Iolaus was weak. He had to lean against the wall to keep from collapsing to his knees. He put his hand over his eyes in an effort to erase the horrible scene he'd just watched. It didn't help.
He could still her scream as her legs were ruthlessly broken by Xena's toady. Iolaus had had to leave the crowd after that. He could watch no more. This place was unbearable. He couldn't believe the cruelty and brutality of life in a world without Hercules. A world that never would have happened if he himself hadn't failed in saving Alcmene and her unborn son. This was all his fault.
Iolaus' descent into guilt was broken by the sound of sobs coming from deeper in the alley where he stood. The blond warrior wiped his own eyes and quietly walked farther into the narrow alley to see who was there, and if perhaps he could help someone else, since he couldn't help himself or the miserable situation he found himself in.
A boy was sitting just past a turn in the alley. He was tattered and dirty. Iolaus could see a shock of wild, straw-colored hair above the shaking shoulders of the sobbing youth. The warrior's heart stopped at the sight. It brought to him memories from his past, when he had spent so much of his own childhood sobbing alone somewhere. Iolaus slowly approached the boy, knelt, and placed his hand on the youth's shoulder. "Son? Can I help you?"
The boy looked up into the warrior's face. His blue eyes were blurred with tears. Then, a look of surprise flashed across his sad face. "Father?" There was a pause as disbelief and then joy crossed the boy's tear-stained face, before he cried "Father!" and threw himself into Iolaus' arms. He clung tightly to the man and sobbed uncontrollably.
Iolaus was taken completely by surprise. He put his arms around the boy and held him close as the youth wept. Slowly, the boy gained control over himself. He pulled away from the warrior, and looked straight into his eyes.
"Did you see what happened? They hurt her! They tied her to one of those awful crosses, and broke her legs, and they'll set her up outside the gates with the others they've tortured, and she'll die! You've got to do something! Now that you're out, you can save her! Please, Father, you've got to save her!" The boy took a deep breath, his eyes never leaving Iolaus'. "How did you escape?" He fell into Iolaus' arms once again, embracing him tightly. "I'm so glad you're out. I've missed you so much. Now, we can be a family again. You and me and the girls, and Gabrielle, as soon as you save her. We can leave this awful place. Father, I love you!" The boy pulled away from Iolaus again, and grabbed his hand. "Come, we have to hurry!" he urged.
Then, the strangest look passed over the boy's face. He looked at the warrior's hand, turning it over in his own young hand. Then, he picked up Iolaus' other hand. He stared at the hands of the warrior, and then looked up into the man's face, studying it closely. With a tremble in his voice, he asked, "Father? What's happened?" Then, the boy's eyes widened in fear. "You're not my father! Who are you? What's going on?!?" The youth jumped up and began to back away from the stunned warrior. "I don't understand! I don't understand at all!" he screamed as he turned and ran down the alley as if Charon himself were chasing him.
"Wait!" Iolaus called out, and took out after the boy. He had no idea what was going on, but the boy definitely needed help. His sorrow had apparently affected his senses.
The youth was fast, but so was Iolaus. He managed to keep the boy in sight as the pair ran from the alley and through streets leading away from the center of this world's Corinth. Eventually, the boy ran from the edge of the town, toward an ominous walled structure. As he neared the barred walls, he began to scream, "Father! Father!"
Iolaus slowed as he watched the boy advance toward the structure. He recognized it as a prison. He watched as the youth ran up to the guarded gate and began beating on the bars, crying for his father. The guards laughed and pushed the boy down onto the ground. "You know when visiting hours are, you little beggar," one guard brusquely addressed the boy. "Now, get away from here!"
The boy picked himself up from the ground and ran around the wall, away from the gate and its cruel guards. There were other barred areas without guards. The boy would stop at each set of bars, frantically searching for someone. Finally, Iolaus saw his quarry stop at one such place, and reach his arms through the bars. The arms of an adult reached out and embraced the boy. Arms without hands.
Iolaus slowly advanced upon the pair he was watching. The boy was crying again. Iolaus quietly came up behind the sobbing boy, and looked at the man embracing him. He looked into his own face. It was a haggard, drawn face, lined from a hard life, and aged beyond its years.
The man raised his sad eyes and looked at the stranger facing him. There was no sparkle of hope in those eyes. He didn't even seem surprised to be looking at his mirror image. He merely clutched the boy closer to himself, and asked, "Who are you? What do you want?"
Iolaus stammered, "I...uh...well...I was trying to help this boy. He was very distressed about something that happened in the town square. He...he must have thought I was you, and became frightened when he realized I wasn't his father. I...."
The man quit listening to Iolaus, and worriedly looked down at his son. "Androcles, what's the matter? Has something happened to your sisters. Tell me what's wrong, son."
The boy looked up at his father. "Gabrielle's been crucified, Father. I watched it. It was horrible. She screamed! She's been set out to die. That means that Lillias and Megara and I are all alone, now. I don't know what to do, Father! Please, tell me what to do!" The boy clutched his father even tighter.
The man closed his eyes. His face reflected utter despair. Yet, his voice was gentle and loving as he spoke to his son. "Androcles, I'm so sorry to had to witness such a thing. Gabrielle was our friend. I know you loved her. She loved you and your sisters. But, she's gone, now. She can't help us any more." The man took a deep breath. "Son, you must listen to me." The boy raised his face to look at his father, who was able to smile at him. "I want you to go get the girls, and bundle up everything you can easily carry, and then go find Autolycus."
The boy interrupted. "Autolycus! But, I thought he was our enemy!"
"No, no, no, not our enemy. My rival." The prisoner smiled again. "I know he's obnoxious and hard to be around sometimes, but he's really not all that bad. And, he owes me, big time. He'll take care of you and your sisters. Find him, tell him what's happened, and that I've sent you to him. He'll do the right thing. Actually, I think he'll be glad to add you to his band." The man took his son into his arms again, and looked at Iolaus.
"You said you wanted to help. All right, you can help my son get himself and his sisters to safety. He's a good, brave, and strong boy. He has a lot of talent and skill, but I don't want him trying to make ends meet on his own. He's still just a boy. Autolycus never has been as good as me, but he's better than any of the others, fair in his own way, and the people in his band are quality folks. We've all had to make adjustments to get by in these hard times."
The man looked down at his son. "Androcles, I never wanted this to happen. You know I wanted a better life for you and your sisters. Someday, we'll have that little farm we dreamed about, I promise. But, for now, you'll need to hit the streets, just to get by till I get out of here. Autolycus will help you learn the ropes. It'll only be for four more years, and then we can leave Corinth forever." The man chuckled, and held up one of his handless arms. "I believe my days as a successful thief are over, anyhow."
Iolaus walked up to the man and his son. "I'm so sorry. I'll help your family get to safety. But, does he have to join a band of thieves? Isn't there a place somewhere for homeless children?"
The prisoner laughed. "Man, this is Corinth! Where have you been? Nobody does anything for anybody but themselves here. We each have to take care of our own. It never has been great here, but has certainly gotten worse since the Conqueror took over. She's the one who took my hands." He laughed bitterly. "She had no appreciation of my talent for escape. She said that if I ever even thought of escaping again, she'd take my feet, too." The defeated prisoner looked into Iolaus' face. " No, I don't want my children to become thieves like me, no father would, but it's all that's left. Our friend Gabrielle was giving them a home, keeping them off the streets and trying to teach them about better things. But, now she's gone. There are worse things out there for children to get into, you have to know that! It's better than starving to death." He looked straight into Iolaus' eyes. "Please, whoever you are, help my children."
Iolaus place his hand on the man's arm. "I will. I promise you this. I...I'm so sorry. But, what can I do to help YOU? There must be something...."
"There's no time for regrets," the prisoner interrupted. "Please, just go." He looked again at his son. "Androcles, go with this man. He'll help you get to your new home." The man chuckled. "You must admit, with a face like that, he has to be trustworthy. Now, go on, get started. I want to give this stranger more instructions." The boy bowed his head and began to walk back toward the town. His father called after him, "Androcles, I love you. Be sure to tell the girls that I love them, too, and that everything will be all right."
The boy turned. "I love you, too, Father. We'll be waiting for you!"
The man looked at Iolaus again. "Thank you. This is the most important thing anyone could do for me." A terrible sadness filled his face. "I think you and I both know I'll never get out of here alive. Not unless someone takes out that crazy woman. She's a monster. But, I want my children to have a little hope, in something, even if it is a lie. They already have so much to deal with. And, they're so young!" The man closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He opened them again shortly, and gazed at Iolaus. "You never told me who you were," he stated.
Iolaus had to swallow a lump in his own throat before he answered. He looked deeply into what were his own eyes, so damaged by a hard life–a life without Hercules. "I'm you, my friend. I come from another time. I was sent here to right a wrong, and I failed. But, after meeting you and your son, I'll not quit trying. Not as long as there is breath in me. I promise you this."
The prisoner studied Iolaus closely. "I believe you. I wish you luck in your quest." He smiled. "You appear happy and content. You must be a success in your world and time. I feel I now know I could have been the same, under a different set of circumstances. You make me proud."
Iolaus the thief reached out one of his mutilated arms. Iolaus the warrior clasped it in both his hands. The two men said no more as they parted, and Iolaus hurried away to catch up with the boy. The boy who could have been his son. And he vowed, on Hercules' memory, that he would not give up his quest to erase this horrible situation. Maybe there was still a way he could reverse time. After he'd helped this boy and his sisters–"My daughters?" Iolaus thought to himself–he'd work on a plan. He caught up to the boy, and put his arm around the youth's shoulders. As they walked into the city, the warrior thought to himself, "What would Hercules do?"
What *would* Hercules do?
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