Pausing by the door, Alcmene glanced in at the two occupants of the room. One teen lay motionless; his curly pale hair framing and even paler face. The crisp white sheet lay smooth and wrinkle-free across his body, reminding her of a death shroud. Only the faint raise and fall of the young man’s chest marked him as a living man. A shudder ran through her body at the corpse-like image he portrayed.
The second teen, slightly younger than the first, sat on a plain wooden chair near the bed. He was hunched forward, long brown hair hiding his facial features. Though she could not see them, she knew his eyes held the remnants of tears.
Guilt. His body conveyed this emotion as sure as if it had been tattooed on his forehead.
Alcmene started through the doorway, hesitated and then withdrew. She had nothing more to offer the grieving boy nor the still boy. With an inaudible sigh, she retraced her footsteps down the hallway. Only time could hope to heal the mental and physical sufferings of the two teens in the room.
“What a great day it is,” the blonde hunter exclaimed as he bounced down the hard-packed dirt road. “The sun is shining. The birds are singing. My stomach is full…”
“Not to mention your ego,” his walking companion added. “I saw you with Lucinda last night and I heard the tales you were telling to her. My great-aunt always claimed that curly hair was the sign of a man, as she put it, ‘who told one too many alterations of reality.’ The curly the hair, the more the individual was likely to alter reality.” Hercules cocked his head and studied his traveling companion. “I would say, looking at your mop, that your name might not even be Iolaus.”
Iolaus threw his friend a dirty look. “Ha, ha very funny Herc. This wouldn’t happen to be the same great-aunt that was known to ride her cows into town in the buff would it?”
“One and the same,” Hercules replied with a big grin on his face. “And by the way, she always claimed she did that cause she had nothing to hide.”
“Yeah,” the young hunter muttered under his breath, “but after a certain age something’s are meant to be hidden.”
Hercules and Iolaus stopped dead in their tracks and stared at each other. Each boy suppressed a shudder as the imagine of Hercules’ very old, very wizened and very nude great-aunt astride a cow flashed through their brains.
“Well,” Iolaus remarked as he turned from his friend and started down the tree-lined road again. “If I had been hungry, I am not now.”
The demi-god nodded and followed after the hunter. His Aunt had been a sight… a sight that made the eyes sore.
The two young men, in their teens, continued their journey in companionable silence. The team made an interesting study in contrast. One tall, the other short. One fair, the other darker. One moved with economy of motion, the other bounced like a tightly wound coil. One spoke slow and thoughtful, the other chattered like a squirrel. Yet, for all they were different, their mutual set of beliefs bound them together tighter than spring; loyalty; bravery; concern for their fellow man; and a strong sense of right and wrong.
As the day progressed, the sky grew ominous with the threat of the storm looming on the horizon. The wind began to pick up and the leaves on the trees started rustling in a most frantic manner. In the distance, the young men could hear the low rumbling of thunder. They kept an eye out for shelter knowing that there was a storm brewing.
“We’re going to need help, if we hope to get them out of there alive,” Philas stated factually. “Best I head into town while you wait here.”
Solemous nodded his concurrence. His gimpy leg, not to mention his blindness, would just slow his companion down. Solemous moved to the front of the cave and listened as his friend rode the donkey back down the hillside. When the sound of the hoof-beats was no more, Solemous cocked his head towards the sky. It was definitely going to storm, and a bad one at that. The wisdom of the ages had taught him to read the weather quite accurately even if he could not see the sky. That and the fact his bum knee always ached painfully before a good storm. It was throbbing now like a drum; this was going to be a big storm. Grimacing, he hobbled back into the cave.
Who would have guessed this morning when the local schoolteacher decided to take his class on a field trip that it would end in such tragedy? The teacher and his twelve students had set out in the bright, warm, early morning sunshine to study rock formations.
Gregata, the schoolteacher, had come across this cave a few months ago and noted it had some interesting geology formations. He had made a mental note to take his students to visit the cave some time. When they started studying the earth in class, Gregata thought it was the perfect time to visit the cavern. The parents of the school children had been delighted when Gregata suggested the outing; they thought it was great for the teacher to do more than just sit in the classroom with the children and lecture.
The morning had dawned bright and clear and Gregata and the children had set off in high spirits on their adventure.
Solemous lowered himself onto a rock with a sigh. If only Gregata had known a bit more about rock structure himself, though to be honest, most people would not recognize the inherent danger that this very pretty but very dangerous cave contained. Solemous knew, but his knowledge had not come cheap. It had come at the expensive of thirty years of his life, his eyesight and his crippled leg.
Solemous, as a young boy, had been sold into slavery by his father. The bitter feelings he used to harbor at the hand he was dealt in life and long since vanished. He had learned early on that holding a grudge did not bring one happiness, contentment or peace and so he had forgiven his father for what he had done. Who knows, if he had been in his father’s place, with 8 children to feed, a dead wife, and no job, maybe he too would have been tempted to sell off his oldest child to the slave market. Solemous had been a strong boy in his youth and had brought an excellent price; money which would feed and cloth the rest of his family for a long while.
The old man stretched his wizened leg out in front of him and unconsciously rubbed it as his mind tripped down memory lane. He had passed through a number of hands until he finally came to be the slave of a mine owner. The next twenty years of his life were spent digging ore out of a hole in the ground. It was hard, brutal work, but he was young and strong and his body quickly grew accustom to it while his mind found a place where it could go to keep his sanity intact.
He liked to think he had earned the respect of his mine master. Why else would the man have been willing to give him a chance after Solemous lost his eyesight in a freak accident. By all rights, his master should have shot him, like a horse with a broken leg. A blind slave was of no use; and if the truth be told, the first year after losing his sight, Solemous wished he had been shot. But after a while, he found he could still be of use and soon it became a matter or pride to regain his independence. He supposed he had a stubborn streak in him, rather like that mule he had ridden up here.
Within a year of his accident, Solemous was back full time in the mine. He may have lost his eyesight but the rest of his senses sharpened accordingly, and took over. With his other heighten senses, he developed an uncanny ability to read the rocks in a cave; to know which ones were stable and which ones held death. He could also predict what type and how well a particular vein was going to pan out. When asked how he did it, Solemous could not exactly say; touch, hearing, smell, but however it was, he was accurate.
He let his mind’s focus return to the here and now. Extending his senses, he analyzed the cave again. Yes, it started out solid, but about 200 feet from the entrance the rock became deceiving. He was sure to the eye it looked solid, but Solemous knew it was really riddled with pockets and fissures and was merely waiting for the opportunity to collapse; and that opportunity had arisen in the visitation of Gregata and the children.
In his mind’s eye, he reconstructed what might have occurred. The children and their teacher had probably entered the cave and had been awed by the initial formations of quartz. Perhaps a stray beam of sunlight had penetrated the shaft and set the quartz formations ablaze with light. Oh, what a site that must have been, Solemous thought as he let his hand wander over the chunk of quartz rock he was resting upon.
When that novelty wore off, the troop had probably progressed deeper into the cave with the oldest children being entrusted to hold the torches. Children were never quiet Solemous knew, and the rotten ceiling had probably reverberated with the sounds of their chattering voices. Little spits of sand no doubt fell from the unstable ceiling, but the children and their teacher probably took no note of them.
Solemous heaved himself from the rock and moved deeper into the cave as he played this scenario out in his brain. His hands sought out the rocks in front of him. Yes, probably about here they stopped to examine this particularly interesting formation. He could see the children running their eager little hands across the smooth rock surface. Solemous was willing to bet that one child had squealed in delight and that was the beginning of the end. No doubt, the sharp ears of the teacher had noted that the child’s squeal was echoed back from the dark maw of the cave.
Moving round the bend further into the cave, Solemous continued with his speculations. Gregata had probably gathered all the children around him and moved a few steps deeper into the death trap. Right about here he had stopped. He had admonished them all to be quiet and when it was quite still he had let-out a deep bellowing ‘hello’. Within a few seconds, his hello was returned to him a thousand-fold. The children’s eyes had grown large and round as children’s eyes are apt to do when confronted with a new situation. Gregata, no doubt pleased with the reaction he achieved had let forth with another bellow, heedless to the subtle shifting of the rocks and the ever-increasing amount of sand filtering from the ceiling. When the sound faded out, one by one the children where encouraged to try out the echo chamber. Within a short time, chaos ensued and all the children were probably shouting and laughing.
A tear ran down the old man’s wrinkled face. Yes, he’d bet the children were laughing and having a good time when the roof had collapsed upon their tiny little heads.
He laid a wizened hand against the jumble of rocks that blocked off the cave. How many had survived? Were they now trapped under boulders larger than their bodies, the life being crushed out of them? Perhaps others were partially trapped; a limb pinned to the mother earth. He felt even sorrier for these children, alone in the dark, slowly dying. And what of Gregata? Was he alive and able to offer encouragement and bolster the children’s sprits; reassure them that help was on the way?
Solemous sighed. What could he do? He was a blind, gimpy, old man.
His thoughts turned back to this morning, when he had limped into the market to purchase his weekly supplies, and had heard talk of where the children had gone. The more he heard, the more concerned he grew. The cave, of which they spoke, he knew of it, and it’s hidden dangers.
He had sought out his old friend Philas and expressed his concerns. Philas was one of the few men in the town that knew of his past life and had taken his concerns seriously. The two did not want to alarm the parents heedlessly and had agreed that they would go and quietly bring the teacher and his pupils home, hopefully with none being the wiser of the danger the teacher had unwitting afflicted upon his students. They had taken Philas mule to make better time; Solemous riding on top, his friend leading the oft-times stubborn beast.
A few steps into the cavern and Solemous had known there had been a cave in. The rocks still sung with their misdeed, and were waiting for a chance to do more damage. It hadn’t taken long to find the wall of newly fallen boulders. Philas had wanted to try to remove the rocks, but Solemous had stopped him. The roof had to be shored up that is what he had told Philas. To try to remove the jumble of boulders that blocked off the cave, without bracing the ceiling, would only lead to another collapse.
Philas had agreed, knowing if anyone understood caves, it was Solemous and so it had been decided; Solemous would wait while Philas returned to town for help and supplies.
Solemous sighed. Frustrated by having nothing to do but wait, he ran his hands down the jumble of rocks that blocked the cave again. Funny, he thought he felt an air current on his right hand.
His careful fingers probed and he discovered a small opening in the rock wall. Leaning closer, he used both hands to map out the fissure. It was small, but Solemous was sure it went all the way through as he could feel the air currents as they passed through the narrow slot.
He wanted to shout into the opening ‘Hello are you there?’ but knew that would be stupid and might cause a further cave in, so he contented himself with remaining quiet and listening. Straining his hearing to the max, he thought he could make out the sound of a small child crying. It tore at his heart and his resolve weakened. Knowing what he was about to do was not the best idea, but driven to try to comfort the child, he whispered ‘Hello, can you hear me? Are you hurt?’ He waited in tense silence for a reply.
Solemous was shocked when an adult male voice replied. Gregata!
“Is somebody there? Can you hear me? Please, please say you can hear me,” the voice cried out in desperation.
“I can hear you, but for all our safety you must whisper and we must keep this short. What is your situation?”
Gregata lowered his voice and replied, “It’s bad. Some of the children are trapped under debris, and my leg is pinned under a rock. I can’t move. You must help get the children out,” he pleaded, his voice raising in desperation again. “I was so stupid, so stupid,” the man moaned.
“Enough of that,” Solemous admonished, realizing that Gregata was losing his grip. “Help is on its way. In the meantime, is there anything you need?”
Gregata tried to pull himself together, for the children’s sake. “Water and torches would be good. Our few remaining torches are burning down.”
“Ok. Listen carefully. You must tell the children to remain calm and most of all quiet. I will go fill some water skins and cut a few more torches. I’ll bring them back here and pass them to you through this hole.”
“I understand,” Gregata answered, though his voice indicated he was anything but happy being left alone again. Even a disembodied voice was better to talked to then the silence of the cave.
Solemous nodded to himself. It was the best he could do. He slowly climbed to his feet and made his way back to the cave entrance. The wind hit him full blast in the face. The storm would hit soon. But storm or no storm, he had a mission, something a crippled old man could do to help his fellow man. Grabbing the two water skins that they had drank empty on the way to the cave, he limped into the murky light.
“Look Herc. Up ahead. Isn’t that a cave in the hillside?”
Hercules looked in the direction his companion was pointing. It indeed looked to be a cave.
The boys picked up there pace, hoping to reach the cave before the rains, that threatened to pour from the heavens, broke loose. Breaking into a run, the boys loped towards the inviting opening. They barely made it inside when the first heavy raindrops fell from the sky. Soon, the rain was a deluge, cutting visibility outside to near zero.
Iolaus peered out of the dry cave into the storm. “Boy, we were lucky. It is miserable out there.”
Hercules peered over the shorter man’s shoulder nodding his head in agreement.
“Well, I’m hungry. What do we have left to eat?” the compact man inquired as he turned his back on the storm and walked over to where they had dumped their packs on the dirt floor.
“There is some rabbit left from breakfast I think and perhaps a loaf of bread,” Hercules replied as turning from the mouth of the cave and letting his gaze wander across the interior. It was certainly an interesting place. The quartz formations were very spectacular.
“This place is fabulous,” the demi-god marveled.
Iolaus grunted and nodded his head, even though Hercules knew his traveling companion had not even glanced up from his search through the packs for food. Iolaus’ stomach ruled all and when he was on the hunt for food, a God could materialize under his nose and he doubted his short friend would even notice.
Leaving Iolaus to his rummaging, Hercules wandered deeper into the cave to explore. About half way back, he came upon a particularly interesting rock formation. He stopped to run his hand over rocks, marveling at the cool smoothness, almost as if it had been polished.
With his mind still on the rock, Hercules meandered around the corner and came face to face with the cave-in. It brought him up short and refocused his attention. He studied the rockslide and came to the conclusion that it had happened recently.
Deciding he needed more light, Hercules turned and yelled back towards the mouth of the cave. “Iolaus, I need some light back here. Is there anything up there to make a torch?”
Behind the demi-gods back, unnoticed, sand trickled down from the ceiling. Impatient, he strode back toward the cave’s opening.
Grumbling, Iolaus stuffed a large piece of rabbit in his mouth and he rose to look around for a torch. Near the mouth of the cave he found a ready-made torch. ‘Handy,’ he thought. ‘Probably left by some lovers who used the cave for a secret tryst.’ Grabbing the wooden stake and the tinder from their pack, Iolaus’ hurried towards the back of the cave. He nearly ran over Hercules who was quickly striding in his direction.
Untangling their limbs, Iolaus glared at Hercules. “What’s the matter. Wasn’t I fast enough? Whadda ya find?”
“Not sure. Come on.”
The two young men hurried back around the corner, drawing up sharply at the jumble of rocks that defined cave in.
“Looks recent, don’t you think?”
Iolaus lit the torch and examined the wall. “Hmmm,” was his only immediate comment. As he moved to his right, the torch illuminated the small hole in the wall. Bending closer, he was startled back on his heels to hear a disembodied voice float out of the opening.
Gregata was getting anxious. It had seemed like an eternity since Solemous had last talked to him. He was desperate. The last torch had burned out and he and the children were surround by the cold, inky darkness. The younger students were starting to panic even though the older ones were doing their best to calm the little ones fears.
‘A lot of good I can do,’ the teacher thought bitterly, ‘with my leg crushed under this stupid boulder.’ What concerned him even more were the periodic blackouts he had begun experiencing. He feared one of these times he would pass out and not wake up. Panic was setting in and when he heard the new voices outside the little tunnel that was their only opening to the world, he cried out “Please, is someone out there?”
Hercules quickly crouched along side of Iolaus and they held the torch aloof trying to see better.
“Hello, is somebody there?” Hercules inquired.
“Yes, yes. We are here. We’re trapped. Are you the help?” the disembodied voice replied.
Misunderstanding what the teacher had said, Hercules replied “Yes, we can help.”
Iolaus cocked his head to one side and studied the small hole. “You know Herc. I think I could fit thorough that opening with a little work. Maybe I could work on the cave-in from the inside while you work on the outside.” The demigod agreed with the idea.
Iolaus eyed the hole again and then stripped off his belts and vest. It was going to be a tight squeeze at best and he could not afford to waste an inch of space. Reaching his arms through first, he squirmed and wiggled until his got his shoulders through the tight opening. Holding his breath and using his arms as leverage, he pulled his chest and waist through. The rocks scraped painfully at his bare skin and the blonde hunter knew he’d be sore in the morning. Giving one final mighty heave, he yanked the rest of his body through the hole and landed with an ‘oomph’ on the floor. He took a moment to catch his breath before struggling to his feet.
“Hey Herc. Send me through a torch will ya.”
As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he could start to make out objects. His inspection was cut short by a warm feeling on the back of his head.
“Hey buddy. Watch out. You nearly set my head on fire,” Iolaus complained, waiting until the torch fell to the ground before picking up the unlit end.
Holding the torch aloft, Iolaus resurveyed his surrounding. Huddled in a compact group near a large boulder, were six children, ages 13 through 6 he’d guess. They were disheveled, bleeding and obviously scared. As he moved towards the rock, an adult came into view. One leg was in plainly visible. The other was totally out-of-sight under the rock.
The young hunter continued to cautiously make his way across the rock strewn cavern floor towards the group. The torch glinted off some reflective surface on the floor and Iolaus stopped and looked down with curiosity. Bile rose in the back of his throat and he turned his head to the side and retched. A pool of dark, red blood had seeped out from under the large rock that lay in his path. Iolaus forced his eyes to look at the site again. Unfortunately, his second look only confirmed his worst fears. A small foot stuck out from under the boulder, confirming that indeed that the rock had crushed a small child to death.
Giving the rock a wide berth, Iolaus continued towards the huddled mass of children, refusing to look down at the floor again for fear of what else he might see. He reached the group and six sets of eyes, fear reflecting in the torchlight, peered up at him.
Iolaus swallowed his own fears and flashed one of his mega-watt smiles at the children. “It is going to be all right. My friend and I will get you out of here.”
Focusing his attention on a stocky boy whom looked to be 12 or so Iolaus asked, “What is your name?”
“Well Tomin. Could you hold this torch for me while I take a look this fellow?”
“He’s our teacher,” the stocky boy replied as he took the torch.
Iolaus crouched down on the dirt floor next to the teacher who was lying much to still for Iolaus’ liking. Fumbling, he placed his hand on the man’s throat and felt for a pulse. He was much relieved to find a faint, but steady beat.
Iolaus squatted back on his haunches and surveyed the situation. There was no way he was going to be able to move the boulder off the teacher by himself. It was too large. Besides, even if he could move the rock, the basic training in First Aid he received at Chiron’s Academy told him to move the rock might be a mistake--- a fatal mistake. Iolaus knew there was a major artery that was located in the leg, a vessel that was probably being crushed closed by the boulder. To remove the rock more than likely would cause the teacher to bleed to death without immediate medical attention; medical assistance that Iolaus could not supply.
“Mister? Can you help our friends? They are stuck.”
Iolaus turned his attention to the new voice that addressed him. It belonged to a girl, no more than 7, who had a big bruise forming on her cheek.
“How many of there are you?” Iolaus queried the little girl.
“We started out with twelve, and there are six of us here, plus Katlin, Cara, and Fralin. I don’t know where Georgous, Taleous, or Yawlen are,” she said with great seriousness.
Iolaus had a good idea where at least one of the missing children were, but he was not about to say. “Show me where the rest are,” he said taking the torch from Tomin in one hand and the little girl’s hand in the other.
The little girl led him across the floor to a medium size rock.
“This is Katlin. Her arm is stuck.”
Iolaus handed the torch back to Tomin who had trailed along behind them with the rest of the children. Gesturing for Tomin to hold the torch closer, Iolaus knelt down next to the girl on the ground. Her arm was pinned between two boulders. The girl did not make a sound but looked at Iolaus pleading with her big brown eyes.
Iolaus rocked back on his heels. Again, as with the teacher, he was reluctant to move the rocks until he had medical supplies. “Katlin, I promise we are going to get you out soon. But for the moment I need you to be a brave girl. I need to get some, ah, tools to help me free your arm. So can you be courageous and sit tight here for a few more minutes?”
Katlin shook her head yes, her big brown eyes never leaving Iolaus face.
“Good girl. I need to go check on the rest of your friends but I promise we’ll be back soon.” Hating to leave her alone in the darkness again, but needing the torch to look for the rest of the children, he reluctantly moved on.
The other two children were unconscious, and like Katlin, pinned in some fashion by fallen debris. Again, Iolaus was afraid to try to move the rocks that held them down without some sort of medical help for them. He also feared he would not be able to move some of the rocks by himself and would only make matters worse if he tried and failed.
Heaving a sigh, the young blonde decided his best course was to leave things as they were for the time being. Taking the torch back from Tomin, he gathered the remaining children around him.
“My friend Hercules is on the other side of that wall. He is very strong and is going to clear the rocks away so we can get out. I am going to need your help though,” Iolaus told them. He thought if he involved the children, it might keep their minds off their fears.
“First, are any of you seriously hurt?”
Six solemn heads shook no.
“Good. I want everyone to pair up, older children with younger children.”
The children shuffled about until there were three pairs of children.
“Excellent. Now, I want you to hold onto your partner’s hands and don’t let go. We’re going to move deeper into the cave, away from the wall, so when Hercules knocks it down, no one gets hit by a stray rock.” Iolaus immediately regretted saying that when he thought of the child he saw crushed earlier.
Iolaus led the children back to a small indentation in the cave’s wall. ‘This looks like a good place,’ he thought to himself.
“Ok, everyone here? Good. First, I want everyone to sit on the floor. Next, let go of your partner’s hand and draw your knees up to your chest like this,” Iolaus instructed as he flopped to the floor and demonstrated what he meant.
“Good job,” he said when they had all complied. “Now when I tell you, I want you to tuck your chin against your knees and cover your head and neck with your arms, like this,” he demonstrated again. “Pretend you are a turtle, hiding your head in your shell,” his muffled voiced stated from underneath his arms.
The children quickly assumed the position Iolaus had just shown them.
“Most excellent. Your are all very quick learners. You must make your teacher proud. Ok, now remember, when I tell you to, I want you to assume the turtle position. Got it? Great.”
The blonde hunter reached out and tousled the hair of the child nearest him. “What courageous children you are. Now, I need you to brave and wait here while I go and check on your teacher. I will leave the torch here with you. Tomin,” he said as he handed over the torch to the boy. “You are keeper of the flame.”
Tomin took the torch with a serious expression on his face. “Yes sir,” he answered.
“I’ll be back in a little bit,” Iolaus said as he made his way back into the darkness. Using his hands, he felt along the wall back to the opening to the outer cave.
“Herc? Hey Herc? Can you send through another torch?” he inquired into the hole.
Hercules, who had started to move some of the small rocks out of the way, stopped his efforts when he heard Iolaus’ voice. “What?” he inquired as he moved closer to the opening.
“A torch. I could use another torch.”
“Ok. What’s the situation in there?”
“Bad Herc, real bad,” he said as he quickly brought his friend up to speed.
Solemous was soaked. It took him a lot longer to locate the stream once the rain had started. The sound of the pounding rain disguised the sound of the running water.
‘Sheesh,’ he thought. ‘I should just stand here with the lids off these containers. The rate, at which this rain is falling, they would soon be filled.’
He stopped once again to mark the trail back to the cave. Wouldn’t do to make it all the way to the stream only to be unable to find his way back to the cave. People often wondered how he managed to navigate in a world he could not see. Forethought was the key to success. Up front planning, such as marking the trail like he was doing, was a key. Sloppiness, whether a person was blind or not, was not the key to success.
After what seemed like an eternity, Solemous finally arrived at the stream's edge. Carefully sampling a taste of the water, he decided it was fit for human consumption and went about filling his water sacks.
He straightened his crooked back and mused to himself, they still needed more torches. Maybe if he broke a branch or two off the trees near the mouth of the cave he had felt as he went by, they would do for torches. Perhaps, being in the lee of the cave had kept them a little drier than the rest of the trees. Deciding this was the best course of action, he flung the water bags over his shoulder and started counting his paces back to the cave. Five paces straight ahead, tree on his right. Yes, there was his mark. Left turn, 20 more paces, tree on his left. Yes, again his mark. Slowly but surely he made his way back to the mouth of the cave.
Solemous was surprised to hear the sound of an ax chopping wood as he approached the cave. Could Philas be back with help already? Had he been gone that long? The sharp crack of a branch splintering, followed by a muffled thud told Solemous that the axe had accomplished its’ task. Solemous’ sharp ears detected the receding sounds of footsteps into the cave.
Standing out in the rain wasn’t going to accomplish anything so he carefully picked his way back up to the entrance.
Hercules carried the new torches he had just cut back into the cave. He lit one torch and left it on his side of the cave-in and passed the other through the hole to Iolaus.
“Got it? Good. I’m going to start serious work on the wall. Do you have the children safely tucked away?”
“Yeah. I’m going to stay near the teacher and try to shield him as best as I can.”
“Ok. I’ll give you a few minutes to get into position then it’s time for the wall to come tumbling’ down,” Hercules said with confidence. After all, he was the son of Zeus. Tearing down a wall like this was child’s play for him.
Iolaus took the torch and hurried back to where the children sat huddled. He took the torch from Tomin and shoved it into the dirt.
“Ok my brave soldiers. Time to assume the turtle position.”
Heads tucked and arms wrapped around to protect them.
“Great job. Now stay like that until I tell you. Soon we’ll all be free.”
Iolaus made his way back to where Katlin was and left another torch stuck in the dirt by her. “It will alright soon honey”, he told her. Finally, he made his way over to the teacher who was still unconscious. He jammed the last torch into the sand. He thought they were far enough back from the wall to escape any tumbling rocks, but just in case he would wait here to hopefully deflect any stray boulders.
‘Come on Herc. Hurry up and knock the wall down,’ Iolaus thought as he hunched over in the dark, dank cave.
“You my friend, are the first to go,” Hercules mumbled as he wrapped his strong, young arms around the boulder. The steel, grey rock groaned but shook loose from its foundation. Hercules pushed it behind him towards the mouth of the cave.
“What are you doing?” a voice from behind him screeched.
Hercules spun and instinctually dropped into a defensive crouch. He slowly straightened when he realized that the voice came from a very old, lame and … blind man!
“I’m sorry old timer. I didn’t know anyone was behind me.”
“What are you doing?” the old man demanded again.
“As you can see,” he started then instantly regretted his choice of words. “I mean you, ah, well, there are these people trapped behind this cave in and I am going to knock this wall down and get them out.”
“No, no, no. You can’t do that,” the old man said gesturing wildly. “You’ll kill them. The roof is going to fall in and kill them all.”
Hercules glanced up at the ceiling. It looked rock solid. He looked back at the old, blind man. In what he hoped was a kind voice, but definitely tinged with arrogance, he replied, “The roof appears solid to me.”
“Oh sure, it may appear solid to you boy, but it is not. It is just waiting to cave in.”
“I don’t mean to be rude, but you can’t see. How can you possibly know?” Hercules said bluntly.
“I can hear, I can feel, I know damn-it I know.”
“Hey Herc?” Iolaus yelled. “What’s going on out there?”
“By the Gods, tell him to be quiet! Does he want to bring the roof down?” the old man moaned.
Hercules glanced skeptically at the old man and moved closer to the opening. “There is a man here that says if I knock the wall down the roof will fall in. How does the ceiling look on your end?”
Iolaus pulled the torch from the sand and held it aloof. “Rock Herc, solid rock.” He lowered the flame and the teacher’s face reflected in the firelight.
“And ah Herc, I think you need to do something and do it fast. The teacher and the other pinned children do not look good,” Iolaus said as he peered closer. “Hercules, I think they are dying.”
“You can’t knock the wall down. It will kill them all,” the old man hissed in Hercules’ ear.
“What would you have me do old man? How do you propose we get them out? Should I try to make a smaller opening?” Hercules asked arrogantly.
“No, no, no. Nothing must be disturbed. We should not even be talking in here!”
“Are you telling me I should just leave them in there to die!” the demi-god said in disbelief.
“Of course not!” Solemous shot back indignantly. “We need to wait for Philas to get back with more men and the wood to shore up the roof.”
“And how long will that take?” Hercules inquired sarcastically, not even sure if the old man were in his right mind.
“I don’t know,” Solemous said frustrated, “Probably at least 6 or 7 hours.”
“Herc, we can not wait that long,” Iolaus voice interjected. “We can not,” he repeated in a strained voice that told Hercules just how urgent Iolaus thought the situation was.
“I don’t need more men, I can knock this wall down by myself. I’m Hercules, Zeus’ son,” the young demi-god said as he wrenched a rock from the cave-in.
“Well Hercules, Zeus’ son. Can you also hold up the roof of this cave when it crumbles on the head of the children, the teacher, your friend and us?” the blind man asked sarcastically.
“If I have to, yes,” the demi-god shot back, with conceit. Get out of the way, old man” Hercules said as he reached out and removed another boulder. “Watch out Iolaus. It’s coming down.”
“No, no you fool,” the old man screamed forgetting himself.
Whether it was the old man’s scream, Hercules’ moving the rocks, or just fate, the only thing that was certain was a rumbling shook the cave and the wall came down; unfortunately, as the old man predicted, so did the ceiling.
He dragged himself from the wooden chair and shuffled down the hall to the kitchen. Wordlessly, he sunk into one of the gaily-painted chairs by the table.
Alcmene looked up from the root vegetables she was paring. “No change?”
Her son’s head shook a mournful no. “How could I have been so stupid Mom? Stupid and arrogant. Look what my hubris wrought; ten children dead, one crippled school teacher and one old, blind man dead, and,” his voice dropped to a whisper, “a dying best friend. Only the mighty Hercules escaped unscathed,” he added in a bitter, ironic tone.
Alcmene laid the knife aside and joined her son at the table. She desperately wanted to comfort him and tell him it was not his fault. But, that would not be truthful. As sorry as she was to say, it was within the realm of reason that her son’s actions had caused, or heavily attributed to the death of those people. If he had waited for support, as the old man had said, would the outcome have been different? Would the roof had remained in tact that long? Would the braces have worked? Would the injured teacher and children in the cave have lived long enough for the support braces to be put in place? Or would the roof have caved in anyway? Alcmene didn’t know; no one could say for certain. However, there might have been a chance, and that ‘might have been’ would haunt Hercules for the rest of his life.
When she heard what happened, Alcmene had traveled to be at her son’s side and help Iolaus, who she considered her third son. Once she had arrived in the town, she was surprised to learn that the town’s people did blame her son for their children’s death. In fact they had treated him like a hero. She clearly remembered the look of incredulity in her son’s eyes. How he had just stared at the town elders in disbelief when they came to the healers hut to thank him.
The town elders had started by expressing sorrow for the condition of Iolaus, saying they were praying to the Gods for the young man’s recovery. Hercules had numbly thanked them for the prayers and well wishes. Then the elders had gone on to profusely thank her son for trying to save their children.
Oh, the anguish in her son’s voice as he had told the elders he had been the cause of their children’s death, not their savior. If he had listened to Solemous and waited, they might have all gotten out safe and sound he reminded them. It was his impulsiveness and arrogance that had caused their deaths, couldn’t the elders see that?
The elders had looked at the demi-god in confusion. His fault? Why hardly. Surely this must just be grief and shock over his best friends grave condition that was clouding Hercules’ mind they had answered.
‘But Solemous,’ Hercules had cried. ‘He told me the ceiling would cave in if I moved the rocks. He said it would happen and it did. If I had listened to him this never would have happened!’
But again, the elders had pooh-poohed his words. ‘Old, blind man,’ they replied. ‘What could a blind man possibly know? No, you, you are the son of a God. You knew the right thing to do,’ they assured him. ‘Solemous was wrong. Crazy old, blind man.‘
‘And the teacher,’ the elders had gone on to say. ‘What of the teacher? He was a learned man. He would not deliberately take the children into a dangerous cave. No, what happened was an accident, the will of the Gods.’
Hercules continued to stare at the elders in disbelief, looking for the one voice of reason and he never saw it because Philas, standing in the way back of the crowd, had already turned and walked away in disgust.
“Just because I am half God, doesn’t mean I am always right. Can’t you people see that?” Hercules said in anger.
But they couldn’t see how the son of Zeus could be wrong. They kept treating him like a hero throughout his stay. As soon as the doctor had indicate that traveling would not cause any further harm to Iolaus, Hercules and Alcmene had hastily left the town. The hero adulation was driving Hercules crazy.
It had been a mighty and bitter lesson that her son had learned that day. It was true, his youthful nature and yes, his arrogance caused him to act impulsively and may have very well brought about the death of those people. But that could not be changed now, and Hercules would have to live with that knowledge the rest of his life. As she looked across the worn kitchen table at her son, she knew that it was a lesson he would never forget and a mistake he would never repeat. However, there was a second part to this equation, a part that was, perhaps, even more significant.
Hercules had also learned that being a half-God held a dangerous responsibility. Many people would believe, just as these town’s people did, that because he was the son of Zeus, that he was infallible. But, as this incident had shown, that would not always be the truth. Her son was still half-human and had all the trappings and failings that came along with being human. If anything, he had to be twice as careful in making a decision. If Hercules fell into the trap, or let others push him into the trap of believing he was infallible, well, then--- Alcmene did not even want to think of the consequences.
“You know Mom, I never really thought much about it before, but being a half-God has some awesome responsibilities. I mean, look at those people. They were so willing to believe because I was the son of Zeus, that I was automatically right. That’s really scary Mom. I can make wrong decisions just like everyone else correct? I’m not infallible. I make mistakes. It’s not fair. It’s not fair. I can’t always be right!” the demi-god sobbed as he dropped his head to the table and wept tears of frustration.
Alcmene got up from her chair and moved to her son. She knelt on the floor and wrapped her arms around his body, comforting him. She smoothed his hair and let him cry himself out. When his grief had run his course, Hercules pulled back from his mother in embarrassment. He hadn’t cried like that since he was a child. Alcmene let him go, rose, walked to the sink and rinsed out a cold cloth and offered it to her son. Hercules gratefully took it and wiped his tear-streaked face.
Sitting back down across the table from her son, Alcmene reached out and took his hand. “Hercules, your life is not going to be easy. It near has been and it won’t be in the future. You have a lot of responsibility to live up to being the son of Zeus. There are always going to be those people who want to use you, who blindly believe you, who hate you, or who worship you simply because you are the son of Zeus. It is something you will simply have to learn to live with, and act upon responsibly.”
“I realize that--- or at least now I do Mom,” he said with a sad, self-decrypting smile. “I guess that is what Chiron has been trying to drum into my head. He is always saying ‘one acts with their brains, not their hands.’ I never understood fully what he meant by that. Now, I think I do. Perhaps, if I had acted with my brain and not my hands, those people would still be alive.”
“Perhaps, and perhaps not,” Alcmene said trying to sooth her son. “You’ll never know. But the real point is if you have not learned from this incident, then you are a bigger fool than you believe yourself to be.”
Hercules nodded to himself as much as to his mother. “I have learned and I won’t forget.”
A moan from the back bedroom drifted down the hallway. “Iolaus!?” Hercules exclaimed as he jumped from his chair and hurried down the hallway. When he entered the room he was greeted with the sight of two pale blue eyes staring at him, eyes he had not seen in over two weeks. “Iolaus, your awake!”
“Damn,” the pale boy muttered. “I was hoping I was still asleep and this was all a bad dream. I feel like I got hit by a ton of rocks.” Iolaus didn’t notice Hercules wince at his on target analogy. “What happened to me Herc,” he said as he tried to sit up.
Alcmene entered the room, quickly walked over to the bed and placed a restraining hand on the boy. “Now Iolaus, lie still. You have been unconscious for nearly two weeks. Don’t you even attempt to get out of this bed young man.”
Iolaus quite willing gave up his efforts to rise. Lying still was effort enough at the moment.
“I won’t ask you how you feel because I can tell by looking at you it’s not well. You lay here and rest while I go make some nice, hot broth for you,” Alcmene scolded as she fussed with the sheets. As she walked pass Hercules on her way out of the room, she fixed him with a stare. “Light conversation only,” she admonished her son.
Hercules nodded his head understanding. He walked over and resumed his seat by the bed.
Iolaus looked over at his friend. “So what happened buddy? The last thing I remember was trying to out run a storm. Did I get hit by lightning or something?”
Hercules laughed. “No, you didn’t get hit by lightening, though if anyone was going to be it probably would be you.”
“Yeah, with my luck---,” the blonde hunter chuckled. “So what did happen to me?” he asked turning serious again.
“For the moment, just concentrate on getting better friend and I’ll tell you the story in due course. For once though, you did nothing wrong,” Hercules replied.
“Wow, really! This must be a good story. If I did nothing wrong does that mean the great and mighty Hercules did? This is one for the record book,” Iolaus said in a manner that was strictly joking but hit to close to the mark for Hercules comfort. A huge yawn escaped the tired hunter and his eyes slowly shut.
Hercules watched as his best friend slowly drifted off into a natural state of sleep. The demi-god had a lot to think about from this adventure. If nothing else, he would never again rush in where blind men feared to tread. For in this adventure, the real blind man had been Hercules.
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