"Do we make a great team or what?" the blond teenager crowed, grinning triumphantly at his dark-haired companion. He fingered the necklace tucked in the folds of his light blue tunic.
"We certainly do," the other agreed with a slight grin, his calculating eyes darting back and forth, "but old Trachus always was a push-over, so donít get too over-confident in yourself, Iolaus."
"Yeah, yeah," Iolaus waved off Cradusí remark. He was in too good a mood at the success of his latest thieving attempt--his most daring one to date--to let the comment bother him.
As they trotted cautiously out of the alley, the two members of the Lowacks heard people shouting. Glancing about, they quickly spotted the reason for the noise and commotion: a nearby wooden building was on fire, one wall already completely engulfed in flame.
Iolaus hesitated for just a split second before starting towards the throng of people hauling water-filled buckets to the site, prepared to help the dozens of other citizens working together in an effort to douse the flames. He was quickly brought up short when a hand clamped on his forearm.
"Iolaus, what are you doing?" Cradus growled.
"Iím going to help. Címon!"
"Are you crazy?" Lowackís leader asked. "Nowís our chance to make a clean getaway!"
Iolaus paused as he looked at his partner-in-crime. He couldnít understand the triumphant look to Cradusí eyes, almost as if the dark-haired teen figured the gods themselves had caused the fire as a diversion so they could get clear. The son of Skouros shrugged off the tight grip.
Suddenly, a woman came rushing from the other side of the square. She dropped her food-laden basket and screamed as she rushed towards the building. "My daughter! Sheís still in there! Somebody, please! Save my daughter!"
"Iolaus, címon!"Ē Cradus ordered.
Iolaus gave his friend a quick glance, then suddenly whirled and raced towards the burning building. He ignored the startled shouts of warning as he shouldered his way through the front door, stumbling when the thick, acrid smoke hit him full in the face. Flames shot up all the walls now, swiftly eating away at the dry timber and thatch.
Coughing, the blond covered his mouth and nose with the upper edge of his tunic; he blinked his tear-filled eyes as he searched desperately through the dense smoke. He quickly stumbled through the main room and managed somehow to find the little girl lying huddled under the table.
Iolaus held out both arms. "Címon! Letís get out of here!"
The girl cowered further under the table.
Kneeling, the teen urged, "No, itís okay, Iíll get you out of here." Seeing her hesitate, he added, "My nameís Iolaus. Whatís yours?"
"Leah," came the hesitant reply.
"Well, Leah, wonít you let me help you? Please?"
The girl seemed to think about his pleading words, then quickly jumped into the arms of her rescuer. Her arms tightened around Iolausí neck as he hugged her to him. Turning on his toes and rising, Iolaus heard a sharp *crack* above him and realized with dismay flaming bits of roof were beginning to give way. He dashed forward, trusting his instincts to get him through the thick smoke to the door. Just as he was beginning to think his unerring sense of direction had somehow erred, he was suddenly outside.
The adrenalin surge carried him a few more yards before his legs gave out. He fell to his knees, careful not to drop his temporary charge. He managed to ease her to the ground as he gulped fresh air into his burning lungs.
Suddenly, there were a couple people surrounding him. Leahís mother quickly snatched her up, hugging her tightly as tears of joy and gratitude flowed down her face. The woman knelt and, still hugging her daughter to her, she brushed Iolausí unruly hair out of his face and gave him a peck on the cheek. "Thank you, oh, thank you for saving my daughter!"
Iolaus smiled, then coughed. Another pair of hands patted him on the back.
"Rest easy, boy."
Iolaus looked up and found himself staring at Trachus. His eyes widened in astonishment at seeing the man, whose shop heíd just robbed, helping him. Another series of coughs racked his frame and he doubled over in an attempt to breathe and, hopefully, hide his face from the man.
The shopkeeper mutter reassuring words, then a startled exclamation. Before Iolaus could stop him, the man reached into the pocket created by his tunic and belt and retrieved the stolen necklace. His face grew red with anger. "You stole this from my shop! You rotten little thief! Iíll see you stoned for this!"
Iolaus feebly tried to rise, but Trachusí strong grip coupled with smoke inhalation kept him from escaping. Before he could utter a single word of protest, Iolaus was hauled unceremoniously to his feet and shoved away from the scene. The blond looked up, locking watery eyes with Cradus for a split second before a coughing fit sent him stumbling. Trachus roughly gripped him by the collar and propelled the young hero through the market square.
"I expect him to be punished!" Trachus shouted, the recovered necklace in his hand swinging wildly as he shook his fist in the air. "I'm tired of being robbed! I expect you to make an example of him!"
Lycos, the magistrate, looked at Iolaus, who stood quietly to one side with a single guard beside him, then back at the plump shopkeeper. "What would you have me do, Trachus?" he asked evenly.
"Stone him! Let others know we wonít put up with this!"
"That is a bit harsh, even for thievery, donít you think?"
"You wouldnít say that if it was your shop constantly being a target for this no-good petty brat!" Trachus shook his fist under Iolausí nose. Iolaus instinctively held up his rope-bound hands to ward off a blow. "His father was a respected general. Heís probably ashamed to show his face in the Elysian Fields having his only son turn out this way!"
"This isnít the first time heís done this!" the shopkeeper roared. "I demand punishment!"
The magistrate sighed. Deep down, he knew Iolaus wasnít the wicked person Trachus believed him to be. Somewhat mischievous, maybe, full of pent-up energy, definitely, but not out to cause any deliberate harm to anybody. Unfortunately, the man had a point about setting an example. They certainly couldnít condone the work of thieves.
"Iím sorry, Iolaus, but Trachus is correct. You must be held accountable for your actions. Since you admitted to stealing the necklace, you are hereby found guilty of the charges brought against you. The traditional punishment for thievery will be meted out tomorrow afternoon." Lycos shifted his gaze to meet the guardís. "Take him to his cell."
The guard grabbed the blond roughly by the arm and dragged him from the room, but not before Iolaus caught the triumphant sneer on the face of the shopkeeper.
Hercules expertly blocked the blow from Jasonís staff, shoved his own staff to push the prince backwards, then swung low. Jason jumped over the practice weapon, then whacked Hercules on the shoulder before the other could bring his staff up to parry. The teenaged demigod stumbled sideways, and then suddenly found himself hitting the floor as a well-placed boot found his butt.
"Arghhh!" Hercules growled, slamming his practice staff onto the floor in frustration.
"I believe thatís my point," the dark-haired Prince of Corinth gloated. He stepped up to his fallen companion and leaned down to offer his hand.
"You got lucky," the lanky youth retorted, accepting the hand-up.
"Luck? Try skill!"
The friends grinned, then turned their heads when Cheiron, the Academyís founder and headmaster, entered the room. The centaur viewed the other students working on their fighting skills for a quiet moment, then spoke, his deep voice easily carrying over the various sounds. "Enough. Put away the weapons and head for the mess hall."
As the students complied, another moved next to Hercules as he put away the practice staff. "So, you hear about your little blond friend?"
"Iolaus? What about him?"
"He finally got caught stealing. The magistrate ordered the traditional punishment to be carried out tomorrow."
The son of Zeus froze in his tracks. He grabbed the otherís forearm. "Are you sure about this?"
"Absolutely. Looks like he finally gets whatís coming to him," the student commented before walking away.
Jason caught up to him and punched him lightly on the arm. "Címon, Hercules, stop daydreaming!" He paused when Hercules just stared into space, looking completely dumbfounded. He gave his friend a gentle shove. "Hey, Hercules, you all right?"
The demigod shook his head and stared at his royal companion. "Iolaus got caught stealing."
"Iolaus? Oh, that friend you told me about, the one whose father was General Skouros. I thought you two had a falling out or something."
"We did. He started to do crazy things, even more crazy than usual, I mean, especially when I started here. He got involved with some gang called the Lowacks."
"Thereís bad news for you."
"Yeah. When I tried to set him straight, he got mad and the next thing I knew, we werenít speaking to each other. I havenít heard from him in weeks," Hercules explained. Over his initial shock at the news, he strode towards the hall door, Jason falling into step beside him. "He got caught stealing and theyíre going to--" Hercules halted in his tracks again; he turned horrified blue eyes to his friend. "By the gods, Jason, theyíre going to cut his hands off tomorrow!"
"Thatís the traditional punishment," Jason agreed.
"They canít do that!"
"Iím afraid they can, Hercules."
"No! Not Iolaus! Evil people are supposed to get punished! Iolaus isnít evil!"
"If he got caught, thereís not much you can do, Hercules," Jason explained gently. "Besides, I thought you two werenít friends anymore." The prince gave his friend a pat on the shoulder as if in dismissal, then walked away.
His mind whirling with his thoughts, the young demigod didnít notice the otherís departure or the sound of hoofbeats on the wooden floor.
The sandy-haired youth looked up, startled, at his centaur instructor.
"Is everything all right?" Cheiron queried, concern tingeing his voice.
"No, Cheiron, itís not. I just found out Iolaus is in trouble." As in the past, Hercules found himself telling his problems to the centaur. "He got caught stealing and now they want to cut off his hands."
"And you feel he shouldnít be punished for doing something wrong?"
"Iolaus isnít all bad, Cheiron, just misguided! Trouble just seems to find him, thatís all!" Hercules looked away. "Inside, heís got a heart of gold. I just donít think he knows it yet."
Cheiron folded his arms across his muscular chest. "You claim friendship with a common thief?" The centaurís voice sounded full of reproach.
Hercules felt anger boil up inside him. "I just told you heís not all bad! You donít even know him, how dare you judge him!" he growled. "And, yes, despite our differences, he *is* my friend! I want to help him if I can!" When Hercules saw the beginnings of a smile on Cheironís face, he knew heíd been set-up. Again. "You did that deliberately, didnít you?"
The instructor didnít bother to answer the humanís question. "Hercules, if Iolaus was found guilty of a crime, you may not be able to stop the punishment. Just because he is the friend of the son of Zeus doesnít make him above the law."
"I know," Hercules admitted, his voice soft, "but I need to let him know heís not alone in this. We had a...misunderstanding... a few weeks ago and I have to let him know Iíve forgiven him, before itís too late."
"Then you are dismissed from the eveningís activities and tomorrow morningís classes. Go, be with your friend."
Hercules gratefully met the centaurís dark eyes. "Thank you."
Iolaus sat on the cot, the lone blanket lying bunched on his lap. He tried to review what had happened to him since Heliosí chariot ascended the sky that morning. Everything seemed one big blur. He could remember the heist, the fire and rescuing the girl, then facing the magistrate, but for the life of him, he couldnít remember details. And now he had a day to make his peace with the gods before his life came to an end. Well, his life wasnít ending, but it might as well be, he figured. He didnít want to think beyond tomorrow and what he would do...
Iolaus raised his head at the familiar voice. Hercules stood outside his small cell.
"Herc? What are you doing here?"
"I came as soon as I heard." He gestured to the bars. "The guard wouldnít let me into the cell to see you, but said I could talk to you from here."
Iolaus nodded dumbly. "I-I didnít think youíd want to see me. I mean, we didnít exactly part on the best of terms the last time we spoke."
"I know and Iím sorry," Hercules answered, unable to meet his friendís eyes. "I had no right to try and tell you how to live your life."
The blond rose; he tossed the blanket onto the cot. As he walked over to the cell bars separating them, he said, "No, you were right." He paused before adding, "As always."
The last comment brought the young demigodís head up. "No, Iím not always right. I said some pretty hateful things that werenít, and arenít, true."
Iolaus shrugged. "Itís forgotten."
Hercules smiled. "Thanks. Can I do anything for you?"
"Youíre doing it, just coming here. I appreciate the support." Iolaus glanced down, then back up. "Maybe you should go. Iím sure you donít need those other cadets to know the son of Zeus is friends with a petty thief."
"I donít care what they think, Iolaus. Iíve known you since we were little kids."
The words made Iolaus feel warm inside, but he remarked, "Thereís nothing you can do, Hercules. I finally got caught with the goods and Iím going to be punished." *Yeah, Dad,* he said to his deceased relative, *looks like you were right. I turned out to be the worthless good-for-nothing you said I would be.*
"But, thereís got to be something!" the cadet practically wailed, unwilling to leave it at that.
"No." Iolaus laughed, a sound with no cheer behind it. "I guess Cradus was right and should have gotten away when I had the chance, but I--"
Hercules waved a hand to stop his friendís remark. "What chance?"
"We came across a burning building, and there was a little girl trapped inside. I went in after her. I couldnít let her be killed," the shorter teen explained. "Ya know, Herc, if I had to do it all again...I would do the exact same thing, even if it meant getting caught again. Hopefully, sheíll make something out of her life."
"Iolaus, youíre a hero! Did you tell Lycos this?"
"No, why should I? I was on trial for stealing, not being an idiot and running headlong into a burning building."
Hercules smiled. Iolaus didnít see himself as a hero for saving the little girl. He just did what he knew had to be done and to Hades with the consequences. "Did anybody else see you do this?"
Iolaus made a face and shrugged. "Iím not sure. The mother was grateful and Trachus saw, of course, but he was more concerned in trying to get me stoned for having the nerve to steal from him."
"Do you know who the mother was? Or the girl?"
"The girlís name is Leah, but I didnít get her motherís name." Seeing the look of concentration on his friendís face, Iolaus added, "But Cradus saw them. I know he did, because he was right there when I hauled off."
"Good!" Hercules broke into a big grin. "Iíll get you out of this, Iolaus! Nobody is going to hurt you! I promise!"
The demigod started to back up, holding his hands up to forestall any further questions. "Trust me, buddy! Just trust me!"
Iolaus watched the taller teen whirl away, then jog off. He furrowed his brow in confusion. "Um, sure, Herc, whatever you say."
"What can I do for you, Hercules?" Lycos asked politely, setting aside the quill in his hand.
"Sir, please, you canít take Iolausí hands."
"He committed a crime, Hercules," the magistrate explained patiently. He knew how close the two had been before Alcmeneís son had started at Cheironís Academy. "He admitted to such. Willingly. He has to be punished."
"I know, but I think you need to know something."
The magistrate folded his hands and laid them on the scroll in front of him. "Iím listening."
"Iolaus gave up his chance at getting away. He saved a little girl from that building that burned to the ground when he could have made an escape."
Lycos raised his eyebrows in question. "Youíve proof?"
"Iolaus told me."
The magistrate smiled, not unkindly. "I canít just take your word or the word of a convicted thief on that, Hercules. I need a witness."
"Sir, Iolaus may be a thief, but heís not a liar!" the youth kept his voice in check. It wouldnít do to let Lycos hear him growling. The busy man had been kind enough to give him a chance to speak. "You yourself said he willingly admitted to stealing."
"Only because he was caught with the jewelry red-handed." The magistrate held up his hand to forestall another outburst from the cadet. "Listen, Iím sorry, but his word just isnít enough. I know you trust him, but--" he let the implications go unspoken. "However, if you could produce a witness, say, the mother of the child he rescued, I would be willing to reduce his sentence. As you said, if he gave up his chance at freedom, well, who am I to let heroism go unrewarded?"
A wide grin spread across Herculesí face, his blue eyes shining happily since heíd first heard about Iolausí fate. "Youíd drop the charges?"
"He canít go completely unpunished, after all, he *did* steal; however, Iím partial to skip the traditional punishment. I donít like it, anyway. Too messy."
"Thank you, sir! Thank you very much!"
"You only have until tomorrow afternoon, Hercules. If you havenít found a witness willing to testify on Iolausí behalf, Iím afraid the punishment stands firm."
The words sobered the young demigod. He nodded solemnly. "I understand. Thank you." He turned to leave, then halted and looked back. "Please, donít tell Iolaus. If this doesnít work out, I donít want him know I failed him."
"Done." Lycos agreed. "Now, go, and may the gods go with you, Hercules."
Finding a witness willing to testify on Iolausí behalf was tougher than Hercules realized. Many people had witnessed the fire, had even helped to put out the flames, some vaguely remembered somebody going into the burning building to rescue the girl, but nobody could say for sure who that rescuer had been. Nobody could remember who Leahís mother had been, either. By the time night had fallen, the young demigod was ready to scream in frustration. Iolaus had given up his chance at freedom to help somebody heíd never met and now people who knew Iolaus wouldnít even offer any sympathy when they found out his plight.
"Whatís wrong with you people?" Hercules had snapped at one small group when they actually made a joke out of Iolaus "getting what he deserved." "He saved a life and you canít even have the decency to be concerned about his!"
That remark had raised the hackles on the men in the group, who prepared to take on the young demigod, son of a god or not, for the insult. Hercules, however, quickly turned and stalked off, tired of wasting his time with indifferent morons.
The only bright spot to the day had been when heíd run into his mother in the marketplace. Alcmene had been surprised, but pleased, to see her younger son. Hercules told her everything, his voice angry but sad at the same time. She listened, as she always did, concern touching her eyes.
Alcmene had once had reservations about Herculesí friendship with the blond as Iolaus seemed to attract trouble and no mother wanted her children to have to face trouble at any age. But Iolaus proved to be more incorrigible than anybody could have imagined and that, coupled with his seemingly endless supply of energy and immediate non-judgmental acceptance of Hercules despite his divine parentage, had soon won over the young motherís heart.
Sheíd seen the pain behind Herculesí eyes when he told her, during his last break from the Academy, that he and Iolaus had fought and separated on bitter terms. Now she was seeing the pain resurfacing as he recounted his feelings of hopelessness at not being able to save his oldest friend from a fate worse than death for the naturally skilled hunter.
Alcmene had offered support, encouraging her son not to give up despite the odds. The hug the two had shared had given Hercules the courage to continue in his quest, but now, the demigod found his hope cooling with the night air. Who could he turn to? Who would--?
Hercules suddenly remembered the name Iolaus had tossed out in the course of their conversation. Cradus. Heíd seen the whole rescue! He would know who the woman was or at least, know what she looked like! Cradus would help or, Hercules half-smiled, heíd have the wrath of the mortal son of Zeus upon him.
"Hold on, Iolaus! Youíll be shooting a bow again before you know it!" Hercules muttered as he tried to think where he would go if he were a homeless thief like Cradus.
Dawn had broken over an hour ago and Hercules was exhausted. All his attempts to locate Cradus had turned up nil. As he wearily lowered himself to the ground next to a wall, the teenager felt the beginnings of failure creeping up to cloud his mind.
Determinedly, he shook his head. No! He *wouldnít* let Iolaus down! He would find Cradus and Leahís mother! He had to! Now where would--?
A thought flitted across his mind. Iolaus had once mentioned a cave or something where the Lowacks hung out. No, not a cave... an abandoned mine, just outside of town. That had to be it!
Jumping to his feet, all feelings of fatigue suddenly vanished, Hercules raced towards the outskirts of Corinth.
The abandoned mine was unguarded and heavy vegetation covered most of the entrance. Though his tracking skills would never be the equal of Iolausí, Hercules nonetheless saw signs of human tracks in the dry dirt around the area. He stealthily inched his way to the mine entrance, hiding himself in the thick foliage. He could hear voices coming from inside. Deciding the direct approach was the best, and least time-consuming, way to go, Hercules straightened and marched right into the thievesí den.
He got several meters before anybody even noticed he was there. There was a group of maybe ten individuals, all older teenagers, lounging around on various boulders or napping on the ground. There was a startled shout and the next thing Hercules knew, he was surrounded by the young men, many holding very wicked-looking knives in their hands.
"Iím looking for Cradus!" Hercules shouted.
There was a long pause, during which none of the thieves took their eyes off the demigod, then a steady voice, "Iím Cradus."
Two boys parted to let their tall, dark-haired leader through the ring. Cradus strode confidently up to Hercules, stopping a short distance from him. "Who are you and what do you want?"
"Hercules." Cradus seemed to moll over the name. "Oh, yes, you used to be Iolausí friend."
"I still am."
"Not the way he tells it." The other grinned.
Hercules ignored the jibe. "I wonít argue the point with you. You were at that fire yesterday, werenít you? You saw Iolaus run into that burning building to save the little girl, didnít you?"
"What if I did?"
"Iolaus needs your help, theyíre going to administer the traditional punishment for thievery this afternoon unless you can help me find the mother of that girl."
"So, they charged him, did they?" Cradus answered calmly. "Too bad. He was good."
"If I can find the mother and she tells the magistrate Iolaus saved her daughter, heíll let him off with a lighter sentence."
"Whatís that to me?"
Hercules blinked in surprise. Cradus didnít care what happened to Iolaus. Heíd already written him off as useless. "Donít you care what happens to Iolaus?"
Cradus laughed. "He got himself caught. He blew it. Heís no good to us anymore. Like I said, he was good, but not anymore."
The demigod fought to keep from wiping the smirk off the dark-haired teenís face. Iolaus had given his life to Cradus when heíd joined the Lowacks. True, Iolausí sense of loyalty had turned him in the wrong direction, but Iolaus never did anything in fractions. That Cradus had taken that sense of strong loyalty and was now stomping it into the dirt made the son of Zeus fill with rage.
Unfortunately, he still needed the thiefís help. "Do you know where I can find the girl and her mother?" he asked, his hands balling into fists at his side.
"Sure, I know."
"Iím not telling you, toy soldier. Now, go back to your safe little academy and leave us alone." Cradus turned, throwing over his shoulder, "Oh, tell Iolaus I said it was nice knowing him."
Hercules growled, lunging forward. He grabbed Cradus by the collar, spun him around then, grabbing his jacket lapels, hauled him off his feet. Cradus struggled, his hands going up to wrap around Herculesí wrists, but the demigodís grip was like metal forged by Hephaestus and refused to be loosened.
A couple of the other thieves came forward, brandishing their weapons. Hercules kicked one in the abdomen, sending him stumbling backwards; he swung about, using Cradusí legs to knock another to the dirt. The others quickly backed off, but remained ready, hands holding tightly to their knives.
Hercules quickly shifted his hands to grip Cradusí throat and squeezed, just enough to let the gang leader know he meant business. "Now," Hercules growled between clenched teeth, bringing Cradus nose-to-nose with him, "where will I find Leah and her mother?" He shook the other. "And donít think for one moment I wouldnít snap your neck like a twig. I know you know I can do it."
Cradus coughed, then wheezed, "All right, all right, Iíll tell you, but I donít think youíll get them back in time to save Iolaus. Sheís left the city, heading towards Athens..."
Iolaus stood on his cot and watched as the pinks of dawn gave way to the brighter colors of day. He sighed as he realized this would be the last time heíd see such a sight before his punishment. He jumped lithely to the floor, paced up and down the cellís length a few more times, then dropped onto the cot. Tiredly, he moved aside the blanket and lay down, facing the stone wall. Sleep did not come, which didnít surprise the young man. He hadnít been able to sleep all night, why should it come to him now?
He heard movement outside his cell, but ignored it. He had until afternoon before they came to take him to his punishment and he sincerely doubted Hercules had managed to convince the magistrate to let him go.
"Youíve a visitor," the guard grunted.
Iolaus uncurled from his position facing the wall and looked over his shoulder to see whom his "visitor" was. "No," he groaned, turning back, when he saw it was Herculesí mother. "Go away."
"Open this door!" Alcmene demanded of the guard.
"Look," the man replied, "heís a criminal. I canít just let you--"
"You can and you will."
Iolaus smiled slightly. Nobody bossed Hercís mother around, at least not without getting a good tongue-lashing if they tried. The smile faded as he heard the burly manís sigh of resignation, then the key in the lock. He didnít want Alcmene here. He didnít want her to see him like this, locked up like a common criminal... well, why not? After all, he *was* just that, wasnít he? A common, petty thief. Nobody. Worthless. Just as his father had predicted, over and over again.
The blond curled up tighter. "Go away. I donít want to see you."
"Iolaus, please, I have some fresh bread for you."
Iolausí stomach growled at the very thought of Alcmeneís wonderful baking. Slowly, he relaxed on the bare cot; he turned his head tentatively towards her. True to her word, she held out a small loaf of bread. His eyes darted upwards and met hers briefly before he looked away, shame shining in his blue eyes.
"Go on, take it. They canít be feeding you enough here. You eat enough for several men twice your size!"
The young man rolled so he was sitting on the cot. "Would you like to sit?" he offered softly. Alcmene smiled and sat down next to him. She held out the bread. He took it carefully. "Thank you. You shouldnít have gone to all the trouble."
"Itís no trouble, Iolaus. I always enjoy cooking for somebody who appreciates it." Alcmene reached out and brushed aside his unruly locks before tucking her hand under his chin and forcing his head up so he had to look her in the eyes.
Iolaus jumped to his feet, moving next to the cell wall, head down, back to her. "You shouldnít have come. Thereís nothing you can do. You should just stay away."
"You shouldnít be seen with me, Iím just a good-for-nothing thief." Iolaus laughed bitterly, almost a sob. "I canít even do *that* right. I got caught."
"Because you saved a little girlís life."
Iolausí head shot up, but he didnít look at the older woman. "Who told you that?"
"You believe him? *He* believes *me*?"
"Of course he does. I know you two had a slight falling out, but Hercules still cares about you and what happens to you. Heís trying to find the girlís mother now so she can tell the magistrate. Heís a good man, Iolaus, he said he would reduce your sentence."
As he had with the magistrate, Hercules had asked Alcmene not to mention his quest to Iolaus. She had agreed, but seeing the distress in Iolausí normally twinkling eyes, then hearing the gratitude in his voice that his childhood friend still believed in him, had Alcmene saying the words before she realized what was happening. *Well,* she rationalized, *he needs something to keep his hope alive. Hercules will understand.*
When a gentle hand gripped his shoulder, Iolaus jumped. So caught up in his own feelings of remorse, he hadnít heard Alcmene approach.
The soft voice was too much. Tears burned in the young manís eyes. Desperately, he tried to keep them at bay, but the effort was futile. He allowed Alcmeneís gentle tug to turn him so he was facing her. Looking into the caring eyes, he admitted softly, "Iím--scared."
"Oh, Iolaus." Alcmene folded her arms around her sonís best friend, hugging him tightly. "Itís okay to be scared. We are, too." She smiled slightly when she felt the young man return the hug, felt more than heard the quick gasps of held-back sobs as Iolaus tried to be brave. "We wonít let them harm you."
"Trachus wanted me s-stoned," Iolaus remarked, unable to stop the few tears that escaped his eyes. "I think I would prefer that than to s-see the pity in peopleís eyes."
Tears springing to her own eyes, Alcmene stroked his blond hair comfortingly. "Donít lose hope, Iolaus. You mustnít lose hope."
"Why do you bother with me? Iím not anybody special."
Alcmene quickly pulled back, her hands locked on the young manís shoulders. "Nobody special? How can you say that?" Before Iolaus could comment, she continued, "No, I know where you got that idea. Your father was wrong, Iolaus. Youíre not worthless. Youíre very special." She met his brimming eyes. "Do you know how many times people started to treat Hercules differently when they found out heís the son of Zeus? You were the first to treat him like any other mortal, even down to arguing with him, knowing he could easily have laid you flat-out if he ever hit you."
"He had to touch me first before he could lay me Ďflat-out,í" Iolaus remarked.
Alcmene laughed, hugging him again. She sobered quickly when she felt him tremble against her. "Weíre here for you, Iolaus. Hercules and me, both."
Closing his eyes, Iolaus swallowed the lump in his throat. He held his friendís mother to him. How had he managed to rate such caring friends? Deep down, he knew he couldnít allow his shame to become their shame. He owed them that much.
"Itís time," the guard said as he inserted the key in the door lock. "I hope youíve made your peace with the gods."
Despite his inner conviction to maintain a brave front, Iolaus still swallowed heavily. Hercules must not have been able to find the little girlís mother. *Thanks for trying, Herc. Thanks for believing in me enough to give it a shot.*
He rose to his full height; he almost laughed out loud when he realized the two guards sent to escort him to his punishment were much bigger than he was. Two behemoths to guard one little teenager? He supposed he ought to be flattered.
The first guard stepped into the cell. He held a length of rope. Iolaus, knowing what was to be demanded of him, raised his hands to waist height, wrists touching. Expertly, the guard tightly bound his hands together then grabbed his forearm and pushed him roughly from the cell.
"All right, all right! No need to get pushy!" Iolaus retorted.
The remark earned him a slap upside the head. "No cracks from you!"
Iolaus instinctively stepped back. "Why, what will you do? Kill me?"
"Donít give me any ideas!"
The guard shoved Iolaus forward. The two guards flanked the young man out of the building and into the streets. Determined not to let anybody know the disgrace he was feeling inside, Iolaus held his head high, meeting the stares of the citizens as they watched the small procession through the city. It didnít take long to get to the middle of the market square, where everything was set up to dole out his punishment. As he was forced to mount the steps to the chopping block, the number of people gathered to watch his punishment almost made him sick.
*I guess they have nothing better to do with their time,* he thought in disgust. *Nothing exciting happens in their daily lives.*
The first guard steered him beside the block, then forced Iolaus to his knees. The blond scanned the crowd. As sheíd promised, despite Iolausí arguments to the contrary, Alcmene was there to offer moral support. *Gods, why? Why couldnít you have kept her away? She doesnít need to see this!*
With that quick thought, he realized that Hercules wasnít in the crowd. Was he too ashamed to witness the event or maybe the demigod just couldnít stand to watch what would happen to his friend? *No,* Iolaus thought, *Hercules wouldnít give up. He never did before. Normally, he would be here, defending me Ďtil the end.* Deep down, however, Iolaus was glad his friend wouldnít be around to witness the event.
Lycos, an ornate wooden staff in his hand, stepped to the middle of the dais. "Iolaus of Thebes, you have been found guilty of thievery and now face the traditional punishment. Do you have anything you would like to say before punishment is carried out?"
Lifting his head to meet the manís eyes, the blond responded, "All I ask is that you just get it over with and kill me."
The magistrate looked shocked and a low murmur of surprised voices rippled throughout the crowd. Regaining his composure, Lycos banged the heavy staff on the wooden dais. When the voices faded away, he looked at the young man, "Youíve been convicted of robbery, not murder. Why do you ask such a thing?"
"You take my hands and Iím as good as dead anyway. I wonít be able to do the things that give me the most pleasure."
"Yeah, like rob people!" an unknown voice ridiculed. The remark met with a few snickers from the crowd.
Iolaus quickly scanned the crowd, careful to avoid Alcmeneís eyes, and looked at the man whom heíd robbed. Trachus shifted uncomfortably under the youthís gaze for there was no sign of hate or malice in the young, blue eyes. "Iíve a few regrets," Iolaus admitted, "but I guess itís best I got caught and punished now before I ended up hurting somebody physically." Returning his gaze to the magistrate, he pleaded, "Canít you do me this one thing I ask?"
"Iím sorry, Iolaus, I cannot," Lycos stated.
Iolaus dropped his head then. *So much for that brilliant idea!*
"Get on with it!" Trachus commanded.
At the magistrateís resigned nod, the first guard roughly placed Iolausí bound hands on the block. Startled, Iolaus lifted his head. He found himself looking right at Herculesí mother, who had tears in her eyes. The teen tried to smile reassuringly. He didnít like seeing Alcmene upset. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the guard raise the well-honed weapon. Iolaus closed his eyes, trying to mentally prepare himself for the pain to come.
"No! You canít! Stop!"
Iolaus snapped open his eyes, head turning in the direction of his best friendís voice. A smile cracked on his face when he saw Hercules push his way threw the crowd, his hands locked onto that of a young woman and a little girl. It was Leah, the girl heíd rescued from the fire.
As Hercules paused at the bottom of the steps leading to the platform, Leah broke free of the handhold. "Iolaus!" she shouted happily, dashing up the steps and across the dais. She threw her arms around the condemned teenís neck, hugging him tightly. Iolaus accepted the hug awkwardly, unable to return the show of affection.
"Away from the prisoner!" the sword-wielding guard ordered, shoving the girl away.
Iolaus pushed himself to his feet, blue eyes alight with fire. "Leave her alone!"
"Enough!" Lycos commanded. "Kostos, back off!"
The guard glared at Iolaus, but obeyed.
Leah quickly wrapped her arms around Iolausí waist. She saw the rope binding his wrists and looked up at him. "Why do they want to hurt you, Iolaus? Youíre not a bad person, you saved my life!"
There was a gasp from the crowd. Lycos smiled slightly as he heard the girlís admission, then turned to face her mother. "You are the girlís mother?"
"I am, sir. My name is Poena."
"Is what she says true? Did Iolaus save her life?"
"He did, sir," Poena answered. She smiled at her daughter and Iolaus then returned her attention to the magistrate. "He ran into a burning building to rescue her. He didnít even know us! He risked his life and Hercules told me he gave up his chance to avoid punishment to save her." She glanced at the gathered throng of citizens. "I donít care what anybody else says, in my scroll, Iolaus is nothing less than a hero!"
Lycos smiled, then looked at the girl. "And, Leah, what do you have to say?"
"He saved me," she stated simply, but with conviction, not releasing her hold on her rescuer. "I love him." Iolaus blushed when that remark caused a ripple of chuckles through the crowd. He smiled at Leah.
The bang of the magistrateís staff silenced the crowd. "Kostos, release the prisoner."
"What!" Trachus shouted, outraged.
Lycos met the shopkeeperís angry gaze steadily. "I will not condemn a person who risked his life and his freedom to save another," the magistrate stated. "Iolaus saved this little girlís life; I believe he deserves a second chance." He looked at the blond youth. "You do, however, still need to be punished for stealing, Iolaus. I give you a choice: jail or to be taken on as a student at Cheironís Academy."
"C-Cheironís Academy?" Iolaus paused from removing the now loosened bounds from his wrists. He could hardly believe his luck. Only nobles and people with money to spare could send their sons there! His gaze came to rest on Hercules, still standing at the base of the platform, Poena and Alcmene beside him.
Hercules and him, learning how to fight together at Cheironís Academy. They could be the back-to-back warriors they always claimed they would grow up to be when they were kids.
Hercules smiled and nodded his head encouragingly.
"I-I choose Cheironís Academy, sir."
Lycos nodded in approval. "So be it." He held out his hand, taking the younger manís outstretched arm in a warriorís handshake. "Good luck to you."
"Thank you, sir, for everything."
Leah reached up and placed her hand on their clasped wrists. "Yeah!"
Later, in the magistrateís office, the two adults and two teens discussed the finer points of Iolausí seemingly unexpected appointment to the Academy. Lycos wrote on a scroll. "You give this to Cheiron. Heís expecting you."
"Heís *expecting* me?" Iolaus pushed himself from his reclined position against the wall. "You already had this arranged?"
Lycos smiled at Hercules. "Letís just say I had faith in your friend."
"More than I did," the blond muttered.
"Thatís okay, Iolaus," Hercules assured, giving his new fellow cadet a pat on the shoulder. "I probably would have felt the same as you had the positions been reversed."
"Thanks, buddy," the hunter smiled. He looked at Alcmene. "To both of you. You believed in me when I had trouble believing in myself."
Alcmene gave him a quick hug. "Youíre an easy person to believe in, Iolaus. You just needed a slight nudge to get you back on the proper path."
"Boy," Iolaus remarked when Lycos stood, rolling the scroll, "am I glad you didnít let Kostos kill me when I asked."
"*What?*" Hercules cried out, straightening, whirling to face his friend.
"Whoa, easy, Herc, donít hurt yourself," the blond remarked, his voice light. He reached out and gently brushed some imaginary dirt from his friendís tunic. "Lycos wasnít going to let them do it." Brow furrowing, he turned his attention to the older man. "What would you have done if Hercules hadnít come in time?"
"Oh, I saw him coming. One has a great view from the dais, if one has his eyes open," Lycos remarked, giving the young man a quick smile.
Knowing Lycos referred to him having his eyes closed before the final blow, Iolaus retorted, "Thanks bunches!"
"You are welcome, young man," Lycos sealed the scroll and held it out to Iolaus. "Your first semesterís tuition is covered, the remaining ones are up to you. I trust you wonít try to raise the money dishonestly?"
"No, sir!" Iolaus answered as he took the pro-offered parchment. "Warriors are honorable and honest. Gods know my father pounded that much into my thick head." He flashed his patented Iolaus smile. "Probably why I became a thief, but no more. Those days are behind me," he promised.
"Glad to hear it. As for deciding to become a cadet, that is well chosen. I knew you would be up to the challenge. Good luck, Iolaus."
"Thank you, sir."
Iolaus, Hercules and Alcmene left the magistrateís office and stepped outside. Iolaus held tight to the scroll, still not believing all that happened in the past day. He turned to his best friend and his mother. "Dinner, anybody? Iím starved!"
"Iíll bet!" Hercules laughed. "They probably didnít feed you much in jail."
"Now that you mention it--"
Alcmene laughed. She reached into her pouch, extracted some dinars and held them out to her son. "Here. Dinnerís on me. Go celebrate."
"Youíre not coming?" Iolaus asked as Hercules took the money.
"No, I have to get home before it gets dark. Besides, you two have some catching up to do before you head to the Academy."
"Okay, Mom, thanks." Hercules pocketed the money, then hugged Alcmene. "I love you."
"I love you, too, Hercules."
"Thanks, Alcmene," Iolaus said as he was pulled into a similar embrace.
Youíre welcome, Iolaus. Now, go do yourself proud. I know youíll be one of the best cadets Cheironís ever had!"
"Iíll give it my best!" Iolaus promised as he and Hercules started to walk away.
Alcmene watched them go until they were lost in the crowds. "Thatís all a Ďmotherí could ask, Iolaus."
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