The news came, as so much news did, from overheard tavern gossip. Hercules noticed Iolaus stiffen and swiftly look over to the corner where two soldiers sat at table, their helmets laid aside and their military cloaks draped over backs of their chairs.
"Well, at least the old bastard was willing to die at the head of his troops. Not like these effete Athenian fops!"
"Yeah - not too many generals around any more like old Skouros!" the speaker took a mighty swig from his winecup.
"Iolaus - what is it?" asked Hercules, but his friend was on his feet and heading for the corner already. Hercules followed.
"Excuse me, sergeant," Iolaus addressed the older of the two soldiers. "I couldn't help overhearing. You were talking of General Skouros?"
The sergeant wiped his hand across his mouth. "Yes, we were, young fellow."
"Did I hear you correctly? He's dead?"
"That's right. A little over a week ago. Died like a proper general, he did - leading a troop of us against those nancy-boys from Thrace! We took those lily-livered scum in the end, but the general got himself a javelin thrust through the neck and died on the field. A good death - clean and quick. Ares must have favored him!"
The second soldier took another gulp from his winecup. "Let me tell you something - he was my kind of general! I don't like an officer who thinks he's too fine to mix it up in battle with the common soldiers, 'cause he'll mess up his lovely hair. I'd rather follow a gruff old bastard like Skouros, who'd be first across the field to get at the enemy ...".
"Oh yeah," muttered Iolaus, "that was Skouros".
"You knew him?" asked the other soldier.
"Yes." Most uncharacteristically, Iolaus snapped his mouth shut on this single word. Hercules shot him a look, and Iolaus gave back a reluctant smile before turning back to the two soldiers, who were now looking at him curiously.
"Tell me, sergeant - was word of Skouros' death sent to his family?"
Both soldiers looked blank.
"He had a family?" asked the sergeant. "Never heard about that".
A short, mirthless laugh came from Iolaus. "Why am I not surprised?"
The sergeant looked rather abashed. "I'm sorry, sir. We didn't know. General didn't ever say nothing about a wife and kids. We always just figured he was married to the army, like most of us".
"Well, you're right about that, sergeant. Never mind - I know the general's family, and I'll take word to them. And here - " Iolaus dug into his pouch and tossed a ten-dinar coin on the table " - buy a jug of wine with that, for you and your comrade, and drink to his memory. That's what he'd like!"
The coin disappeared into the sergeant's fist. "Thank you, sir. He would, indeed, sir! And thanks for taking the word to the general's family! Please give them our respects and tell them that General Skouros was a great man and will be remembered!"
"I'll do that".
Iolaus was silent as he led the way back to their own table, stopping to instruct the inkeeper to bring a jug of wine. Hercules wasn't sure what to make of his expression. It certainly wasn't grief, or even surprise.
"Iolaus - I'm really sorry about your father."
"Well ...". He let it trail off as the wine arrived and Iolaus poured a cup for each of them.
"There's no need to be sorry, Herc. I'm sure not". Iolaus sampled the wine and nodded. "Good stuff. Here - we'll do the proper thing and toast my father's memory. Here's to Skouros - may Hades grant him everything he deserves!"
Hercules hesitated a moment, then touched his cup to Iolaus' and drank.
Iolaus laughed a little. "I guess I should be angry, or regretful, or something, but the truth is, Herc, I really don't give a damn."
"I know he wasn't a very good father to you - "
"Herc, he wasn't a father to me at all, to be honest. And he wasn't much of a husband to my mother, either. We all got used to him not being around, so this won't be much of a change, really." He took another drink. "Actually, this is going to come as a big relief to my mother. For an awfully long time there's been this poet hanging around her, wanting to marry her, but my mother's got these strong beliefs about marriage vows. I pointed out to her years ago that under the law, since Skouros had been gone for more than seven years, she was a free woman and could marry again. But that just got her angry, for some reason - the gods only know why! Anyway, she IS a free woman now. I'll leave for Thebes tomorrow and give her the news. I think she'll be glad to hear it."
"Yeah, I suppose so." Hercules rolled the wine around in his cup. "It's all a shame, though".
Iolaus looked at his friend and a genuine smile crossed his face. "Herc - you're a good friend. But if you're worrying about me grieving secretly or something, you can stop. Honest!" He shrugged. "It's funny - if he'd been like some fathers and beaten up on me, I'd still be angry. But it wasn't like that at all. He never laid a hand on me. It was like I simply wasn't there. Like none of us were, really, except for my mother. He just wasn't interested, especially after he decided that I would never make a fighting man."
Hercules snorted into his winecup. "Boy was he mistaken!"
"Yeah, well ... Anyway, it doesn't matter. Now my mother is free to remarry and that'll make her happy. She deserves to be happy. And that, in turn, makes me happy."
"As for Skouros - well, he's dead. I'm alive. Enough said. Cheers!"
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