you if I don’t even know you might be in danger? Or maybe he has tried... What else haven’t you told me?”
“Nothing,” she promised. “And no, I haven’t seen Ares since that night in Eustria. I guess I was just thinking that if I ignored what happened, it would go away. But now, as we’re getting so close, I’ve just been getting more and more afraid of what he might do. You’re right, Iolaus. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you before.”
“Ok,” he murmured, drawing her into his embrace. “I know now. And I promise you, Ares is not going to get our baby. And if he’s stupid enough to try, he’ll wish he hadn’t.”
There was a soft knock at the door and Hercules stuck his head in.
“I’m coming, Herc,” Iolaus told him. “And boy, do we have something to talk about.”
“Yes, we do.”
The demigod entered the room, followed by the magistrate of Acheron. Both looked extremely grave.
“What’s going on?” the hunter demanded, looking from one to the other.
“Iolaus,” the magistrate said softly. “Elissa. You don’t know how sorry I am to have to do this.”
“Do what?” Iolaus glared at the older man suspiciously.
“Culperius’ brother,” Hercules explained. “He’s bringing charges against Elissa.”
“For what?” The indignant cry had been from Jason, who had entered the house in time to hear the demigod’s words.
“He’s claiming that Elissa poisoned Culperius.”
“That’s ridiculous,” the healer protested.
“Elissa,” the magistrate said gently. “You’re going to have to come with me.”
“She’s not going anywhere.” Iolaus had spoken calmly, but there was a dangerous gleam in his eyes and a determined set to his chin.
“Iolaus, please,” the man begged. “I don’t like this anymore than you do. But I am magistrate of Acheron, and I am bound to follow the law. If you don’t comply with what I ask, you’re going to make things very hard on yourself.”
“You heard what I said,” the hunter told him in a cold, threatening voice.
“Stop it, Iolaus.” Elissa pushed herself up out of her chair. “I’ll go with him.”
Iolaus turned to argue with her, but her emerald eyes silently pleaded with him to calm down and to let her handle the situation. It was hard for him, but the hunter took a deep breath and stepped back, letting her go.
Acheron, being a relatively small, peaceful town, didn’t have much of a jail. There was a room at the back of the magistrate’s home that could be locked from the outside, which served as a temporary prison until wrongdoers could be transferred to trial. Apart from the occasional villager who spent the night there, sleeping off a rowdy evening caused by too much drink, it had remained empty for a very long time before Culperius arrived in Acheron. But now, Elissa found herself an occupant.
The healer didn’t think it was too bad. There were no bars, as it was essentially just a room, a complete structure in and of itself. Sparsely furnished, but it wasn’t inhospitable. Normally, she wouldn’t have really minded her exile there, except that she was eight months pregnant, extremely uncomfortable, and longing to be home.
“Athens,” Iolaus muttered as he paced restlessly about the small room. “Just one more reason to hate Athens.”
“Don’t knock Athens,” Elissa told him, trying and failing to get comfortable on the hard, narrow bed. “Your child was conceived there. And is going to be born there, from the looks of things.”
“Maybe not,” Hercules tried to reassure her. “Jason is on his way to Corinth as we speak to see if Iphicles can do anything about this. The magistrate at least agreed to wait on that verdict before he takes you to Athens for trial.”
“The whole idea of a trial is just insane,” the hunter seethed. “Elissa did not kill that lunatic.”
“She administered a drug to him, and he died from that drug,” the demigod mused. “She could have given him something lethal, with intent to end his life. After what he tried to do to her, that would give her plenty of motive.”
“Herc, whose side are you on, anyway?” Iolaus demanded, staring hard at his friend.
“Yours,” Hercules assured him. “I’m just trying to get you to see their side of it. You and I know that its ridiculous to even think that Elissa could do what they are accusing. But they do have a case and they are entitled by law to a trial. So stop glaring daggers at the magistrate, because he’s only doing his job.”
Iolaus grumbled, but inwardly he had to admit that his partner was right. He just couldn’t believe that this nightmare was really happening. But he shouldn’t have been taking his frustrations out on the magistrate, who had been making every concession he could to help them and make things easier for Elissa.
“I see your point,” he conceded reluctantly.
“But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.” The hunter managed a tiny grin.
“Greetings, King Iphicles.” The man stepped forward to shake the monarch’s hand. “I understand we have a bit of a situation here.”
“It wasn’t a situation until you boys decided to make it into one.” The king’s voice was friendly, but his eyes were cold.
“You went outside your jurisdiction,” the man told him, just as friendly, eyes just as cold. “We Athenians can’t simply ignore that.”
“You Athenians,” Iphicles spat, contempt seeping into his voice. “You hold the law in highest regard. Justice is blind and your laws are carved in stone. Well, sometimes you need to think for yourself instead of just parroting back words that were dictated years ago. Sometimes you need to look at individual situations and adjust the laws as needed.”
“And is that how you run your court here?” he demanded, growing angry. “You make up different rules for different people, depending on the situation?”
“I take the situations into account, and if it warrants, then yes, I may change the rules.”
“I don’t know how your entire kingdom isn’t in anarchy,” the man muttered.
“Why don’t we go into the dining room,” Iphicles suggested. “You can get something to eat and leave me to worry about my kingdom.”
The man followed as the king led the way. Once the magistrate of Acheron had sent word to Athens that the trial of Elissa was being moved to Corinth by royal order of Iphicles, the Athenians had been incensed and had sent a return message dictating that nothing was to be done until one of their emissaries arrived.
“This is Aristides,” Iphicles announced as they entered the banquet room. “This is my brother, Hercules. I think you know Jason, former King of Corinth. This is Iolaus of Thebes, and his wife, Elissa, the criminal mastermind.”
“I know you all think I’m a villain for what I’m doing,” the statesman announced as he looked around the room, feeling the glares of hatred assault him. “But I am only doing my job. The fact is, Iphicles, you didn’t have the authority to relocate this trial. This is an Athenian matter, and by all legal standpoints, it is for Athens to resolve. You can’t possibly expect us to believe that you could conduct such a trial in a fair and objective manner, when you obviously have such a vested interest in the accused?”
“The accused,” Jason chimed in with an authoritative voice. “Is an honored and celebrated healer. And the deceased was a crazed individual responsible for poisoning at least five villages, that we know of, not to mention attempting to kill the accused. The whole idea of a trial is ridiculous!”
“But the deceased was in custody at the time of his death,” Aristides argued. “She was not in any danger from him at that point. Which means, if she killed him, it was murder, and not self-defense. You people have already made up your minds that she is not guilty. Which only proves my point. You are incapable of giving her a fair and objective trial.”
“I am not letting you take her back to Athens,” Iphicles said firmly.
“You are asking for a world of trouble if you persist in this defiance of the law,” the statesman warned the king.
“And you are asking for a world of trouble if you persist in trying to take a woman about to give birth any day on a long, hard trip across Greece,” Iolaus murmured, ice in his voice.
Aristides looked over to where the hunter and his wife were sitting. It irritated him that the woman, who was accused of murder, was apparently wandering free in the castle instead of securely locked up in the dungeon. But taking another look, the statesman relented a bit. She obviously was at the end of her pregnancy, her belly enormously swollen. The woman looked tired and uncomfortable, and Aristides decided he couldn’t add to her worries. Despite his fanaticism to the law, the statesman did not have a heart of stone. Besides, it was a bumpy ride to Athens and he had no desires to have to act as a midwife along the way.
“I have the authority to settle this matter,” he said finally. “Tomorrow morning, we’ll begin the trial here with me presiding. We’ll worry about the rest later, after the verdict is decided. Now if you don’t mind, I think I’ll decline dinner and just go to my room.”
Iphicles escorted the man out to show him to the quarters he’d been assigned. Iolaus reached out a hand to his wife, and became alarmed to feel her trembling.
“Lis, what’s wrong?” he asked in concern, leaving his chair to pull her into his arms. She clung to him tightly, trying to hold back the tears.
“Elissa, everything’s going to be all right,” Jason soothed. “I’ve dealt with this man before. They call him Aristides the Just. He’s very fair, and there is no way he won’t find you innocent. Tomorrow this will all be over, I promise.”
“What if he finds out about Pylos?” the healer asked, her voice shaking. “About me being arrested and accused of murdering the king?”
“But you were innocent,” Hercules protested. “That was just Alcestis’ way of trying to get the crown.”
“I know, but how would that look for my defense? And I never did go to trial there, remember? What if Aristides finds out about that, and uses it against me? They’ll find me guilty for sure.” She laughed humorlessly. “I used to worry about giving birth, about all the things that can go wrong. Now I’m just worried that my baby’s going to be born in a jail cell. And then that Ares...”
“None of that is going to happen,” Iolaus comforted, stroking her hair. “Jason’s right. Tomorrow this is all going to be over. You’re going to have the baby, and everything’s going to be fine. Now just try and calm down and don’t worry. You get all worked up, and you’re going to fret yourself into labor.”
Elissa did try to calm down, taking comfort from her husband and her dear friends, who were so adamant that they were not going to let anything happen to her. She let Iolaus talk her into going up to their room and lying down for awhile. He accompanied her, and once she had fallen asleep, he returned to Iphicles’ sitting room where his friends had gathered.
“How is she?” Hercules asked.
“She’ll be fine,” the hunter assured them. “She’s just tired.”
“I don’t doubt it,” Iphicles commented. “That’s quite a load to be carrying.”
“What do you think?” Hercules asked his brother. “Can we do anything about this Aristides?”
“Well, technically he was right,” the king sighed, taking a sip of wine. “This matter was designated for the Athenians. I wasn’t within my rights to move the case here without their permission. I undermined their authority, and they have a reason to be upset.”
“They need to get over themselves,” Iolaus grumbled.
“Nations have gone to war for less,” Jason reminded his friend. “But I still say, let’s just wait until tomorrow. Wait and see how things turn out, then we can decide on what action is called for, if we need to.”
“I agree,” Iphicles said.
Iolaus confirmed his friends’ votes, but inside he was thinking something entirely different. No one was going to take his wife away from him, and he was willing to go to any lengths to prevent that from happening.
Aristides motioned to the weasel-faced man, who approached as he was beckoned.
“Look, son,” the statesman whispered to him confidentially. “If you’ve been saving up any last minute evidence or powerful arguments, you’d better go ahead and bring them out now, because I’m about to call this case, and not in your favor.”
“How can you say that?” the man sputtered. “I’ve got the motive, and this woman even admitted that what she gave him killed my brother.”
“Open your eyes and see what I’ve got,” Aristides snapped. “I’ve got a skilled healer who’s saved many lives and is loved by all, according to the testimony of half the town. She’s been gracious enough to withstand this trial and has been completely cooperative throughout the process, even though she’s about to become a mother any day now. I’ve got your brother, who I’ve been told time and time again today was completely off his rocker. I’ve got a string of towns that have all been poisoned with baneberry.”
“You can’t prove he did that in all those places,” the man interrupted, only to be silenced by a withering stare.
“I’ve also got testimony that your brother escaped custody, killing two men, and returned to the home of the defendant, with intent to kill her. He was stopped, and not harmed, but placed back into custody, where he died of a reaction to a sedative Elissa administered. One that she has used many times before without incident. So in short, what we have is a case of accidental death. And from what I’ve heard today, it was an accidental death that did the world a great service.”
Aristides turned to address the room.
“Elissa, by power vested in me from the court of Athens, I clear you of all charges in this matter. You are free to go.”
A celebration erupted, and the healer came forward to thank the statesman.
“Don’t thank me,” Aristides told her. “I was just doing my job. In accordance with the law, the evidence presented to me proved you were innocent, and that is how I found you. Make no mistake, if I’d decided that you were guilty, I’d be placing you under arrest right now.”
“Well, thank you anyway.” Elissa smiled sweetly at him and leaned forward to kiss his cheek. The old statesman returned her smile, clasping her hand warmly.
“Good luck, my dear,” he whispered, giving a nod and a wink toward her expanded stomach.
The healer squeezed his hand and returned to her friends, getting caught up in her husband’s loving embrace as she was bombarded with congratulations.
“Again?” Iolaus demanded sleepily as his wife struggled out of bed. “You were just up five minutes ago.”
“I can’t help it,” the healer sighed. “This kid is taking up too much room inside me and there isn’t any space left for anything to accumulate.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t drink anything else until you go into labor,” the hunter murmured, voice muffled by his pillow.
“Very funny,” Elissa said wryly, stalking off to answer nature’s (very persistent these days) call. When she returned to bed, Iolaus rolled over on his side and slipped his arms around her. She tried to cuddle up to him, but her stomach prevented her from getting as close as she wanted.
“Are you sure you want to go back to Acheron tomorrow?” Iolaus asked her. “I mean, the baby could come at any time now, and we risk the chance of things starting while we’re on the road. Maybe we should stay here until after it’s born.”
“I want to go home,” the healer said softly, twining her fingers through her husband’s golden curls. “Everything I need for both me and the baby is at home. And I know that this is a castle equipped with every luxury, but I really think I’d be more comfortable back in Acheron, in my own house.”
“All right,” the hunter agreed, kissing her forehead. “We’ll head back first thing tomorrow morning.”
Personally, he would have rather waited until the baby was born before making the trip home. Elissa would be cared for in Corinth, and he worried that the trip would be too much for her. But, he had vowed to give her whatever she wanted, so he decided that she knew what was best for herself, and if she wanted to go home, then they would go.
“Iolaus,” Iphicles called, coming up to the hunter. “I need to talk to you.”
“What’s wrong?” Iolaus asked him, climbing down out of the wagon where he had been making a comfortable place for Elissa to ride.
“My guards brought a girl in this morning. She was caught stealing in the marketplace. She says she’s a friend of yours.”
“Name?” the hunter asked, already knowing who the thief was.
Iolaus sighed heavily, running a hand through his hair.
“What’s the matter?” Jason inquired as he approached the wagon, bringing the horses with him.
“Something came up that I have to take care of,” the hunter told him. “But I hate to delay this trip anymore. The longer we wait, the more risk we run of Elissa going into labor on the way. This probably won’t take me long to deal with, but I wanted to make it back to Acheron tonight, before dark. I’m afraid if we leave any later, we’ll be forced to stop for the night.”
“Is it something that I could take care of for you?” the Argonaut offered.
“No, I have to do it.” Iolaus closed his eyes, trying to think. He had two choices, and he wasn’t particularly fond of either. Finally, he made his decision. As much as he hated to leave Elissa, he knew he couldn’t turn his back on his Little One. “Jase, I need a favor.”
“Could you take Elissa home for me? Make sure she’s all right.”
“Of course I will.”
Iolaus clapped his friend on the shoulder and headed off to the castle to find his wife.
“I’ll wait for you here,” Hercules told his friend. Iolaus nodded and began descending alone the steps leading down into the dungeon where Aurora was being held.
They had seen Elissa and Jason off, as she preferred to begin her journey rather than wait for Iolaus. He promised her that he would follow as soon as he could, and he extracted a promise from the Argonaut that he would take care of the healer. Hercules stayed with his partner, knowing he could do little to help with the Aurora situation, but rather his job would be to calm the hunter and keep him from going crazy with worry that his child was being born while he wasn’t there.
First, they had gone to the vendor in the marketplace who had caught the girl robbing him. He wasn’t very receptive of Iolaus’ pleas, as he’d seen Aurora and her friends thieving many times before, and he was tired of losing his hard-earned wares to a bunch of street punks. But the hunter finally wore him down, getting him to agree to drop his charges against her in light of restitution, which Iolaus paid in full. That had been the easy part.
The hard part lay before Iolaus now. Somehow, he had to try and talk some sense into the wayward girl, and get her to see that she had no life before her on the path she was on. He came upon her in the dungeon, which was rather nice as dungeons go, and his heart broke to see her sitting behind the iron bars. She looked so lost and frail, just as she did all those years ago when he had come across her sitting alone by the road. He pulled out the key that Iphicles had given him and unlocked the door, entering the small cell to sit beside her on her bunk.
“If you’re here to lecture me, you can save your breath,” she said in a hostile tone.
“I don’t want to lecture,” the hunter told her gently. “With my past, I don’t have that right. But I have the experience, and the benefit of hindsight, and I’m hoping that what I have to tell you can help you.”
“You can help me by getting me out of her,” the girl blurted out. “So, tell me the truth. You said you were friends with the king. Can you get me released, or not?”
“That depends on you,” he replied.
“What do you mean?” Aurora glared at him suspiciously.
Iolaus sighed. She had been such a sweet child, really a beautiful little girl. It was killing him to look at her now. Her golden hair dirty and unkempt. Her soft brown eyes full of mistrust and anger. Her lovely smile twisted into a scowl.
“Aurora, just listen to me. I’ve been where you are now. I know what you’re going through. And believe me, it’s only going to get worse from this point on. This place isn’t so bad compared to what else is out there. Jail cells that are dark and cold. Water dripping from the ceiling. Fighting the rats for scraps of food. Places where nobody cares anything about you or who you know. Places where they’d just as soon kill you as look at you.”
“What do you want from me?” she burst out, hovering close to tears.
“I want you to see that it doesn’t have to be like this,” the hunter told her. “I’m proof that you can change, and turn your life around. There’s another road that you can take, Aurora. One that leads you to all the good things you’ve ever dreamed for yourself. It’s just up to you to decide which way you want to go.”
“I can’t go back home,” she declared vehemently.
“Then come back with me,” Iolaus offered. “Come home with me and Elissa. We’ll help you, and you can help us, too.”
“What can I do?”
“We’ll need lots of help with a new baby,” the hunter grinned. “What do you say? You’d have a warm place to sleep and good food to eat. You can stay with us for as long as you’d like, and then we’ll help you decide what to do when you think it’s time to move on.”
“So King Iphicles is going to let me go?”
“He’s agreed to release you into my custody,” Iolaus confirmed. “So, what do you want to do?”
Aurora silently got to her feet and began creeping away from the campsite. She made her way to the stream that was flowing a few hundred yards away and paused, taking time to drink and arrange her belongings.
“Kind of late for a walk, isn’t it?”
She whirled around to face the hunter standing behind her.
“I can’t do it, Iolaus,” she muttered. “I’m not going back with you, and you’d better not try and stop me.”
“Aurora.” He knelt down on the ground before her. “I wish you would tell me what happened to you. What happened to make you so afraid, and so suspicious? Maybe I could help if you’d just tell me what’s wrong.”
“You can’t help me anymore,” the girl told him. “Just go on home to your family, and forget all about me. You said it yourself. You’ll have your hands full with a new baby, and you don’t need me hanging around, making trouble.”
“It’s not a question of need,” the hunter said. “It’s a question of want.”
“Well, I have wants, too. And I want to get out of here.” She stood up, flinging her pack over her back and glaring at him defiantly through the darkness.
“Then go,” Iolaus sighed, getting to his feet resignedly.
“Do you mean that?”
“Yes. I wish you would come back with me, but I can’t choose your path for you. You need to go your own way. Just remember one thing. If you decide you don’t like the path you’re on, you can always turn around, go back, and get on the one that leads to me. Promise me that you’ll remember that. Will you do that for me?”
“Why?” she asked softly. “Why do you try so damned hard to help me?”
“Because I love you,” Iolaus whispered. “You will always be my Little One.”
Aurora had been through a lot in the last few years, and she had not shed tears over any of it. But these simple words were enough to start her sobbing like a little child. Iolaus drew her into his arms, and she cried against his chest. For a fleeting moment, she felt safe. She felt warm, and loved, and happy. But she made herself choke back her tears and push away from him.
“I’m glad that you and Elissa are having a baby,” she gulped, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. “You’re going to be a great father. That’s one lucky kid. You know, sometimes I think about how different my life might have turned out if my aunt and uncle had never found me. If you had gotten to be my father.”
“Aurora,” Iolaus began, taking a step toward her. But she quickly stepped back and cut him off.
“I have to go,” she announced hastily.
“Be careful,” the hunter advised. “Take care of yourself, and if you ever need me, you know where to find me.”
The girl nodded, something softening in her expression briefly. Then the mask of indifference slipped back over her features and she started walking away.
“Don’t follow me,” she called over her shoulder, just before disappearing into the trees. Aurora knew in her head that Iolaus would not follow her, out of respect for the choice that she had made. But she couldn’t deny that small part of her that was wishing that he would.
With another heavy sigh, the hunter turned and walked back to the campsite.
“Is she gone?” Hercules asked, seeing him return alone.
“Yeah,” Iolaus replied sadly, plopping down on his bedroll. “I can’t force her to come back with me, and even if I did, she’d only run away at the first opportunity.”
“And then she’d hate you, too,” the demigod reasoned. “At least this way, if she decides she wants to help herself, she’ll feel comfortable coming to you.”
“Something happened to her, Herc,” the hunter said softly. “Something had to have happened to make her that afraid. Too afraid to trust. And to afraid to let anyone care about her. I just wish she’d tell me what it is.”
“Well, all you can do is let her know that you’re here for her,” Hercules told his friend. “You can’t force her to turn her life around. That’s up to her.”
“Poor kid,” Iolaus whispered. “I know what its like, and I would give anything to spare her from this. It scares me sometimes to think of how close I came to ending up a victim of the streets. I guess I owe you a long overdue thank you for that, Herc.”
“Me?” The demigod was genuinely surprised. “What did I have to do with it?”
“You, and Alcmene both. You let me know that you cared about me, and that you thought I was worth more than the person that I had become. I couldn’t have gotten where I am today if I hadn’t had the both of you, supporting me and believing in me. That got me through a lot of tough times, and kept me straight when the streets were trying to drag me back under.”
“You underestimate yourself, my friend,” Hercules said fondly. “We might have encouraged you, but everything you achieved, you did yourself. You made the decision to change and you had the determination and courage to stick with it. You made it through the Academy to become a great warrior and a hero, and you couldn’t have done that if you hadn’t have wanted to, no matter how much we pushed. You overcame those feelings that you didn’t deserve all the good things in life, and Aurora will too, if you give her a little time.”
“I hope so.”
“Well,” the demigod yawned, stretching broadly. “It will be dawn soon. Since we’re both up, we might as well pack up and hit the road. What do you think?”
“You know we can’t get there too soon, as far as I’m concerned,” Iolaus agreed, already on his feet and folding up his bedroll.
It was late morning when the two partners arrived back in Acheron. Jason met them at the door, a bit of a frown creasing his brow.
“Elissa’s not feeling well,” he told them. “She seemed all right last night when we got back. A little tired, but she was fine. But this morning I couldn’t get her to eat anything. She took a little tea, but then she was sick.”
“I’ll go check on her,” Iolaus said quickly, dropping his pack as he made his way to the bedroom.
“I’m going to run into the village and get the puppy from Aricia and Amyntas,” Jason told the demigod. “I would have done it sooner, but I didn’t want to leave her alone.”
Hercules nodded, and as the Argonaut left he began picking up the dropped supplies and putting them neatly away, hoping that there was nothing seriously wrong with the healer.
“Is she all right?” the demigod asked as Iolaus finally reappeared.
“I don’t know,” the hunter answered. “She’s pretty nauseous. I hope that she didn’t catch anything in Corinth.”
“It’s probably just a side effect from the pregnancy,” Hercules tried to reassure him. “You know that by this stage of the game, everything’s just going haywire.”
“Tell me about it,” Iolaus declared. “I don’t know how women do it.”
The hunter tried to tell himself that Hercules was right, but he was still restless. He poked aimlessly around the kitchen, finally settling for a jar of dried fruit. Sitting at the table, he dumped the jar out in order to better pick through the mixed bounty to find his favorite treats.
“We should probably think about going hunting soon,” the demigod suggested, sitting opposite his friend and helping himself to a chewy apple slice.
“We need to go to the market in town, too,” Iolaus agreed. “We’re running low on a lot of our supplies.”
They snacked in silence, until Jason returned to the house with the rambunctious puppy in tow and a pot of hot stew, courtesy of Aricia.
“There’s my little hero,” the hunter greeted the canine, encouraging the dog to jump up into his lap, laughing as the enthusiastic pink tongue welcomed him home.
“Are you ever going to name that poor dog?” Hercules asked his partner.
“Eventually,” Iolaus giggled. “Let’s see now. I still like Spot.”
“He’s not really spotted,” Jason observed, looking critically at the brown and white coloration of the puppy.
“How about Patches, then?”
“You are hopeless,” Hercules groaned.
“Yeah, like ‘Bear’ was so much better,” the hunter argued, reminding the demigod of his childhood dog.
“Hey, I was four years old when I named him. What’s your excuse?”
“Don’t worry, little hero,” Iolaus crooned, scratching the puppy’s silky ears. “We’ll find the right name for you, I promise.”
“Amyntas didn’t want to give him up,” Jason chuckled, ladling out the stew into three bowls. “He’s a good kid. About the right age for the Academy, wouldn’t you say?”
“I doubt Aricia could afford to send him,” the hunter said softly. “In fact, I doubt she’d want to. He’s all she has left now.”
“Something to think about,” the Argonaut murmured. “After all, every boy has to leave home sometime. It might be a comfort to know he’d be getting excellent schooling and training. As for the cost, well... You never know. Sometimes benefactors can be found for worthy students.”
“Oh yeah? And just where was my benefactor?”
“Who ever said you were a worthy student?” Hercules asked.
“Very funny,” Iolaus pouted. But it didn’t last long, as the Argonaut set a bowl of stew in front of him. The hunter inhaled it, savoring the aroma briefly before taking up a spoon and diving in. “Rabbit,” he grinned. “My favorite.”
“Aricia made it special for you,” Jason informed him. “She figured Elissa wouldn’t feel like doing much cooking these days. She promised to stop by later, and said to tell you if you need anything else at all, don’t be afraid to ask.”
Iolaus didn’t respond, as he was too busy attempting to fend off the eager puppy who was desperately trying to share his meal. He was forced to bolt the stew, holding his bowl up high to avoid the lashing pink tongue, oversized paws, and waving tail. Over the heartbreaking whines of the dog and the others laughing at his antics, the hunter heard Elissa call his name. He set the bowl on the floor, letting the puppy have the remainder of the stew, and trotted back to the bedroom, immediately becoming alarmed as he saw his wife kneeling in the middle of the floor.
“Elissa, what’s wrong?” he cried, rushing to her side. “Are you all right?”
“It’s starting,” she panted, reaching out for him. “The baby’s coming.”
“Are you sure?” he asked, taking her hands.
“I wasn’t at first,” the healer told him. “I’ve been having some pain off and on all morning, but I wasn’t sure it was labor. A strong one hit me a few minutes ago, and when it passed I got up to find you but my water broke.”
As Iolaus helped her to her feet, he saw the evidence of that statement.
“Ok,” he said reassuringly, easing her back into their bed. “Just relax and stay calm. Everything’s going to be fine, Lis. I promise. Let me go ask Hercules to go for the midwife, and then I’ll be right back, ok?”
She nodded, letting out a deep breath as her hands massaged her swollen belly. Elissa had delivered many babies in her life, but this was her first time on the other side of things, and despite her husband’s reassurances, she was scared. She took another deep breath and tried to relax the tension out of her body, comforting herself with the fact that it would all be over soon.
Iolaus skidded back down the hall, colliding with Hercules as he burst into the kitchen.
“What is it?” the demigod asked, steadying him before he toppled over.
“It’s the baby,” the hunter sang out. “It’s coming.”
Hercules and Jason both broke out into wide grins, clapping their friend on the back and offering congratulations.
“We’re going to need a fire, and some water,” the Argonaut rationalized. He snatched up the bucket in the corner and hurried outside, heading for the spring.
“Herc, could you go for the midwife?” the hunter asked his partner.
“Of course, buddy.” The demigod paused, looking fondly at his friend. “Well, its finally here. What you’ve been waiting for. You’re about to become a father.”
“Yeah.” Iolaus gave his best friend a golden smile that put Apollo’s sun to shame. “Yeah, I am.”
The hunter’s cerulean eyes filled with tears as he realized that very soon he would be welcoming his child into the world. A baby, a brand new life that he and Elissa had joined together to create, would be in his arms in a matter of hours. He was thrilled and anxious, overjoyed and terrified all at once. Hercules hugged his friend tightly, knowing from experience the dizzying emotions that the hunter would be feeling. Iolaus hugged him back, grateful for the support, until a muffled moan of pain from the bedroom reminded them that Elissa was waiting.
“Guess I’d better hurry,” Hercules grinned. He gave his partner one last pat on the shoulder and then turned and disappeared out the door.
“I’m here, Lis,” Iolaus called out, rushing back to her side. He sat down on the bed beside her, letting her squeeze his hands as she rode out the contraction.
“The pain’s coming faster and stronger now,” she gasped. “I don’t think it’s going to be long.’
“I’m here with you,” the hunter told her, smoothing the auburn hair back from her face. “We’ll get through this together, and it will have been worth all the trouble. Are you ready?”
“Yes,” Elissa answered, grinning slightly at Iolaus’ thinking that she had a choice in the matter. “I’m ready. Let’s have a baby.”
Disclaimer: No innocent wells were poisoned during the writing of this story.
The Story So Far Index
The Iolausian Library