Acknowledgement: This story wouldn't have seen the light of day without a huge amount of input from Ceridwen. Ceri - Thanks for the encouragement and brilliant brainstorming abilities and all the time and effort you've put in!
Hercules took a long swig of his ale and glanced up at the sky. The sun was high and it was time to be on his way. He finished his ale with a contented sigh and spent a few moments in pleasant anticipation of the next few days. If he made good time, he'd be joining Iolaus in Amphydria tomorrow. Life had been somewhat eventful lately and he was looking forward to some relaxation and happy reminiscing with their old friend, Krytos, who now owned an inn on the outskirts of the town. Not to mention good food, a long, hot bath and a soft, comfortable bed ....
"Hercules! Hercules! Thank the gods I've found you! My village needs your help!"
Hercules sighed and took another swig of his ale. Sure, he'd dedicated his life to helping people, but sometimes, just sometimes, it would be nice ....
The owner of the voice skidded to a halt beside the table. He was an ordinary looking man, of medium height and build, possibly a farmer from the look of his clothing.
"Take a moment to get your breath, friend." Hercules waved at the innkeeper. "Another ale over here."
"No .... time .... to ....waste!" The newcomer gasped, waving the innkeeper away. You have to go at once!"
"Alright, calm down," Hercules said patiently. "What's the problem?"
"A monster! It's been up in the hills above Evinos for weeks, but it hadn't come near the village. Then, last night, a couple of villagers just disappeared. The only trace left of them was some bloody clothes!"
"Well, have you seen the monster?" Hercules asked. "What does it look like?"
"No-one's seen it. But we've heard it. It has a roar like a hydra!"
"A hydra." Hercules groaned inwardly, thinking, ‘Please don't let it be a hydra. I'm tired, I need a break, I don't need to be fighting hydras. Especially not without Iolaus at my back.' "What's your name, friend?" he asked aloud.
"Atrius. Please, you will go, won't you?"
Hercules sighed again. "Yes, I'll go." Of course he'd go. He always went. That was the problem, as Iolaus never failed to point out. He went to help anyone who asked him which, as Iolaus also pointed out, frequently, was why they never had time for a vacation. This time, Iolaus wouldn't take no for an answer when Krytos had asked them to go and help him build an extension to his inn. Iolaus' plan was to finish the work in three to four days at the most, then spend a few days at the festival in Amphydria. Hercules had to admit, it had sounded like a good plan, but he'd just known something would come up. Iolaus was going to kill him.
"How far is it to your village, Atrius?"
"It's up in the mountains, about a day's travel from here."
So, Hercules calculated, a day to get there, a day to dispose of the monster, two days to get to Amphydria. He'd arrive too late to help with the building, but just in time for the festival. He grinned suddenly. Iolaus really would kill him!
"What? Oh, sorry, Atrius. Well, I guess there's no time like the present. You stay here and catch your breath while I go and make a few arrangement, then we'll be on our way."
"We? Oh, I'm not coming, Hercules."
Hercules raised his eyebrows. "You're not?"
"I have to go to Athens. I didn't want to leave Evinos at a time like this, but I got word yesterday that my mother is very ill. The other villagers asked me to try and find you on my way, we'd heard that you were near here."
"Oh." Hercules was a little surprised, but he tried not to show it. "Well, I'm sorry about your mother. If you could just give me directions to the village, I'm sure I can find the way." Atrius was still looking worried, so he added reassuringly, "Don't worry, Atrius. Everything is going to be fine."
Backed by a thick wood, the log cabin stood at the far end of a long abandoned quarry. It was a one-roomed building, with a sleeping area at one end of the large room and an area for cooking and living at the other. The room was sparsely furnished with a few cots and little more than a large table in the living area.
Around the table sat five men. Four of them were rough looking, dirty and unkept. Anyone meeting them on the road would have had the immediate thought, ‘bandit', and they would have been right. The fifth man sat at the head of the table. Although he also looked rough, he had an air of authority about him that set him apart from the rest.
The men were finishing a sparse meal of bread and cheese. They made little in the way of conversation and the atmosphere was tense, as if they were waiting for something to happen. The silence was shattered as the door burst open with a bang and a man entered. He too was rough and travel worn, the dust of the road clinging to his clothes. Four of the men jumped to their feet, grabbing for their swords, while the fifth man, who was obviously their leader, held his position. The men lowered their swords as they recognised the new arrival.
"Atrius! You near scared me to death!" one of the men growled.
"Sorry, Tantis. I forgot you had such a nervous disposition," the newcomer replied, voice dripping with sarcasm. Tantis ignored him and seated himself again at the table. Atrius took a seat near the leader.
"Well, Atrius?" the leader said, his voice was deep and hard.
"Broteas, it worked like a charm. The guy's a sucker for a sob story. As we speak, he's on the road to Evinos, making his plans to save the poor people from the nasty monster!"
All except Broteas laughed and there was a marked easing of tension in the room. Obviously this news was what they'd been hoping to hear.
Broteas didn't laugh. He leaned forward, dark eyes boring into Atrius until the man shifted nervously. "Are you sure?"
"Of course I'm sure. I waited until I saw him leave. He's gone alright. And he sent his friend a message before he left, saying he'd be delayed for a few days."
Broteas sat back and allowed himself a thin smile.
Tantis cleared his throat nervously, looked round at the other men for support, and addressed Broteas. "Broteas, getting the big guy out of the way is good news, but .... are you sure we shouldn't get some more of the gang to help?"
Broteas stared at him darkly until Tantis lowered his eyes, then replied flatly, "We won't need them."
Tantis licked his lips nervously and looked up again. "Yes, but, Broteas, there's only six of us, and this guy's supposed to be a great warrior. If we can't take him by surprise ...."
Broteas cut him off. "We won't need the rest of the gang. We'll be able to take him by ourselves. I've got a plan for that too. Just listen."
The men listened in silence as their leader outlined his plan and when he'd finished speaking, all were grinning broadly. "You're brilliant, Broteas," Atrius commented. "That'll work like a charm. He'll walk straight into our hands and you'll finally have your revenge."
Broteas smiled, but the smile didn't reach his eyes and his expression was cold and hard. "Yes, I'll finally have my revenge. I've waited a long time for this, my friends, and now my waiting is over. In less than two days, Iolaus of Thebes will be mine!"
"I'll kill him!"
Krytos grinned at the indignant look on his friend's face. Iolaus had just received a message from Hercules saying that his friend had been unavoidably delayed and would be arriving a couple of days late.
"This happens all the time, Krytos," Iolaus grumbled. "All the time! We never get any rest, never have a vacation - even when we do, Hercules ends up rushing off to save someone. Did I tell you about the time I finally persuaded Herc to take a vacation? He only goes and finds Princess Melissa about to be sold into slavery ...."
Krytos had been a soldier, a good soldier and had fought alongside Iolaus and Hercules in many a battle. Some years ago he had been badly wounded and forced to change his lifestyle, settling in Amphydria and opening an inn on the outskirts of the town. Now he was married with a son and the inn was one of the finest in the area.
Krytos had been pleased to see Iolaus when the hunter had arrived the previous day, realising how much he'd missed his friend. Iolaus was so full of life - impetuous and hard headed at times, but he had a good heart and no man was better company or more entertaining as a travelling companion.
The inn keeper listened in amusement as Iolaus told the story in his usual animated fashion, waving his arms for emphasis, mimicking the voices of those involved, voice raised in indignation as he related how Princess Melissa just couldn't get his name right. Krytos wished he had Iolaus' gift. He tried to tell his son stories, but somehow he couldn't get across the sense of excitement and magic. Iolaus always brought his stories alive. Krytos remembered times when the blond had held his fellow warriors spellbound as he told stories of his adventures and even now the inn keeper found himself hanging on Iolaus' every word. He knew Iolaus wasn't really angry with Hercules. The demigod wasn't the only one who'd never turn down a request for help.
After a while, as they continued to labour on the framework for the extension ("I thought you said ‘small addition', not a structure the size of a field!"), an enticing aroma coming from the kitchen reminded Iolaus that he was feeling a little hungry. Sure, he'd eaten a huge breakfast, but that had been hours ago and manual labour was hungry work. He paused to cast a hopeful eye in the direction of the kitchen. Krytos looked up from his work and laughed. "Hungry, Iolaus?"
Iolaus laughed sheepishly. "I'm always hungry, Krytos."
"I remember," Krytos answered drily. "Keeping you fed was always harder than winning the battle!"
Iolaus good-naturedly threw his vest at Krytos' head. Krytos grinned. "Thera's probably gone to the market by now," the inn keeper said. "Why don't you go see if she's left us some of the bread she's been baking?"
Needing no second invitation, Iolaus dropped his tools and headed for the kitchen. Thera was a good woman. She was sure to have left them a little something to keep them going through the morning. Sure enough, there was a plate of newly baked bread and cakes on the table. Grabbing a cake and shoving it happily into his mouth, the hunter went outside into the sunshine. While he was here he might as well take back another load of timber.
Leaving the barn a short time later with a load of timber in his arms, Iolaus noticed a small boy hovering near the kitchen door. He stepped back into the shadows and watched as the boy looked round furtively, then dashed into the kitchen, emerging a few moments later with a large loaf of bread which he was trying to hide under his clothing. The loaf was too big and couldn't be easily hidden. The thief stood there, in plain view, as he tried desperately to push the loaf further into his vest. Iolaus shook his head in disbelief at this amateurish display. Some thief! As the boy finally turned to run away, he almost jumped out of his skin as a heavy hand came down on his shoulder.
"Oh, no you don't. Just where do you think you're going with that bread?"
The thief squirmed to get free, but Iolaus had him in a firm grip and after a few minutes of fruitless struggle, the boy gave up and stood still.
"That's better. Now, do you want to tell me what you think you were doing?"
"Nothing!" the boy replied, a note of panic in his voice.
Iolaus looked the boy over. He was around twelve summers in age, small and wiry with a shock of blond hair and blue eyes that Iolaus suspected would have held a mischievous gleam if the boy wasn't so scared.
"What's your name?"
"Timosthenes," the boy whispered after a pause.
Iolaus bit back a smile. "That's quite a mouthful for a small boy. What do people usually call you?"
"Well, Timos, my name is Iolaus. Now, do you want to tell me why you were trying to steal the bread?"
"I was hungry."
"Hungry?" Iolaus raised an eyebrow. "Don't you have a home?"
There was silence. The boy stared up at him and bit his lower lip, his expression was a mixture of defiance and sadness. When he didn't speak, Iolaus tried a disarming smile. "It's alright, I'm not going to hurt you. But we're not going anywhere until you tell answer my question, and I'm a very patient person."
The boy looked around him, desperately seeking escape, but there was none. He looked back up at the blond man with the kind face and when he spoke, the words came out in a rush. "I've come from Pathia. My father died years ago and my mother died last week from a wasting disease. I'm on my way to Eletia to live with my grandmother. I brought some food with me for the journey, but I ran out yesterday and I don't have any money. I'm sorry about the bread. I've never stolen anything before, honest. Please .... what are you going to do with me?"
His voice broke as he finished and he hung his head, wiping a hand quickly across his eyes. Iolaus was shocked. Pathia was at least three days' journey away. What were the people of that village thinking, to allow a young boy to travel all this way on his own with no money and little food? He realised that the boy could be lying, but he certainly didn't have the presence or demeanor of a hardened thief. The gods knew, Iolaus had enough first hand experience to know a thief when he saw one. There was something about the boy that attracted him and he was prepared at this point to give him the benefit of the doubt. He patted the boy's shoulder.
"It's alright, Timos. I believe you. I'm not going to do anything to you. But next time, if you're hungry, ask for help. Never resort to stealing. Do you understand?"
The boy nodded dumbly, looking up at him with big eyes.
Iolaus was thinking furiously. What in Hades' name was he going to do? He was sure the boy was telling the truth, but that didn't change the fact that he'd tried to steal and Iolaus didn't want him to get away with it without first understanding that there were consequence to his actions.
Iolaus remembered that lesson only too well from his own childhood. When he'd met Hercules he'd been a rebellious kid, a thief, duped into thinking that stealing was easier and more fun than earning your way in life. He'd thought his life was worthless anyway, so why even try to earn an honest living? His friendship with Hercules and his time at Cheiron's Academy had taught him a sense of self-worth and the importance of being honest. He didn't know anything about Timos, but somehow he found himself reluctant to just let the boy go. In any case, there was no question of allowing the lad to travel to Eletia alone. After a few moments thought, the hunter decided on a course of action.
"I tell you what. The man who owns the inn has asked me to help him with some work he's doing and we could use some help on the job. If you give us a hand today, and earn your keep, I'll walk with you to Eletia tomorrow."
Timos gazed up at him, the look of fear fading a little. "You don't have to."
"You shouldn't be travelling on your own," Iolaus said firmly. "Now, you stay here and I'll go and talk to Krytos about you. Don't worry," he added, smiling reassuringly as he noticed the boy's alarmed expression, "he's my friend. He won't be angry about the bread if I explain to him. You just wait here ‘til I come back."
Iolaus disappeared into the inn. He had left Timos alone deliberately, to show the boy that he trusted him. If his trust was misplaced, the worse that could happen was that Thera would lose a loaf of bread or two. But his instincts told him that wouldn't happen.
The blond recounted what had taken place to a surprised Krytos. "I believe him, Krytos, otherwise I wouldn't ask you to take him in."
"I trust your instincts, Iolaus. If he works hard today, he can eat his meals with us and have a room for the night. Go get the boy and let's put him to work!"
Iolaus nodded his thanks and went back to the kitchen to fetch Timos. The boy was still standing where he'd left him, shifting uneasily from foot to foot. He looked up anxiously when he heard footsteps. At Iolaus' smile and wave he grinned and bounded into the inn.
Timos spent the rest of the day working alongside Iolaus and Krytos. Iolaus was pleased to see that the boy was a hard worker and was actually a real asset in their work. Timos seemed eager to help and asked sensible questions about the work he was doing.
Initially, the boy was quiet and seemed content to listen as Iolaus and Krytos reminisced about past campaigns, but after a while he seemed to relax and asked all the questions twelve year old boys were inclined to ask about soldiers and wars.
After a while, during a lull in the conversation, Timos announced, "I'm going to be a solider when I'm older, like my father."
"Tell us about your father, Timos." Iolaus asked cautiously, not wanting to bring back any bad memories for the boy. But Timos seemed happy to talk about him.
"He was a soldier. He fought in a lot of battles. He was a hero."
"I'm sure he was, Timos. What was his name?"
"Pathenos? What campaigns did he fight in?"
"Lots. I forget. He died .... in battle."
"I'm sorry, Timos." Iolaus said gently. "That must have been hard for you, and your mother."
"It was, then. But we didn't see much of him, really, he was always away fighting. My mother said when he was gone, I was the man of the house." he said proudly.
Iolaus thought back to his own childhood, when his own father might as well have been dead for all they saw of him. Timos' childhood must have been much like that. Had he too spent hours pretending to be a soldier, practising with his toy sword, watching the road every day in case today was the day his father returned from another campaign? Iolaus asked a few more cautious questions about the boy's father, but Timos seemed reluctant to talk about him any more, so the hunter didn't push him.
When Timos discovered that Iolaus was Hercules' partner ("Hercules? *the* Hercules?") the boy demanded stories about the slaying of monsters and other adventures and Iolaus was happy to oblige. His stories got more and more outrageous and some of the more obvious embellishments had Timos giggling helplessly. When Iolaus left to fetch more wood, Timos asked Krytos, "Are those stories really true?"
"Oh, yes, they're all true. Iolaus does like to exaggerate for effect," Krytos grinned indulgently, "but most of what he told you really happened."
"He must like it, having his name talked about with a great hero like Hercules."
Krytos gave him a strange look. "What do you mean?"
"Well, if he wasn't with Hercules, no-one would even know who he was, would they?"
Krytos laughed. "If you think Iolaus travels with Hercules to get a name for himself, you've got him all wrong, son. He's with Hercules because they've been best friends since they were kids. Hercules needs him. And even if he didn't - Iolaus is about the bravest man I know, Timos. He's had plenty of adventures without Hercules. He'd make a name for himself on his own, if he was interested in that sort of thing. Which he isn't." At that moment Iolaus returned and Krytos turned the conversation to a different topic.
Later, Iolaus mentioned to Krytos his plan to take Timos to Eletia the next day.
"Now who's trying to get out of the work?" Krytos teased. "I don't think you'll have any problems on the road. There was some trouble with bandits a few months ago, but they seem to have moved on."
Iolaus grinned. "I guess that's good news for Amphydria, Krytos, but I can't say I'm not a bit disappointed - I could do with a good workout!"
Krytos laughed. "You never could turn down a good fight! Well, I'm with you on that one. The only good bandit's an unconscious one!"
"But ..... not all bandits are really bad," Timos protested.
"Really?" Iolaus responded, surprised at the comment. "What makes you think that?"
"Well, some of them aren't as bad as the others, if they don't kill people and only rob the rich."
Iolaus had a fleeting image of Autolycus, self-styled King of Thieves, who only stole from the rich. But Autolycus was an exception that proved the rule.
"Who told you that?"
"My ..... no-one."
"Well," Iolaus said flatly, "You're wrong, Timos. Stealing is wrong, whoever you steal from. Believe me, I learned the hard way."
Timos seemed to accept this without further comment and the conversation moved on.
When they'd finished work for the day Iolaus took Timos down to the river to wash up. Timos livened up considerably, shrieking with laughter as he tried unsuccessfully to dunk his new friend under the water. Krytos watched as the two made their way back to the inn, stopping half way for an impromtpu wrestling match. Iolaus was good with the boy and they seemed to have hit it off together. Watching the two blond heads together, Krytos mused that they could easily have been father and son. He wondered if Iolaus ever regretted the life he led, if he ever yearned to settle down again and raise a family.
His mind drifted back to the first time he'd met Iolaus, in a war against a particularly vicious warlord. They'd come across a village which had been destroyed by the enemy. Everyone had been killed, even the women and children. Iolaus had found the body of a small boy, little more than a baby, who'd been killed by a spear. The warrior had said nothing at the time, but Krytos had seen the way his face paled and how he'd had to choke back tears.
Later, Iolaus had remarked that he hoped the father hadn't had to see what had happened to his wife and child before he died. Krytos had made some stupid remark like ‘what do you know about losing a family'? He'd never forgotten the look on Iolaus' face then, a haunted look of deep pain and torment. Iolaus had said nothing, just got up and walked off into the night.
Krytos had been horrified when Hercules explained to him how Iolaus had recently lost his own wife and child, and cursed himself for his big mouth. He'd followed Iolaus, finding him near the river. The man was crying, huge, raking sobs that shook his whole body, and Krytos had sat beside him silently until his grief was spent. Much to his surprise, Iolaus hadn't pushed him away. Then Krytos had apologised for his unthinking remark and Iolaus had told him it was OK, he wasn't to know. It was the first time he'd cried since his son had died. From that moment on, they'd become firm friends.
Krytos was shaken out of his musings as Timos and Iolaus bounded into the inn, a triumphant Timos winning the race by the narrowest of margins. Iolaus winked at Krytos as he entered the house behind the boy and Krytos raised his eyes to the heavens in mock exasperation. He'd been thinking how quiet the place was with his son, Marcus, away visiting his grandparents. It certainly wasn't going to be quiet tonight!
Thera made up a bed for Timos in her son's room and Timos was sent to bed after dinner, complaining all the way. Iolaus and Krytos stayed up late talking, well after the inn had closed its doors to its patrons. Yet although he was tired from a hard day's labour, Iolaus lay awake far into the night. He couldn't get the boy out of his mind. He found himself wondered what Timos' father had been like and what the boy's life had in store for him now.
His thoughts drifted to his own family. He could still see Ania clearly in his mind's eye. So beautiful, so sweet and loving. They'd had such a short time together, but every moment had been precious. And his son. His wonderful little boy, who'd died when he was little more than a baby. What would he have grown up like if he'd been allowed to live? Would he have been anything like Timos? Usually, Iolaus tried not to think too much about his lost family. Even after all this time, it still hurt so much. So he kept the memories locked away, but they were all there, clear as day when he chose to let them out.
Tonight he found himself wondering what his life would have been like had his family lived. Would he have lived his life out as a blacksmith in Thebes, perhaps occasionally accompanying Hercules on one of his adventures? Would he have been content there, or would he have found himself getting more and more restless, spending more and more time with Hercules and longer and longer away from home? Would he have been a good father, or would he have turned into a mirror image of his own father, away at war more often than he was home, with no understanding of or time for his own son? What would have happened to his family if he'd been killed on one of their adventures? After all, Hercules had brought him back from the Underworld twice already.
Travelling with the demigod was a dangerous occupation and he accepted the dangers gladly, but sometimes, despite the companionship of his best friend, he just felt so lonely and found himself longing for a family to come home to. For a wife he could take in his arms and take to his bed, who'd whisper words of love just for him. For a son whose eyes would light up with pride when he saw that his father was home. They'd go fishing together and he'd show his son how to track and hunt, how to use a bow.
Maybe one day, when he was forced to face the fact that he could no longer keep up with his immortal friend, he'd have the family he dreamed of. Maybe some day.
Eventually, he drifted into sleep.
The next morning Iolaus and Timos set off for Eletia as soon as they'd finished the enormous breakfast Thera had prepared for them. According to Krytos, it was about half a day's journey. If all went well and they were able to find Timos' grandmother, Iolaus reckoned he'd be able to get back to Amphydria before nightfall.
He'd considered the idea of staying in Eletia overnight, but it would probably be better to leave Timos alone with his grandmother. She didn't yet know about her daughter's death and wouldn't appreciate an outsider intruding on her grief.
A stab of sadness shot through him as he saw himself returning to Amphydria without Timos. He was almost afraid to admit how attached he'd become to the boy in just one short day. He'd always related well to children. They responded to him more readily than to Hercules, whose size and reputation often got in the way. But apart from times when he found himself missing his family, he tried not to think about having children of his own. With the lifestyle he led, it just wouldn't be fair. Now, he couldn't help thinking how good it would feel to have a son like Timos, someone who would work beside him, someone who would grow up into a fine man he could be proud of. Zeus, he'd even found himself wondering if he could somehow keep Timos with him. "Snap out of it, Iolaus!" the blond told himself sternly. "There's no place in your life for a young lad who needs a real home."
They made their way down the well worn trail without incident. Timos chatted happily enough when spoken to, but was silent much of the time and seemed uneasy. He jumped every time he heard a noise and, when he thought Iolaus wasn't looking, looked nervously around him, as if expecting something to happen at any moment. Finally, the blond asked, "What's the matter, Timos? Is something bothering you?"
"Bothering me?" Timos responded, sounding startled. "No, why?"
Iolaus shrugged. "You seem a little jumpy, that's all. Are you worried that we'll run into bandits?"
"Of course not! Why would I worry about bandits when I have you to look after me?"
This got a laugh from Iolaus, who put his arm companionably around the boy's shoulder. "Well, I reckon I can probably give a few bandits a run for their money! Anyway, we're not far from Eletia now. Your grandmother will be pleased to see you, I'll bet. I'm sure you've grown a lot since she last saw you."
Timos grinned proudly. "I'm a lot taller now!" He looked slyly at Iolaus. "Only a few more years, and I'll be taller than you!"
Iolaus grinned and cuffed him softly for his cheek. "The best things come in small packages, didn't you know that? At least, that's what I was planning to tell my son if he ...." he stopped speaking abruptly and looked away.
The hunter swallowed hard, trying desperately to get his emotions under control. He'd kept his feelings locked away for so long that he couldn't handle the sudden rush of memories washing over him. Ania, dying in his arms, not wanting to leave him yet proud that she'd given him a son. His son, breathing his last breath as his little body succumbed to the fever. His family. He'd fought alongside Hercules, fighting monsters and warlords and gods, yet he couldn't save his own family.
"Iolaus?" Timos' voice, full of concern now. "What's the matter?"
The hunter forced himself to look at the boy, who was staring at him with big eyes.
"I'm sorry, Timos. I had a son, once. He died when he was still a baby."
Timos looked shocked. "I'm sorry, Iolaus. I never thought ...."
"You thought I didn't look the type to have a family?"
"Yes! No! Well, I guess so, travelling with Hercules all the time. You must be away from your wife a lot ...."
"My wife died giving birth to our son." Iolaus said shortly. He couldn't trust himself to speak again and, somehow understanding how painful this was for the hunter, Timos took the hint and stopped asking questions.
Shortly after this, the path began to twist and turn as it approached a wood. Ahead, at a bend in the trail, Timos spotted a strangely shaped tree, twisted and gnarled with age. "Look at that weird tree! I'm going to take a closer look!"
With that, he took off running. Iolaus was thoughtful for a moment. He was sure there was something bothering the boy. Maybe Timos was more nervous than he'd admit about starting a new life with his grandmother. After all, he'd had a rough time lately. Iolaus shrugged off the uneasy thoughts. Timos barely knew him, after all, he could hardly expect the boy to share his innermost thoughts. Yet somehow, although he'd only known him for a day, he felt close to the boy. Maybe it was because Timos reminded him of himself at that age. Losing his father had been difficult for Iolaus and his mother and they'd had to work hard to make ends meet. He'd gotten in with the wrong crowd, begun stealing .... and been caught by somebody who'd had compassion and understanding and given him a chance. Somebody ....
His thoughts were shattered abruptly by a scream from the path ahead. Timos! Cursing himself for his carelessness in letting the boy rush ahead, Iolaus unsheathed his sword and ran towards the gnarled tree where he'd last seen the boy. He approached cautiously. "Timos?"
Iolaus rounded the bend slowly, sword at the ready, and froze in his tracks. Before him stood Timos. He was held from behind by a well built, rough looking man who held a knife to the boy's throat. As Iolaus came into view the man said, "Stop right where you are, and don't move, or I'll slit his throat from ear to ear!"
Iolaus stopped and stood very still. Another voice behind him said, "Drop your weapons! And no stupid moves, or my friend will keep his promise and the boy's blood will be on your hands."
Iolaus knew he had no choice but to do as he was told if he wanted to save Timos' life. He slowly pulled out his sword, then his dagger, and put them on the ground in front of him.
"Now, kick them away from you!" the voice ordered.
Iolaus obeyed, being careful not to make any quick movements. The voice behind him sounded familiar, but he couldn't place it. His mind was racing. He could easily dispose of the man at his back, but to do so would put the boy's life in danger. He was too far away for Iolaus to reach him before the man with the knife hurt him. Of course, he couldn't be sure the man wasn't bluffing, but he dare not take the chance and the bandit certainly looked mean enough to carry out his threat. Iolaus' keen senses told him that there were more bandits too, hiding in the bushes around. His only option was to co-operate for now.
"Put your hands on your head."
Iolaus complied, desperately trying to place the voice.
"I've done what you said," he said slowly. "Let the boy go."
The man behind him laughed. "Oh, I don't so. Not just yet."
"What do you want? Neither of us has any money."
"What do I want? *What do I want*?" the bandit laughed bitterly. "I don't want your money. I just want *you*, Iolaus. That's what I want."
Iolaus flinched at the venom in the man's voice as he bandit spoke his name. The blond heard the rustle of footsteps as another bandit took up position behind him and the owner of the voice walked round into view. As soon as he saw the man, Iolaus whispered, "Broteas," in shocked recognition.
"So, you haven't forgotten me."
Broteas. The sight of the man brought back dark memories Iolaus had tried to forget. Now, the memories flooded back and he felt a stab of fear. He hadn't seen Broteas for a long time, but the last time they'd met, Broteas had vowed to kill him. "I haven't forgotten, Broteas," he said, keeping his voice steady. "They told me you'd turned bandit."
Broteas laughed. "Bandit? That's a rather insulting term, Iolaus. I prefer to think of myself as a successful raider."
"From what I've heard, you're nothing but a two-bit bandit. What happened to you, Broteas? You were a good soldier ....."
"What happened?" Broteas' voice rose and his face darkened. "*You* happened! You ruined my life when you let my brother die, and now you're going to pay, you little runt!"
Iolaus found his mouth had suddenly gone dry. There was a hint of madness in Broteas' voice. "If it's me you want, you can let the boy go."
Broteas roared with laughter and turned to look at Timos. "You hear that, boy? He wants me to let you go! What do you think I should do?"
Iolaus looked at Timos, trying to reassure him. Timos stared back at him. There was something wrong here. The boy should have been frightened to death with a knife held to his throat, but there was no fear in Timos' face. What Iolaus saw there was a mixture of loathing and anger. And it was directed not at his captor, but at Iolaus himself. The hunter felt a stab of pain. Why should Timos be looking at *him* with hatred in his eyes? Then for a fleeting moment he saw another emotion in the boy's eyes - shame, and a split second later realisation flooded through him. His eyes moved to his sword, lying on the ground a few feet away, but it was too late. His head seemed to explode in pain and he dropped like a stone, unconscious before he even hit the ground.
Tantis walked around the hunter's prone body and kicked him viciously. "Just checking he's not faking!" he laughed.
Atrius, who'd been holding Timos, let go of the boy immediately. The boy walked slowly over to join Broteas and the two of them stood and looked down at the fallen warrior.
"Is he .... is he dead?" Timos asked nervously.
"Dead? Of course he's not dead. That would spoil all the fun. I want him to suffer before he dies." Broteas put an arm around the boy's shoulders. "Tomorrow will be a great day, Timos. Tomorrow we avenge your father's death!"
Hercules was puzzled. Anxious to dispatch this monster as quickly as possible so that he could join Iolaus in Amphydria, he had made good time, stopping only to catch a few hours sleep, and had arrived at Evinos at about noon the following day.
But so far, all the villagers he'd encountered had been going about their business peacefully. This didn't seem like a village caught in the grip of terror. The few he'd talked to had looked at him as if he was mad when he'd mentioned the monster menacing the village. The demigod was beginning to suspect that he'd been brought here under false pretenses. What he had to find out now was why and by whom!
He made his way to the only tavern in the town, sat down at the bar and ordered an ale. The tavern keeper was a friendly man who became even more friendly when he learned that his guest was the legendary son of Zeus. Hercules told him about his encounter with Atrius.
"Well, it's the first I've heard of a monster and believe me, if there was one, I'd be the first to know it. Atrius? There's no-one in this village of that name. What did he look like?"
Hercules thought back. "Medium height, stocky, longish black hair. Nothing to particularly distinguish him."
The barkeeper shrugged. "Could be anyone. Atrius." he frowned. "Atrius. No, it doesn't ring a bell. We don't get strangers here much, we're too far off the main roads. You're our first visitor since that wild gang that passed through here a week ago."
"Gang?" Hercules enquired, becoming more and more uneasy as the conversation progressed. "What kind of gang?"
"There were half a dozen of them, all wild looking. They were camped out somewhere, just came into the tavern drinking. I had the idea they were bandits, but they didn't cause any real trouble, so I can't prove that. They had a boy with them - left him in the barn tending the horses while they caroused in here."
"What else do you remember about them?"
The bartender shrugged. "They left. Never saw them again."
Another man, who had been listening to the conversation, interrupted. "I heard one of them say they were heading for Amphydria. They were talking about settling a score once and for all."
Amphydria! Hercules frowned. He was to meet Iolaus in Amphydria, and it seemed too much of a coincidence that the gang were also headed there. But none of this made any sense. If Atrius was one of this gang, why had they sent him on this wild goose chase? If they had a score to settle, it couldn't be with him, they obviously wanted him out of the way. The demigod's sense of unease grew, and he turned to the man who had interrupted. "Did you catch any of their names?"
"Let me think. The leader ..... his name was something like Bres ..... Brasius?"
"Broteas." The innkeeper said suddenly. "I noted it at the time. I have a cousin of the same name."
Shocked, Hercules looked at him closely. "Broteas?" he asked carefully. "Are you absolutely sure? What did he look like?"
"Tall, long dark hair. Handsome, but cold, brooding like. He looked like a man with a lot on his mind."
If it was the Broteas Hercules knew, the demigod knew he had reason to be worried. Broteas and his twin brother, Paleas, had once fought alongside Hercules and Iolaus in battle at Corinth. Paleas had been killed and Broteas had taken his death very badly. The last time they'd run into him, Broteas had unjustly accused Iolaus of causing his brother's death and threatened to kill him the next time they met. Since then there had been rumours that he had turned outlaw, organising raiding parties on the territory of the enemy who had killed his brother and swearing vengeance on the man he felt was responsible for his brother's death.
With a sudden rush of fear, Hercules knew why they'd headed for Amphydria. Somehow, Broteas knew that Iolaus was heading for the town to meet Hercules and wanted to get the demigod out of the way. Hercules tried to keep calm. There were only half a dozen of them, Iolaus could probably handle them singlehanded. But Broteas was a good warrior and fuelled by his hatred ....
Iolaus may be able to handle the bandits alone, but Hercules wasn't taking any chances. Broteas blamed Iolaus for his brother's death and he'd sworn to make him pay. If he'd gone to these lengths to prevent Hercules getting to Amphydria, he must have a well thought out plan. Broteas was filled with hatred and his mind was twisted by thoughts of revenge. Hercules was afraid to imagine what the bandit had planned for the hunter, but whatever it was, it certainly wouldn't involved a fair fight.
"Thanks for the information. I have to go." Swallowing the rest of the ale in one gulp, the son of Zeus pushed back his seat and left the tavern at a run.
Iolaus regarded Broteas with contempt.
The hunter had regained consciousness a few moments ago to find himself in a clearing on the edge of a quarry. He was standing in the shade of a large tree, arms pulled up over his head, wrists tied to an overhanging branch. As his feet were barely touching the ground, most of his weight was supported by his arms which were throbbing with pain. His shoulders ached and his head was still pounding.
It had taken several moments for the blond to clear his mind enough to remember the encounter on the road and the moment when he'd realised that Timos had betrayed him. Then, vague recollections of waking up to find himself lying across a horse's back, a merciless throbbing in his head sending waves of nausea and dizziness through his body. The movement of the horse had only made things worse and he'd been violently sick. He must have passed out again then, because the next thing he knew he'd woken up here.
The hunter had taken stock of his situation. Looking carefully around him, he'd noted that the quarry was long abandoned, grass and scrub creeping inexorably forward to take over the once clear land. Towards one end of the quarry, near where he stood, was a large log cabin. The cabin also looked abandoned, but there were signs that some effort had been made to repair it enough to make it habitable. Two guards stood nearby, dividing their attention between their captive and the woods around.
Iolaus then turned his attention to his physical position. Raising his aching head carefully he'd found that his wrists were firmly tied to the branch above with thin, strong rope. He pulled against the rope, testing its strength, but only succeeded in tightening his bonds even more. There was no chance of escape there.
After a few moments, Broteas had emerged from the cabin and walked over to stand before him, Timos a few steps behind. Three other men followed him out and positioned themselves a short distance away, watching in anticipation.
"Welcome to my little hideout, Iolaus," Broteas said pleasantly. "It's not much, I know, but it's home. I'm sure your time here will be pleasant - for us, at least." Laughter from the rest of the gang.
Iolaus stared at him defiantly. "I have no intention of being your entertainment, Broteas," he said, voice full of contempt, then looked over to where Timos stood, eyes to the ground. "So tell me, Timos, what are you doing hanging out with a loser like Broteas?"
Broteas backhanded him casually across the face. "Watch your mouth. That's my brother's son you're talking to."
Iolaus stared at Timos in complete shock. This was Paleas' son? Suddenly, everything made complete sense and he felt sick as he realised how thoroughly he'd been taken in.
Suddenly filled with anger at this boy, he addressed him bitterly, "So, Timos, how does it feel to betray a friend?"
Broteas backhanded him again, rocking his head back and splitting his lip. "I told you to watch your mouth, runt."
Iolaus tasted blood as his tongue probed his split lip and his cheek felt like it was on fire. But it was worth the pain to see the momentary look of shame in the boy's eyes. Timos recovered quickly. "You're the traitor! My father's dead because of you!"
"Is that what Broteas told you? It's not true, Timos, he lied to you," Iolaus responded, earning himself another blow from Broteas.
Timos stared up at Iolaus, eyes full of contempt. Broteas took Iolaus' chin in a cruel grasp, forcing his head up, making the blond meet his eyes.
"You coward. You're still not prepared to admit the truth. You were afraid to go with him to watch his back. If you'd been there, my brother wouldn't have been taken by the enemy."
This time, Iolaus addressed Broteas directly, trying to speak calmly. "Broteas, we were friends once. You know what happened, you know I'd never willingly have let Paleas go off alone ...." His words were cut off by a blow to the stomach that momentarily knocked the wind out of him.
"But you did let him go, and they killed him. That's all I need to know."
Iolaus bit back an angry response. He had learnt long ago that nothing he could say would convince Broteas that his brother's death wasn't the hunter's fault. Looking into the man's face, Iolaus could see nothing left of the man he'd once known. Broteas had the look of a man obsessed, a man who could no longer see anything but his all consuming need for revenge. Iolaus felt a chill go through him. How was he going to get out of this one?
Broteas was speaking again. "Do you want to know what's going to happen to you?"
When Iolaus didn't respond, he continued, "You're going to die the same way my brother died. You remember how he died, don't you?"
Yes, he remembered, and felt a cold stab of fear at the memory of Paleas' body, bloody and broken. Iolaus tried to keep his face blank of expression, though his heart was racing.
"They beat him to death," Broteas continued. "They broke every bone in his body. He was hardly recognisable when we found him."
He put his hand on Timos' shoulder. "I promised you revenge for your father's death and tomorrow, I'll fulfill my promise."
Iolaus looked from Broteas' sadistically grinning face down to Timos. The boy swallowed, his face reflecting the anguish he felt as his mind conjured up horrifying images. Anger was quickly replaced with compassion as Iolaus looked at the boy. Whatever he'd done, he was only a child who'd been led astray by his uncle, and the hunter couldn't help feeling sorry for him. Iolaus knew that whatever Broteas had planned for him, it wasn't going to be pretty, and it wasn't right that a child like Timos should have to watch a man die. He looked back at Broteas.
"Broteas, don't put the boy through this. He's just a child. It's not right."
"Ah, but he wants to see you die, Iolaus," Broteas replied, looking sternly at Timos. "Isn't that right, Timos? He understands why retribution is required."
Timos swallowed again and nodded. Iolaus felt a sudden sliver of hope. The boy was obviously confused, not feeling the pleasure he'd assumed to feel at the treatment Iolaus was receiving. Was there any way the hunter could turn the boy's doubts to his advantage?
Broteas was speaking again. "You see, it's only fitting that you die in the same way in which my brother died. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. So at dawn the sentence will be served. You will be beaten to death, in the same way my brother was. Then we're going to leave what's left of you here for your friend to find. Though I think it'll be some time before Hercules comes looking - Atrius has seen to that."
He watched Iolaus' face carefully as he spoke those final words. Iolaus tried not to let any emotion show on his face, but his heart sank. Despite the hopelessness of his situation, he'd still had a small hope that the son of Zeus might even now be on his trail. But if Broteas was speaking the truth, that hope was gone.
"I think, Tantis, we should give our friend a little taste of what he can look forward to tomorrow."
Tantis moved forward eagerly, cracking his knuckles in anticipation. When the bandit got within range, Iolaus kicked out powerfully, catching the man in the groin. Tantis doubled up and sank to his knees, gasping in pain. The hunter knew it was a stupid move, the beating he was to receive would no doubt be worse as a result, but it gave him some satisfaction to see Tantis in pain and it was worth it.
Broteas laughed at Tantis who was lying on the ground, clutching his groin and groaning. "That'll teach you to be more careful. Never underestimate the enemy." He spoke quietly to Atrius, who disappeared out of sight and returned a few moments later with some rope. Quickly, he quickly tied the hunter's ankles together.
As Tantis struggled to his feet and approached him again, Iolaus locked eyes with the boy, desperately searching for something that would give him hope. Timos was the first to drop his gaze. Then, as the first blow fell, Iolaus forgot the boy and concentrated all his energy on surviving the beating Tantis was so enthusiastically administering.
The beating was vicious and brutal but mercifully short. Broteas stopped Tantis when the hunter was on the verge of losing consciousness. "We don't want him to waste any time asleep. I want him to have plenty of time to think about what's going to happen tomorrow." He looked at Iolaus, who gazed back defiantly. "You might want to use the time to beg for mercy from whichever god you worship, for you'll get none from me."
They left him alone. In the sudden stillness, with no distractions, Iolaus was aware only of pain. His face hurt, his head was still thumping and his abdomen felt as if a hydra had fallen on him. His shoulders and arms were beginning to ache fiercely. Frustrated and angry, he spent a few minutes stubbornly trying to break free but only succeeded in hurting himself more. Warm blood trickling down his arms from wrists rubbed raw and eventually common sense prevailed and he ceased his efforts.
His thoughts wandered to Timos and thinking about the boy's betrayal hurt. Timos had come into his life only a day before, yet he had been so sure of him, felt so close to him. How could he have been so wrong? Had anything Timos told him been true? The boy had been a great actor, that was for sure. He'd really believed that Timos liked him, that they'd become friends. Iolaus felt a momentary bitterness. When was he going to learn? How many more times was he going to lose his heart to someone who took it and broke it into pieces?
Unbidden, memories of Xena and her complete and utter betrayal flooded through his mind. They were friends now, but it had taken years for them to build that relationship. He thought he'd dealt with the pain, but now all the old feelings came rushing back. He'd loved her so much, the pain of her betrayal had been almost too much to bear. Even worse than that, he'd almost destroyed his friendship with Hercules, siding with Xena over his friend, even coming to the point where he was prepared to kill the demigod to protect Xena. He'd fallen in love with her the first time he saw her and had stubbornly refused to think beyond the passion he felt. How could he have been such a gullible fool? Well, the answer to that one was simple. He'd been lonely, missing his family, wanting more than anything to find someone who'd love him. Easy prey. Now, it had happened again, as he'd lost his heart to a boy he'd only just met, naively trusting him and believing that there was some kind of bond between them where obviously none existed.
The hunter forced his thoughts back to the present. How long had the boy been with Broteas, hearing again and again his plans for revenge against the man who had betrayed his brother? What kind of life did he have, living with a gang of bandits? Iolaus was a fair man and he knew he could hardly blame the boy for believing his uncle rather than a man he'd only just met, even if what his uncle had been planning was wrong. Yet there had been something in Timos's eyes just before he'd left that gave Iolaus a glimmer of hope.
He shifted position, trying to get his feet firmly on the ground to take some of the strain off his arms, but it was impossible. His arms already felt as if they were being pulled out of their sockets, he was hungry and desperate for water. Somehow, he didn't think his captors would be too concerned about his physical needs. His mind shied away from thoughts of the long night ahead and the fate that awaited him at dawn.
To take his mind off his situation he tried to think about something positive, but before long his thoughts began to drift to the tragic incident during the war. Was it possible that Broteas was right and he could have done something to save Timos' father? Could he have been more persuasive in convincing Paleas that he was making a mistake? He began to replay the scene in his mind, over and over, as he had many times in the past.
Daylight began to fade as the sun sank beneath the horizon.
Timos couldn't sleep. Every time he closed his eyes his mind was filled with images of Iolaus, laughing at something Timos had said, looking at him with compassion as he talked about his father. Then the images would be replaced by a vision of the hunter, bloody and battered, hanging from the tree.
Ever since his father's death his uncle had been telling him about the warrior, Iolaus, who had let Timos' father go alone to his death. The man who was a coward at heart, but tried to make a name for himself, following Hercules around.
Timos had believed his uncle's story and a hatred had grown in his heart for a man who could abandon a friend and fellow warrior. Then his uncle set his plan in motion and Timos had gone to Amphydria and engineered the meeting with Iolaus. The plan had worked like a dream. Timos had expected to find his part difficult to play, had thought it would be hard to pretend to like this man. But he'd found himself drawn to the small warrior with the big smile and even bigger heart.
Timos had been afraid that Iolaus would be suspicious and that he'd have trouble convincing him of his story, but the blond had taken him at his word, befriended him, shown him compassion in the light of his recent ‘bereavement'. Try as he might, he couldn't equate this man with the picture his uncle had painted. Despite himself, he'd found himself drawn to Iolaus' warmth and love of life. He'd crept out of bed that night and listened to the conversation in the inn, but all he'd seen and heard only confirmed his observation that the warrior was liked and respected by everyone.
Timos had thought he'd enjoy seeing his father's betrayer caught, but as he had watched Tantis administer the vicious beating, he had found himself flinching as each blow found its mark. Iolaus has born the beating without even crying out, hadn't once begged for mercy. Hardly the behaviour of a coward. He'd even begged Broteas to spare Timos the pain of watching a man being killed and Timos knew he'd done this out of genuine concern. He'd betrayed Iolaus, yet the man was still concerned about him.
Timos had inherited from his father a sense of fairness and justice. His father had always told him to listen to both sides of a story before deciding what was true. For the first time, he began to doubt his uncle's version of events, began to wonder if Broteas could have been wrong. His twelve year old mind grappled with these issues as he tossed and turned in his blankets, until finally he realised that there was only one way to settle things in his mind. He had to talk to Iolaus again.
Timos slipped quietly out of his bed, careful not to wake the others, and went outside. The moon was high and bright, bathing the whole area in a light that was almost as bright as day. Two of the gang were on guard, keeping a watchful eye on the woods and the prisoner. Timos went up to one of the guards, saying boldly, "I want to talk to the scum who killed my father one more time before we kill him." The bandit grinned at the harsh words from the small boy. "Go ahead then. But don't take too long."
Timos walked slowly and reluctantly towards the prisoner. As he approached, Iolaus wearily raised his head. His eyes flickered in surprise but he said nothing. Timos stood staring at the warrior for a moment, appalled at the condition he was in. One side of his face was swollen, the eye blackened and almost closed, lip cut and still bleeding. Timos took a deep breath, then said simply, "Tell me the truth about my father."
Iolaus had passed the point of hoping that he was going to get out of this alive. He was too tired, and he hurt too much. All he could cling onto was the desire to defy Broteas as long as his already battered body would allow. But the boy deserved to know the truth about his father's death, so the hunter began to speak, slowly and quietly. Really, it hurt too much to talk. Even moving his lips sent pain shooting through his face, but he tried to ignore it, concentrating instead on choosing the right words to explain the truth to the boy.
"It was during the third Corinthian war. Hercules and I were with an army contingent defending a town from the enemy. Your father and your uncle were soldiers in the same army. We'd met before, I considered them both friends. We were few, spread out around the perimeter of the town, holding off the invading forces until reinforcements arrived."
He paused, swallowing painfully, desperate for water to sooth his parched throat. "I was paired with your father. We were barely able to hold off the enemy, the situation was getting desperate and there was no sign of the reinforcements. Your father had the idea of getting behind the enemy lines and setting up a diversion to distract them. He wanted me to go with him. It wasn't a good plan, there were too many of them, and if we'd left our positions we'd have left a hole in our defenses the enemy could have slipped through. I tried to persuade him not to go - but he was convinced it would work. So he went on his own." he stopped.
Timos was silent for a moment. Then he whispered, "What happened?"
"We managed to hold them off until the reinforcements arrived. Then it was easy, they were outnumbered and we were able to drive them back completely. We didn't know what had happened to your father until after it was all over and we .... we found his body." *Battered and broken, lying discarded like a piece of rubbish. Hardly a bone in his body unbroken.*
"My uncle says he was beaten to death." Timos said flatly.
"That's true, Timos." Iolaus said quietly.
Timon went on, "Broteas said he knew my father was dead, said he'd felt his pain when they were beating him, knew the moment he died. I guess that's because they were twins."
Iolaus was silent. He didn't know what to say.
"Could you have saved my father?"
"I've thought about that, Timos," Iolaus replied, knowing that he had to be honest with the boy. "I've gone over and over it in my mind. I tried to convince him not to go, but he wouldn't listen, he wasn't thinking straight. You .... you and your mother were in the town, Timos. He was desperate to save you. If I could have gone with him without leaving a hole in our defenses, I would have. You have to believe that. But it was war. If I had to do it over, I'd have done the same thing. If the enemy had gotten through they'd have killed everyone in that town. Terrible things happen in war. Your father was a good friend, a good man. He didn't deserve to die like that."
Timon looked at him for a long moment, then he said softly, "Neither do you, Iolaus. I have to get you out of here. What should I do?"
Iolaus almost fainted with relief. He looked around cautiously. There were two bandits on guard, four more asleep in the cabin. His heart sank and the momentary surge of hope faded as he realised that there was no way Timos would be able to untie him without them seeing. He knew too that he was in no shape to fight them even if the boy succeeded. If the rescue attempt failed and Broteas realised Timos had tried to help the captive, there was no knowing what the man would do to his nephew.
Timos was looking at him anxiously. "What should I do?" he repeated. "I could go and find a knife...."
"No Timos," Iolaus interrupted urgently, "It's too dangerous. You'd never free me without the guards seeing." He swallowed hard. "I won't let you risk your life for me."
Timos looked round nervously at the guards. "Well, I could sneak out and get help. It's only two hours travel, to Amphydria, I could get Krytos."
"No!" Iolaus repeated, more forcibly this time. "Listen to me, Timos. It's too dangerous. If your uncle catches you ...."
"He won't catch me," Timos said confidently. "He's still asleep. If I go now it'll be easy."
"No, Timos, wait ....!"
But Timos wasn't listening. As he turned to go he noticed one of the guards looking at him suspiciously. He turned back to Iolaus, winked and raising his voice, said, "I hate you for what you did to my father. I'm glad you're going to die tomorrow!" He spat in Iolaus' face and rushed away towards the cabin.
The approaching guard stopped and laughed loudly. "You tell him, lad."
Timos waited until it was quiet outside then slipped out of the cabin again. He waited until the guards' backs were turned, then ran into the forest, his form quickly hidden by the trees. He ran as fast as he could, heart pounding, praying that he would get help in time.
Hercules arrived in Amphydria in the middle of the night. Ordinarily, he'd have slept in the barn rather than wake Krytos, but he was anxious to check that Iolaus was there and safe. His loud banging on the door didn't endear him to the other guests of the inn, but Krytos didn't seem to mind when he opened the door and saw who it was.
"Hercules, my friend! It's good to see you. Running the nightshift now?"
"I'm sorry, Krytos, I wouldn't have got you up, but I'm worried about Iolaus. He is here, isn't he?" The demigod found himself holding his breath as he waited for the answer.
Krytos raised an eyebrow at Hercules' concern. "He's fine, Hercules. He arrived over two days ago."
Hercules was breathing a sigh of relief when Krytos went on, "But he isn't actually here at the moment. He set off for Eletia this morning. I guess he decided to stay overnight."
Hercules felt an icy wave of fear spread over him. "He went to Eletia? Why?"
"He took Timos to find his grandmother."
"Hercules, will you come in and sit down. You look exhausted. I'll explain it to you."
Hercules allowed himself to be drawn inside, sat down and accepted the ale Krytos handed him. The inn keeper took a seat opposite his friend and explained how they had met Timos and the way Iolaus had taken him under his wing. "He looks a lot like I'd imagine Iolaus looked when he was a kid - small, wiry, mop of blond hair," he smiled. "Iolaus really took a shine to the boy. He'd make a good father."
Hercules wasn't sure what to make of this news. It could be perfectly innocent. On the other hand, there had been a boy travelling with the bandits when they passed through Evinos. This could be the same boy, leading Iolaus into a trap.
"Hercules?" Krytos asked, concern rising at the look on the demigod's face, "What is it?"
"I'm not sure." Hercules quickly filled him in on his abortive visit to Evinos and the conversation in the tavern. "If this is the same boy, then Iolaus has been set up ...."
"Don't jump to conclusions, Hercules. It's probably just a coincidence ...." Krytos' voice trailed off. He wasn't convincing himself, never mind his worried friend. He tried again, "And anyway, we both know Iolaus can look after himself."
"Not if they use the boy against him." Hercules responded flatly. "I'm going to head off for Eletia."
"Hercules, you can't accomplish anything in the middle of the night. If ...."
They both jumped to their feet as the door flew open with a bang. A small boy bowled into the tavern, running smack into Hercules. The demigod steadied the boy who was gasping for breath, obviously exhausted, and sat him down on a nearby chair. "Take it easy, get your breath back. Whatever it is, you're safe now."
"Timos!" Krytos exclaimed as he recognised the boy.
Timos! Hercules grabbed the boy's shoulders. "Where's Iolaus!"
Timos was doubled over, clutching his side, breath still coming in big gasps. He looked up at the demigod and tried unsuccessfully to speak.
Krytos disappeared and returned with a tankard of water. He put his arm around the boy and encouraged him to drink a few sips. Then he looked up at Hercules. "Let him get his breath, Hercules. The boy's exhausted."
Timos looked up at the demigod. "Hercules! Thank the gods. You have to help Iolaus .... they're going to kill him."
"Who's going to kill him?"
"My uncle, Broteas. They're going to .... to ...."
Hercules shook him. "What?"
"They're going to beat him to death. Just like my father ...."
Gods! Hercules had seen Paleas' body when the enemy had finished with him. Then he did a double take. Father? This was Paleas' son? His mind was whirling with the implications of this information, but there was no time to go into that now.
"Where are they holding him, Timos?"
"In an old quarry, up in the hills near Eletia."
Hercules turned to Krytos urgently. "Do you know the way to this quarry?"
Krytos nodded. "It's an hour or so's hard ride from here."
"Krytos, round up some help and get up there as fast as you can. I'll go ahead. Just give me some directions."
"I'm coming with you!" Timos cried, jumping to his feet.
"You're staying here." Hercules said firmly.
"Hercules .... perhaps you'd better take the boy," Krytos suggested. "He knows the way. You can take my horse, you'll make faster time."
Hercules paused and made a quick decision. "Alright. Let's go." He turned to Krytos. "You'll follow on?"
Krytos nodded grimly. "We'll be right at your back. Good luck, and be safe Hercules."
The son of Zeus was already heading for the door.
Iolaus was barely conscious by the time the first signs of dawn began to spread across the eastern sky.
He was brought back to full awareness when a bucket of ice cold water was thrown in his face. Opening his eyes reluctantly, he tried to suppress a groan. The different sources of pain were no longer distinguishable; his entire body was on fire. In contrast, his arms were now so numb there was hardly any feeling in them at all.
Broteas emerged from the cabin, shrugging into his shirt, and laughed as he saw that Atrius had already taken the liberty of waking the prisoner. Broteas walked up to Iolaus and studied his battered form with satisfaction. The long night had taken its toll on his prisoner, as he had known it would. "I trust you spent a comfortable night." Iolaus didn't answer, but the look he shot Broteas still held a spark of defiance.
By now, the whole gang had wandered over and the six of them stood in an arc before him. The atmosphere was charged with expectation.
Broteas turned to Tantis. "Time to start the fun. Cut him down."
Tantis took out a knife and quickly cut the rope holding Iolaus' arms above his head. As the hunter's feet touched the ground his legs buckled and he fell heavily on his face, arms free but too numb to break his fall. He lay there helplessly, fighting against blacking out, as hands roughly pulled off his vest and dragged his arms to be tied behind his back. Broteas bent down and tore the amulet from around his neck, re-tying the broken string and settling the amulet against his own chest. "A little souvenir. Bring him." Hands grabbed the hunter's ankles and they dragged him bodily across to the centre of the quarry.
Iolaus lay still where they dropped him, trying to catch his breath. The feeling was beginning to come back into his arms, and with it waves of pain. Gritting his teeth against this new pain, he tried instead to concentrate on the lesser pain of the smarting cuts and bruises caused by the rough stones as he'd been dragged across the quarry.
Broteas looked around. "Where's the boy? He won't want to miss a moment of this."
It soon became clear that no-one had seen Timos since the guard had sent him to talk to the prisoner in the night. Broteas grunted in frustration. "Atrius, go look for him."
A gesture from Broteas and Tantis cut the rope around the hunter's ankles. The burning sensation as feeling returned drove tears into his eyes and he painfully pressed his lips together to suppress a moan. Fighting back a rising well of fear, Iolaus tried to concentrate his mind for the ordeal ahead. He knew that Broteas wouldn't kill him straight away. He wanted Iolaus to suffer. And Iolaus knew that he had to prolonge this ordeal as long as he could. If Timos had left shortly after their conversation, he should have reached the inn a couple of hours later. Iolaus knew Krytos wouldn't waste any time getting a rescue party together, so it was possible that help would arrive any moment now. If Timos had made it. *If* he'd even gone, and wasn't just hiding somewhere. That was a big ‘if', but Iolaus had been sure the boy was genuine in wanting to help and he held on to that conviction. It was the only hope he had.
After a few moments Atrius returned with the news that the boy was nowhere in the camp. Broteas was angry and disappointed, but not concerned. The boy often ran off on his own. Most likely, he'd decided he didn't have the stomach for this after all. Broteas was disappointed in the boy. He'd thought Timos' hatred for Iolaus was as great as his own. But he wasn't going to wait. He'd waited for this moment too long already.
Broteas looked down at the prone figure at his feet. "There are two ways you can do this, runt. I'm going to give you a chance my brother never had. You can lie there and wait to die, or you can get on your feet and fight like a man. Which is it going to be?"
Iolaus shifted position until he could look up at his captor. "I'm surprised you can remember what it's like to fight like a man, Broteas."
Broteas didn't rise to the taunt. He simply said, "On your feet."
Broteas stood back as Iolaus dragged himself painfully to his hands and knees, then onto his feet, relieved that enough feeling had returned for him to stand without falling. The whole gang were standing back now, all eyes fixed on the lone figure. Iolaus watched warily as Broteas waved the first bandit forward. It had begun.
The black horse thundered down the trail. Hercules was relieved that Krytos' horse was large and strong. A horse would never be his chosen mode of transport, but with an exhausted Timos in tow, it was the logical option on this occasion. There was no way the boy could have done the journey on his own two feet and carrying him would have slowed the demigod down and wasted valuable time.
As they rode, Hercules spoke very little to the boy, except to check directions, too intent on getting as much speed as possible from his mount to carry on a conversation. Timos was silent, sure the demigod was angry with him. In any case, he didn't know what to say, knowing that he was responsible for what had happened. He wanted to tell Hercules that he was sorry, that he'd do anything to turn time back and do everything differently, but he couldn't find the words. So he kept silent and held on tightly to Hercules' vest as they raced through the night.
They came to a fork in the path. "Which way?" Hercules asked.
"Left." Timos replied.
Hercules cast a glance up at the sky. It was beginning to lighten with the first signs of the dawn. "How much further?"
Several more leagues straight up this path. You can't miss it now, you'll see it in the distance. You have to go through a copse of trees."
Hercules let the boy down to the ground. "Alright, Timos, I want you to stay here and wait for Krytos."
"Don't argue. I don't have time. It's dangerous for you to come - I won't be able to look out for you. You stay here, do you understand?"
Timos nodded miserably. He watched for a moment as the horse thundered off again, then sat down on a fallen tree trunk, anxiously scanning the path for signs of Krytos and the others.
Iolaus hit the deck again and this time he knew he was in real trouble.
At first, he'd been able to hold his own. Having his hands tied hadn't hugely impeded his effectiveness with his feet and the two bandits Broteas had sent up against him individually had felt the full force of his fighting techniques. Then Broteas had sent them against him in pairs and slowly, but surely, the strain of the fight had worn him down. Every time he'd hit the ground they'd stepped back, waiting for him to get to his feet before attacking again. Broteas wanted this to last. They were careful not to do any serious damage and although he was battered and bruised, the hunter didn't think any of his injuries were too serious. But he was already weak from the beating the previous evening and his shoulders and arms were still stiff and painful from the long night tied up.
As the blond struggled to his feet once more, Broteas stepped forward and kicked him viciously in the left knee. Pain exploded through his leg and he fell back with a cry of agony. Now, fighting to stay conscious against the darkness that threatened to overwhelm him, he realised that the atmosphere had changed. Earlier, they'd been playing with him, wearing him down. Now he could tell that Broteas was ready to get serious.
"On your feet."
Iolaus knew that if Broteas thought he was beaten, the game would stop. So he tried to struggle to his feet and was half standing when Broteas stepped forward and kicked him hard in the stomach. He hit the deck again, struggling for breath.
"On your feet."
He had to try. Although the sun was now beginning to rise and time had run out, it was still possible that Timos had made it to Amphydria in time and help was on its way. He just needed to hold out a little longer. Eventually, he made it all the way to his feet with the help of a nearby large rock and stood swaying, holding tightly to the rock. As Broteas approached, Iolaus measured his distance carefully, then kicked out suddenly, aiming for Broteas' groin. As he did so, his injured knee gave way beneath him and he fell again.
Broteas laughed and called Tantis over. Between them, they reached down and grabbed the fallen man by his wrists, dragging him to his feet. Then they threw him as hard as they could into the nearby rock face. Unable to put out his arms to break the fall, Iolaus hit the rock hard, taking the impact on his left side. There was an audible crack as ribs collided with the rock. Before the blonde had chance to fall, Broteas and Tantis grabbed him again and threw him back into the cliff. This time his left arm took the full impact and again there was an audible crack as bone broke. Broteas waited as he sank to the ground.
"I'm going to break every bone in your body. One by one. Just like they did to Paleas. Then I'm going to leave you to die, just as they did Paleas."
Iolaus managed to drag himself into a semi-sitting position, but every breath he took send waves of white-hot pain through his body and the adrenaline that had kept him going for so long had finally run out. His battered body wouldn't respond to his commands to move and he could only lie helplessly where he'd fallen, waiting for Broteas to make his next move. The hunter knew his time had run out and all he could hope for now was that Broteas would finish it quickly. But he knew that this wasn't part of the bandit's plan, that this madman had a lot more suffering in store for him before he was finally allowed to give up his increasingly slender hold on life. He wasn't afraid anymore, he'd long ago passed that point and he didn't think he could feel much more pain than he felt now. His only hope was that Hercules wouldn't blame himself when he found his friend's broken body.
Broteas stood over his victim, his face a mask of hatred mixed with triumph. "How does it feel, Iolaus?" he taunted. "How does it feel to be helpless, in pain, knowing that death is close?" When Iolaus didn't answer, Broteas bent down, grabbing a handful of golden hair, forcing the hunter to look at him. "How do you think Paleas felt, knowing his wife and child were depending on him, knowing he was going to his death leaving them to be taken by the enemy? Answer me, you bastard!"
Iolaus looked wearily into the eyes of a madman and, with the last bit of strength he had, spit in Broteas' face. Broteas' face darkened with anger, but he didn't touch the fallen man. Instead, he stood slowly, wiping his face on his sleeve.
Iolaus was unable to resist as Broteus and Tantis dragged him to his feet again and threw him back into the rock. He fell heavily, taking the impact on his shoulders and his head cracked back against the hard stone. Sliding slowly down the rock into a sitting position, Iolaus fought to hold onto consciousness, vaguely aware that Broteas was approaching him again, wondered idly if this time the bandit was going to end it.
Broteas could see that the hunter was nearing the end of his endurance. A surge of anger filled him as he looked at the man who had let his brother die, the man he'd dreamed of bringing to justice for so long. Something snapped inside him and he took out his sword. The traitor had lived long enough. He stood a short distance from the hunter and raised the sword. Blue eyes met brown in a moment of understanding. The end had come.
The thundering sound of hooves suddenly drew Broteas' attention, and he turned to see a huge black horse bearing down on him. As the horse neared Iolaus caught a glimpse of brown and yellow as the rider put himself between Broteas and his victim. Iolaus just had time to think, "Hercules!" before the world faded before him and he slipped sideways into darkness.
Hercules had brought the horse to a halt as he neared the quarry, not wanting to give his presence away until he could see what he was dealing with. But at the sight of Iolaus, battered, bloody and helpless before a wild eyed Broteas brandishing a sword, he urged the horse forward again.
As he neared the scene he judged his distance, guiding the horse between Broteas and the blond. Pulling the horse up to an abrupt halt, the demigod kicked the sword out of Broteas' hands, sending him crashing to the ground. Broteas hit the ground hard, but recovered quickly, rolling over and grabbing his sword. He struck wildly in Hercules' direction but the sword missed the demigod and nicked the horse instead. With a scream of pain, the horse reared.
Taken by surprise, Hercules lost his balance and fell, rolling out of the way of the animal's flailing forefeet. Broteas, however, seemed frozen to the spot, staring with horror into the pain filled eyes of the animal. His scream of fear as the horse's hooves began to descend galvanized Hercules into action and he lunged forward to grab Broteas and drag him out of the way. Before he could reach the bandit, the horse's hooves hit Broteas' head with a sickening crunch. Losing its balance, the horse fell to the ground heavily and collapsed on the body of the fallen man, before struggling to its feet and galloping off across the quarry.
Hercules' stomach churned at the bloody sight of the bandit, but wasted no time checking for life signs. The position of Broteas' body and the massive head wound told the demigod that no-one could help the bandit now. Hercules took a deep breath and looked to where his friend's seemingly lifeless body lay. As he moved towards him, the remaining bandits, recovering from the shock of watching their leader's gruesome death, threw themselves en mass at the son of Zeus.
The fight was short. Seeing Broteas die had knocked all the fighting spirit out of the bandits, and their attack was half-hearted at best. Hercules showed little mercy, fuelled by furious anger and a desperate concern for his best friend. It was more luck than effort or judgement that allowed the bandits to escape with their lives. The final man was dropping to the ground unconscious when Krytos and his reinforcements appeared on the scene. Waving to Krytos to clean up the mess, Hercules rushed to Iolaus, who was lying frighteningly still at the base of the cliff.
Hercules skidded onto his knees next to his friend. "Iolaus?" he whispered fearfully.
There was no response. With a shaking hand, Hercules felt at his friend's neck for a pulse and was reassured when he found it. It was hard to see how badly the hunter was hurt, through all the dirt and blood. A motion behind him caused Hercules to turn his head. Timos was hovering behind them, watching with anxious eyes. "Please ...." he whispered, "Iolaus?"
"Go and get some water, Timos," Hercules ordered, knowing it was best to keep the boy busy, "and try to find as many blankets as you can."
He turned back to his friend and gently turned him on his side to free his hands from the ropes cutting into his skin, before laying him on his back again. Then the demigod began running his hands slowly down the hunter's body, checking the damage. There was a sizeable lump on the back of his head and another cut lower down where the blood had dried, presumably from an earlier blow. When he ran a hand gently over Iolaus' right shoulder the hunter groaned and opened his eyes, focussing blearily on his friend.
"It's OK, take it easy. It's all over." Hercules said.
"You .... certainly know .... how to make an entrance," Iolaus whispered, voice trembling slightly with pain.
"You liked the horse? I think I might get one, it goes well with my image, don't you think?" Hercules replied lightly, trying to hide his worry over his friend's condition.
Iolaus gave a snort of laughter which turned into a grimace of pain. "You hate horses!" he whispered.
Hercules resumed his examination of his friend's battered body. Iolaus flinched and whimpered as the gentle hands brushed over broken ribs.
"Don't .... hurts."
"I'm sorry. I know it hurts. But I need to know how badly you're injured before I try to move you."
"...kay." Iolaus closed his eyes because the world around him was spinning frighteningly. Pain was rolling over him in waves and he could no longer identify which parts of his body hurt the most. His whole body seemed to be on fire and every breath seemed to slice through his lungs like a sharp knife.
As Hercules continued his examination, he tried desperately to control the feeling of rising panic by keeping up a soothing monologue of reassurance, speaking as much to himself as the hunter. Iolaus just lay there, stoically suffering the demigod's probing hands on his battered body. Usually when he was hurt Iolaus tried to cover it up with a light comment, or struggle to his feet and convince his friend he was fine, really. But this time, the hunter's face was creased with pain and he made no effort to try and get up, or even to move. This in itself showed Hercules just how much pain his friend was in.
Iolaus tried to endure Hercules' examination quietly, but couldn't hold back a scream of agony when Hercules hand reached the injured knee. It felt like his knee was about to explode. At his friend's cry, Hercules drew his hands back and called over to Krytos to throw him a knife. He carefully cut away the hunter's breeches around the injury and gasped at the sight of the already badly swollen knee.
Hercules sat back on his heels and contemplated the injured man for a long moment. From his cursory examination, it appeared that his friend had a broken shoulder and arm and several broken ribs. His face was battered, and his abdomen so badly bruised that Hercules was terrified that there might be some internal damage. The knee was so swollen he couldn't tell how much damage had been done. His wrists and ankles had been rubbed raw, obviously from being tied, his chest and arms were covered with bruises and cuts. Hercules felt anger rising again and choked it back. Broteas was dead. Anger against a dead man wasn't going to help Iolaus now.
Timos returned with the blankets, accompanied by an anxious Krytos. Krytos paled when he saw his friend's condition and cast an anxious glance at Hercules, who just looked back helplessly. Fear showed in the demigod's eyes as he reached down and placed a hand gently on the blond's forehead. Iolaus was cold to the touch and beginning to shake with the onset of shock. He was conscious, but only just, and Hercules was alarmed at the way his eyes kept slipping in and out of focus, a sure sign of a head injury. Together, Hercules and Krytos wrapped him carefully in the blankets to keep him warm.
As Iolaus' eyes opened again, he focussed on Timos, standing behind Hercules and watching him anxiously. Under Iolaus' gaze the boy shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other, then looked down and began to turn away. "Timos," Iolaus whispered, his voice weak and shaking. The boy swallowed hard and turned back to look at the hunter, his face an image of conflicting emotions - of fear, concern and shame. Iolaus tried to smile. "Thank you," he whispered, before his eyes closed again. Timos's own eyes filled with tears. It was all his fault that Iolaus was so terribly hurt and all the man could do was thank him.
"Timos!" Hercules said sharply. The boy wiped his eyes quickly and looked up at the demigod. "He's going to be alright, Timos. You'll see." Whether he was speaking to reassure himself or the boy he wasn't sure. Hercules turned to Krytos. "Krytos, Iolaus needs a healer."
Krytos nodded. "How badly is he hurt?"
"I don't know. Badly enough. I'm afraid to move him."
I left word for the town healer before I left. He was out at one of the farms, delivering a baby. His wife said she'd send him along as soon as he got back, just in case. I'll send one of the men back down the trail to meet him."
"Thank you, Krytos," Hercules said, his voice heavy with emotion. He looked around and spotted the cabin. "Let's get Iolaus inside."
Between them they carefully lifted the injured man and carried him to the cabin, gently lowering him onto one of the cots. Hercules quickly pulled off the hunter's boots and the remains of his clothing to make him more comfortable, then pulled the blankets closely around him again. Iolaus groaned and opened his eyes. Immediately, Hercules was at his side.
"Wha .... happening?"
"Don't try to talk, just rest," Hercules said. "The healer will be here soon. You're going to be fine."
Iolaus closed his eyes again, then opened them suddenly. "Broteas?"
"He's dead, Iolaus."
"Did you ...."
"No. He fell under the horse's hooves. There was nothing I could do."
"Herc," Iolaus said faintly. "Timos ...."
"Don't worry about Timos. He'll be fine. Now, stop talking. Try and get some rest."
"Can't. Hurts .... too much."
"I know. When the healer gets here, he'll be able to give you something for the pain. Now, shush."
Iolaus closed his eyes again and Hercules sat by his side for a few moments, but this time the hunter seemed to have drifted off. Hercules got up and called Timos over. "Timos, I'm going to go boil some water, we need to clean him up a bit before those cuts get infected. Can you watch him for me, and let me know the minute he wakes up?"
Timos nodded vigorously, glad to be doing something to help. He sat down beside the hunter and watched him anxiously. The blond looked so pale and he was obviously in so much pain. Timos felt tears come into his eyes again. This was all his fault! Why hadn't he listened to his instincts when he'd met Iolaus? He'd known in his heart that this was a good man, not the man his uncle said he was, but he'd been afraid to not to carry out the plan. They'd waited so long to avenge his father's death.
After a while Timos tentatively reached out a hand and took one of Iolaus' bigger ones in his own, clutching it as if to reassure himself that the man was still alive. "Please don't die, Iolaus!" he whispered, as tears ran down his cheek.
Across the room, Hercules had started a fire and as he brought some water to the boil, he wished the healer would hurry, but he didn't want to wait any longer. Although he had no intention of trying to treat any of the hunter's major injuries, he wanted to at least try and clean some of the worse cuts and lacerations, for he was afraid that infection would set in. He just wished he had some salve or other herbs to apply to the wounds, but there was nothing in the cabin. Warm water would have to do.
Hercules returned to the bed with hot water and some cloth that he'd boiled to make sure it was clean. He found Timos sitting beside the hunter, eyes red from crying. The demigod found a lump in his throat at the sight. He knew little about Timos, only that the boy had lured Iolaus into Broteas' trap and then helped him and effectively saved his life. But he was moved as he watched the boy sitting at Iolaus' side, clutching the blond's hand. Timos had been through a lot in the last few hours and his concern for Iolaus was obviously genuine and ran far deeper than a guilty conscience. Hercules put down the items he was carrying and sat on the other side of the bed.
"How is he?" he asked Timos softly.
Timos ran a hand hastily across his eyes and surreptitiously wiped his nose in his sleeve. Hercules pretended not to notice. "He's still sleeping. He hasn't woken up and he looks so awful. He will wake up again, won't he Hercules?"
Hercules had to agree, Iolaus looked awful. His usually sunny, smiling face was lined in pain and the healthy colour replaced with a grey pallor. But Hercules didn't want Timos to know the depth of his concern, so he said lightly, "Of course he'll wake up again, Timos. Iolaus is as strong as a ox, it takes a lot to bring him down for long." Please let this be the truth, he said silently to himself. "Timos, I need to clean some of the wounds. Do you think you can help me?" He didn't really want the boy here, but Krytos and his men were busy dealing with the prisoners and burying Broteas and he certainly didn't want the boy to see that.
"What do you want me to do?"
"Just what you're doing now. Just hold his hand and talk to him if he wakes up, let him know he's safe. Can you do that?"
Timos swallowed. "He might not want me here, after what I did."
"That's rubbish, Timos. You saved his life and whatever you did, I'm sure he's already forgiven you. When he wakes up, he'll tell you that himself."
Hercules moved as quickly as he could and soon had done as much as he was able to clean the wounds. He was horrified at the number of cuts, scrapes and bruises on the hunter's body. Nothing serious, but there was hardly an inch of his stomach, chest and shoulders that was unmarked. Some of the bruises looked older than the others. He winced when he came to the raw and bloody wounds on the blond man's wrists and looked at Timos enquiringly.
Reluctantly, the boy explained, "They had him tied from a tree all last night. My uncle .... had him beaten, to give him a taste of what they were going to do to him in the morning." Timos hung his head, ashamed that he'd stood by and watched this happen. Hercules bit his lip as he tried to imagine what his friend had gone through during that long night, alone with his pain, knowing he was facing an agonizing death.
Iolaus moaned aloud a few times and tossed restlessly during Hercules' ministrations, but didn't wake up. This worried the demigod, who was already more concerned about the head wounds than he was prepared to admit, but there was little more he could do now. He wrapped the blankets more tightly round his friend and sat down on the other side of the bed.
He'd lost track of the number of times he'd sat like this, by his friend's bedside, hoping and praying that the hunter wasn't going to die. Hercules closed his eyes and immediately an image flashed into his mind of the moment when he'd knelt down by the hunter's side in the quarry and checked for a pulse. His heart had been beating wildly, his mouth dry with fear. Hercules had forced the memories from his mind then, but now they came flooding back. Memories of the time when Iolaus had been wounded by an Amazon and had died in his arms, the demigod's name the last word on his lips. Then the time when Iolaus had been beaten by the fire enforcer and had again died in Hercules arms, after forcing his broken body to walk and then crawl across the countryside to find the demigod and warn him of the danger he faced.
Hercules opened his eyes and firmly forced the memories to the back of his mind, focussing instead on the reassuring rise and fall of his friend's chest as he breathed. Hercules didn't think he could go through the pain of losing Iolaus again. He took the hunter's hand in his and settled down to wait for the healer.
After what seemed like an eternity the door finally opened and Krytos entered with a stranger on his heels. The stranger was introduced as Talus, the best healer in Amphydria. He was a man much older than Hercules, tall and rangy with grey hair and a neat beard. His eyes were kindly and his voice, when he spoke, gentle. "Let me see my patient, then. Krytos has filled me in on some of the details."
"He's been unconscious almost since we brought him in," Hercules informed him anxiously.
Talus carefully unwrapped the blankets so he could get a good look at his patient. Iolaus groaned as the healer's gentle hands brushed across his forehead and probed the lumps on the back of his head. Talus glanced up at Hercules and read the worry in the demigod's blue eyes. "It's alright. I don't think the head injuries are too serious. He's taken two vicious blows, but he seems to have a hard head and I think he's just out because of the exhaustion and the pain. The body can only take so much." He glanced over at Krytos. "Krytos, my friend, why don't you take the young lad here and make us all something warm to drink? I'm sure we could all do with that, eh, Hercules?"
Hercules nodded dumbly. When Krytos and Timos had left the room, Talus continued briskly, "Right, then. Let's take a look at him. Do you want to tell me exactly what happened to him?"
Hercules filled Talus in as best he could, then hovered anxiously as the healer examined his friend. Eventually, the man looked up, his face serious.
"Did you clean all these cuts?" Hercules nodded. "Well, you've done a good job. Some of them are a little infected, but it would have been far worse if you'd left the job for me."
He paused for a moment, then continued, "He might not look like it now, but he's been very lucky. Most of his injuries will heal easily. His left shoulder and arm are broken, but they're clean breaks and should heal nicely. He has a couple of broken ribs, but fortunately none of them has pierced a lung." The healer rested his hand lightly on the hunter's stomach. "I'm concerned about the extent of the bruising on his abdomen. It's possible that he's suffered some internal injuries, but he's not running a fever, so I think it's unlikely."
Hercules sighed in relief, but as he looked at the healer's serious face, he realised that there was something else the man hadn't told him. "There's something else, isn't there?" he asked carefully, almost afraid to hear the answer.
The healer nodded. "It's his knee. The blow he took was severe and the knee's badly swollen. Because of the swelling, I can't say at this stage how much damage there is and whether it will be permanent. We'll have to keep the knee immobilised for now, apply poultices and wait until the swelling goes down."
Hercules paled. "Are you saying .... he may be crippled?"
Talus met the demigod's fearful gaze squarely. "I just can't tell you, Hercules, until the swelling comes down. If he's lucky it will heal properly and he'll be as good as new. If it doesn't, he'll never have proper use of the knee and he'll walk with a limp for the rest of his life."
Hercules looked down at the pale form of his best friend and his throat constricted. If he'd only been able to get there sooner ....
Guessing his thoughts, Talus commented, "If you'd got there any later you'd have been bringing a corpse home. This is no time to feel guilty. I meant it when I said he's been lucky. There's every chance he'll make a full recovery, and that's what you have to believe - for you and for him. It's up to you to look after him properly and don't let him move that leg. I'll finish treating the rest of his injuries now, then we'll have a look at that knee."
Hercules nodded. He helped the healer as much as he could as the man set the broken arm, strapped the broken ribs and treated the other multitudinous cuts and bruises. Iolaus opened his eyes with a moan of pain as Talus was strapping his ribs. The healer immediately gave him a drink of a warm liquid which he told Hercules contained a large dose of poppy. "It will take effect soon, then he'll be more comfortable."
Finally, Talus prepared a poultice to put on the knee. "It should bring the swelling down. You need to change it every few hours, then we'll have another look at him in the morning."
When the healer had finished he pulled the blankets back around his patient and tucked them in firmly. "I have to go back to Amphydria. I'll come back with Krytos at nightfall and stay until morning. In the meantime, try and get some fluids into him and as much of this medicine as you can. I'll leave you some poppy - if you put a spoonful in some water every few hours it'll help with the pain. He *will* be in a lot of pain for quite some time, so you should be prepared for that."
Hercules thanked him and shook his hand, his eyes showing the gratitude he couldn't put into words. Talus patted his arm. "There's nothing more you can do, except be there when he needs you. He's in the hands of the gods, now, Hercules."
Hercules fervently hoped that the healer was wrong on this count. The gods were the last thing Iolaus needed.
When Hercules had assured himself that Iolaus was sleeping peacefully and that it was safe to leave him for a while, he went to join the others. Timos sitting at the table with Krytos, picking at some bread and cheese Krytos had found in the cabin.
Timos was the picture of despondency and Hercules' heart went out to him. Although the boy had been the cause of Iolaus' capture, he wasn't to blame for what had happened. During the long wait for the healer, Timos had told Hercules the whole story, and the demigod felt anger rising again as he thought of Broteas and the way he had indoctrinated the child in a legacy of hate. He walked up and sat down opposite Timos at the table. Timos looked up anxiously.
"Is he awake?"
"He's asleep, but he's going to be alright, Timos. It takes more than a few knocks to keep Iolaus down for long."
The boy's eyes filled with tears. "It was all my fault. He must hate me. He thought I liked him, when all the time I was just pretending. But I wasn't really, I do like him ...." He broke down , tears coursing down his face.
Hercules pulled his chair closer and put his arm around the sobbing boy, holding him close. "He doesn't hate you, Timos. You did what you did because you trusted your uncle. But what your uncle did was wrong and in the end you followed your heart and did what you knew was right. You saved Iolaus' life and that was a very brave thing to do." The boy looked up at him and managed a half smile through his tears. Hercules went on, "And you have the chance now to make it up to him. Iolaus hates being ill and having to stay in bed. The healer says he won't be able to move for a long while. I'll need you to help make it easier for him."
The boy rubbed his arm across his face. "He reminds me of my father." he said softly.
"Your father was a good man, Timos. Your uncle was too, once. But grief can sometimes make a person sick and they get blinded with hatred and desire for revenge and do things which aren't always right."
Timos nodded slowly. "I can see that now. But at the time .... he used to tell me stories of all the battles he'd fought in with my father, how brave my father was. But always the stories ended with him talking about Iolaus and how he'd betrayed my father. He got more and more bitter. And I believed him. I really believed Iolaus was a coward who deserved to die for what he'd done. Then, when I met Iolaus, I thought I must have made a mistake and got the wrong person. He was so kind to me, and he made me laugh .... and I couldn't imagine him being a coward."
"You're right there. Iolaus doesn't have a cowardly bone in his body. He's the bravest man I know." Hercules agreed.
"But .... I believed my uncle and I trusted him and I thought he must be right. If I'd only had the guts to think for myself earlier ...." His eyes filled with tears again.
"Timos," Hercules said firmly, "I can understand why you believed in your uncle. He'd looked after you and been kind to you. You couldn't see the kind of man he'd become. Revenge never solves anything. It can't bring back the people you loved, it just makes you more angry and unhappy. I should know. I almost followed that path, once."
His eyes grew distant for a moment, as he thought back to the terrible hours after the death of his family, when he'd felt nothing but a raging anger and desire for revenge on Hera had filled his every waking thought. He'd been forced to face his anger and channel it in another direction, but what must it have been like for Broteas, his hatred and anger growing over time until it consumed him and he could think of nothing else. He could have felt sorry for the dead man, but for thoughts of his partner, lying in the next room broken and in pain.
With an effort, he dragged his attention back to Timos. "When it counted, you made the right decision. You're a lot like your father. He was honest and fair and brave. You should be very proud of him."
"So - are you going to finish this bread?" Hercules asked. "Then you'd better go back to Amphydria with Krytos."
"Can't I stay here? I want to stay with Iolaus."
"I don't think so, Timos. It would be better for you to go back with Krytos. Thera can look after you better than I can."
"Please, Hercules," Timos pleased, looking up at the demigod with big eyes that were filling with tears again. "I want to stay with him," he whispered finally. His voice wavered and he looked away.
Krytos drew Hercules to one side. "Maybe we should let the boy stay, Hercules. He's been through a lot and he blames himself for what's happened to Iolaus. He'll only worry if you make him leave. It might be easier on him to let him stay."
After a moment Hercules nodded. He walked over to Timos and put a hand on his shoulder. "Alright, Timos, you can stay." The boy's eyes lit up. "But you have to do what I tell you, do you understand?" Timos nodded fervently. "I'll do everything you say, honest."
"Right, then. I don't suppose you slept at all last night, did you?"
The boy shook his head.
"Then the first thing I want you to do is get some sleep."
Timos was about to protest, but he saw the firm look on Hercules face and thought better of it.
"Can I see Iolaus first?"
"Finish your meal then you can see him for a moment."
Timos gulped down the rest of his bread and cheese, then Hercules took him to see Iolaus as he'd promised. The sight of the warrior lying so still and pale frightened him, but Hercules assured him that he was sleeping peacefully.
Krytos had made up a pallet for Timos in the living area and within minutes of lying down the exhausted boy was fast asleep.
Krytos joined Hercules as he stood looking down at the boy.
"He's been through a lot, Hercules. Despite what he did, I think he's genuinely fond of Iolaus. I think it's going to take a long time for him to get over it."
Hercules nodded. "I think Iolaus is the only one who can help him with that. If he ...." He stopped speaking and looked away.
The demigod looked bleakly at his friend. "I just told Timos that revenge solves nothing, that it's wrong to feed your anger and hatred. But so help me, Krytos, at this moment I hate Broteas so much I want to tear him limb from limb, even though I know he's dead." His voice was shaking with held in emotion and Krytos stared at him in concern. Hercules struggled to bring his emotions under control. "Talus said .... he said that Iolaus is going to live, but if the knee doesn't heal well, Iolaus might not be able to walk properly again."
Krytos put a hand on his friend's shoulder. "He'll heal, Hercules, you wait and see. Iolaus is strong and he's fit. He just needs some time."
Neither of them was ready to face the thought of what the future would hold for Iolaus if he was unable to walk properly again.
Once asleep, the exhausted boy slept straight through the afternoon. Krytos and his men left for Amphydria with the remaining bandits in tow, to be delivered to the town magistrate. Hercules, tired himself after the long, fast journey to Amphydria, pulled a chair up alongside Iolaus' bed and sat himself in it, dozing a little, but sleeping lightly, acutely tuned to every sound his friend made. Iolaus slept fitfully, occasionally tossing in the grip of a dream.
Talus and Krytos returned at nightfall with a wagon load of supplies, bearing the news that the bandits were safely under lock and key. The magistrate felt there was enough evidence against them for it to be unnecessary for Timos or Iolaus to appear at their trial and for this Hercules was grateful.
The following morning Talus examined his patient carefully, pronouncing himself satisfied with his progress, though still concerned about the hunter's injured knee. He looked up at the demigod, and Hercules could tell by his expression that the news wasn't good. "I'd have expected the swelling to have gone down by now," he said. "Did you change the poultice ever few hours?"
Hercules nodded. "Just like you told me. But it looks worse, not better."
Talus frowned, placing a hand very carefully on the injured knee. "It looks like fluid has collected in the knee and this is starting to cause an infection."
Hercules looked at Iolaus' pale face. "Can't you do something?" he whispered.
Talus frowned again. "I can try to drain the fluid out and hope that will stop the infection spreading. I'm afraid it's going to hurt like Tartarus, but there's no other way."
Hercules' eyes still rested on Iolaus' face and he could see that even though the hunter was only semi-conscious, he had heard everything that was said. Iolaus' hand was clutching the blanket so hard that his knuckles were white and his breathing was ragged. Hercules put a comforting hand on his friend's arm and looked up at the healer. "Do you have to do it now? He's been through so much pain already."
"If I don't, Hercules, there's every chance the leg won't heal. I'll be as quick as I can."
"Can't you at least give him anything for the pain? Something that will knock him out? Please, Talus, there must be something."
Talus shook his head and drew Hercules to one side. "There's no time, Hercules," he said quietly, "If I can't get the swelling down and the infection takes a hold, he might lose the leg. I have to do this now. Trust me." Hercules nodded silently. "Go and talk to him," Talus went on, "while I go and get ready."
Hercules turned back to his friend who gazed up at him blearily. The hunter was still groggy from the poppy, but the set of his jaw told the demigod that he was aware of what was about to happen.
Hercules tried to smile. "It's OK, Iolaus," he said reassuringly, "It'll be over quickly and your leg won't hurt so much afterwards."
"Couldn't .... hurt .... any more .... than it already does," the hunter mumbled. His hand reached out for Hercules' and the demigod took it in a strong grip.
Talus returned with a long, thin and very sharp knife, a cloth and basin. As he stepped up to the bed he saw Iolaus' eyes widen at the sight of the knife and the momentary fear in their depths as the hunter anticipated more intense pain. The healer looked at the injured man with compassion. "I'm sorry, Iolaus, I'd like to give you something more for the pain, but it would be dangerous to give you any more. I promise I'll be as quick as I can."
Turning to Hercules he said, "Can you hold the leg in position for me, Hercules. I can't afford for him to move while I'm making the incision."
Hercules squeezed Iolaus' arm reassuringly before taking a firm hold on his leg, above and below the knee.
Timos sat with Krytos in the living area, straining to hear what was happening behind the closed door. The men were talking in low voices, which wasn't a good sign. For a moment there was silence, then the boy jumped at a strangled cry of pain from Iolaus, followed shortly by another, then another. Timos buried his face in Krytos' shoulder, unable to bear the sound of the hunter's suffering.
Eventually, after what seemed an eternity, there was silence and shortly after the door opened and Talus emerged. He looked at the two pale faces before him and smiled. "The worse is over. I think the knee is going to be alright. What he needs now is a lot of rest so he can heal properly and if all goes well, he'll be up and around in no time."
Talus left shortly afterwards with Krytos, leaving Hercules a mixture of herbs that he said would help with the pain and act as a sleeping draught. "He needs to regain his strength. I get the feeling he's the type who'll try and get up the minute he feels the slightest bit stronger. If you give him this draught, he won't have any option but to stay in bed."
Hercules, smiling at Talus' accurate reading of his friend, nodded his thanks and determined that this time Iolaus would stay in bed for as long as it took for him to regain his health. The demigod had come too close to losing his best friend and he wasn't taking any chances now.
Iolaus slept for much of the next few days and for that Hercules was grateful. When he was conscious, despite the medicine Talus had left, the hunter was in so much pain that Hercules, found himself continually fighting back waves of anger against Broteas. He tried to ensure that Timos only sat with Iolaus while the blond was asleep, knowing how much it would upset the boy to see his friend suffering so much.
But day by day Iolaus slowly began to regain his strength. The horrific bruising on his abdomen began to fade with no signs of internal injury and within a week he was able to sit up in bed for longer and longer periods of time. Talus was pleased with his progress and announced that the shoulder, arm and ribs were healing nicely. The swelling on his knee had gone down considerably and the infection had cleared up. The healer was optimistic that the damage may not have been as severe as he'd at first thought, but was firmly insistent that Iolaus made no attempt to even move the leg for some time.
Hercules and Timos took turns sitting with him and talking, trying to take his mind off the pain and the frustration of being immobilised. Sometimes, when Iolaus was feeling stronger, the three of them sat together and Timos listened as the two heroes told him stories of their adventures. For once, it was Hercules who did most of the talking, with Iolaus interrupting whenever he felt Hercules wasn't doing justice to the extent of their heroics.
On one such occasion, as Hercules told the story of how Iolaus had met his grandmother and rescued her from Haephestus, the hunter had to smile at the thought of Leandra. His mind wondered back to the moment when he'd had to tell her about her son, his father, and his hand absently went to his chest to close around the familiar amulet, the only thing he had to remind him of Skouros. He gasped in shock as he found it missing and looked at Hercules, his voice high with alarm. "Herc- where's my amulet?"
Hercules looked at his friend in dismay. "Oh, gods, Iolaus, I'm sorry. I noticed Broteas had it round his neck - but in all the worry about your injuries, I forgot all about it."
Iolaus felt a sudden cold emptiness inside. He'd worn the amulet for so many years, it somehow felt like a part of him. And although he'd hated his father in many ways, for the way he'd treated Iolaus and his mother, for the demands he'd placed upon his son, he'd still been his father and the amulet was all the hunter had left of the general. They must have buried it with Broteas and Iolaus felt sick suddenly, at the thought that Broteas had taken it from him as a trophy and now it was buried with the man who'd tried to take his life.
But even as he was trying to find the words to reassure Hercules that it wasn't his fault, Timos said, "It's OK. I've got it." The boy fished in his pocket. "Here it is." He handed the amulet to Iolaus, who took it with a sigh of relief. "Thanks, Timos. I'd have hated to lose this. It means a lot to me. It belonged to my father." A split second later, a horrible thought struck him. He shot a concerned glance at Hercules.
"Timos, where did you find it?"
"My uncle had it round his neck. I took it off before they .... before they .... took him away." He looked away.
Iolaus reached out a hand and grasped the boy's arm. "I'm sorry, Timos." he said sincerely. "That must have been very hard for you."
Timos wouldn't meet his eyes. Iolaus exchanged a concerned glance with Hercules who nodded slightly and got to his feet. "I'll go and rustle up some food."
When Timos got up to follow the demigod, Iolaus held out a restraining arm. "Please don't go, Timos. I want to talk to you."
Gods! This was it. The moment Timos had been dreading ever since Hercules had rescued Iolaus. Over the past few days the hunter hadn't once mentioned his betrayal or the fact that he was solely responsible for the blond man's condition. Timos had been somewhat reassured by his talk with Hercules, but he still wasn't convinced that Iolaus didn't hate him.
Iolaus was silent for a moment, wanting to choose his words carefully. Hercules had told him about the talk he'd had with the boy, but the blond knew that he had to bring the subject up with Timos himself. He'd been in too much pain and too groggy from the pain reducing herbs to have any kind of conversation for the first few days, and since then he'd been waiting for the right moment.
"Timos, I haven't thanked you properly for what you did for me. You saved my life and I'm sorry it's taken me so long to tell you how grateful I am."
Timos' eyes widened in surprise. This was the last thing he'd thought he'd hear. "But," he mumbled, "It was my fault they caught you in the first place. If it hadn't been for me, you'd have been able to fight them off easily. It was all my fault. You must hate me."
"I don't hate you, Timos. I admit, when I first realised what you'd done, I was angry. And it hurt to think that you'd betrayed me. But only because I'd thought we were friends, Timos. You can only really be hurt by the people you care about."
"But, it was all an act ...."
"Was it? Then, why did you come to me in the middle of the night and why did you go for help?"
Timos looked at him helplessly. "Because .... because I liked you. I'd hated you for so long, but when I met you I couldn't believe you could have betrayed my father," he paused and looked down at his feet. "I was afraid not to go through with the plan, but then I couldn't sleep, thinking of you and what they were going to do, and I knew I had help you."
"And that was a very brave thing to do, Timos," Iolaus said. "Going against your uncle must have been very hard and I'm sorry he had to die. Hercules would never intentionally have let that happen."
Timos looked back at him with anguished eyes. "I should feel sad, shouldn't I? He was my uncle, and now he's dead. But I don't feel sad at all."
Iolaus looked at him carefully for a moment. "Did you love him, Timos?"
"Yes .... no. I did once. But when my mother died, and he took me to live with the gang, I didn't want to go with him. But I didn't have anywhere else to go. I hated living with them, and I always knew really that what they were doing was wrong. I was afraid of him. But he was good to me, he never beat me or anything ...."
Iolaus reached out and closed a hand around the boy's arm. "Listen to me, Timos, "It was good of your uncle to take you in when your mother died, but it was wrong of him to make you live with the gang and involve you in their raids and in his plans for revenge." He looked into the boy's eyes. "I know you didn't want him to die, but can't force yourself into a grief you don't feel. You have to put all this behind you. That part of your life is over for good. Do you understand?"
Timos looked up at him for a long moment, then smiled uncertainly and whispered, "Yes."
"And, we're still friends, aren't we?"
Timos said, "Yes," again, this time with a broad smile.
"Good boy. Now why don't you go and help Hercules with the food? I'm starving. And don't tell him, but I have a sneaky suspicion your cooking is a lot better than his!"
Timos grinned and obediently trotted out to find the demigod. Iolaus lay back, exhausted by the exchange. His head was beginning to ache and his knee was throbbing unmercifully. He had little concrete memory of the last week. Just blurred images of Timos and Hercules hovering anxiously above him, the taste of the bitter herbal drinks they kept forcing down his throat. And the pain. At times he'd felt he was drowning in a sea of pain, fighting to reach the shore, but the waves of pain kept dragging him back down further and further into their fiery depths.
The last few days had been better. The pain was still there, but was now mostly focussed on his knee. He tried not to think about the injury and the fear that he wouldn't be able to walk properly again, but the constant and insistent pain made it difficult. The nights were the worse. Even thought either Timos or Hercules would be sleeping in a cot beside him, there was no conversation to take his mind off either the pain or the fear and his mind would fill with images of a future in which he was crippled and nothing but a burden to his best friend. When he eventually drifted into sleep he'd invariable wake, screaming from a nightmarish vision of Broteas and the fight in the quarry.
He hadn't said anything to Hercules about his fears for the future and the demigod hadn't brought up the subject. But it was there, like a black cloud between them, and he knew from Hercules' whispered exchanges with Talus that the demigod was worried.
He closed his eyes and, despite the tempting smells of the stew cooking on the fire, slowly drifted into sleep.
After a few more days, Krytos returned with the wagon and the party returned to the inn. Talus still refused to allow Iolaus to get out of bed and try to walk and the hunter was getting increasingly frustrated and irritable. The next day, a runner arrived from a village a few days' travel from Amphykia, asking for Hercules' help. A warlord had been plaguing the roads around the village and was now threatening to invade and the magistrate, hearing that Hercules was in Amphykia, had sent to ask for the demigod's assistance.
Hercules cursed the fact that wherever he went, people always seemed to be able to find him. Leaving Iolaus was the last thing he wanted to do right now. But, as ever, he found he was unable to turn down a plea for help. If he didn't go, someone might get hurt. So he sent the messenger away, with a promise that he'd be there as soon as he could.
All he had to do now was explain to Iolaus that he was leaving. As he walked into the room, his partner said casually, "So, when are we off?"
Hercules looked over at Timos, who shrugged. "He wanted to know what the messenger wanted," the boy responded in answer to Hercules unspoken question.
"Iolaus, I .... I ...." Hercules stuttered, unable to meet his friend's eyes.
"You're going to leave me behind, aren't you?" The words were said lightly, but the hunter's face was turned away so that Hercules couldn't see what was in his eyes.
"Iolaus, you know you can't come with me. You can't even get out of bed, for Zeus' sake!"
"I could get out of bed if you guys would let me!" Iolaus grumbled. Then he glanced over at Timos, who was looking at him with anxious eyes, and realised that the boy was really concerned that the blond was going to do something stupid.
"Well, I don't want to come anyway. I've had enough of bandits for one lifetime." He looked at Hercules as he spoke, and rolled his eyes in Timos' direction. Hercules understood.
"Actually, I'm not really sure it's safe to leave you," he replied, winking at Timos. Iolaus rose to the bait.
"Why, what do you think is going to happen?"
"Well, you do have a habit of getting yourself into trouble every time I leave you alone."
"I do not!" Iolaus yelped indignantly.
"Yes, you do."
Hercules cast a long suffering glance at Timos, who grinned.
"OK," Iolaus challenged, "give me one instance of when I got into trouble when you left me on my own."
"Right," Hercules agreed easily. "Where do I start? There was the time you were pigheaded and took a different path and ended up being chased all over Greece with Lydia ...."
"Ah, Lydia!" Iolaus said with a sigh, pleasant memories of soft lips tumbling into his mind. "That wasn't my fault!" he protested.
"Then there was the time you almost got killed by Haephestus. And the time you went to visit your folks and ended up being crowned king of Attica. And the time you fell into a vat of wine and were purple for a week ...."
Timos was rolling around laughing by now. Iolaus shot him a thunderous look. "OK. OK, but these things don't just happen to me, you know." He pointed at Hercules. "They happen to him, too, when I'm not around to look after him."
"They do not!"
"Right - what about the time you ended up stranded on an island with that mercenary? Or the time you ended up blind? Or the time I left you to go to a festival and two minutes later you got hit on the head and lost your memory? Incidentally, that was the time I had to come and rescue you and make a complete fool of myself going round PURPLE instead of soaking it off in a warm bath with a beautiful woman ...." He broke off hastily, an eye on Timos who by now was holding his stomach, convulsed with laughter. "And whose side are you on anyway?" the hunter grumbled, reaching out for the boy, who laughed and nimbly skipped out of the way. "Just wait until I get out of this bed. The two of you are going to pay!"
Hercules announced that it was time Iolaus got some rest, and suggested that Timos go and find Marcus, Krytos' son. Timos agreed readily, reassured by the banter that Iolaus wasn't too upset about Hercules leaving.
After the boy had gone, Hercules came back to sit by Iolaus' bed. All signs of levity had gone. Hercules knew his friend had been putting on a show for the boy, and he felt a lump in his throat. "You're still in a lot of pain, aren't you?"
Iolaus shrugged, refusing to meet his friend's eyes.
"Iolaus, talk to me."
Iolaus turned to look at him then. "It's OK. It doesn't hurt so much any more. I'm just .... I can't stand being trapped in here. I need to get out. I need to try and walk. Herc .... what if .... what if I can't? What if I can't walk?"
Hercules could count on the fingers of one hand the times his friend had shown fear. But fear was what he saw in the hunter's eyes now, stark, raw fear of the future.
"Iolaus, you're going to be able to walk," he said firmly. "Talus says the chances are good that you'll walk as well as ever, if you just give it time, and don't take any foolish risks."
"I know. But what if I can't?" There was a catch in his voice, and he looked away. "I wouldn't .... I couldn't stand it, Herc. What would I do? I'd be useless, and I don't think I'd want to go on ...."
The look of despair on the blond's face tore at Hercules heart and the demigod reached out and grasped his friend's good shoulder. "It isn't going to happen. And if it did - we'd get through it together, like we always do."
Iolaus looked at him seriously. "If the worse happens, Herc, I want you to promise me you won't let me hold you back. That you'll .... leave me and carry on helping people like we do now."
Hercules looked into his friend's face where determination and stubbornness waged war with fear. "I promise you I'll do what's right. And that's the best you're going to get. Anyway, Talus says you can try walking later today, before I leave. Then we'll know for sure."
Talus returned later that afternoon. He shooed everyone except Hercules out of the room and walked over to his patient, who regarded him warily.
"Right, then, Iolaus," the healer said brightly. "It's time to try out that knee."
Iolaus swallowed nervously. "What if ...."
"No ‘what if's'," Talus said firmly. "You've been driving us all mad for days now, wanting to get up. Well, now's your chance. Hercules, can you come over here?"
Hercules crossed to his friend's side.
"Now, Iolaus," Talus went on, "I want you to lean on Hercules and I and just swing your legs out over the side of the bed."
"Sure, I can do that." Iolaus did what he was told, grimacing as a stab of pain shot through his knee when he tried to bend it.
"Good, that's good. Now, I want you to stand up, but don't try to put any weight on your leg - we're going to hold you up."
Iolaus obeyed, Hercules and Talus supporting him firmly. His good leg shook a little as he put his foot to the ground but Talus, catching his concerned glance, assured him that it was normal. "You've been in bed for over two weeks, it'll take a little time for your muscles to get moving again. Now, I want you to try and put a little weight on the bad leg."
Iolaus looked across at Hercules, who smiled encouragingly. It was now or never. Better to know the worse. The hunter squared his jaw and put his foot to the ground. So far so good. Talus examined the knee briefly. "It feels sound enough. Try and take a few steps, but don't put your full weight on it."
Very slowly, still partially supported by Hercules, Iolaus took a few tentative steps across the room. His knee was stiff and each step was painful, but he was walking! He was really walking! He took another step and his knee began to buckle under him. Hercules quickly took his full weight again and half carried him back to the bed.
The healer bent to examine the knee again and when he glanced up, found himself looking into two pairs of anxious eyes. He smiled. "There's no doubt now that you'll regain full use of that knee, Iolaus. It's healed well. That was an excellent start, and tomorrow, you can try walking a little further."
Hercules clapped his friend on the shoulder. "See, I told you there was nothing to worry about!" he said, but had to turn his face away so that his friend wouldn't see the glint of tears in his eyes. Iolaus looked up at Talus and held out his hand. "Thank you," he said softly. He knew the words were inadequate to express what he was feeling, but the healer's smile and firm hand shake told him that he understood the depth of feeling behind the few words.
"You'd better get back into bed, now," Talus ordered, noticing the look of exhaustion on the hunter's face.
"Bed!" Iolaus yelped in dismay. "Have a heart! I've been in bed for two weeks!"
Talus bit back a laugh at the look of horror on the hunter's face and tried to make his own expression stern. "Very well, you can sit up for a while. You do need to start exercising that knee, but you mustn't take it too fast, so no more walking today. If you put too much strain on it too soon, you could still do some serious damage. Do you understand?"
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Iolaus grumbled, and graciously allowed Hercules to help him into the chair beside the bed. "Why don't you put a rug over me while you're at it?"
Moments later Krytos, his family, and Timos erupted into the room. They'd been listening at the door for the past few minutes and had heard Talus announce the good news. Timos was beaming from ear to ear. "Now you'll be able to take me fishing like you promised!" he said happily, jumping from foot to foot in excitement. Both Hercules and Iolaus had tried to play down the possibly severity of the injury, but he was a bright lad and had been fully aware of the situation. He'd lain awake many nights, worrying about Iolaus and fighting back the feelings of guilt that kept crowding in. Now, everything was going to be alright and for the first time in months, he was really happy.
The next morning, Hercules prepared to set off.
"Iolaus, I want you to promise me that you'll do exactly what Talus tells you and don't try to do too much."
Iolaus grinned. "Me? Do too much? Never, Herc! You know me!"
"Yes, I do," Hercules retorted with feeling, "and I don't trust you!"
He laughed at Iolaus' hurt expression. "And don't think you'll be able to get around Timos. I'm going to give the boy a good talking to before I go!"
Iolaus expression softened as he thought about the boy. "He's a good kid, Herc."
"Yes, he is." Hercules watched his friend's face carefully, wondering whether to say what was on his mind. Observing the demigod's suddenly serious expression, the blond asked, "What?"
"Iolaus, you can tell me it's none of my business, but .... you're getting very attached to the boy, aren't you?"
Iolaus looked at him, a glint in his eye.
"What do you mean?"
"I think you should think about what you're doing, that's all. I don't want either of you to get hurt."
"You're right." Iolaus replied shortly. "It's none of your business."
Hercules, ignoring the danger signs, walked up to him and put his hands on the hunter's shoulders.
"Iolaus .... you aren't thinking about taking him with us, are you?"
Iolaus sighed, his momentary anger dissipating. Hercules could read him like a book. "What if I am? He needs *someone* to take care of him."
"Agreed, but that someone can't be you." Hercules retorted flatly. "He needs a home, he needs a family. I'm not saying you wouldn't care about him, but face it Iolaus - ours isn't the kind of life where you can cart a kid around. It's too dangerous."
"I could leave him with my mother sometimes," Iolaus went on stubbornly.
Hercules shook his head. "Iolaus, what's wrong with you? He's not a puppy you can keep as a pet! He needs a stable home. He needs to go to school and learn. If you take him with us on the road, you'll be no better than Broteas was....." He stopped abruptly at the hurt and striken look on the blond's face as the hunter shook off his friend's hands and turned away. There was silence for a moment, then Hercules said softly, "I'm sorry, Iolaus. I didn't mean to say it like that ...." he broke off, not knowing how to go on. After a moment, Iolaus turned back to look at him, his expression now one of sad acceptance. "It's alright, Hercules. I know you're right. I know I can't take him with me. It's just that sometimes...."
He didn't have to finish. "I know," Hercules said quietly. "Me too."
They sat silently for a few moments, each lost in thought about the families they would never see again. Then Iolaus broke the tension. "You'd better get going. I promise I won't do too much and I promise I'll try and talk to Timos about the future. Will that do?"
Hercules smiled. "That'll do fine."
"Right then." The hunter held out his hand. "Be safe, Hercules."
Hercules grasped his friend's arm in a warrior's handshake. "You too, Iolaus. And I'll be back before you know it."
While Hercules was away Iolaus took huge strides back to health. He wasn't allowed to walk far, so resigned himself to trips to the river with Timos and Krytos' son Marcus. Timos spent as much time with him as he could, but whenever Iolaus tried to bring up the subject of Timos' future, the boy refused to listen. Iolaus, instead of pushing him, kept telling himself that there was plenty of time. But he knew he was only fooling himself. They were both aware that he was now fit to travel and when Hercules returned there would be no need to stay any longer in Amphydria.
Hercules stood unseen behind the tree line, watching Iolaus and Timos laughing together. He had arrived back and had walked with Krytos down to the river bank just as Timos hauled a fair sized fish out of the river.
The demigod had been away for almost three weeks. It had taken longer than he'd hoped to organise the village's defences against the warlord and then help repair the damage caused in the final battle where the triumphant villagers had defeated the enemy's attack.
Hercules had spent most of his time away worrying about the blond and his young friend and had been relieved on his return to hear from Krytos that Iolaus' knee had healed nicely and that he was now able to walk easily, if not for very long distances.
Krytos had also filled him in on the discussion he and Iolaus had had about Timos' future, and described how the hunter and the boy had grown closer over the three weeks. Hercules had been concerned but not surprised that Iolaus still hadn't found a way to confront Timos about the future. Maybe it was for the best. Knowing that he was to be left behind might have ruined the time the boy had left with his friend. But Hercules knew how much the parting was going to hurt and his heart ached for them both.
He watched the two of them laughing together for a few moments longer, then left quietly. This might prove to be the last time they had together and he didn't want to deprive them of a single moment.
That evening, at dinner, it was Hercules who broached the subject no-one wanted to mention.
"Iolaus, I was thinking," he began carefully, "it's a long time since we visited Jason. Now that Talus says you're fit to travel, maybe ...."
"When do we leave?" Timos interrupted.
Iolaus and Hercules exchanged glances.
"Timos," Iolaus said gently, "Krytos and I have been talking. We think it would be better if you stay...."
"*No*! I don't want to stay here! I want to come with *you*!"
"Timos ...." Iolaus reached out for him, but the boy slipped out of his grasp and ran off as fast as he could in the direction of the river. Iolaus let him go. He'd anticipated this. It would be better to let him cool off before talking some sense into him. The hunter looked at his friend in despair. "Hercules .... this is the right thing for him, isn't it?"
"You know it is. He needs a proper family."
"I know. It's just ...."
Hercules put his arm around his friend's shoulders. "I know," he said quietly. "I'm sorry, Iolaus." There was nothing more to say. The two friends sat for a while longer, needing no words between them.
Later, Iolaus walked down to the river and found Timos where he'd hoped to find him - by the fishing hole where they'd spent so many happy hours.
He sat down silently beside the boy. After a few minutes, Timos said in a low voice, "I'm sorry. I understand why you don't want to take me with you. It's because I betrayed you, isn't it? You don't think you'll be able to trust me."
Iolaus was stricken. "That's not true, Timos. How can you think that? You know that's not how I see you. When I look at you I see a very brave young man, who risked his life to save the man he'd been told was responsible for his father's death. I see someone who was strong enough to follow his heart and search out the truth for himself. I see someone who will grow up to be a man everyone will admire as a hero." The boy was silent. "Look at me, Timos."
When his companion continued to look down, Iolaus put his fingers under Timos' chin, gently raising the boy's head to look at him. "Do you still hate me?"
Timos looked astonished. "Of course not!"
"Then trust me when I tell you I don't hate you either," Iolaus went on. "I'm sorry, too, Timos. It's not that I don't want to take you with me. I do. But it wouldn't be the best thing for you. It was wrong of your uncle to take you with him as he did. Well, it would be wrong of me to drag you round Greece with me. The life I lead - it's not the right life for you. Not now. When you're a grown man, you can make your own decisions. But for now, you need a home and a family."
Timos was still silent. Iolaus continued, "Krytos has said that you can live with them. You like Marcus, don't you?" Timos nodded silently. "You can go to school with Marcus and help out in the inn. Then, maybe, in a year or two, and if you still want to be a warrior - you can go to Cheiron's Academy."
Timos looked up at this. "The Academy? Where you went? Really?"
Iolaus nodded, glad to see a bit of animation in the boy. "If it's what you want and if the Academy agrees to accept you."
Timos looked down again and when he looked up his eyes were brimming with tears. "I .... I'm going to miss you."
"I'm going to miss you, too, Timos."
Iolaus fished in the bag he was carrying and brought out a small object. "Here, Timos. I want you to have this to remember me by."
He handed the boy an amulet, a little smaller than his own, but with a similar pattern. The boy's eyes widened as he took it, holding it with reverence. "Where did you get it?"
"I carved it. A long time ago."
"It .... it was going to be for your son, wasn't it?"
"Yes, it was." Iolaus replied softly. "I never had the heart to get rid of it."
"Then you should keep it, for when you have a real son of your own. I don't deserve it."
"I want you to have it. So you know I mean it when I say that if my son had lived and he'd turned out anything like you - I'd have been very proud of him." He ran a hand affectionately through the boy's hair. " Just as I'm proud of you, Timos." The boy gazed at him with wide eyes and then down again to the amulet in his hand. Iolaus smiled. "Keep it safe, Timos and let it be a symbol of your courage and my trust in you."
Timos looked up at him, eyes beginning to brim with tears. "I'll wear it always. And every time I look at it, I'll think of you."
Iolaus put his arms out and Timos threw himself into them, hugging him tightly and burying his head in the hunter's chest. "I love you Iolaus. I wish *you* could be my new father."
Iolaus choked back a sob. "I love you, too, Timos. And I wish more than anything I *could* be your new father. But I'll always be there, for you. Never forget that. Anytime you need me, you just send someone to find me. I'll always come. I promise."
The two sat together on the river bank for a long time, until the sun sank beneath the horizon. Iolaus knew that while he travelled with Hercules, he wouldn't be able to spend much time with Timos and that in time the boy would come to accept and love Krytos and Thera as his new parents. And that was as it should be. But that didn't matter, because there was a bond between the hunter and the boy that would last a lifetime. He might have a son of his own one day and he might not. But either way, he knew that there was someone who would always look to him as a father and for now, that was enough.
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