Hades was surprised to see who his new visitor was. This person had been no trouble whatsoever since he had become a resident of the Underworld. And, that had been a shock to the God in charge of the Other Side, considering whom this new resident so resembled and to whom he was related. Hades remembered there had been some deliberation about where to send the new inductee, what with his checkered past, but his complete turnaround and noble deeds of recent history weighted the balance toward the Elysian Fields. He had seemed so happy thereóHades had to wonder why this former king had now requested audience with him.
With a touch of trepidation, Hades looked up from his mountains of paperwork and into the clear, strikingly blue eyes of his visitor. "Yes?" he asked Orestes, the former King of Attica. "Iím very busy here. Make it short."
Orestes stood up straight before the imposing God of the Underworld. His regal bearing and upbringing served him well in this unusual, uncomfortable situation. He would not be intimidated by this dark, brooding god.
"I am needed above, my liege. I seek your permission to return to earth to help my cousin, who is in serious trouble, and to whom I owe so much. My plan isÖ."
"Aaargh!" groaned the God of the Underworld, as he put his head in his hands. He really didnít need to ask which cousin the king referred to. This "cousin" was quite well known to Hades, and the fact that he was in trouble again came as no surprise at all. Would Iolaus EVER cease making his life miserable?
Looking patiently into the kingís eyes, and trying to keep his voice level, Hades answered, "Orestes, please take no offence, but Ö youíre dead. Once dead, always dead." Well, most of the time, anyway, the god thought to himself, Iolaus popping to mind once again. "There are no round trip tickets to the Underworld. If I let YOU return, Iíd have to let everybody return. Can you imagine the paperwork involved? Itís hard enough just processing the dead INTO my realm, without trying to keep up with them going in and out! No, itís out of the question. Whatever trouble your cousin is in, heíll just have to get out of it by himself. YOU are staying HERE! End of discussion."
Orestesí eyes flashed in anger. He was not used to being refuted, even if he was now under anotherís reign. There had to be a way out of here. Iolaus needed him.
"I understand fully, my lord, but these are unusual circumstances under which Iím asking your leniency. Iolausí life is in jeopardy. Hercules can think of no way to save him. I CAN save him, in my capacity as his identical cousin. All I ask is that you allow me to return to earth just long enough to trade places with my cousin, as he has so graciously done for me in the past. And, I will return to you quite soon enough, being as how his captors are planning to execute him tomorrow. Theyíll just kill me instead, and since Iím already dead, there will be no new paperwork or any hassle at all. Iíll simply pop back down here and eagerly return to my quarters in the Elysian Fields." Orestes paused for a moment, for effect. "And, you may want to consider the consequences of not allowing me to return."
Hades sent a withering glance toward the smug king standing before him, his arms casually crossed over his chest. "Consequences, eh? Are you threatening me, Orestes? What can you possibly threaten me with?"
Orestes simply smiled as he leaned over Hadesí desk, and faced him eye to eye. "The consequences are that youíd have both Iolaus AND me down here, and together we will make your life a living Tartarus, if you get my meaning. Remember, we ARE related. Yes, there are differences between us, but are you willing to find out just what the similarities are?"
Hades dropped his head down onto his desk with a resounding bonk. Yes, he could already appreciate one similarityóthis sounded just like some scheme Iolaus himself would hatch up. Why me, why me? the god asked himself.
"Okay, okay, your request is granted! But, donít you tell one soul what weíre doing. If anyone down here finds out Iíve bent the rules for you, youíll end up in Tartarus for sure, you mark my words! Iím giving you twenty-four hours above. Make sure youíre back down here for inventory day after tomorrow. Now, GO!" With that, the god flicked his wrist, and the king disappeared in a puff of vapour.
In a huff, Hades shuffled through his papers and muttered to himself, "Iíve got to see about removing the ability for Elysians to view happenings on earth. Itís becoming more trouble than itís worth."
A desperately worried Hercules watched the campfires below his vantagepoint. He could just make out Iolausí form in the dancing shadows. His friend had had a bad time of it. He was deeply surrounded by marauders, giving Hercules no way to penetrate their camp and rescue his friend. Although the demigod could hear none of the exchange between Iolaus and his captors, he could tell that his friend was taunting them, because occasionally one or two of the felons would get enough and hit the warrior in his face or belly. Hercules found himself gritting his teeth and wishing that, for once, his hot-headed best friend could just keep his mouth shut and leave a bad enough situation alone. When he got Iolaus out of this particular pickle, heíd have one serious talk with him. If he got him out.
The hackles on the back of the demigodís neck began to raise an alarm. He was not alone. He knew he had heard no one sneaking up on his position, but someone was definitely there. Was he losing his touch? There really being no time to think about it, Hercules whirled around to face his attacker.
"IOLAUS!" How in the dickens did his friend get out of that camp, through all those guards? Hercules spun back around to look at the camp below, and saw Iolaus still tied up, in the middle of all the guards. Huh?! He turned again to face the man standing before him. "Iolaus?"
The man who stood there had the same blond hair, but Hercules noticed that it was straighter and much neater. He also seemed to be of somewhat slighter build than the warrior, and held himself differently. The look in his blue eyes was different, also, although Hercules couldnít exactly put his finger on what the difference was. And, although the man wore a purple vest and leather pants just like Iolausí, they were, well, cleaner and more tailored, somehow. The visitor spoke, "Hello, Hercules. Iíve always wanted to meet you."
Nope, that wasnít Iolausí voice, either. It was softer and more cultured. Hercules squinted at the visitor. "Orestes?" he asked, hesitantly.
"I see my cousin mentioned me to you. Iím quite honoured he did so. Yes, Iím Orestes, former king of Attica, a kingdom saved by the special man held captive by those ruffians down there. I saw he was in danger, so Iíve come to help. I owe him no less. Will you aid me, Hercules?" Hercules stood dumbfounded. He continued to stare at the man before him, finally gathering his wits enough to ask, "But, I thought you were dead!"
Orestes smiled warmly. "I AM deadóthatís the beauty of the whole situation. All I need to do is trade places with my cousin, there, and let those barbarians kill me instead of him. Iíll never feel a thing, and Iolaus will be safe, which is the important thing." A frown creased the kingís beautiful features. "However, now that Iím here, I canít figure out quite how to go about trading places. From the Elysian Fields, there didnít seem to be so MANY of them!" Orestes raised his hand to rub his chin as he contemplated the situation.
Hercules shook his head to clear it of cobwebs. Orestes walked to stand beside him, and the two men turned to survey the camp that held their friend and relative. Iolaus sat slumped against the post to which he was tied, and several of the men surrounding him seemed to be asleep. Unfortunately, for every sleeping man, there were two awake, standing guard. The situation still seemed hopeless. However, a glimmer of a plan began to form in Herculesí head. He thought to himself, "This is preposterous," then had to admit that there werenít that many options to choose from. He turned to face Orestes. "Maybe we could convince them that theyíve got the wrong man. You game to give it a try?"
The king beamed a familiar smile at the demigod. "Of course, Iím game. Iolaus did it for me, why shouldnít I be able to do it for him? What do I need to know?"
"Well, first off, you need to know why theyíve captured him. Last year, he broke up their plans to plunder a small village across from Naxos. This is what happened." Orestes listened intently as Hercules filled him in on all the details of the aborted raid, including how Iolaus had found out about the plan, and just what heíd done to foil the marauders. Orestes listened intently, laughing occasionally at his cousinís ingenuity at being half of a two-man army. However, as the tale went on, he began to harbour doubts about his ability to pull of the charade of mimicking his cousinís amazing abilities. He had never even dreamed of most of the "old hunterís tricks" Iolaus had used in setting myriad traps to lessen the odds against him. Thank goodness his cousin had not used a bow and arrows in his scheme, as Orestes recognised his own weaknesses with those weapons. But, Iolaus had used several acrobatic fighting moves and amazing sword mastery to get the best of his opponents.
"Hercules, Hades gave me only 24 hours to rescue Iolaus. How can I possibly learn all this in that little amount of time?" The king was distraught. "Iím afraid, now, Iíll just make things worse."
"Well, Your Highness, that just means weíll have to work really hard tonight, because they plan to execute Iolaus first thing in the morning. Iíll help you." A tinge of desperation was heard in Herculesí voice as he said, "We have to TRY, Orestes!"
"Yes, we do," the diminutive king answered, as he pulled himself up to his full height and took on an expression of determination that Hercules recognised only too well. He smiled at Orestes. This man was more like Iolaus than he gave himself credit for. The demigod clapped the king on the back. "Youíll do fine, Orestes. I know it." And then the training began.
It was a very long night. Orestes was pretty well accomplished with a sword, but he lacked Iolausí catlike quickness. The two men worked diligently at perfecting a workable facsimile of some of Iolausí best moves. It would have to do. It probably WOULD do, in the confusion that had to reign tomorrow morning, when the marauders were confronted with two Iolauses.
The martial arts' training was another thing altogether, however. Orestes was just not as agile as his cousin was, and his slighter build did make a difference. However, his determination never wavered, and with Herculesí patience at being constantly kicked, pounded, and buffeted, the two men were as ready as they could be the next morning. Now, all that remained to be perfected was cosmetic.
"Orestes, youíre standing too straight! Slouch! No, not like that! Just, oh, relax. There, thatís better. Now, mess up your hair. You heard me, mess up your hair! Here, like this." Hercules rubbed some dirt on his hands and then ran his fingers vigorously through the kingís golden locks. Orestes actually feared that his head might fall off. "Okay, thatíll have to do," the demigod pronounced as he stood off, scrutinising the king. "Now, your clothes are too neat. Get messy." The two men together got their hands dirty and mangled Orestesí garb. Hercules chuckled at Orestesí expression of disgust, holding his arms away >from his outfit. Apparently, the king had not been dirty and dishevelled very often during his short life. Hercules had to admire his gumption, to take on all these new experiences for the sake of his beloved cousin. In this, too, the two distant cousins were very much related. Hercules was proud to have finally met Orestes, although the circumstances could have been much, much better.
At dawn, the marauder camp began to stir. The rough, unclean men were jovial, anticipating the demise of the little man who had been a serious irritant to them the past month. They would enjoy watching him suffer. His death would not be quick.
They would glance at the man tied to a post in the centre of their camp. Begrudgingly, they had to admire his spunk. He was already awake and standing, jaw stuck out in defiance, even after the beatings theyíd given him the previous evening. At least heíd give them a show worth their effort before he died.
Suddenly, the prisonerís eyes widened and his jaw dropped open. He stared out disbelievingly beyond the lines of the camp. The marauders turned to see what he was looking at, and, one by one, their jaws also dropped open.
Walking up to their camp were two men. One, they recognised easily. It was Hercules, their prisonerís buddy. Theyíd faced him before, but were prepared this time. After all, they held his best friend prisoner.
Or did they? The other man walking toward their camp was the spitting image of their prisoner. The marauders all turned to stare at the man tied in the middle of their camp. Yep, there he stood. But, wasnít he also walking freely toward them? Something weird was going on. They all turned again as one to face the oncoming visitors.
Hercules had a big smile on his battered face. The demigod appeared to have been in a fight recently. His companion didnít have a mark on him. But, he did have that irritating, smug half-smile theyíd so come to dislike. The same smile as their prisoner. Huh?
"Hi, guys!" the smaller of the two visitors called to the marauders as he and Hercules walked right up to their camp. "Boy, Iíd have thought youíd learned your lesson the last time we met. But then, marauders arenít any brighter than barbarians, are you? I guess Herc and Iíll just have to show you all over again."
Hercules cringed at Orestesí words. Apparently, smart mouths also ran in that family. Oh well, itíd surely make his charade more believable. Orestes put his weight on his right leg and crossed his arms over his chest in a familiar stance. "Have you geniuses figured out yet that youíve got the wrong man?" Then, addressing Iolaus, Orestes yelled, "Hey, fellow, sorry about the confusion. I admire your tailor, but I think heís been copying from statues of heroes. Has he been to Athens? Thereíre statues of me and Herc there. If I were you, Iíd have a serious talk with him. Heís probably charging you too much for unoriginal duds." Orestes giggled. Iolaus was struck dumb. Heíd realised who his look-alike was, and was unable to fathom how his cousin was appearing before him now.
One of the marauders walked out from the camp to face the visitors. "Okay, smarty, if heís the wrong man, how come he knows so much about our battle, huh? Answer me that!"
"Duh!" Orestes answered. "Itís common knowledge now, Aristotle. The exploits of the mighty Hercules and the amazing Iolaus donít stay secret for long. Every bard in Greece is telling the tale. Why shouldnít this guy know the story? Now, why donít you boys admit youíve made a mistake and let the poor guy go." Orestesí eyes narrowed and his voice became deadly serious as he told the band, "Your fight is with ME. Letís see if youíre up to it."
The marauder looked nervously around at his buddies, then faced Orestes and Hercules again. "Okay, then, how come he fights like you do?"
Orestes rolled his eyes. "Hey, anybody that good looking HAS to be talented, too. I mean, really now, it doesnít take that much talent to beat you losers, anyway. I proved it to you once; I guess Iíll have to prove it to you again." With that, Orestes drew his sword. "Come on, hero, show me what youíre made of!"
The marauder roared as he ran at Orestes and Hercules. His band followed suit. Iolaus was completely forgotten for the moment. He could only stand there and watch as his "dead" cousin and his best friend took on the burly ruffians. He didnít know how Orestes stood a change against the seasoned fighters. But, he had to drop his jaw again in surprise as the watched the battle unfold.
Hercules stayed as close to Orestes as he could. However, the little king held his own. He had taken his hasty lessons of the night before to heart. Marauders were flying left and right. He was punching, kicking, dropping to the ground and rolling, tripping men up, and making a general pest of himself. His sword work was not slouchy, either. He and Hercules were easily making their presence known.
The marauders were as cowardly as they had been in their first encounter with the demigod and the mortal. As their numbers became reduced by the two men fighting them, more of the ruffians were deciding to be somewhere else, somewhere good and far away. Off they slunk, their tails between their legs. All except one, that is. One huge coward, deciding he didnít really want to risk getting hurt by the two warriors, turned and charged toward the defenceless man tied to the pole in the centre of the camp.
Orestes saw what was happening, yelled "NOOOOO!" and took off after the cowardly ruffian. Iolaus braced himself for a killing blow as the coward raised his sword above his head, but then watched in awe as his pampered cousin hit the man in the back and bowled him over. The brute came back up swinging his sword in a wide arc. The sword sliced clean through Orestesí torso. Orestes just stood there, looked down at his unharmed body, and then sent a wicked smile toward his attacker. The marauder fainted dead away.
With a laugh, Orestes severed Iolausí bonds with one swipe of his sword. The two cousins stood one moment, staring at each other, and then wrapped their arms around each other in a tight embrace. They were still in that embrace, laughing and pounding each other on the back, when Hercules walked up to them. Iolaus looked his friend in the eye, and that wide, dazzling smile lit up his face. "Herc, this is the rescue to beat all rescues. However did you arrange for Orestes to come help you?" He smiled again at his cousin.
"I had nothing to do with it, Iolaus. This was Orestesí idea. He somehow knew you were in trouble, and managed to talk Hades into letting him come up here to help." Hercules beamed at the king. "Iím sure glad he did, too. I donít know how I could have managed this without his help."
Orestes ducked his head in embarrassment. "It was the least I could do, after all Iolaus has done for me." He looked up into the face of his cousin. "It was payback time, Iolaus. Iím just glad I could help you, for once." Then, he turned to face Hercules. "And, Iím glad I got to fight at your side, Hercules. Thank you for teaching me some of my cousinís moves." The king giggled. "Iím glad to know them, even though I doubt Iíll be using them much in the Elysian Fields." He looked again at Iolaus. "I got them all down pretty well, except one. That Ďflipí thing. I never could get that right."
The three men turned to face the marauder on the ground. He was beginning to stir, and was drunkenly trying to regain his feet. When he finally was able to stand up, Orestes told his companions, "Here, watch this. Iíll try it one more time." Then, the king walked off a few paces, took a deep breath, and ran at the marauder. With a small skip, he threw his arms down to do a handstand right before the ruffian, but instead of wrapping his legs around the manís neck, like Iolaus always did, Orestes banged the man full in the face with his feet. Down went the marauder again. Orestes landed on top of him, and looked sheepishly at his two comrades.
Iolaus doubled over with laughter. Tears were running down his face as he looked at Hercules, and he began laughing all over again. Now he knew why there were bruises and cuts all over Hercís face. He looked as bad for wear as Iolaus did. Hercules and Orestes had to join in the laughter.
The three men were still laughing as they left the marauder camp behind them. They visited and told stories up until dusk, when it came time to say goodbye to Orestes. It was a sad time for each of them. Hercules told the king of Attica how much he enjoyed getting to know him, and then walked off a way so the two cousins could say their farewells.
"Orestes, I wish you didnít have to go back. Niobe Ö and Attica Ö miss you and need you. I miss you. Iím so sorry I failed you during the stag hunt. Iíll regret it for the rest of my life."
Orestes put his hands on his cousinís shoulders. "Iolaus, you have nothing to regret. You tried to warn me, and I wouldnít listen. Iím just so proud that you and Niobe were able to put my peace plan into effect. I feel good knowing that a plan I dreamed of actually came to fruition. I thank you for that. Iím glad I met you, cousin. You changed my life, and Iíll be eternally grateful to you for that. " As Orestesí form began to shimmer and lose substance, he smiled at his cousin. The last words Iolaus heard were, "Take care of yourself and Niobe, cousin. Iím glad I could help you."
Hercules walked up to his friend. "Iolaus, he was a good man, and a good king. Iím glad I got to meet him. Are you going to be all right?"
Iolaus smiled at his best friend. "Yeah, Herc, Iím okay." He looked at the spot where Orestes had been, and repeated his friendís words, "Yes, he was a good man. One of the best. Iíll never forget him. Iím proud to be his cousin."
As the two best friends made their camp that night, it seemed that the stars shown brighter and the breeze was fresher, and they went to sleep believing they could hear Orestesí happy laughter in the rustling of the leaves above them.
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