"Though this be madness,
Yet there is method in't."
-- Shakespeare, Hamlet, II, 2
Iolaus' cry echoed down the castle corridor and was swallowed by heavy silence. Frantic, he looked left then right along the hall, then suddenly darted into an adjoining passage.
"Herculeeessssssss!!" Gasping, he paused in his flight to listen for a response, his back pressed against the wall so no one could come up behind him. His heart thudded within his breast like a drum, filling his ears with the distant sound of thunder.
I know he's down here, thought Iolaus. He has to be down here! Where else could he be?
"Herk!!" he called, and launched himself back into the corridor. "Herk, where are -- yeeAAAH!!!"
A huge serpentine form whipped around the corner at the end of the passageway. Rearing to tower high above Iolaus, the fanged head suddenly sprouted a fanned collar of rigid leather and hissed. It opened its jaws wide, as if expecting the tasty morsel headed its way to simply jump on in.
"Oohhhhhh, nooooooo!" Iolaus skidded to a halt just inches from the monster. Whipping his torso around in an amazing display of dexterity, he sped off in the opposite direction as quickly as his muscular legs would carry him.
Hydras! By the gods, there were hydras infesting the corridors of the castle of Corinth!
"Someone had better tell Iphicles to call an exterminator!" he gasped, and pelted down another passage in search of Hercules. "What is it with this place all of a sudden?" he panted as he ran.
Bad enough the party punch had knocked him on his ass -- now he'd somehow lost his way in the castle corridors and was having a hell of a time finding Hercules! The last thing he needed was a Hydra and that Stymphalian Bird from the west wing chasing after him!
"Find Herk ... and get the hell out of here. Right!" Iolaus nodded at his own sage advice as he sprinted around a corner.
He ran smack into a dead end. The passage ended in three doors -- west, north, and east.
Iolaus stared at them as if pondering a choice as important and deadly as the riddle of the Sphinx. It wouldn't do to open a door and find another She Demon lurking behind it! Being stoned once in a lifetime was more than enough for Iolaus!
"Which one would Hercules choose?" He stroked his chin thoughtfully and pondered his three choices. His gaze was drawn to the northern door -- a massive slab of solid oak bound in banded iron and as black as night.
That one looks like a challenge. So -- that's gotta be it!
Proud of his choice, Iolaus grasped the door's black iron handle with both hands and pulled with all of his might. It was lighter than it looked and flew wide open under excessive force. Startled, Iolaus jumped back and came face to face with -- himself!
Cold fingers of dread tightened around Iolaus' heart as he stared at his twin. The mirror image bore himself with a regal pose, his flaxen hair brushed neatly back from his forehead, crowned with a broad circlet of gold. His robe was woven from the finest cloth, brightly colored and trimmed in silver thread -- attire befitting a king. But the robe was flawed by a jagged tear below the right breast from which a terrible crimson stain blossomed like an obscene flower.
"Orestes," whispered Iolaus.
Eyes as blue as a summer sky were all that brightened a face as pale as a corpse.
"Cousin," replied the apparition in a hollow voice that was a mockery of Iolaus' own. He raised his arm and pointed an accusing finger. "Thief!"
"You stole my life!"
The accusation cut Iolaus like a blade. Guilt washed over him, like salt to a fresh wound.
"You could have saved me, Iolaus. You could have preserved my life. You failed! Was that by design, Cousin?" demanded the King of Attica. "In your heart, didn't you hope the assassin's arrow would fly true?"
"Never!" cried Iolaus. "Orestes! Cousin. I never wished your death!"
"Yet you took my wife to bed when I lay slain no more than a fortnight!"
"Oh, Orestes..." Iolaus choked on his words. "It wasn't by design. You must believe me! I never meant it to end the way it did."
"But it did end that way, cousin. You murdered my soul long before the arrow tore the life from my breast. You stole the love of my Queen!" The anguish in Orestes' eyes was terrible to behold. "Was it not enough to let my life bleed away and thus inherit a kingdom? Did you also have to steal the love of my life as well?"
"And what of me, Iolaus?" asked a sweet voice close to his ear.
Iolaus cried out in surprise and whipped around, hands outward as if to ward off a blow. Another door had opened to reveal its secrets, and his heart lurched within him at what his eyes beheld.
She was as beautiful as she had been in life. Dark auburn hair fell softly about her slender shoulders, bound back from a sweet, heart-shaped face by a plain white kerchief. About her pale white throat was the gold and garnet necklet Iolaus had given her on their wedding day.
Joy surged through Iolaus at the very sight of her.
"Ania!" he exclaimed, and extended his arms to her.
She shied from his touch and turned her face away. "You are not my husband," she sobbed.
"Ania. Oh, Ania! I am your husband." Iolaus reached out and captured her slender hands before she could draw them way. Her flesh was cold as the grave to the touch. "I love you. I have always loved you! There is nothing I wanted more in my life than to be your husband and have you with me."
"Liar!" His deceased wife turned to face him and met his gaze with guileless brown eyes filled with pain and accusation. "How can you say such a thing when you have banished the memory of me and your son from your heart?"
"No! No, that isn't so! Ania, I love you. And I love Ar---"
"Then why have you not honored our memory since death took us from your world?" she demanded in accusation. "Our graves lie untended; our names forgotten. Husband, you have not spoken my name since my passing! If you had, I would have heard."
"I ... I couldn't," Iolaus wretchedly admitted. His eyes glistened with unshed tears. "When you died ... I couldn't bear it. I thought ... if I didn't speak your name aloud, then I wouldn't have to admit to myself that you were gone. Beloved..." He hesitantly gently brushed her pale cheek with his fingertips. "I miss you so much..."
Anger flashed in Ania's dark eyes. "Not so much that you couldn't bed a wench in every village you pass -- husband!"
Iolaus hung his head as if her words were a physical blow. It was another truth that cut to his very heart and left his soul bleeding from the wound.
"I know there have been others, and there will be more. Do you think I cannot feel that your love has shifted to another?" she cried. "Will you tell Gabrielle of me, Iolaus?"
"You cannot lie to the dead, Iolaus. You love her, do you not?"
"No! I mean ... yes, I do. But it's not what you think!" he exclaimed. Ania's expression said that she clearly did not believe him. "I care about Gabrielle, very very much, that's true -- but we're just good friends!"
Ania shook her head. Reaching out, she ran a cold finger down the bare flesh of his chest and softly laid a hand over his heart. "You're still not listening," she said sadly. "The truth is here." Her expression was sorrowful as she allowed her hand to fall to her side. "You'll kill her, too."
"But that's the curse of knowing you," said another voice from the darkness. "All those around you die."
Dread washed over Iolaus as he turned to face his newest, and most terrible, accuser.
Even in death, the wife of Hercules was a radiant beauty. Thick, wild blonde hair framed the face of a goddess. Hers were the features of a woman quick to smile, and her eyes were a deep sapphire blue alight with intelligence. Garbed in a low-bodiced gown as white as the purest snow and laced in silver, the very sight of her was a breath of the beauty and tranquillity of the Elysian fields.
At her side stood a child barely six summers old. A colorful wreath of autumn meadow flowers crowned her flaxen hair. She looked up at Iolaus with an expression of total and utter adoration.
"I've missed you so much, Uncle Eye-O-less," she said in a tiny voice.
"Ilea." Iolaus dropped to his knees and opened his arms to her. She flew into his embrace and he hugged her with all of his heart and soul.
"I've missed you, too, little one," he whispered into her ear as he stroked her fine blonde hair. Her hair smelled sweetly of lilac and heather. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he looked up over her head with a questioning expression.
"The boys would not come," said Deianeira in somber reply. "They blame you. As do I."
"Blame me?" Iolaus was aghast. He gently disengaged himself from Ilea's tiny form and slowly stood. "I never did them harm! I loved them, Deianeira. I loved you all, as if you were my own family. You are the wife and children of my dearest friend. You are my family to me!"
"Yet you cared so little for our lives and our safety, that you continued to take him from us to further your own dreams of glory."
"No! That isn't true!"
"It is the truth," countered Deianeira, eyes flashing. "He never would have left home had you not filled his mind with past adventures and seeded his heart with a longing for the road. He was content with us! Happy to raise the children and be my husband, until you brought back the disease of wanderlust."
"How can you say that, knowing Hercules as you do?" asked Iolaus, anguished. "Helping others is what he does. How could he not? That last time ... when we went to fight the Minotaur ... Deianeira, if it hadn't been me it would have been someone else. Neither one of us could have foreseen what Hera would do to you and the kids!"
"It hurt," said Ilea's in a small voice. "Uncle Hades promised it wouldn't hurt any more, but it still does. Inside." She blinked at Iolaus. "I miss my daddy. Why did you take him away?"
"Do you know what the really tragic thing is?" asked Deianeira as Iolaus reeled from Ilea's words. "In the end, you'll kill him, too."
"No. NO!" cried Iolaus. He stumbled backward; away from her accusations; away from the pain in little Ilea's eyes. "The gods as my witness, I would die before I would let anyone harm Hercules!"
"And how do you propose to defend him against yourself?"
"Me?!" His back struck the wall of the corridor, arresting his escape. "I would never hurt Hercules!"
"Never?" asked Deianeira as she slowly advanced on Iolaus. "Who was it who tried to kill him for the love of Xena?"
"You don't understand ... I didn't want to! Xena tricked me. She used me to try and get to Hercules!"
"And you nearly killed him."
"Oh gods ... oh gods, yes. YES!," sobbed Iolaus as his heart broke under the weight of her words. He fell to his knees and buried his face in his hands. "I nearly killed him. Zeus forgive me, I almost murdered my best friend!"
Deianeira knelt down beside him and laid a consoling hand on his bare arm. "Xena nearly succeeded, and she is mortal."
He looked at her without comprehension. "What do you mean?" he asked hoarsely.
"What of Hera?" she asked.
"What if your only purpose in life is to be the death of Hercules?"
Iolaus' eyes grew wide. It was something that had never occurred to him before, and the very thought of it stabbed an icy blade of fear through the whole of his being.
"No," he whispered. "I couldn't. I wouldn't --"
"But what if?" she insisted. "Can you afford to take that risk?" She sat back on her heels and gave him a hard, appraising look. "Don't let what happened to Ania and Orestes -- to my family -- happen to Hercules."
Iolaus used the palms of his hands to physically push himself off of the floor and lurched to his feet. Deianeira's apparition rose with him, her expression questioning.
"It won't happen," he promised.
"Don't fail us," said Deianeira. "Don't fail him."
Iolaus briefly laid a hand over hers where it rested upon his arm, then gently pulled away. He turned and ran down the corridor, back the way he had come, a look of determination alight in his fever- bright eyes.
By luck rather than design, he found an outer door and stumbled out of the claustrophobic castle passageways into the western terrace. A smaller replica of the main courtyard, the terrace was within sight of the towers and parapets of the castle walls. The enclosure served as a defensible position and staging area during times of war and siege; in peacetime, it was one of the sunniest spots in the whole of the castle grounds and an ideal platform from which to gaze upon the stars.
It was as good a place as any to die.
Iolaus knew that Hercules would not have approved of his plan. Were the son of Zeus present, he would have moved the heavens and earth to stop his friend from the course he was about to undertake. If nothing else, Hercules had not journeyed to the Underworld to restore Iolaus only to have that gift taken back.
But it was the only solution Iolaus could see to his dilemma. Deianeira was right. If Xena had deceived him so easily, what chance could he possibly have against Hera?
None -- and that was all the truth he needed to steady his hand.
At least he could ensure himself a quick death. He was first and foremost a warrior, seasoned by a hundred battles. He knew where to strike a blow that would kill instantly. One thrust through the heart was all it would take to negate his threat to Hercules...
Iolaus reached for his sword and with a cry of despair discovered his scabbard was not on his belt! Alarmed, he suddenly realized that he'd left his weapon back in the dining hall, where the others lay sleeping after too much punch. Hercules would arrive to find that his surprise birthday party had inexplicably turned into a slumber party.
No! Iolaus couldn't allow Hera to use him to destroy his friend. Would not!
There were other ways to die than falling on one's sword. Nearly frantic, Iolaus desperately glanced around the terrace for something to aid him, then suddenly threw back his head and looked up at the parapet itself. Therein lay his answer!
Iolaus ran up the narrow stone stairs to the battlements. Beyond sprawled the whole of the world, turned shades of gold and orange by the setting sun upon the horizon. Tall green grass whispered and bowed to a warm summer breeze heavy with the perfume of flowers. Gentle sloping hills rolled off into the distance, dotted by lush green trees that held wide their boughs as if to embrace him.
It was the highest battlement in the whole of the castle, rising more than ten stories above the ground. Nothing could survive such a fall; certainly not an armor-less man who wished to die.
Slowly, deliberately, Iolaus climbed onto the wall and stood erect, arms loose by his sides. He bravely faced the end of the day -- and the last moments of his life -- with a strong heart and a determination born of love. He hoped that it would not be Hercules who found his body at the base of the castle wall -- and that he would one day understand why this was something Iolaus had to do...
The golden orb of the setting sun was a blur in his eyes as he allowed the tears to fall freely. There was such an ache in his heart, knowing he would never set eyes upon the world -- or upon his dearest friend -- ever again. Though it hurt him to know the pain his suicide would cause Hercules, he was comforted in the knowledge that this act would preserve his friend's life.
In time, Hercules would forget him ...
"Good-bye, Hercules, my friend," he whispered to the sky in a voice thick with emotion. "Forgive me."
Iolaus stepped out into space.
Something suddenly caught at his gauntleted wrist and nearly wrenched his arm from its socket as he dropped. His fall was arrested with a violent jerk, leaving him to spin in mid-air, more than 120 feet above the ground. He craned his neck backward to seeing what had caught him and saw a shadow looming above. Sunlight was full in his eyes and he could not discern the shadow's features.
Iolaus reached up with his free arm to pry loose the strong fingers that held him captive and swung too far back. He cracked the back of his head against the stone of the battlement and plummeted into darkness...
Leaning as far as he dared over the parapet, Hercules felt Iolaus' body become a dead weight in his grasp. He quickly reached out with his free arm and grabbed a fistful of his friend's leather vest. Summoning all of his strength, Hercules hauled Iolaus back up over the parapet and to safety.
Sliding an arm beneath Iolaus' shoulders and another under his knees, Hercules lifted his friend into his arms and carried him away from the deadly height of the battlements. On the bottom-most step, he sat down with his burden and cradled him close to his chest. Blood matted his friend's straw-blonde hair and trickled across his left temple. His face was pale and colorless, glistening with heavy beads of sweat and streaked with dirt.
The poison that had laced the punch had done its work well. It had driven Iolaus to a madness that had nearly brought him his death.
Hercules reached into the pouch at his belt and drew forth a sliver of apple. Pale and golden, he could almost feel the power within the tiny morsel. The antidote to Callisto's poison, it had cured the others of their madness instantly. But he'd reached them much sooner. He had lost precious time searching the castle for Iolaus, giving the poison a greater chance of permanently insinuating itself into his friend's fevered mind?
"Please," whispered Hercules as he gently slipped the bit of apple into Iolaus' mouth. "Don't let me have been too late." He held Iolaus close to his heart and waited anxiously, never letting his gaze wander from his friend's face.
Iolaus breathed a sigh and opened his eyes to find Hercules bending over him, a look of concern clouding the demi-god's ruggedly handsome features. In his mouth was the sweet taste of apple, which he reflexively chewed on and swallowed.
"Not bad," he commented. "Would have been better with a little cinnamon, though."
The concern in Hercules' face was instantly transformed into a brilliant smile of relief! He laughed out loud and helped his friend to sit up. "Welcome back!"
"Back? Back from where?" Puzzled and a little alarmed, Iolaus looked around himself at the terrace. "What are we doing here? Where's Alcmene and Jason? Iphicles? What---?!"
"It's okay!" Hercules assured him. "Everyone's fine. They're in the dining hall, waiting for us."
"Yeah?" Iolaus looked at him suspiciously. "Then how come it doesn't feel okay?" He frowned as a fleeting memory caressed the back of his mind. "I thought ... I thought, I was ..." His eyes grew wide. "I was going to kill myself."
"You must have imagined it," said Hercules in a comforting tone.
"It seemed so real. I ... I can almost feel myself doing it. Jumping, I mean. From ..." He glanced up at the battlement. "From there!"
"What possible reason could you have to kill yourself?"
"I thought ... dreamed ... feared --" Iolaus hung his head in shame. "If I wasn't in your life, I couldn't be a danger to you."
"Don't be silly. You could never be a danger to me."
"But I already am!" Iolaus' words and feelings came tumbling out all in a rush, as if afraid that if he didn't say them now they would never come. "What about that time with Xena? She almost succeeded in convincing me to kill you. If that fight had gone another way --"
"Iolaus, you never intended to kill me in that fight and you know it," said Hercules gently. "I've had a lot of experience watching you work, remember? Your swings were wide, your timing was off, and you deliberately left yourself wide open."
"What if the next time it's Hera who uses me to get to you?" he asked wretchedly.
"She's already tried. That didn't work either." Iolaus opened his mouth to dispute this but Hercules would have none of it. "Hera sent her second Enforcer to kill me, and found you instead. You not only didn't tell her where I was, you risked your life trying to warn me. Iolaus ..." The words were thick in his throat. "Iolaus, all of my life there have been only three people I could depend on and trust. Mother, Deianeira -- and you. No man could hope for a better friend, or brother."
Iolaus swallowed the lump of emotion in his own throat. "You know I feel the same way."
"Good!" declared Hercules, "because you're stuck with me! It's a lifetime contract, my friend. I wouldn't let you die before, and I won't allow you to leave me now. Don't even think about it! Because if you did, I'd just have to go back to the Underworld after you." He allowed himself a smile. "And I think you've sampled quite enough of Hades' hospitality for a long while, don't you?"
"Yeah," replied Iolaus with a little snorting laugh. "I guess so..."
"I know so. Now come on." Hercules reached down, firmly clasped Iolaus by the wrist, and easily hauled him to his feet. "Let's get back to the others before they start to wonder where we got to."
Hercules led the way to the castle door and stepped inside, fully expecting his friend to follow.
Iolaus was right behind him when he suddenly felt as if an unseen force were holding him back. A warm, invisible touch pressed something into his hand. Startled, he opened his fingers and found a single golden autumn flower lying within his palm. Hesitantly, he turned to look back upon the terrace courtyard, now radiant with the last rays of the setting sun. Dazzled, he tried to shield his eyes against the light and found himself looking through a beautiful golden doorway into another realm.
Orestes stood facing him on a lush green field. Hale and well and hearty, his proud head was held high and crowned in a gold more brilliant than any that could be found in the mortal world. His tunic, pure white and silver, bore no mark or stain to accuse. The King of Attica's hand rested comfortably upon Ania's slender shoulders; and why not, for they were cousins by marriage. Her eyes were filled with such love that it pained Iolaus to meet her gaze. Between them stood a boy of four, his white blonde hair an unruly mop so like his father's own. The boy stood hand in hand with Hercules' daughter, Ilea, whose hair shone bright with autumn flowers. The children waved; Orestes and Ania smiled; and from them all radiated such a feeling of warmth and love it drove Iolaus to his knees.
Deianeira glided forward, radiantly garbed in shining white light.
"Dear Iolaus... do not confuse your guilt and fear with truth." Iolaus felt rather than heard her words. They spoke directly into his heart, and reached to the depths of his soul. "Always trust what is in your heart. Carry these words there, know them to be true, and hold them close."
"We have always loved you, each in our own way and for our own reasons."
"We always shall. Nothing can change that." Deianeira reached out a spectral hand and Iolaus gasped at the euphoria that flooded through the whole of his being. "But know that as much as we love you -- Hercules loves you more. The greatest fear left to him is that of losing you -- his dearest friend and the brother of his heart."
"I know," whispered Iolaus, and bowed his head. "I'm just so afraid! Afraid that --"
"Ssshhhhh." Deianeira laid a gentle finger to his lips to stop the flow of words and smiled. "You never could be a threat to him, Iolaus. Your very existence is what keeps him going. Never doubt it."
Inside the corridor, Hercules suddenly realized Iolaus was not behind him and turned back to the open door. He poked his head out. "Are you coming or do I have to -- Iolaus!"
Iolaus gave a start and blinked. He was on his knees at the foot of the steps like a supplicant before an altar. As Hercules grasped him by the shoulders and helped him to his feet, Iolaus glanced around himself in bewilderment. The terrace was empty and shrouded in twilight. They were alone.
There was renewed concern in Hercules' eyes as he looked upon his friend. "Iolaus? Are you okay?" he asked, fearful of a relapse. "What is it? What's wrong?"
Iolaus turned and had to look up to meet Hercules' gaze. "I'm fine," he said sincerely. He felt as if a heavy burden had been lifted from his heart. "In fact, I'm great!"
"You're sure?" asked Hercules, still uncertain.
"I'm sure. Really!" he said, and startled Hercules with a quick embrace.
"What was that for?"
"Just because," replied Iolaus, a bit awkwardly. "You know."
Hercules nodded. He did know, although he didn't quite understand.
"Everything's gonna be okay," said Iolaus aloud, as if trying to convince himself that the words were true. "I can feel it! But ... um ..." The ghost of a frown clouded his features. "There's something really important I gotta ask you about this whole business."
"You can ask me anything. You know that," said Hercules sincerely.
"Good," said Iolaus and grinned. "Got any more of those apples? 'Cuz they really would be great with cinnamon!"
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