From a distance, the squadrons of killer bees were a perfectly formed arrow as they flew through the cloudless sky in the direction of Thrace.
‘Red Three, close in, you’re breaking formation!’ Red Squadron Leader growled as he observed the slight imperfection in the line.
‘Who does he think he is, anyway?’ Red Three muttered under his breath as he pulled in to close the gap between himself and Red Two.
‘He’s the leader of the best of the Queen’s commando squadrons, that’s who,’ Red Two answered proudly. ‘We have a reputation to maintain.’
Red Three snorted. ‘Remind me again why we’re going to Thrace?’
Red Two clicked in exasperation. ‘Didn’t you listen to the briefing? We ...’
He was interrupted by Red Leader’s signal to stop. Red and Blue squadrons hovered on the spot, straining to hear their Leader’s words. ‘You all know what to do. Blue Leader, you take your squadron and peel off east, chase that young boy towards the well. Red Squadron, we’ll take up position at the well. When the target appears, wait for my signal, then dive!’ He paused. ‘This is a very important mission, so failure is unacceptable. Be on the lookout, be on your guard. Is everyone in position?’
There were hums of assent from each bee in the lines. Red Leader signalled for the two squadrons to move off again. As they flew, the sunlight glanced off the peacock emblems on their bodies.
Hercules and Iolaus were taking a well-earned rest from the never-ending task of building Alcmene’s wall.
‘You know, Herc,’ Iolaus grumbled as he gulped in a long draught of water from the flask the demigod passed him, ‘I’m sure this wall unbuilds itself every time we leave. I could have sworn we’d reached that olive tree last time.’
Hercules agreed, but wasn’t about to admit it. He’d promised to get this wall finished and finish it he would, if it was the last thing he did. Instead he said cheerfully, ‘Time to get back to work. We can put in another three hours before dusk.’
Iolaus snorted in disgust as Hercules grabbed another enormous stone and carried it towards the wall. Did the man never stop? Then the hunter glanced up at the sky and grinned. By the current position of the sun, it looked like they’d been working for about four hours. Which meant that round about now ...
‘Hercules! Help us!’
Yup. Round about now was the time for a cry for help from some poor soul in danger and therefore requiring the demigod’s assistance. As he followed his friend towards the source of the cry, Iolaus wondered what the task would be this time. Was Hercules needed to slay a monster, or to rescue a damsel in distress or a child in danger? What would Iolaus’ role be on this occasion? It could be just to lend his assistance if Hercules was heavily outnumbered, or to get captured so that Hercules would have to demonstrate his heroism in a desperate rescue attempt. Of course, he was aware that he hadn’t been seriously injured or bedridden with a raging fever for a while, so either of those scenarios was a distinct possibility. Whatever it was, he hoped he wasn’t going to have to die again. That was getting really boring and always seemed to happen at a really inconvenient time. Actually, the hunter rather hoped that on this occasion he’d just be called on to stand by and shout words of encouragement. He really was quite tired from building that wall.
As he rounded the corner of Alcmene’s house hot on his partner’s heels, he spotted the source of the problem. One of the neighbours’ children, a young lad, was screaming in fear and running round and round in ever more desperate circles, pursued by what looked like a small swarm of bees. At least, the hunter thought they were bees. They looked like bees, but they were more the size of apples than regular bees.
Iolaus skidded to a halt beside Hercules and Alcmene. ‘So, Hercules, what’s the plan?’
Hercules grabbed his mother’s apron. ‘I’ll try to distract the bees while you grab the boy.’
‘Okay.’ Iolaus shrugged philosophically. Looked like this was going to be a two-man job after all.
It didn’t take much effort to distract the bees. The moment Hercules headed towards the boy the bees left the lad and began to swarm round the demigod instead. He began swatting at them with Alcmene’s apron.
Iolaus darted in, grabbed the boy, and sent him running to the safety of the house. As he turned back, he noticed another swarm of bees appearing from behind Hercules. Later he could have sworn he heard the leading bee shout, ‘Bombs away!’, before they dove towards his friend.
Initially unconcerned and somewhat amused at the sight of Hercules swatting at the bees with a brightly coloured apron, Iolaus realised that something was horribly wrong when the demigod suddenly collapsed to the floor as if pole axed. Iolaus and Alcmene rushed to Hercules’ side, barely noticing that the swarms of bees had disappeared.
‘Hercules, sweetheart, are you all right?’ Alcmene asked in a worried tone.
‘Does he look all right?’‘ Iolaus exclaimed. Admittedly, the answer was no. Vicious looking blotches with black centres were appearing all over his body. Iolaus groaned. He’d got it wrong - again. It wasn’t his turn to be on death’s door after all. It was Hercules’. And ten to one, the gods were behind it. The hunter sighed as he saw his vision of a relaxing evening and a hearty meal fade into the distance.
‘I’ve never seen bee stings so bad,’ Alcmene was saying anxiously.
Hurriedly, Iolaus dragged his thoughts back to the present predicament. After all, he had an important part to play. ‘These are no ordinary bee stings,’ he said grimly. We need to get him to a healer quickly. You’d better take the boy back to his mother, while I hitch up the wagon.’ ‘Then all we have to do is get Hercules into it,’ he added silently.
Eventually, after several futile attempts to lift the demigod into the back of the wagon, Iolaus rigged up an ingenious pulley system and managed to drag Hercules in that way. He had just paused to catch his breath when Alcmene returned. Moving an unconscious Hercules was harder than moving a dead hydra. Not that he’d ever tried to move a dead hydra, but you get the picture.
It wasn’t far to Thebes and once there Iolaus was relieved to find that the healer, Medicius, had a couple of heftily built sons who helped carry Hercules into the house and onto a bed.
Alcmene hovered anxiously as the healer tended to her son. Iolaus hovered too, but mainly because he knew that was what was expected of him, rather than because he was overly concerned. After all, the chances of anything serious happening to Hercules were so remote as to be almost ridiculous. In fact, Iolaus couldn’t really understand why an injured Hercules ever featured in a storyline. Where were the suspense and drama when you knew how the story was going to turn out? After all, he himself was possibly expendable - one of these days he was going to die and stay dead - but Hercules? Nah. The show had to go on and it couldn’t go on without the main man.
But he dutifully put a comforting arm round Alcmene’s shoulder as the healer tended to the demigod, putting liberal amounts of salve onto the bites and then bandaging them loosely.
When he’d finished, Medicius looked up at his companions, a serious expression on his face. ‘I’ve never seen bee stings so bad. I’ve done what I can, but I’m afraid the poison may have already taken hold. We’ll have to wait and see.’
His words were prophetic. Hercules soon developed a terrible fever, tossing and turning in the thrall of nightmares. During the night Alcmene and Iolaus took turns sitting with him, wiping his fevered brow. Medicius replaced the bandages every few hours and tried every combination of salves he had in his possession, but to no avail. The bites were more swollen and angry looking than ever. Eventually, the healer realised that they must all face the truth. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘there’s nothing more I can do. It’s up to the gods now.’
Alcmene burst into tears.
Sitting helplessly beside his suffering friend, Iolaus began to feel the first fluttering of panic. Hercules should be recovering by now. That was the way it went. A couple of hours, then his body would begin to heal and before long he’d be walking around as if nothing had happened. This time, he was worryingly behind schedule.
Iolaus leaned forward, putting a hand on his friend’s shoulder. ‘Hercules, you can’t die,’ he whispered. ‘How would I live if I didn’t have you to constantly put me in dangerous situations, bring me unwanted attention from the gods and get me killed at regular intervals?’
There was no reply from Hercules. After a while, Alcmene nudged Iolaus softly. Getting no response, she dug an elbow in his ribs.
‘Ow! What’d you do that for?’
‘You’ve forgotten something,’ Alcmene whispered.
‘Iolaus!’ Alcmene exclaimed, exasperated. Surely he knew the routine by now. ‘This is the bit where you’re supposed to call for Zeus in despair and ...’
‘Oh, yeah, I almost forgot! I thought all this sitting round uselessly wasn’t the way it usually goes! I’ll get right on it.’ He got to his feet. ‘Hang in there, buddy,’ he exclaimed dramatically. ‘There must be a cure, and I’m going to find it!’
He left the cottage and climbed to the top of the nearest hill. Why it had to be the top of a hill, he wasn’t sure, he just knew that it did. It was a high hill and he was breathless by the time he reached the summit. He wasn’t halfway through the story yet and he was tired already. He also had a very good idea how the next bit would go, and he wasn’t particularly looking forward to it.
Flinging himself to his knees in what he hoped was a dramatic fashion, he shouted, ‘All right, Zeus! Your son is dying. One of your family has caused it. Don’t you care? Aren’t you going to do anything about it?!’
There was the sound of a thunderbolt and Zeus appeared before him. ‘There’s no need to make all that commotion,’ the King of the Gods said irritably. ‘I’m not deaf!’
‘Look who’s talking!’ Iolaus countered. ‘What’s with the thunderbolt?’
Zeus glowered. ‘I’m the King of the Gods. I’m entitled to make a grand entrance.’
‘Yeah, whatever. So? What are you going to do about Hercules?’
Zeus’ face darkened. ‘You need to watch your manners, young man. What’s happened to my son this time?’
‘You mean, you don’t know?’
‘I don’t have eyes in the back of my head. I’ve been ... preoccupied.’ His face softened for a moment as he smiled dreamily at a memory, then snapped back into its dark look. ‘What has happened to Hercules?’
Iolaus told him the story briefly. Zeus’ expression darkened even further. ‘This is Hera’s doing. She’s been training a swarm of bees to do her bidding. Their venom is laced with a poison that can kill a god.’
‘Killer bees!’ Iolaus yelped. ‘I thought they only existed in legend?’
‘Oh, they exist, all right. Their hives are located high up on Mount Olympus. The honey they produce is the only antidote to the poison.’
Iolaus sighed. He knew what was coming next. He’d have given anything to be back at Alcmene’s, finishing off her wall.
‘You know it’s against the rules for me to intervene ...’ Zeus went on.
‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, yadda, yadda, yadda,’ Iolaus interrupted. ‘Save me the whole spiel. I’ll go get the honey. I assume there’s a tight timescale and I’ll encounter all sorts of dangers on the way?’
‘Of course. But there is one thing you can take with you that’ll give you some protection against the bees ...’
Iolaus returned to the healer’s house and was warmly greeted by Alcmene. ‘Iolaus! You’re back so soon! I knew you could do it. Where’s the antidote?’
‘Give me a break, I haven’t actually gone yet!’
‘Oh, sorry. It gets a bit boring being the one who has to stay and wipe Hercules’ fevered brow all the time. I thought I’d dozed off for longer. So where do you have to go?’
‘Oh, Mount Olympus, for a change.’
‘Well, you’d better take a thick cloak, you know how cold it can get on that mountain.’
‘Talking of cloaks - do you happen to know if Medicius keeps goats?’
An hour later, Iolaus was on the road to Mount Olympus. He carried a pack on his back with some supplies for the journey and, securely tied in a waterproof bag, a cloak liberally soaked in goat’s urine. He wrinkled his nose in disgust as he walked. Despite the packaging, the smell was still overpowering. But Zeus had said that the bees were allergic to goat’s urine, so it was worth a bit of discomfort.
Mount Olympus was several days journey from Thrace. Iolaus kept up a good pace, stopping to rest every few hours, but carrying on through the night. Although he was pretty sure Hercules wasn’t going to die, whatever happened - the story never ended that way - the annoying thing was that he was never sure enough to be complacent. You never knew when the story was going to throw a curve ball. After all, the first time he himself had died, he hadn’t expected it. And he really didn’t think he was up to going to the Underworld to argue with Hades for Hercules’ life. So he made the best speed he could. He passed several travellers on the way, and was mildly worried at the way they moved on with looks of pity and disgust on their faces, until he remembered the cloak. After half a day’s travel he no longer noticed the terrible smell, but obviously it hadn’t got any less pungent en route.
To cut a long story short, eventually the hunter found himself high up on Mount Olympus. Of course, Hera had done all she could to impede his way with the usual old things - fire breathing dragons, monsters, earth quakes, quick sand and other impediments. Iolaus had, of course, taken them all in his stride and made it to Mount Olympus only slightly singed, beaten, battered and still with one boot and his clothing more or less intact. As journeys went, it had been a lot easier than he’d anticipated.
As he approached the area of the mountain Zeus had described to him, he heard a faint humming. Quickly untying his pack, he took out the cloak. Once on, it covered him from head to foot. He tied it firmly in place, pulled the hood around his face and continued on.
Red Squadron was on roving patrol while Blue Squadron was on duty guarding the Queen Bee.
Red Three was bored. When his squadron had been picked for training as elite commandos to do Hera’s bidding, he had initially been excited at the thought of some action. But so far they had spent most of their time in drills, occasionally broken by covert missions. The missions bothered him. Attacking enemies who threatened the Queen Bee was one thing, but these missions to attack ordinary people going about their lives seemed wrong, somehow. Take yesterday. What had that big guy ever done to them? Red Squadron Leader said that they weren’t there to question orders, just to obey, but Red Three couldn’t help but question orders that he felt were wrong.
He was so lost in thought that he almost didn’t notice the man approaching. There was something familiar about him. Ah, yes - it was the small blond guy who’d been with the big guy yesterday. Red Three watched with interest as the man stopped, took something out of his pack, and put it on. The smell almost knocked the bee off the leaf he was sitting on. The stench was unbelievable and Red Three felt an almost immediate itching under his wings. Whatever it was, he was obviously allergic to it. But he stayed in position. He was curious. What on earth did the guy think he was doing anyway? Was he coming to attack the Queen? It seemed unlikely that a lone man would attempt such a feat.
The blond man moved on and Red Three followed at a distance. He could hear the man muttering under his breath. Due to the special powers all the bees had been given by Hera, the bee could make out some of what the man was saying. ‘... always get the naff jobs ... could be at Alcmene’s now, tucking into one of her stews, but oh, no, Hercules has to be a hero ... just get some honey and get out of here ... there’s no way Hercules is going to die, but just in case ...’ He continued to walk and mutter to himself, but Red Three soon put together what was happening. The man had come to get some honey from the hive to save his friend.
Red Three pondered and eventually came to a dangerous decision. He was going to help the man. He knew in his heart of hearts that what Red and Blue squadrons were doing was wrong, and this was an opportunity for him to do something to put things right. Before he had time to change his mind, he found himself flying out into the open, right in the man’s path.
Iolaus skidded to a halt as an enormous bee appeared out of nowhere and hovered right in front of him. Before the hunter’s mind had even formed the word, ‘swat’, the bee said, in a high-pitched voice, ‘I want to help you. But first you’ve got to get under cover - you could be spotted at any moment. And take that cloak off - the smell’s killing me!’
Iolaus was so shocked to hear the bee talking that he scooted into the undergrowth and took off the cloak without really thinking about it. The bee sighed in relief and shook himself. ‘Thanks! The smell was beginning to get under my wings! Now, listen carefully, we don’t have much time ...’
It seemed only a few minutes before Iolaus was walking back down the mountain, a large dollop of honey in a jar in his pack, wondering if he’d dreamed what had just happened. He’d encountered some strange sights in his time, but a giant talking bee just about took the prize. But the bee had seemed sincere in his desire to help so, although he was alert to the possibility of a trap, Iolaus had followed Red Three on a complicated route that led to the main hives via back paths that were not well guarded. There, he’d waited while the bee had disappeared and returned dragging a small portion of a honey comb behind him. Iolaus had tried to convince the bee to come with him - he would surely be court martialled if it was ever discovered that he’d helped, but Red Three was determined to stay and attempt to undermine Hera’s authority from within.
So Iolaus returned alone. Initially, he’d been a bit suspicious that the task had been so easy, but was reassured when on the return journey he was once more faced with all sorts of perils and dangers as Hera again tried to impede his progress. Once again he came through triumphantly and within two days was knocking on the door of Medicius’s house.
Medicius opened the door. ‘Iolaus! Not a moment too soon! Hercules has slipped into a coma. He’s dying!’
Iolaus wasn’t too perturbed by the words. Of course Hercules was on the verge of death. Where would the drama be if he’d been through all that only to find that his friend had recovered while he was gone? The point was, he’d returned just in time for Hercules to be saved before breathing his last breath. As usual.
He followed the healer into the room where Hercules lay, an anxious Alcmene beside him. She looked up and smiled as he entered the room. ‘Just in the nick of time, Iolaus. You look terrible. The usual sort of thing?’ Iolaus nodded wearily and sat down beside her. Medicius put some of the honey into hot water and fed it to the dying man and within minutes Hercules was awake. When Medicius peeled back the bandages the vicious red marks were already beginning to fade.
Later, Iolaus sat on Hercules’ bed telling him about Red Three as the demigod finished off a bowl of broth. He was well on the road to recovery, but Medicius wanted to keep him in bed for another day to be sure.
‘So,’ Hercules said, ‘It was obviously your turn to do the heroic thing and save the day.’
‘Guess so.’ Iolaus sighed. ‘I just wish the ending wasn’t so predictable every time.’
‘Really?’ Hercules remarked. ‘So you’d have preferred it if you hadn’t made it back in time and I’d died?’
Iolaus grinned. ‘No, but when you know how it’s going to end, what’s the point?’
‘It’s the story that holds the interest,’ Hercules replied. ‘There are hundreds of different stories to be told. They may all have the same parameters - one of us is hurt, the other has to do something heroic to save them, but if the heart of the story is different each time, it’s still interesting, it’s still dramatic.’
‘I know you’re right. I’m probably just tired.’
‘Well, you’d better get a good night’s sleep. We have a wall to finish tomorrow ...’
No killer bees were injured during the writing of this story, though Red Three did have an itch under his wings for several days.
Any similarity to events in previously posted stories is purely coincidental.
Those who were enthralled by the character of Red Three will be pleased to hear that his further exploits will be told in the forthcoming sequel, ‘Attack of the Killer Bees, Episode III - The Downfall of the Empire’, and his early history chronicled in ‘Attack of the Killer Bees, Episode I - The Birth of the Empire.’ Maybe.
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