A Willing Sacrifice

by Rhiannon

Iphicles and Iolaus were each bound to a tree a short distance apart. Facing each man was an archer, bow at the ready.

"Time's up. Will you save your brother .... or your friend?"

There was no way out. Hercules' anguished eyes locked with Iolaus' and understood the silent message.

"Save Iphicles. His kingdom needs him."

The archers strung their bows and fired. Hercules launched himself forward, deflecting one of the arrows. Simultaneously he heard a sickening thud and a strangled cry as the other lethal arrow found its target. Hercules crumpled to the ground, head in his hands.

Ares laughed.

Hercules woke in a cold sweat with his heart pounding. He lay quietly, eyes closed, waiting for his heart to still and the feeling of terror to leave him. It had been a dream. That's all. Just a dream. When he opened his eyes, he'd see his best friend sleeping peacefully nearby. For a moment, he let the feeling of relief wash over him. Just a dream. Then, reluctantly, he opened his eyes.

He was lying on a narrow pallet in a small cabin. It was dark, but for the light from a few candles on a table and a fire burning brightly in the hearth. His brother, Iphicles, sat near the hearth and beside him, near the fire, lay another figure. As he watched the figure tossed restlessly in his sleep and a moan escaped his lips. Oh, gods! Hercules put his head in his hands, as if blotting out his vision could blot out the truth. It hadn't been a dream. It had really happened. Iolaus was dying. And it was his fault.

‘Hercules?'

Iphicles' voice. Hercules got up quickly and went over to the fire, squatting down beside Iolaus. He put a hand on the hunter's forehead. He felt hotter than before, the fever caused by the poison was taking a stronger grip.

‘You've hardly slept at all, brother,' Iphicles said. ‘Go back to sleep. I told you I'd wake you if he comes round.'

Hercules shook his head. He couldn't face sleeping again, to go through the pain of waking and thinking he was dreaming, then facing the terrible reality.

‘I can't sleep,' he said shortly.

Iphicles sat silently and watched as his brother fussed over his friend, wiping his face with a wet cloth, pushing damp hair back from his forehead, trying to make him more comfortable. Iolaus continued to sleep fitfully, tossing and turning as even in his sleep he tried to escape the pain caused by the poison that was coursing through his body. After a while Hercules couldn't bear to watch anymore and lifted his partner into his arms, holding him close. The contact seemed to help, for Iolaus became quieter. As the long hours went by, Hercules found himself thinking about the events of the previous day, asking himself again and again what he could have done differently, how he could have foreseen this. His mind replayed every detail of that day

He'd been so happy. He and Iolaus had arrived at Iphicles' castle in Corinth the day before and been warmly welcomed by his brother. It was ironic, somehow, that it was the loss of Iphicles' wife Rena that had brought him and his brother closer, his complete understanding of Iphicles' grief strengthening their relationship in a way nothing else could. He had been pleased, too, at the genuine warmth in the way Iphicles and Iolaus had greeted each other. There had always been tension between the two. When they were younger, Iphicles had resented Iolaus' close friendship with his brother, feeling that the hunter had taken something that should be his. But since the time Iolaus had helped the king of Corinth when he was held captive by Ajax, the two had formed a genuine friendship.

So everything seemed right with the world when the three of them set off on a hunting trip that was to last a couple of days. The day had gone well. Then, as dusk was approaching and they decided to call it a day and head for the hunting lodge, everything changed. The memory was so vivid that reality blurred and he found himself reliving the events all over again.

He was there, in the forest, when the sky darkened suddenly. He thought for a moment the black clouds were heralding the onset of a storm, but no storm came - only an unnatural mist that was so thick he couldn't see his hand held up to his face. The mist was accompanied by a wind that began as a breeze and grew and grew until it was hurricane force. He called out to Iphicles and Iolaus to stay together, then found himself thrown against a tree by the strength of the wind, unable to break free. Later, Iphicles told him that was what had happened to him, too. One minute he was standing beside Iolaus, the next he found himself flung against a tree with such force that for a moment he was unable to get his breath. When the wind stopped, he'd found himself bound and helpless.

As suddenly as it had come, the wind and mist disappeared and the sinking sun appeared once more in the sky. Hercules felt again the fear in his heart as he looked round for his brother and his best friend who seemed to have disappeared into thin air. Then he thought he heard Iolaus calling to him and followed the sound of his friend's voice until he found himself in a clearing.

He shied away from the memory of the scene that greeted him, but reluctantly found himself recalling every moment, every detail. Nearby were his friend and his brother, securely tied to trees with ropes round their waists and legs. Both were gagged, but two pairs of eyes followed his movements as he moved into the clearing, warning him by their expressions that he was not alone. Across the clearing from them stood two archers, bows strung, ready to shoot. Then Ares stepped into view. Hercules wasn't particularly surprised. The storm hadn't been natural, which meant the gods were involved, and who else but the god of war would be involved in this?

‘Welcome, brother,' Ares said, in a perfect imitation of Iolaus' voice. ‘We've been waiting for you.'

‘Let them go, Ares.'

Ares threw back his head and laughed, reverting to his own deep tones. ‘If I wanted to let them go, do you think I'd have gone to all that trouble to get them here?'

‘What do you want?'

‘Well now, it's really more about what *you* want, brother. You see, I'd really love to kill both of them. But I'm a fair man. I'm not greedy. I'll settle for one. And you, brother, get to choose.'

‘You're insane, Ares,' Hercules cried, as realisation of the god of war's intention flooded through him.

Ares raised an eyebrow. ‘Insane? Me? I'm not insane, Hercules. But I am serious. Now listen carefully. As you can see, each of my archers is ready to shoot on my command. When they release the arrows, you'll just have time to deflect one of them. One man will go free. The other will be condemned to an agonising death.'

At Hercules' sharp intake of breath, he laughed. ‘Oh, did I forget to mention the poison? The arrow won't kill him - but the poison will. Don't worry - it won't be an instant death. You should have at least a day to say your goodbyes. That is, unless the unfortunate one begs you to finish it first. I'm afraid it'll be an exquisitely painful death and, unfortunately, there's no cure. Oh, and I wouldn't try using any herbs for the pain - you might just find that makes matters worse. So there you have it, Hercules. You have five minutes to make your decision. Which will it be?' He gestured towards Iphicles. ‘Your blood brother or,' waving a hand in Iolaus' direction, ‘your best friend?'

Hercules relived the feeling of utter helplessness as the moments ticked by. He knew if he tried anything the archers would fire and there was a good chance both men would die. He looked at Iphicles. It was hard to read the expression on his brother's face - a mixture of fear, bravado and compassion. Then he looked at Iolaus. As always, he could read his friend like a book. And he didn't like what he read. Iolaus' expressive eyes were clearly telling him what he should do. He should save his brother. Iphicles was ruler of a kingdom in a strategic part of Greece. If he should die, war could break out. His kingdom needed him. His son needed him. Hercules found his gaze locked with Iolaus' as his friend's soul poured forth from his eyes. He almost didn't hear when Ares said, ‘Time's up. Will you save your brother ..... or your friend?'

Ares raised his hand. The archers strung their bows and fired. Hercules, under the almost hypnotic influence of Iolaus' gaze, threw himself forward to deflect the arrow heading for Iphicles. Catching the arrow in mid flight he rolled with it, skidding to a stop. Ringing in his ears was the sickening thud and Iolaus' strangled cry as the other lethal arrow found its target. He crumpled to the ground, head in his hands, afraid to look up and almost paralysed by fear of what he would see .....

He returned abruptly to the present as Iolaus stirred in his arms and half opened his eyes with a whimper of pain. Then his eyes closed again and he subsided back into his personal Tartarus. Hercules found himself back in the clearing .....

He leapt to his feet and raced to his friend. The ropes had disappeared and Iolaus had collapsed to the ground at the foot of the tree. Hercules fell to his knees beside him. The arrow was embedded in the hunter's shoulder and he was holding on to the shaft with both hands, desperately trying to pull it out. His face was white and drawn, his teeth clenched together as he tried to fight against the pain. Hercules could see the agony reflected in his eyes. ‘Iolaus, let go, you can't pull it out. You'll hurt yourself even more.' He grasped Iolaus' hands firmly, pulling them away from the arrow. The hunter felt cold and was already shivering with the onset of shock. Even so, he looked up at his friend and attempted a smile. ‘Not much of a shot was he? I'd have expected better from Ares' henchman .....' He shut up abruptly, closing his eyes and biting his lip.

As Hercules began to examine his friend, his stomach tightened with fear. This was no ordinary wound. The arrow had gone almost all the way through the shoulder and he could feel the head just below the surface of the skin. It shouldn't be a serious injury, the arrow didn't seem to have hit bone. Yet the pain Iolaus was obviously feeling and trying unsuccessfully to hide was out of all proportion to the severity of the injury.

Hercules turned quickly at the sound of footsteps behind him. Iphicles. Ares had released him and was now nowhere in sight. He couldn't worry about the god of war now. He turned back to his friend. ‘Hold him, Iph. If the arrow's really poisoned it has to come out now.'

Iphicles held Iolaus firmly while Hercules grasped the arrow shaft in both hands and, without allowing himself a moment for hesitation, pushed down with all his strength. Iolaus screamed as the arrow head exited with a rush of blood. Hercules took off his own vest and held it to the wound to stem the flow of blood. ‘How far are we from the lodge?'

‘Not far,' Iphicles replied. ‘A short walk.'

‘Go ahead and get a fire going. Heat up a knife. I'm going to have to cauterize the wound.'

Iphicles nodded and disappeared. Hercules tightened the makeshift bandage around the wound. Iolaus was unconscious now, still shivering as if cold, yet already showing signs of fever. Hercules lifted him carefully and set off down the trail.

He had little memory of the trip back to the lodge, just a blurred recollection of stumbling through the trees, holding on tightly to his precious burden. His thoughts during the trip came back to haunt him. Jumbled images of his friend, healthy and full of life. Mixed feelings of anger, frustration and guilt. He'd set himself up as a hero, someone who helped the world against the gods. But what good had his strength been when his family was killed? And what good was his strength now? He'd just stood, helpless, waiting until Ares had given the order to shoot And all the time his mind kept repeating, ‘I've killed my best friend, I've killed my best friend .....'

Somehow he made it back to the lodge and, once there, quickly cauterized and dressed the wound. Already the wound looked infected, unnatural tendrils of red and yellow radiating from it and beginning to spread across the hunter's body. They wrapped him warmly in blankets and prepared to wait the night out .....

Iolaus stirred again.

‘Iolaus?'

Iolaus slowly opened his eyes and focussed with difficulty on the demigod. ‘H....Herc.'

‘It's alright. I'm here. Don't try to talk. You need to save your strength.'

‘Hurts ..... so much.'

Hercules' heart constricted and he tightened his grip on his friend. ‘I know it does, buddy. I know it does. But you have to hang in there. We're going to get you some help.'

Help! Where was he going to get help? But Iolaus nodded and closed his eyes again. Suddenly a wave of red-hot pain shot through his body, far worse than anything he'd felt before. He couldn't hold back a scream as his whole body convulsed. Hercules held him helplessly until the pain subsided a little and his friend lay back limply in his arms. ‘Oh, gods, Iolaus,' he blurted out, ‘I'm sorry. I'm so sorry.'

Iolaus looked up at him, seeing the pain and guilt in his eyes. He reached up a hand to grasp Hercules' arm. ‘It wasn't your fault, not ..... your decision. Remember that, Herc .....'

His voice faded away as he subsided back into unconsciousness. Hercules held him tightly for a few moments, then lay him gently back onto the pallet. He got to his feet. ‘Asclepius has a temple about a half day's travel from here, right?'

Iphicles nodded. ‘About that. But Hercules, Ares said there's no cure.....'

‘I know what Ares said,' Hercules interrupted grimly. ‘But I can't just stand around and watch him die, Iphicles. I've got to do something. It'll be dawn soon, we can make a move. Can you watch him for a while - I'll see if I can rig up some sort of stretcher.'

He headed for the door, not waiting for an answer from his brother. Iphicles stared after him silently for a moment. He had no words in the face of his brother's anguish. His own feelings were confused. He couldn't honestly say he wished he could change places with Iolaus, couldn't say that he wasn't glad his brother had chosen to save him. But he couldn't bear to watch Iolaus suffering and see the look of pain and guilt on his brother's face. There was nothing he could say that wouldn't make matters worse. So he settled back down beside the injured man. They'd do this Hercules' way. It was his decision to make.

Iolaus was dreaming, disjointed, disturbing images flashing through his fevered mind. Hercules' face, full of anguish and pain. It isn't fair! He can't let Hercules make this decision, it would kill him. Fighting against the gag, desperate to communicate with his friend, resorting finally to locking his eyes with Hercules', trying to convey to him what he wanted him to do, what he *had* to do. Shocked understanding in those eyes, understanding immediately replaced by denial and then acceptance.

Tensing, mouth dry, heart beating so fast it must jump out of his chest at any moment. Eyes fixed on his friend, trying to blot out the fear threatening to overwhelm him. Ares giving the order to shoot ..... he mustn't scream, mustn't make this moment harder on Hercules ..... keep control, breath, keep control ..... pain exploding through his body, a cry torn from his lips, oh gods, the agony ..... then just falling, falling .....

Suddenly he was awake and this time it was different. He remembered pain and confused thoughts and Hercules' face swimming in and out of view. Now his mind was crystal clear. He knew exactly where he was and what was happening. It took a moment for the pain to kick in but when it did, it came with shocking reality. He felt as if he was on fire, every muscle throbbing, every nerve ending sending violent impulses of pain through his body. He wanted to thrash about, to get up and run, to escape the pain, but he found be could barely move. Even trying to lift his hand sent a wave of mind numbing agony shooting up his whole arm. His whimper of sheer terror brought an anxious Iphicles to his side.

‘Iolaus? It's alright, you're alright. It's best if you don't try to move. Let me get you some water .....'

‘H..herc?' Iolaus whispered hoarsely.

‘He'll be back soon.'

Iphicles held the flask to his mouth and he sipped the water gratefully. He saw the anxious look on Iphicles' face and wished he could do something to reassure his friend, but he was long past trying to pretend the pain wasn't too bad. It *was* too bad, and it was taking every last bit of energy and strength to hold out against it.

‘Herc?' he whispered again. He was trying to be strong, but he desperately needed the comforting presence of his friend.

Iphicles looked at him with a mixture of compassion and despair. ‘I'll fetch him.'

In a few moments Hercules was there, arm round his shoulders, lifting him slightly to take a few more sips of water. ‘Hang in there, buddy. We're going to Asclepius' temple. He'll be able to help you. It's only half a day's travel. You can do that, can't you?'

Half a day! He wasn't sure he could bear this agony for even a moment longer. ‘I ..... don't know ..... hurts .....'

‘Just a few more hours, Iolaus. Please, you have to hold on .....'

Iolaus looked into the haunted eyes of his friend, heard the note of fear and desperation in his voice. He was asking too much. Surely even Tartarus couldn't be worse than this. He wanted to scream to Hades to come and take him, at least then the pain would go away. But Hercules needed him to try. He could try for a bit longer, he could do this for his best friend.

‘..... try,' he whispered at last.

Hercules closed his eyes for a moment in relief. Iolaus was strong. They'd make it. And when they got there, he'd persuade Asclepius to heal his friend. He refused to acknowledge the possibility that Asclepius wouldn't, or couldn't help. Iolaus wasn't going to die. He wasn't going to die ......

They set out for the temple just as the first signs of dawn were appearing in the sky.

Ares watched their progress and smiled. This really was turning into one of his better days. He'd been so bored. There were no major wars to stir up, far too many peace treaties being signed for his liking. He needed a diversion. When he'd seen Hercules and Iolaus arrive at Iphicles' castle, he'd wondered if he could find an opportunity to get rid of one of Hercules' troublesome friends. Iolaus had been a thorn in Ares' side for as long as he could remember and Iphicles, with his peace treaties and peaceful ways, was becoming as much of a nuisance. The hunting trip had given him an idea.

He grinned to himself as he thought about the perfection of the plan. What had started out as a bit of fun to keep him amused had turned into a completely win-win situation for him. And he'd so enjoyed watching his brother's agony as he tried to decide which of the two to save. He hadn't known that it wasn't his decision to make. And the little runt had come up trumps, as Ares had known he would. The mortal was so predictable! And now they were off to try and save him. It would be a futile trip. Asclepius wouldn't be able to save him, it was against the rules. Rules! Much as he loved to break them when he could get away with it, he had to admit that on occasion they came in useful. Yes, he'd won this time. His honourable brother would never recover from the guilt of condemning his best friend to a painful death. He'd probably end up resenting his blood brother for living and therefore destroy that relationship too. If Ares could create a rift between the two brothers, Iphicles would be hurt and angry and ripe for Ares to come in and mould his thinking. With a warrior king like Iphicles fighting for him, Ares could have a lot of fun. Yes, this was indeed a good day!

The small party made steady progress, but the journey was hard on Iolaus. At first, they'd tried to carry him on a stretcher. The pain was getting worse and he was still conscious and very much aware of what was going on. Hercules fought the urge to give him something to dull the pain. Ares' warning could have been false, but they couldn't take that chance. If only he knew what this poison was, but he'd never come across it before. In his experience, awareness faded to delirium and then unconsciousness as the poison moved through the victim's body. This poison seemed to have the opposite affect, making the victim's last few hours of life a conscious, living Tartarus. It broke his heart to watch Iolaus suffering and yet still trying to bite back his cries of pain. After several hours of this Hercules abandoned the stretcher and chose to carry his friend instead. At least this way Iolaus had the comfort of human touch, could hear his constant whispered words of encouragement.

They arrived at the temple before the sun was fully high in the sky. Inside, a few priests and a handful of worshippers were going about their daily routine. They all stopped to stare as the party entered the temple. Hercules ignored them, went straight to the altar and laid Iolaus down on it carefully, taking off his own vest to make a pad for his friend's head. He whispered, ‘We've made it, Iolaus. Asclepius will help you. He has to.' Iolaus nodded painfully and attempted a smile. Hercules stood in front of the altar. ‘Asclepius! Asclepius, please show yourself, I need you.'

Almost immediately the air shimmered and Asclepius appeared. ‘Hercules. I was wondering if you'd come here.'

‘Iolaus has been poisoned by Ares. Ares says there's no cure. Please ..... tell me that's not true.'

Asclepius looked at the dying man for a moment, then back at Hercules. ‘I know what happened, Hercules. We were watching.'

Hercules looked at him angrily. ‘Who's we? And if you were watching, why didn't you stop Ares?'

‘I was with your father, Hercules. And we couldn't stop it. Iolaus was a willing sacrifice.'

‘What do you mean, *willing*? Ares put us in an impossible position and anyway, it was my decision!'

Asclepius sighed. ‘You know that's not true, Hercules.'

Iphicles looked at his brother in confusion. ‘Hercules, what does he mean?'

Hercules couldn't meet his eyes. ‘He means that he knows it was what Iolaus wanted,' he replied slowly. ‘I know him so well, Iph, I could see it in his eyes. He didn't need to use words. He wanted me to save you. I only did what Iolaus wanted me to do.'

‘So,' Iphicles said carefully, ‘you're saying that it was his decision, not yours. If you'd had to make the choice, would you have saved him instead?'

Hercules ran his hands through his hair in a gesture of despair. ‘I don't know, Iphicles, and that's the truth. I couldn't think, I was paralysed with fear at the thought of losing either of you. But Iolaus ..... he gave me the strength, he willed me to choose. And when Ares gave the word .....' He turned to face his brother now, looking him straight in the eyes. ‘I love you, Iphicles. You're my brother. But ..... I love Iolaus as much as if he were my brother. I can't tell you what decision I'd have made. I just don't know.'

Iphicles looked back at him for a moment, a mixture of confusion, hurt and anger in his expression. Then, seeing the anguish in his brother's eyes, his gaze softened.

‘It's alright, Hercules. You were in an impossible situation. I wouldn't have blamed you if you'd chosen Iolaus. The two of you are closer than you and I have ever been. And mostly, that's my fault.' Hercules made to interrupt, but Iphicles shushed him. ‘It's really alright, brother. We need to think about Iolaus now.'

Hercules was mortified that he could have forgotten his friend's plight for even a moment. He turned to Asclepius. ‘Can you heal him?'

‘As I said, Hercules, he was a willing sacrifice.' This time, Hercules didn't interrupt, just waited for him to continue. ‘This poison can only be used on someone who is willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of another. If Iolaus hadn't been willing to die for Iphicles, and Ares had tried to use the poison anyway, Zeus would have intervened - Ares would have been breaking the rules.'

‘Are you saying that if Iolaus hadn't been willing to die for Iphicles, you'd have stopped Ares?'

‘Yes. I'm sorry, Hercules. I know Ares put you all in a no win situation. But the rule stands - Iolaus was willing to die. I could see into his mind, Hercules. I knew that. So Ares was able to use the poison.'

‘You're you saying you won't cure him because of some stupid rule?'

‘Hercules, you know there have to be rules, or it would be anarchy on Olympus. But there's no way out except .....'

‘Except?' Hercules repeated, hopefully.

‘The only way Iolaus can be saved is if someone else is prepared to give their life for him.'

‘You mean, if I offer to die in his place, you'll cure him?'

‘Well ..... I ..... yes.' Asclepius replied.

Right. What do I do?'

‘Hercules!' Iphicles put a hand on his brother's arm, eyes reflecting the horror he felt at what Hercules was suggesting. ‘You can't do this! It isn't what Iolaus would want!'

‘It was Iolaus' choice to die the first time. Now it's my choice. He gave his life for you - it should have been me! Now I have a chance to put things right.'

‘Hercules! Think about what you're doing!' Iphicles continued urgently. ‘You're ..... *Hercules*! People depend on you! The world needs you! Think about the consequences if you do this. And you *know* Iolaus wouldn't want you to make this sacrifice for him.'

Hercules was silent.

Iphicles took a deep breath. ‘If someone has to do it ..... it should be me.'

‘No!' Hercules shouted. He took a few deep breaths and continued more quietly, ‘Iphicles, I can't tell you what it means to me, that you should offer to take my place. But I can't let you do it. It's my responsibility. My decision to make.'

It was Iphicles' turn to be silent in the face of his brother's resolve.

I'm not indispensable, Iphicles,' Hercules continued. He glanced at Iolaus. ‘The world has other heroes.'

‘What am I going to tell him?'

‘Tell him ..... just tell him the truth. And tell him none of this is his fault. It's my decision.'

‘Hercules .....'

Hercules turned to his brother and silenced him with a raised hand. ‘I'm not going to argue about this, Iph. I need you to be strong. I need to you be there for Iolaus. You have to help each other, do you understand?'

Iphicles nodded dumbly, a lump in his throat, as he realised that his brother's mind was made up. Then Hercules put his arms round him and hugged him tightly. ‘I'm proud to have you as a brother, Iphicles. Never forget that.'

He let go abruptly and turned to Asclepius who had been standing nearby, listening intently to the conversation. ‘What do I do?'

‘Are you sure you want to go through with this?'

‘How many more times?' Hercules answered impatiently. ‘Please, let's get it done with before it's too late!'

Asclepius handed him a goblet filled with what looked like wine. ‘I've put the poison in the wine. It's a double dose - the end should come quickly.'

Hercules nodded his thanks and took the cup. Then he went back and stood at his friend's side. Iolaus was unconscious now, his breathing shallow. Hercules could almost see his life force ebbing away as the moments went on. He studied the pain-etched face for a moment and replaced the image in his mind with one of his friend laughing, cerulean eyes sparkling, golden hair tangled by the wind. Iolaus as he wanted to remember him, full of exuberant life. He reached out a hand and took one of Iolaus' hands in his own. ‘You're my brother Iolaus, and I love you,' he whispered softly. ‘Please understand and accept why I had to do this. Please forgive me.'

He looked over at his blood brother who was standing nearby, fighting back tears, and smiled. Then he looked once more at the man who had been his best friend for as long as he could remember, and raised the cup.

As he put the cup to his lips there was a sudden blast of wind, the force of which knocked the cup from his hands. The cup fell to the stone floor, breaking into a hundred pieces and the lethal wine stained the floor red. He looked up, startled, and saw Zeus standing before him.

‘Father!' he cried angrily. ‘What are you doing? If you wanted to intervene, you could have done it before!'

‘I couldn't do it then,' Zeus explained patiently. Asclepius has already explained that to you. ‘But Ares bent the rules by placing you in an impossible situation. So now I can bend the rules a little, too. You were going to drink the poison, you would have been a willing sacrifice. On this occasion, I deem that sufficient. The sacrifice doesn't have to be made.'

Hercules was silent for a moment as his father's words sunk in. ‘Are you saying you'll heal Iolaus without me having to die in his place?'

‘That's exactly what I'm saying.'

Behind him, Hercules heard Iphicles breath an audible sigh of relief. Zeus continued,

‘We were relying on you thinking to bring him here, Hercules. I knew you'd be willing to die in his place, and that was all I needed .....'

‘This is all a game to you, isn't it?' Hercules interrupted angrily. ‘You just love playing with people's lives!'

‘Is that what you really think, son?' Zeus responded sadly.

‘Yes! No! I ..... gods, I don't know, I'm just so ..... confused.' He looked down at Iolaus, then back at his father. ‘Just heal him ..... please.'

Zeus walked to Iolaus and held out a hand out over his body. A golden glow covered the hunter for several minutes. When it faded, Hercules rushed to his side anxiously. Underneath the bandage, the wound had disappeared. Colour had returned to his face and his breathing seemed normal, but he was still unconscious. Hercules glanced anxiously up at his father.

‘Don't worry,' Zeus reassured him. ‘He's just sleeping. His body's been through a lot in the past day - he'll sleep now until morning. Then he'll be weak for a few days until he regains his strength. After that, he'll be good as new.'

Hercules turned to Zeus. ‘Father, I .....' He didn't know what to say. In the end, he finished simply, ‘Thank you.'

Zeus nodded. ‘I help you when I can, Hercules, please believe that. It's just that sometimes .....'

‘I know,' Hercules smiled finally, anger fading now that Iolaus was safe. ‘Even the king of the Gods can't break the rules.'

Zeus smiled back at his son and disappeared in a flash of light. Asclepius put a hand on Hercules' arm. ‘You can have a room in the temple quarters, Hercules. Bring Iolaus through here.'

When they'd gone, Ares materialised in front of the altar. He was seething with rage. What right did Zeus have to bend the rules, just because he was king of the gods? He'd come so close to ridding himself of that irritating little blond and ruining his brother's life. Still. He brightened. It had been fun, watching them suffer. Maybe in the long run, that would be more fun than actually killing them. Yes, that was a good thought. Now all he had to do was think up another little entertainment for his least favourite brother and his pesky little friend. Ares disappeared as quickly as he'd arrived.

The priests and worshippers, who'd stood watching the recent proceedings in astonishment, exchanged bemused glances, then shrugged in unison and continued with their jobs. Where the gods were involved, anything could happen and frequently did!

As Zeus had promised Iolaus slept through the night and woke late the following morning, weak and disorientated, but in no pain. Finding Asclepius himself at his bedside, he had to be reassured several times that he was still alive and not in the Elysian Fields. He certainly seemed to be back to normal, judging by the size of the meal he managed to wolf down and still complain he was hungry. They refused to let him get up and, although he protested, Iolaus was secretly glad he didn't have to try. He felt as weak as a kitten and even lifting his hand to put a spoon to his mouth wore him out.

The day wore on and Hercules kept out of his way. Iolaus knew the demigod was avoiding him and knew why. It was Iphicles who told him the full story of what had happened in the temple. For once, the usually gregarious hunter was silent as he took in what Iphicles was saying. Iphicles, who was expecting an immediate outburst, was mildly surprised when it didn't come.

Iphicles looked at his friend uncomfortably for a moment. ‘Iolaus, I ..... I want to thank you, for what you did for me. I know we're friends now, but it hasn't always been like that and, well, I guess I feel bad that you were willing to die for me and I .....'

‘At the temple, you offered to die in Hercules' place.'

‘Who told you that?'

‘Asclepius.'

‘Oh. He has a big mouth. Well, I meant it when I said it. But I guess, deep down, I knew Hercules wouldn't let me do it. I guess I just don't have your courage .....'

Iolaus reached out and grabbed his arm. ‘That's not true, Iphicles! Don't ever start thinking like that! It's different for you. You have a son!' He closed his mind to memories of his own son, lost to the plague when he was little more than a baby. ‘You have a kingdom to run. It would be ..... irresponsible for you to do something so stupid!'

‘Whereas you, of course, are a nobody who wouldn't be missed?' Iphicles replied drily.

‘Exactly .....' Iolaus paused as he saw the laughter on Iphicles face.

‘What?'

‘Iolaus, you may be a lot of things, but a nobody isn't one of them! How do you think Hercules would be without you?'

‘Someone mention my name?' Hercules walked into the room. Iolaus took one look at his drawn features and said quietly to Iphicles, ‘Iphicles, could you give us a few minutes, please?'

Iphicles glanced at Hercules, also noting his haggard appearance. ‘Of course. Don't wear him out, Hercules. I need him fit to do some more hunting before you leave!'

When the King of Corinth had left the two friends looked at each other for a moment, then Iolaus said quietly,

‘You look awful, Hercules.'

‘Thanks. You look quite good yourself, considering.'

Silence. Then Iolaus continued, ‘Hercules, if you ever try to pull a stunt like that again I'll ..... I'll .....'

‘Kill me?' Hercules finished for him, a hint of a smile on his face.

‘Exactly.'

Hercules wandered over to the window, carefully keeping his back to his friend. ‘How are you really feeling?'

‘I'm fine, Hercules. Just a bit tired. More to the point, how are you?'

‘Fit as a hydra, as always.'

‘That's not what I meant. Talk to me, Herc.'

Finally, Hercules turned to his friend and his eyes were full of guilt. ‘Gods, Iolaus, how could I have done it? How could I have let you take that arrow, knowing what was going to happen?'

Iolaus looked back at him calmly. ‘How would you have felt if you'd saved me and let Iphicles die?'

‘Gods, I don't know. Just as guilty, I guess. Probably more guilty, because I'd have saved you for selfish reasons, because I need you by my side.'

‘Exactly. Hercules, this is just what Ares wants - you blaming yourself and eating yourself up with guilt. Let it go, Herc. I made the decision. You know it, and I know it. And I'd make the same decision again. Now, you choosing to take the poison in my place .... *that* was the stupid decision!'

‘It was my fault, Iolaus. I wanted to put it right.' Hercules said softly.

Iolaus sat up and shouted, ‘It was *not* your fault, Hercules. It's not your fault Ares hates you, it's not your fault the other gods hate you for trying to do what's right. It was nobody's *fault*.' Exhausted by this outburst, he sank back on the bed again.

‘You're my best friend, Iolaus. I couldn't let you die.'

‘And how do you think I'd have gone on living, knowing you'd died in my place?'

‘How do you think I'd have gone on living if I hadn't?'

Impasse. Suddenly, the humour of the situation hit Iolaus and he began to laugh. After a moment, Hercules joined in and they laughed until they cried. When they'd recovered a little, Iolaus looked at his friend and was relieved to see that the haunted look of guilt had left his face. ‘I guess all Ares has done is prove that we're both willing to die for each other, right?'

Hercules looked at him. ‘Right. And nothing he does is ever going to come between us.' He held out a hand to his friend. ‘Back to back heroes forever, right?'

Iolaus took the proffered arm in a warrior's handshake. ‘Back to back heroes forever, Herc.'

The End



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