OF FRIENDS AND BROTHERS
By Sue Kelley
They didn't go to Thrace
Hercules had never really expected that they would. He said nothing as Iolaus took the lead at the crossroads; said nothing as Iolaus took the west fork, instead of the East fork that would lead to the Thrace road.
He knew where they were going.
Oddly enough, Iolaus himself didn't seem to realize where he was destined until they stood on the small rise looking over the peaceful house. Alcmene's flowers bloomed in wild profusion, perfuming the air with heady scent. The sun was drifting lower, sending lengthening shadows across the yard and the porch.
"Wonder if Jason is home?" Iolaus asked, finally breaking the comfortable silence between them.
"There's your answer," Hercules answered, as the door opened and the former King of Corinth stepped off the porch. He sighted the figures on the hill. They could see him freeze for a moment, then move forward to greet them with that same forceful stride from their days at Cheiron's Academy.
Iolaus hesitated, his eyes on the rapidly approaching figure. "He doesn't seem surprised to see me."
"He probably thinks you're the other Iolaus. He came here with me, a few times."
"Umm, Herc? If I were the other Iolaus, wouldn't I be somewhat--you know--out of my element right now?" Iolaus asked, his eyes dancing with an impish light.
Hercules laughed. "Jason doesn't know about Nautica and the wedding. I haven't been back here since all that happened." He stepped forward, stopping as he realized Iolaus hadn't moved. "Coming?" he asked.
Iolaus was still watching Jason. "It's kind of...strange. I mean, how do we tell him?"
"Well, I think you said something to me along the lines of "Hey buddy, I'm back," Hercules teasingly reminded him.
"Yeah, but I don't think--"
Hercules reached out and put a firm hand on Iolaus' shoulder. "He's going to be thrilled to see you. Once he realizes it *is* you. Come on, Iolaus."
Iolaus let himself be pulled forward, taking a couple of hesitant steps as Jason crested the rise and came closer. "Hercules! I wasn't expecting you. Iolaus, how are--" He glanced toward the shorter man, grinned, then stopped in his tracks, staring at Iolaus. Color drained from his face and his eyes widened with shock, and a touch of fear, before brightening with joyous recognition. "Iolaus!" he exclaimed. "It's you!" He stepped forward and caught the other man in a fierce hug. Tears ran unnoticed down both of their faces.
Hercules cleared his throat, his own vision misting with tears. He was used to it though--it happened a lot since Iolaus' return to life.
Jason stepped back, his hand coming up to rub the dampness from his face. "I don't--how--" he stammered.
"Funny, that's what Herc said too," Iolaus quipped, his eyes glowing like sapphire stars.
Jason shook his head, put one arm around each of his friends and started to lead them toward the house. "You really did it, Hercules," he said. "I didn't think you could. But you said you'd get him back, and you did."
"I didn't get him back."
Jason looked at him. "What?" he asked, puzzled.
Hercules closed his eyes, remembering for a minute his fight with the Horseman of Death, his fall into the flames, Michael's words. He opened his eyes again to smile upon the two men. "He was a gift."
Much later, mellow from good food and good wine and exhausted from hours of talk and explanations and more than a few emotional moments, Jason and Hercules sat silently in front of the fire. Iolaus was already in bed. Hercules had noticed his friend seemed to need more sleep since his return. Iolaus himself had commented how it took a lot of energy to get used to having a body again.
Jason reached for the wine jug, pouring a healthy draught into Hercules' mug and a smaller amount into his own. "So who's Michael, exactly?" he mused. "Who..or what..is 'the Light'? What does it have to do with the gods? Zeus? Is the Light older than the Titans or--"
"Iolaus said something about, the gods--the ones we know--are Grecian. The Greek gods. In Sumeria, in Eire...there are different gods. But everywhere there is the Light."
"And opposing the Light, the Darkness?"
"I guess." Hercules took drink. "To tell you the truth, Jason, I don't care. Michael--the Light--whoever sent Iolaus back to me--I owe them."
"Tell me the truth, Hercules. Did you ever really believe he was gone for good?"
Hercules felt a cold chill deep in his soul. He stared into the fire. "Yes," he whispered quietly. "After we defeated Dahok. Up until then, I kept thinking--I know I said we had to defeat Dahok so that Iolaus could rest in peace, but I really always thought--hoped--that when Dahok was destroyed Iolaus would be back as if it had never happened. But then...I saw Zarathrusa take him away, and I had to accept he was gone. That could have destroyed me, Jason. No matter what's happened in the past to Iolaus--when he was killed by the Fire Enforcer or turned to stone by the she-demon--I'd never before accepted that he was actually gone for good."
Jason stared at him. "Even that time with Lucius?"
Hercules sucked in a startled breath of air. "That was a long time ago," he whispered. "I've tried to forget that night. You should, too."
"I can't." Jason looked down at his hands. "How do I forget--that? I have this dream, sometimes, and it's like we were there again. Iolaus is in front of me...and his blood is sticky on my hands. And I realize that he's dying, and that I'm the one that killed him."
Hercules shook his head. "It wasn't your fault, Jason. It was my fault."
"How can you say that? Hercules, my hand was on the knife when--I stabbed him."
After a long silence, Hercules said, "Jason. It wasn't your fault. It was my half-brother that caused it. It's time to let it go."
Jason laughed bitterly. "I wish I could. Tell the nightmares."
Hercules looked into the fire again, not seeing the familiar room around him but instead seeing memories from long ago. "You're not the only one that still has nightmares," he whispered.
It was a lonely grave, but it was what Mother would have wanted.
No, Lucius corrected his thought, it isn't. It's not what she wanted, and it's not what she deserved.
What his mother wanted--deserved--was Olympus. To return to the side of the god Zeus--he who had loved her and planted the seed of a demi-god son in her before abandoning both of them.
Mother had wanted Lucius to be Zeus' favorite son. To that end she had helped and encouraged Lucius to track down and destroy the other mortal sons of Zeus, sure that would win the King of the gods affection and approval for her son.
Then Hercules had foiled their plans. Twice. The only reason Lucius had survived their last encounter was because Hercules had chosen to save his friend Jason rather than take out his vengeance on Lucius. Lucius had raced back to the cave where he and his mother had lived for so many years, certain she could help him make another plan to defeat and destroy his detested half-brother.
But Mother was ill. Mother was dying. Mother was dead.
And Lucius didn't care about Zeus anymore. He didn't care if he never saw Olympus, never tasted ambrosia.
He only cared about one thing. He was going to destroy Hercules.
Oh, not kill him; that would be too easy, too quick. Lucius was going to destroy him--rob him of everyone he loved or cared for, and leave him alone, twisting in the wind and tortured by the guilt of knowing he couldn't save them.
And Lucius knew exactly where he was going to start.
"Then you'll need some help."
Startled, Lucius whirled around to face a girl. No, not a girl although at first she didn't seem that much older than he was. Long black hair swirled around a voluptuous body. Jade green eyes regarded him steadily.
"Who are you?" Lucius asked.
"Someone who can help you. Someone who hates Hercules as much as you do. Someone who wants to help you take your rightful place at Zeus' side."
"But what's your name?" Lucius insisted.
White teeth flashed in a grim smile. "You can call me...Discord."
"Hercules!" Cheiron's voice rang through the training room.
A tall, blond young man paused in the act of climbing a rope. Glancing over his shoulder, he spotted the centaur and easily slid down the rope, tossing it to another cadet once he touched the floor. Wiping his hands on a towel, he hurried over. "Yes, Sir?"
Cheiron eyed him up and down, careful to not let his pride in the youth show. "Where's Iolaus?" he asked. The smaller cadet was Hercules' regular training partner, as well as his best friend; it was unusual not to find them together.
"In the kitchen," Hercules answered. "He traded kitchen duty with Karnus so that he could leave early."
"Clever on Iolaus' part," the centaur grunted. It was the afternoon before a week's holiday at the Academy and many of the cadets had already left or would be leaving before supper. There would probably be fewer than a dozen cadets left for the evening meal. "Well, let's go to the kitchen then and find him. A messenger has come from Corinth with a message for the two of you."
Hercules halted in the act of following the centaur. "Corinth?" he repeated worriedly. "From Jason? Is something wrong?"
"I seriously doubt there's anything wrong that you can't manage," Cheiron answered cryptically.
The messenger, dressed in the familiar livery of the Royal House of Corinth, actually blinked when Cheiron, followed by two cadets, came into the study. The taller of the two cadets was shirtless and sweaty; the other wrapped in a huge towel that covered him from neck to mid-thigh and was covered by multicolored smears and stains that looked suspiciously like blood.
Also, he had flour in his hair.
The messenger had been thoroughly enjoined by his superior not to let the sight of a centaur disconcert him; right now, a centaur seemed a perfectly normal sight.
"Here are Hercules and Iolaus, as you requested," the centaur intoned. The messenger cautiously took a second look at the two, wondering which one was the son of Zeus. Well, of course, it must be the taller one. But then that meant the shorter one was the son of the feared and respected General Skouros--almost as awe-inspiring thought as the King of Gods.
(King though he might be, Jason was not above having a little fun with his employees. He'd deliberately picked a brand-new messenger and personally briefed him for his task. Hercules, at least, would have been more than a little surprised to hear the reputation attributed to him by his friend.)
After a frozen moment, the messenger forced his feet and his tongue to work. "I bring a personal request from his Majesty, Jason, King of Corinth, to his friends and companions, the noble Hercules, son of Zeus, and Iolaus, scion of the legendary General Skouros!" Warming to his task, he ended his opening speech with a flourish that reverberated through the room. The demi-god looked embarrassed, the centaur amused, and the other one alternated between gratification and irritation.
"And the request?" Hercules finally asked, as the messenger continued to stare and wonder why his words did not have the effect he'd planned.
"Oh, yes, of course. Just this, that the two of you do him the courtesy of spending your brief vacation from these hallowed halls of learning and might, with him in the Royal palace at Corinth!"
"You mean he wants us to come for a visit?" the smaller cadet finally asked. He seemed to realize suddenly that he was wrapped in a towel and he quickly yanked it off, but left the flour in his hair.
The messenger bowed. "That is his intent. What answer might I take back to him?"
Iolaus looked at Hercules. "Okay with me," he answered briefly. "What do you think?"
Hercules shrugged. "We can fish as easily in Corinth as anywhere else," he agreed easily. Hercules' mother, Alcmene, was away, visiting her sister; there were so many people living with Iolaus' mother right now that there would have been no room for her son and his friend anyway. Plus, there had been rumors the war Skouros was involved in was winding down. Iolaus avoided his home at all costs when he thought his father might be anywhere near.
Hercules looked at the messenger. "Please convey to King Jason that we will be glad to accept his invitation," he said politely. The messenger, a look of relief crossing his handsome features, bowed slightly, then turned on his heel and strode from the room.
Jason, King of Corinth, received the message from his friends with a satisfaction he struggled to conceal. He didn't fool Baran in the slightest.
Baran stood at the table, ostensibly arranging the platters for his King's midday meal, but in reality watching the young man he loved as his own son. He knew, as few men could, the loneliness that beset the young King. Growing up, the motherless prince had been devoted to his father. King Aeson had managed, ins spite of the never-ending duties of being King, to raise his only child well; to give him a lot of personal attention. Unfortunately, that meant Jason had very few friends his own age. Indeed, until his departure for Cheiron's Academy, he had rarely spent time in the company of young people.
Jason turned and caught sight of Baran. "Baran! I didn't know you were there." He strode toward the table, looking at the repast spread out on it. "You heard, then? Hercules and Iolaus will be arriving for a visit."
"Yes, your Majesty." Baran pulled a tapestried chair out and gestured for Jason to be seated. "Not that there was any doubt that they would come, was there?" he teased gently. "I've already given orders for their rooms to be prepared. And," he said, anticipating the next request, "I'll make sure a lavish picnic lunch is prepared for tomorrow. I remember Iolaus' appetite from his last visit! Will you take them to your father's favorite fishing spot?"
Jason looked up as a servant girl entered, bearing a covered tureen which she carefully placed on the table in front of him. "Mmm," he commented, sniffing. "Shellfish chowder!" he gave a quick smile of thanks to the serving girl. "Yes, Baran, we'll go there. I haven't been there since..." he didn't complete the sentence but Baran knew his thoughts. Jason hadn't been back to the fishing spot since his last trip there with his father, several months prior to the old King's murder.
The serving girl let the heavy door of the King's study fall gently closed. Glancing around and determining she was unobserved, she made a quick gesture with her hand. The plain brown dress and carefully plaited blond hair disappeared. Where seconds before had stood an unassuming servant, now stood a goddess dressed in black leather. "Oh, Jason," Discord purred aloud. "You're making this too easy for me. A fishing trip! Even Lucius should be able to kill you and Iolaus out there by yourselves."
Hercules and Iolaus arrived right on schedule. Very early the next morning, before the sun had even arisen, the three boys took the well-filled picnic basket Baran had had prepared for them and left the castle.
"So, Jason," Iolaus commented as dawn started to streak the sky with fingers of light, "How'd you talk all those advisors into letting you out for a couple of days without a horde of armed guards?"
Jason grinned. "I am the King," he replied loftily. "I ordered them to leave me alone!" Then he burst out laughing, imagining the stunned looks on his two friend's faces. "No, seriously, they all 'suggested' a 'few' guards should accompany us, but I reminded them that there's not much that could happen the three of us couldn't take care of. Besides, we're only going to be gone two nights--even you shouldn't be able to get us into too much trouble, Iolaus!"
Hercules laughed as Iolaus pretended to be hurt by Jason's teasing. "Well, there is something to be said for guards--they could clean the fish!" he quipped. "They're probably following along behind, right, Jason?"
Jason shook his head, suddenly serious. "No. They aren't. We're going to a--private place. My father and I used to go there--it was our hideaway--just as it was his father's before us. No one else has ever been there." He shrugged, knowing the other two couldn't see him in the graying light. "I wanted--I wanted to show it to my two best friends." He hesitated. "Kind of make up for the last time you paid me a visit."
Iolaus broke the silence that followed Jason's words. "Hey, Jase, don't feel too bad about that. I'll tell you one thing, your dungeon is the nicest one I've ever been in!"
Jason burst out laughing. Leave it to Iolaus, he thought. "And just how many dungeons have you been in?"
"Don't ask," Hercules said warningly, affection in his tone. "You know, for someone who prided himself on being such a great thief, Iolaus got caught--a lot!"
"Now this is what I call a fishing spot!" Iolaus exclaimed, dropping the picnic basket and looking around him with satisfaction.
The sapphire waters of the lake rippled slightly in the cool breeze. Hercules looked around, taking in the snow-capped mountains towering above, the tall, sheltering pines, the grassy bank suddenly dropping off to a rocky beach. "Good spot to camp," he commented. "Did you and your dad ever spend the night here?"
Jason looked up from where he was piling wood for a fire. "Yeah, once or twice. Not this time of year, though; too cold!" He pointed at the sky. "Once the sun drops behind that peak, it gets cold, fast! Thereís a cave, farther up the mountain--good shelter; thatís where weíll make camp tonight." He grinned as the first tendril of flame leapt out hungrily for the wood.
Hercules looked at his friend, sensing that there was more to this day than just a simple fishing trip between friends. He didn't ask though, and Jason didn't volunteer any information.
"I see what you mean about it getting cold," Hercules commented.
It was approaching late afternoon. The sun was sinking in golden splendor behind the mammoth snowy peak that sheltered the little clearing. The wind had picked up and goosebumps rose along the demi-god's arm. He scooted a little closer to the fire.
"We need to be heading up to the cave pretty soon," Jason said. He lay sprawled out a few feet away, propped up on his elbows, eyes closed. He yawned. "Iolaus still doing battle with the fish?"
Hercules laughed, glancing down at the lake. Their friend was perched on a rock several feet from shore that he'd reached by several smaller stepping-stones. Cross-legged, fishing pole held between his hands, Iolaus stared out across the water. It always amazed Hercules how still the shorter boy could be when fishing, compared to his restless energy at all other times. "He's in love with this place" he answered, rolling over onto his stomach and blinking sleepily. The picnic lunch had been wonderful and satisfying, especially with the fresh fish the boys had caught that morning added to the menu.
Jason smiled. "The last time I was here--" He broke off and sat up suddenly.
"With your dad?" Hercules asked gently.
Jason nodded. He looked directly at the demigod. "Thanks for coming, Herc. I needed... well, I needed to come here, but I didn't want to come by myself. Actually, thanks for coming for the week. I get--" he stopped.
"Lonely?" Hercules asked.
Jason shrugged. "I guess. No, not really. More like, closed in. There's always someone around, you know? Someone expecting me to be 'King'."
"You are the king," Hercules pointed out.
"I know. And most of the time, it's okay. I mean, it's my duty, my destiny. What my father wanted, I know that. But sometimes I just want to be Jason. You and Iolaus...you're like the only ones who don't look at me differently. To you I'm just your friend. To everyone else, I'm not who I am, but I'm what they think I am." He shook his head. "I'm not making a lot of sense, am I?"
"No. But I know what you're saying."
A comfortable silence stretched between them. Below, Iolaus let out a small cry of triumph as he pulled another silvery fish from the cold water. He turned slightly, enough to hold it up for his friend's admiration.
Hercules looked around, noticing the deepening shadows in the valley. "It's getting late," he commented. "If we're going to get to this cave of yours while it's still daylight, we'd better pack it in."
"In a few minutes," Jason said. He stood up. "There's something I need to do first." He hesitated, then said, "Can you come with me?"
"Where?" Hercules asked.
"There's a place...I'll show you. Let's get Iolaus." Jason slid down the steep bank to the water's edge. "Hey, Iolaus!"
The blond cadet started to turn, then his attention was distracted as his pole bent nearly double. "Whoa! Look at that! A big one!"
"Toss the pole in, Iolaus," Hercules called. "Jason wants to show us something else."
Jason laughed at the horrified look Iolaus quickly shot over one shoulder. "Catch your monster fish, Iolaus," he called good-naturedly. "Hercules and I'll be back in a few minutes. Stay there, okay? The water's really deep and you--"
"--Can't swim. Yes, Mother, I know. You and Herc have both reminded me of that at least ten times today." Iolaus took one hand off the pole to make a shooing motion. "Go, go, see whatever it is. I promise I'll stay right here on this rock until you get back."
Jason grinned, turning and clambering back up the slope. Hercules hesitated, feeling strangely uncomfortable at the idea of either of his friends out of sight. Aware that Jason was waiting for him at the top of the embankment, he took once last look at Iolaus and then turned to follow Jason.
Hidden in the shadows, Discord wrapped her arms tightly around herself, biting her lips to keep the triumphant laughter from escaping. My stupid brother is making this much too easy, she thought.
She shifted her gaze until she could see Lucius, hidden behind another tree nearby. He was staring after Hercules and Jason with black rage distorting his face. The goddess rolled her eyes. Hercules might be stupid, but this one is an imbecile. Lucius was so blinded by his own rage and grief over his motherís death that he was practically incapacitated. Discord felt like a nursery governess, leading her charge around by the nose.
Oh, well, she consoled herself, itís worth it. Before the sun sets tomorrow, Lucius will be dead--at Herculesí hand--and Hercules will be destroyed, shattered by the loss of his two best friends.
She caught Luciusí eye. He slid over to join her. "I want to go after Jason now," he told her flatly.
Pasting what she hoped was a sweet smile on her face, Discord reached out to cup his face in her hands. Unexpectedly, she dug one sharp nail into his cheek. He gasped and jumped back, fingers coming up to touch the crimson stream.
"Youíll stick to the plan," she informed him. "Iolaus first."
Lucius hesitated, clearly wanting to follow the young king. "I owe Jason," he growled.
"Youíll get your chance at Jason. But follow the plan. Iolaus first. But just hurt him. Donít kill him."
Discord suppressed a sigh. "We need Hercules off-balance," she explained patiently.
"I donít need that! Iím stronger than my brother--a better fighter. I can kill him without all of this game playing!"
Not on your best day, Discord thought dryly. Her voice hard, venomous, she spat out, "Have you forgotten everything your mother taught you?"
Luciusí face changed, as she knew it would. "Mother?" he repeated, dazed.
"She knew the best--no, the only way to defeat Hercules was to rob him of the pathetic mortals he loves so much. His mother we canít get to right now. But these two--his dear friends--" she moved closer, almost purring the words--"When he sees his friends dying, screaming in pain, suffering by your hand...when he holds their bloody, still bodies in his arms as they breathe their last...then, then he will be yours for the taking."
She watched with satisfaction as her words had the desired affect. Luciusí eyes dilated, his face flushed, his breathing grew fast and shallow. "Yes," he moaned. He turned and started to stumble toward the lake. Discord caught his arm.
"Wait," she urged. "Just for a few minutes. Just until itís a little darker."
Iolaus swore under his breath as his fishing pole bent double, then snapped under the weight of the fish. After a few minutes of fruitless staring into the water, he looked around, startled to realize how dark it was getting. How long had he been battling the fish? Wonder where Herc and Jason are?
He twisted around at the sound of Herculesí voice. The tall figure on the shoreline raised an arm, beckoned. "Come on, Iolaus, we need to get going."
Iolaus clambered to his feet and paused briefly to get his balance as he slipped on the moss. Stepping to the next, smaller rock, he called out, "Whereís Jason?"
The silent figure on the bank made no answer. "Herc?" Iolaus called again, hesitating. There was something about the way Hercules was standing...
Hercules bent down and picked something up from the ground. He flipped it out across the lake. Iolaus heard several light little splashes as the rock skipped over the water. Iolaus hopped across to another rock. His foot slipped again on slimy moss and he pinwheeled his arms to regain his balance. On shore, Hercules said nothing as he skipped another rock.
Iolaus paused. He felt the hair on the back of his neck rise. "Hercules?" he called once again, standing still.
"Come on, Iolaus, we donít have all night." The demi-god bent to pick up another rock.
"Your voice sounds funny," Iolaus commented. The next rock was very small and he reached his foot out for it. "What--Oww! Herc!"
The rock Hercules had skipped flipped up and hit Iolaus on the cheek. It wasnít a big rock, but sharp, and he felt the sting of pain as it tore open the flesh. Warm, salty blood trickled down the side of his face.
The demi-god stood up and drew back his arm. Before Iolaus could react, another rock--a much larger one--sped through the air to strike him in the leg. Off-balance, Iolaus struggled for a minute before the lessons taught so painstakingly at the Academy proved their worth and he regained his balance, one foot on the smaller stone. "What in Hades do you think youíre doing?" he yelled, angrily.
The figure made no answer again, just bent down and stood back up again quickly. Iolaus saw his arm draw back and he jumped back, trying to retreat along the stepping stones.
One foot flew out from underneath him as the boot skidded on the moss.
The rock struck him squarely in the ribs. Iolaus cried out as pain knifed through him. He flailed wildly, unable to get solid footing, twisting as his body plunged into the water.
The frigid water of the lake--cascading directly from the mountain snows above--closed above his head. Gasping, body already shocked from the cold, Iolaus managed to pull his head above the water and grab onto one of the rocks. His hand desperately fought for purchase on the irregular surface. "Hercules!" he gasped.
He couldnít see his friend on the embankment anymore. As he lost his hold and slipped beneath the water again, Iolaus thought he could hear the sounds of a womanís maniacal laughter.
"My father brought me up here for the first time right after my mother died," Jason explained as he and Hercules climbed the steep, narrow path. "After that, weíd come here at least every six months for a fishing trip. Just the two of us. And the day weíd be getting ready to leave, weíd always climb up here."
Hercules followed as the path seemed to go almost vertically up the side of the mountain, only to twist back around and lead downwards. Rather than following the path, Jason veered through the underbrush. He held up a hand. "Careful," he warned. "Weíre almost there."
"Almost where?" Hercules started, only to stop with a gasp as Jason stepped aside so he could see. "Gods," Hercules breathed.
They were on a tiny rock shelf almost literally hanging in space. Around them: nothing but space and sky; the last golden kiss of the sun as it sank below the distant sea. Thick black clouds hung low in the air. Far, far below--spread like a gigantic childís puzzled board--the forests running into the well-tended fields and tiny villages surrounding the city of Corinth as it perched like a glowing jewel on the ocean.
"My father used to say that only here could he really put things in perspective." Jason waved a hand at the distant city. "There, things would seem so important. Here, he could see how minor they really were."
"I wonder if this is what Olympus is like," Hercules said suddenly. "You know, can my father--can the gods look over all the earth like you can look over all of Corinth?"
"Maybe." Jason seemed distracted.
Hercules followed his gaze and noticed fingers of lightening flicking out of the clouds. "Looks like a storm is coming in."
"Yeah, it does." Jason looked around. "Itís getting dark faster than usual."
Hercules shivered in the suddenly-cooling breeze. "I hope you can find that cave you mentioned," he joked. "Or weíre going to get awfully wet tonight."
"I can find it." Jason seemed distracted, staring down at the land far below. He stepped back and shook his head, as if he were trying to clear his thoughts. "We have to climb some more. The cave is on the north side of the mountain."
Hercules nodded and started to follow the young king, only to almost crash into him as Jason stopped suddenly. "Whatís wrong?" the demi-god inquired.
"Nothing..." Jason hesitated. "Iolaus will stay on that rock, wonít he?"
Hercules carefully suppressed a smile. For all that his friends accused him of being a "mother-hen", when it came to Iolaus and water, Jason was almost as bad. Hercules knew it still bothered him that heíd almost drowned Iolaus in an attempt to save Herculesí life--not knowing when heíd thrown Iolaus into the pond that Iolaus really couldnít swim. "Heíll stay put," the demi-god answered easily. "Provided a pretty girl doesnít wander along."
Jason didnít grin in return. "Or that he doesnít see a buck or a rabbit or a quail or--"
Hercules shivered again, more at Jasonís words than at the chill wind this time. "Maybe weíd better go back and get him."
Jason shot him a quick glance, then nodded and led the way back down the steep path.
Fat raindrops splattered the rocks on either side of them. Hercules tried to convince himself they were worrying for nothing. "Iolaus isnít foolish," he said out loud, a little desperately. "He knows he canít swim and he wouldnít risk falling in the water. Itís freezing, too!"
Jason jumped over a log that was lying across the path. "I think weíd better teach him how to swim next summer," he answered. He shot a tense grin over his shoulder. "Just to save us from worrying!"
"I have tried to teach him to swim!" Hercules shot back. "Itís easier said than done. Heís...funny about the water."
Jason stopped and turned around to face Hercules, who was aghast at what heíd said. He shook his head. "Donít ask," he sighed. "I canít...something happened when he was a kid. He doesnít like to talk about it."
A jagged fork of lightening split the sky, interrupting whatever Jason was going to say. He turned wordlessly and raced down the path, Hercules at his heels.
Iolaus struggled to the surface, desperately grabbing onto the slick surface of the rock. His fingers were cramped with cold and he could barely feel the mossy surface under them. He tried to kick, to get closer, get some leverage, but his legs only sluggishly responded to his mindís commands. A heavy weight dragged his eyelids closed. He forced them open again.
One hand slid off the rock and plopped into the water. Iolaus tried to lift it again but he couldnít. The fingers of his other hand scrabbled uselessly. The water was dragging him down, down....
From somewhere, he found one last surge of energy. "Help!" he croaked. Then, louder, "HELP!"
Hercules was in the lead, and he stopped so quickly that this time Jason plowed into him. "What?" the young King asked anxiously.
"Did you hear that?" Hercules demanded.
"It sounded like--"
They both heard it then, a faint, desperate "Help!"
"Iolaus!" Hercules gasped, racing down to the lakeís edge. He thrust the torch at Jason. "Here--"
"Hercules! No!" Jason--seeing what his friend was planning to do--caught his arm. "That waterís freezing. You dive into it and there will be two of you to rescue. Come on!"
Jason ran for the stepping stones, Hercules close on his heels. He lightly jumped from stone to stone, holding the torch low so that the light steamed out over the ebon waters. "Iolaus!" he yelled.
"Iolaus! Come on, this isnít funny!" Hercules cried out, hoping against hope this was all some joke their fun-loving friend was playing on them. The sick feeling in the pit of his stomach told him differently but he clung to the thought anyway.
Jason jumped to another rock. He could see the large rock that formed the end of the chain now; could see it was empty. He drew breath to yell again, then saw something move at the corner of his vision. Flinging the torch back to Hercules, he threw himself to his knees--and caught Iolausí hand just as the blond head slipped under the water.
Iolaus was completely limp. Jason yanked as hard as he could, enough so that Iolausí head and shoulder emerged from the water. His head lolled and he didnít respond to their shouts.
"Here, hold the torch," Hercules said urgently. Jason grasped it with his free hand. Leaning out over the water, Hercules grabbed at Iolausí vest. "Now let go," he said grimly. "And grab onto me."
Seeing what Hercules had in mind, Jason relinquished his grasp on Iolaus and stumbled to the next rock, allowing the demigod to take his place. Then he reached forward and grabbed Herculesí belt in an iron grip.
It wasnít easy--neither Hercules nor Jason had good footing and Iolaus was completely limp--but somehow, some way, they managed to pull him from the water and onto a precarious position on the rock. Hercules started to kneel next to him but Jason grabbed his arm. "Letís get him to shore...Quick!" he snapped.
Jason very rarely used that voice--the voice of kingly authority--with his friends. Hercules hesitated, then slid his arms underneath Iolausí still form and stood with an immense effort. Jason helped him gain his balance and then they quickly picked their way to shore.
Once safely on the grass, Hercules gently put Iolaus down and then fell to his knees beside him. Driving the torch into the sand, Jason knelt on the other side. He placed his fingers on Iolausí throat and leaned over him. After several seconds he straightened, his face grim. "His heartís still beating, but heís not breathing."
Hercules stared at him wildly. Panic churned in his gut, but he ruthlessly pushed it down, reaching for calm. Iolausí life depended on what he and Jason did in the next few minutes.
In addition to being a great warrior, Cheiron was also a healer. Along with lessons on fighting and history, strategy and philosophy, he gave instruction on battlefield medicine. Jason and Hercules both absorbed these lessons: Hercules because he was honestly interested and Jason because he felt a responsibility to care for the men that would someday be fighting under his banner.
Now they had to use those skills to try to save Iolausí life.
Hercules quickly rolled the limp form of Iolaus over onto his stomach. Jason carefully repositioned his head to one side, combing the wet blond curls away from the white face. He looked up and nodded at Hercules.
Hercules leaned forward, pumping, pushing down hard on Iolausí ribcage. He could hear the ominous creaking and he winced, but he had to get the water out, even at the risk of breaking Iolaus ribs.
Push. Push. Five times. Six.
He could hear Cheironís voice in his head, admonishing, "Try to keep it in the rhythm with normal breathing."
Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten.
Jason held up his hand and Hercules stopped. The king leaned forward over Iolaus again, holding his hand close to his unconscious friendís mouth and nose. After a few seconds, he looked up, his face white in the blazing light of the torch. "Itís not working. Heís still not breathing."
Hercules stared down in horror. "Iolaus," he whispered. Then, louder, "Iolaus! Breathe!" He started to lean forward again but Jason caught his arm.
"Sit him up!" he snapped.
Confused, but desperate, Hercules did as Jason commanded. Jason grabbed his arms and wrapped them around Iolausí waist. "Push in, and up, with your fist," he said, rubbing the heel of Herculesí palm.
Hercules sucked in his breath. He remembered Cheiron talking about this other technique; remembered the centaur cautioning them against using it, saying it was much more likely to break ribs or do internal damage than the push-on-the-back method. "Itís a last resort," he muttered, echoing the teacherís words.
"Hercules, do it!" Jason demanded. "If he doesnít start breathing soon, it wonít make any difference. Do it!"
Hercules hesitated, then swallowed hard. He tightened his arms around his childhood friend, nestling his closed fists into what he hoped was the correct spot. He could feel wetness on his face but he was unsure whether it was rain or tears. Please, forgive me for hurting you, Iolaus, he prayed.
"Now!" Jason commanded.
Hercules squeezed tightly. Again. And again.
On the third try, Iolaus made a deep, retching sound. Water bubbled from his mouth and nose. Hercules squeezed again, and more water poured out; then Iolaus began coughing--deep, hacking coughs.
Hercules felt a rush of relief so great that for a second the world grayed around him. He was vaguely aware of Jason easing Iolaus from his arms, lying him back down on his side, speaking to him gently, encouragingly. He looked up at Hercules and forced a humorless grin. "Looks like he swallowed half the lake," he commented.
On his knees, Hercules crawled to Iolausí other side, rubbing the other boyís back in soothing circles as Iolaus continued to cough. "Youíre okay, Iolaus," he reassured his friend. Iolausí eyes remained closed and he gave no sign of hearing. Hercules called his name and patted his cheeks, but there was no response. His skin was icy to the touch.
The fear that had eased when Iolaus had started breathing returned in full force. "Jason, heís too cold," he gasped.
Suddenly, a jagged streak of lightening lit up the little clearing, followed closely by the harsh crack of thunder. As if that had been a signal, the skies opened up and sheets of rain cascaded down on the three young men, extinguishing the burning torch. In seconds, Jason and Hercules were as wet as Iolaus. A strong wind picked up, shaking the trees around them.
Hercules could feel his teeth chattering. He shook Jasonís shoulder. "Weíve got to get to shelter!" he yelled over the rising wind. "Iolaus is too cold--we have to get him warm!"
"Weíll be in the same boat if this weather keeps up!" Jason yelled back. "Can you carry him? Iíll grab our gear. We need to make for the cave!"
The next half-hour took on a surreal, nightmarish quality. Clutching Iolausí limp form tightly to his chest, Hercules staggered after Jason up the steep, twisting mountain path, which in places was almost obliterated by rushing water. There was no light save for the streaks of violent lightening shredding the sky--in between the bursts Hercules was stumbling blindly. The temperature plummeted the higher they climbed. Hercules' hands first ached from the cold, then went blessedly but frighteningly numb. Iolausí limp body got heavier by the second.
The shadowy form up ahead that was Jason stopped, hesitated. Rain dripped through Herculesí hair, down the end of his nose. Just as he caught up with Jason, the young king moved forward again, tentatively. Sheer rock rose above them suddenly, barring the way. Hercules gasped and blinked water from his eyes as Jason headed directly toward the rock. Jason dropped two of the packs he was carrying and seemed to push on the rock face. Hercules couldnít see anything but then another streak of lightening shot through the sky and he saw a narrow crack in the rock. Jason pushed again, then reached back and grabbed Herculesí arm, guiding him forward.
Hercules hesitated. Jason seemed to be pushing him toward the tiny crack, but there was no way he could get through there, especially with Iolaus in his arms. He resisted, but Jason put his mouth close to Herculesí ear and yelled, "Turn sideways and just kind of wiggle through. Trust me. Just a couple of steps, and it widens out."
Hercules hesitated, then followed Jasonís instructions. It took some maneuvering to get into the narrow passage while carrying Iolaus, but he managed. The rock pressed in on either side as he inched his way through. It seemed to take forever. Finally though, the passage widened and he stumbled into the open.
After the noise and violence of the storm the cave was blessedly quiet. But dark and cold. He shivered and pressed his back close to the cold stone wall.
"Stay there." Jasonís voice had a tinny echo to it. It seemed to be coming from some distance away.
Hercules stood still in the icy blackness. His arms were starting to ache with a combination of cold and fatigue but he ruthlessly pushed his discomfort aside. He could hear noises as Jason moved around the cave: a thud and a muttered curse, a series of thumps, another curse. "Jason?" he cried out sharply.
"Right here." Jasonís voice came out of the darkness, much closer than Hercules expected. There was a scratching sound, then a spark and a flash of light as a torch flared into life.
Hercules blinked in the sudden brightness. When his eyes had adjusted he could see they were in a small, round chamber. The walls were covered with shiny fragments that caught the flames of the torch and reflected them in millions of crystalline prisms. Two puddles of blackness indicated openings deeper into the mountainside.
Jason was on his knees next to a fire pit built in the center of the cave. Several logs on the sandy floor answered Herculesí question about the thumping noises. Their packs were dropped in a careless heap on the ground. Moving stiffly, Hercules carried Iolaus over to where Jason was coaxing flames to flicker through the kindling heíd piled in the pit. Laying the still body down gently, Hercules reached for one of the packs and tore it open, pulling out a warm blanket.
Jason carefully fed a few of the smaller logs to the fire, sitting back and extending his hands to the flames. "Hercules," he said quietly, "Leave Iolaus alone for a minute and warm yourself."
"Heís cold," Hercules responded stubbornly.
"I know. But so are you. You need to warm up or youíll collapse yourself." At Herculesí defiant look the young king sighed. "Herc," he said gently, using the nickname Iolaus usually called their tall friend, "I canít take care of both of you. Iolaus needs both of us right now."
Hercules hesitated, then nodded reluctantly and shifted closer to the fire as Jason crawled to Iolausí side. The smaller cadet hadnít moved since Hercules had laid him down. Jason slid his fingers underneath Iolausí chin, feeling for the lifebeat. Hercules watched him like a hawk, afraid to ask but having to know.
"He has a pulse," Jason answered that intense stare. He quickly started unfastening Iolausí clothes. Hercules moved to help him and the two wrestled the sopping leather garments off Iolaus and wrapped him in a blanket. Then Jason built up the fire with more logs while Hercules rubbed Iolausí arms and legs briskly through the blanket.
When the first blanket was soaked through they laid it beside the fire and repeated the process with another one, with no luck. Iolaus didnít move or speak and--if anything--his skin was even paler, with a bluish tinge around the lips. Jason was shivering too, in his wet clothes, in spite of the fire; and Hercules had to keep sticking his fingers into his own armpit to warm them.
So finally, they gave up trying to towel Iolaus dry and instead put one blanket on the ground near the fire. They wrapped Iolaus in another blanket. Jason build up the fire as much as possible and then both of them laid down, one on either side of Iolaus, and snuggled the remaining blanket around the three of them.
For what seemed like a long time they lay huddled together, Iolaus a cold, unmoving lump in the middle, his body shaken at intervals by chills. Hercules was farthest from the fire but gradually the warmth seeped into him and he felt his eyelids getting heavy. He fought to stay awake, but his body--exhausted by cold and worry--triumphed over his mind and he slipped into slumber.
******************Jason was going to fall. He knew it. He was going to fall and be smashed to pieces on the stone terrace far below. He could hear the sounds of fighting above him. Hercules was fighting for his life against his half-brother Lucius. Fighting for his life and Jasonís as well. Jason was confident that his friend would win. But--as Jason desperately fought to maintain his grip--he wasnít sure that Herculesí victory would be in time.
From above, Hercules yelled something like "Hang on, Jason!"
"Wow, what a brilliant idea. I never would have thought of that!" Jason panted. Agonizing pain shot through his fingers, his wrist as his hand cramped and loosened. Horrified, Jason lost his grip, felt the air rush by his head as he started the long fall...
Jason jerked awake, heart racing. Something was holding him down. It took a few minutes to convince his imagination he was actually alive, instead of falling to his death; then a few more minutes before his surroundings swam into focus and he remembered--with a sickening jolt--where he was and what had happened. He twisted to check on his friends. Iolaus was curled next to him. Jason touched his face, then slid the hand down to check the pulse in his neck. His skin was warmer to the touch and the bluish color had disappeared from his face. His pulse was stronger, too, although there was a deep rattle to his breathing that didnít sound good at all.
The fire had burned down to glowing embers while they slept. Jason eased out from underneath the blankets, careful not to let the cold air in. Then he realized the weight he had felt holding him down was Hercules arm, which in his sleep the demigod had flung protectively across both of his friends. Jason grinned as he gently repositioned the arm across Iolaus, then reached for his vest. The leather had dried in the warmth of the fire and it felt stiff under his fingers. Jason shrugged into it and set about building up the fire. His stomach clamored insistently. Reaching for one of the packs, Jason upended it in a search for food.
Hercules woke just as Jason finished tearing the dried meat into tiny pieces. He put these in a pot with the last of the water from his water skin, and hung the pot over the fire. Looking up and spying Hercules blinking at him owlishly, Jason tossed him a package of dried fruit and nuts. "Here."
"Thanks." Hercules glanced worriedly at Iolaus. "How is he?"
Jason hesitated, then said, "I think heíll be all right. Heís warmer now and his pulse is strong." He decided to keep his worries about Iolausí breathing to himself.
Hercules shivered and wrapped his arms around himself. "How long was I asleep?"
"I donít really know. I went to sleep too," Jason admitted. "A couple of hours, I guess, judging from the way the fire looked." He noticed Hercules shivering and tossed his chamois shirt at him. "Here. Your clothes are dry. Why donít you get dressed?"
Like most cats, Discord hated the rain. Sheíd have popped herself back to Mt. Olympus at the first suspicion of a raindrop, had she been able to leave her companion.
Unfortunately, as time went on Lucius was losing his grasp on whatever passed for his reality. He cackled with glee as he recounted--for the twentieth time--how he had tricked Iolaus into believing he was Hercules; how Iolaus had fallen into the frigid water of the lake, and his panicked cries for his best friend to help him.
As if I wasnít there and didnít have anything to do with it, the goddess grumbled to herself.
She pulled her warm fur cloak more closely around her as she huddled in the shelter of an immense hollow tree. With a casual wave of her hand, Lucius was rendered voiceless. He didnít realize it though, so he continued to chatter happily to himself while Discord stared out at the sheets of icy rain and brooded over how unfair it all was.
"Itís all Strifeís fault," she said out loud.
She was stuck in this situation with Lucius due to the machinations of the younger god. Strife--that confused never-do-well--had somehow managed to get a leg up on her in their continuing battle of "Who is the most important to Ares, god of War?" She still didnít know how that had happened. She had thought things were going well. Indeed, after Zeus had found out about Strifeís "borrowing" of the North Wind, the resulting punishment from the king of the gods had left Strife slinking fearfully around Aresí castle, jumping at every noise and trembling at the sight of his own shadow. Discord had giggled with delight every time she saw him and Ares just rolled his eyes.
Then suddenly, things changed. Ares was tied up with a escalating conflict between Paloma and Thrace, and it was Strife--Strife!-- heíd chosen to accompany him, leaving Discord to pout all alone.
Thatís when she had gotten the idea to go after Hercules again. Ares hated Hercules; hated him with a passion that really made no sense--a passion that was reserved for equals. Discord didnít understand it--how could that blond, mealy-mouthed, do-gooder demigod pose any threat to mighty Ares, god of war?
Be that as it may be, Hercules was a thorn in Aresí side and therefore the more she could torment him, the better for Discord. She couldnít kill him though, not outright. Zeus had that irritating protection order and Discord had no desire to find herself in Tartarus or spending out the rest of her days as a mushroom or something. But Hercules had weak spots, two of which--Jason and Iolaus--wouldnít survive this little fishing trip.
It was just barely possible that Lucius might manage to kill Hercules. Discord doubted it but stranger things had been known to happen. But with her help, there was no doubt Lucius could kill Jason and Iolaus. That would be as good, or maybe even better, than Hercules dying himself. And if Hercules killed Lucius--well, then, even mighty Zeus might change his mind about his favorite son.
One way or another, Hercules would be destroyed.
Discord wrapped her arms around herself and laughed in joyous delight.
"Iolaus. Iolaus. Come on, Iolaus, wake up."
Iolaus groaned and turned away from the insistent voice. He didnít want to wake up. His head throbbed, his body ached and something that felt like a mountain was sitting on his chest.
"Iolaus!" the voice commanded.
"No," Iolaus mumbled. "Too early..."
Another voice joined in now. "Arenít you hungry?"
Hungry. Iolaus was usually hungry, but right now he could honestly say he wasnít. Matter of fact, his stomach rolled at the mere thought of food. "No," he said again, trying to turn away from that annoying light in his eyes. "Blow out that torch," he muttered through numb lips. "Itís giving me a headache."
The light didnít go away, but the voices did, for a few minutes. Just as Iolaus was slipping back into sleep, he felt someone lift him, sit him up. Somebody or something warm was holding him, steadying his head, holding a cup to his lips. "Come on, Iolaus, just drink a little of this," the first voice coaxed. A hand gently patted his cheeks.
Gods, I feel sick, Iolaus thought. Reasoning that if the Voices thought he was trying to cooperate they might leave him alone, he took a sip of the liquid they were offering him.
"Ack!" he gagged, pushing the cup away. "What is that stuff? Are you trying to poison me?"
He forced his eyes open and blinked rapidly in the light, trying to focus on two shadowy forms. For some reason he couldnít get his eyes to focus properly and the light jabbed little arrows of pain into his skull. "Ohhh," he moaned, closing his eyes again and sinking back against whomever--or whatever--was holding him.
"Iolaus?" one of the voices demanded. "How do you feel?"
Jeez, what a stupid question, Herc, Iolaus thought. Wait a minute... "Herc?" he said aloud.
"Itís me. Iím right here," said the Voice. It seemed to be somewhere above him. Iolaus pried his eyes open and stared up into the two shadowy faces staring back at him. "Herc. Jason. What are you doing here?" Then a thought occurred to him and he struggled to look around. "Where are we?"
"Weíre in a cave," Jason answered him. "How do you feel?"
"Rotten. How do you expect me to feel after I---after..."
His heart started to pound hard as he remembered being on the rock, Hercules calling him, the rock striking his head, falling into the water. The water covering his head. Knowing--for one just brief instant--that he was going to die--
"Iolaus!" Hercules shook him, gently. "Itís all right. Youíre safe now. Just breathe."
Breathe? Oh, yeah, breathe. Iolaus realized he was holding his breath. He released it from his straining lungs and gratefully drew in another. Heart thudding, he relaxed against Herculesí chest, then belatedly tried to pull away.
Hercules held him tightly. "What? Iolaus, what is it?"
Iolaus stared at him, stared into the face he knew as well as his own. He saw nothing but warm concern, anxiety, in those eyes staring into his. Slowly, slowly he relaxed. "It wasnít you," he murmured softly. "I should have known...it wasnít you."
"Who are you talking about?" Jason asked, holding the cup to Iolausí mouth again. "Drink it," he said warningly as the younger cadet turned his head away. "Itís just some herb tea. Itíll help that headache."
Iolaus made a face but obediently sipped the brackish liquid again. If it would mute that pounding in his head... "Howíd you know I have a headache?"
Jason laughed a little. "Well, I guessed. Judging from the size of that knot on your head, itís probably a doozy."
"Youíve got that right." Iolaus reached up and touched the throbbing lump on his forehead, wincing as the movement set off a chorus of complaints from every part of his body. "Who dropped a mountain on me?" he asked.
"Nobody. You went for a swim with all of your clothes on, remember?" Hercules teased.
"I donít know how to swim," Iolaus argued.
"Well, that was pretty obvious," Jason responded dryly. "I thought you promised to stay on that rock until we got back, Iolaus."
"Jason," Hercules protested.
"I did stay on that rock. Someone told me to come in. I thought it was Hercules," Iolaus explained. He shook his head when Jason offered the cup again. "Not right now, Jase... I feel kinda sick."
"You swallowed half of the lake," Jason noted absently. "What do you mean, you Ďthought it was Herculesí? Hercules was with me. Who was it?"
Iolaus managed to shake his head, feeling Herculesí shirt under his cheek. "I donít know," he mumbled drowsily. "I thought it was Herc. Looked like Herc. Sounded like Herc...sort of. But then he started throwing rocks at me."
"What?" Jason and Hercules chorused. Jason sounded confused and Hercules shocked.
"He...whoever he was, started throwing rocks at me. Hit me," Iolaus gestured toward his chest. "I lost my balance and fell in. I grabbed the rock, but the water was so cold." His voice was becoming more and more faint. "I thought it was Herc..."
Hercules looked up at Jason as Iolaus relaxed back into sleep. "What was that all about?"
Jason shrugged, kneeling beside the two of them and checking Iolausí pulse once again. He gently probed the discolored flesh around the lump on Iolausí forehead. "He might have imagined it. Thatís a pretty bad clunk he took to his head." He reached for the blanket and covered Iolaus again.
Hercules shook his head. "There had to be some reason he tried to come in. He was too far away from the big rock to have just fallen into the lake."
"Like I said. He saw a rabbit or a deer or a boar...come on, Hercules, it could have been anything. You know how Iolaus is."
"He promised heíd stay put," Hercules said stubbornly. "Besides... heís not an idiot, Jason. He knows he canít swim."
"I never said he was an idiot. All Iím saying is that the words Ďcautioní and Ďfearí are not exactly a part of his vocabulary."
"No," Hercules agreed quietly, "but the words Ďloyaltyí and Ďfriendshipí are."
Jason stared at him, realizing the demigod was deadly serious. "Okay, I agree with that, but so what?"
Hercules eased Iolaus down to the ground. "How do you feel about Iolaus almost drowning, getting hurt?" he asked, seemingly out of the blue.
"How do I feel? Well...worried, of course. Concerned. Umm, irritated, a little. I donít know..."
"Guilty?" Hercules asked quietly.
Jason stared into the flames. "Yeah, okay, I do feel guilty. If weíd been there--"
"Exactly," Hercules agreed. "I feel guilty too. Donít you see, Iolaus would know weíd feel like that. He might not be cautious for his own sake, but he would be cautious for ours. Thatís the way he thinks."
Jason gave that some thought; then he nodded his head. "Okay, that makes sense. I mean, given Iolaus," he grinned a little, "that makes sense. So what do you think happened? You were with me, you couldnít have been down at the beach throwing rocks at Iolaus. Not that you would anyway," he added hastily. He sucked in his breath, seeing suddenly where Hercules was headed. "You think it was one of the gods? Can they change shape like that?"
"Some of them can, I think. But really, they wouldnít have had to. Think about it. It was getting dark, and Iolaus was quite a ways from shore. He couldnít have seen who it was very clearly. It was really more the voice. And any god could fake my voice."
"Like Ares," Jason said flatly.
"Or Strife, or Discord."
"But why? I mean, what would be the point?"
Hercules stared into the flames. "I wish I knew," he whispered.
Discord had had enough.
Wet, cold, muddy and thoroughly uncomfortable, she glanced over at her current partner. Lucius was curled up asleep in a bed of leaves, nuzzling something to his face. Curious, she moved closer and saw it was something pink, and lacy...a womenís nightgown. Ragged and dirty as it was, the demigod clutched it close to his face and, as she watched, he kissed it. "Yes, Mummy," he murmured in his sleep.
"Oh, gross!" Discord backtracked hastily. This dweeb is so off he makes Strife appear sane, she thought.
Well, sheíd had it. Lucius looked like he was set to sleep through the night. Hercules and his little friends were no doubt holed up somewhere waiting the storm out. Nothing would happen until morning.
With a sigh of relief, Discord willed herself back to Mt. Olympus. A hot bath, food, her own soft, warm bed with one of her pet mortals to share it with her...these were the kind of things a goddess needed on a miserable, wet night.
The next phase of her plan could easily wait until morning.
Hercules stared into the flames. Across the fire, Jason slept next to Iolaus, who occasionally coughed in his sleep. Every time he did so, Jason would stir, as if he were waking, then would sink back to sleep when Iolaus stopped.
Twice, Hercules had crossed to Iolausí side, feeling his hands and face, checking him for fever as well as to make sure he was maintaining body heat. The deep, barking coughs worried him, but Iolaus was staying warm enough and yet wasnít feverish, so Hercules hoped the cough would pass.
He yawned, feeling fatigue drag at his bones. It had been a long day. One day? Had they really sat out from Corinth only that morning? It seemed like weeks had passed.
Alone with only his thoughts--his body drooping with weariness--those thoughts turned dark. He glanced over at his two best friends, safely asleep, and counted up the many times their lives had been endangered by Hercules and his various godly and demi-godly relatives.
Life had been a lot simpler when he was little. As a child he had believed himself to be--like his older brother Iphicles--the son of Alcmene and Amyphitron, a warrior who had died before his birth. Heíd wondered sometimes at the flickering, sidelong looks heíd received in the town; wondered why his brother Iphicles didnít live with he and his mother, but rather with his grandparents--the same grandparents that never even acknowledged Hercules.
Alcmene had never meant to lie to him about his parentage. Hercules had come to realize later that she herself had long clung to her belief that her husband was indeed the father of her younger son, even though people said Amyphitron had been dead weeks before Hercules was even conceived. But, as Hercules had grown from toddler to childhood, she had reluctantly admitted the truth to herself and to him. Did Zeus--my father--did he make himself known to her? Did he watch me as a baby? As a child? Or did he just slake his lust on a mortal woman and go on his way, never again thinking of her or the child he left behind?
One part of his mind gently chided that he wasnít being fair to his unknown father. Zeus had, after all, place a protection order upon him (and probably many other children he had fathered by mortals, another part jeered). Alcmene didnít seem to hate Zeus for what heíd done; neither did she waste much time in bemoaning her fate and muttering might-have-beens. Iím lucky, Hercules admitted to himself, pulling his knees closer to his chest. She could have been like Luciusí mother. No wonder heís so nuts.
Lucius, who had killed another half-brother and framed his twin for the murder. Lucius who had tricked Hercules and almost killed Jason.
But Lucius--and the risk he posed--paled in comparison to others. Hera, who hated Hercules for no other reason than he was living proof of her husbandís infidelity; Strife and Discord, who--together and separately--schemed and conspired to make Herculesí life a living Tartarus and didnít care if his mortal friends and family paid the price.
His half-brothers, Ares and Apollo, hated him with an enmity that almost took his breath away. Even his sister Artemis--one of the better relatives heíd met--had been directly responsible for Iolaus almost dying from a hunterís arrow.
"Pretty gloomy thoughts, Iíd guess."
Hercules looked up as Jason tucked a blanket around his shoulders, then dropped lightly down to sit across the fire. "I thought you were asleep," he commented.
Jason yawned. "I should be," he admitted. "But you should be too. So whatís going on?"
Hercules shrugged, his eyes on the fire.
Jason sighed. "So itís going to be a guessing game, huh? Twenty Questions whatís in Herculesí mind? Well, I wonít need twenty. Youíre somehow working this all around so Iolausí little adventure is your fault. And from there youíre deciding that you put both of us at too much risk and that we might be better off if you werenít around."
"Well, I hadnít gone quite that far," Hercules mumbled.
"Well, thatís progress at least. Hercules, you do this every time something happens. Look...we donít even know what happened this afternoon, and we wonít know unless Iolaus remembers when he wakes up--"
"He thought he saw me!" Hercules snapped.
"We think thatís what he thought," Jason fired back. He grinned and shook his head. "That sounds like something heíd say. But Hercules, even so, itís not your fault. Anymore any stunt Discord, Strife or Ares pulls is your fault."
"They hate me," Hercules muttered.
"So? Thatís their problem."
"But when being my friends places the two of you at risk--"
Jason sighed again. "Hercules, we know the Ďrisksí--as you call them--associated with being your friends. Both Iolaus and I chose to accept them. But if you look at it that way, the two of you could be in danger because of me. Does that mean I shouldnít accept your friendship? And Iolaus--his old buddies captured the Academy and took Lilith and Feducius hostage. So should we not associate with Iolaus?"
"Thatís different," Hercules insisted.
"No, actually, itís not."
"Who says so?" Hercules managed with a glimmer of humor.
"Me." Jason puffed out his chest. "And remember, I am the King!"
Hercules couldnít help it, he burst into laughter. Jason grinned. "Now, you get some sleep. Iím wide awake now, Iíll keep an eye on things."
Hercules took a deep breath, aware again of his exhaustion. "Is that an order from the king?"
"Nah," Jason grinned at him affectionately. "Consider it a request--from a friend."
Jason came into the cave, the filled water bags hanging from his arms. A quick glance at his friends revealed neither of them had moved since he'd left to get water. As quietly as he could, Jason set about preparing a meager breakfast with the last of the food packed by the palace cooks.
"Oh, my head," someone moaned.
Jason looked up as Iolaus rolled over and struggled to a sitting position. "Hey, buddy," the king greeted his friend. "How do you feel?"
Iolaus groaned again. "Please tell me it was a great party and that I had a wonderful time."
Jason stared at him, then burst into laughter. "Sorry, Iolaus," he gasped between chuckles. "You're not hung over, if that's what you're thinking."
Iolaus glared at him sourly and he gracelessly clambered over Hercules to be closer to the fire. "That's a shame, I was hoping at the very least I'd made an impression on a few beautiful girls, to be feeling this bad." He ended with a cough. When he could breathe again, he went on, his voice sounding strangled, "Well, tell me, what did happen?"
Jason's grin vanished as he heard the hoarse rattling from Iolaus' lungs. He reached around to place his hand on the other boy's forehead, frowning at the warmth. "You're running a fever," he said.
"Can't be," Iolaus disagreed, shaking suddenly with chills. "I'm too cold."
Jason grabbed a blanket and wrapped it around Iolaus' shoulders, then reached for the pot over the fire. "Here. Eat some of this. Good thing we're heading back to Corinth today--we're out of food."
"We're going back?" Iolaus questioned, taking a bite of the hot mush. "We're not due back until tomorrow."
Jason stared at him. "You're sick, Iolaus," he pointed out. "Plus, after what you saw yesterday--"
He left the sentence hanging, hoping Iolaus would finish it for him, but the younger cadet just looked at him innocently. "What did I see?" he questioned hoarsely.
"You don't remember falling in the lake?"
"Is that what happened to me?"
"Iolaus!" Jason said warningly. "Are you saying you don't remember?"
Before Iolaus could answer, there was groan from the other side of the fire and Hercules suddenly sat bolt-upright, a panicked expression on his face. "Iolaus!" he gasped.
"Right here, pal," Iolaus croaked, taking another bite of the mush and making a face.
Hercules sagged back on his elbows. "I was having a dream," he murmured. "How do you feel?"
"He has a fever," Jason answered, pouring some of the contents of the pot into a mug and handing it to Hercules. The demigod looked at it a little doubtfully but took a bite anyway.
They ate in silence for a few minutes, then Hercules fixed his bright blue eyes on Iolaus. "Yesterday, at the lake, why did you think whoever it was was me?"
Jason was close enough to Iolaus that he could hear the quickly indrawn breath, but Iolaus' expression didn't change. "What are you talking about?" he asked.
"Iolaus seems to have forgotten a few things about yesterday," Jason reported, his voice sounding skeptical even to his own ears.
"Iolaus, this is important," Hercules said in a no-nonsense tone. "What do you remember?"
Iolaus shook his head. "I remember you two leaving. I had a big fish on the line and I--he got away. That's it."
"That's it?" Jason repeated.
"Until I woke up this morning." Iolaus kept his eyes on the fire.
Sneaking a look at Hercules, Jason wasn't at all surprised to see the skepticism on his face. Iolaus just wasn't a good liar. Before either of them could confront him, though, the smaller cadet scrambled to his feet and lurched to the across the cave into the dark alcove. He bent over, arms around his stomach as he vomited violently into the shadows.
"Iolaus!" Hercules and Jason reached him as he collapsed to his knees, still retching. There was nothing they could do so they just hovered there helplessly, as spasm after painful spasm racked Iolaus. Finally, when there was nothing left to come up, the smaller boy curled up on his side, moaning softly. His face was red and his eyes watering and he shuddered with chills.
Hercules helped him back to the fire and wrapped him in all the blankets. Jason handed him a cup of water. "Here. But don't drink it," he said gently. "Just rinse your mouth out. We don't want it coming right back up again." He laid his hand on Iolaus' forehead worriedly. Was it his imagination or was the blond hotter than he'd been a few minutes before?
Iolaus obediently swished the water around in his mouth before curling back into the nest of blankets. Weak as he was he still commented, "Good thing you're a king, Jason--you'd never make it as a short-order cook."
Jason smiled. "I don't think it's my cooking, I think you're sick," he said gently, dampening a cloth with the cold water and wiping Iolaus' face with it. Iolaus allowed this, a dead giveaway that he was feeling bad. He started coughing again; deep shuddering barks that sounded as if his lungs were going to erupt from his mouth, and then he gagged. Jason grabbed a bowl but there was nothing to come up but a little bile. Iolaus groaned, closing his eyes and turning his face into the blanket.
Hercules and Jason's eyes met over his still form. "We need to get him down off this mountain," Hercules said quietly. "Have you been outside? What's the weather like?"
Jason frowned. "Cold," he said reluctantly. "It's stopped raining, but it's cloudy. Really cloudy."
"More rain?" Hercules groaned.
"Or snow, this high up."
"We'd better get moving, then."
"I don't think Iolaus can walk."
"I don't intend for him to."
"Will you two stop discussing me as if I wasn't even here," Iolaus complained, pushing the blanket away from his face. "It's just a cold."
"Go to sleep, Iolaus," Hercules said comfortingly. "We'll have you back in Corinth before you know it."
"You are not carrying me off this mountain," Iolaus warned, "Not if I have anything to say about it." The words would have had more impact if he hadn't started coughing violently right after he said them.
Jason waited until he was quiet again before getting to his feet and beckoning for Hercules to follow him. He led the way through the narrow passage and out onto the path. Turning to Hercules, his breath steaming in the frigid air, he said, "He might be right. We maybe should stay here."
"I can carry him," Hercules insisted.
"All the way down the mountain? I know you're strong, Hercules, but you are human. Carrying him up the last part of the path last night exhausted you. What about the part where the path is less than a foot wide? In the rain, or snow? Besides," Jason shivered, "it's getting colder, fast. I just don't think he needs to be out in it."
Hercules stared at him. "Are you crazy? You want to stay up here? Iolaus is sick! And what about--"
"We have shelter and water and fire, here," Jason pointed out. "It's a half day's walk back to Corinth--and that's if the weather is good." He hesitated. "We could get to the Academy quicker," he said reluctantly.
Jason nodded. "Remember where I took you yesterday? You didn't notice...and I forgot to say anything, but you can see the Academy from there. I've gone that way, sometimes. But it's straight down the mountain."
Hercules shuddered, remembering those steep, sheer walls of rock and trying to imagine climbing down them with Iolaus in his arms. He wrapped his arms around himself, not protesting when Jason urged him back into the cave. "But he's sick."
"I know...I'm worried too. But it might just be because of the dunking he took yesterday. We can keep him warm enough here, and dry. There's no way we could keep him warm or dry if we tried to get back today."
Hercules nodded in agreement. "You're right. Do we have enough firewood?"
"Yes. But not much food. One of us needs to go hunting before the storm breaks."
Hercules managed a smile. "Too bad Iolaus is the one who's sick!" The blond was a better hunter than either of his two friends, a little fact he frequently reminded them of. "I'll go," Hercules volunteered. He hesitated. "The two of you will be okay?"
Jason pulled out his knife--the one with the jeweled hilt bearing the crest of Corinth. "We'll be fine," he said firmly. He smiled weakly in turn. "You won't be gone that long."
Iolaus stirred, then opened his eyes as Jason bathed his hot face with the wet cloth. "Hey," he muttered faintly, wincing. His chest felt as if the whole mountain was sitting on it.
"Hey yourself. Did you have a good nap?"
Iolaus frowned. "I donít take naps," he said rebelliously. "I was just resting my eyes."
Jasonís lips quirked. "Oh, how stupid of me. Well, did you have a nice time resting your eyes, then?"
Iolaus didnít bother to dignify that with an answer. He looked around the cave. "Whereís Herc?"
"He went hunting. Weíre out of food."
Iolaus would have laughed if he hadnít been afraid heíd wake up the cough monster residing in his chest again. "And you sent Herc? Weíll starve!"
"Hey now, none of that. We managed to catch you, once, remember?"
Iolaus took a breath and winced at the pain. "You didnít catch me, you caught a deer in my body. And it took both of you to do it!"
Jason offered him a cup of water. "Here. Sit up and drink a little of this."
Iolaus eyed the cup warily. "Iím afraid itíll just come back up."
"You need fluids to fight the fever." Jason slipped his arm around Iolaus and helped him to sit up, holding the cup to his lips. Iolaus drank a couple of sips and promptly gagged. "No, now, donít do that. Just relax and take deep breaths. You can keep it down."
Jasonís voice was warm and soothing and Iolaus closed his eyes as he concentrated on it. To his relief, the nausea eased. He could even take another sip of water. "Guess itís a good thing Cheiron insists on all those ĎBattlefield Medicineí lectures, huh?" he said sleepily.
Jason helped him to lie back down and pulled the blankets up around his neck. "Why did you lie?" he asked suddenly.
Iolaus cracked open one eyelid. "Lie?" he asked innocently.
"Donít," Jason warned. "You know what Iím talking about. Why did you lie about forgetting what happened yesterday?"
Iolaus sighed. "Cause I figured out what it had to mean. I think I see Herc. I think I hear Herc. But it canít be Herc cause he was with you and anyway, Herc wouldnít throw rocks at me. So, hey, someoneís either pretending to be Herc or wants me to think it was Herc--" he broke off as the coughs tore from him again. Jason helped him to roll over on one side--it seemed a little easier to breathe that way. He finished weakly, "Given the nature of Hercís family, that kind of indicates one of them was hanging around last night."
"Thatís true, so why did you lie about it?"
"Because I get sick of Herc blaming himself every time one of us gets hurt because of him. Well, not him, but thatís the way he looks at it. You know he still has nightmares about the time Lucius pushed you off the parapet? And the time Uncle shot me. And probably every other time Ares or Discord or Strife or Apollo or any of them have done anything the least little bit threatening to one of us." He fell back, exhausted, muttering, "It just gets old."
Before Jason could answer they heard footsteps echoing from the rock walls. They werenít coming from the outer passageway though, but from deeper inside the cave, from the alcove where Iolaus had been sick earlier. Jason and Iolaus exchanged worried looks.
"Maybe itís Herc--maybe he found another way in," Iolaus whispered.
"And maybe itís not," Jason responded grimly, pulling his knife from his belt.
The footsteps came closer. The yellow light of a torch could be seen emerging from the shadows. Jason moved to stand over Iolaus protectively. "Show yourself!" he demanded.
"With pleasure." A tall figure emerged from the blackness, carrying a flaming piece of wood in front of him.
Jason gasped. "You!"
Discord materialized near the huge, hollow tree. "Lucius!" she called, climbing over some dead wood to get closer. "Lucius! Wake up, itís morning."
A bird, disturbed by her noise, flew angrily away, but there was no other sign of life.
Discord sighed, pulling the heavy cloak sheíd had the foresight to bring with her more closely around her body. The cloak wasnít hers--her wardrobe could be described as "revealing" rather than "concealing"--but after all Strife wasnít likely to protest her borrowing it. "Lucius," she called again, stooping to enter the cavity, "get--"
The hollow tree was empty.
Puzzled, Discord turned in a circle. Maybe this was the wrong tree? No, there was a mound of leaves forming a makeshift bed; and, caught amongst the leaves, a scrap of pink lace.
"Oh, damn!" the goddess swore.
She concentrated, trying to "home in" on Lucius. It was a skill not many gods seemed to have and Discord herself was unsure if she could do it because of being a goddess or if her ability was due to her studies of sorcery and witchcraft. Whatever, it wasnít working this time. She was getting too many conflicting feelings--this way, that way, where?
She hesitated. The "feeling" seemed to be stronger toward the north. Sheíd take that path first.
Hercules slung the rabbit over one shoulder. It was a fairly big hare; that should be enough for a day or two, especially if Iolausí appetite was blunted by his illness. He grinned at the thought, but any amusement was soon lost in his memories of that morning. Hercules hated it when people he cared about were ill. He especially hated it when Iolaus was sick, simply because he was such a terrible patient. Herculesí own mother Alcmene--usually the soul of patience with sick people--had once threatened to tie Iolaus to the bed to keep him from putting his weight on a badly sprained ankle. Cheiron hadnít threatened two months before when Iolaus and another cadet had become ill from eating bad mushrooms--heíd simply done it.
Hercules knew there was no way he could tie Iolaus down. No matter how much harm the other boy was doing to himself, Hercules simply wouldnít be able to do it.
Jason would have to.
Grinning again, in spite of himself, Hercules climbed up the steep path toward the cave. Glancing downwards, his blood froze as he saw the figure carefully sidling up the steep rise.
His voice rang in the clear air. The goddess stopped dead, her eyes meeting his defiantly. "Why, Hercules," she said sweetly. "What an unexpected...pleasure."
"So it was you," Hercules breathed. "You tried to kill Iolaus yesterday!"
"Why, what a thing to say to your own sister."
"Step-sister," Hercules insisted. Actually, he was a little fuzzy about the relationship between them--heíd never figured out exactly where Discord perched on the family tree--but he instinctively denied a close relationship.
She shrugged. "Whatever. And youíre right--or maybe half-right. I did play a part in what happened to your little blond buddy, although I did have some help. Even poor dense Iolaus wasnít too likely to mistake me for you." Her tone sharpened. "But make no mistake about it, brother dear--if Iíd wanted him dead yesterday, heíd have died."
Hercules dropped the rabbit and took a step toward her. "You leave him alone, Discord. You leave them both alone. Iím warning you!"
"Oh, like thatís supposed to scare me?" Discord focused her glittering green eyes on him, half raising one hand. Hercules leapt wildly to the side an instant before the lightning bolt pulverized the rock where he had been standing.
The battle had begun.
Jason stared at the figure in the wavering light. "You," he repeated.
Lucius grinned humorlessly. "Glad to see you remember me. Introductions can be so awkward, canít they?" He glanced around the cave. "Not much of a throne room, ĎYour Majestyí...and havenít you misplaced my not-so-beloved brother somewhere?" His gaze dropped to Iolaus. "Oh, my, weíre looking a bit under the weather, Iolaus. Whatever could be the matter? You didnít...oh, I donít know--take a swim or something last night, did you?" He smirked.
There was a scrabbling noise and a muttered curse, then Iolaus breathlessly said, "Jason, help me up."
A protest rose to Jasonís lips but he checked it. Keeping his knife at the ready and his flinty gaze unfailingly on Lucius, he reached down his free hand. Iolaus grabbed it and Jason pulled him to his feet, aware of the heat radiating off the otherís body and the shakiness of his limbs. Still, Iolausí voice was steady as he said, "It was you last night, wasnít it?"
"It was I. You were pretty easy to fool, actually. I wonder why my brother keeps you around, Iolaus? It must be because he likes having somebody dumber than he is at his beck and call."
Jason restrained Iolaus with a touch. He kept his own body in front of the other boy protectively. "What do you want, Lucius?"
The demigod shrugged. "I want to destroy my brother." He smiled. It was not a nice smile. "Youíre going to help me."
"Over our dead bodies!" Iolaus exclaimed.
Still smiling, Lucius drew his sword as he stepped toward them. "Well, thatís kind of the idea."
Oh no, Iolaus thought disjointedly. This is not good.
He stood behind Jason, barely able to keep his balance on his shaking legs, but determined he wasnít going to hang on to his friend. Jason needed all his attention to be on Lucius right now. He was defending their lives, and Iolaus knew he somehow had to back him up.
He ignored the pounding in his head and let his eyes roam about the cavern, seeking his weapons. He finally spotted them--his bow and knife, as well as Jasonís sword--on top of a pile of clothing. Very familiar clothing, at that.
My clothes? He glanced down and for the first time realized all he had on was his clout. Geez, guys, what in Hades did you do that for? Leave a guy some dignity! He started to say something to Jason but then shut up. Jason was intent on Lucius and when Iolaus looked at the demigod he felt even more cold all over.
Iolaus had only met Lucius the one time, the first time heíd come to see Hercules. Well, heíd seen him the time Lucius had tried to burn Alcmeneís house down, but he might not have even recognized him now. It wasnít that Lucius looked so different--it was more that he looked so crazy.
Canít believe I ever mistook him for Herc, Iolaus thought, uneasily watching as the demigodís eyes darkened with insane glee as he slowly advanced toward them, sword in one hand, flaming torch in the other. Jason didnít move, didnít back away, even though Iolaus could see Jasonís small belt knife was no match for Luciusí sword.
"Iíve waited for this day, ĎKingí Jason," the demigod drawled mockingly, twirling the tip of his sword in little circles. "Iíve waited, and planned. Today I take my revenge on you, on my hated half-brother, on all the world!" His voice rose until the last words tore through the air in a high-pitched shriek.
This guy has definitely cracked his hourglass and the sand is spilling out, Iolaus thought.
"Whatís your grudge against me, Lucius?" Jason asked steadily, although somehow Iolaus knew he wasnít nearly as calm as he was pretending to be. "Why do you hate Hercules so much? Hercules isnít the reason Zeus doesnít pay you any attention, you know."
"I spit upon Zeus!" the demigod raved. "I could care less if my father ever acknowledges me! He owed that to my mother, and itís too late!"
ĎToo late?í Iolaus thought dizzily.
"Too late?" Jason echoed breathlessly.
Lucius lowered the tip of his sword. He regarded Jason through glittering, raging eyes. "Sheís dead. Sheís dead because of you. Because you shamed me."
Jason reached behind him and touched Iolausí arm. His fingers were cold and their pressure insistent. He was trying to communicate something to Iolaus. "How did I shame you, Lucius? Youíre the one who failed to kill me. The shame is all yours."
Luciusí face darkened and distorted with rage. He lunged forward with the sword, roaring something, spittle dripping from his lips. Yelling, "Now, Iolaus!" Jason tightened his fingers on Iolausí arm and shoved him toward their weapons.
Iolaus stumbled, desperately tried to regain his balance. Blinking hard to clear a grayish mist from his eyes, he staggered forward--and something grabbed him.
Lucius jerked Iolaus back against his chest, one arm tightly around the blondeís neck. Grinning nastily, he brought the sword so that the tip rested lightly upon Iolausí heaving chest. "Good try, Ďyour majestyí," he gloated, tightening his grip around Iolausí throat. "But youíre no match for me. Iím the son of Zeus! And Iím greater than my father will ever be!"
Herc, now would be a real good time to put in an appearance, Iolaus pleaded with anyone who might be listening. He saw the bleak look on Jasonís face.
"Drop the knife," Lucius commanded. He tightened his arm even more, cutting off Iolausí airway.
Through a roaring in his ears and waves of black and gray that kept swimming in his vision, Iolaus recognized with terror the look on Jasonís face. He saw his friendís hand twitch as he loosened his fingers around the knifeís hilt.
With the last of his air screaming in his starving lungs, Iolaus exploded into action. He brought his hands up, fingers clawing into Luciusí arm; at the same time he tossed his head back. The back of his head contacted something with a satisfying crunch! and Lucius yelled, loosening his grip just slightly. Iolaus lunged forward and then kicked back with all his strength.
His kick was off target but close enough that Lucius still emitted a strangled yell. Iolaus elbowed him hard in the ribs and the demigodís sword flew back several feet to land with a clang on the cavern floor.
Jason flung himself through the air to collide with Lucius. The three of them rolled across the floor in a mad tangle of body parts. Jason had his knife gripped tightly in his hand but Lucius still had his arm locked around Iolausí neck. They rolled to a halt near the fire, Jason on top of Lucius with Iolaus sprawled half on the demigod and half on the dirt floor. "Let him go," Jason ordered from between clenched teeth.
"I donít think so," Lucius snarled, bending his elbow. An unbearable pressure cut into Iolausí throat. His hands flew up to pry fruitlessly at Luciusí arm but the muscles suddenly felt like steel. His throat was being crushed. He opened his mouth, desperately, but couldnít get any air. The blackness rushed in and he felt himself stiffen, then go limp. The last thing he saw before darkness claimed him was the terrified expression on Jasonís face...
Iolaus! Gods, heís killing him! the words shrieked through Jasonís mind.
His hand tightened on the knife. Lucius was going to kill Iolaus--by breaking his neck, crushing his windpipe, or just smothering him. Jason would have only one chance to stop him. One, fast, deadly stab with the knife his father had given him on his birthday. Only a killing blow would release Iolaus in time.
He raised his arm up, then brought it down, plunging the blade at Luciusí chest.
Everything happened in slow motion.
Lucius saw the blade descending. His eyes wide with mortal fear and the same insane rage, he jerked his arm, bringing Iolausí limp form between him and the blade. Jasonís mind shrieked a horrified denial--
As his hand plunged his knife into Iolausí stomach.
Hercules dodged again as Discordís power bolt shattered the massive trunk of a venerable old pine tree.
"This is getting us nowhere, Discord!" he yelled. Her answer was another blast. Fragments of the boulder sheíd obliterated flew through the air, stinging his cheek.
Hercules wasnít too concerned that Discord could hurt him. She was at her best sneaking in the shadows rather than at overt combat. Her most aggressive weapon was her power bolts, and Hercules was dodging those with ease. ĎToo easily, maybe,í he thought, suddenly suspicious.
Discord might just be thinking about Zeusí protection order, but Hercules doubted that. Heíd taken blasts from Aresí lightning bolts in the past without dying and Discordís were barely a fraction of the strength of the god of warís. Discord was no fool; she had to know that.
On the other hand, Hercules wasnít doing well in aggressiveness right now, either. In the last quarter hour heíd discovered something about himself that could be a real problem.
He couldnít hit a girl.
Even if the "girl" was Discord. Even if sheíd been responsible for Iolaus falling into the lake, and even if she was doing her best to rearrange the local scenery with her power bolts. Even if she was his stepsister. Half-sister. Whatever.
Hercules couldnít make himself hit her.
Just as he realized this, there was a flash of light and an earsplitting roar and Ares, god of war, appeared between Discord and Hercules.
Discordís latest power bolt smacked into him, but the only effect it seemed to have was to make him even more irritated.
"Do you two mind?" he snarled.
"Come to fight your own battles, huh, Ares?" Hercules taunted. "Well, Iíll tell you what I told her--leave my friends alone!"
The god of war put his hands on his leather-clad hips and regarded Hercules balefully. "Baby brother, I have no idea what youíre talking about--" he paused "--and I really donít care. I have business to tend to. Discord!" he shouted, spinning around to confront the goddess. "Whatever youíre up to--and again, I really donít care--stops now. What in Hades are you doing here anyway? Youíre supposed to be in Thrace!"
"Thrace!" Discord shrieked. "You didnít let me go to Thrace. You said you and Strife could handle it." Scorn dripped from the name "Strife".
"Well, since when has me telling you couldnít go somewhere stopped you from going anyway?" Ares roared back. "And things are falling apart now. I had a nice little war going there and then that moron Strife screwed up AGAIN and now the Thracian princess is making cow eyes at the Crown Prince of Paloma...and their fathers are talking dowry and weddings and PEACE!" He ended with such a disgusted roar that a flock of birds were disturbed from their perch on the surrounding trees. He went on, "I need you to get your shapely butt over there and DO SOMETHING!"
Discordís face lit up with an emotion that Hercules had to assume was joy. "You need me?" she purred.
Ares rolled his eyes. "Discord! Go! NOW!"
She quickly glanced at Hercules. "Well, Iím in the middle--"
"Discord, I appreciate your initiative here, but torturing my fatherís bastard is pleasure. And you know what I always say: Work comes before pleasure. So get yourself to Thrace now before I throw you there!"
The two of them vanished in bursts of light. Hercules was left standing alone on the mountainside. "What was that all about?" he wondered aloud.
A horrible, soul-shattering scream shredded the air. Hercules gasped, a sick feeling churning deep in his gut.
The scream had come from the direction of the cave.
"NOOOOOOOO!" Jason screamed.
When it resumed in a series of stuttering, staggering images, Jason found himself holding Iolaus, clutching him desperately against his chest. The blond lay still, blood oozing out from around the knife. "Iolaus," he whispered. "I am so, so, sorry...I didnít mean to...not you..."
He heard laughter--wild, insane, mocking laughter--and looked up to see Lucius looming over him, sword held high over his head. "This is fitting," the demigod sneered. "The last thing youíll ever see is the face of the friend you killed!"
Jason stared at the sword unflinchingly. Itís over. Let him kill me. I donít care.
Then he heard it. A tiny voice, barely a whisper. "...jason...?"
Startled, Jason looked down, to see Iolausí lashes fluttering against his pale cheeks. Jasonís heart froze as heavy lids lifted, exposing eyes dull with pain and fever. "Jason?" Iolaus said again, his voice a little stronger.
A hiss of displaced air warned Jason just in time. He threw himself to the side, dragging Iolaus with him, as the heavy sword cleaved the ground where theyíd been an instant before. Lucius yelled--an explosion of frustration and rage and hatred--and yanked the sword free of the dirt, turning to face his victims again.
Jasonís desperate gaze fell on the breakfast-pot. Knocked from its tripod over the fire, the pot had come to rest, upright, in the flames themselves. Shifting Iolaus as gently as he could, Jason lunged toward the fire, thrusting his hand into the flame and snatching the kettle. Barely registering the agonizing pain as the hot metal seared his palm, he twisted and flung the pot and its contents directly into Luciusí face.
The demigod dropped his sword and stumbled backwards, hands going up to claw at the burning agony on his face, mindless screams tearing from his throat. Jason pulled Iolaus closer to him and bent over him protectively, prepared to shield his unconscious friend from Luciusí unholy rage. A voice in his head shrieked that he needed to get up, move, find a weapon--but he couldnít. Eyes closed, arms wrapped tightly around Iolaus, he waited for whatever would come next.
"Iolaus! Jason!" Herculesí familiar voice came from a distance. "Whatís going on---LUCIUS!"
Lucius blinked painfully, the figure of his hated half-brother appearing before him. The last, tiny voice of sanity in his mind recognized the rictus of rage that distorted the handsome features.
You canít win now, the Voice said insistently. Run. Now. The way you came in. He wonít be able to follow you through that maze.
"I wonít run from my brother!" Lucius shrieked aloud.
You MUST! the Voice insisted. Listen to me, Lucius! Listen to Mother! Run. Now!
Obedient as ever to his motherís wishes, Lucius grabbed up his sword and a torch, running to the alcove and the small passage that led deeper into the mountain.
Lucius!!! It was Lucius! The thought thrummed in Hercules mind with the beat of his blood. He started forward, thinking only of revenge. "Iíll make him pay for this!"
Jasonís voice. Hercules slowed his furious movements, something telling him--warning him--that something was terribly amiss. Jasonís voice sounded funny, wrong. Scared.
He hadnít really looked at his friends before, his whole attention concentrated on his half-brother. Now he did look, and his heart froze.
Jason was on his knees, holding Iolaus close to his body. There was something strange about Iolaus--he was lying so still, so motionless. Hercules took a hesitant step forward, then another, falling to his knees beside his friends. His eyes widened as he took in the picture--the knife buried in Iolausí stomach; Jasonís hand clasped tightly to the wound; the blood spilling from the wound, staining the hands that were trying desperately to hold it in.
Hercules looked up into Jasonís face, saw the desolate look in his eyes.
"What happened?" he whispered.
Jason stared at him, tears welling from his eyes to trickle unheedingly down his face. "I did it," he said faintly. "I killed Iolaus."
Ice-cold swept over Hercules at Jasonís words. He stared at Jason, then down at Iolaus white face. Desperately, he pressed his fingers to Iolausí neck, almost sobbing with relief as he felt the faint flutter of life.
"Jason," he said tensely, "Iolaus is alive."
There was no response from the young king and Hercules looked up. Jasonís face was white. His eyes were dark and unfocused. "Jason?" Hercules questioned, feeling the hair rise on the back of his neck. "Jason! Look at me!"
He shook his friend, hard. No response except that Jason tightened his hold on Iolaus. "Jason!" Hercules shouted. "Jason, snap out of it!" Desperate, he did the only thing he could think to do: he drew back his hand and slapped Jason hard across the face.
Jasonís head rocked backward with the force of the blow. But, to Herculesí relief, he blinked several times and then looked around. "What--" he started. Then he looked at Iolaus and seemed to remember. "Oh, gods..." he whispered.
Hercules was desperate to know just what had happened, but they couldnít afford for Jason to go back into zombie-mode. Iolaus needed help. He put his hands on either side of Jasonís face, forcing the young kingís eyes to lock with his. "Jason. You have to help me. You have to help Iolaus."
"Iolaus?" Jason repeated. "Heís not dead?"
"No, heís still alive. But Jason, heís hurt and we have to get him to a healer. Itís too far back to Corinth. You said thereís a back way to the Academy...down those cliffs?"
Jason stared at him. "Yeah...but..."
"Weíre going to have to risk it," Hercules said. "And Jason, I need you to help me. Itís like you said last night. Iolaus needs both of us now."
For a long moment, Jason just stared at Hercules. The demigod was afraid his friend was going to phase out again, but then he nodded. "Okay," he whispered. "Weíll...weíll need some rope... to lower Iolaus down..."
"Thereís a coil in my pack," Hercules said, glad that heíd packed it although he couldnít remember now why heíd thought it might be needed. He took a deep breath. "We canít move him with that knife in him."
Jason gasped and--if possible-- went even more pale. But he nodded and lifted his bloodstained hands away from Iolausí body. Hercules noticed Jason steadfastly didnít look at his hands or at Iolaus as he searched in his own pack for a clean shirt, which he quickly tore into strips.
Hercules looked down at Iolaus and knew a moment of intense gratitude that he was unconscious. Jason moved to hold Iolaus as Hercules took a deep breath to steady himself, then wrapped one hand around the knife and smoothly pulled it free.
Red blood welled up from the wound. Jason made a choked little sobbing noise, but he held Iolaus steady as Hercules quickly bandaged the wound with the strips of shirt. The two of them then wrapped Iolaus in the blankets.
Hercules picked the knife up from where he had dropped it in the dirt. He started to wipe the blood from it, but Jason interrupted him by holding out his left hand for it. Hercules hesitated, then gently placed the knife in Jasonís palm.
Jason studied the jeweled hilt for a minute, then his eyes flicked to the blade, dark with Iolausí blood. He didnít say anything and Hercules found himself holding his breath. Then, suddenly, Jason drew back his arm and threw the knife as far from him as he could. There was a distant clang as it hit the rock walls of the cave.
Jason looked up at Hercules. "Letís go."
Later--much later--Hercules would remember that trip down those cliffs in nightmares that tore him from the security of sleep in the dark early hours of morning. At the time, though, it was something to get through. He did it without thinking much about it, his whole attention concentrated on his friends.
Iolaus remained blessedly unconscious through the whole ordeal. Jason trudged stolidly along at Herculesí side, doing what he was told but rarely speaking. Hercules had started to ask Jason again just what had happened, but he shut his mouth. Time for that later, when they were all safe at the Academy and Hercules could surrender Iolaus--and Jason as well--into Cheironís trusted care.
The clouds moved in and it got steadily colder. Hercules felt the first icy drops of rain just as he sighted the Academy gates. And, thank the gods, Cheiron was there waiting, having seen their approach.
The Centaurís eyes went from Herculesí strained face, to the blanket-wrapped bundle in his arms, to Jason. He didnít say anything, just held out his arms for Iolaus and turned, leading the way into the warmth of the main building. He went straight through the kitchen into the little room at the back that was used as an Infirmary, stopping Hercules when he tried to follow. "Build up the fire, make some tea--use the herbs in the blue jar," he instructed. "Youíre both cold and damp. Get some blankets and take care of Jason. Heís in shock. Oh, and put the big pot of water on to boil." He forestalled Herculesí protest. "Iíll tell you as soon as I know anything."
It was blessedly warm and quiet in the kitchen. Hercules wrapped a blanket around Jason and got him seated in a chair in front of the blazing fire. Then he rummaged though a cupboard for the blue jar, putting a handful of the herbs in a pot to steep.
With everything done for the moment, he sank down into a chair close to Jason, his eyes glued to the closed door of the infirmary, his mind a confused melange of words, grief, memories.
Memories of childhood. He and Iolaus, growing up, always together--two kids united by fate and loneliness. For different reasons both of them were ostracized by their peers. Hercules, not understanding the neighborís sneers when they spoke about his father, not understanding why his brother couldnít live with them. And Iolaus--always trying and always failing to be the son his father wanted.
Growing older. Watching as Iolaus started to change, to cover up his hurt over his father by pretending not to care. Becoming more and more reckless. The day that Hercules learned, to his horror, of the abuse Iolaus suffered at home, and suddenly all the black eyes and unexplained bruises heíd noticed over the years made sense.
Then, Hercules had found out the truth about his own father, about himself. Heíd found himself desperately searching for something, trying to find something, taking every dare and every challenge in an attempt to make his father acknowledge him. For the first time, Iolausí recklessness made sense to Hercules.
But heíd turned from Iolaus. He couldnít remember why, now; what had happened, but suddenly, they were no longer there for each other. Hercules had taken off into the mountains, seeking monsters to slay. And Iolaus--beaten half to death by his father (although Hercules would only learn about that much later)-- had run away, taken to the streets, and become part of the Lowack gang.
Hercules couldnít believe when he returned from his journey and discovered what Iolaus was doing. The long friendship between the two degenerated into something like enmity. Looking back now, Hercules realized heíd never hated Iolaus and he doubted Iolaus had hated him. But they were both vulnerable to what the other knew and they threw up walls to shield themselves.
Then--through a bizarre set of circumstances that even in his most prosaic moments Hercules could not believe were simply happenstance--theyíd ended up at Cheironís Academy together.
The hunt for the Golden Fleece. Yvenna dying in Herculesí arms. Jason mortally wounded. And Iolaus, in spite of everything that had happened between them, risking his own life to help Hercules fight Ares. And Hercules trusting Iolaus--with that simple faith from childhood--to be his eyes.
"The tea is boiling over," Jason announced suddenly.
Hercules came back to the present to smell the pungent steam of boiling herbs. Her grabbed a cloth to wrap around his hand as he pulled the small kettle from the fire. Pouring the brown liquid into mugs, he took a sip from his own before coming back to the fire and offering the other to Jason. "You okay?í he asked gently. He winced as he saw the bruise on Jasonís cheek and realized it came from his own hand. He touched it with one finger. "Iím sorry about hitting you," he said.
"Donít be. You had to knock some sense into me." Jason pulled his right hand out from the blanket and accepted the mug. His features contorted in pain and the mug slipped from his hand to crash onto the floor.
Hercules grabbed Jasonís hand and forced the fingers open. "Jason!" The palm and fingers were a gory mass of burns, blisters and bleeding welts. "What happened?"
Jason stared at his hand as if it were an alien thing. "It must---I guess when I grabbed the pot out of the fire and threw it at Lucius," he said hesitantly. "I didnít even notice." He winced.
Herculesí mind flashed to the trip down the mountain from the cave; how Jason had wrapped the rope around his hand to help lower Iolaus. He cringed, only imagining the pain that must have caused his friend. He tightened his grip as Jason tried to pull away. "It needs attention, Jason. These are bad burns, they could get infected."
Jason relaxed and nodded. Hercules left him to get some cool water, bandages and salve. Jason clenched his jaw as Hercules carefully cleaned the blood and dirt from the wounds but he didnít make a sound.
Hercules reached for the container of clear slave. "This is going to sting," he warned as he liberally smeared it over Jasonís hand. His friend sucked in his breath in a hiss.
"Youíre not kidding," he answered shakily. He looked around, as if only just now realizing where they were. "You got us here."
Hercules shook his head. "We both did it. If you hadnít known the path down those cliffs...." he reached for the length of bandaging material. "Jason, tell me what happened up there." His voice was as calm and soothing as he could make it.
There was no sound for several minutes but the hiss of the fire and Jasonís harshly-drawn breaths. Finally, on a long sigh, Jason said, "Lucius must have found his way in through the back passageway. I knew that opening was there, I went in there once when I was a kid, but it was like a maze...anyway, he had a sword and he was raving, Hercules. Kept talking about...I donít even know. It didnít make sense. I guess his motherís dead, did you know that?" At Herculesí negative shake of his head, he went on, "Well, he blamed you and me and I....donít know. My sword was behind him--all I had was my knife. Iolaus was shaking, he could barely stand, but I tried to distract Lucius so Iolaus could get to the weapons. But Lucius caught him. He started fighting with him and we all ended up in a big pile." Jasonís voice broke. "He was...Lucius had his arm around Iolausí neck, he was choking him. I knew--I tried to stab him--I couldnít think of anything else to do. But he yanked Iolaus in front of him and--oh, gods! Hercules, I couldnít stop! It happened so fast! I stabbed him!"
Hercules finished tying off the bandage and shifted so that he could put his hands on Jasonís shaking shoulders, forcing him to meet his steady gaze. "Listen to me. It wasnít your fault. You were trying to save Iolaus. I know you would never deliberately hurt him. You know that, too. It wasnít your fault. If it was anyoneís, it was mine. I should have realized Discord was trying to distract me."
Jason frowned. "Discord?" he repeated.
The door opened and Cheiron came in. Jason gasped and Hercules could feel him trembling under his hands. Herculesí voice was unsteady as he forced out the question, "How is he?"
Cheiron walked over until he was directly in front of the two of them. "Iolaus has lost a lot of blood but the knife didnít hit anything vital. The bleeding has stopped."
Hercules let out his breath in a sigh of relief but then noticed that Cheironís expression hadnít relaxed. "What else?"
"Was Iolaus sick before he was wounded?"
Hercules exchanged a quick glance with Jason. In a few words, the demigod explained what had happened. "This morning, Iolaus had a fever and he was...sick, but..."
Cheiron sighed. "Hercules, Jason...Iolaus is very ill. His fever is dangerously high and there is a congestion in his lungs. He is very weak due to the loss of blood and Iím not sure his body has the resources to fight the fever."
Jason broke the silence. "Is he going to make it?" he asked shakily.
Cheiron looked at both of them, then at the floor. Finally he brought his gaze back to theirs. "Iolaus is a fighter. Thatís in his favor. But still, the next several hours are going to be very critical. If he makes it through the night he probably has a good chance of recovering."
Hercules felt the blood drain from his face to puddle nauseatingly in his stomach. "íIfí?" he repeated numbly.
Cheiron nodded grimly.
Jason woke with a start, staring blearily around the room. After a few seconds he remembered where he was and he sat up, tossing aside the blanket that had somehow been tossed over him and leaning over the still figure in the bed. Panic thundered in his ears and he had to check twice before he believed it. Iolaus still had a pulse.
He whirled around as the door creaked open. Hercules stepped inside, carefully carrying a bowl of water and several towels. "Easy, Jason, itís just me. I didnít mean to wake you."
Jason slumped back in his chair wearily. "You didnít. How long have I been asleep, anyway?"
"Not long. A couple of hours, maybe." Hercules sat down in the chair on the other side of the bed and soaked one of the cloths in the water. He wrung it out and laid it on Iolausí forehead.
Jason yawned and shook his head. "You should have woke me."
Hercules glanced at him. "You need the sleep. Why donít you just go lie down?"
Jason shook his head again, unable to admit that he was afraid to leave, afraid that Iolaus would--he ruthlessly pushed the thought back. Needing to do something, he held out his good hand and Hercules wet another cloth and handed it to him. "Is his fever down at all?"
"I donít think so," Hercules answered, pulling back the blanket and gently stroking the towel over Iolausí chest and arm. Jason mirrored the movements as Hercules went on, "He seems to be breathing a little easier, though. Cheiron put some eucalyptus leaves to steep and it seems to be helping."
Jason looked at the little spirit lamp issuing forth the pungent steam and nodded. He handed the warm towel back to Hercules and accepted a fresh, cool one. He bathed Iolausí trunk and stomach, carefully avoiding the neatly-bandaged wound. "Where is Cheiron?"
"In his quarters. He said somebody around here needed to get some rest. Itís late."
Jason took a good look at Hercules. The demigodís face was pale; dark circles ringed his eyes and his hair was tangled. Jason sighed. "You look terrible."
Hercules forced a smile. "You donít look very good, either."
"Why donít you lie down for awhile? Iíll stay with Iolaus."
"I know you will, but--" Hercules shook his head. "Iím not tired."
It was so obviously a lie that Jason frowned furiously at him, but he let it drop. They finished bathing Iolaus in silence, then carefully covered him again. "Howís your hand?" Hercules asked.
"Itís okay," Jason lied. At Hercules sharp look he shrugged. "Okay, it hurts like Tartarus," he admitted.
Iolaus started coughing then. Painful, deep, shuddering coughs that wracked his body. Hercules quickly sat on the side of the bed and lifted Iolaus, holding him upright against his chest, rubbing his back in soothing circles. His lips moved and Jason heard him murmur something to Iolaus but he couldnít make out the words.
The spasm eased and Iolaus quieted, his breathing returning to a raspy wheeze. Still Hercules held him, speaking softly to him, stroking the tangled curls back from the clammy face.
Watching his two friends, Jason felt the sting of tears in his eyes. "Oh, gods, Hercules, I am so sorry."
Gently laying Iolaus back down against the pillows, Hercules blinked hard and then fixed his blue gaze on Jason. "It wasnít your fault!" he snapped. "Stop blaming yourself, Jason. Things are bad enough without that. You were doing what you had to do. The same thing Iolaus or I would have done. It wasnít your fault!"
Iolaus could hear voices coming from a long way away. They sounded familiar and he strained to hear but couldnít make out the words. Somehow, though, the sounds comforted him and he drifted for a few moments, just listening to them.
He was so hot. Every once in a while, something cool and wet was wiped over his body, but the coolness never lasted. As soon as it was gone he was burning up again.
He blinked. Where did those two doors come from? They hadnít been there a minute ago but now there they were. Heavy doors. Identical. He reached for the one on the left. The voices seemed to grow louder and he stepped toward that door.
Then a blast of icy dirty wind almost knocked him over, tearing at his lungs. He started coughing and couldnít stop. He was vaguely aware someone was trying to help him, someone was holding him and talking to him. A part of his mind insisted he wasnít a baby, he didnít need to be held, but he just felt so safe.
He closed his eyes and let himself drift away...
Hercules looked up. Jason was asleep again, dozing restlessly in the chair. His neck was bent awkwardly. Hercules toyed with the idea of picking him up and tucking him into the pallet near the fire, but discarded the notion quickly. He tried two other times during the night, only to have Jason wake up immediately. Hercules suspected the tea Cheiron had made for Jason was laced with poppy or something similar, but the young king steadfastly refused to leave Iolausí beside, even though the pain from his own injury was obviously wearing him down.
The door opened and Cheiron came in, carrying a bottle and a small tankard. He looked at Jason and shook his head, then moved to Herculesí side. "Itís time for Iolausí medicine. Do you think you can help me get it down him?"
Hercules nodded and slid forward, feeling fatigue from the long night pull at his muscles. "What time is it?" he asked, accepting the tankard.
Cheiron poured a healthy draught of foul-smelling liquid into the cup and Hercules turned his head away, trying not to gag. "Itís almost dawn," the Centaur answered, taking the cup and motioning for Hercules to raise his friend up. He held the cup to Iolausí lips and carefully poured a tiny bit into the slack mouth. "How long has Jason been asleep?"
"About an hour, this time. He keeps dozing off but when I try to get him to lay down he wonít." Hercules was staring at Iolausí face, willing a reaction to appear. That stuff smells so terrible--surely heís going to wake up.
Cheiron finished feeding Iolaus the dose and then felt the sick boyís forehead and face. He frowned. "Still has a high fever. Has he been coughing much?"
"Some," Hercules said, loath to admit how those coughing spells had frightened him. He studied his friend with worried eyes. "Can you see any improvement at all?"
"Well, he is breathing more easily that he was last night, thatís a good sign," Cheiron said kindly. He pulled back the blankets to check the bandage. "And heís not bleeding. Until his fever breaks, thatís probably the best we can hope for."
"Can we do anything else for him?"
"Just do what youíre doing, Hercules. Be there for him, talk to him. Try to help him find his way back to us."
Iolaus stood in front of the two doors again. He was even hotter now and he impatiently pulled his hair up, praying for a cooling breeze to dry the sweat on his neck and back.
The voices had been quiet for awhile but now they were talking again. ĎWhy donít they speak up?í he thought, annoyed. If the voices would just speak a little louder he was sure he could figure out which door they were coming from.
He took a step toward the door on the right and was rewarded by hearing someone say, "Gods, Iolaus, I am so sorry."
"Hercules keeps saying it isnít my fault. To tell you the truth, I canít think of anything else I could have done...but still, Iolaus, I am the one who stabbed you. Please, Iolaus, you have to get well. I donít deserve anything...and you donít even have to forgive me, but please, get well. Wake up."
ĎStab? Jason stabbed me? What in Hades is going on?í
He didnít feel like heíd been stabbed. Well, maybe he did, there was that nagging, dull pain in his stomach...but the overwhelming heat and that mountain sitting on his chest pretty effectively distracted him from the other pain. He didnít remember getting stabbed, did he? What did he remember?
Lucius. The cave. That burning, crushing pressure on his throat; the terrified look in Jasonís eyes. Then blackness. Nothing.
Jasonís voice sounded funny and with shock Iolaus realized his friend was crying. ĎJason, crying?í Heíd never seen Jason cry. Not even when his father, King Aeson, had been murdered by Ares.
He strained to hear more but it was quiet again. Then, just as he was starting to drift away, he heard another voice. This one was very familiar...Iolaus knew it as well as he knew his own.
"Hey, buddy. I hope you can hear me, because I really need you to do something for me here."
Hercules voice was very clear, and easy to understand. Iolaus held very still, wanting to hear more.
"Iolaus, I donít know how much you remember about how you got sick, but Jason is convinced itís his fault. Itís not really. You know he didnít mean to stab you--he would never hurt you. Lucius yanked you into the way of the knife. Besides, thatís not really why youíre sick now. I guess we didnít get all the water out of your lungs after all and now you have a high fever. But Jason is blaming himself. He needs you to tell him it wasnít his fault. Otherwise...you know how he is. Noble and all that."
Iolaus almost laughed. ĎHeís not the only one, Herc!í
Herculesí voice changed, started sounding choked. ĎIs he crying too? What is going on out there?í
"Iolaus, I..." a long pause. "Iíve been thinking a lot...while Iíve been sitting here. About when we were kids, you know...and then later, when we started fighting."
Iolaus felt himself tense.
"I was wrong, buddy. I should have told you as soon as I knew about Zeus. I just--I donít know. And then, when I sent you back home that time and your dad beat you so badly....Mom said you almost died and I didnít even know. I was out trying to prove myself to my father. Fat lot of good that did me. Iím out slaying monsters and my best friend nearly gets killed by a monster in his own home. And even when I got back, you didnít tell me. You just ran off and joined up with the Lowacks.
"Iím sorry. I donít mean to sound like Iím still blaming you for that. Gods, weíve talked about it enough, I know why it happened. I still think if Iíd been there, even if we werenít talking then...maybe I could have helped you."
Iolaus was starting to feel hot again, and very uncomfortable. ĎAncient history, Herc. You couldnít have helped me cause I wasnít going to accept help then.í He shifted restlessly. Flames were licking at the corners of his mind, getting closer. He eyed the door in front of him, reached a cautious hand for the latch.
Cool, wonderful cool flowed over him. He relaxed, opening his mouth. Something cold and hard was placed against his lips, and he eagerly took a sip. Water. Delicious water. It soothed his parched throat and wiped away that horrible taste in his mouth.
He looked at the door again. Gathering his courage, he lifted the latch and opened the door.
Iolaus opened his eyes.
Golden, late afternoon sunlight filled the small room. It was very quiet. Sure that Hercules was somewhere near, Iolaus turned his head very carefully--surprised at how much energy that took--and saw the demigod slumped in a chair next to the bed, asleep.
He was aware of a pressure on one hand and he turned his head again to look at it. Jason was there, in another chair but with his head on the bed and one hand gripping Iolausí. The other hand was covered with a thick white bandage.
Iolaus felt tired, and sore, and very confused. He tried to draw in a breath to say something, but the slumbering monster in his chest woke and deep coughs tore through him.
Jason and Hercules both woke instantly. Hercules reached to pull Iolaus up; Jason reached for a mug of something on the table nearby. The movements were automatic as if theyíd been practiced several times before now.
Jason was the first to notice Iolausí eyes were open. He dropped the mug with a thump and leaned over the bed. "Iolaus? Hercules, heís awake!"
"Iolaus!" Hercules echoed. He put a cool hand on Iolausí forehead. "Jason, heís not nearly as hot--his fever must be breaking. Iolaus? Do you know me? How do you feel?"
Iolaus wasnít sure which one of those was the more stupid question. "What...happened?" His voice sounded faint and far away and his throat rasped painfully.
Then Hercules was lifting him, holding him against his chest. Jason put a cup to his lips. "Here. Drink this. Just a little."
This seems familiar. Havenít we done this before? Iolaus wondered. He gulped thirstily at the water but Jason took it away too soon. "More," he protested.
"In a minute," Jason said soothingly. He stood up. "Iíll get Cheiron," he told Hercules. The demigod nodded.
"Cheiron?" Iolaus questioned. "Are we at the Academy?"
Hercules nodded again, helping Iolaus to lie back down. "Iím glad to see you, my friend. Youíve had us pretty worried."
Hercules frowned. "What do you mean?"
"I could hear you. At least, it sounded like you. Saying something about..." Iolaus stopped. He wasnít sure he wanted to repeat what heíd heard.
"What?" Hercules questioned, looking anxious.
"Guess I was just dreaming," Iolaus said drowsily. "I just thought you were telling me to come back."
Hercules smiled, his eyes lighting up. "So you did?"
"Yeah." Iolaus closed heavy eyelids again.
"Iolaus?" Hercules questioned, half rising from his chair as the other boyís eyelids flickered and closed. He rested a hand on Iolausí throat, reassured by the steady pulse beat and the deeper, easier breathing. Iolaus was merely sleeping. Heíd wake up again soon.
Iolaus had found his way back.
The fire burned low in the grate. Jason and Hercules sat in front of it as the weight of old memories eddied through the room.
"Did you know Iolaus found my knife?" Jason broke the silence .between them.
"No," Hercules answered, surprised. "When?"
"That next summer. I guess you told him about me throwing it away? I never mentioned it to him. Anyway, one day he just showed up with it. He told me Iíd gotten it from my father and I shouldnít throw it away because of a little bad luck."
Hercules laughed. "That sounds like Iolaus."
"What sounds like Iolaus?" came a new voice.
The two of them turned to see Iolaus standing on the stairs, blinking sleepily in the light. His eyes took in the wine jug and the slightly-befuddled expressions of his two friends and shook his head tolerantly, coming further into the room. He picked up the wine jug. "Hmm, Iím surprised. You actually left some." He poured a small amount into their mugs and then grabbed a clean one for himself. Emptying the jug into it, he held it up, watching the firelight reflect in the crimson depths. "You know, I think we need a toast."
"To what?" Hercules asked.
Iolaus extended the glass. "To us. Best friends and brothers of the heart."
Jason and Hercules exchanged looks. Jason nodded, smiling, and Hercules extended his own mug. "To best friends...and brothers."
Young Hercules Fic
Sueís Filing Cabinet