DISCLAIMER: The characters belong to MCA/Universal and were used without permission. No copyright infringement was intended and no money was made.
A sequel to the series consisting of The Lure, The Centaurs, A Thief's Confession and The Charioteer
From her window, Alcmene watched the approach of the small, blond warrior. She felt a familiar pang as she looked at him. In her eyes he would always be the unwanted and neglected little boy she had met all those years ago. His hair was still a tousled mop and his clothes were still shabby.
She moved towards the door to greet him. To her surprise, he stopped by the gate, looked somewhat apprehensively towards the house and turned away. She hurriedly stepped out and called, "Iolaus!" At first, she thought he wasn't going to respond, but then he stopped and turned back. As he neared her, she realized he had some rag wrapped around his right hand.
"G-Good morning, Alcmene. Has Herc ... Is Hercules here?" he asked hesitantly.
She ignored the question and asked, "What have you done to your hand?"
"I had a little accident, a couple of days ago, when I was out hunting. It's only a cut, but it still seems to be bleeding a bit and I wondered if you would put a couple of stitches in it for me. I tried to sew it up myself, but it was awkward working left-handed."
"Come inside and I'll have a look at it."
She ushered him in wondering, not for the first time, what was going on.
Hercules had arrived home, about a week before, in an agitated and uncommunicative state. When she had asked about Iolaus' whereabouts, expecting to be told he had gone to his own home first and would be arriving later, all she had got was a terse, "Hunting!" She was so taken aback that she did not pursue the topic and her son had hurriedly began to speak of other matters.
Over the next five days, she waited patiently for an elaboration, but Hercules studiously avoided mentioning his friend. That was most unusual. She was aware that normally the demigod was full of stories of the latest things the hunter had said or done. Often the tales were hair-raising and she was gratified to know, in advance, that the little blond had clearly survived his latest escapade more or less in one piece. The two had been friends for so long that she regarded Iolaus as part of the family and she missed both seeing him and hearing what he'd been up to.
"They've obviously fallen out over something," she said to Jason. "I wonder if they've had a fight over some woman?"
"Perhaps," her husband replied, noncommittally. He had his private thoughts about the possible relationship between the two and couldn't see a woman getting a look in, but he could hardly suggest this to Alcmene, especially as he had no real evidence, just a gut feeling.
"One thing that's got me really confused is that Hercules has got Iolaus' gear with him."
"He's got Iolaus' knife and sword and carry-bag. I went in to his room to put his washing away and I saw them. Surely, Iolaus would need his things if he's hunting."
Neither could think of an answer to the new conundrum.
On the sixth day, Hercules had stunned them both by announcing he was going to Mount Olympus as he wanted to see his father, Zeus, about something. They waited for further explanation of this most unusual decision, but that 'something' remained as much a mystery as Iolaus' whereabouts.
In truth, for the first time in her son's life, Alcmene was not displeased to see the back of him. He'd been exceptionally poor company, saying little and spending much of the time moping around in a kind of daydream. She hoped that Zeus might be able to offer some good advice that would help with whatever problem had arisen because the demigod had been unwilling to confide in her. She had tried asking him if anything was wrong, but he had insisted everything was fine.
Okay, now that Iolaus was here, maybe she would get to the bottom of things. The little blond was usually far more open than Hercules, who could retreat within a stony shell when it suited him. In that mood, he wouldn't lie to her, but he wouldn't explain either. Iolaus, on the other hand, might well try to lie, but he was no good at it and was easy to catch out, often to his considerable chagrin.
She unwrapped the rag as carefully as she could, aware that Iolaus was wincing as it pulled from the wound and also that she wasn't supposed to notice this. A deep, jagged gash spread right across the centre of the palm. The wound was moist, swollen and encircled with red flesh. "Iolaus, why on earth didn't you come to me at once? This is infected and needs more than just a couple of stitches. You're lucky you haven't done some permanent damage," she scolded.
"It's just a cut, I thought it would be okay and I didn't think it was worth bothering you, especially as it was very late last night when I got home."
"I'll have to give it a good clean first. I'll just get some water and get some ointment. What caused the cut?"
"A boar's tusk."
Alcmene shuddered. "How on earth did that happen?"
"I'd speared a boar. He was down and I was about to draw my knife to stick him and finish him off, but he wasn't as badly hurt as he seemed. I was bending over him when he flung up his head and slashed at me. I put out my hand to fend him off and he caught it with one of his tusks. Then he scrambled to his feet and came at me. I managed to sidestep him, but he spun around and had another go. I grabbed my knife in my left hand and slashed him across the snout. I didn't think that would stop him, as his blood was up, but he veered aside and took off and that was the last I saw of him."
At the mention of the words "my knife", Alcmene's glance had flown to Iolaus' sheath. "Is that a new knife, Iolaus?" she asked casually.
"Oh ... ah ... Yeah, I bought it in Athens."
If it had been anyone else, Alcmene might have thought that the warrior had simply been attracted by a superior blade and decided to replace his old one, but she knew Iolaus too well. The old knife was one of his few prized possessions. It wasn't the best knife in the world, but he and Hercules had forged it as boys and the hunter loved it for the memories it evoked. Further, the blond was usually stony broke. How could he have got money to buy a new knife? Come to think of it, he'd never owned a spear to her knowledge so where had he acquired the one he'd mentioned?
Pushing these thoughts aside, Alcmene returned to her task. "Hold still now, this will sting a little." Alcmene held Iolaus' hand gently, but firmly with her left hand and began to clean the wound. At one point, she heard him suck in his breath, but he made no other comment. She dried the wound and prepared to stitch it closed. "I'm sorry, Iolaus, this is going to hurt."
"Don't worry about it. It has to be done. Please just ignore me if I say anything while you're doing it."
Several stitches later, Alcmene bound the hand firmly. "You're going to have to take care with this injury. Try not to use this hand more than necessary and keep a watch on it in case the infection breaks out again."
"Thank you! Alcmene, has ... has Hercules been ... been home."
"You've just missed him." She watched a look of alarm pass swiftly over his features.
"W-When will ... When is he ... due back?"
"I'm not sure. He left a couple of days ago. He said he had to see Zeus about something."
"Oh, that's all right ... I mean, he's all right is he?"
"Of course. Shouldn't he be?"
"Y-Yes, it's just that I was ... I haven't seen ... You see I went hunting, so I haven't seen him for ... a while."
Alcmene was about to ask why Hercules hadn't accompanied him, when they were interrupted. "Hello! What's he doing here?" asked Jason cheerfully, as he entered the house. He glanced at Iolaus' bandaged hand. "Can't you keep out of trouble? Who have you been fighting with this time?"
The blond breathed an audible sigh of relief at the interjection. While Alcmene busied herself getting a meal, the hunting story had to be repeated. She noted that, typically, Iolaus was already embroidering the tale, acting it out and adding 'exciting' details and touches of humour at his own expense.
They sat down to eat, with Iolaus offering a token protest that he hadn't deliberately timed his arrival to coincide with mealtime. "Must be the first time then," Jason joked.
However, Iolaus didn't eat much and commented that he had eaten a large breakfast. Knowing both Iolaus' poor housekeeping efforts and his usually large appetite for meals prepared by others, Alcmene's eyes narrowed suspiciously but she let it pass.
Jason told them that, when he had been in the village that morning, he had received a message from two of his old friends to say that they were coming to see him in a couple of days. He was obviously very pleased with the news.
Alcmene said, "Jason, have you forgotten that you promised to escort me to visit Melinda?" She turned to Iolaus to explain that Melinda was the daughter of a late friend of hers. Melinda was due to have her first child and Alcmene was going to provide a mother's support, The journey alone would take a couple of days.
Jason's face fell. He had forgotten. "Couldn't we put that off for a few days?"
"Babies don't wait to suit your convenience, Jason, but I suppose I could go on my own."
"No, of course you can't. I'll contact my friends and make my excuses."
"That's not necessary. Before we met I often travelled alone and I'm sure I'm still capable of doing so."
"Possibly, but not when I'm around."
Iolaus intervened. To tell the truth, he felt like doing anything rather than undertaking a journey. He felt hot and somewhat dizzy. However, these were his friends and he felt he should help out. "Why don't I go along with you?"
"It's very kind of you. Iolaus, but are you sure you're up to it?" Alcmene asked.
"Of course! I'm *fine*. In any case, who will change my dressings if you go away? It will work out much better for everyone if I go."
After he had left Athens, Iolaus had gone hunting as he had intended and right from the beginning had found the going tough. Instead of gradually improving, his back seemed to be getting worse. Some of the cuts, inflicted by Juventas' whip, felt like they were on fire. Further, for the first three days or so, he was still suffering the pain of Juventas' more intimate attentions. He didn't know exactly what was wrong, but bleeding from that area frightened him. However, he decided to carry on as he had no desire to return to Athens and no money to pay for a healer, not that he would have been prepared to allow a doctor to examine the more worrying of his injuries anyway.
The injury to his hand had happened in the way he had described to Alcmene. However, he hadn't told her that, part of the reason he hadn't managed to kill the animal initially with his spear thrust or to avoid its attack, was that he was feeling ill and was not moving with his usual speed and agility. He had tried to sew up the deep gash, but it was too awkward trying to stitch with his left hand, so he gave up and applied a rough bandage.
Then, with no real conscious decision, he had headed for home. There would be no one at his house to help him, but there was something comforting about the word 'home', ramshackle as the reality might be.
The journey had taken a couple of days and, in truth, he remembered little of it. He had moved by instinct, while his mind reeled in a swirling mist of pain and unhappiness as he continued to dwell on events in Athens and his falling out with his lover. 'I shouldn't have hit him', the refrain that had haunted him since Preveza was back.
He had arrived home late one night, opened the door of his tumbledown home and promptly fainted. When he'd come around, he'd crawled to the bed and dragged a blanket from it. Exhausted, he'd fallen asleep on the floor.
When he awoke it was late morning, but he felt somewhat better after the long sleep. However, his hand was throbbing badly and he knew he needed help. Alcmene had immediately come to mind, but what if Hercules was at home? He decided he'd have to take the risk of meeting him.
Iolaus had experienced a confusing mixture of emotions as he had approached Alcmene's house. He feared Hercules would be there, and was scared that he would meet with hostility, and yet longed to see him. He had dithered around and finally chickened out on going in and it was only the fact that Alcmene had called out to him that he had not gone home again.
He did not ask Alcmene to treat his back because that would lead to awkward questions that he did not want to answer. He couldn't lie to Alcmene and so it was better to avoid the subject by not telling her of his injuries. He hoped that the medicine she was giving him to help with his hand would prove beneficial for the infected cuts on his back as well.
Early the next day the pair set forth. Alcmene was driving the cart and Iolaus was lolling alongside her. He still didn't feel well. His hand had been throbbing in the night and his back burning worse than ever, making sleep difficult. When he had arrived, Alcmene had suggested she check his hand, but he had managed to distract her as he feared that what she might find would upset their plans. It wasn't worth making a fuss over a cut hand.
Several hours passed uneventfully. Iolaus nodded off in the warm sun, his body slumping to lean against Alcmene's shoulder. This did not make for comfortable driving, but the horses were docile and a single hand on the reins was all that was needed. Alcmene put her right arm around Iolaus as she feared he might fall. 'Well, this is some escort,' she thought, 'I'm glad Jason can't see us at present.'
A few minutes later, the cart went over a rut in the road and Iolaus was jolted awake. For a moment, he didn't know where he was, except that he was leaning on a soft, female shoulder. "I wondered how long you'd sleep." Alcmene! He shot upright full of apologies.
"Lucky Herc can't see what 'good' care I've been taking of his mother."
"Jason might have something to say about it as well," Alcmene teased.
"S-Suppose I take over the driving for a while. Having something to do m-might keep me awake."
"Actually I was going to suggest that we stop for some lunch."
So they stopped, but again Iolaus ate little. "Are you sure you're okay?"
"Yeah, fine. I just ... I just want to get moving."
His face looked rather flushed. Alcmene reached out a hand and touched his forehead. "You're very hot."
"It's j-just the sun. I'm fine."
Alcmene decided to broach the topic that was concerning her. In the hope of catching the hunter off guard, she suddenly asked, "Iolaus, have you and Hercules had an argument about something?"
"No!" he said, too quickly and too vehemently, and blushed fiery red as he glanced at her and saw her disbelieving expression. He hung his head so that all she could see was a tangled mop of golden curls and mumbled, "Well a bit of one."
"Would you like to talk about it?"
"No, I can't."
"Why not? It might help."
"No, you're Herc's mother."
"I certainly hope so."
"I couldn't ... It wouldn't be ...be right."
"I would be fair, you know. I wouldn't assume Hercules to be in the right just because he's my son."
"I know, but ... but he ... I couldn't ... " Pulling himself together, he said decisively, "It was *my* fault. Can we leave it at that ... please." The last word was almost a sob.
Shaken, Alcmene had an urge to wrap her arms around the hunter, to cuddle him to her and to insist that they would go no further until he told all. However, she didn't know if that would do more harm than good and so she restrained her impulse. 'I'll try again later,' she decided.
They continued the journey, but Alcmene kept hold of the reins, explaining, "The horses are used to me."
That did cause Iolaus some secret amusement. 'I can handle a chariot and a team of four stallions, but Alcmene thinks these two old geldings are too much for me. Mind you,' he reflected ruefully, 'with this damned hand she might be right.'
Suddenly two armed men appeared out of the bushes in front of the cart and tried to grab the reins. Shouts indicated there were more behind. The horses shied. Alcmene did not hesitate. She shouted loudly, urging the horses on and drove straight at the men ahead. The two leapt aside and the cart passed between them. The men behind were mounted and they raced after the cart, calling for them to stop. The horses dragging the cart took fright. Alcmene gave them their heads.
The track was rough and soon the cart was swaying wildly. Alcmene tried to exert some control, but the horses were too strong. "I can't hold them!" she screamed.
Iolaus had climbed back into the cart's tray and was holding his sword in his left hand ready to repel boarders. At her cry, he turned to her and grabbed for the reins with his free hand. Sharp pain shot up his arm as he belatedly recalled his hand injury. He dropped the sword into the tray and tried to catch hold of the reins with his left hand, but to no avail. At that moment, the horses swerved and he was flung off. He landed heavily and lay, head spinning, looking after the cart.
One of the pursuers was alongside the cart and was bringing it to a standstill.
Iolaus started to rise, but a heavy boot, planted between his shoulder-blades forced him down. "You stay just where you are, Blondie." A sword pricked the back of his neck.
Alcmene was forced from the cart and hustled back to where Iolaus lay. One of the two men on foot jogged up. He was in a nasty mood. "Good, you've got the bitch. She drove right at us." He moved menacingly towards Almene.
"Leave her alone!" Ignoring the man above him, Iolaus flung out his left arm and ankle-tapped the man. Caught off balance, he fell. He rose snarling curses at Iolaus. Then he exclaimed, "Hey, look who we've got here!"
"Who is it?" asked Summanus
"It's that friend of Hercules," Pylus replied
"What this little runt? You're joking!"
"No, I swear I'm not." He gestured at one of the other men "Cyndus, will tell you. We both saw the pair of them clean up half a dozen guys in a tavern merely for having a little fun with a serving wench. I tell you, if anything, that little shrimp was rougher than Hercules."
"Yeah, that's true," Cyndus confirmed. "He's a bloody good fighter."
"Well now, that is interesting news. They might not have much money, but Blondie might well be worth something to us. Hercules and he are said to be inseparable. I'm certain Hercules would do anything to get him back. I'm sure a demigod must have access to more riches than we've ever dreamt of."
"What about the old woman?" Old! Alcmene bristled.
"I don't suppose Hercules will have any particular interest in her. Blondie's all we need to manipulate him," Summanus observed.
"Shall I kill her then?"
"No!" Iolaus intervened desperately. "Can't you just let her go? She's got nothing to do with Hercules and me. She just gave me a lift."
"That's her hard luck. She should have thought twice before driving those horses at my men."
"Let her go and I'll give you my word that I won't make any attempt to escape. I'll just do anything you want."
"You're not going anywhere so that doesn't worry me but, if she's just a stranger, I find your concern rather odd."
"Not everyone treats others the way scum like you do."
A boot landed in his ribs, leaving him gasping. "Scum, am I! You'd better watch your mouth, pretty boy."
"Don't hurt him!" Alcmene tried to aid Iolaus, but was held back. Her mind whirled. To identify herself as Hercules' mother would be of no help as their captors would still need only one hostage to manipulate Hercules. Worse still, she suspected that, in that case, it would be Iolaus who was expendable because he was likely to be a more troublesome prisoner. She made a lightning decision. "Leave my son alone!"
"Your son! That does make a difference. I'll have to give this some thought. We'll take both of them for the time being. Leave the cart, it won't be any use going across country, but bring the horses and any stuff of value they were carrying."
One man secured Alcmene's wrists behind her back, while two others dealt with Iolaus. They placed a staff across the back of his neck and tied his wrists to each end.
Iolaus watched 'his mother' walking ahead of him. That had been a flash of inspiration on Alcmene's part, but now he had to do his part and think of some way to free her. The trouble was he having difficulty thinking clearly. The fall from the cart had winded him, but had only given him a few bruises and abrasions. It was his hand that was the main trouble. It was now throbbing unmercifully, making his whole arm seem aflame. Indeed, his whole body seemed to burn, his head swam and he was having difficulty focusing his eyes. At times there seemed to be two Alcmenes in front of him.
He tried to shake his head in an effort to clear his vision, but the staff pressed into his neck. The ground rose up to meet him and he was on his knees.
"Get up!" The voice seemed far away and he ignored it. "Pull him up!"
Two men grasped the ends of the staff and dragged him to his feet, but he couldn't stand. As they released the staff, he began to crumple again. He heard Alcmene protesting.
"He must have got a bit more battered in the fall from the cart than we thought. We're not going to get anywhere at this rate. Tie him over a horse," Summanus commanded.
Iolaus' wrists were freed from the staff and rebound in front of him. Through a red mist, he felt himself being lifted and then flung face down across a saddle. The horse shied, but somebody steadied it. His ankles and wrists were then tied to a rope passed under the horse's belly.
This was even worse than walking. The jolting motion of the horse and the head-down position were too much for him and he lapsed into unconsciousness.
When he finally roused, he found himself lying on a stone floor with his head on someone's lap. Alcmene had torn a strip from her skirt, soaked it in the bucket of drinking water and was using it to wipe his burning face. He tried to sit up. "Who ..."
"Ssh, Iolaus. It's all right, it's Alcmene. Just lie still. I'm about to have a look at your hand."
"B-But where ..."
"I'm not sure where we are. Do you remember what happened?"
"K-Kind of. There were some bandits and ... and ... I'm sorry, th-things seem a bit fuzzy."
"Don't worry about it at the moment. The bandits have taken us prisoner. The thing you have to remember is that I'm supposed to be your mother."
"We can't let them know my connection with Hercules. I'll explain when you feel a bit better. All you need to remember at the moment is that I am your mother. You *have* to say that if anyone asks. Can you remember that?"
"Yeah, but it's a bit funny ..."
"What do you mean. Iolaus?"
"W-When Herc and I were kids I used to w-wish you were. Then I wouldn't have had ... have had to see my f-father. He didn't want me, but you might have."
Alcmene's heart contracted. She pulled Iolaus close and held him against her breast, as her eyes welled with tears. "We might not have been your family, Iolaus, but neither Hercules nor I could have loved you more."
The look of stunned surprise that flashed across his face cut her deeply and then the hunter spoke, his voice a whisper, "I didn't ... my father said ... he said I shouldn't v-visit as often as I d-did because you'd find me a bloody nuisance ... l-like he did."
Memories flooded back. When she thought about it, she remembered how often the scrawny child had excused himself when invited to stay longer or to eat with them, even when his eyes devoured the food on offer. He must have thought the invitations were only made out of politeness rather than from a desire for his company. He had obviously had no idea how delighted she had been that Hercules had made such a good friend. Even as an adult, he had not understood how welcome he was. Had he done so he might have approached her to help with his hand injury much earlier. He always presented such a sunny, confident face to the world that she hadn't realized how much of the neglected and insecure child remained. "Iolaus. I never once considered you a nuisance. Hercules and I loved your visits and would have been happy to see more of you. You *must* know that."
There was no reply, but she felt his shoulders shaking and realized he was weeping quietly. She did not know that part of the reason for the tears was the reminder of the love Hercules' had had for him and which he believed that he had lost. She held him firmly until he was still. "Iolaus, I'm going to have a look at your hand now."
He reluctantly moved from her grasp and tried to sit unaided. This proved too much and he sank back to the floor. She began to unwrap the hand wincing at the putrid smell from the bandages. She was horrified at the inflammation, which was now creeping insidiously up his wrist. The cut was full of pus. "This doesn't look very good, Iolaus. I'll try to clean it up, but I'll need to get my medicines from our captors." She began to dab at the wound. He closed his eyes tightly and clenched his left fist against the pain. She did the best she could to clean the wound, very aware that, in this case, her best was not anywhere near good enough, and rewrapped the hand.
A few minutes later, two of the bandits made an appearance. "Is the runt awake yet? Summanus wants to speak to him."
"Come over here and put your wrists through the bars so we can tie them."
"I s-said I'm awake. I didn't say anything about walking."
"Stop mucking about or you'll be sorry. Just come here!"
Alcmene cut in. "My *son*," she emphasized for Iolaus' benefit, "is ill. He needs medication. He can't obey you."
"We'll see!" The door was unlocked and the two warily entered the cell, swords in hand. They weren't taking any chances with someone of Iolaus' reputation. One held his sword to Alcmene's throat and ordered Iolaus to roll onto his stomach and to put his hands behind his back. The second man secured his wrists.
Alcmene protested, "He's got a badly infected hand from an injury that he suffered a few days ago. I need the medicine from my bag."
"That's his hard luck."
"And it might be yours! The infection is spreading up his arm. If he dies from blood-poisoning it's not going to do your plans much good."
"We've still got you if he dies."
"That's not going to cut much ice with Hercules, Alcmene said, improvising hurriedly. "We've never got on. I don't like the way he's always leading my son into danger. I want my boy at home with me. He's all I've got. He belongs with his mother. Hercules is so selfish luring Iolaus away from me and I've told him so in no uncertain terms. Now he goes out of his way to avoid me. No, your only chance of influencing that man is if Iolaus is still alive, so you'd better see about my medicines."
"We'll see what Summanus says after he's seen Blondie." They hauled Iolaus upright and dragged him out, locking the door behind them.
They took him to the room where Summanus was waiting. He was somewhat surprised to see the condition of his prisoner, who was sagging, head down, between the pair. "Have you two been working him over?" he demanded.
"No, Summanus, we wouldn't do that without your say so. The old woman says he's got an infected hand and seems to be developing blood-poisoning. She's asking for the medical supplies that are in her bag."
"Well, if he's cooperative, I may let her have them. He's no good to us dead."
"That's true," Lybas replied, and explained what Alcmene had said about her relationship with Hercules.
Summanus moved forward and cupped Iolaus' chin in his hand, forcing his head up. "Now, Blondie, you can tell us how to contact your friend Hercules."
Iolaus was out on his feet. He would have fallen if the two bandits hadn't been holding his arms. He seemed to be in a hot, swirling mist of pain. His hand was throbbing viciously and his senses were reeling. He knew the man had asked him something, but he didn't know what it was. "What?" He tried to concentrate to find out what the man wanted.
"Where is Hercules?"
"He's ... He's visiting his father."
"M-Mount Olympus." That stunned them. Even though it was well-known that Hercules was a bastard son of Zeus, King of the Gods, it was still difficult to comprehend someone visiting the gods.
"How do we contact him?"
"How do you keep in touch then?"
"I-I can't if he's there."
"When is he due back?"
"N-No particular time. He doesn't ... He doesn't go there often and doesn't usually stay long."
"When he returns where will he go?"
"I don't know."
Summanus slapped him across the face. "You know and you'll tell me now!"
Iolaus sagged further as a wave of dizziness flooded over him. "I don't ... I don't ..."
One of the bandits holding him intervened, " Summanus, I think he's going to pass out. He's hotter than Tartarus."
Summanus stepped forward quickly, grasped the hunter's vest and began to shake him. "Where will Hercules go?"
"Possibly ... Possibly his mother's house." The blackness overwhelmed him and he fainted.
Summanus said, "You'd better get that medicine. See if the old woman knows where Hercules' mother lives."
They dragged Iolaus back to the cell and dropped him on the floor. "We've got your medicine and you can have it if you tell us where Hercules' mother lives."
"Why do you want to know?"
"Blondie reckons that's where Hercules will go when he returns from Mount Olympus."
Alcmene paused wondering what to say. If a bandit went there and approached Jason in a friendly manner, he might mention that his wife was on her way to Melinda's and the bandits would then put two and two together and identify her. There was also the possibility that the bandits might go in force and then Jason might be at risk. However, she knew from Iolaus' condition that it was vital to get the medical supplies. 'First things first,' she thought, and told the bandits what they wanted to know. They handed over the bag and left.
She quickly untied the hunter's wrists and then unwrapped his hand, gazing with horror at the pus that had reformed and the spreading inflammation. His forearm was now looking swollen and red as well. She tried to repress a wave of panic. Blood poisoning, if allowed to take hold, was a virtual sentence to a painful death. She began to clean the wound again and then applied a drawing poultice, hoping that the hunter would not regain consciousness while she was at work. Thankfully this was the case.
A bandit delivered some food and fresh water late in the day, but apart from that she saw nothing of their captors. At intervals, she managed to get Iolaus to drink a herbal preparation designed to reduce inflammation and applied new poultices. He was at best semi-conscious and seemed confused about where they were and what was going on from some of the things he said.
For much of the time, he tossed restlessly, muttering and groaning, and asking for Hercules. At one stage, he threw himself violently onto his stomach causing his vest to ride up his back. Alcmene caught a puzzling glimpse of red. She carefully raised the garment and could see the marks of the brutal bleeding that Juventas had given the blond. Unfortunately, not all the cuts were healing and a few were oozing pus, every bit as inflamed as his hand was. "Iolaus!" she gasped in dismay. "Who on earth has done this to you?"
A horrifying thought occurred. Was Hercules responsible? The hunter had seemed so apprehensive about approaching the house and actually relieved by her son's absence. It seemed too out of character and yet what if he had?
She began to treat the festering sores and realised that some extended below the trousers. She unbuckled his belts and eased his trousers down. What she saw made her gasp in horror for, not only were his buttocks marked from the beating, but there were fading bruises and other marks between his thighs. If she had seen such marks on a woman she would have assumed she had been subjected to a violent sexual attack.
At that moment, Iolaus, aware of her touch, muttered fearfully, "Don't ... Don't touch me ... Please, not again. Mandrocles, no!" The name meant nothing to her, but the terror in Iolaus' voice sent shivers down her spine. The word "touch" stood out starkly in a way "hit" would not. The thought that he had been assaulted upset her greatly but, at least, it was by some man she'd never heard of. However, then he was back to Hercules again, protesting brokenly, "I tried to stop her ... I *did* try ... Please listen to me, Herc ... I *didn't* encourage her ... No, don't ... don't!" Then, Juventas stalked into his feverish nightmare and he screamed, "Gods, no! Not again! Please, no!"
Shaken, Alcmene hastened to complete her task and to restore his clothing. Confused and fearful, she sat stroking his hair and whispering words of comfort as much to herself as to him. Eventually, Alcmene drifted off into an uneasy sleep.
She continued to treat the wounds at intervals throughout the next two days, while Iolaus tossed in delirium, muttering odd confusing things about chariots, someone called Autolycus and even centaurs. The worst thing was when he started calling Hercules' name, begging him to forgive him and sobbing bitterly. She couldn't make sense of any of it.
She sponged him to try to bring his temperature down, fearfully aware of his quick, shallow breathing, and prayed to whichever gods might be listening.
Late in the afternoon, she was relieved to see the redness start to recede from his arm. She checked his back and saw that the salve and medicine were having positive results there as well. Apart from a single delivery of food, the bandits did not come near them.
Late that night, she roused and was immediately aware that Iolaus was lying quietly, his breathing deeper and more regular. Alcmene put out a hand to check him. A moist sheen was on his skin. The fever had broken. She touched the hunter's forehead. It was no longer dry and burning and she rejoiced in its coolness. At her touch, his eyelids fluttered and azure eyes opened and looked uncertainly at her. "Alcmene?" he whispered.
"Hush, don't try to speak. It's all right. You've had a fever, but it's gone. I'll give you some medicine and a drink of water and then you're to go back to sleep." She slipped an arm under his shoulders and raised him slightly so he could drink. Weakness made him more obedient than usual so he swallowed the medicine without complaint and sank back down drifting off to sleep again.
About 3am, Iolaus awoke again with a start. He forced himself to lie still while he tried to gather his scattered thoughts. He remembered he'd been travelling with Alcmene and that they had been captured by bandits, but things were very hazy and confused after that. They were obviously in a cell. He staggered to his feet and moved unsteadily to investigate the door. To his relief, he realized that the lock would not give him much difficulty and he began to pick it. It took but a few minutes to open even though he was obliged to work left-handed. He then bent to rouse Alcmene.
She felt a hand on her shoulder. "What is it?"
"It's okay, Alcmene, it's just me."
"What do you want? Are you feeling sick again?"
"No, I'm feeling a lot better, but we've got to get out of here," Iolaus whispered.
"The cell's open. Locks are no trouble to an old hunter and neither is covering tracks once we get out. The only problem is whether we can evade the bandits until we reach the bush because I don't think I'd do too well in a fight at the moment."
"Iolaus, are you sure you're up to this?" she asked doubtfully, looking at his pale and drawn features.
"I'm fine," he lied.
Alcmene had her doubts about that, but quickly gathered up her medical supplies and the two crept out.
As it turned out, the bandits had been overly confident and had mounted only a very casual guard, so they had no trouble evading the two men on duty.
"Okay," Iolaus whispered, "which way do you want to go?"
"You're asking *me*?"
"Yeah, I mean do you want to go on to Melinda's or to head home. Home's probably closer, but there's not much in it."
"Home! I want to check that Jason's all right. Besides Hercules might be back by now."
'Well, at least she's optimistic,' Iolaus thought. 'She's already worrying about others and we've still got a long way to go.'
With his unerring instinct for direction, the hunter set off without hesitation. He knew it was vital that they cover as much distance as they could before their absence was discovered. The trouble was he felt so damned weak. He'd virtually eaten nothing since the accident to his hand seven days before and his illness had pulled him down further. As he walked, he wondered whether the bandits had approached Jason yet and whether Hercules would be back. He felt both would have some strong words to say to him about his care of Alcmene, but as long as he got her home safely that didn't matter.
The two messengers sent by the bandits had actually arrived at Alcmene and Jason's home two days previously. Jason had only just welcomed his two friends, Alphius and Thesides, and the three were sitting companionably in the sun, chatting and drinking, when Teos and Saburanus rode up.
"Hello!" Jason called, as Teos dismounted. "How can I help you?" He wondered why the man was just standing outside the gate rather than entering.
"Is this Hercules' mother's home?"
"Is Hercules here?"
"Can I speak to his mother then?"
"Sorry, Alcmene's away as well. Can I help?"
"Who are you?"
"My name's Jason. Alcmene's my wife."
"I've got a message for Hercules."
"I'll give it to him, but I can't say when as I don't know when he'll be back."
"Can't you contact him?"
"The message is urgent so you'd better find some way of doing so. It's about that little, blond friend of his."
"What? Iolaus? But if you've seen him ..." He was about to add "you should have seen Alcmene", when warning bells rang in his head and he gulped back his words. "What about Iolaus?" he demanded.
"Blondie's had the misfortune to fall into the hands of some friends of mine. They figure Hercules will be prepared to make it very much worth their while to get him back."
"Was he alone?" Jason ventured, cautiously.
"Nah! There was an old woman with him. His mother apparently. A real stroppy piece! Anyway, you'll need to tell Hercules to contact us very quickly or Blondie's going to start to suffer for his neglect. I'm going to wait at the tavern in town for him, while my friend here reports back to our leader. Be warned, Summanus doesn't like to be kept waiting."
Jason desperately wanted to inquire further about Alcmene as it had been impossible to tell from the bandit's words whether she was still alive or not, but he realized to show too great an interest in her might make the man suspicious. He was overwhelmed with a feeling of helplessness as he watched the two ride off. He had no idea how he was going to contact the demigod.
Of course, all this was unknown to Iolaus and Alcmene as they struggled through the bush. The tall trees, with their thick canopy of leaves, effectively shielded the pair from any light that the moon might have provided. Both were scratched and bleeding from encounters with unseen branches.
If he'd been alone, Iolaus might have sought a place to go to ground to give himself more time to recuperate, but he was weighed down with the responsibility of getting Alcmene to safety. How could he ever face Hercules again if he let something happen to his mother? In any case, he probably wouldn't get the chance as Jason would 'kill' him. He felt so guilty that he'd not been able to prevent their capture in the first place. He just couldn't fail now.
They were traversing a hillside, when Iolaus stood on a loose rock and it rolled. Lacking his normal agility, he fell with it, coming to rest when his stomach hit a tree about ten feet down the hillside. The impact drove the breath from his body and the rough bark scrapped quite an area of skin. "Iolaus, are you all right?" Alcmene cried, scrambling after him.
"Yeah," he gasped, trying to rise as the world tilted around him. He felt Alcmene grasping his shoulder. "I'm okay. Just give me a moment."
"We should stop. You need to rest."
"No, we can't. We've got to get as far as we can before they find out we're missing." He forced himself to his feet. "Come on!"
Alcmene was desperately worried, not for herself, but for the small, gallant figure staggering ahead of her. She knew that he was stubborn enough to keep on until he dropped and then what on earth would she do? She knew she'd never be able to carry him and she'd be hopelessly lost anyway.
She kept walking for another ten long minutes and then tried another tack. "Iolaus, I need to rest. Please can we stop for a few minutes?"
He turned to her, his face full of concern. "I'm sorry, Alcmene. I didn't think."
"Let's sit down for a moment."
"You go ahead. I prefer to stand." He felt so lightheaded that he was worried he might not be able to get up again. A mere five minutes later, he insisted they move on again.
After what seemed an age, they emerged from the woods. They were still on a steep hillside. They could see a river well below them, shining in the moonlight. Water! Both were parched. They began a slithering, none to careful descent.
They were almost at the bottom when Iolaus, who was leading, cried, "Alcmene, stop!" As he shouted, he twisted around and flung himself onto his stomach, grabbing at the long grass to halt himself.
Alcmene tried to follow suit, but to no avail. She couldn't stop. "I can't!" she screamed.
Iolaus lunged desperately at her. He managed to grasp her arm, but couldn't brace himself and her weight carried them both over the truncated spur and down fifteen feet or so into the swiftly flowing river.
They surfaced coughing and choking, but Alcmene's skirt clung to her legs and it's weight began to pull her down once more. "Iolaus, help me!" she appealed, thrashing wildly.
"Hang on!" Somehow he managed to get an arm around her. In her fright, she threw her arms around his neck almost strangling him. He went under, swallowing more muddy water and surfaced spluttering. Surprisingly, he had managed to retain his grip on Alcmene. "Alcmene, calm down! It's all right, I've got you," he gasped.
His words penetrated and she stopped her struggles and relaxed her grip. However, her weight and the force of the river meant that the best the hunter could do was to try to keep both their heads above water, as the river swept them helplessly onward.
Iolaus was exhausted. The freezing water was numbing his good hand and he feared he would soon lose his grip on Alcmene and that they would both drown. Fortunately, Alcmene had calmed and seemed to have a confidence, in his ability to save them both, that he lacked. Just when he was losing all hope, the river flowed out onto wide flood plains. With room to spread, it became both gentler and shallower and, at last, the hunter was able to touch the bottom.
They stood clinging to each other for a few moments and then began to make their way towards the bank. Unfortunately, the reduced flow allowed for weed growth and the riverbed was slippery. Both fell more than once as they made their way to the bank. Once there they sank onto the shingle. Soon they were shivering with cold. "I'm sorry, Alcmene," Iolaus said," we'll have to get moving to try to warm ourselves up."
They managed another mile before he called a halt again, aware that Alcmene was breathing hard. It had been quite a trek for her and her heavy, clinging skirts were making the going even tougher.
This time, he had to sit down. He leant back against a rock and closed his eyes.
"Don't let me fall asleep," he muttered. He was afraid that, without help to keep awake, he might submit to the demands of pain and exhaustion and drift into a deep sleep close to unconsciousness. He couldn't afford that. He *had* to keep alert in case the bandits tracked them, although he was aware that, to that extent, the fall into the river was a blessing in that it broke any trail the pair had left.
The sun had risen and the day promised to be warm so, at least, their sodden clothing should start to dry. Alcmene spread her skirts to assist this and then sat looking at the hunter. She knew he would want her to follow his instruction and so, although tempted to allow him to sleep, she decided she'd better try to keep him talking. Okay, he wanted to be kept awake, so now was the time to return to the matter worrying her.
"Iolaus, when you were unconscious you were delirious and some things you said have got me worried."
His eyes opened and he looked warily at her. "What things?" he asked reluctantly.
"I'm concerned about this falling out you've had with Hercules."
"Oh, that! Don't worry about it. I told you it was my fault."
"I know you did. Whether I believe you is another thing. Was it *just* an argument?"
"Y-Yes," he replied, but was betrayed by a telltale flush creeping into his pallid cheeks.
"Yes ... No ... I-I hit him. He was ... He was shaking me and telling me off and I hit him."
Unlike some mothers, Alcmene did not automatically hold that against the hunter. She loved her son, probably even more than she loved Jason, but she also loved the little blond. She saw him as part of her family and knew him and Hercules well enough to know their faults as well as their virtues. She was well aware that Hercules had a self-righteous, almost overbearing streak that tended to manifest itself in a habit of lecturing the hunter at times as though the latter was a schoolboy, instead of actually his senior by a year. It was, she considered, probably a greater wonder that Iolaus had not hit him more often.
She also knew that Iolaus attracted trouble like a magnet. If it didn't come to him, he would actively seek it out. At times, over the years, she had despaired of his antics and suspected that some even worse stories were kept from her ears by the collusion of the pair. She was aware that not all of the thrashings his father had handed out so freely were unmerited, although their severity certainly was, and she could well understand how his behaviour at times annoyed her moralistic son, especially as he was often dragged into the various 'pranks' and often ended up having to share the responsibility and, accordingly, the punishment for them. Then, while Hercules apologized sincerely and tried to make good any damage, Iolaus would already be plotting his next escapade.
With a start, she pulled herself away from these memories and back to the present. "And what did Hercules do after you hit him?" she asked with some trepidation, recalling his ravings and his various injuries.
"He punched me straight back."
"And that's *all* he did to you?"
Iolaus looked at her in some confusion. "Y-Yeah. I d-don't think he really m-meant to," he stammered, anxious to show his friend in the best light possible to avoid upsetting Alcmene. "It was just a ... just a reflex action. Everything was my fault really. You see there was this woman ..."
"You were fighting over a woman?"
"Um ... Sort of."
Alcmene didn't notice the hesitation. She was so relieved. It had been over a woman as she had suspected. Whoever had caused the injuries to Iolaus, it hadn't been her son. She would have liked to ask about these, but decided now wasn't the time.
Soon after that, Iolaus, feeling he'd had a lucky let out and still wondering just what he'd said in his delirium but not game to ask, decreed that they had to get moving once more. They struggled on.
After a dreadfully tiring day, during which both secretly despaired of making the distance but kept plodding on for the sake of the other, they finally neared home.
Dusk had fallen. Jason was standing by the fence, peering worriedly along the road in the dim light and trying to will Hercules to appear. Then he saw the unkempt pair approaching. He shouted joyfully and bounded forward to clutch Alcmene to him and kiss her thoroughly.
Iolaus moved aside and watched the reunion, with a feeling of relief and apprehension. Jason felt his eyes upon him and looked up. He was so overjoyed to have his wife back, there was hardly room for any other emotion, but he forced himself to ask sternly, "Is this what you call looking after a woman?"
"I-I'm sorry," Iolaus faltered. He lowered his head and turned to go.
"Wait a minute, Iolaus," Jason exclaimed, surprised at the reaction.
But the blond kept walking. "Go after him, Jason," Alcmene urged, disengaging herself from her husband's arms.
"He'll be all right. I want to see you're okay before I worry about anyone else."
"No! Please, go and get him now."
"If I must." He hurried after the hunter and grasped his arm. Iolaus halted and flinched as if expecting a blow. Jason was horrified by both that and by his appearance. Initially, he had had eyes only for Alcmene and had not seen the blond's pallor and obvious exhaustion.
"I'm sorry ... I couldn't ..."
"Iolaus, it's okay. Alcmene wants you to come into the house."
"N-No, you don't have to ... to ask me. You go and look after her. I-I'll go home."
"Iolaus, please, we both want you to stay. "
"You don't have to say that."
"What's going on?" a familiar voice called, as its owner observed Jason clutching someone's arm.
"H-Herc!" The hunter turned towards the demigod, his heart pounding. It was the person he most longed to see, but dreaded to encounter.
"Iolaus! What's happened?" Hercules asked, his joyful shouting of his friend's name giving way to concern as he saw the state his friend was in.
"I'm sorry, Herc, I didn't ..."
Jason interrupted, "Iolaus, *stop* apologizing and come into the house. Hercules, could you bring him in please, I want to get back to Alcmene."
"What? Has something happened to my mother?" Hercules' level of anxiety rose further, but Jason was already hurrying back towards the house. He turned to his friend. "Iolaus, what is going on?"
Just then there was a cry, "There's the little bastard! I told you he'd come here."
Several roughly dressed men appeared out of the shadows and bore down upon them. "Who are ..." the demigod started.
"Bandits! They kidnapped your mother and ..."
Without waiting for another word, the demigod launched himself at the group. He pulled no punches and in moments all were unconscious or in flight. He turned back to Iolaus. "All right, Iolaus, you'd better come in. I *need* an explanation." As he spoke, he wrapped an arm firmly around the blond's shoulders and began to steer him towards the house.
"Please, Herc, I'd rather go. Your mother can tell you everything." He tried ineffectually to shrug Hercules' arm off.
The grip around his shoulders tightened. "Sorry, no, I want you to stay. " The hunter tried to pull away, but to no avail as the demigod clutched him firmly.
They had no sooner entered the house, than other arms wrapped around the hunter as Alcmene embraced him and gently led him to a chair. "Hercules, could you get something for Iolaus to drink, please. "
"Mother, what's been going on?"
"Patience, my dear, we're both tired, hungry and thirsty. Perhaps you and Jason could get us both some refreshments. We'll have a little rest and then we'll tell you everything."
So some minutes later, Alcmene, having eaten and drunk her fill and having remonstrated fruitlessly with the hunter for not following suit, told the story. Iolaus could hardly believe how well she spoke of him, but Jason disregarded that. He was now genuinely angry.
When she had finished, Jason said, "That's all very well, but why did you set out on the journey knowing you weren't up to looking after Alcmene if anything went wrong?"
The blond hung his head, so only his mop of tousled golden curls could be seen, and muttered, "It was only a cut hand. I didn't think ..."
"No, you didn't, did you?"
"Jason!" Alcmene interjected, reproachfully.
"You didn't, did you? You *never* do," Jason continued, relentlessly.
If anything, the head went lower. Hercules could see his friend's shoulders starting to shake. He looked reproachfully at Jason and moved to stand in front of the blond, looking down at him compassionately and shielding him from Jason's view. He put his hands on Iolaus' shoulders and drew him to his feet, hugging him against his chest and feeling the dampness of his tears. "I think I'd better take Iolaus home. We can talk things over tomorrow when we've all rested. I think everyone is a bit overwrought at the moment." He led Iolaus outside.
The hunter tried to pull away from him. "I'm okay. Herc, you go back in."
The demigod continued to clutch him firmly as they headed out onto the road. "Iolaus, they don't need me in there. I imagine my mother will be telling Jason a few home-truths and it will embarrass him more if I'm there."
"I sorry, I don't ... don't want to cause problems between them."
"Don't worry, you haven't. Jason sometimes forgets he's no longer Captain of the Argo and gets carried away. My mother's an expert in letting him know the error of his ways, but calming him down at the same time. By tomorrow he'll be very sorry for what he said."
"He sh-shouldn't be."
Of course, he should."
"No, he was right. I should have known better," Iolaus said, his voice heavy with dejection. "I-I never seem to think things through. Could you just ... just leave me ... please. I don't want ... I'll just go home."
"I'm going with you, Iolaus."
"You don't have to."
"I want to."
They walked in silence. The full moon, that had risen, illuminating the road clearly. Iolaus was concentrating on staying upright. Having got Alcmene to safety, all his energy seemed to have deserted him. Hercules was wracking his brains trying to think how he could make amends for what he had done.
After his set-to with Iolaus in the inn at Preveza, Hercules had stormed back to his room and slammed the door. 'Damn, Iolaus,' he thought, 'as far as he's concerned anything in skirts is fair game. So much for all his assurances that he wasn't interested in Gallia. He knows how much I love him, but he doesn't care how much his flirting and affairs hurt me.' He rubbed his aching jaw. 'That hurts too. Still he'll have regretted doing that to me if nothing else. He'll have some *very* sore ribs. He'll be lucky if I haven't brok-'
He stopped aghast, regarding himself with horror. 'Gods what on earth am I thinking of? I *hit* Iolaus. Even if he did hit me first, I should *never* have done that. I really had no right to take him to task over Gallia either, but *hitting* him! He really smashed into that wall too. I'll have to go back and check he's all right. He probably won't want to see me, but I'll have to make sure he's okay.'
He went to Iolaus' room and knocked. Receiving no reply, he went in anyway. However, by then the hunter had bolted. 'Well, at least, he's mobile,' the demigod thought, not realizing that the blond had dressed and fled without any conscious awareness of doing so and was, at that moment, sitting confused and sobbing in the livery stables, where Autolycus would discover him some minutes later.
Hercules' glanced around the hunter's room and saw that the blond's meagre possessions, namely carry-bag, sword and hunting knife, were still there. 'At least, he must be intending to come back,' he thought, feeling very relieved. He did not know that, in his intense upset, the hunter hadn't given such mundane items a second thought and that he had no intention of returning.
Rejecting the notion of trying to locate the elusive blond in the dark, the demigod sat down on the bed. 'I'll wait here so I can apologize when he gets back,' he thought. However, the hour was already well advanced and, good intentions notwithstanding, Hercules fell asleep.
When he awoke the next morning, it was to the worrying realization that Iolaus had not returned. It was possible that he had spent the night with Gallia, but Hercules decided to leave that distasteful possibility aside and ask around. It was not long before he met a couple of men who had witnessed the tavern fight and the subsequent arrest of Iolaus and Autolycus.
Even news of the scrap reduced Hercules' anxiety. Obviously Iolaus was well enough to drink and fight. He wondered momentarily who the hunter's ally had been, but shoved the thought aside. The gregarious hunter never had any trouble in finding drinking partners. At least, this was an explanation of Iolaus' failure to return to the inn.
He headed for the castle prison, anticipating that he would need to do some quick talking to obtain Iolaus' release. However, on arrival, he was informed that both prisoners had escaped. When he heard of the method they had employed, a suspicion grew in his mind. He inquired as to the appearance of the second man. Tall. Dark, wavy hair. Moustache. Autolycus! He had no doubts about that, but what was the King of Thieves doing in Preveza?
He knew that Autolycus was in love with Iolaus, a love that had grown out of the incident with the centaurs and which had probably had its seeds in their earlier visit to Athens. However, he also knew that the hunter did not return the sentiment and actually felt an element of guilt for unwittingly inspiring an emotion in the thief that he could not return. So the thief's presence was a mystery.
The thief's presence was also a bonus. At least, he knew Iolaus was with somebody who would look out for him. Further, Autolycus was one for the cities. As long as he was with Iolaus, the latter would not go bush. Finding the hunter in the wilds would be impossible but, if he kept to the towns, as the thief would wish, there would be bound to be people to notice them and to give Hercules directions for he was determined to locate the hunter.
Nearly a month had passed, however, before he got any news. Finally, a mutual friend told him he had met up with Autolycus, a few days before, but the thief had been travelling alone. The demigod penned several copies of a letter and dispatched messengers to seek out the thief, hoping that one would find him.
Soon he had Autolycus' detailed reply. From this the demigod learnt the truth about Gallia's visit to the hunter. This made him feel guiltier than ever when he thought about both what he had done to Iolaus and the hurtful comments he had made. There was some comfort to be gained from the thief's assurances that "All he did was mope and wonder where you were and worry about you" and "He does love you." However, any redress would have to wait because, unfortunately, Iolaus had parted company from the thief a fortnight before, saying only that he was going hunting.
So his search continued. He concentrated on towns near some of Iolaus' favourite hunting spots and never gave Athens a single thought. Apart from the fact that Iolaus' stated plan of going hunting precluded the city, it would have been the last place he would have expected the blond to go. After his rape by Mandrocles, Iolaus hadn't been able to leave the city fast enough and, if ever anyone had had occasion to mention the city since, he had clearly indicated that he had no intention of ever going there again.
Three weeks of searching having yielded no information at all, a tired and dispirited demigod had found himself walking towards his mother's home. Alcmene had, as usual, been overjoyed to see him, but she was clearly concerned as to where Iolaus was and, although she only asked directly once, he knew she was waiting for him to tell her what was wrong. How could he say "I thought my lover was having an affair so I thumped him and he took off and I can't find him anywhere"? Sure he could say they'd just had an argument, but then what if his mother asked him what it had been about?
Finally, he'd decided to take a most unusual step and go and ask his father's advice. He didn't know if it would be worth having but, at least, he felt he could speak honestly about his relationship with Iolaus with Zeus. A father who had had affairs with Ganymede, his cupbearer, and other males, could have his uses after all.
Not that his father turned out to have much useful advice to offer. He was always one for fresh fields and pastures new and tended to seek out new lovers if difficulties arose rather than attempting to deal with any issues that had arisen with the old. However, at least, he had served as a non-judgemental listener and Hercules had been able to talk in detail about what had happened.
Lost in his thoughts, the demigod had released his grip on the blond. He was brought back to reality when Iolaus stumbled against him. He glanced down at his companion. Swaying with fatigue, the hunter was moving automatically with no real sense of direction. As he tried to recover himself, the stars pulsed bright and then dimmed and he knew he was going to pass out. His knees started to buckle, but strong arms were around him before he could fall.
When consciousness returned a few minutes later, Iolaus found he was being cradled in Hercules' arms. The demigod felt him stir. "Not far now, Iolaus," he whispered comfortingly.
Iolaus forced himself to say, "Put me down please."
"But, Iolaus, it's only a couple of hundred yards," Hercules protested, unwilling to give up his precious burden.
The demigod complied reluctantly. It had felt so right to hold Iolaus protectively against his heart. Nothing had felt so good in weeks.
The hunter made his way unsteadily to the house. He turned at the doorway and said, "Th-Thank you for bringing me home." It was a clear dismissal.
But Hercules couldn't leave anyone in such a state and certainly not the person he loved most of all. "Iolaus, I'm coming in. I want to see you're all right."
Iolaus turned, hurried as fast as he could across the room, flung himself face down on the bed and buried his face in the pillow. "I'm okay. I'll go to sleep now. Just leave me please," he muttered.
"Please, Iolaus, don't do this. Please talk to me. At least let me apologize," the demigod begged.
"Why? You don't want to," came the muffled response.
"I do! I've been searching for you ever since that night I hit you. I should never have done that."
"But you still think I slept with Gallia."
"No, I swear I don't. Autolycus told me what happened. Please, Iolaus, talk to me."
Unable to stop himself, he reached for the unresisting blond and pulled him into his arms, clutching him tightly against his chest and burying his face in the soft curls. He ran his hand down Iolaus' back in what he had intended as a comforting motion. At first the blond lay quiescent and then suddenly sucked in his breath. Puzzled, the demigod raised his vest and, in the bright moonlight, saw the still healing cuts. Belatedly, he recalled that Alcmene had made a brief reference to some back injury Iolaus had.
"Iolaus, who did this to you?"
"A man in Athens ... Juventas."
"Is that all he did?" Hercules' heart was in his mouth.
An almost imperceptible head shake.
"What else?" Hercules breathed, hardly daring to ask.
"He raped me ... It was ... It was like Mandrocles all over again, but you weren't ... you weren't ..." His voice was absolutely distraught.
"I wasn't there. Go on, say it! You needed me and I wasn't bloody there, " Hercules exclaimed in anguished tones.
Hearing the note of self-loathing, Iolaus added fairly, "You couldn't have known that would happen."
"It's still my fault. None of this would have happened if it wasn't for my damned jealousy."
"Herc, I hit you first. I'm sorry for that."
"That doesn't matter, Iolaus, I asked for it. Anyway your punches might hurt, but they won't kill me. My punches are different. I was so mad I didn't think, I just reacted. I'm so sorry."
"I know you didn't mean to hit me, Herc. It's not being hit that still hurts, it's what you *said* about me." Tears coursed down the hunter's pallid cheeks as he recalled the words.
Hercules looked at the hunter, his heart contracting. Nothing the blond said could flay him as much for those words as his own conscience did. "I was wrong, Iolaus. I was wrong about Gallia and, in my jealousy, I just opened my mouth and accused you of things of which I had no proof just to hurt you because I was hurting."
The hunter's relentless honesty couldn't let that pass. He knew that he had not betrayed Hercules before the incident with Gallia, but that he'd come damned close to doing so since. "Herc, I know I'm a flirt, but that's all I'd done with anyone, apart from you, since you became my lover, but did ... did Autolycus tell you what happened ... what I did ... when we were in the cell?"
"And ... And why?"
'Yes. Look, Iolaus, whatever you thought about doing with Autolycus, I know you didn't go through with it."
"No, but ... but I *would* have let him use me. I offered myself, but he ... he ... To think how I used to regard him! He's better than either of us."
"True. That's a sobering thought, my love."
"Are you what?"
"Still your love?"
"Always! I'll always love you, Iolaus, no matter what you think of me."
"Wh-What happens now?"
"That's up to you. What do you want to happen?"
"I don't know. I'm sorry, Herc, I still feel ... I don't really know how I feel. Herc, could you ... could you just cuddle me tonight. Nothing else please. N-Not yet. I don't know about the future. I-I've been feeling so ... so lonely without you, but I don't know ... after your words and then ... Juventas ...I just don't know." The last phrase came out as an almost hysterical sob.
"No rush, my love." Having feared complete rejection, the demigod was more than prepared to accept the concession. Quickly kicking off his boots and removing his shirt, he knelt to remove Iolaus' boots for him and then lay down beside him. He pulled a blanket over them both and put an arm around Iolaus, settling the blond's head comfortably on his shoulder. He dropped a feather-light kiss on the cold cheek. "Sleep well, my love."
It was not going to be as easy as he had hoped, but the demigod was determined that somehow he was going to convince Iolaus that he was genuinely repentant and would always regret his hateful and hasty words. Somehow he would convince him that he loved him above all else. Somehow they *would* be lovers again.
E-mail the author c/o Nephele at [email protected]
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