A Matter of Trust

by Ceallach

Author's Note: This story takes place sometime during the second season of the show. My thanks to Klio for the title and letting me bounce ideas off of her, and to Adrianne for her wonderful job of editing. I couldn't do this without either of them.

Warning: There are some mildly graphic descriptions of wounds and a couple of swear words but nothing too harsh.

Hercules plugged his ears and grimaced at his companion. "Iolaus!" The smaller man ignored him, continuing to sing a bawdy song at the top of his lungs. "Iolaus!" he repeated a bit louder. Still no response from his friend; if anything, Iolaus began to sing even louder. "Iolaus, you're scaring the birds!" Hercules finally yelled.

"Ah, Herc, they're just struck dumb by my talent." Iolaus grinned at him, a twinkle in his eyes.

"Lack of talent, anyway," Hercules agreed, enjoying the familiar banter.

"Hey! I'm not…" Iolaus started to protest.

"Look out!" Hercules shoved Iolaus to one side, catching the arrow that would have pierced his friends' chest and trying to avoid the one aimed at him. He felt the second arrow lightly graze his arm. The wound was barely a scratch and he ignored it as the two of them prepared to face whoever was shooting at them.

They made quick work of the half dozen bandits that attacked them, but as they watched the men flee, Hercules wondered about the incident. The men hadn't asked for their money, made any threats, nothing. Just the sneak attack and when that failed, they'd run away.

"Don't they ever learn?"

Hercules looked up at the sound of Iolaus' voice. A quick visual check assured him that his friend was all right. "Doesn't seem that way, does it?"

"Herc! You're hurt!" Iolaus exclaimed.

Hercules looked over at his friend, then followed Iolaus' gaze to the scratch from the arrow. "It's nothing, Iolaus," he assured him. "Just a scratch." He wiped away the bit of blood that had oozed from the cut. "See? Nothing to worry about."

"Hmmm, yeah, but we should probably wash it out, just in case." Iolaus suggested seriously.

Hercules laughed. "Ok, mother hen, the next stream we find, I'll wash it."

"See that you do." Hercules laughed again at Iolaus' attempt to mimic Alcmene's tone.

"Come on," he told Iolaus. "We've still got a way to go before we reach Trekka."

As the two resumed their journey, Iolaus shook his head. "What?" Hercules looked curiously at his friend.

"I'm worried about you, Herc," Iolaus replied.

"Huh? Iolaus, it's just a scratch, I'll be fine," Hercules protested.

"It's not that, Herc." Iolaus shook his head but didn't look at his friend.

"Then what?"

"A season ago, you would have caught both arrows," Iolaus replied. "You're slowing down, Herc. You're getting…" Iolaus' voice dropped to a whisper. "…old."

Hercules gaped at Iolaus in astonishment. "What are you talking about?" He grabbed Iolaus' arm and forced the smaller man to stop and face him. "Iolaus, you aren't serious, are you?" He stared at his friend and caught a glimpse of Iolaus' eyes. Iolaus was teasing him, again. He'd fallen for it, again. "I'll show you who's getting old!" he growled, lunging for his friend.

Iolaus giggled as he avoided the lunge. "Only if you can catch me, old man!" he taunted. Laughing, he took off down the road toward Trekka.

A few hours later Iolaus was beginning to wonder if he really should be worried about Hercules. The demi-god had grown progressively quieter as the day wore on, not even responding when Iolaus started singing again. They weren't in a hurry, but Hercules' pace had seemed to get slower as well. Looking at his friend, Iolaus wondered if he should suggest they take a few days off and rest in Trekka. They didn't really have any place that they had to be, he reasoned. If he remembered correctly, Trekka had a decent inn and he was going to insist that they stay there at least tonight.

By the time they reached Trekka, he was sure that something was wrong with Hercules though the other man refused to admit it. When he hesitantly suggested they stop for the night, Hercules didn't argue. Silently breathing a sigh of relief, Iolaus led the way to the inn he remembered. He found the landlord and arranged for a room for the two of them, while Hercules found a table and ordered dinner. Iolaus arrived at the table just as the serving girl placed two mugs in front of Hercules. Smiling at her, Iolaus snagged one of the mugs and took a drink.

Seating himself across from his friend, Iolaus asked, "So, what's for dinner?"

Hercules looked up and his eyes slowly focused on Iolaus. "Uh, rabbit stew, I think."

"Sounds good." Iolaus took another drink, trying to hide how worried he was. "I'm starving." He waited for the usual come back, but Hercules was silent. "Herc, are you ok?" he asked tentatively.

"I'm fine, Iolaus," the demi-god replied a bit testily. "You've asked me that ten times already. The answer hasn't changed."

"Well," Iolaus temporized. "You just seem a bit…" he hesitated, searching for the right word, "tired, I guess."

"I'm fine," Hercules repeated. He waited for the serving girl to set their dinner in front of them and leave. "Now, can we just drop the subject and eat? I thought you were hungry."

"Ok, ok." Iolaus took a bit of his stew. "Not bad," he added and dove into the stew with renewed interest. Halfway through, he glanced up at Hercules and stopped. His friend hadn't eaten a bite. As Iolaus watched, Hercules stirred the stew then slowly brought a spoonful to his mouth. The demi-god stared at it for a long moment, before lowering the spoon, untasted. "Uh, something wrong with the stew?" Iolaus asked worriedly.

Hercules shook his head. "I guess I'm just not hungry."

"But you haven't eaten anything since breakfast," Iolaus protested. "Even you need to eat more than that."

"Iolaus, I'm fine." Hercules glared at him. "I'm just too tired to eat." He held up a hand to forestall another protest. "I'll eat in the morning. I'm going to bed now."

Iolaus watched silently as his friend pushed himself up from the table and slowly made his way across the room. Something was definitely wrong. He sighed and looked down at his food. The problem was what to do about it. Assuming he could even find out what it was. Hercules could be as stubborn as ten mules when he set his mind to it. Iolaus sighed again and took another bite of food, chewing thoughtfully. A muffled thump caught his attention. Hercules was slumped against the wall, half way up the stairs. The demi-god didn't look good.

Iolaus was out of his chair and crouching beside Hercules before he even realized what had happened. The moment he touched Hercules' arm, he knew matters where worse than he'd feared. The demi-god was burning with fever. He had to get his friend into bed and find a healer quickly. He looked up as someone touched his arm.

"Is something wrong with your friend?" The girl who had served them before, now stared anxiously at Iolaus. "Can I help?"

Iolaus nearly smiled with relief; grateful he'd talked Hercules into staying at the inn. He wouldn't have to deal with this alone. Help was nearby. "My friend is ill, is there a healer in Trekka?"

He did smile when he heard the girl's reply. "Oh yes, we have a very good healer, shall I fetch her for you?"

Iolaus nodded. "Please," he told her as he slung Hercules' arm over his shoulder and tried to get the bigger man on his feet. He managed to get his friend more or less upright and tried to steer the demi-god towards their room. Hercules was nearly dead weight and Iolaus wasn't having much luck getting him to wake up enough to cooperate. Suddenly he felt Hercules' weight shift. He looked over to find the landlord helping to support the weight of the unconscious demi-god. Between the two it didn't take them long to get Hercules to the room Iolaus had rented.

Iolaus had just finished getting Hercules settled on the narrow bed and thanked the landlord for his help when the door opened and the serving girl entered, followed by another young woman. Ignoring everyone else, the young woman went quickly to Hercules' side and began to examine him.

"Uh, excuse me," Iolaus tried to get her attention.

The woman glanced up briefly before turning her attention back to her patient. "How long has he had this fever? Has he been exposed to any illnesses recently? Taken any wounds?"

Iolaus blinked at the rapid fire questions. "We were attacked by bandits this afternoon and Hercules was grazed by an arrow but it looked fine earlier. Who are you?"

"Alcinae," she replied shortly. "The healer you sent for." She carefully unwrapped the makeshift bandage on Hercules' arm.

As the healer removed the last of it, Iolaus gagged at the stench coming from the wound. No doubt now about the source of Hercules illness. Iolaus gaped at the wound that had been a simple scratch a few hours ago. It was red and swollen and oozing a greenish puss. Could the arrow have been poisoned?

"That is a possibility." Iolaus realized he'd spoken his thought aloud as the healer answered him. "More likely is it has simply become infected." She started pulling herbs and other items from her bag. "I suppose neither of you thought to clean it, did you?"

"Of course we…" Iolaus tried to protest but the healer interrupted.

"Hold this," she ordered, shoving a bowl in his hands. "Lhyssa, I need hot water. Will you fetch some for me?" she asked the serving girl. As the girl nodded and left, she turned back to her medicines. "We'll need to clean as much of that infection out as we can," she told Iolaus. "Then I'll put a poultice on to draw out the rest." She paused and studied Iolaus for a moment. "The poultice will need to be changed whenever it dries, and any sign of discharge from the wound will need to be cleaned before a new one is applied. Do you think you can handle that?"

"Just tell me what you want done," Iolaus told her.

"Good." Alcinae went back to sorting the various herbs she'd brought, mixing a few into a cup while Iolaus watched. Both looked up at the sound of the door opening. "Thanks, Lhyssa," the healer smiled. "Just put it down beside the bed." She looked over at Iolaus. "Fill the bowl with water and bring it back here," she ordered. Iolaus did as she told him, then watched as she sprinkled some herbs in the water. "There… Use this cloth and start washing your friend's wound with it."

Taking the soft cloth Alcinae gave him, Iolaus carefully made his way to Hercules' side and sat on the edge of the bed. He balanced the bowl in his lap; dipping the cloth in the bowl, he wrung it out and then carefully began to clean the wound. Iolaus knew that the angry looking wound must be painful but Hercules never stirred during his ministrations.

"Not bad." The healer's words startled Iolaus. He'd been so intent on Hercules' condition that he hadn't noticed her beside him. He moved aside so she could examine the wound once more. Once she had satisfied herself that it was as clean as Iolaus could make it, she began to spread the poultice over it. "Hand me the bandage," she ordered absently as she finished. Iolaus quickly found the bandage she'd left beside her bag and handed it to her; watching as she deftly wrapped it around Hercules' arm.

She looked up as she finished. "Now, we need to get him to drink the medicine I've prepared. Can you prop him up?"

Iolaus nodded and eased himself behind his friend. Once Hercules was sitting up, he tried to get him to wake up enough to drink. "Come on, Herc," he urged the demi-god while the healer held the cup to the man's lips. "Come on, buddy. You've got to wake up enough to drink this." It took them a few tries, most of the medicine seemed to end up running out of Hercules' mouth but at last the healer was satisfied that he'd swallowed enough and allowed Iolaus to lower him back to the bed.

"That's all I can do for now," she told Iolaus. "I'll leave you more of the medicine as well as the poultice. Try to get him to drink at least a little about every two hours." She hesitated a moment, then continued, "I know it's summer, but see if you can get a small fire going on the hearth. The poultice and medicine will work better if it is warm. I'll come back in the morning to check on him again."

"I'll do that. Thank you," Iolaus told her gratefully. Then he thought of something else. "Uh, what do I owe you?" he asked hesitantly.

The healer stared at him for a moment, then smiled. "I'm sure we'll be able to work something out when your friend is well."

Iolaus smiled. "Thank you," he repeated, unable to think of anything better.

Alcinae nodded and finished stowing her things. As she turned to leave, she looked back. "Maybe next time the two of you wont leave a scratch unattended for so long." She slipped out the door before Iolaus could reply.

Iolaus shook his head and then checked to make sure Hercules was comfortable before heading downstairs to seek the landlord and see about getting wood for a fire.

Iolaus starred blearily out the window, watching the sun rise without really seeing it. Only his fear for Hercules was keeping him awake. He'd been awake all night, following the healer's instructions to the best of his ability but nothing he did seemed to help. Hercules' fever had continued to climb. He'd begged extra blankets from the serving girl and he'd built up the fire until the room was stifling but his friend still shivered in the fever's grip. He hoped the healer would return soon, but he didn't want to leave his friend long enough to find someone to send for her. With a worried sigh, he turned back to the bed and tried once more to coax Hercules into drinking some medicine.

The sun was fully up by the time Iolaus heard someone tap on the door. He was relieved to find the healer waiting when he opened it. She took one look at his face, then brushed past him. Wearily he followed her to the bed and watched as she examined Hercules. Iolaus winced as she uncovered the wound, it was still seeping puss and now there were angry red welts leading away from it. Working quickly, she once more cleaned the wound and applied the last of the poultice. Once she had a new bandage in place, she looked up at Iolaus.

"This isn't good," she sighed. "Your friend's body doesn't seem to be fighting the infection."

"There must be something we can do," Iolaus told her, fighting despair. "I wont just give up."

"I'm not asking you to," Alcinae snapped, then sighed. "I'm going to make arrangements to have him brought to my home," she told Iolaus.

"What? No, we can't…" Iolaus started to protest.

"You have too," she interrupted. "This man is very ill and he will need constant care to survive." She glared at Iolaus. "You are almost asleep on your feet and I can't be running back and forth to the inn." Seeing the distraught look on Iolaus' face, she softened, "It's the best thing for him."

Iolaus stared down at his friend. Despite everything they'd tried, despite two days of constant attention from both of them, Hercules' condition had continued to deteriorate. Iolaus covered his face with his hands and sent a quick silent prayer to Zeus. He didn't think it would do any good, but nothing else seemed to be working and he was desperate.

"Here." He looked up to find the healer offering him a steaming mug. "You need to take care of yourself as well, Iolaus. Drink this, it will ease your throat."

"Thanks." Iolaus' voice was a hoarse croak. He'd nearly talked his throat raw, trying to encourage his friend to fight the illness. He took a sip and felt the warmth relaxing the abused muscles while the honey it contained soothed the irritation. He continued to sip the drink as he watched Alcinae tend Hercules and tried to think of something else they could try.

Iolaus was sure now that the arrow had been poisoned and he cursed himself for not checking it at the time. He'd considered going back to try to find it, but doubted he'd have much luck after so many days. Without knowing which poison was involved they were reduced to trying various antidotes by guess. So far, they were guessing wrong.

Iolaus was just grateful that Alcinae was here. The woman's knowledge of herbs and medicines was amazing. He'd been surprised that a relatively young woman should know so much and had finally asked her where she got her knowledge. He'd listened in fascination as Alcinae explained that her mother had been a healer and had taught her all that she knew. The two of them had managed to trade a few stories while they took care of Hercules. For Iolaus, talking about his best friend, telling their adventures to the healer helped him to cope with Hercules' illness. Listening to Alcinae's simpler stories of growing up as the only child of a healer and a carpenter had helped as well.

Shouts and pounding on the door interrupted Iolaus' reverie. He went to answer it, while Alcinae finished bandaging Hercules' wound. A young boy was pounding on the door and nearly fell when Iolaus opened it. "Take it easy." Iolaus caught him before he could fall. "What's wrong?"

"Healer!" the boy panted. "Need the healer. There's been an accident."

"Where?" Alcinae asked as she joined them. "What happened?"

"In the square," the boy replied. "You've got to come! Lynnae is hurt!"

"Don't worry, she'll be there," Iolaus tried to reassure the child as Alcinae went to gather her things. A moment later she was ready and Iolaus watched as the healer followed the young boy. He was torn, he wanted to rush out with them, but someone needed to stay with Hercules. With a sigh, he closed the door and returned to his seat by Hercules' bed. While he waited for the healer to return, he heated some more water and tried to get Hercules to drink some more medicine.

It wasn't very long before he heard a commotion outside the door and Alcinae came in followed by a man carrying a small child. A woman and the boy who had come for Alcinae earlier followed them. Suddenly, the small room was crowded.

"Iolaus, I need your help," the healer told him. "Will you go to the woodpile and see if you can find two small straight pieces?" As he nodded agreement, she smiled and explained, "Lynnae has broken her arm and we'll need to make a brace for it."

Iolaus quickly found a couple of small pieces of wood and brought them back to Alcinae. She nodded acceptance of his choices, asking, "Can you make them a bit shorter?"

"Sure." Iolaus sat down next to the man holding the little girl. "Can I see your arm?" he asked her quietly. The little girl hesitated, looking up at him with tearful blue eyes. He smiled at her and coaxed, "I want to make sure this fits perfectly, so that you can play with it on." As the little girl slowly extended her arm, he continued talking to her soothingly. "You're a very brave girl. When I broke my arm it hurt really badly."

"Did Al'nae fix it for you?" Lynnae asked softly.

Iolaus shook his head. "I wish she had, she's a very good healer. She'll have you feeling better in no time, you'll see."

"I'll certainly do my best," Alcinae agreed as she set a pile of clean rags on the table beside them. "Right now, I need to see your arm again, Lynnae. If Iolaus is finished with it, that is."

"All done," Iolaus told them, winking at Lynnae. "I'll just get this whittled down a bit and it will be ready in a moment." He moved out of the healer's way and used his knife to start shortening the wood. He watched as Alcinae had the child's mother finish giving the girl some medicine, while the healer probed carefully at the broken arm.

"This isn't bad at all," she smiled reassuringly at the anxious parents. "The break doesn't seem to go all the way through and the ends are lined up. All we need to do is keep the arm immobilized for a while and it should heal without any trouble." She looked down at the little girl. "I'm sorry that hurt but I promise it will get better now." Iolaus handed Alcinae the sticks he'd prepared. "Thanks, these are perfect."

Alcinae continued to talk to the child, explaining what she was doing, as she carefully wrapped the broken arm and used the sticks to brace it. She finished tying off the last piece and reached out to tousle the girl's hair. "There, that wasn't so bad, was it?" She smiled as the child nodded a sleepy agreement. Turning to Lynnae's parents, she quickly gave them instructions on caring for their daughter After making sure they understood, she sent them home with more of the medicine.

Iolaus smiled as he watched the small family leave. "You have a way with children," he told the healer. She shook her head but didn't reply. "What's the matter?"

"Nothing," she smiled at him as she spoke, but it seemed sad.

"Is something else wrong with the little girl? Something you didn't tell her parents?" he questioned in concern.

"No, Lynnae will be fine," she reassured him.

"Then what is it?" Iolaus persisted.

Alcinae sighed, her glance going to the corner where Hercules lay. "I just wish all my patients were so easily healed."

"He'll be all right, Alcinae," Iolaus told her. "You'll see." He has to be, he added under his breath.

Iolaus' words haunted him the next morning. Hercules' condition had deteriorated rapidly during the night. The fever climbing so high at one point the demi-god had gone into convulsions. Finally in desperation the healer'd had Iolaus fill a large tub with cool water and the two of them had maneuvered the big man into it. That had lowered the fever enough to stop the convulsions, but it was still dangerously high.

"Come on, Herc, fight this!" he quietly encouraged his friend. "I know you can do it!" With dogged tenacity, Iolaus lifted the cloth from Hercules' forehead and replaced it with a fresh, cool one. "Don't give up on me, Herc. I, I need you."

"Iolaus, I…" He looked up to find the healer staring at him in concern. The sadness in her eyes was almost more than he could bear. He shook his head, rejecting the words even as she spoke them. "I'm sorry. I'm afraid we're losing him."

"No! Hercules will be fine!" he stated stubbornly. "You'll see." He avoided looking at Alcinae, sure of what he'd see on her face. "He just needs more medicine."

"Iolaus, don't…" the healer's voice trailed off.

"Don't what? Don't pretend?" Iolaus interrupted. "You don't know Hercules like I do. He's too stubborn to die."

"I'm sorry," Alcinae spoke sadly. "You're right. We shouldn't give up." She left Iolaus sitting beside his friend and went to the cabinet where she stored her herbs. Iolaus heard her moving things around but kept his attention focused on Hercules. He kept up a constant murmur of encouragement as he attempted to get Hercules to take the medicine he'd prepared.

"Oh." Alcinae's exclamation snagged his attention. He looked up to see her reading from a scroll. "Iolaus, there is one cure we haven't tried," she began slowly.

"What?" Iolaus demanded. "Why not? How soon can you make it? Why didn't you mention it sooner?"

"Slow down," the healer protested. "I didn't mention it because it's very dangerous. The herb kills as often as it heals. I've never had any reason to use it before, so I'd forgotten about it until I read this." She indicated the scroll she was holding.

Iolaus nodded solemnly, his mind already made up. "How soon can we try it?"

The healer stared at him for a moment, then sighed. "I'll have to go gather some in the forest. I don't have any here."

"I'll go," Iolaus told her.

Alcinae smiled sadly and shook her head. "Would you know what to look for?"

"You could tell me," he pointed out stubbornly.

"It will be faster if I go after it," the healer pointed out. "I promise I'll hurry." She gathered her things. "Just keep bathing him with those cool cloths." She reached the door and hesitated for a moment. "Iolaus…."

He looked up. "What?" He had a hard time reading the expression on her face. He thought he detected doubt, guilt, and possibly a bit of fear. "Don't worry," he told her. "We'll both be here when you get back."

She hesitated a moment longer, then slipped out the door.

Alcinae hurried down the small track through the forest, her emotions in turmoil. She stopped abruptly as two men appeared silently in her path.

"Please, I need to speak…"

"Follow," one of the men commanded before she finished speaking. The two turned away and headed through the dense undergrowth with Alcinae anxiously following.

Alcinae suppressed a shudder of fear as the two men led her into the small temple and left her in front of the alter. She stared nervously at the large statue behind it. A small basket was sitting prominently in the middle.

"So, you have news for Hera?" the priest's voice startled her.

"Yes," she answered. "Hercules is dying."

It was late afternoon by the time the healer returned. Iolaus had spent the day alternately sitting beside Hercules' bed and standing in the doorway watching for the healer. He looked up anxiously as he heard the door. "Did you find it?"

The healer nodded and placed the basket she was carrying on the table. "How is he?" she asked as she joined Iolaus by the bed.

Iolaus shook his head. "He hasn't gone into convulsions again, but the fever is still really high. It's been harder to get him to drink the medicine as well." He stared at her pleadingly. "This new stuff, it will help…"

It wasn't really a question, more a plea for reassurance and the healer sighed. "I wish I could tell you, Iolaus." She met his gaze for a moment, then looked away. "All I do know is that it will either cure him or speed his way to the other side." She stood up and started for her work table, then hesitated. "Are you sure you want to try it?" she asked tentatively.

"Yes," Iolaus replied. "We don't have a choice."

"All right." Alcinae nodded and began to pull things out of the cabinets. "Can you bring in some more firewood and build up the fire? This will need to be boiled."

Iolaus headed out the door, glad for something useful to do. As he collected an armload of wood, he noticed that the pile of split wood was getting small. He promised himself that as soon as Hercules started to recover, he'd spend some time splitting wood for the healer to repay her for her kindness.


The cry caught Iolaus' attention and he looked up to see two men coming towards him, one barely managing to support the other. He dropped the wood he was holding and hurried towards them. "What's the matter?" he asked as he lent them a hand.

"Toxeus hurt his leg the other day but the dang fool wouldn't come see the healer," the first man explained. "Now he's sick."

"It was just a scratch," Toxeus protested. Iolaus shivered. Hercules' wound had been 'just a scratch' and now his friend was fighting for his life. Iolaus concentrated on helping the two into the healer's home.

Alcinae looked up as they came in. "Miletus, Toxeus, what happened?" she asked as she pushed aside the things she'd been working with.

Iolaus helped get Toxeus settled, then went back for the firewood he'd dropped. When he returned the healer was cleaning out the gash on Toxeus leg and giving both men a lecture about properly caring for wounds. Iolaus bit back a smile. Having been on the receiving end of one of Alcinae's lectures, he didn't envy either of the two. The healer glanced up as he set the wood beside the fireplace. "Iolaus, will you put some more water on? Toxeus will need some medicine for his fever."

"Sure." Iolaus checked the kettle to make sure there was water in it then maneuvered it over the fire. He figured he could now make the medicine in his sleep, so he went to the healer's cabinet and got out the herb she would need. He started to measure some into a cup.

"Not that one!" He stopped what he was doing at the healer's impatient order. Puzzled, he stared at the small bag of herbs. He was sure this was the one she'd been giving Hercules, he recognized the markings on it. Iolaus watched as she pulled another bag down and carefully made up the medicine. He didn't remember seeing that bag before. An awful suspicion began to form in his mind but he kept silent while the healer finished caring for Toxeus.

"I'll want to check on that wound in a couple of days," she told the wounded man as the two prepared to leave. "Miletus, I'm counting on you to make sure he takes care of it." As the man nodded agreement, she continued, "If his fever goes up or the wound doesn't seem to be healing, come get me right away."

"I will, Alcinae, don't worry." Miletus helped Toxeus to the door. "Thank you." Alcinae held the door as the two men left. She stared after them for a moment, then closed the door and turned back to her table.

Iolaus waited for her to say something, but she was silent. Did she even realize what she'd done? he wondered as he watched her clean up the things she'd used. As she reached for the herbs to put them away, he couldn't wait any longer. "Why?" he asked.

"What?" The healer looked up in surprise.

So, she didn't realize, Iolaus thought. Out loud he asked, "Why did you give Toxeus a different medicine than Hercules?"

Alcinae turned away and continued to put things away. "You must be mistaken, Iolaus. We've tried so many different cures for Hercules."

Iolaus grabbed her arm and turned her to face him. He wanted to watch her face as she answered. "No, I'm not," he told her forcefully. "That is the one medicine that you have given him since the beginning. No matter what else we've tried, you insisted that he still needed it. Now tell me why!"

The healer looked down at his grip on her arm. "Please, you're hurting me," she tried to twist away from him. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Tell me the truth!" Iolaus demanded. "Look at me!" He reached out intending to force her to meet his gaze but she pulled away sharply. Unbalanced by the move, she fell back against the table. As she tried to regain her balance the basket tipped over, spilling its contents to the floor. Iolaus saw her pale and followed her gaze to the herbs. To his absolute horror, a peacock feather was on the top of the pile. "Hera!" Rage filled him at the knowledge that the spiteful goddess was behind Hercules' illness. "What have you done?" he growled at the healer.

A look of terror flashed across the healer's face and she darted towards the door. In two steps he'd caught her again. "What have you done to him?" he growled angrily. He saw terror and despair warring in her eyes as she stared back at him. He dragged her back over to the table and picked up the sack of herbs she'd been giving Hercules. "What is this stuff? Poison?" he demanded roughly.

He read the answer in her eyes before she turned her head away and managed to stammer agreement. He drew in a deep breath, trying to control his anger. Releasing her, he turned away in disgust. He needed to think. He heard the healer start for the door again. "Don't," he ordered. The footsteps stopped.

There was a long moment of silence, then the healer asked tentatively, "What… what are you going to do?"

Iolaus dragged one hand over his face and turned to look at her again. She was huddled against the wall near the door, her arms wrapped around her waist. "What should I do?" he asked gruffly. "You've nearly killed my best friend. What do you expect me to do?"

She shook her head, not looking at him. "It doesn't matter," she told him, her voice thick with despair. "Nothing matters anymore." She sank to the floor.

Iolaus sighed. "Just tell me why, Alcinae," he told her more quietly. "Why did you do it?"

She looked up at him, tears filling her eyes. "I had to. They have my son."

Iolaus stared at her in astonishment as she began to weep. "Son?"

The quiet, competent healer was gone. In her place, Iolaus found himself dealing with a shattered woman. He pushed aside his rage long enough to coax her story from her. "Tell me what happened."

Alcinae sniffed and tried to stifle another sob. "The day… the day before you and Hercules arrived," she began tentatively. "I was working in my garden. I thought Danaus was nearby, but when I looked up I couldn't see him." She sobbed again, but quickly brought herself under control. "He liked to sneak off and play in the forest. He knew I didn't like it when he did that but…"

Iolaus smiled slightly, remembering a few times he'd gotten in trouble for something similar when he was a boy. "Go on," he encouraged.

She shivered. "I found him with three men. They told me they were priests of Hera's and that she had a job for me. They said… they said… if I… wanted to see my son again, I had better do what they wanted." She looked up at Iolaus. "I didn't know what else to do! I couldn't fight them."

She began to cry again and Iolaus' heart melted. Seating himself beside her, he gathered her into his arms and tried to soothe her. "What did they want you to do?" he asked softly.

"They told me that two men would be coming and that one of them would be sick. They told me the sick one had offended Hera and needed to be punished. Then they gave me those herbs and told me to give it to the sick man as if it were medicine. They s-said… when the m-man… was d-dead… they would give me back Danaus." Alcinae looked up at Iolaus. "I didn't know the man would be Hercules," she told him.

Iolaus looked down at her solemnly, studying her face. "Does it really matter who it was?" he asked softly. He saw shame in her eyes as she shook her head.

She ducked her head. "I'm sorry," she whispered as she began to cry again. "So sorry…"

Iolaus held her and let her cry, while he thought furiously. There had to be a way to save both Hercules and her son, if he could only figure it out. His gaze rested on the wasted form of his friend and he wondered if it might already be too late. "Alcinae, do you know a cure for the poison?" he asked hardly daring to hope.

At his words, the healer sat up and wiped her eyes. "There is a cure but it might be too late."

"We've got to try," he told her.

He saw resignation in her eyes as she nodded and began to get up. "One of them should live."

"Alcinae." He grabbed her hand. "Don't give up yet. We'll find a way to save them both."

For a moment he saw hope in her eyes, then despair overcame it. She shook her head. "You can't fight a goddess, Iolaus."

He stood up and took her by the shoulders. Tilting her face up to his, he told her, "Yes we can. Hercules and I have beaten Hera before." He saw the flicker of hope in her eyes once more. "Do you have any idea where they are holding Danaus?" At the look in her eyes, he grinned. "You do. That's where you went this morning, wasn't it?" he asked.

Alcinae smiled sadly. "Yes, there is a temple in the forest," she agreed. "I wanted to see him. I hoped…" Her voice trailed off. She swallowed hard and then continued, "The priest sent me back with more 'medicine'."

"And more threats, I'll bet," Iolaus added grimly. The healer nodded and turned to her work table. Ignoring the spilled herbs, she began to pull an entirely new set from the cabinet. Iolaus watched silently for a long moment. He had an idea, but its use depended on whether or not he thought he could trust her with Hercules' life. He had to trust her, he decided, otherwise Hera would win at least a small victory. After what the goddess had tried to do, he couldn't allow that.

"Tell me how to get to this temple."

It didn't take Iolaus long to prepare once he had convinced Alcinae to let him attempt to rescue her son. It had taken some talking to convince her that he really did know what he was getting himself into. The healer's protests had gone a long way to relieve his fears for Hercules and encouraged him to trust her.

Now he stood silently gazing down at Hercules. It may have been wishful thinking on his part, but his friend already seemed to be responding to the new medicine. Reaching down, he grasped the demi-god's hand. "Hang in there, buddy," he told Hercules. "Everything is going to be all right now. You've just got to keep fighting." He looked up at the healer and then turned his attention back to Hercules. "I've got to go do something, so I'm going to be gone for a short time. I expect you to be here when I get back."

He gave the demi-god's hand a squeeze, then reluctantly stood up. He paused once more at the door and looked back. The healer was standing beside the bed and their eyes met. "Take care of him."

"I will," she answered. "We'll be waiting for you." She tried to smile but he could see the concern in her eyes.

"I'll be back with your son, soon" he promised as he slipped out the door into the early evening darkness.

To Iolaus' surprise, Hera's temple was lightly guarded. The single guard beside the main entrance had even been asleep at his post. It was almost too easy, he thought as he quietly slipped through the door. He had started across the empty altar room when he heard voices coming from one of the corridors. You spoke too soon, he groaned to himself as he quickly hid behind one of the pillars near the altar. He cautiously peeked around the column as two priests entered the room.

"Everything must be perfect," the first priest was telling his companion. "By tomorrow night, we will celebrate the death of Hercules."

The second priest smiled broadly. "And the brat?" he asked curiously.

"Will be sacrificed for Hera's glory," the first priest replied.

"His mother will object," the second priest pointed out. "You promised to give the brat back to her."

The first priest shrugged and smiled evilly. "She'll get her precious boy back. I just didn't tell her what condition he would be in."

As the two men laughed and left the room, Iolaus had to force himself to stay calm. Beating the two priests senseless would not help him free the boy. As much as he would enjoy it, getting the boy out of here was more important. Keeping close to the wall, he edged towards the nearest corridor.

He carefully checked the hallway before entering. A flicker of movement halfway down, caught his eye. The two priests were standing in the middle. As he watched, they parted, one entering a room and the other continuing down the corridor. He waited until the second priest turned the corner at the other end, then crept quietly down the dimly lit hallway, listening for the slightest sound. He had reached the end and was about to follow the first priest when he caught the faint sound of muffled sobs coming from the other direction.

Iolaus grinned and followed the sound to another corridor. As he peeked cautiously around the corner, he spotted a guard in front of one of the doors. Pulling back, he tried to think of a way to distract the man. His eyes fell on a small chunk of masonry at the base of the opposite wall and a plan formed. He quickly picked up the chunk and moved into position. Tossing it as far as he could, he heard a satisfying rattle from the corridor beyond the guard.

The guard reacted just as he'd hoped, turning away from Iolaus and calling for whoever was there to show themselves. Sure that the man's entire attention was now focused on the other end of the corridor, Iolaus slipped up behind him. A quick blow to the head and the guard sank quietly to the floor. He squatted to check the guard just as the door behind him opened.

"Gruntus, what…" the new guard's voice trailed off in surprise as he spotted Iolaus.

Iolaus charged the man; tackling him just as he cried out an alarm. The two wrestled on the floor for a few moments before Iolaus managed to get the advantage and rendered the guard unconscious. For a moment, he crouched over the second guard, panting. He knew he would have to do something quickly. He could already hear faint shouts and people coming nearer. Iolaus swept his gaze around the room, looking for a place to hide. Except for the bed in one corner and a single chair by the door, there wasn't another piece of furniture in the small windowless room.

A muffled sob brought his attention back to the bed. A young boy of no more than five or six huddled at one end, staring at him fearfully. "Danaus?" he asked softly. The boy's eyes flickered but he didn't make a sound. "I'm Iolaus. Your mother sent me," he told the boy.

"Momma?" Danaus questioned softly.

"That's right." The commotion outside the room was growing louder. Iolaus knew he didn't have a lot of time left. He might be able to hide beneath the bed, but he didn't think both he and the boy would fit. There had to be another way. He decided to take a calculated risk and began stripping the tunic from the unconscious guard. "Your mother misses you and wants you to come home," he told the watching boy. He rolled the guard's body underneath the bed.

"The bad men wont let me." Danaus' voice quivered.

"I know," Iolaus answered as he stripped off his own vest and stuffed it under the bed with the guard. "That's why I'm here." Iolaus pulled the guard's tunic over his head. "You're going to have to be very brave," he continued. "We've got to play a trick on the bad men, ok?" He knelt beside the boy. "I need you to pretend that I'm one of the bad men. Can you do that for me?" Danaus nodded slowly and Iolaus reached out to ruffle his hair. "Good boy..."

Before he could say another word, two men crashed through the partially open door. "What's going on here?" the first demanded as Iolaus sprang to his feet.

"Intruders!" Iolaus answered. "They broke in and tried to take the boy."

"So where are these intruders now?" the second man asked suspiciously.

Iolaus shrugged. "They panicked and ran when I gave the alarm." He could see more men gathering in the corridor. "They're probably somewhere in the temple." At his words, some of the men in the corridor took off. He could hear someone shouting orders and calling for a thorough search.

The second man was still staring at him suspiciously. "Why didn't you follow them?"

Iolaus stared back with a touch of defiance. "My orders were to guard the boy," he answered. "Gruntus was unconscious. I couldn't count on him to protect the kid if they doubled back."

"Well done." A voice from the doorway interrupted the interrogation. Iolaus was startled to realize that the voice belonged to one of the priests he'd seen in the altar room. From the deference that was being given to the man, he surmised that this was the one in charge. "Polyidus," the head priest turned to the man who'd been questioning Iolaus. "Organize the guards. I want every corner checked and rechecked. These intruders will be punished for this outrage!"

"Yes, Asterius," the man who'd been questioning Iolaus replied. Motioning the other man to accompany him, the two left the room.

Iolaus suppressed a shudder as the priest's cold gaze settled on him again. "You've done a good job…" the priest paused and Iolaus realized the man was waiting for him to give his name.

"Miklos, sir." Iolaus gave the first name that popped into his head, hoping that there was a Miklos among the guards. He suppressed a groan as the priest seemed to search his memory.

"Miklos… Miklos…" The priest frowned at Iolaus. "I don't remember hearing that name before."

"I'm new here, sir," Iolaus told him, hoping the man would accept that as an explanation.

The priest stared at him for a long moment, then nodded. "Well, again, good work. I'm sure Hera will give you a fitting reward." The priest turned to leave. "Stay with the boy until you are relieved," he ordered as he left.

"Yes, sir," Iolaus replied, closing the door behind the priest. I'll stay with him all right, he thought to himself, but I'm not going to wait around for someone to relieve me. He put his ear to the door and listened to the sounds from the hallway. When the area at last grew quiet, he risked opening the door. A quick glance told him the corridor was deserted.

He closed the door and turned back to the waiting boy. "Ok, Danaus, time for us to go." Iolaus grinned at him. "Are you ready?" he asked as he pulled his vest out from under the bed.

The boy nodded. "We're going home now?"

"You bet!" He handed Danaus the vest and helped him up. "Hold on to that for me, will you?" he asked the child as he pulled the blanket from the bed and wrapped it around the boy. "All set," he smiled encouragingly at the boy. "You need to be really quiet for a while, ok?" Iolaus grinned as Danaus smashed his lips together and nodded vigorously.

Hoisting the child in his arms, Iolaus crossed the room and cautiously opened the door. To his relief the hallway was still empty. He slipped out and carefully closed the door behind him. Then, since the ploy had already worked once, he walked openly back the way he'd come.

The two reached the altar room without encountering anyone else, and Iolaus hoped their luck would hold. Still, he wasn't about to take any chances. Pausing outside the room, he listened carefully. When he didn't hear anything for several moments, he poked his head inside and looked around. The room appeared to be empty. Iolaus watched for a moment, just to be sure, then quickly crossed the room to the door. He was annoyed to realize that someone had placed a heavy bar across it. Setting Danaus down, he started to lift the bar.

"Greetings…. Iolaus." He whirled around. A movement in the shadows near the altar caught his eye and he cursed himself for not paying more attention to that area. He cursed even more as the head priest stepped into the torch light. "That is your name, isn't it?" the priest asked rhetorically.

"How…?" Iolaus couldn't bear to ask the question. Had this been a trap all along? A setup? Had the healer decided to take care of him, as well as Hercules? No, he wouldn't believe that.

"A new guard shows up on the same night that someone tries to rescue the brat?" the priest shrugged. "Not that hard to figure out." Iolaus pushed the boy behind him as the priest moved a few steps closer. "The only one who could possibly know about the kid and be willing to try to rescue him would be the little runt who constantly tags along after Hercules." The priest smiled. "I knew that all I had to do was wait and you would come to me." Iolaus' eyes widened as the priest brought a sword out of the folds of his robes. He hoped the priest wasn't very good with it because after several days with little or no rest, he didn't know how long he'd be able to last in a real fight. "Now the sacrifice to Hera will be complete!" the man exclaimed as he charged.

Iolaus shoved Danaus away from him, then rolled away from the priest's wild swing. Iolaus knew he had to keep the fight short. Not only was he running out of energy, but the sound of the battle was sure to draw the guards before too long. He and Danaus needed to be gone before that happened. He ducked another swing, then back peddled quickly as the return stroke nearly sliced through his middle.

'Concentrate, Iolaus,' he told himself. 'You can do better than this!' He grabbed a vase from a nearby shelf and threw it at the priest. 'Great, that's really keeping thing quiet, you idiot,' he groaned to himself. 'Why not just announce your presence at the top of your lungs.' As the priest ducked the vase, the man tripped on his own robes.

Taking advantage of his opponent's momentary stumble, Iolaus darted to the door and tried to get it open. A bellow of rage warned him and he ducked, just as the priest buried his sword in the door where Iolaus' head had been. Iolaus grinned as the priest tugged at the sword but couldn't free it. He tapped the man on the shoulder and as the priest turned toward him, Iolaus punched him in the jaw. The priest took a step back and shook his head.

Iolaus shook his now aching hand. He'd always known that Hera's priests were blockheads but this was ridiculous. He looked up as the priest bellowed, "Great Hera! I call on you!"

"Oh no, not good," Iolaus muttered to himself. He knew Hera was just enough of a vengeful bitch to take an active part in the proceedings. Especially if she realized he was involved. He felt his skin crawl and glanced back over his shoulder towards the altar. "Definitely not good." Two glowing eyes had formed in the air above it. He turned so that he could keep an eye on both the priest and the goddess.

"I have delivered you a sacrifice, oh great goddess," the priest intoned.

"Can't you guys ever find something original to say?" Iolaus asked the priest.

"A fitting sacrifice indeed." Hera's laughter filled the room. "I have been looking forward to this for a long time."

"All you had to do was ask," Iolaus quipped nervously. "You know, issue an invitation, serve a good meal…" He backed slowly away from the altar.

"Enough!" Hera interrupted his prattle. "Time to die, little man!"

Iolaus dove away from the bolt of greenish power that blasted from her eyes. Rolling to his feet, he stared at the priest. A gaping wound had been burned into the man's chest. As he watched, the priest turned pleading eyes to the goddess. "Hera," the man whispered as he collapsed.

"Do you always take such good care of your tools?" Iolaus asked irreverently. He rolled away from another blast, coming to his feet near the door. He spotted Danaus huddled a few feet away, eyes wide with terror. Another, more powerful, blast nearly caught him and he was flung to the ground in front of the boy. Shaking his head to clear it, he pushed himself up and got to his feet. Coughing from the dust in the air, Iolaus waved his hand in front of his face, trying to see. As the dust settled a bit he grinned. Picking up Danaus, he darted for the gaping hole in the wall. Unable to resist, he paused at the opening. "Thanks for the exit," he called. "We'll make good use of it."

A scream of rage followed him into the night. He wondered if he might have gone to far when a bolt of lightning blasted the trail next to him. Clutching the child to him, Iolaus ran dodging the goddess' wrath. He twisted and turned through the trees and brush, stumbling on unseen obstacles. The flashes of lightning nearly blinding him. A root snagged his foot and he fell. He managed to control the fall enough to keep from injuring the boy but pain lanced through his shoulder as he hit the ground. Groaning, he felt the prickle on his skin that indicated another lightning strike. He ignored his pain to roll the two of them away from it.

In the glare from the strike, he thought he glimpsed a narrow cave opening. Taking a chance, he forced himself to stumbled toward it. He nearly collapsed in relief as he staggered inside. Hera's lightning couldn't strike them in here. Hopefully he could have a few moments to get his wind back before her goons found them. Iolaus felt another bolt coming and looked up in time to see it strike the cave entrance. He barely had time to realize what was happening before rocks showered down, burying the entrance.

Iolaus awoke to cold and pain. He didn't remember where he was or how he'd gotten there. He opened his eyes and blinked, trying to clear the darkness from them so he could see. He rubbed his eyes and tried again, but the darkness remained. He felt a shiver of fear; was he blind? The soft sound of a child sobbing reached him and his memories flooded back. He wasn't blind, he realized; he couldn't see because he was sealed in a cave. It was probably still night as well, so there was no light to filter in. Fear for the boy, replaced his worry about his sight. "Danaus?" he called softly.

He heard Danaus sniffle. "Olaus?"

Ignoring the protests from his abused body, he moved toward the sound. "I'm right here," he told the child. Groping through the darkness, he touched the boy's leg. "Are you all right?"

"I'm scared. I wanna go home," the boy whimpered.

"Me too," Iolaus replied as he checked the boy over as carefully as he could. To his relief the child seemed to be fine. Tired, scared and probably hungry, Iolaus ruefully acknowledged to himself, but at least uninjured. Reassured that the boy was as well as he could be in this situation, Iolaus turned his attention to the problem of getting them out.

Iolaus carefully carried Danaus further into the cave and away from the rock pile. Groping blindly around on an unstable pile of rocks wasn't his idea of fun, but at least he could keep the boy from being hurt if anything shifted. He quietly explained what he was going to do as he got the child settled. Iolaus made sure the blanket was tightly wrapped around the boy to protect him from the chilly draft flowing through the cave. He was halfway up the pile of rocks, when he realized the significance. A breeze that strong had to be coming from somewhere. Grinning, he quickly picked his way down again.

Danaus was a heavy weight in his arms by the time the healer's small home came into view. Early morning light bathed the cottage in a warm, welcoming glow. Shifting the sleeping child slightly, Iolaus trudged wearily to the door. He reached to open it, then hesitated, afraid of what might have happened in his absence. Bracing himself, he quietly eased the door open and looked inside. His heart dropped. The healer was slumped in a chair beside Hercules' bed, her head buried in the blankets that covered him. One hand clutching his. Hercules was pale and still.

Horror froze Iolaus where he stood. How long he stood there, trying to come to terms with the idea that his friend was dead, Iolaus had no idea. It was only when Danaus stirred and murmured that he forced himself to move; closing the door behind them.

The healer started at the sound. She stared at them for a long moment in disbelief, then with a glad cry she jumped up and ran to them. Taking the boy from Iolaus, she hugged him tightly. "Thank you," she whispered softly, tears of joy streaming down her face.

Iolaus nodded and tried to smile, but his gaze was drawn back to the still form on the bed. With a heavy heart he slowly approached and collapsed in the chair. He stared at Hercules for a long moment. The demi-god's face was peaceful and relaxed and Iolaus hoped his friend had truly found peace on the other side. He tried to tell himself that at least now, Hercules would be with his beloved family but a strangled sob forced its way up from his chest. Too exhausted to fight it, he buried his face in his hands and gave into his grief.

"Iolaus." The soft whisper nearly didn't penetrate his grief. Slowly he lowered his hands, sure that he had imagined the voice. To his complete astonishment, Hercules was awake and frowning at him. "Iolaus, what's wrong?"

Iolaus awoke to the sound of a child's laughter. He listened to the sound of his best friend's voice as Hercules coaxed the story of their escape from the child. Iolaus smiled at the breathless excitement in the boy's voice. He stretched and grimaced as sore muscles complained at him. Ignoring the aches, he sat up and looked at his friend. The big guy seemed to be mending quickly. He laughed at the face Hercules made as the healer handed the demi-god a cup of medicine and made him drink it.

Hercules glared at him. "It's not funny," the big man complained. "You try this stuff and see if you like it."

"No thanks, buddy," Iolaus replied as he took a seat by his friend. He smiled at the healer as she handed him a bowl of soup.

"You need to eat," Alcinae told him, smiling in return. "And so does he." She handed another bowl to Hercules. "I have to go to the market," she told them. "Make sure he finishes all of that," she ordered Iolaus.

"Yes, ma'am." Iolaus replied meekly, then winked at Hercules.

"Hmmph," the healer snorted. "Behave yourselves," she told them as she gathered Danaus and went out the door.

As the healer left, Iolaus found himself wondering how to tell Hercules what had happened. He ate a few bites of soup while he pondered the problem. Finally he sighed and set down his spoon. "Hercules," he began. "About Alcinae…"

"I know, Iolaus," Hercules interrupted. The demi-god smiled at him. "She told me everything this morning."

"Oh." Iolaus thought for a moment. "You're not mad at her?" he asked curiously.

Hercules shook his head. "No," he replied sadly. "I can understand her fear for her son." The demi-god shrugged, then smiled again. "She did the right thing in the end, that's what's important."

Iolaus reached out and grasped Hercules' arm. "Yeah, she did." He grinned.

"I have a question for you, Iolaus," Hercules stated.

"Oh, yeah? What's that?" Iolaus asked smiling.

"How did you manage to get out of that cave??" his friend demanded impatiently.

Iolaus giggled. "I guess no one ever told Hera that caves can have more than one entrance."

Iolaus stepped out of the cottage into the bright sunshine and smiled. It was going to be a beautiful day. A perfect day for traveling. He grinned up at his friend as Hercules joined him in the small yard. The demi-god was nearly back to his old self. Making him rest had been getting harder the last day or so. "Ready?" he asked his friend rhetorically.

Hercules laughed. "Definitely." The big man turned as Alcinae came out. "I can't thank you enough for all you've done," he told her.

"No, Hercules," she replied quietly. "I'm the one who owes you thanks." She wrapped an arm around Danaus and hugged him against her side. "Without Iolaus…" she didn't need to finish, they both knew what she meant.

Iolaus squatted and spoke seriously to Danaus, "You take care of your mother, ok?" As the boy nodded solemnly, he grinned. "Good boy." He ruffled the child's hair affectionately and stood up.

The healer blinked back tears and tried to speak. "Iolaus, I don't… words can't… I…" Shaking her head, she stepped forward and kissed his check. "Thank you," she whispered. She scooped up Danaus and hurried back into the cottage.

A huge grin spread across Iolaus' face. He turned away and started down the road, whistling. Hercules caught up to him in a couple of strides. "It's not fair." The demi-god's mutter caught Iolaus' attention.

Puzzled, he looked at his friend. "What isn't fair?"

"I'm the one who nearly died," Hercules complained.

"Yeah, so? You didn't," Iolaus stated complacently.

"I'm the one she tried to kill," the demi-god went on.

Iolaus frowned at his friend. "So?" he repeated, waiting for Hercules to get to the point.

"So how come you are the one she kissed???" Hercules asked.

Iolaus stared in surprise for a long moment and then started laughing. All was once more right with his world.

The End.

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