Iolaus sat on the edge of his bed, held his leather pants and willed the dizziness to go away. He slowly pushed one foot into the pants and then the other. His whole body ached and he really just wanted to crawl back into his bed. He couldn't let Ania see how terrible he really felt. She'd think that she had failed him again and he just couldn't stand to see her cry. She'd been worried enough over him since he first came down with the fever that had been going around Thebes. She'd faithfully fed him the herbal teas her mother had taught her to make but Iolaus wasn't better and he was getting weaker. He needed help and if he didn't go now, he wouldn't be able to.
He stood with the support of the bedpost, took a deep breath and began his act as he stepped into the common room where Ania was sewing.
Iolaus smiled at his wife and tried to look convincing.
"What are you doing up?" She asked laying aside her sewing and rose to stand between Iolaus and the door.
"I just want to go outside and get some air. I've been cooped up in here for three days."
"Four." She looked unhappy with him but she didn't say more.
Iolaus plunged ahead and edged closer to the door. "Ok, four, I just wanna get some sun. I'm an outdoor kinda guy, you know. Fresh air will do me good."
She still frowned, "Alright, if you really feel up to it, but don't go far."
"I'll find a nice tree to sit under, maybe take a nap, it'll be good for me,” he slipped out the door. He maintained his stride and posture until he was sure he was out of his wife's line of sight. Then, his shoulders slumped and his gait slowed. He didn't have the strength to keep up this act much longer. He stopped, leaned against a tree and closed his swollen eyes. The sunshine made them ache even more. He rested a moment, thankful that Alcmene didn't live far.
He pushed off the tree and continued down the path through the woods. Stars sparkling at the edge of his vision, a constant reminder of just how sick he was. He needed help and he knew it.
Iolaus found Alcmene tending her garden. She rose as soon as she saw him.
"Iolaus? I saw Ania in the market yesterday, she told me you were sick."
"I was, I am, that's why I'm here. I don't know what to do." His shoulders slumped further, "I can't keep this up."
Alcmene led him to the porch and they both sat down on the steps.
Iolaus rested his head in his hands and poured out his troubles, "Ania is so afraid that she'll fail me as a wife. OK so, she burns dinner regularly, her sewing's not the greatest and she does scare the cow." He sighed, "I don't care about that stuff. I love her but she thinks it's important. She's been giving me teas and stuff since I came down with this. She's trying so hard to make me feel better." Iolaus visibly wilted, "I don't have the strength to pretend I'm getting well."
"Because you're really not feeling better?" Alcmene asked, placing a hand against his forehead and frowning.
"I feel terrible."
"How did you get here?" she wondered.
"I told Ania I was going for a walk."
Alcmene sighed, "Iolaus, first of all, you should never have lied to Ania about feeling better," she watched as a chill passed through him. "She can't help you if you hide your illness. Let's get you inside where you can rest while I make some more tea."
Iolaus nodded his knees felt weak and the number of stars around the edges of his vision increased as he stood.
Alcmene must have seen his unsteadiness because she slid an arm around his waist to support him as they walked into the house together. They paused in the kitchen, "You go in and lie down on my bed, I'll be there in a moment." She took the time to mix dried leaves of a couple of herbs into a solution of water in a bowl and gather a clean cloth. She also hung the kettle and stirred the coals back into life for the tea.
She set the bowl on the table. Iolaus' eye's were closed. She picked up the extra blanket from the end of her bed and spread it over him. She dipped the cloth in the bowl and placed it on his forehead. He sighed audibly.
"Iolaus, I need to know your symptoms."
He told her about the dizziness and the stars and the nausea, of how he'd tried and failed to keep down Ania's soup the night before.
Alcmene smiled and rubbed his arm comfortingly. "I think I can help all that. I'll go make the tea, you rest."
Alcmene sat on the edge of the bed as he drank the tea. When he finished, Iolaus rolled onto his side. Alcmene knew he was a grown man but at that moment she felt an uncontrollable urge to gather him in her arms and rock him until he felt better. She settled for pulling the blanket back to his waist and rubbing his back as he drifted to sleep. She let him rest to give the herbs a chance to give him some relief but she knew he must have been gone awhile and Ania would be worried.
Alcmene quickly packed her herbs and her sewing into a basket before she went out to saddle the horse. She expected to be gone the rest of the day and made everything ready before waking Iolaus.
"Come on, we need to get you home. We don't want to worry Ania anymore than you have already."
He nodded and slowly sat up.
Alcmene climbed onto the horse first, before giving Iolaus a hand up behind her. He locked his fingers together around her waist and they set off. Alcmene kept the pace slow and as she hoped Iolaus soon laid a cheek against her back and let the easy rocking motion lull him back to sleep.
Ania was waiting on the porch when they arrived, "What happened?"
Iolaus slid off the horse, "Nothing happened," he took her hand, "Ania, I haven't been honest with you. I haven't been getting better. I've been feeling worse and we needed help."
"So you went to Alcmene?"
He saw the tears spring to her eyes.
"I can't do anything right."
"Oh, Ania," he reached for her and she stepped out of reach, "Ania, I love you, I don't care that you're not as domestic as other people's wives, so you're cooking won't win any awards, mine doesn't either. So you don't slop pigs as well as the neighbor's wife. It's you I cherish, your smile and your laughter and your kindness and that little mole that drives me wild. I still can't believe that you want to spend your life with the likes of me. I must be the luckiest man alive." He extended his hand and she took it. She wasn't happy but the tears were gone for the moment. Ania glanced over to Alcmene.
"You need to get him back into bed. I'll put my horse in the barn and then we'll see about making him better, ok?"
Ania nodded and led Iolaus into the house. "Why didn't you tell me? I'd have gone for Alcmene."
Alcmene headed for the barn shaking her head. "What a charmer." She put the horse in an empty stall and took off the saddle. She gave the cow a friendly pat and noticed the poor thing was engorged with milk. She remembered, Iolaus had said that Ania frightened the cow and Iolaus had been too sick to take care of it. She picked up the bucket and proceeded to put the poor thing out of it's misery before going into the house.
Alcmene entered the common room and set her basket on a chair. She glanced through the open bedroom door and saw that Iolaus was again asleep. She found Ania at the table in the kitchen sobbing quietly. Alcmene sat beside her and put her arm around Ania's trembling shoulders.
"Don't cry, dear, it will be alright."
"No, it won't, I'm a terrible wife, I can't do anything right."
"Ania, he loves you."
"I know, that just makes it worse. I try to cook meals that taste good, I do. Iolaus pretends that he likes it, but I see his face, I know. I can't even get near the cow, I've tried." Her pretty face was a picture of abject failure.
"I took care of that while I was in the barn."
"Ania, was your mother a good cook, honestly?"
"Not really," she said quietly glancing up.
"And you've never been around farm animals before have you?"
"And you've never had to sew your' own clothes, either?"
"No," Ania resumed staring at her hands figiting on the table.
"Big shoes to fill all at once, you can't learn all that right away. It takes time and you’ve only been married a few short months. Ania, you just need someone to show you how, that's all."
Her eyes glistened with unshed tears but there was a ray of hope in them. "You'd do that for me?"
"Of course I will. Now, dry your eyes and I'll put on some water and we'll have some tea."
"Why does he do it?" Ania asked as she watched Alcmene stir the tea in the glasses.
"Pretend to like my cooking?"
Alcmene smiled, "I think Iolaus really will eat almost anything and like it. Mostly, he doesn't want to disappoint you. You're both going through a phase of marriage where you're exploring the differences and similarities and you're still just insecure enough in each other that you seek the other’s approval in everything. It'll pass as you get to know each other and you'll become less self conscious. You have to stop pretending to like everything the other does and not expect them to like everything you do either. You are different people and you have to give each other the space to be yourselves. It just takes time and patience." Alcmene set the glasses on the table.
"Where do we start?"
"First some information about Iolaus, keeping him in bed when he's sick or hurt is next to impossible."
"So, I've learned."
"There are ways...." Alcmene smiled mischievously.
"Iolaus? Time to wake up and drink your tea."
"Alcmene? You're still here?" Iolaus pushed himself up against the pillows and took the offered glass making sure the blankets still covered his modesty.
"Of course, we've got to get you back on your feet for that poor cow's sake, if not for your own."
"Making soup," Alcmene sat on the edge of the bed.
"Don't look like that, I supervised, it'll be fine. We had a long talk, mostly about you and I think we've worked out what's best for you."
"Oh.” Iolaus paused and looked up at Alcmene with slightly skeptical eyes, “This is good, right?"
"Then, why does this conversation make me feel uncomfortable?"
Alcmene reached over and felt his forehead gauging his fever and ignoring his question, "How do you feel?"
"Awful," he handed the glass to her and slid back down into the bed. "Alcmene?"
"Would you rub my back again?"
Ania watched from the doorway as Alcmene pulled the blankets back over her husband and tucked him in with a kiss on his forehead.
"He said you were more of a mother to him than his own."
"I was there for him during some difficult times when his own mother couldn’t be. He may not have been born to me but in my heart he is no different than my other children. I don't love him any less."
"He lets you mother him, he won't let me do that."
Alcmene paused as she was about to step up onto her horse, “One more bit of advice dear, once his fever’s broke and he’s had a little rest, Iolaus will try to get up and do things before he should. He’s stubborn like that.”
“I know,” Ania smiled conspiratorially, “what can I do?” She stepped closer.
“Hide his clothes, all of them. It won’t stop him but he won’t get as far as fast either.”
“You mean he’d go out...?”
Alcmene nodded, “Buck naked, if he had to, but he has to be discrete about it and that gives you time to catch him and make him come back to bed.”
Ania nodded her agreement, “Alright.”
Alcmene mounted her horse, “And don’t forget to come over in a few days and get those recipes from me.”
“I will. Thank you, Alcmene.”
“My pleasure.” She smiled and waved as she rode off. “I mean it, hide his clothes, including what he’s wearing.”
Ania laughed, “I will.”
Iolaus sat up and glanced toward the open bedroom door. He heard kitchen noises, the sound of someone preparing food. He threw back the covers and stealthily padded on bare feet toward his wife’s trunk.
He paused a moment, these were Ania’s private things, keepsakes, mementos. He glanced around the room. His clothes had to be here somewhere. He’d already checked with the linens and in Ania’s clothes. There wasn’t anywhere else in the bedroom they could be.
He felt goosebumps rising as a draft of cool air hit his uncovered body. Ania had opened the door to go outside. He shivered and propped open the lid against the wall. Inside were blankets and shawls and some of their wedding gifts that they hadn’t had need for yet. He slid his hand down the corner to carefully lift the blankets up to see what was beneath them.
“Just what do you think you’re doing?”
Iolaus jumped, he couldn’t help himself. The trunk lid slammed shut, he jumped again, losing his balance and fell unceremoniously on his backside. The floor was cold.
“Ania, uh, I was just...”
“Looking for your clothes?” She crossed her arms and gave him a stern look.
“So you could go outside, maybe? Husband, do you really think that I am so naive as to hide your clothes in the bedroom?”
Iolaus sighed in defeat and rested his elbows on his knees, “I knew you and Alcmene deciding what was best for me was a bad thing.”
She smiled and tried hard not to laugh at the sight of her naked husband sitting on the floor. “A bad thing, it’s a bad thing that you’re getting well and feeling better?”
“A bad thing that Alcmene’s teaching me to cook better?”
“Then, what’s bad husband?”
“She’s teaching you all her old mother tricks, too.”
Then, Ania did chuckle, she couldn’t help it. Iolaus shot her a dirty look and she laughed outright. “They are wife tricks now, my love.”
Iolaus sighed deeply.
“Iolaus, come back to bed.”
“I’ve been in bed for days.”
“Uh huh, and you’re getting better, but you’re not well yet. You are still weak and sitting on that cold floor in your condition is doing nothing but slowing down your recovery. You don’t want to catch a chill, do you?”
Iolaus’ gave Ania a menacing look but his eyes gleamed, “You’re the reason, I’m in this condition, wife. You stole all my clothes.”
He sounded upset but Ania knew it was just his impatience talking, “Come to bed and let me rub your back. I’ll make you feel better.”
Iolaus rose on weak legs and walked slowly back to bed, “Alcmene teach you back rubs, too, I suppose?”
Ania let Iolaus lie down on his stomach and pulled the blankets over the lower half of his body before she leaned forward and whispered in his ear seductively, “Alcmene doesn’t know all the secrets....”
A few months pass...
Iolaus took a large gulp of his ale, leaned against the bar and continued his tale. “Then, I planted rows and rows of cabbages and corn and carrots and green things are coming up, Herc. I just hope they aren’t all weeds. I’m a farmer now.” Iolaus studied his big friend. Hercules was staring out the window at something. The hunter turned farmer leaned over to look at apparently nothing. “What?”
“Huh? I’m sorry, Iolaus.”
“You’re not hearing a thing I’m saying.”
“What? Come on, Herc, there’s something going on with you.”
“Yeah? Look at yourself, sitting there gazing out the window all moon-eyed. If I didn’t know you better, I’d say you were in love.”
“Ya think?” Hercules asked.
“Uh huh. I think Deianeira's captured your heart.”
Hercules frowned, “Yeah, captured it, stomped on it, chewed it up and spit it out.”
Iolaus nodded knowingly, “She seemed the feisty type to me.”
Hercules sat his empty mug down on the bar and turned to leave. “She sure is.”
Iolaus followed him. “And you’ve fallen hard for her. You always did go for the fiercely independent ones. Come on, walk me home.” They headed out of the village.
Hercules grew more sullen with each step, “Doesn’t matter if I love her, it’s not going to work.”
“Too demanding, she says I have to settle down and give up helping people.”
“No more monster killing all over the countryside for you, huh?”
“Yeah, I can’t help people anymore.”
Iolaus turned and walked backwards so he could face his friend. “But you’re Hercules, hero of the people. You can’t just stop...but you could slow down. I mean, you’ll have a family, they’ll depend on you, too. You can’t be gone all the time. They have to be provided for. It’s a big responsibility. If I learned anything from my father growing up, it was that being gone all the time is not what a family needs. They need you to be there for them and take care of more than just paying the bills. You have to really be there, that’s your responsibility.”
“So, now you’re an expert on responsibility? What happened to the Iolaus I knew and who are you? Married life has changed you. Iolaus, I have a responsibility to help anyone who asks.”
“Then, you’re right. It won’t work with Deianeira or any other woman. You’ll never marry or have a family and that would be sad because you’d make a great husband and father. You don’t know what you’re missing, Herc. Don’t miss out on this. Yeah, it changes you, but it’s for the better. You both have to find some middle ground, you both have to give up a little of your pride and give in a little or you don’t have a chance. You have to learn to say no sometimes and not be out helping all the time and she’ll have to learn to let you go help once in awhile.”
“I don’t know if I can say no to someone in trouble, Iolaus.”
“How much do you love her, Herc? If you love her enough, you will. And if she loves you enough, she’ll let you go. Talk to her. Be honest with each other. Ania and I learned that the hard way. Come on in.” Iolaus held open the door to his small house. He picked up a note left on the table under a big bowl of fruit.
*Went to Alcmene's be back later*
"Well, good things usually come of that," Iolaus commented.
"Oh yeah?" Hercules leaned over his shoulder and read the note.
"Your mother's been giving her cooking lessons and working on refining her sewing skills. It's coming along."
"Yeah, it's getting there."
"There?" Hercules questioned dubiously.
"Yeah! You wanna come to dinner and find out for yourself?"
A few months pass.....
The thunder sounded ominously above. Iolaus shoved the last bite of stew into his mouth, “I better go batten down the hatches, we don’t want the farm to blow away.”
“Iolaus, be careful.”
He stepped back to his wife and kissed her on the forehead, “I’ll be fine. It’s just a thunderstorm, just wind and rain and noise. I’ll be right back.”
She cleared the dishes from the table and watched out the window as Iolaus herded the chickens into their coop and put his tools inside the barn. She finished putting away the last bowl as an even louder rumble of thunder shook the house. She shuddered just as Iolaus wrapped his arms around her waist. She yelped and would have leaped out of his arms, if he hadn’t caught her.
“Easy, it’s just me.”
“Iolaus! I hate when you do that.”
“Do what? Startle you? I didn’t mean to.” He set her back on her feet.
“No, sneak up on me.”
Iolaus smiled, “You knew you were marrying a hunter.”
“I know and a good thing, if you didn’t hunt for the innkeeper, we’d never make ends meet, but you don’t have to sneak up on me like I’m your prey.”
“Oh, but it’s so much fun when I catch you.”
The thunder rumbled impossibly close, shaking the foundations of the house. Ania practically leaped back into her husband’s arms.
“Easy, hey, it’s just a storm.”
“Hold me, just hold me.”
“Ok, I’ve got you.”
“Don’t let go,” she buried her face in his neck.
“Never, my love, never.”
2 months pass...
The tavern was noisy and full of people at midday. Hercules and Iolaus had to stand at the bar to eat their meal.
"Ok, Herc, give, what has you so excited, you can't stand still? That's supposed to be my thing, you know."
The demigod blushed into his bowl, "Alright, this isn't exactly the place I wanted to tell you." He had to raise his voice to be heard, "I need a big favor."
"Sure, let's go outside where we can talk."
The two men picked up their bowls and made their way out. They found a quieter spot near the village well and sat down beside it.
Iolaus took a spoonful of his stew and spoke around the hot meat in his mouth, "What can I do for ya, buddy?"
"I need you to be my best man."
"You're what? Deianeira?"
Hercules nodded, "She said yes."
"That's terrific! You got it all worked out? You can give up the hero thing?”
“We’ve agreed to part-time hero for now.”
“For now?” Iolaus queried.
“When we start a family, we’ve agreed to renegotiate.”
“And you’re ok with this?”
“I love her, Iolaus. I need her in my life. This feels right.”
Iolaus chuckled, “Yeah, I know the feeling. Never thought we’d end up here though. When’s it going to happen?”
"We haven't set the date yet but in a couple of months. Will you do it?"
"Absolutely! I'm there. About time you settled down and joined the rest of us in bondage."
They ate in silence for a moment but Iolaus continued to grin to himself. Hercules knew his friend well enough to know there had to be more than just his news to the hunter's good spirits.
"What, what, Herc?"
"Why are you grinning like the fool you are?"
"Oh,” Iolaus paused, “We wanted to tell Ania's mother first so keep it under your hat for a couple of days, Ania and I, we're going to have a baby."
"Iolaus! That's wonderful!"
"Yeah, it is." The hunter grinned but Hercules could see a cloud behind his eyes.
Iolaus sighed, "The more I think about it, the responsibility and all. It's kinda scary, you know? It's not like my father was the best role model. I'm not going to end up being like him, am I?"
"Iolaus, there is no way you will ever be like him. You're too much of a rebel to end up like him. You're going to be a great father. You'll be home for one thing. You're never anywhere else. I never see you since you got married. "
Iolaus blushed, "Well, it takes time to be a good husband. Probably take more time to be a good father, huh?"
"When I get married, you think we'll ever see each other again?"
"Sure we will, we'll make the time."
"Sound like an old married couple ourselves, don't we?"
Another month passes....
Iolaus lay awake listening to the storm. He used to revel in the power of the wind and the lightning. Storms held new fears for him now. He wasn't alone able to rebuild his world or not at his own discretion. He had a wife and soon a family that had to be provided for. Ania shifted restlessly to her side and curled into herself. Storms frightened her, Iolaus slid in behind her and planted a row of kisses on her shoulder blade and the nape of her neck where her shift gaped open. She settled back against him. His hand slid over and caressed circles on her swelling belly. He felt as though he could lay there forever holding the both of them as he drifted back to sleep.
The next morning Ania brought in the eggs to find her husband still in bed, "Come on, get up, bum,” she called cheerily, “Don't want your son to think his mother married a deadbeat do you?" Iolaus rolled up to a sitting position and held his stomach moaning. He rolled back down on his side in the bed. Ania sat on the edge of the mattress and felt his forehead,
"No fever. I thought I was the one that was supposed to be sick. I feel great. You want some breakfast?"
"No, no food. Don't even talk about it. Just let me rest and I'll be fine in a little while. I just need to let my stomach settle."
“Alright, if you’re sure.”
“I’ll be fine. I need to start plowing the fields today, so we can plant. I’ll be fine.”
Iolaus' mysterious malady continued for several days and Ania was worried. She'd tried to get him to go see Laodice, the village's old healer but as usual once he felt better later in the day, he refused to go. Ania realized she would have to be underhanded about it. She went looking for her husband and followed the tell-tale clanging to the makeshift forge in the barn.
"Iolaus, I need to go into town to see Laodice."
"Is everything alright, you feel ok?"
"Yes, everything's fine, it's just a regular visit. I don't want to go by myself, would you drive me?" She knew it wasn't time yet for her visit to the healer but her husband didn't know that.
"Ok, sure, I'll hitch up the horse, give me a minute to get cleaned up some."
Ania and Laodice left Iolaus in the front of the house with the herbs while they disappeared into the back where the healer examined her patients.
"What brings you back so soon, Ania?"
"It's not me, I'm feeling great. It's my husband that worries me."
"Iolaus? How so?" She glanced out the door toward the front room.
"He's fine the rest of the day, no fever or anything, but he's been sick to his stomach every morning for the last 4 days. He can't stand the sight or smell of food until midday. Even then, he's not eating much. He's become so sensitive to certain foods that he can't tolerate them at all. They just come right back up. I've started keeping a bucket next to his side of the bed."
"Iolaus, not eating, well, that's a new one on me." The old woman turned toward the open doorway, "Iolaus, get in here."
Hesitantly, he came to the door, "Yes?"
She pointed at the table, "Have a seat. I want to have a look at you."
"But I'm fine, you don't have-"
He shot an accusing look at his wife. Laodice cuffed him across the back of the head, "Don't you dare. You're worrying your wife, young man. You are not supposed to worry pregnant women. It upsets them and that's not good for them or the baby."
Chastised, he hopped on the table and endured the old healer's poking and prodding in silence, answering her questions giving only the information requested of him. Finally, she stood back and allowed him to sit up.
"Boy," she knew he hated it when she called him that, he always had but a little teasing would help the man to deal with his situation now. "I've heard of it happening but I never dreamed you'd be my first case of it."
"What? What's the matter with me?"
"Nothing that isn't in your head. It's like this, she's the one that's supposed to be sick and here you are come down with all the symptoms. It won't kill ya and I'd bet that at the worst, it won't clear up until she has the baby. Cheer up, maybe you'll get over it sooner. Morning sickness doesn't usually last the whole pregnancy. Of course that's with women, I have no idea what to expect from you."
"Hold on, I have morning sickness? How can I have morning sickness? I'm not a woman and I'm not going to have a baby."
"Don't know, I've never seen it in a man before, you're my first. Should have known it would be you though, you always were squirrelly." She shrugged, "I just know it happens sometimes. You're sympathizing with her predicament. Of course, she's not been sick, so what are you being sympathetic about?"
"I have no idea. This is real?" Iolaus' mind was boggled, "I can have morning sickness?"
"I don't find anything else wrong with you, what else would you call it?"
Ania had been listening quietly in the corner, "So, what do we do about it?"
Laodice shrugged, "take him home and put a cold rag on his head when he feels poorly. Keep that bucket handy and try to get him to eat. He is looking a little thin. Let me know if it doesn't clear up on it's own and I can send out some medicine."
"Iolaus!" Hercules called and ran to catch up with his friend, "Here, let me carry one of those." Hercules took one of the fruit-filled baskets. Obviously, Iolaus had just come from the market. "Bread and fruit, new diet?"
"It's all Ania wants to eat, sometimes apples, sometimes melons, sometimes grapes, always in the middle of the night."
"So, things are going well with you?"
Iolaus smiled, "Yeah, mostly, how's the wedding planning?"
"I'm staying as far away from it as I can. I had no idea it was this involved."
"Yeah, it gets pretty wild."
"I'm trying to stay out of it. I've got a job in town. Cerestus' widow needs her roof repaired after that storm a couple of months ago. It's a two man job, want to lend a hand?"
"Ok, we'll start right after breakfast in the morning. I'll stop by on the way."
"Uh, Herc, listen, I can't start that early. I need to stay around the house awhile in the morning. Ania needs me."
"Well, we can do the day after."
"No, it's nearly every morning, Herc." Iolaus hoped his friend would take the hint and not ask too many questions.
Hercules nodded, understanding, "I've heard that can happen. Is it bad?"
"Ok, I'll go early and get started and you can come later on when you can."
"Ania?" Alcmene called at the open door.
"In here. Come on back," Ania was in the bedroom, working on what appeared to be a little shirt for the baby. She was sitting in a wooden rocking chair.
"This is lovely," Alcmene admired the ornate carving on the chair.
"Iolaus got it from a man in the village. He traded three days of work for it."
"It will be so much help after the baby comes which brings me to why I'm here. I brought you some tea."
"Tea? What for?"
"Settling your stomach. Hercules said that you'd been sick nearly every morning. I wish you'd said something sooner."
"Hercules said I was sick?"
"Iolaus told him. He said he couldn't start work until later in the morning because he had to stay home with you."
"I see. Thank you, Alcmene. This will be a big help."
"Iolaus, sit up and drink this."
Iolaus moaned and held his stomach, "I don't want anything. I just want to lay here and die."
"Alcmene brought this tea for my morning sickness and you are my morning sickness, so you get to drink it."
The hunter rolled over to look at his wife and knew he was in trouble. "Ania, I just couldn't tell Hercules. It's a guy thing, you know? I didn't really lie, I just let him assume."
Ania leaned forward and kissed his forehead, "Iolaus, my dear husband, you drive me crazy, you know that? I do understand. Your secret is safe with me for the moment. Now, drink your tea, it'll make you feel better."
The ride home after the wedding was a merry affair. It was still early in the evening and the breeze was filled with the sweet aroma of newly arrived spring. Iolaus was dressed in the new purple vest that Ania had made for him with her own two hands. It was nothing compared to the finery that his friend, Jason, was sporting but Iolaus wouldn't wear anything else. Instead, he'd told his insecure wife that if he'd wanted to dress like a king he'd have been one. She was just happy that it hadn't fallen apart when he put it on.
She was a bit nervous when she'd found out that the King of Corinth was coming to visit, for Hercules’ wedding and that her husband had neglected to mention until the day before that he'd invited the king to stay with them. She had met Jason at her own wedding but in the flurry of activity that perpetually surrounds the bride-to-be, she’d not had a chance to speak with him. Jason hadn't turned out to be nearly as intimidating as she'd imagined. She liked the king even more when he presented her with a bag full of beautiful dresses. One of the ladies at the court had recently given birth and didn't need the larger sizes anymore. Ania had only one dress left that she could still fit into and she didn't think it was nice enough for the wedding but with trying to finish Iolaus' vest in time, she hadn't been able to make herself anything. As far as Ania was concerned, Jason had become her hero the moment he'd given her a new dress. He could do no wrong in her eyes.
Jason held the reins with Iolaus on the bench beside him, Alcmene and Ania rode in the back of the wagon. The conversation had been nonstop since they had left the party.
"Have you ever seen Hercules looking soooo, um, stiff?" Jason asked as he pulled the wagon up to the house.
"You mean petrified?" Iolaus laughed. "It was a new look for him wasn't it?"
"I don't know how Hercules fared last night, but you two were so hung over, you could barely stand this morning. Neither one of you could face the daylight until after midday. It's no wonder Hercules was walking like he was made out of stone. If you two sabotaged him like you did yourselves. Come help me out of here," Ania slid to the edge of the wagon so Iolaus could lift her to her feet.
Jason held a hand out for Alcmene.
"Hercules hardly said two words to me all day. I should have known my son wasn't safe with you two on the loose," she teased as they headed into the house. "I put a big pot of stew on before we left this morning. It should be more than ready now. Iolaus, would you set out some bowls for us? I think Ania needs to sit down and get off her feet for awhile. She's had too much standing today."
"Yes, my feet have had it." She sank down to the bench at the table gratefully. "I just want to take these shoes off and prop them up."
Jason slid a stool over to the table and laid a pillow on top of it. Ania lifted her feet on it and sighed deeply. "Here let me help." Jason picked up a foot and began untying the lacings and removing her leather slippers.
Iolaus squeezed past with armful of bowls, spoons and cups, "Jason, quit flirting with my wife."
"Oh let him," Ania laughed. "How often does a girl get pampered by a king."
"Well, in that case..." Iolaus slid in next to his wife and held up his boot.
"Come to my best friend's wedding and this is the respect I get."
"That's why you love it here, no special treatment," Iolaus countered.
"I'll be happy to serve your supper, your highness," Alcmene called from the hearth. "Provided you come carry this pot to the table first."
Jason leaned over Iolaus, "At least the ladies around here appreciate me."
"Uh huh, as long as you're handy."
Weary of the constant teasing Ania changed the subject leaning tiredly against her husband's shoulder. "We couldn't have asked for better weather. The ceremony was beautiful."
Alcmene sat at the head of the table and began filling bowls with the hot stew and agreed. "It was a wonderful day. Iolaus was that your idea to tie strings of metal pots to the back of the wagon? Yes, I can tell by the grin on your face that it was you." She giggled, "What a glorious noise."
She distributed the bowls, "Your Highness," with a mock bow, "and Iolaus gets the extra big serving."
"Yeah, we know how much he loves your stew, Alcmene. It just saves time to give him a double helping up front. We've all seen how big his appetite is," Jason baited his friend with a wicked grin across the table.
"Actually," Alcmene remarked, "I think he's looking a little thin these days." She set the bowl in front of the hunter. Iolaus self-consciously tugged down his vest hoping she wouldn't notice the new hole he'd had to punch in his belt to keep his pants from falling down.
"Very funny, Jason," Iolaus leaned over and caught a whiff of the stew. He closed his eyes and blanched. "I'm sorry, I can't." He fled through the outside door.
Startled, Alcmene looked questioningly at Ania.
Iolaus' wife knew that it was time for the truth. A faint smile played around the corner of her lips, "You'd think, he was the one having the baby...."
Alcmene found the hunter sitting on the porch railing in the dark. She pulled a chair over and sat beside him. "Iolaus, I'm sorry, I didn't know."
"Ania told you."
"Yes, she didn't have much choice after the way you left."
He could see her smile in the dim moonlight, "It's not funny."
"I'm not laughing. I think it's sweet."
"It's miserable is what it is. Who ever heard of a man being like this."
"Oh, Iolaus," this time she did giggle, "it will pass. Here, I brought you some broth, you need to eat something. Ania says you haven't had anything all day. I was right you are losing weight."
"Thank you and thank you for the tea. It really does help."
"You're drinking it?"
"Every morning,” he sighed.
"I'm glad it's going to good use. I'll send some more home with you. When you finish that broth, you can go hitch up the wagon, I think Ania needs to ride home, her feet are swollen. She should soak them in salt water before bed and stay off them tomorrow which shouldn't be a problem with you and Jason around to wait on her."
"I'll get the wagon, Alcmene," Jason called from the door. "We wouldn't want Iolaus to strain his delicate condition."
The hunter rolled his eyes, "I'm never going to hear the end of this, am I?"
"Well, you did offer to let him stay with you. You can always send him back with my wagon tomorrow. I'm sure I can find something around here to keep him busy with for awhile."
Another month passes....
Iolaus laid across his bed and whispered to his wife's stomach.
"What are you doing?"
"I'm telling little Iolaus about how I'm going to teach him to fish and hunt and--"
"And what if it's a girl? Will you call her Iolaus, too?"
"No," he considered, "then I'd tell little Iolaussa all about how I'm going to protect her from men like me."
"Iolaussa?" she made a face.
Iolaus was indignant, "What's wrong with Iolaussa?"
His wife giggled, "It's silly."
Iolaus lay down resting his head on Ania's stomach.
"Iolaus?" She combed his blond curls with her fingers.
"I want an apple. Would you go get me one? Iolaus?"
"Shhhh," he pressed his ear closer against her side, "I can hear it's heartbeat. Ow! He kicked me! It has to be a boy. No girl would kick her father like that."
Iolaus sat on the bed beside his very pregnant wife and massaged her lower back.
"I don't want to be pregnant anymore."
He smiled, "Too late."
"Iolaus, does your back hurt?"
"Hmmm, how come you get morning sickness and I don't but I get back aches and you don't?"
"I don't know. I haven't been sick in days. I feel great. Maybe we're not in proper synch."
"Go ahead, rub it in."
"I'm working on it."
"Ha ha. Iolaus?"
"Are my toes still there?"
The hunter hesitated, thinking it must be a trick question, "Why?"
"Because I haven't seen them in so long I wonder if they're still there."
Iolaus moved to the end of the bed and picked up a delicate foot and began gently massaging it. "Now can you feel this?"
"Uh huh. It's wonderful. Don't stop."
"This is your foot. It's a little swollen but it's still the prettiest foot, I've ever seen."
"How can any of me possibly be pretty? I'm as big as a titan."
"Nah, I've fought bigger."
"Ania, you're more beautiful now than I've ever seen you."
She took in his long lashes and the gleaming, sincere blue eyes beneath, "Really?"
"Really, I mean it."
"Then, put that foot down and come here, my hunter."
Hercules helped his wife and mother down from the wagon to hear Laodice shoving Iolaus out his own front door. Alcmene and Deianeira were allowed in but the two former heroes found themselves stuck on the front porch.
"It's not fair, Herc! I go get the healer like I'm supposed to and now I'm stuck outside. I want to help. She's my wife. I should be in there." The frustrated father-to-be pounded on his own front door, "Let me in! This is my son being born."
Laodice opened the door but not enough for Iolaus to squeeze past her. "What is your problem?"
"I can help."
"This is women's work."
"I can help. I was sick for months. I'm part of this."
The old healer sized up Iolaus, weighing the sincerity in his eyes and the twenty plus pounds that he'd lost. Knowing, full well, that he'd been more intimately involved than most men were. She relented and stepped back, "It's against my better judgment. You can rub her back between pains."
Iolaus proceeded immediately to his wife's side and began rubbing circles against her lower back with the heel of his hand.
Ania turned toward him, "Iolaus, it's ok. I have Deianeira and Alcmene and," she cradled her swollen belly meaningfully, "this part of you is always here with me."
He placed a hand against her stomach and smiled. She could see the tears shining in his eyes. Then, she rolled back to her side and moaned with the pain. The hunter's face became a shade paler.
"Iolaus?" Alcmene asked.
"I'm OK. I can handle it."
She nodded and put a hand on his shoulder, "It's always hard seeing our loved ones in pain. She'll be fine."
He nodded. She gave his shoulder a reassuring squeeze.
All was quiet for a few moments, when the next pain came, it was stronger than before. Ania cried out as the color drained from Iolaus' face and he slid bonelessly to the floor.
"I knew it, men. Hercules!" Laodice bellowed.
The door opened a crack and Alcmene had to smile at the single, big, blue eye that appeared in it.
"Get in here and collect your friend."
Alcmene could imagine her son gulping before opening the door. Laodice could be a determined force to reckon with.
Hercules darted in, his eyes growing wider still as he took in his friend's crumpled body on the bedroom floor. He tried not to look at anything else as he scooped Iolaus up and beat a fast retreat. He heard Laodice behind him muttering, "Now, maybe he'll understand why we don't let men in. They're too much trouble."
He settled Iolaus' unconscious body in a chair on the porch and sat beside him. He saw the red bruise starting on his friend's temple. It needed to be tended to. Hercules took a deep breath and hesitatingly knocked on the door."
Something about the old healer made even the demigod feel like a small, inadequate child. She glared at him and he got on with his business as quickly as he could. "Iolaus hit his head. I need some water and a cloth."
Alcmene patted Ania's arm and relinquished her seat to Hercules’ wife, "I'll take care of him, dear, don't worry. He's got a hard head.”
"I know," the two women traded knowing smiles.
A moment later Alcmene appeared at the door to inspect Iolaus' head. She laid the damp cloth on his forehead, "He'll be fine."
Hercules nodded. "Mother? Will everything be alright?"
She smiled reassuringly, "Ania will be fine and the baby. Iolaus will survive, too." She vanished back into the mysterious goings on in the house.
Hercules turned from the door to see Iolaus' eye's fluttering. He put a hand on his shoulder in a comforting gesture. "Easy, buddy."
"Yeah, right here, buddy."
"I passed out," Iolaus observed.
"And they threw me out."
The hunter sighed and looked longingly at the door. Ania's pained cry filled the air and what little color Iolaus had regained, drained away, "Oh, Herc."
The demigod lifted Iolaus' arm to his shoulders, slid a firm hand around his waist and pulled his friend up, supporting him as they moved, "Come on, there has to be something we can do out in the barn."
"Sounds like a plan."
Hercules deposited his friend on a stack of hay bales. He looked forlorn.
"Herc? Will she be ok?"
The demigod nodded, "Mother said so."
"How long do you suppose...?
Hercules shook his head, "I don't know. I've heard it can take hours sometimes."
Then, Hercules understood why his mother insisted he come, "I'll be right here. If you'll be here for me in the fall."
It took a moment for his friend's words to sink in, "Deianeira?"
Hercules nodded, a nervous smile played on his lips, "Yeah."
"That's great," Iolaus grasped his friends wrist in congratulations, "Just don't pass out. I don't think I can drag you out." He sat back against the hay pondering their new lot in life, "Us with kids."
Hercules placed the damp cloth in Iolaus' hand and raised it to his forehead, "Yeah, who'd have ever thought we'd be parents. Hold this here."
"Hit my head?"
"That explains the headache then."
“I know one thing,” Hercules said with a half smile, “I’m not going to get sick.”
The cloth fell to the floor as one friend smacked the other on the arm. “I’ll get Jason for this.”
Ania's periodic cries could still be heard in the barn but the distance somehow made it bareable.
"This can't go on much longer, can it, Herc?"
"I don't know, Iolaus, I don't know."
Finally, there was a long period of silence which served to further unnerve the waiting men and they too fell into silence. After an indeterminate amount of time, Alcmene appeared in the doorway.
"Here you are. You can come in now, it's safe."
"Everything's ok?" Iolaus asked.
The new father was out the door and sprinting across the yard. His companions followed at a more leisurely pace.
"He didn't even ask if it was a boy or a girl." Hercules commented.
"Right now, he doesn't care."
"But?" Hercules fished.
"Boy. Ania called him Telaus.”
“But Iolaus said that they were naming him Iolaus.”
Alcmene smiled, “I don’t think Ania ever agreed to that. Would you bring in some more wood, Hercules? They'll need it tonight."
"More wood, coming up."
Iolaus crossed the threshold and stopped. There was his wife, a baby suckling at her breast. His baby. He'd never seen anything so beautiful in all his life. His heart was so full he felt it might burst.
"Go ahead, they don't bite, not much anyway until they get teeth," Laodice cackled.
He walked slowly toward the bed. "Hey," he greeted softly.
Ania smiled at him, "Your son has his father's appetite."
Iolaus' knees gave out and he sank down onto the bed. "My son."
She nodded. His hand cupped the tiny head already covered in damp, blond curls. He leaned forward to tenderly kiss his wife.
When he sat back up, the healer firmly took hold of his head and turned it to inspect the angry bruise on his forehead. She clucked something about men who didn't know their place and led him around to the empty side of the bed. Iolaus flinched as she applied salve to the bruise before wrapping a clean bandage around his head.
The old healer turned to Alcmene, "He looks as worse for wear as she does."
"It has been a full day."
"Normally, I leave them in the care of the husbands but..."
"I'll look after them."
Laodice smiled at Alcmene knowingly, "I thought you might. He's a special case, this one. It's not every new father that gives himself a concussion for the occasion."
By the time Hercules finished stacking the wood, the excitement of the day had died down and the exhaustion had set in. Alcmene and Deianeira had pulled off Iolaus' boots and covered him with a blanket. He was curled protectively around his sleeping family, snoring softly. Hercules smiled and shook his head as he prepared to take his wife home.
Hercules kissed his mother good night. "I'll be back in the morning to pick you up."
2 years pass....
Iolaus and Hercules sipped their ales at one of the tables in the tavern. It had taken them all morning to find buyers for their surplus grain in the village.
“So, how’d you do?” Hercules inquired. He knew that Iolaus hadn’t had much to sell.
“Ok, I guess. It’s enough for now. It just seems like every year is a lean year for us. I’d just like to get ahead a little. I hope to find something else I can do.”
“I don’t know,” Hercules replied, “farming’s pretty much a full time job. There’s always something that needs to be done.”
Iolaus nodded, “Yeah and if it’s not in the fields, there are diapers to be changed and laundry to be done. I only have one baby but the wash has tripled.”
“And two babies is going to be even more work,” Hercules sighed softly, “I love being a father. Even when I’m tired from being all day in the fields, I find time to spend with Aeson.”
“I sense a ‘but” coming,” Iolaus observed.
Hercules nodded, “but a guy came asking for my help and I had to turn him away.”
“I thought you were ok with that now.” Iolaus leaned forward in concern.
“I did, too, Iolaus, but I just can’t let it go this time. I keep thinking about it.”
“Maybe we have spring fever. There’s something in the air. I can’t seem to settle into the routine. I need to be plowing but my heart’s not in it,” Iolaus agreed. “Things are ok at home otherwise? I never see you.”
“Yeah,” Hercules took another sip of his ale, “Deianeira’s really settled into this whole wife-mother thing.”
“I know, Ania’s gotten so organized. The whole house is on a schedule. I don’t know how she gets it all done and when did she learn so much about babies? I was watching Telaus while Ania went to the market and he was fussing and nothing would console him, nothing. He didn’t need changing and he wasn’t hungry. Ania takes one look at him and says he’s teething and sure enough a couple of days later in pops a new tooth. How’d she know?”
“I don’t know, buddy, I think women are born knowing that stuff. I know Ania had a rough time at first but she’s really turned out to be a strong woman. She’s straightened you out and almost made you a respectable member of society.”
Iolaus chuckled, “She’s worked hard at it. I’m proud of her. I think she works too hard sometimes. She always thinks of everyone else before herself.”
“Well,” Hercules stretched and stood up, “I suppose, the fields are waiting for us.”
“Yeah,” Iolaus agreed, “Time to go play in the dirt.”
“You two need to sit down back there or you’ll fall down and get hurt. Aeson, sit down, now.” Deianeira sighed and turned back toward the road. She rested her hand on her swollen belly, “How am I going to handle two of them? Aeson isn’t quite out of diapers yet and we’re starting all over again.”
Ania turned to check on Telaus and Aeson in the back of the wagon before she shifted the reins and gave her friend’s arm a reassuring squeeze. “Other women have survived it. I’m sure you will as well. It won’t be so bad once the baby comes. It’s harder now to chase after Aeson with all that extra bulk added up front. You’ll have Hercules there to help you.”
“Yes, I do, but...” She left the thought unspoken.
“But what?” Ania prodded.
“Hercules has been distracted lately. He can’t seem to keep his mind on anything. He doesn’t hear what I’m saying to him. Sometimes he doesn’t even hear Aeson crying. It’s like he’s not in the same country with the rest of us. His body is here but the rest of him is somewhere else.”
Ania nodded, “It’s the same with Iolaus, he seems so restless. I’d say that he’s just been cooped up in the house too long this winter but he’s been out hunting several times. With the poor harvest last year, we’d have starved if not for his hunting. He’s been selling game to the inn as well so we can afford a few extras at the market. He’s done so much hunting that we had a little grain left over to sell surplus but he’s not satisfied with that. He used to love hunting, now it seems like it’s become a chore for him. The only joy he seems to have is playing with Telaus. He’s restless and I don’t know how to help him.”
Deianeira pulled her cloak tighter about her shoulders and gazed up into the blue sky. The chill of winter had not yet given way to the warmth of spring but the days were pleasant enough if you didn’t mind it a little cool. “Yes, restless is a good word for it. Maybe we should ask Alcmene?”
Ania readily agreed, “Yes, she always knows what to do with her boys.”
Alcmene set 3 mugs of tea on the table and smiled at the two toddlers sharing Hercules’ old toys on the kitchen floor. Ania finished drying the lunch dishes and joined the other two women at the table.
“Girls, I think the only answer is to send them out on an adventure together.”
“What?” They both replied in unison.
“Before they married you two and settled down, they were off having adventures all the time. They never stayed in one place more than a few days and now here they are all settled down, growing things. Sometimes they are more successful at it than others, but they are dutifully raising families and providing for them just like society expects them to. And our men do what is expected of them. They give of themselves for everyone else and rarely do they ever think of themselves. Somebody needs a monster killed, then that becomes their duty. Someone needs saved from a dozen angry amazons, they are your men for the job. Now, their duty is to plow the land and help change dirty diapers. It’s their duty but do you feel the difference?”
“It’s not exciting,” Ania replied with a little frown. “Are you saying they need a little excitement, a little unpredictability?”
Alcmene nodded, “That’s exactly what I”m saying.”
“Having a second child isn’t excitement enough for him?” Deianeira asked.
Alcmene hurried to reassure her, “Oh, yes, it is. He is very excited at the prospect of having a larger family, but it’s not the same kind of excitement. It’s not that their lives aren’t exciting now. Just look at them and you can see, they love being husbands and fathers and it is exciting to them to watch the little ones grow but it’s a different kind of excitement they crave.”
“So, how do we give them ‘that’ kind of excitement?” Deianeira asked.
“We send them off on a mission to help someone in need.” Alcmene’s eyes twinkled, “I have a friend in a high place that I think can arrange something reasonably harmless yet death defying enough to cure their spring fever. Leave it to me.”
“Did you see the size of those claws, Herc? I mean, WOW!” Iolaus flopped down against a tree and continued to wind the bandage around his upper arm covering a jagged gash.
Hercules nodded, “Yeah, it was big, here let me help you with that.” He tore the bandage in half and wound the two ends in opposite direction around his friend’s arm and tied it in place.
“Thanks, buddy,” Iolaus leaned back against the tree. Hercules joined him closing his eyes to rest a moment.
“Are we crazy? That thing could have killed us.”
“But it didn’t.” Iolaus was confused, was this the same Hercules who’s been complaining about turning down requests for help?
“But it could have,” Hercules corrected. “Then, who would take care of our families?”
“Oh, Mr. Practical strikes again. It didn’t kill us, Herc. We are fine. It was killing other people and we stopped it and it was fun. Aren’t you having fun, Herc? Come on, admit it, you haven’t had this much fun in ages.”
Hercules smiled a little, “Yeah, it was fun.”
Iolaus turned and grinned at his friend, “And it felt good to flex those muscles, didn’t it?”
Hercules nodded, “Yes, Iolaus, it did.”
Iolaus sat back and closed his eyes again, enjoying the sunshine. “We won’t always have babies at home, Herc. One of these days we’ll be able to take our boys out and show them how to kill monsters.”
“Their mother’s won’t like that.”
“So, we’ll tell them that we’re going fishing instead.”
“Iolaus, that’s dishonest.”
“I suppose you’d rather stay home and plant another row of cabbages, huh?”
Hercules smirked, “We’re not good farmers are we?”
“No, but that’s what we’ve got to do for now anyway. I’ve been thinking though....”
“Oh no, about what?”
“I’ve been thinking about professional smithing, you know, setting up a shop. I can’t be a worse smith than I am a farmer, can I?”
Hercules smiled, “I suppose not and old Klangitus isn’t getting any younger. The village could use a younger smith. What if it doesn’t work out?”
“Then I supplement with hunting, same as now and I could still do some farming. Close down the forge for a few days here and there as needed to do the planting and harvesting. I’d have to scale back though, couldn’t farm as much land.”
“Have you talked with Ania about this?”
“She’s not sold on the idea, yet, but I’m working on her. The tools are an expensive investment. I gotta get the crops in the fields first. Speaking of planting little things...”
Hercules opened his eyes, “Yeah, we’d better get home. We’ve got work to do there.”
“Herc? Are we getting hen-pecked? What does that mean anyway? Sounds painful.”
Deianeira stood, hands on hips, facing her husband, “Don’t you think they are a little young?”
“Not really. Iolaus and I were camping out in mother’s barn at that age.
“Your mother’s barn is a lot closer to home if there was a problem.”
“Iolaus and I will be with them, we’ll take care of them. Iolaus thinks it’s a good idea to start teaching them about hunting and survival.”
“Iolaus thinks it’s a good idea, does he? That doesn’t reassure me, somehow.”
“Sure, Deianeira, there’s a lot to learn. What’s safe to eat and what’s not, how to tell a poisonous ivy from a safe one. they are not too young for some of that and there will be two adults with them. Iolaus and I can take care of three little boys.” The demigod was interrupted by the crying of a baby.
“Ilea’s hungry. We’ll discuss this later.”
Hercules breathed a sigh of relief as his wife left the room.
“Are you sure about this, Iolaus?”
“Sure, I’m sure. Tel is old enough now and if we wait you’ll be too far along in your pregnancy for me to leave and I haven’t gotten sick with this one. So, it’s now or not until after the baby comes. Besides Hercules thinks it’s a great idea and his two boys are younger than Tel.”
Ania considered as she mended a pair of Iolaus’ pants, “And your Uncle Flatus really took you hunting when you were younger than Telaus is now?”
“Yeah, you’re never too young to start learning survival skills. You never know when it will be important.”
“Well, I suppose, if Hercules is going, that it will be alright.”
“It’ll be great, a whole week without Tel and I dirtying up the house, you can have a nice rest. It’ll almost be like a vacation and who knows what we’ll catch to bring home.”
“That’s the part that scares me, husband.”
“A camping trip with the three boys, I think that sounds marvelous. The boys will love it.” Alcmene set down her cup of tea and surveyed the long faces in front of her, “What’s wrong? You don’t think Hercules and Iolaus can take care of three boys in the woods?”
“Of course they can,” Deianeira said, “They are both good fathers. I’m just not sure they know what a handful those three boys can be. They are just like their fathers and they tend to have their fathers wrapped around their little fingers.”
“I see, then, don’t you think it’s about time for them to learn about dealing with handfuls of little boys? It sounds to me like they should have loads of experience already.”
Deianiera sighed, “I suppose. I’m sure they’ll be fine.”
“Hercules and Iolaus know all about camping and living off the land,” Ania added trying to reassure Deianeira.
“Yes, I know. I just have a bad feeding about this trip. I can’t explain it.”
“I’m sure they’ll be fine, dear, and cheer up. This may keep them from getting restless this spring, like they usually do. I’m sure Hercules will bring them home if things get out of hand.”
Iolaus added several large packs to the piles of stuff in the back of the wagon before lifting Telaus over the side to sit with Aeson and Clonus.
“Man, what is all this stuff? I know kids need extra stuff but this is ridiculous.” He climbed up onto the bench to sit next to Hercules and turned to wave farewell to his wife. “Who ever heard of going camping in a wagon anyway? We’re supposed to walk.”
Hercules sighed, “I know but taking the wagon was the only way to placate Deianeira. She insisted. I was afraid that she wouldn’t let us go at all.”
“Ok, buddy, I hear you. It’s that mothering instinct, protect the children, protect the children, protect the children. Overprotection just comes naturally to them. So where are we going?”
Hercules started, “Don’t you know? I thought when you suggested this that you had a place in mind?”
“Well, not really, not exactly. There are lots of places, we just have to pick one.”
“Alright, how about a lake, we can alternate between fish and rabbit.”
Iolaus was agreeable, “Sounds good but we’ll have to be sure we’re on high ground. Those clouds look like rain coming in.”
“Ouch, Dad, there’s not room!”
“Sorry, Clonus, I was just trying to keep from getting so wet.”
The three boys were sandwiched between their fathers under the wagon. Try as he might, Hercules just couldn’t fit his huge frame far enough under the wagon to keep from getting wet.
“Hang in there, Herc, this rain can’t last much longer,” Iolaus replied sleepily.
“Easy for you to say, you’re on the dry side of the wagon.”
“Is your dad ok?” Tel whispered to Aeson. “I’ve never heard him so grumpy.”
“Yeah, he’s ok,” Aeson replied. “He’s just inconvienced. I think that’s mom’s word for ‘he’ll get over it.”
Iolaus interrupted them, “Now remember, boys, it can be dangerous out here, even the most innocent looking thing could hurt you. You must listen to us and do what we say.”
“Right now it’s just really wet,” Clonus groused. “Dad, you’re dripping on me.”
The dawn brought sun and dry skies. The campers hurriedly hung the wet blankets and packs from trees and over bushes to dry. Iolaus showed the boys some berry bushes not far from camp.
“Now these are good with the round leaves. See these over here with the pointed leaves?” After receiving three nods, Iolaus continued, “These are poisonous and you’ll get a rash if you mess with them and don’t eat the berries or you’ll get very sick. Just pick the good berries, ok?” Nods all around. Iolaus headed back to camp and left them to pick breakfast.
Hercules had a fire going when he returned. Iolaus paused only briefly, “I’m going to go scout around and make sure everything’s ok around here. The boys are berry picking over there.”
“Ok,” Hercules nodded huddling closer to the fire so he clothes would dry faster.
Iolaus had just gotten out of earshot when a commotion arose near the clump of berry bushes. Hercules rose to investigate as Aeson came running back into camp at full speed and plowed straight into his father.
“Dad! Come on, Clonus fell down the hill. I think he slipped in the mud. Come on quick!”
Hercules picked up the pace, “Is he ok?”
“I think so, but he’s surrounded by bad berry bushes and we can’t get down to him.” Aeson led Hercules to a muddy hillside where Telaus stood speaking to Clonus, trying to keep him calm.
Clonus was the youngest of the boys and the two older tended to alternate between teasing him unmercifully and looking after him.
“Hang on, Clonus, Daddy’s coming down to get you.”
“Wait,” Telaus called after him, “shouldn’t we get a rope?”
Hercules paused, “No, it’s not that steep. I can make it.”
With that Hercules started down the hill but the demigod hadn’t considered the mud. Only a few steps down he slipped on a clump of muddy grass and fell to his side, sliding the rest of the way to the bottom. His fall stopped by one of the poisonous bushes. Hercules could feel the skin on his arm tingling, “Clonus, are you alright?”
“Yes, I’m fine. I didn’t touch the bushes that Uncle Iolaus said were bad.” His eyes were wide watching his father extract himself from the bush. “Are you ok, Dad? Uncle Iolaus said...”
“I know what he said, I’m fine. It’s not deadly. I’ll just have an itchy arm. Your mother probably packed some stuff for it, she packed everything else.” Hercules placed Clonus on his back and carefully picked his way to the top of the incline.
Hercules paused at the top and turned to Telaus, “Not a word, I’m sure I’ll hear enough about needing a rope from your father.”
“You two get the berries and I’ll take Clonus back to camp.”
“Hey, Herc, there are rabbit signs everywhere. We have got to get some snares set up and the water is so clear, you can practically see the fish swimming on the bottom. Whoa! Herc, what happened to the arm?” Iolaus knelt and examined the demigod’s red splotched arm.
“Clonus slipped in the mud and rolled down the hill over there. Luckily he didn’t get into any of the bushes on the way down.”
“But you did going down to get him. Didn’t think about using a rope, did you? When are you going to learn that being a demigod doesn’t make you any less of a klutz than the rest of us? Ok, I know Ania packed a jar of Alcmene’s salve, just have to find it. Tel? Have you seen that blue jar? We’ll get Uncle Herc fixed up and then go fishing.”
“Fishing?” Tel asked. “ I thought we were going hunting.”
“Fishing is sort of hunting, it’s catching animals with your hands and your smarts. Think of it as hunting while sitting down.” Iolaus leaned down to whisper in his son’s ear, “Besides, I think Uncle Hercules needs to rest up some. He’s had a rough morning after a rough night, ok? Plenty of time to hunt later.” Father and son traded conspiratorial winks.
The day warmed and clothing dried.
“When am I going to catch a fish, Dad?”
“Shhh, Clonus, your father’s sleeping. Let’s try and let him rest.”
“Do we hafta stay here and stare at this dumb old lake?” Aeson asked.
Telaus agreed, “There aren’t any fish here, Dad. I’m bored. Can we swim?”
“The water’s too cold for swimming. This lake collects snowmelt from the mountains over there. Fishing is an art. This will be a good lesson for all of you. Fishing is about patience. The fish are out there but they are wary. They don’t trust us. We have to be still and patient, make them trust us enough to come in closer where they can be enticed into eating the grubs we’re using for bait and then, we’ve got them. But it all begins with patience, we must be still and quiet and alert and patient. Try it a little longer.”
Soon, Iolaus found his own eyes getting heavier and he dozed against the tree he was sitting against. Noticing that the adults were asleep, Aeson wedged his pole into a crack in the rock he was sitting on and rose carefully, he began to walk along the edge of the rock outcropping.
“Bet you can’t walk all the way out the end,” Tel called.
“Bet I can,” Aeson shot back, “I walk the top of the fence at home all the time.”
“And mom yells at you for it too,” Clonus reminded his brother.
“Mom’s not here is she?”
Aeson carefully made his way out to the farthest rock as he rounded the point, he wobbled precariously on a loose rock and for a moment seemed to have regained his footing but when he shifted his weight on it, he slipped, falling with a scream into the icy water.
Aeson’s cry woke both parents. Iolaus having been only lightly sleeping was the first to move. He raced to the end of the natural jette and dove in head first after the flailing boy.
They both came up sputtering, Hercules pulled them back on to the rocks and took Aeson in his arms, “Come on, we’ve got to get you two dried off and warm.”
“Yeah,” Iolaus’ teeth were already chattering, “That l-l-lake is c-c-cold.”
Fishing lines abandoned the little group returned to camp. Iolaus and Aeson wrapped in the now dry blankets while their clothes dried. They both huddled by the fire, teeth still chattering.
Telaus built up the fire while Clonus rummaged around in the packs for some tea.
Once Hercules was assured that his son was alright he became stern, “Young man, you know what you mother says about you and that fence walking.”
“This wasn’t a fence.”
“There weren’t any fish in that lake anyway.”
“There are,” Iolaus insisted. “You just weren’t patient enough to earn their trust.”
“Dad’s not patient, he throws rocks at the fish,” Clonus added handing Hercules the tea box.
“Fishing’s boring, Dad.” Telaus said, “I thought we were going to hunt real animals.”
“Ok, Tel, you want to learn to catch a rabbit?”
“Yes!” shouted all three boys enthusiastically.
Iolaus laughed, “Alright, Tel, you go find an armload of small sticks about this big around,” he touched his index finger to his thumb, “and about this long.” He held his hands about eighteen inches apart, “and I will show you how to make a snare for a rabbit. Then, tomorrow we’ll set them out and I’ll show you how to track a wild rabbit.”
“Alright!” Telaus vanished into the woods.
“Don’t go too far,” Iolaus called after him.
“Stay in sight of the camp,” he added.
“I will, don’t worry , dad.”
Iolaus took a deep breath and held it, “Don’t worry dad, yeah right, his mother’ll kill me if anything happens to him. Herc, were we like that as kids?”
“My mother says so.”
“She ought to know, I suppose, but I sure don’t remember being like that. I’ve always loved fishing..ah...achoo!”
“Stay close to that fire or you’ll catch cold.” Hercules began rummaging though the packs.
“What are you looking for, Herc?”
“The food Deianeira packed, we’re going to need it for supper and what happened to that blue jar? My arm itches again.”
“But mama says we shouldn’t waste food,” Clonus commented as he watched Iolaus set up a snare with great interest.
“It’s not waste, doofus, the rabbit eats it and then you eat the rabbit.”
“Aeson, be nice to your brother.”
“Yes Dad, sorry Clonus.”
Iolaus chuckled as he set the carrot in place and crawled out from under the makeshift cage.
Hercules frowned, “You laugh now, just wait until you have another one, you’ll see.”
“Yeah, but mine aren’t going to be so close together, remember what Cheiron always said, ‘he is wise who doesn’t get in a hurry.” The hunter quickly changed subjects before his big friend could comment and continue the conversation further. “Now, you boys see the tracks, here? How they lead down toward the water? When we get down there, I bet we find tracks from a whole bunch of rabbits.”
“How would you know that?” Aeson asked.
“You drink water when you’re thirsty, right?”
“So do rabbits and often you’ll find they all like to drink at about the same spot,” Iolaus explained.
“Like at the village well?” Telaus asked.
Iolaus considered, “Yeah, it is sort of a social thing for them.”
“How’d you learn so much about rabbits, Dad?”
“My Uncle Flatus taught me. He was a professional hunter. Sometimes he used to take me with him.”
The small group made it’s way down to the shore.
“Wow! Look at all these tracks. There must be about a million rabbits around here,” Aeson fell to his knees and traced a footprint in the dirt.
“Maybe not quite that many,” Hercules said. “What now, professor?”
“Now, we set up a different kind of snare. This involves using a rope. First, we have to throw one end over that branch up there.” Iolaus made the toss but it snagged on another branch. “No, not that one.” He pulled first one direction, then the other but the rope was stuck. “I’ll have to go up and get it, be right back.”
“Be careful, Iolaus.”
The hunter scrambled up the tree and deftly unhooked the rope, dropping it onto the more desirable branch.
“Ah...ah....CHOO!” The force of the sneeze threw Iolaus back. He scrambled for the branch he’d been holding but it wasn’t where he thought it was. Hercules leaped over Aeson in an attempt to get under Iolaus and break his fall. The demigod was partially successful. The hunter landed on the demigod and they hit the ground hard, the breath knocked out of them both.
Iolaus rolled off Hercules and remained curled in a ball cradling his left arm.
“Let me see, Iolaus.”
Slowly, he sat up and let Hercules examine his arm, gritting his teeth as Hercules probed it gently. Telaus snuggled in beside his father. Iolaus wrapped his good arm around his son and rested his cheek atop the mop of blond curls so very like his own. “I’m ok, Tel.”
“I don’t think it’s broke,” Hercules concluded, “probably a sprained wrist though from the way it’s swelling. Are you hurt anywhere else?”
Iolaus shook his head, “I don’t think so.”
“We better get you back to camp so we can soak that in some cold water and wrap it up. I’m sure there’s something in those packs we can make a sling out of. I’m beginning to think this camping trip wasn’t such a good idea, buddy.”
“Me either, Herc.”
Hercules rolled over and rubbed his stomach. The rabbit they’d roasted for dinner wasn’t setting well. It was a little on the tough side. The kids hadn’t cared. They caught a rabbit and they were going to eat it whether it was old and tough or not. Hercules and Iolaus knew from the look on their faces that letting it go was not an option. Now, Hercules was regretting that decision as his stomach gurgled ominously, A sound only slightly quieter than the snoring on the other side of the fire. The call of nature wouldn’t wait much longer, so he hauled himself up and headed for the woods. Thankfully it was a quiet night with a bright moon.
Mission accomplished, the demigod picked his way through the tree branches back toward the path idly scratching the rash on his arm. The ground was covered with a thin layer of pine needles and dried leaves that were trapped under the snow over the winter. Hercules carefully avoided hitting his head on a branch but something beneath his foot shifted and for a moment his foot couldn’t find the ground, when it did his whole body came crashing down with it. Having the wind knocked out of him twice in one day was not something he appreciated. Hercules tried to sit up but couldn’t move his foot. He pulled on it and pain shot up his leg. His leg hadn’t budged either. He was going to need some help.”
He tried again a bit louder, still no movement from the camp.
Finally, he bellowed as loudly as he could, “IOLAUS!” The sound made the trees shake above him.
A stirring at last from the camp.
“Herc? What’s the matter, you get attacked by a tree?”
“Great, a wise guy,” Hercules muttered to himself. “No, a gopher.”
“A vicious gopher.”
Hercules saw Iolaus’ sillouhette sit up in the moonlight. “No, he put his house right in my path.”
“And you stepped in it?”
“Yeah,” Hercules replied miserably.
Iolaus moved closer following the sound of his friends voice and finally seeing him waving under a large tree. He kneeled by Hercules’ feet, “Can you pull it out?”
Iolaus felt the leg around the hole, “feels like it’s swelling. We’ll have to make the hole bigger. Let me go get my knife.”
Hercules laid back and sighed. What else could go wrong?
Iolaus returned and began digging at the ground around Hercules’ leg. “Good thing it’s my left arm in the sling or we’d have a real problem getting you out. Try pulling it now. The foot came up easily. Iolaus pulled off the boot. “I was right, it’s swelling already.”
Hercules just stared at it with a frown on his face not moving.
Iolaus sneezed again, “I hate to say this, Herc, but I think I’ve caught a cold.”
Hercules’ eyes shifted from his foot to his friend, “I know you have.”
“We’d better get you back to camp. Can you put weight on it?” Iolaus offered his hand to help Hercules up.
“I think so, a little anyway.” Hercules leaned heavily on Iolaus and they made their way slowly back to the low burning fire. Iolaus dropped Hercules on his blanket and looked around the camp and out to the trees.
“Uh, Herc? Were you on the way out or back?”
“Good.” Iolaus pulled a log over and propped Hercules’ foot up on it. “That should keep some of the swelling down.” Then, Iolaus wrapped the foot in a blanket soaked in the cold lake water to further reduce the swelling.
Hercules observed, “You don’t look so good, Iolaus.”
“I don’t feel so good,” he admitted. “We’re pretty pathetic, huh?”
“What do you mean?”
“There have been no monsters, no bandits, no nothing except one extra tough rabbit and we just fell apart. We’re not old enough to fall apart, Herc.”
Aeson and Telaus sat on a log at the edge of camp, drawing pictures in the dirt with sticks. They surveyed the situation in the sleeping camp.
“My Dad hurt his foot going out to pee last night. I heard Uncle Iolaus talking to him and he’s still itching that rash.”
“And my Dad’s running fever and he’s got a sprained wrist. I don’t think they can take much more of this camping stuff,” Telaus replied.
“I think they are getting too old for this outdoor life. They can’t handle it anymore.”
Telous agreed, “We should load up the wagon and take them home. They are not going to do anybody any good in their conditions. We’re not going to get to do any real hunting anyway. Dad says I’m too young yet to use his bow. I’m not big enough or strong enough to pull it back far enough to actually kill anything. I gotta grow some more.”
Aeson nodded his agreement.
Telous looked anxiously at the sky, “If we’re going to go, it better be soon. Did you see that ring around the moon last night? Dad says that means rain.”
“Let’s get the wagon loaded first. Then, we’ll put Dad and Uncle Iolaus in the back. Tel? Can you find the way home?”
Telous nodded, “Yeah, I think I know the way.”
The three women sat on the porch at Hercules’ house, enjoying the afternoon. They were mending clothes and trading gossip. They knew something was up when they saw the wagon come around the bend in the road. They knew something was wrong when they saw it was Telaus and Aeson driving. All three met the wagon at the road.
“What’s wrong?” Deianeira called. “Who’s been hurt?”
“We’re fine, Mom. It’s dad, both of them.”
They looked in the back of the wagon at the two fathers who were obviously not well.
“Had enough hunting and fishing already?” Alcmene asked innocently.
Iolaus half smiled, “Yep, we taught the boys all there was to know and came home early.”
“Telaus, is that what really happened?” Ania asked.
The boy grinned at his mother, “Actually, Aeson and I decided that the woods would be safer without them.”
A few months pass.....
Hercules knew something wasn’t right. It had been a long time since he’d sat in this barn waiting with his friend for a child to be born. Iolaus had sat with him three times since then. The last only a few months ago but Hercules remembered that first time like it was yesterday. Something was different this time and he had a bad feeling about it. He’d said nothing but he could tell that Iolaus felt it too. This was the fifth time they’d sat in a barn like this but it was the first time they’d sat in silence. Alcmene was inside, the old healer, Laodice was here as well. They both knew there was little either of them could do to change whatever was happening inside the house. They simply had to wait.
“I hope Tel’s ok,” Iolaus commented quietly.
“Deianeira will keep him distracted. You know how those three get on sleepovers.
Iolaus half smiled, “Yeah, no one gets any sleep.”
The house became silent at last. Iolaus moved to the barn doors and leaned against the jamb watching the shadows move inside through the windows.
Hercules slowly joined him.
“Beautiful night,“ Iolaus commented gazing up at the myriad of stars clearly visible overhead.
Hercules agreed and again they lapsed into silence, waiting. It was taking longer than usual.
Finally, Alcmene appeared on the porch and gestured for Iolaus to come. He turned to Hercules, “No matter what happens in there, Herc, thank you for waiting with me. It means a lot.” Hercules nodded and pulled his friend into a quick embrace before Iolaus jogged to the house.
Alcmene stopped him on the porch and Hercules watched as they talked. The breeze took their quiet words in the opposite direction but from the stiff way Iolaus walked into the house, Hercules knew beyond any doubt that something had gone dreadfully wrong.
Alcmene crossed the yard to the barn quickly and sank into her son’s embrace, tears now flowing steadily down her face.
“Mother? Ania? The baby?” he guessed.
She pulled back so he could see her face and shook her head no. Haltingly, she spoke, “There were...complications. Oh, Hercules, there was...so much blood.”
“Not yet,” she shook her head, “but soon.”
“The baby?” he inquired.
“Not breathing well. Laodice thinks not long either.”
“Oh mother, how can Iolaus bear it?”
“With our love and support, he will. It won’t be easy and he’ll need us all to lean on in the coming days but he will bear it with our love.” She again laid her head on her son’s chest and allowed herself what comfort her son could give.
Hercules lost track of the passage of time. It was nearly dawn when Iolaus emerged from the house. Tear stains clearly visible on his cheeks.
Alcmene rose from the porch steps and moved toward him. Iolaus held up his hands stopping her shaking his head no to her offer of support. He wanted nothing more right now than to melt into Alcmene’s embrace and let her comfort him even though he knew that nothing could comfort him at this moment, nothing could lessen this pain. IF he accepted her comfort in this moment, he knew he wouldn’t be able to handle what came next. He couldn’t afford to be weak right now, he had to be strong for his son if not for himself.
Laodice followed him out and put a hand on his shoulder, he turned to look at her with lost eyes.
“Iolaus, I know you’re hurting, but you are not hurting alone. There’s a boy who’s going to need you to help him get through this.”
Slowly, Iolaus nodded. The whole world felt like it was in slow motion. “I need him, too. I better go to him.” Iolaus quickly moved down the steps.
“Wait, I’ll walk with you.”
The hunter turned back toward the porch, “No, Herc, I need some time. You need to stay with Alcmene. I should have known something was wrong, I didn’t get sick this time. I’ll be ok. I need to be alone with Tel now.”
They watched Iolaus disappear down the path. Hercules turned to Laodice, “Both of them?”
She nodded, “Mercifully, she went first and the babe a few minutes later.”
Iolaus stumbled through the woods toward Hercules’ home, Ania’s last few words replaying over and over in his mind. She knew she was dying but she was still thinking of everyone else, preparing them for the days ahead.
“Iolaus, you must be strong for Tel. He’s a strong boy but he’ll need help.”
“Ania, I can’t...not without you.”
“Yes, yes, you can. You’re the strongest man I know.”
“Ania, I’m not...”
“Iolaus,” her fingers touched his lips to quiet him, “I fell in love with my hero, a man that has no special powers, yet he gives a kind word and a helping hand to everyone in need, no matter what the risk. You are a good man with a good heart. It’s his heart that makes a man, a hero. You are my hero, husband. Promise me, you’ll be my hero all your days. Promise me.” Her voice was getting weaker.
“I promise,” Iolaus would have said anything in that moment.
“Give Telaus my love. Take care of him for me,” and she was gone and then the child in her arms joined her.
Iolaus stopped in the twilight and took a deep breath. How could he go on? How could he be strong? How could she possibly think of him as her hero? He was a lousy farmer, he’d barely kept his family fed most years. He tried to do right. For his family, he had to keep trying. Maybe that was it? Could that be enough? He just had to keep trying and never give up? Yes, he could keep his last promise to his beloved wife. He may falter and stumble along the way, but he would live his life trying to be the man she loved.
A smiling Deianeira answered the door, “Well, you’re certainly early. How’s...” she stopped, smile fading instantly upon seeing Iolaus’ face.
He shook his head not trusting himself to tell her, “Herc’ll explain later. I need Tel.” He called to the boy at the table munching on a piece of fruit. “Come on, we need to go.” He turned back to Deianeira, “Thank you, for everything.”
Iolaus and his son walked silently to the worn, well trod path between the two farms. Iolaus didn’t know how to begin. He was silent too long and he had a very bright boy.
“Mother and my baby brother are not alright, are they?”
Iolaus stopped walking and kneeled before his son. “No, they’re not. Something happened, there were complications. Your mother and brother have gone to live in the Elysian Fields now. Do you understand what that means, Telaus?”
“It means we’ll only see them in our dreams until we get to go live with them in the fields.”
“We’re alone now?”
“No, we’re not alone, Tel, not while we have each other. We have Alcmene and Uncle Herc and Deianeira, they’ll help us. We’ll take care of each other now, ok?”
Iolaus picked up the boy in his arms and began the long walk home.
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