Stealing Hearts

by Ceallach

"Oh brother," Iolaus stared at the branching road in exasperation, "They didn't tell me that the road split here. Which way now?"

"Let's see, Tinaires is west of Heimnos, so it should be this one. Hmmmm.." Muttering to himself, he moved to check both roads, hoping to find some clue to the right direction. Examination of the road that headed west only confused him more, "Strange, this should be the road but it doesn't look like it's been used in years." As Iolaus stood there trying to remember the exact instructions he'd been given, his ears picked up the sound of a horse and cart coming towards him. Relieved, he hurried forward to meet the owners.

An old man was perched on the small cart, which was piled high with a variety of goods. A younger man walked along beside the horse's head guiding the animal. Both looked up in surprise as Iolaus called to them, "Hi! Can you help me? I'm trying to get to Tinaires. The road forks up ahead and I'm not sure which path to take. I've never been in this area before, you see.." "Whoa there young fella," The old man interrupted Iolaus' flood of words, "Ye be needin' d'rections to Tinaires, ye say?"

"Yes, I am," Iolaus smiled at the old gentleman, "I'm in a bit of a hurry too."

"Well, then, you'll want to take the western road." The younger man replied.

"Ehh, Karis, do ye be tryin' to get this gentleman kilt?" The old man protested the younger one's advice.

"Now, grandfather, those are just stories! There's no such thing as cursed castles guarded by fierce monsters, not in these parts." Karis tried to sooth his grandfather, "Why, if that road wasn't in such bad shape, I'd be using it, instead of taking the longer way around."

"An ye'd be a fool, ye would, boy. An' a dead one at that!"

"Whoa, wait a minute, hold on here!" Iolaus interrupted, "What's so bad about this road that no one uses it?"

"Noth..," Karis started to reply, then wilting under his grandfather's glare, "Well, according to the legends around here, that road goes past a castle."

"A cursed place!" The old man exclaimed, "Guarded by a fierce beast! None return who travel that road, I tell ye."

"What kind of a curse?" Iolaus asked, his curiosity piqued. The younger man just shrugged his ignorance, but the older was now wound up and eagerly answered, "A terrible curse, sonny, placed on all the folk of the castle. By Hera herself!" "By Hera huh? It figures." Iolaus gently encouraged the old man to continue, "What did she do to those people?"

"Not rightly sure, boy. The whole thing happened when me own grandfather was nothin' but a wee lad." The old man paused for a moment, his eyes taking on a faraway look as he tried to remember, "They say that Hera caused ever'one in there to fall asleep, all in an instant. An' they'll be sleepin' like that forever!" Then the old man broke out in a grin, "Course they also say there's a treasure there, fer the man brave enough to risk it. Lot's o' young'uns have tried o'er the years but they ain't come back."

"Do the stories say if there is any way to break this curse?" Iolaus questioned. "Now sonny, you ain't considerin' a-goin' in there, are ye?" The old man asked in concern, "Din't ye here what I be sayin'? Ain't no one ever come back from tha' place!" "No, I really don't have the time to waste," Iolaus admitted, "but it's an interesting story."

"Come on Gramps, we've got to be moving on," Karis interrupted the conversation, "We'll never make Heimnos by nightfall if we don't get going." Turning back to Iolaus, he continued, "Either road will lead you to Tinaires, stranger. The northern one is three days travel." "And the western road?" Iolaus asked dismayed by the amount of time the northern road took. "Don't know for certain, but it should cut at least a day probably two off the time." Karis shrugged and started off towards Heimnos leading the horse. "Ye take an old man's advice sonny-boy," the old man called back to him, "Ye take the northern road.. It may be a deal longer, but ye'll get there alive!"

Iolaus smiled and waved to the old man, but his mind was already on the choice he had to make. 'So Iolaus? Which shall it be?' He asked himself, then sighed, 'You don't have time for trouble. Hmmm.. Wait a minute, Karis said the road 'passed' the castle. You could use it. As long as you leave the castle alone you shouldn't have a problem!' With the old man's warnings still ringing in his ears Iolaus made his choice and started off down the western road.

The road was rough and over grown in spots and he had had to ford a few streams but so far the trip had been easy. "This hasn't been bad at all," Iolaus spoke aloud breaking the stillness of the forest, "and I've been making great time. I may even reach Tinaires before Herc." Pleased with his decision Iolaus started to whistle one of his favorite tunes as he walked.

"Hello!! Is someone there?" The voice surprised Iolaus and he looked around for the speaker. Not seeing anyone immediately, he tentatively called out, "Hello? Where are you?" "Over here! Can you lend me a bit of assistance?" Still unable to see the source of the voice Iolaus started pushing his way through the thick underbrush. "Keep talking so I can find you."

"Uhm.. Certainly, but would you mind hurrying? This is deuced uncomfortable here." As the man continued talking, Iolaus began to get a sense of his direction but more than that, he was beginning to think he knew who that voice belonged too.

Sure enough, as he broke through the last of the bushes, he immediately spotted a familiar figure. "Autolycus" There he was, the King of Thieves himself. He was trapped in the largest bramble Iolaus had ever seen. He appeared to be suspended by his vest, his feet swinging a short distance from the ground. Iolaus wasn't sure whether to laugh or run away as fast as he could. "You again! Why do I have a feeling I'm in trouble now."

"My dear fellow, whatever gives you the idea that you are the one in trouble. I am the one who is trapped by these pesky brambles!" Autolycus exclaimed indignantly. "Now be a good sport and help me down from here."

Iolaus shook his head, he knew he was going to regret this but he couldn't leave the man stuck there. "Alright" he sighed, "just give me a moment. I don't want to end up stuck there with you. How did you manage to get yourself in this mess anyway?"

"Do we really need to discuss this right now?" Autolycus asked impatiently, "It would be much more comfortable for me to tell the story once I'm back on the ground!" "I'm sure it would," Iolaus muttered under his breath, "if you stuck around long enough to tell it!" "What was that?" Autolycus demanded imperiously. "Nothing! Just trying to figure out the fastest way to get you down." Iolaus couldn't believe this guy, the last time they met he'd nearly gotten Iolaus beheaded for a theft that he had committed. Now, here he was trapped and Autolycus was giving him orders!

As Autolycus watched impatiently, Iolaus carefully made his way through the brambles. Reaching Autolycus, Iolaus cautiously moved around behind him to examine the branch that was holding him. "So, tell me Autolycus, how did the King of Thieves come to be captured by a berry bramble?" Iolaus asked as he examined the large thorn twisted in the man's clothing.

"Well, if you must know," Autolycus began reluctantly, "I am on a mission. There is a great castle at the heart of this maze." "Yeah, so I've heard," Iolaus interrupted, "So you were after the treasure that is hidden there." "You wrong me!" Autolycus feigned wounded pride, "I am here to free these folk from their curse! Of course, if these grateful people choose to reward me for my extraordinary bravery, who am I to deny them?" "I knew there had to be something in it for you somewhere!" Before the indignant thief could reply, Iolaus cut off the thorn holding him up and he tumbled gracelessly to the ground.

"Ouch! You might give a man some warning next time!" Autolycus stood and brushed the dirt from his clothes. "Now, if you will excuse me, I have a castle full of people awaiting the arrival of their rescuer." With a sweeping bow in Iolaus' direction, Autolycus prepared to depart. "Uhhh, Autolycus, I think..." "Oh yes, my humble thanks to you, my good man, for freeing me from a most embarrassing predicament." Autolycus interrupted. "That wasn't what I meant! Look out!"

Iolaus threw himself at Autolycus, sending both of them tumbling into the thorns. "Was that really necessary?" Autolycus demanded, "If you wanted me to stay, you could have said.." A low-pitched growling finally penetrated his awareness and he paled. "If you prefer to be eaten by that beast, I'm sure he'll be happy to oblige." Iolaus replied sarcastically. "Otherwise, I suggest you stop talking and let's get out of here!"

One glance at the beast preparing to charge again, was all it took to convince Autolycus that Iolaus had the correct idea and he followed hard on Iolaus' heels. "We seem to be breaking through!" Iolaus panted as he chopped at the clinging brambles with his sword. "Hopefully it's a clearing and we'll have enough room to fight the creature!" "Fight it?!" Autolycus was horrified at the thought. "If you have a better idea let's hear it!" Iolaus grunted impatiently, "otherwise, I don't think we have much choice!"

"Well, true," Autolycus admitted, "It would be nice not to have it hunting us." Iolaus just looked at him in exasperation. "Would you mind speeding this up a bit? I do believe the beast is gaining on us!" "We might make better time if you stopped talking and started helping!" Iolaus was beginning to wish he had left the thief were he'd found him. Another growl, closer this time, convinced Autolycus to lend a hand.

Scratched and bleeding from thorns they had been unable to avoid in their haste, the two had barely broken out of the brambles when the creature was upon them again. Iolaus shuddered as he got his first good look at the thing. A twisted melange of cat and snake grown to large size, the creature glared at them with mindless hate and rage in its fiery eyes.

"What is that thing?!?!" Autolycus asked in horrified fascination. "Something Hera created to keep fools like you from getting to the castle!" Iolaus growled at him, finally losing his temper with the thief. "Now will you shut up and do something!" Iolaus kept his attention fixed on the beast as it slowly moved out of the cover of the thorns. He was only vaguely aware of Autolycus' actions until the thief spoke again. "I do believe it is time for me to complete my mission. I thank you for your assistance in my endeavor. I'm sure the grateful people here will raise a fine tomb for you when I tell them of your heroic sacrifice for them." As he spoke Autolycus released his grappling hook, sending it over the battlements of the castle. Quickly pulling it secure, he swung across the moat and rapidly vanished over the top of the wall. Autolycus had acted so quickly that Iolaus barely had time to realize what he had said before the man was gone. "Autolycus!" Iolaus yelled after him, frustration and anger evident in the cry.

Seeing one of its victims escaping the creature howled in fury and attacked. 'Oh great!' Iolaus desperately threw himself out of harm's way, slashing at the creature. 'I just knew he was going to be trouble!' The creature moved with a frightening agility, twisting its body to avoid Iolaus' blow and turning for another attack. 'I should have left him where I found him!' This time when the creature charged Iolaus waited for it. At the last possible moment, he dropped to his back and used his legs to propel the beast over him. Quickly jumping back to his feet, Iolaus watched as the creature twisted in mid-air, righting itself and landing on its feet prepared to attack again.

In the few moments before the thing re-oriented on him, Iolaus studied the beast intently, searching for any weakness. He was disheartened to realize that the creature's body was completely covered in overlapping scales that looked as tough as Hephaestus' best armor. The creature didn't give him time to study it further as it charged him again. Again Iolaus stood his ground waiting for the last possible moment to act. Suddenly, in the midst of its charge, the creature stumbled and howled with pain. Before Iolaus had a chance to find the cause, it shook itself and leapt at him. Twisting out of its path, Iolaus slashed at the creature's flank as hard as he could. He felt the shock of the blow all the way to his shoulder but the beast shook it off as if it were no more than a bothersome flea bite.

In mounting desperation, Iolaus backed away from the beast. Carefully, keeping watch for its next attack, he examined the ground looking for whatever had caused it to stumble in pain. Just as the creature charged again, Iolaus spotted a small depression in the ground filled with water. The creature's print was clearly visible in it and the ground beyond showed the marks of its stumble. Elation filled him as he realized he had found the creature's weakness.

The distraction of the discovery was nearly his undoing as Iolaus felt ribbons of fire run through him where the creature's claws scored his chest. Iolaus barely managed to knock the creature away from him, but it had left its mark this time. Gasping in pain, Iolaus knew he didn't have much time left. He had to finish this or the creature would soon wear him down.

Keeping a cautious eye on beast, Iolaus worked his way to one side, taking a position a few feet from the castle moat and preparing himself for the creature's next charge. He had barely gotten into position when it growled and attacked him again. Nervously waiting for the right moment, Iolaus once again dropped to his back and used his legs to propel the beast over him. Only this time, if his calculations were correct, the creature would find itself landing in the middle of the moat.

The large splash which followed his maneuver was music to Iolaus' ears, as where the cries of terror and pain which followed as the creature flailed frantically about in the water. Iolaus watched in amazed relief as the water around the creature steamed and hissed, gradually consuming the beast. Exhausted, Iolaus collapsed on the bank and enjoyed the peaceful sounds around him.

Finally remembering the cause of the entire episode, Iolaus groaned and then sat up. A quick glance at the moat and the castle wall beyond it told Iolaus that he was going to need to find another way in. Wearily climbing to his feet, Iolaus set off looking for an entrance. He hadn't gone very far when he spotted the gates and luck was with him this time. Not only where the gates open, but the bridge spanning the moat was down. Grinning at this good fortune, Iolaus cautiously made his way across the crumbling bridge and entered the castle.

The sight that met his eye's as he entered left him gaping in amazement. The old man's story was true. Everywhere he looked people were sleeping, even the animals were asleep. All of them looked to have dropped in a single moment, right in the middle of whatever they had been doing. Near the gate was a shepherd, his flock of sheep sleeping all around him. A bit farther away was the blacksmith, who looked to have been in the middle of shoeing the horse, which slept peacefully beside him. Even the birds and insects had been affected by the spell, Iolaus realized as he cautiously moved farther inside and brushed aside a spider's web. The small creature had been caught in the midst of spinning and so deeply was it asleep, it never noticed his destruction of its work. The entire scene was blanketed in a silence so deep it made Iolaus nervous.

A flash of light moving in a tower window caught his attention. There was only one other person moving in this place and Iolaus quickly headed for the tower, hoping to stop the thief before he caused any more trouble. Racing across the courtyard, he caught a brief glimpse of Autolycus as he entered a room near the top of the tower. "Autolycus!" Alternately shouting and swearing at the man, Iolaus hurried up the stairway after him.

Iolaus burst into the room a few moments behind the thief and stopped in awe at what he saw. There, peacefully sleeping, lay the most beautiful young woman he had ever seen. The sight of her held him spellbound and one thought dominated his mind, he must kiss her. He was halfway across the room when, in a shower of golden sparks, Aphrodite appeared before him.

"Oh no you don't, sweet cheeks!" Aphrodite said, blocking his path to the sleeping girl, "This is one chick you don't want to be involved with, trust me."

"Aphrodite? You, what, huh?!?" Iolaus blinked at her in confusion, "What are you doing here?"

"Just returning a favor," Aphrodite smiled at him and then turned back to the girl, "Major bummer, here, sweet checks. That old witch, Hera, really did a number on this place."

"You know what happened here?" Iolaus was still trying to sort out the confusion in his mind. He still felt drawn to the peacefully sleeping girl, but the fascination was rapidly waning. He blinked in surprise at the sight of Autolycus frozen in mid-stride.

"Oh sure!" Aphrodite walked over to Autolycus, examining him as she answered Iolaus, "See, the Queen here wanted a kid. She made such a racket about it that her wish was finally granted and the girlie here was born." Finished with her inspection of Autolycus, she had wandered over to where the girl lay.

"Why would Hera care about any of that? Unless.." Iolaus paused in trepidation as an explanation occurred to him, "Was, uh.. Is Zeus her father?"

Laughing Aphrodite turned to him, "Now that would have really caused Hera to have kittens!" Seeing the confusion clearly written on Iolaus face, she decided to have pity on him and continued the story, "Nahh.. Queenie got greedy. After the girl here was born, she like started asking for all these blessings for the little chit. She was getting down-right annoying about it." Aphrodite huffed in remembered annoyance.

"So she annoyed Hera with her petitions?" Iolaus asked, still not clearly understanding.

"Like duh.. no kidding dude!" Aphrodite rolled her eyes in exasperation, "So she set this really gnarly curse on the girl. When the chick turned eighteen she would prick her finger on something called a spindle and fall down dead."

"Dead!" Iolaus interrupted, "Wait a minute, she's not dead! And what about all the rest of the people here?"

"Boy, you sure are slow sometimes, sweet cheeks!" Aphrodite gave him a quelling glance. "Alright, so it was, like, my one good deed for that century ok? I was pissed at Hera, so I fixed it that the brat would only sleep, got it?"

"And everyone else? Why is everyone else asleep too?"

"Duh!! Like, it's so simple dude! I had to spread the curse out to everyone.. Death is some powerful stuff!"

"Is there anyway to lift the curse?" Trying to understand Aphrodite's speech and follow her train of thought was giving Iolaus a headache. He just wanted to get the whole thing over with now before it got any worse.

"Of course there is! There are rules to these things you know!"

"Rules. Of course." Iolaus rubbed his aching temples, "So how can this one be broken?"

"With a kiss of course! I am the Goddess of Love, after all!" Aphrodite giggled as the meaning of what had happened to him when he entered the room dawned on Iolaus. "Sorry about that sweet checks, you weren't even born when I set that spell."

"Sorry?" Iolaus was confused again, "You're sorry? Why? And why did you stop me?"

"You'll see!" The goddess laughed as she faded from sight.

"Aphrodite! Wait!" Iolaus exclaimed but she was gone before he finished the words. "Oh great! Thanks a lot Aphrodite!" He called after her in exasperation.

Iolaus turned back to the sleeping princess determined to break the curse on this place, in spite of Aphrodite's interference. He hadn't taken more than a single step when he was rudely shoved aside. He looked up just in time to see Autolycus kneel beside the princess and take her hand in his. Murmuring something about a treasure, Autolycus raised the girl's hand to his lips and gently kissed it.

For a long moment, nothing seemed to move then the princess stirred and sighed. Opening her eyes, she gazed at Autolycus and smiled. From all over the castle, Iolaus could hear the sounds of the rest of the people and animals waking. The intimidating silence once more replaced with the sounds of every day life.

"Penelope!" The cry preceded the hurried entrance of the queen. Her sweeping glance took in the tableau before her. The handsome dark-haired man, kneeling beside her daughters bed and holding her hand, another man looking to be his servant standing to one side. She rushed to the girl's side and embraced her, then looked up at Autolycus who had risen from his former position at her entry.

"We are forever in your debt!" she exclaimed gratefully. "You shall have the reward that I promised!" the queen continued after glancing at her daughter who nodded slightly. She turned to the guards who had followed her, "Let the word go forth through my kingdom! Let all my people prepare for the celebration! We shall celebrate the lifting of the curse from our land and," she paused for effect, "the wedding of Penelope to the hero who has rescued us!"

"Wedding?" Gulped Autolycus who had been preening at the queen's praise. "Well, umh, that, that really isn't necessary your highness!" He protested, nervously edging closer to the door.

"A modest man too," the queen didn't seem to notice his nervousness, "Of course Penelope will be your bride! She will not find a better man to be her husband than one who has risked life and limb to free her from that terrible curse!"

Iolaus stifled a giggle as the queen's words only made Autolycus more nervous.

"I really couldn't accept such generosity, my lady!" Autolycus protested.

Knowing that Autolycus had been fully prepared to accept full credit for the rescue, Iolaus couldn't resist chiming in, "Of course you can, 'my lord.' After all, it's only fitting that you have a princess for a bride. You are royalty!"

The dark glare Autolycus sent him at those words nearly sent Iolaus off into a fit of giggles but he managed to restrain himself before he gave the game away.

The queen pounced on his words, "Royalty! I knew it! My lord, you are too modest! You simply MUST accept the reward that is rightfully yours!" Placing one arm around her daughter, she swept forward, catching Autolycus as he reached the door. "Now, come with me. We shall start the plans for the ceremony immediately!" Giving Autolycus no time to protest, she ushered him out of the room and down the stairs to the main hall.

Iolaus followed the trio, his grin getting bigger as he listened to Autolycus' trying to get a word in. The trio had reached the main hall, when the queen finally remembered him and interrupted her flow of plans, "Don't worry about your servant, my dear Auto, you don't mind if I call you Auto do you?" Without waiting for a reply she continued airily, "I'm sure we can find suitable accommodations for him."

"Servant?" Iolaus yelped indignantly. "Sorry your majesty, but I'm no mans servant. I was just, uhm, helping out a 'friend.'"

The queen turned in surprise at his statement. Raising one eyebrow in disbelief, she turned to Autolycus, "My lord, do you always allow such ragged commoners to become so familiar?" The disapproval was plain in her voice. "Well, your majesty.." Autolycus only got a few words out before she waved him to silence, "Never mind, I suppose it doesn't matter. We shall extend him our thanks and send him on his way with a small reward." Pleased with this solution, she turned the topic back to plans for the upcoming wedding.

Iolaus was a bit indignant at her casual dismissal of him, as he watched the trio walk away, but amusement at the situation Autolycus found himself in was rapidly overcoming his annoyance. He stood there and watched as the queen expertly herded the other two. Just before they disappeared around a corner, Autolycus cast one last frantic glance at Iolaus and mouthed the word 'help' before he was dragged from view by the adoring princess and matchmaking queen.

Shaking with silent laughter, Iolaus toyed with the idea of sticking around to see if the wily thief could work his way out of this, but quickly dropped the notion in favor of sharing the story with Hercules when he reached Tinaires.

With a jaunty wave to the two guards who had resumed their posts at the door, Iolaus quickly left the hall and threaded his way through the now busy courtyard. Coming through the castle gate, he stopped short in surprise at the sight that met his eyes. Where before the thick ring of brambles had grown like a living wall, there was now an open meadow with a road leading up to the castle.

Pleased that he wouldn't have to fight his way back to the road, Iolaus carefully crossed the drawbridge and set off. He began to whistle merrily as he thought of the story he'd have to tell Hercules when they met. His whistling was interrupted only briefly by a faint cry echoing through the woods. "Help!"

The End

1997 by Ceallach

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