"Why not admit it?," demanded Iolaus petulantly. "You're just not going to tell me, are you?"
"By Zeus, I think he's got it!" Hercules exclaimed to the heavens, as if his best friend and stalwart companion had just divined the true meaning of life, the universe, and everything.
Iolaus stopped in his tracks, planted his hands firmly on his leather-clad hips, and glowered at the demigod. "And just what is that supposed to mean?"
Hercules grinned but did not slow the pace of his stride. "It means you're right," he said over his shoulder. "I'm not going to tell you. Not until we get to Thebes."
"Oh yeah?" said Iolaus belligerently, then suddenly realized he was talking to his friend's rapidly retreating back. "Oh YEAH!" he said again as he caught up with Hercules. "I thought you said this surprise of yours was on the way to Thebes."
"But you just said it was in Thebes."
"No I didn't."
"Did I?" After a brief moment of deep concentration, Hercules shook his head and said, "Nope. Don't remember that."
"But you JUST SAID--!"
"That you have to wait and see," said Hercules patiently. "Fish all you want, Iolaus, but I'm not going to tell you until we're there and that's that."
"What if I guess what it is?" pressed Iolaus.
"Guess all you want."
"If I guess right, THEN will you tell me?"
"Come on, Herc! Humor me. Please? This is driving me crazy!"
Hercules cast a sidelong glance at his over-eager partner. With a dramatic, long-suffering sigh, he finally nodded. "Alright. Guess."
"And if I'm right, you'll tell me?"
"If you're right ... I'll think about it."
"Take it or leave it."
Iolaus closed his mouth with a snap. He wasn't silent for very long, however, as he suddenly blurted out, "Is it animal, vegetable or mineral?"
"Yes?! What kind of answer is that?"
"The truth," said Hercules absently as the sound of creaking wheels and the squeak of worn leather harness caused him to look over his shoulder. A farmer driving a cartload of mid-summer hay was rapidly overtaking the two travelers.
"It can't be all three," protested Iolaus.
"Sure it can," said Hercules as he stepped to the side of the road to give the vehicle the right of way. "A horse and cart is all three of those things, isn't it?"
Iolaus stepped to the other side of the road and glowered at his friend. "You're telling me this big surprise is a horse and cart?" he demanded as the farmer came abreast of them and continued past.
Before Hercules could reply, the farmer suddenly gave an exclamation and reined in his draft horse. The animal dutifully plodded to a halt in the middle of the road. The farmer, a jovial looking fellow in worn homespun covering a broad frame, turned in his seat to look at the two travelers. He had a ruddy, honest face and dark eyes that widened in recognition as his gaze fell upon the taller of the two.
"By the gods! It's Hercules, isn't it?" he exclaimed excitedly.
"That would be me," said Hercules with a modest little wave.
Iolaus sighed and glanced about for a rock or log or some other inanimate object that would serve as a suitable resting place. It never failed. No matter where they traveled, people always seemed to instantly know who Hercules was. Certainly Iolaus didn't begrudge his friend the praise and adulation of the public - he was, after all, a hero in every sense of the word, not to mention the son of the King of the Gods - but every now and then he wished that someone would remember -
"Huh, what--?" The golden-haired warrior suddenly found his right hand being grabbed and pumped enthusiastically by the farmer.
"It's an honor to meet you, sir!," enthused that earthy gentleman as he continued to pump Iolaus' right hand, clasped firmly between his own meaty paws. "A great honor, sir! The wife and tots won't believe me when I tell 'em I ran into you!"
"Uh..." was all Iolaus was able to manage before the farmer continued his enthusiastic praise.
"I'm from Trilos ... you probably don't remember it; a little village on the eastern bank of the Hellspont?"
"Well ... uh ... yeah, I remember it," said Iolaus, gingerly reclaiming his hand. "Didn't you folks have a problem with a firedrake burning your crops a couple years back?"
"Aye, that'd be us!" cried the farmer. "And if it hadn't been for you and the big guy, here, we'd have lost more than just our crops to that beastie, and that's a fact! I wasn't around at the time - off at the market in Thebes, which is where I'm headed now, truth be told - but I guess it's never too late to say thank you!"
"You're welcome," said Iolaus, feelingly uncharacteristically awkwardly. "But, really, I didn't do much of anything. It was Hercules that stopped the monster."
"But it was you that saved our crops and organized the water brigade that kept our community grain barn from burning! Believe you me, that was a feat in itself, and no less heroic," declared the farmer. "And that's a fact."
"I've been telling him that for years," said Hercules, beaming.
"Sayyy...," said the farmer. "You wouldn't be headin' to Thebes now, would you?" But before the heroes could reply, he slapped his head and exclaimed, "What a dolt I am! Of course you are! Only place this branch of the road leads, ain't it?" He looked anxiously from Hercules to Iolaus and back again. "I don't suppose ... well, I mean ... I'd be honored if you'd let me take you the last 3 miles to the village. Course, I can't offer much more than the back of my cart..."
"That's a very generous offer," said Hercules. "Iolaus?"
"Yeah, sure. Thanks. That'd be great."
"Wonderful! The missus will never believe this!" exclaimed the delighted farmer, and bustled off to the rear of his cart to make room for his honored passengers.
Iolaus grasped the hem of Hercules' vest and tugged him out of the farmer's earshot. "I've got a weird feeling about this." He watched their benefactor spread some of the hay around the back of the cart, presumably to make for more comfortable padding on the rough plank boards. "What if ..." Iolaus swallowed hard, trying to find the words. "I mean, what if he..."
"What is it?" asked Hercules with genuine concern.
"What if he's one of them ... one of the people I ... I mean, Dahak ... duped into thinking I was some kind of redeemer?"
Hercules placed a reassuring hand on his friend's shoulder and said with conviction, "That's all behind you. Behind us," he said. "I think he's exactly what he says he is. A man grateful to you for saving his village, long before Dahak reared his ugly head. Not everyone forgets who you are or what you've done, Iolaus."
"Maybe not," he conceded, although he didn't sound very convinced.
With much fussing and many exclamations of how honored he was to have such distinguished personages sharing his humble cart, the farmer settled the two heroes as comfortably as possible among the hay bails. Once he had assured himself that they were not likely to fall out the back of the conveyance, the farmer once more resumed his seat in front, grabbed the reins and gave them a hearty snap. The plump draft horse seemed to sigh as he was pulled away from grazing the tasty grass of the roadside and reluctantly plodded forward. He stopped for a moment, as if startled by the sudden weight of his load, then strained harder against his harness and was rewarded with the movement of the cart. Much better! Satisfied that all was right with his horsy little world, he settled into a routine plodding rhythm.
Hercules settled back against the stacked hay, the sun warm on his face, and gave a contented sigh. Seated across from him, Iolaus watched the road retreat behind them.
"Hmm?" Iolaus glanced at his friend.
"You look worried." Hercules glanced down the road they had traveled, an almost ethereal vision through the dusty haze raised by the cartwheels.
"Not worried. Well, not exactly." Iolaus drew his knees up against his chest and encircled them with his muscular arms. "Just ... thinking."
Under other circumstances Hercules would not have let such a marvelous straight line pass him by, but he knew Iolaus well - better than any living being in the world - and he recognized the pain and self-doubt within his friend's blue eyes.
"You're thinking about Dahak again."
"That obvious, huh?" Iolaus seemed to hug his knees harder as he stared down at his boots. "I know Dahak is gone, but a part of me ... a part of me wonders." He choked on the words and warred with them as if they were also demons.
Hercules sat in silence and patiently waited. He knew he had to let Iolaus work through his feelings and to bring forth the words that so desperately wanted to be heard.
"How many lives did I destroy?" Iolaus finally blurted, his voice thick with anguish. "How many innocents followed me - followed Dahak - because they thought I was some kind of savior? Because they believed the promises I made that I could bring them to a new world of peace and light? I turned them against their families, their faiths; I caused brother to hate brother...against you..."
"That was Dahak," said Hercules. "Not you, Iolaus. Dahak."
"Part of it was me. I accepted his offer, remember?"
"Because Dahak tricked you into believing it was for the good of humankind. You didn't accept because you wanted Dahak's power to rule the world. You accepted because you thought you could use it to help those who couldn't help themselves."
"And nearly destroyed them." Iolaus reached up and wrapped a hand around the amulet that hung from a leather thong around his neck. The green jade serpent, once whole and gracefully symmetrical, was now broken in half; fractured and jagged. "That's why I wear this. To remind me. So I'll never forget how close I came to breaking the world ... the way Dakak broke this amulet ... and me." He looked up then and finally met Hercules' gaze. "I still can't believe you were able to forgive me for what I did."
"There was nothing to forgive," said Hercules. "We all face temptation, Iolaus. And we all succumb to it at sometime. I never lost my faith in you; and you never gave up fighting Dahak once you realized what he was trying to do."
"Fat lot of good it did until you came along to kick his butt."
"I couldn't have done it without you."
"You wouldn't have had to do it if not for me," said Iolaus bitterly. "One moment of weakness and an entire lifetime of helping people goes down the cistern."
"You're the only one who believes that," said Hercules gently.
"Oh yeah? I'll bet you my last dinar there are half a dozen people in Thebes who still think I'm a demon of some kind."
"You spent your last dinar in Hellspont."
"You know what I mean, and don't try to change the subject!" groused Iolaus. "I tell you, Herc, you and friend farmer here are probably the only people in all of Greece who don't think I'm some kind of devil incarnate. If I had a dinar for every - hey! What's that?"
The cart was rounding the last turn in the road that would take them down a gentle sloping hill into Thebes. Iolaus knew the countryside like the back of his hand - every rock, tree, den and warren, right down to the scraggliest little patch of scrub. As a boy, he would lose himself for hours - sometimes days -- in the fields and woods that offered more comfort and solace than in his mother's tiny, one roomed hut. He ranged further and further into the countryside as loneliness and rebellion isolated him from his estranged family until, one day, he simply forgot to turn around and continued going.
To Iolaus' eyes, long familiar and comfortable with the terrain, the small pylon at the bend of the road stuck out like a sore thumb. With gravity assisting the descent of the overlaiden cart down the incline toward town, the object was already several feet behind them before it caught Iolaus's fascination.
"What's what?" asked Hercules innocently.
"That," said Iolaus, nodding toward the rapidly dwindling protuberance.
"THAT!" Iolaus looked at Hercules with surprise. "Don't tell me you don't see it?"
With a strangled cry of frustration, Iolaus hopped off of the moving cart and landed with cat-like grace on the road behind it. He coughed a bit and waved away a cloud of dust before marching resolutely back the way they'd come toward the object in question.
The stone stood like a sentry at the bend of the road, presenting a stark outline against a storyscroll-blue sky. The closer Iolaus came to the enigma, the more the hairs on the back of his neck began to prickle. He had the strongest and most unsettling feeling that the stone was watching him. There was something about it's dark composition and shape that reminded him of monuments he'd seen in ancient cities to fallen heroes. It had a clean edge and a stark outline that drew the eye and demanded attention; and reverence.
Without realizing it, Iolaus held his breath as he approached the memorial - for memorial it >must< be, to inspire such awe simply by being -- and wondered to himself what fallen hero it honored with such reverence. He moved around the stone toward its western face, the direction that legend proclaimed lead to the Elysian fields and a hero's reward, and suddenly stopped as if he had been slapped.
The stone looked back at the astonished Iolaus - with his own graven likeness. The image was simply yet beautifully carved in repose above a representation of the Sword of Veracity - the Sword of Truth. Beneath the sword, almost lost within the soft green grass that carpeted the hillside, was the symbol of the amulet Iolaus wore against his breast - whole and unblemished. The monument conveyed more in its image than any written word could hope to evoke, and so stood in mute but powerful testament to the memory of the hero it honored.
Iolaus felt rather than saw Hercules standing behind him. "You did this," he said through a voice thick with emotion.
Iolaus turned to look at his friend, his eyes bright with the threat of tears. "I ... I don't know what to say. Herk, it's ... it's... WRONG!" Iolaus threw up his hands and shook his head in frustration. "I don't deserve this!"
"You do deserve this," said Hercules firmly. "No one deserves it more!"
"This isn't about Dahak, Iolaus. It's about you! Who you were all of your life; who you were the day you died - the day you gave your life without hesitation to save others. The day you gave up your place in The Light and risked your SOUL to warn me, and save the ENTIRE WORLD!" Hercules reached out and clasped his friend's shoulders with urgency, as if he could will him to understand what he was trying to say. "Iolaus, don't you understand? You're not just 'a' hero ... you're my hero!"
"Your ...?" Stunned, Iolaus swallowed the words as if they were stones. He blinked at his friend's earnest and honest expression. "You ... you really mean that, don't you?" he whispered, astonished.
"I've never been more serious in my life," said Hercules. "Every day we're together, you risk your life by my side to help others - without my advantage of strength. Knowing that you're mortal; and yet you keep fighting. You're the best friend I've ever had. More than that. You're my brother in all things. I ..." The demigod sighed, throwing up his own hands in frustration. "I just can't put it into words." He glanced at the memorial. "I couldn't then and I still can't." A tiny smile touched his ruggedly handsome features then and he said, "There are hundreds of these, you know."
"What?" Iolaus turned and looked at the monument to a lifetime of good works and stammered, "HUNDREDS?"
"All over Greece. And Italia. And Gaul." There was a mischievous twinkle in Hercules' eyes as he said, off-handedly, "There would have been more, but I was interrupted by these four ugly guys on rabid horses trying to bring about an Apocalypse."
"But ... but that means we're going to be running into this things -"
"-just about everywhere we go," concluded Hercules. "Yup. That's what I figure. And speaking of going," he continued as he placed an arm around Iolaus's shoulders and drew him away from the stone, "We're already an hour late for the festivities."
"Festivities? What festivities?" stammered Iolaus as Hercules patiently lead him back onto the road and steered him in the direction of Thebes.
"Your welcome home festival," said Hercules smugly. Even a mile out of town they could hear the first strains of joyous music and the rising swell of cheering voices. "Sounds like our farmer friend has already announced the arrival of the festival's Honoree..."
11 December 1999
Carolyn "Cal" Lynn
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