Night had fallen. The pale moon above offered only enough light to dimly illuminate the road, but the lights from the tavern provided a welcoming glow to passing travellers. Two men were approaching those lights, and as they neared the small building raised voices could be heard from inside.
“You! Get over here!”
The sound of a woman’s scream.
“Out of the way ...”
The two men quickened their pace.
“Hand it over to me,” said a different voice, deeper and more menacing. “Hurry up with that money or I’ll give ya a second smile!”
The two men reached the door. The voices were clearer now.
“All of it!”
“Come on - you’ve got more than that!”
Silence for a moment, then the deep voice again, “That’s all you have?”
“What about him?”
“Let me kill him.”
The two men paused and exchanged a glance. The smaller of the two grinned and gestured towards the door. “After you!”
The occupants of the tavern stopped in their tracks as the door was thrown back with such force that the whole room shook. The two newcomers stood silhouetted in the doorway. One was tall, broad and muscular with long honey-brown hair. He looked like he’d be tough in a fight and the expression on his face was grim. The other was more than a head shorter, blond and slight of build, but well muscled and with a mean look on his face.
From his helpless position lying trussed up on the floor, the tavern owner sent up a brief prayer of thanks to Zeus. The two men were well known to him - Hercules and his friend, Iolaus. If they couldn’t take care of this scum, no-one could.
The taller man, the one they called Hercules, smiled at the bandits. “We heard you were in the neighborhood - ”
“- and we just had to say, ‘Hello!’” the blond continued.
Hercules smiled again. “Hello!”
There was a momentary silence, then a huge, dark, bearded man, presumably the leader of the bandits, growled, “Get him!”
Hercules and Iolaus ran forward to meet their attackers. Within moments the other occupants of the tavern were scattering, diving for safety as the two sides began trading punches.
Iolaus sent two of his opponents flying, but was grabbed from behind by two more and thrown across the room. He landed on his side, rolled quickly and bounced back up, back handing a third opponent who fell heavily, crashing into a table.
Hercules dealt swiftly with another three bandits, throwing them to three corners of the room, watching out of the corner of his eye as his partner dealt with the first two who had come back for more, using some of the moves he’d learned in the East. Hercules admired his friend’s style, while absent-mindedly picking up an opponent and using him as a club to sweep two more bandits off their feet. Crude, but effective, he mused.
Iolaus took an unexpected punch and skidded backwards, landing near Hercules’ feet and jumping to his feet in one swift move. “Herc,” he gasped, “I’m getting out of condition! Let’s finish this lot off quickly!”
“Anything you say,” Hercules responded amiably. He changed his grip on the man he was holding and threw him bodily at two of his fellow bandits who were about to charge. The three of them flew across the room and landed in the fireplace in a tangle of arms and legs. Iolaus looked across and grinned as they rapidly disentangled themselves and charged, screaming, straight through the wall of the tavern, their clothes smouldering. He paid dearly for his moment of inattention, as the bandit leader grabbed his arm and hurled him into the wall. Momentarily winded, Iolaus found himself helpless to fight back as the bandit and his friend closed in, raining punches down on his body.
Hercules spotted what had happened. He quickly despatched his opponent, grabbed a large bowl of stew from a nearby table and threw it across the room. The bowl landed squarely on the leader’s head, showering him with thick brown gravy. The distraction gave Iolaus time to recover and he quickly threw off his remaining opponent, watching as he and the other bandits gave up the unequal fight and ran for it. Hercules called across the room, “I thought you said we were going to finish them off quickly!”
“Oh, very amusing,” Iolaus grunted in reply. “They’ve gone, haven’t they?”
Hercules grinned as he helped the tavern owner to his feet and cut his bonds, leaving his wife to tend the man. “Real waste of a good bowl of stew though, don’t you think?”
Grinning broadly, Iolaus mimed a few fighting moves and punched the air. “There’s nothing like a bit of exercise to get the old blood flowing!”
“Speak for yourself,” Hercules said, watching in amusement as his friend practically bounced along beside him.
“Oh, come on, Hercules,” Iolaus said, dancing round to look up at his tall friend. Don’t tell me you didn’t enjoy it! I saw that look on your face.”
“Well, then you’d better remember it, because I’m not gonna wear it again.”
“Oh, yeah!” replied Iolaus skeptically. “I’ve heard that one before!”
“Look - all I wanna do now is curl up beside the fire with Deianeira and the kids.”
“Hey!” Iolaus squawked in mock alarm. “You’re not gonna be by the fire, tomorrow, are you?”
Hercules smiled. “Oh, don’t worry, Iolaus. I know you need help in the forge.”
“Well, good. Cause, uh - you know, I’m feelin’ kind of stiff here.”
Hercules grinned. “You are? Actually, me to, but if Deianeira’s still up, maybe I’ll have her work out some of the kinks!”
Iolaus returned the grin, but Hercules thought he saw a shadow pass across his friend’s face. Yet he merely said, ‘Sure, Hercules ... just remember you have to be up early!” and disappeared into the darkness.
Hercules could have kicked himself. It was six years since the death of Iolaus’ wife Ania and his newly-born son, Aeacus, three years since his remaining son Telaus had been taken too, and Iolaus had come to terms with his loss; so much so that Hercules had gotten out of the habit of remembering to be careful what he said so as not to upset his friend. But just now and again, something would trigger a memory and a sadness would flood over his friend.
Yet, as the demigod walked through the door of his home, even his friend’s sadness couldn’t dampen his own feelings of warmth and happiness every time he came home to Deianaira and the kids. He loved them so much, they were his whole life now and he couldn’t imagine the world without them.
Instead of heading straight home, Iolaus chose a route that took him through a meadow to a track alongside the river. He loved the river at night, the way the moon shone down and turned ripples to pure silver. But tonight, he barely registered that the moon was partly obscured by cloud and that he was finding his way along the track more by instinct than sight.
The hunter had been startled by the sudden and overpowering feeling of loss that had assaulted him at Hercules’ joking comment, at the momentary stark realisation that he would never again return home to find Ania waiting for him, giggling, draping her body around his. He sighed. During the time he’d spent in the East after the death of his eldest son, he’d learnt to control his feelings, come to terms with his loss. But once in a while something - anything - would unexpectedly bring it all back.
This time he knew exactly what it was. Hercules’ casual comment about his wife waiting for him at home, coupled with the demigod’s assurances that he’d left a life of adventure behind him, had reminded the blond not only of the loss of his family but of the equally deep and painful wound caused by the loss of his life on the road with Hercules. Sometimes, he wasn’t sure which hurt more. He’d long ago decided that his place was with Hercules and generally, he was content to be part of the big man’s family, while running his own farm and the forge. But sometimes he longed for the old days of fighting monsters and protecting the innocent. He was also sure that this was his destiny and Hercules’ too - it was just that the big man didn’t have time to travel much any more and Iolaus knew that his own destiny was not to travel alone. In some strange way he couldn’t explain, he was part of Hercules’ life, wherever that may lead him.
Iolaus shook himself impatiently. Past was past, it was no good dwelling on it. He was annoyed with himself for letting Hercules glimpse his feelings, but the emotion had struck so quickly he’d been unable to prevent it showing in his eyes, and he’d seen the mischievous expression on Hercules’ face change to one of compassion. Damn it! He knew how hard Hercules had tried to be sensitive over the past years, but it wasn’t fair on the demigod to have to curb his own feelings and his love for his family.
Resolving to repair the damage the next morning with an exuberance Hercules would expect, Iolaus turned from the river and headed home.
Hercules arrived home and entered the living quarters of the small cottage quietly - by now it was very late and he didn’t want to wake the children. He cursed under his breath as he tripped on something and almost fell. Bending down in the darkness, he picked up a wooden toy and smiled to himself. “Kids!” He took his boots off, glanced in at his sleeping children, and padded towards the bedroom he shared with Deianeira.
He stopped in the doorway and caught his breath as he saw her lying there asleep. The covers had slipped down and he could see the moonlight shining in on her hair, on the roundness of her shoulder. Gods, she was beautiful; the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. And she was his! How could a man be so lucky?
Out of the darkness came a sudden flash. A searing heat. The bed exploded into flame, Deianeira’s sleeping form engulfed in flames. Hercules was thrown onto his back by the intensity of the blast, momentarily stunned. Quickly, he scrambled to his feet. “Deianeira!” He ran to the doorway, but was forced back by the intensity of the heat. Out of the corner of his eye he caught a glow from the other bedroom. “No! No!” He ran towards the room.
“Ilea! Aeson! Klonus!” Again, the intensity of the heat drove him back and then he heard it, a laugh, an evil laugh of triumph that filled the small house. He ran out, just in time to see the remains of the fiery flames retracting into the sky. A pair of eyes, green and evil, looked back at him and the laughter sounded again. Hercules fell to his knees in despair. “No-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o!” His anguished cry echoed again and again and was answered only by the crackling of the flames that had taken his family from him.
The sun was high the next morning when Iolaus approached Hercules’ little house on the hill. He’d waited for several hours for his friend to arrive, doing all the small jobs in the forge that didn’t require two hands. He couldn’t really blame Hercules for being late, when he’d had Deianeira to go home to. But as the morning had progressed, Iolaus had began to feeling a nagging worry. It was unlike Hercules to break his promises. What if something had happened? He decided to take a break and go to find his tardy friend.
Approaching Hercules’ house, he saw the demigod standing outside, seemingly staring at something in the distance.
“Hercules! Come on!” Iolaus called cheerfully as he drew near. “There’s no time for dreaming! We’ve got work to do!”
Hercules didn’t look round, but continued to stare into the distance. His first words, spoken in a flat tone devoid of emotion, sent a shiver down Iolaus’ spine. “They’re gone, Iolaus.”
“What? What are you talking about?”
“Deianeira - the kids - Hera killed them.”
Iolaus felt an icy coldness spreading through him. “Killed? You mean, they ... they’re dead?”
Hercules’ silence was answer enough.
“Hercules - what happened?”
Hercules finally turned to look at his friend and Iolaus was frightened by the empty look in his eyes. “It was a fireball - Hera sent a fireball. There’s nothing left of my family except the scorched earth they were sleeping on - nothing.”
Iolaus was so shocked he couldn’t think straight, could barely speak. “But - Zeus?”
“Zeus!” Hercules spat, his voice rising. “Zeus betrayed me!”
“He’s your father - he should have done something!”
“Well, he didn’t! Now he won’t even show his face to explain why!”
Iolaus ran his hands through his hair and found they were shaking. “Oh, gods, Hercules, I’m so sorry. There must be something you can do - can’t you call on Hades ...”
“Don’t you think I’ve tried?” Hercules’ voice was cold. “I asked - begged - him to release them, to send them back. He said that his hands were tied. Hera’s the Queen of the Gods and he can’t afford to get on her bad side.” His voice rose, brimming with contempt. “He has no backbone - he’s a useless waste of space like the whole lot of them.” He was silent for a moment, then continued in the same emotionless voice as before. “They’re gone, Iolaus, and there’s no bringing them back.” “Hercules,” Iolaus began awkwardly after a moment’s silence, “I know what it’s like to lose someone you love ...”
“No, you don’t, Iolaus.” Hercules interrupted. “It isn’t the same. Your family died of natural causes. Mine was murdered.”
Iolaus was stung - Hercules knew as well as he did that Hera had been behind the deaths of his own family. But knew that Hercules was in shock, hardly knew what he was saying. “Herc, why don’t you come back to my place? Then, when you’re ready, we can ...”
Hercules shook his head. “No, Iolaus. I appreciate the offer, but - I need to be alone just now.”
“Herc, I understand that, but right now you’re in shock, it isn’t good for you to be alone.”
Hercules shook his head again. “You can’t help me, Iolaus.”
Iolaus said softly, “I’ve always helped you before, Hercules. Why not now?”
“I’ll be all right, Iolaus. Go home.” Hercules replied.
“I can’t just walk away from you.”
“You can if I ask you to - and that’s what I’m doing. Please, just go.”
“You’re my friend,” Iolaus replied helplessly.
Hercules looked him in the eyes for the first time. “And you’re mine- the best one I’ve ever had. That’s why I’m asking you to understand.”
Iolaus studied his friend’s face in silence for a moment. He knew how stubborn Hercules could be when he made his mind up, knew too how desperately he himself had felt the need to be alone with his grief when Ania died. He also understood now that it may not have been the best thing for him. But Hercules had respected his wishes then; he could do no less for his friend now. “All right,” he agreed reluctantly. “But if you need me - ”
Hercules put a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “I know where you are, Iolaus. Now please, go home.”
Iolaus nodded, struggling to swallow past the lump in his throat, and walked away reluctantly. After a few paces, he looked back. Hercules was still standing, like a statue, in the same spot. “Be strong, my friend,” Iolaus murmured. “Be strong.”
Eventually, Hercules forced himself to go back inside. The smell of smoke filled the house, but the fire had only burned brightly in the bedrooms - the living room was untouched.
He felt empty, completely devoid of emotion. He knew he should be feeling grief, his heart should be breaking in two, but instead he felt only numbness. He walked round aimlessly, absentmindedly picking up toys from the floor, and images of his children playing began to flood his mind. Finally, emotion began to build up in him, but it wasn’t grief. It was anger. He felt as if he was going to explode with the intensity of it. Picking up a chair, he hurled it savagely into the fireplace, where it broke into a hundred pieces. He picked up another chair; it went the same way. Without conscious thought he began hurling more furniture around. There was something satisfying about the act of destruction. Then a voice broke into his consciousness.
Hercules whirled round to see a small, scrawny man standing nervously in the doorway. Hercules regarded him silently for a moment. Then he said simply, “Go away.”
The man cleared his throat nervously. “But - my name is Lycus. I’ve travelled all the way from Ister seeking help. People are dying there.”
“Yeah, well, people are dying here, too!” Hercules replied bitterly.
“I know nothing about that,” Lycus replied hesitatingly.
“Well, it’s not your business.”
“Maybe I’m in the wrong place. I’m looking for Hercules.”
“I’m Hercules! But I still can’t help everybody whose path I cross.”
“But - I have nobody else to turn to,” Lycus pleaded, a note of desperation in his voice. “There’s a She-Demon. She turns the men of my village into stone. She’s working for Hera - Hera wants to punish us for refusing to sacrifice our first-born sons.”
“Yeah, that’d be right.” Hercules said. “Hera’s a mean-spirited old witch.”
Lycus flinched at this blasphemy and looked up, expecting a thunder bolt to come hurtling from the sky to strike Hercules down. Reading his thoughts, Hercules laughed bitterly.
“Don’t worry, I’m safe from Hera. She can’t touch me.” His face darkened. “But she isn’t safe from me.”
Lycus swallowed nervously. This wasn’t turning out the way he’d expected.
“So,” he said tentatively, “will you help me?”
Hercules was silent. Lycus regarded him curiously for a moment, then slowly turned his gaze to the ruin of the room. He looked back at Hercules and the expression on the demigod’s face told him that he’d had a wasted journey. Finally, he said, “I guess you’re not the Hercules I’ve heard so many stories about.”
Hercules returned his gaze steadily. “Not any more.”
Iolaus walked blindly, paying no attention to his surroundings, his mind whirling as he tried to come to terms with what had happened. He still wasn’t sure that leaving Hercules alone was the best thing for his friend, but he knew also that he’d had no choice - Hercules could be stubborn when he’d made his mind up. The kind of mood he was in, he’d want to be alone and not even Alcmene ...
Alcmene! Hercules was so wound up in his grief that he probably wouldn’t think of telling his mother what had happened. Glad to have found a course of action, the hunter finally took stock of his surroundings and headed off determinedly towards Alcmene’s house.
Alcmene was in the garden gathering flowers when she saw Iolaus approaching. She waved happily, delighted at the unexpected visit. She’d always had a special place in her heart for the scruffy little urchin who’d grown into a man any mother should be proud of.
“Iolaus!” she called, smiling warmly. “How lovely, I wasn’t expecting to see you!”
As the blond walked up to her she could tell immediately from his grim expression that something was very wrong. Her smile faltered.
“Iolaus, dear, what’s wrong?”
“Alcmene ...” Iolaus paused; now the moment had come he just didn’t know how to frame the words to soften the blow. He led her to a small bench and insisted she sat down.
“Iolaus?” Her voice held a note of alarm. “Is it ... is it Hercules?”
Iolaus found his voice. “No, Hercules is fine. It’s ... Alcmene, I don’t know how to tell you this, so I’ll just come out with it.” He took a deep breath. “Last night, Hera sent down a fireball. Deianeira and the kids ...” His voice broke. “They’re dead, Alcmene.”
Alcmene gasped and the colour drained from her face. “Deianeira - the children - it can’t be, not even Hera would do something that cruel!”
“She hates Hercules, you know that. She’d do anything to hurt him.”
“Hercules! Was he hurt? Where is he, why isn’t he here?”
“He isn’t hurt,” Iolaus assured her quickly. “ He was supposed to be helping me in the forge this morning. When he didn’t turn up, I went over there. He told me what had happened.”
Alcmene managed a small smile. “It makes me feel better to know that you were there for him.”
Iolaus shook his head. “He wouldn’t let me help him, Alcmene. I found him - standing outside the house, just staring into nothing. He wouldn’t talk about it, wouldn’t let me stay, wouldn’t come home with me. He told me he needed to be alone, and I had to respect that, so I went away. I wasn’t sure he was in any state to think of coming to tell you, so I came instead.”
Alcmene touched his arm. “Thank you, Iolaus. Thank you for thinking of me.” Tears sprung into her eyes. “Oh, that poor girl, those poor children - “ The tears began to fall in earnest and Iolaus put his arms round her, rocking her, holding her tightly. He found tears in his own eyes and didn’t try to hold them back.
After a while, Alcmene pulled back, gazing at him earnestly. “I don’t understand, Iolaus. Zeus - why didn’t Zeus stop her?”
“I don’t know what Zeus was thinking, Alcmene,” Iolaus said quietly. “All I know is that they’re gone and Zeus was nowhere in sight.”
Iolaus spent the next couple of hours with Alcmene, talking, remembering the family they had both loved and had now lost. Finally, Iolaus remarked that it was probably time for him to leave and offered to take her over to Hercules’ house.
“Thank you, Iolaus, but there’s something I have to do - someone I need to see before I go to my son.”
Iolaus looked at her closely, and guessed the confrontation she was planning from the sudden fire in her eyes. “Do you want me to wait?”
“No dear, you go on,” she patted his arm. “I’ll have Thebus drive me over to see Hercules in a little while.”
Understanding her need to be alone, Iolaus got up to leave. “You take care, Alcmene. I’ll come by and see you again soon.”
Alcmene gave him a final hug and watched him walk away. Then she hurried off in the other direction and began to climb a small hill behind the house.
Alcmene was pacing in her small garden a few hours later when she saw Hercules approaching.
After Iolaus had left, she had climbed to the top of the hill and called for Zeus. He had come almost immediately - she had the feeling that he had been waiting for Iolaus to leave so that he could see her alone. She had shouted, raged at him and he had not tried to defend himself, but stood cowed before her and accepted her words with the look of a defeated old man. She had begun to relent, seeing that his own grief was genuine, but her anger had flared again when he’d sheepishly explained the reason for his supposed lack of concern for his son. She’d found herself hitting him, beating her hands ineffectually against his chest, and he’d just stood there and let her hit him until her energy failed her. He’d tried to hold her then, but she’d refused to let him touch her, so he had left as quickly as he had come.
Afterwards she knew that she needed a little time to pull herself together before going to see Hercules. He would need her to be strong and calm, and at that moment she was neither. She was just beginning to feel more in control when she saw Hercules striding towards her up the hill. She ran to meet him, embracing him and holding him tightly. When Hercules pulled back from the embrace he knew immediately by the pain etched on her face that she knew.
“Mother. How did you know?”
“Iolaus came over and told me. I was just about to come to see you. Sweetheart, Zeus ...”
“Mother? You’ve seen Zeus?”
Alcmene hesitated for a moment. “Yes,” she replied finally.
Hercules uttered a bitter laugh. “He doesn’t even have the courage to talk to me himself, does he? My own father!”
Alcmene put a hand on his arm. She had expected this reaction. “No, Hercules - we won’t go there, not now. There’s plenty of time for anger. But your grief - that has to come first.”
A short while later Hercules sat with his mother in the cool of the house. Her heart ached for him He’d talked very little about his family and she was concerned that he was masking the pain with an anger that she sensed was constantly simmering beneath the surface and could manifest itself at any time.
Hercules was saying, “Why, mother? Why did this have to happen?”
Alcmene was silent. She knew that Hercules understood as well as she did why Hera would want to destroy her son’s family. After a moment, he said bleakly, “It’s my fault. She wants to hurt me, she’ll do anything to destroy my happiness on Earth - anything to curse me with a lifetime of loneliness. She won’t stop until she’s destroyed everyone I love.” He looked across at his mother in sudden alarm. “Mother! You ... you’re still safe, aren’t you?”
Alcmene smiled reassuringly. “You know you don’t need to worry about me, Hercules. Zeus’ decree still stands.”
“I wouldn’t put it past her to defy him. Hera hates the fact that Zeus loved you.”
Alcmene sighed. “ I don’t think she sees me as a threat any more. It was a love that lasted only a little while.”
“Yeah.” Hercules’ expression of concern darkened into one of anger. “He lets everyone down sooner or later.”
Alcmene didn’t respond. She knew what he was about to ask and knew too that her answer would provoke his anger further. But he deserved to hear the truth.
“I want to know why,” he asked. “Why now? Why didn’t my Zeus stop her? I know my family is nothing to Zeus - he never even comes to visit - but ...”
Alcmene sighed. “It was a woman.”
“You mean, his lust counted for more than my wife and children!” Hercules replied incredulously, his anger flaring instantly as she had anticipated.
Alcmene said earnestly, “He’s so ashamed, Hercules. For the first time in his life, he wishes he was mortal, so he could crawl off somewhere and die.”
“As far as I’m concerned, he is dead.” Hercules said. “From now on, I’m on my own.”
She touched his hand. “No, you’re not, Hercules. You still have me, you know I love you. And you have Iolaus.”
“I know that, mother,” Hercules said, his voice softening. “And you both have my love, too. But I’m still not sure you’re safe from Hera, and I know Iolaus isn’t. That’s why I’m leaving Thebes.”
Alcmene was dismayed. “Hercules - are you sure that’s the best thing? Where are you going?”
“To pay Hera back the best way I can,” the demigod answered grimly. “By destroying her seven temples.”
Alcmene had never heard her son talk like this. She’d seen him angry on behalf of the innocent, usually at some injustice of the gods. But this was different. It was as if his anger had turned into an icy resolve and she couldn’t mistake the determination in his voice.
Abruptly, Hercules got to his feet and headed towards the door. Alcmene followed, putting a restraining hand on his arm. “Hercules, I know you’re angry and you have every right to be. But revenge - it isn’t the way to go. That won’t bring your family back, you’ll only put yourself in danger.”
Hercules said bitterly, “Nothing will happen to me, Mother. I’m the son of a god - remember?”
Without a further word he kissed her briefly and strode off.
Alcmene called, “Hercules! Hercules?! Come back! Hercules!”
Hercules either didn’t hear or was refusing to listen. She watched him go; her son, a man with the power to do so much good in the world. Or so much bad, she acknowledged reluctantly, brushing away a tear. She had never been so afraid. She knew there was no point in trying to follow him and he wasn’t in the mood to listen to her. Sitting down just where she was on the doorstep, she gave way to her own grief and cried bitterly for the woman she had come to love as a daughter and the dear children who would never now have the chance to grow up into the fine people she had known they would be.
It was well past sunset, but Iolaus had no desire to return home.
After leaving Hercules he had returned to his cottage and worked in the forge like a man possessed for several hours, but he was unable to concentrate on his work and finally gave up the pretense. Unable to face the rest of the day alone in the cottage with his thoughts, he had picked up his bow and gone hunting. But even his favourite occupation failed to divert his mind. Eventually, with dusk approaching, he had found himself walking towards town and the nearest tavern.
It was the same tavern he and Hercules had visited the night before. Only one night ago? It already felt like a lifetime had passed. Yet at least here with the cheerful noise of the other occupants of the crowded tavern, he could try to block out the pain - and the worry.
Sitting alone at a table in the shadows, he allowed himself to feel his own loss. He had come to love the fiery, independent Deianeira like a sister and the children had meant the world to him, more so since the loss of his own family. He found it almost impossible to conceive of a world without them.
He could imagine only too well what Hercules was going through. He remembered as if it was yesterday the moments when he had lost his own family - first Ania and his newborn son, and the pain that had seemed to grow until it consumed him, followed by empty days afterwards when only the need to care for and console his remaining son had kept him going and given any meaning to his life. Telaus - the apple of his eye who had been lost to him barely five years later.
For the first time in years he deliberately re-lived the moment he and Hercules had returned home from a hunting trip to hear from a tearful Alcmene that his son was critically ill. The days he had spent at the boy’s side, watching him grow weaker and weaker until finally the last spark of life had left him. He re-lived the feelings of anger and despair when he’d finally discovered that Hera had been behind the death of his family, the moment when he’d realised that he was now alone, that he could never risk allowing someone else to share his life and be put at the same kind of risk. He sighed heavily. He didn’t know how he’d have survived the pain and anger, the self-recrimination, if he hadn’t left Thebes and Greece and travelled to the East, where he’d met an extraordinary man who’d taught him so much about himself and how to deal with his grief. Hercules didn’t have Yu-Lin to help him, but Iolaus hoped that he’d be able to show the demigod even just a glimpse of what the healer had taught him.
He was so lost in his memories that the conversation around him passed him by as a background buzz until his sharp ears heard Hercules’ name mentioned. He looked up and began to listen in to the conversation between Bellus, the tavern owner, and a couple of strangers at the bar.
“How can you call this Hercules a hero?” one of the strangers was saying. “You heard what that guy said - Hercules refused to help him. Sounds like he’s too busy feeling sorry for himself to help anybody.”
“I’m sure he had his reasons ...” Bellus began, but was interrupted by the second stranger..
“He must be crazy. You people think it doesn’t matter ‘cause the blood of Zeus runs in his veins.”
Iolaus’ quick temper flared at the comment and the men started as he slammed his goblet down and rose quickly, his chair toppling to the floor.
“Hey! Why don’t you pipe down till you know what you’re talking about?” Iolaus said heatedly, addressing his words to the man who had just spoken.
The stranger eyed him dismissively and took another swig of his ale. “I know what that Lycus told me - that’s all I’m saying.”
“Yeah, well, you don’t have all the facts. You didn’t look into his heart. If you did - you’d have seen it was broken.”
“You don’t make any more sense than Hercules did,” said the man’s companion.
“He lost his family,” Iolaus explained. “You understand that? They were swept away in a fireball sent down by his stepmother.”
The man’s eyebrows shot up. “The goddess, Hera?”
“And his father’s no better,” Iolaus went on bitterly. “Zeus turned his back on his own blood.”
All three men looked shocked. “Where’s your respect for the gods?”
“In a pig trough, where it belongs.” Iolaus almost spat out the words. “Hercules deserves our respect now - and our sympathy.”
There was silence for a moment as the men digested his words. Then the second stranger said, “Well, I guess under the circumstances I can understand why he didn’t help Lycus. Lycus shouldn’t have brought him his problems.”
Iolaus sighed, his anger deflating. “Yes, he should have. If things were normal, Hercules would have helped him. That’s what he does, it’s in his nature. He just needs some time alone with his grief. He’ll be back to helping people again before long, you’ll see.”
They fell silent again and after a few moments, Iolaus drained the remains of his ale and left the tavern. He’d spoken his final words firmly and with conviction, but in the depths of his heart there was a nagging fear that this time, Hercules might not bounce back. That this time, Hera may have finally broken the demigod’s heart.
Hercules had made good time towards the first temple at Ixis by cutting across country and avoiding the more circuitous roads. Emerging from a wooded area into a pleasant, grassy meadow, he saw a small gathering of people ahead. He couldn’t see what they were doing from that distance, but the sound of their voices reached him and the anger, just simmering below the surface, flared up once more.
“Please accept our offering, Hera.”
“We worship you, Hera. Accept our small gifts.”
Hercules increased his pace and as he neared the group he saw that they were gathered round a crude stone altar, making offerings of bowls of fruit. They all looked up in alarm as he bore down on them, and scattered as he marched into their midst without a word. He barely broke stride as he aimed several savage kicks at the small altar, scattering the large stones like feathers.
The men in the group regained their senses and rushed towards him, shouting in protest. “Hey! You can’t!”
Hercules ignored them and without a backward glance continued on his way through the meadow.
The would-be worshippers stood staring after him.
“But - he can’t just trample through our shrine like that,” said one.
“That was Hercules,” said a second.
“Are you sure?” asked the first, staring after the demigod’s fast disappearing figure.
“Absolutely. I saw him drop a giant like a bad habit, you know.”
“In the same fierce mood as today, I’m betting,” said a third.
His friend shook his head slowly. “No - no, he was - much happier then.”
Lycus kept up as quick a pace as he was able on the journey back to Ister. He tried to calm his mind by concentrating only on the road ahead, but his thoughts were jumbled with images of the She-Demon and Hercules. He didn’t understand. He’d heard so many tales of the great Hercules, a legend in his own time; a man with a heart so full of kindness that he never turned down a plea for help.
The man he’d met in Thebes had been a different person, full of anger and hatred. Lycus had been afraid of him. He’d had the look of a man who had suffered a great tragedy. Lycus almost felt sorry for the man, but his sympathy for Hercules didn’t help the people of Ister.
Like Lycus himself, most of the Istan villagers were farmers.. No-one had been mad enough or brave enough to confront the She-Demon; no-one except Lycus had even been brave enough to leave the village and seek help, they were all too afraid that Hera would find out and bring even more tragedy on the village. But Lycus didn’t see himself as brave, but rather as a desperate man trying to save his family from certain death. As he walked his heart filled with despair. Hercules had been their only hope. Now, the only option was to leave the village, or stay and wait until every last man had been turned to stone.
After a while, a nagging voice in his head began to hint that perhaps there was one more option. He tried to ignore the voice, but it wouldn’t go away and eventually he had to face the option it was putting to him. Yes, there was another possibility - one that made him feel faint with fear and which would undoubtedly end badly, but he knew there was no other choice. He wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he didn’t try. He quickened his pace, anxious now to be home and to face his fate.
Alcmene had been unable to sleep, but had tossed and turned all night, almost beside herself with worry for her son. The previous day she had cried until she had no more tears left, leaving her feeling drained. Her concern for Hercules was growing, but she felt so helpless. What could she do to help her son? The answer, when it came to her, was so obvious she was angry with herself for not having thought of it earlier. If only she hadn’t been so confused and distraught in her grief. There was someone who could follow Hercules’ tracks, and he happened to be the one person in the world the demigod would listen to in a situation like this.
She had left immediately, arriving at Iolaus’ cottage in the late afternoon. . The door was closed and there was no sound of hammering from the forge. It was obvious he wasn’t at home, but she entered the small house anyway, calling his name. Silence answered her. A quick look around revealed that his bow was missing - he must have gone hunting.
She waited for several hours, watching the shadows lengthening as the sun sank lower in the sky. When she could see that day was about to turn to dusk, she decided reluctantly that there was no choice but to return home. Iolaus was upset and in pain - it was quite possible that he would choose to stay out in the forest all night where nature would sooth his aching heart.
She had returned home and gone to bed but sleep had eluded her and now she rose with the first signs of the dawn and walked out into the garden, half hoping to see Hercules sitting there on the bench beside the crumbling wall. But the garden was empty. She sat for a while, until the sun had begun to rise and chased away the darkness. Then she returned to the house, shouting for a servant to come and hitch up the cart. There wasn’t a moment to waste.
Iolaus stood in the remains of Hercules’ comfortable living room and stared round at the destruction numbly. The walls were still standing, but little else. The furniture was in pieces, scattered around the room. The fireplace held the remains of what must have been all the plates and bowls the household possessed. He could almost feel the anger that must have blazed here to result in so much destruction.
On his return from the tavern Iolaus had been unable to sleep and had gone to work in the forge. He had worked with fierce concentration for several hours, channelling all his thoughts and energy into the shoes and harness bits he was creating.
Eventually, his limbs beginning to shake with fatigue and his hands barely able to lift the soldering iron, he had had to stop working. By then the sun was beginning to rise above the horizon and he had decided to take a walk over to check on Alcmene. The route would naturally take him within a stone’s throw of Hercules home and at the very least give him the excuse to call in on the pretext of checking if Hercules needed any supplies.
When he’d arrive the first thing he’d noticed was the front door, hanging from one hinge. Entered the house, he’d been horrified at the destruction of the home that had meant so much to his friend. Of course, as he knew himself from bitter experience, the house had only been a home to Hercules because Deianeira and the kids had been there. He thought of his own home, now little more than a roof over his head, a place to sleep and eat. The memories it held had long since begun to fade.
He didn’t hear the cart pull up outside and started at the sound of a voice.
“Iolaus! What ... what’s happened here?”
He whirled round to find Alcmene standing in the doorway, surveying the destruction with an expression of dismay that was, he was sure, similar to his own.
“Alcmene!” As he walked towards her he could see that she was pale and drawn and a tear was running down her cheek. He put an arm round her shoulders and led her firmly outside, wanting to take her away from the evidence of Hercules’ destructive temper.
“Thank the gods you’re here, Iolaus,” she said. “I came looking for you yesterday, but you weren’t at home! I’m so afraid for Hercules, you have to help him!”
Iolaus put an arm around her shoulders. “Why, Alcmene? Tell me what’s happened - where is he?”
“He came to see me, not very long after you left. He wouldn’t let me comfort him, either. But I’m afraid for him, Iolaus. He won’t let himself cry, won’t let himself grieve properly. He’s focussing all his feelings into his desire for revenge, and I’m afraid of what he might do.”
“He’ll be all right. He’s Hercules - he can take care of himself.”
Alcmene shook her head. “I am worried about him getting hurt, but I’m more afraid that he could end up hurting innocent people.”
Iolaus shook his head vehemently. “No! Hercules would never hurt an innocent person, it’s against everything he believes in.”
“I know that. But you didn’t see him, Iolaus. He wasn’t the Hercules we know and love. He was - out of control. He’s planning to destroy Hera’s temples - all of them! And if someone gets in his way, I don’t know if he’ll be able to control himself. If he hurts someone, he’ll never forgive himself. You have to go after him.”
“No, Alcmene. I can’t,” Iolaus said firmly. “He asked me to leave him alone, and I have to honour his request.”
Alcmene placed a hand on his arm and regarded him earnestly. “I understand that you want to respect his wishes. But he isn’t thinking straight, he doesn’t know what he’s doing. We have to do his thinking for him.” She paused. “You’re his best friend, Iolaus, you’re as close to him as a brother. I think you may be the only one who can get through to him..”
Iolaus was silent for a moment. “You really think he could hurt someone?”
“Yes, I do.” She nodded vigorously. “If you can’t make him understand what he’s doing, I’m afraid of what might happen.”
Iolaus closed his eyes for a moment, reluctant to believe what Alcmene was saying. Yet he too had seen the emptiness in Hercules’ eyes and he couldn’t deny the evidence of the destruction in the house behind them. He didn’t want to go against his friend’s wishes, but perhaps under the circumstances he had no choice. “All right,” he agreed finally. “I’ll go straight away. You said he was planning to destroy Hera’s temples? Which way did he go?”
“He was heading east.”
“East.” Iolaus thought for a moment, then picked up a stick and began to draw a map in the soft earth beneath his feet. “The temple of Ixis is due east. I’d bet dinars that he’s headed there. After that - the next temple is northwest of there, near Ister. I won’t have a chance of catching up to him before he reaches Ixis, but if I cut across country, I should cross his path on the road to Ister.”
He gave Alcmene another quick hug. “It’s going to be all right, Alcmene. I promise.”
Alcmene gave him a ride back to his house in her cart where he quickly packed a few essentials into a carry sack.
“Would you like me to stay here and look after your stock, while you’re gone?” Alcmene asked as he left the house, closing the door firmly behind him. Iolaus smiled and shook his head. “No need for that, Alcmene. Brachus lives nearby. His farm is on my route - I’ll ask him to take care of things for me. He owes me a couple. You go back home and try not to worry.”
Alcmene tried to smile, though tears were one again welling in her eyes. “How can I do anything but worry?”
Iolaus leaned forward and kissed her softly on the cheek. “I’ll find him, Alcmene, I promise you. And I’ll talk him round. You know me - have you ever known anyone who can resist my charm?”
Alcmene laughed, despite herself. “If anyone can do it, you can Iolaus. But not because of your charm, though I have to admit that you certainly have it, by the bucketful! You’ll succeed because you’re his friend. He loves you Iolaus, like a brother, and more than that - he respects you, he trusts your judgement. He listens to you - remember that.”
Iolaus nodded. He only hoped that her faith in him was warranted. He was striding down the path when Alcmene called after him.
“Iolaus! I forgot to say - take care of yourself, dear. I don’t want to have to worry about another of my sons today.”
Iolaus felt a lump rising in his throat as it always did when she called him, ‘son’, but just smiled reassuringly, turned and disappeared down the path.
Alcmene stood looking after him for a long time. The lives of both heroes were in the hands of the Fates now. She just hoped that they weren’t in the hands of the gods.
Hercules stopped at the foot of the forbidding cliff marking the route to the Ixian temple and looked up. Shielding his eyes against the sun, he could just make out the temple itself, a black outline at the very top of the cliff. He appraised the cliff itself. It was steep and sheer, reputed to be impassable.
The temple to the south of the town of Ixia was one of the best defended of all Hera’s temples. The main approach was to the northwest, through a closely guarded pass, another day’s journey away. Hercules was reluctant to waste the time needed to reach it and anyway, this route was probably unguarded. Who in their right mind would consider scaling that cliff?
Hercules grinned mirthlessly. Maybe he wasn’t in his right mind, but he didn’t care and he knew that the hatred burning in his belly would give him the strength he needed to do the impossible. He looked up again. “You can’t stop me, Hera,” he said grimly. Then he strode forward and began to climb.
The climb was difficult, for a mere mortal it would have been impossible, but Hercules was no mere mortal. He made steady progress, finding tiny hand holds as he climbed, his sheer strength allowing him to support his body weight with his hands alone. Eventually, when even his god-given stamina was beginning to fail him, he pulled himself up the final stretch and fell panting onto level ground.
A quick glance around that showed him that he was alone, and he lay quietly for a moment, regaining his strength. Then he got to his feet and looked around more carefully.
He was standing on a huge, level plateau overshadowed by the dark, foreboding walls of the temple still a distance away. There was nothing between the edge of the cliff and the drop below. He had a feeling that many of Hera’s enemies had made the journey to the temple and left it by a shorter route, to be dashed to death on the rocks below.
He turned his attention to the temple itself. It was bleak and unwelcoming, like all of Hera’s temples and her brooding presence seemed to hover over the place. ‘all the better if she’s here to see me destroy her precious temple,’ he thought to himself as he made his way towards the nearest entrance.
Two guards at the temple doors eyed him warily as he approached, obviously trying to work out where he could have come from. They were heavily armed, with helmets made of metal and face plates constructed of two sets of sharp teeth meeting in the middle to form a visor. Their swords, which they unsheathed at his approach, were long, vicious blades, honed to a sharp edge and gleaming gold.
Hercules walked straight up to them. “Hi there,” he said pleasantly.
One guard moved to block his way. “Halt!”
Hercules paused. “That’s no way to say, ‘hello’,” he remarked mildly.
“No offerings today, pilgrim,” The guard informed him firmly. “They’re showing a thief the truth and the light.”
Hercules laughed, but it was not a pleasant laugh. “The truth and the light. Hmm - but Hera’s the daughter of darkness.”
“Blasphemer!” The second guard cried, amazed that someone would have the temerity to utter such heretical words in Hera’s own temple. “ What is your name?!”
“Me?” Hercules leaned forward conspiratorially. “I’m Hercules.” He raised his fist and punched the first guard in the face, pole-axing him with the one blow. It happened so quickly that the second guard had no time to react and the demigod picked him up bodily, using him as a ram to open the door.
The door burst inwards. The unfortunate guard crumpled to the floor and Hercules rushed in behind him, skidding to a halt to take his bearings. Inside, the temple was dimly lit, but it was not so dark that he couldn’t make out the figure of a young woman tied to the altar. Three priests were hovering over her, one with a knife in his hand. It was obvious that a sacrifice was about to take place.
“Forget about sacrifices,” Hercules said loudly, striding forward. “This place is coming down!”
The head priest eyed him up and down appraisingly. Then he raised his hand. “Kill him!”
Immediately, six men stepped up as one to face the intruder, dressed all in black and armed with axes. Hercules had seen their like before - Hera’s henchmen. He braced himself as the first stepped forward, axe raised. Hercules stepped forward, dodging the axe, picked the man up by an arm and a leg and hurled him into the nearest pillar. The hapless guard landed with such force that the pillar cracked down its length and hairline cracks appeared in the ceiling above.
The young woman watched with a mixture of horror and excitement as Hercules quickly disposed of the remaining five men, none of whom even managed to land a punch. Then the priest raised his hand again and another man stepped forward out of the shadows. He too was dressed in black, but was taller and heavier in build, armed this time with a two-edged axe. The gag in her mouth smothered her cry of “look out!” as the man approached, whirling the axe expertly around his head. Hercules waited patiently, arms folded, until the display of strength was over and when the man paused, ready to move in for the kill, Hercules moved in fast with a punishing kick to the stomach, felling his opponent like a log. Hercules grinned at the head priest. “Funny. He didn’t look that easy!”
The three priests exchanged terrified glances, weighing up the prospect of Hera’s future wrath against the present danger of an early death. The opted to risk the former and ran for safety. Hercules ignored them and moved forward purposefully, pausing beside the girl. “Don’t go anywhere,” he muttered, ignoring her muffled but obviously indignant shout of protest and made for the altar which he quickly tore apart with his bare hands. Satisfied, he returned to the girl and began to untie her.
At that moment they both heard an ominous cracking sound and the ceiling began to collapse, dust and splinters raining down on them. Hercules quickly picked the girl up in his arms. “I think it might just be time to leave!”
He turned to find a dozen more henchmen lined up, blocking his exit. Glancing up at the ceiling again he could see that he didn’t have much time - that ceiling was coming down. Hercules looked around and spotted a long pole that must have fallen when the ceiling began to collapse. “This will do nicely!” he thought to himself, picking it up and changing his grip on the girl, moving her smoothly onto his back. He glanced up at her. “Hold on!”
The girl looked at him and the pole in horror. “Are you crazy?”
Hercules grinned. “Yeah!”
The guards charged. Hercules ran a few paces towards them, gripping the pole firmly midway down its length. The girl closed her eyes and tightened her grip as they left the floor, sailing over the heads of the guards, through the still open door and out into the light. Behind them came a sound like thunder as the ceiling came down, burying the remaining guards under a pile of stone and wooden beams..
Hercules put the girl down carefully and she slumped against him.
“So, you still in one piece?” Hercules asked.
Hercules led her to a nearby flat rock and she sank down onto it gratefully as he took out his knife and carefully cut the ropes still binding her hands.
“So - what was that all about in there?” she asked after a moment. “‘Cause saving me definitely wasn’t the first thing on your mind.”
She eyed him curiously. “Those bug-eyed loons you just beat up? Caught me stealing food. Well, an escaped slave’s gotta eat, doesn’t she?”
“You’re free now.” Hercules said. “I don’t believe in slavery.”
Her eyes widened. “What, just like that? I’m free?”
“Just like that.”
“Well, hey!” She exclaimed. “Who are you, anyway?!”
“You know? I’m sick and tired of people asking me that,” Hercules said irritably.
“No - I-I believe you,” she said hurriedly. “You’re Hercules. I’m Aegina.”
Hercules stood up. “Well - maybe we’ll meet again, Aegina.”
Aegina scrambled to her feet quickly. “Hey, what’s your rush?!”
“Hera has six more temples - and I’m going to destroy all of them.”
“What, and leave me out here all by myself?” Aegina replied indignantly. “You know - choosing mayhem over chivalry won’t do much for your reputation.”
“Well, my reputation is the last thing I’m worrying about right now.”
“Okay, look - I’m not asking you to take me around the world,” she said. “I just want you to get me back to Midia - it’s a small village, not far from here.”
Hercules considered her words. “Midia - that’s on the road to Ister, right?”
“Yes, it is. You’re heading for Ister?”
“Hera has a temple east of there,” he said shortly.
“And you want to destroy it, right? Well, none of my business I guess. But if you could take me as far as Midia, I’d be grateful. I was kidnapped from the village by slavers over six months ago - I need to let my family know I’m okay.”
Hercules sighed. “Fine. But we need to leave now. I don’t want to lose any time.”
Lycus paused at the top of the small hill that led down towards the village of Ister, now visible as a cluster of buildings in the distance. Between here and the village lay a wide, fertile valley. It was lush farming country where the villagers cultivated fruit and vegetables to sell in the larger towns of the region. Farming was the main occupation for most of the villagers and their only means of support. Now, the fields and olive groves were deserted, for this was the She-Demon’s hunting ground and it was no longer safe to walk there by day.
Directly ahead of Lycus the hill dipped into a small meadow, one end sloping upwards to a cave in the hillside. This cave was the She-Demon’s lair. The meadow itself was littered with what at first looked like standing stones. Lycus knew better. These were not stones, but many of the men of the village who had been turned to stone by the monster. She kept them there in the meadow like trophies. He shuddered at the sight as he walked slowly down the hillside, senses alert for any sign or sound of the hideous creature.
As he progressed down the hill he saw a sight that set his heart pounding with fear. His nephew, Oreston, was walking through the meadow, a bunch of flowers in his hand. Coming to meet him was a beautiful woman, dressed in a long, flowing white dress.
“It’s the She-Demon! Oreston!” Lycus shouted as he began to run towards them, but his nephew was deaf and blind to anything but the vision before him.
“Are those for me? Oh, how beautiful.” She spoke huskily, her voice flowing round the young man, consuming him, as she gazed at him as if he was the most handsome man in the world. “Come closer - don’t be shy.”
Oreston closed the distance between them until he was standing before her. Her scent filled his nostrils with the aroma of wild flowers and he took another step, offering her the bunch of wild blossoms he had gathered from the meadow.
Suddenly she screamed - a high pitched, ear-shattering screech that penetrated even Oreston’s daze. He took a step backwards in confusion, but it was too late. Lycus watched helplessly as a thick, scaled tentacle snaked out from beneath the flowing dress, its point glowing like flame. It touched Oreston on the cheek and immediately he was turned to stone, frozen with his hands held up before him as if to ward off the danger. The She-Demon screamed again, this time with a note of triumph, and disappeared back into her cave.
Lykus walked up to the new statue and fell to his knees beside it. “Oreston,” he whispered hopelessly. Oreston had been one of his favourite nephews, a strong, intelligent young man who might have had a bright future in front of him. Now he was gone.
Lycus stood there for a long time, wrestling with his feelings, then headed back towards the village. A boy of about fourteen summers came running up to meet him. “Uncle Lycus! You’re back! Have you seen Oreston? He went out to the olive grove hours ago and he hasn’t come back!” Tomos, Oreston’s younger brother. Lycus’ heart was heavy as he put his arm around the boy and gently explained that his brother had fallen victim to the She-Demon.
By now other villagers had noticed his arrival and crowded round.
“Lycus! Did you bring him? Did you bring Hercules?”
Lycus shook his head miserably. “I’m sorry. I tried, but he wouldn’t come with me.”
One of the villagers looked disgusted. “I told you it was a waste of time! The stories they tell about him are all lies!”
“I don’t think so, Talus,” Lycus replied. “I think something had happened to him - he was behaving strangely.”
“That doesn’t matter, now, does it,” said another. “Hercules was our only hope. Either we obey Hera and sacrifice our first born sons, or the She-Demon will carry on killing until there are none of us left.”
They crowded round Lycus, looking to him for the answer. Lycus swallowed. He had decided what he had to do - now he just needed the courage to follow through.
“There is another way. We can deal with the She-Demon ourselves. I’m going to go into the cave and kill her. Who will come with me?”
The villagers exchanged glanced uneasily. No-one answered. Finally, Talus said, “It’s madness, Lycus. We’re farmers, not warriors. We don’t have a hope of defeating her. We’ll all be killed.”
“Is that any worse than waiting for her to pick us off one by one?” Lycus demanded.
“The best thing we can do is give up and leave the village. That way at least we keep our lives.”
“And lose everything we’ve worked for all our lives.” Lycus shook his head and squared his jaw. “No - there’s only one way to end this. I’m going in now. I’m asking you again - will anyone come with me?”
In the silence, a voice piped up. “I’ll come with you, uncle! I’m not afraid of the She-Demon!” Lycus looked down at his nephew, his expression softening. He laid a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “You’re a brave lad, Tomos. Thank you for your offer. But it wouldn’t be fair to your mother to put you in danger. I’ll go alone.”
“But ...” the boy began.
“You heard your uncle, Tomos,” said his mother, coming up behind him and putting her arms round him firmly. “This isn’t a job for a lad.” She turned to Lycus. “You’re a brave man, brother. May the gods go with you.”
Hercules had escorted Aegina to Midia, frustrated at having to reduce his pace to match hers, but reluctant to leave her until he was sure she was safely home.
Now he was running, making up time, his long stride covering the ground at a steady pace. He had cut cross country from Midia, choosing a little-used track that cut off a large corner of the much longer route by road, but he knew that soon the terrain would become more difficult. Sure enough the trees began to crowd in, causing him to break his stride to negotiate obstacles in his path and he reluctantly made the decision to re-join the main road.
As he emerged from the woods onto the road he saw a figure sitting on a flat rock in the shade of a large cypress tree.
He skidded to a halt as the figure stood up, arms folded. He wasn’t sure whether to be surprised or not, but he was sure that this was probably the last person he wanted to see right now.
Hercules stared at the newcomer coldly. "I thought I told you to leave me alone."
Iolaus bit back a sharp rejoinder. He was exhausted, having kept up a punishing pace to ensure that he reached this point before Hercules. Knowing the country between here and Ixia, he had gambled that Hercules would choose the cross country route but would have to re-join the road at this point. An examination of the ground where the two tracks met had reassured him that no-one had passed that way for some time. Yet he had only been here for a little over an hour before Hercules had arrived.
Iolaus reminded himself that mustn’t allow Hercules to rile him. Hercules wasn’t himself. It was important that Iolaus stay calm and not be provoked into saying the wrong thing. So he answered mildly, "Just thought you might need some back up, Herc. We always watch each other's backs, don't we?"
"Not this time," Hercules replied shortly and began walking again.
Iolaus danced round quickly, blocking his path. "Come on, Hercules, at least stop and talk to me!"
"There's nothing to talk about. I'm going to Ister. You're going home."
Iolaus ignored this and looked up at the sky, where the sun was beginning its downward descent. "It's well past noon, Herc. When did you last eat?"
"What’s that got to do with anything?”
"You need to keep your strength up if you’re going to destroy all of Hera’s temples,” Iolaus replied patiently.
Hercules’ eyes narrowed. “I didn’t tell you what I was planning to do. My mother sent you after me, didn’t she?”
Iolaus cursed under his breath. His first mistake - he hadn’t planned to bring Alcmene into this.
“She’s worried about you, that’s all,” he said. “Just stop and talk for a few minutes, Herc, that’s all I’m asking. Then you can be on your way. The temples aren’t going anywhere.”
Hercules folded his arms and regarded his friend impassively for a moment. The blond was wearing the familiar stubborn expression that meant he wasn't going to take no for an answer. He knew Iolaus was about to try and talk him out of his plan of action and he didn’t want to hear what the hunter had to say. Yet despite his single-minded determination to finish the job and his irritation at the delay, a voice inside was telling him that he couldn’t just walk off. Iolaus had travelled a long way and the demigod couldn’t deny that it was good to see his friend. Also, it would be easier to let him have his say than to try and convince him to leave now.
Iolaus watched Hercules uneasily, wondering what he was going to do. He knew that if the demigod refused to talk to him, this meeting was going to end badly, because the hunter had no intention of leaving until Hercules had heard him out. If Hercules was going to be stubborn ...
"Sure, Iolaus," Hercules said suddenly, a shadow of a smile playing round his mouth. "I'll hear you out. But make it quick, because I have an appointment to keep.”
Hercules made no move to sit down, just stood there, arms folded, waiting. Iolaus took a deep breath. “Herc, it’s just ... Herc, have you really thought this through?”
"Thought what through, exactly?"
"This revenge thing. You have to know you're going about this all wrong."
"Really?" Hercules replied. "And why do you think that, my friend?" His tone was mild, but there was an edge to it that didn't fool Iolaus. He knew he was treading on dangerous ground.
"Herc - I'm not judging you. I’m just not sure that this is the way you should be going about it You should be doing something to honour their memory, that's all."
"They'd want me to do exactly what I'm doing," Hercules said firmly.
"Iolaus raised an eyebrow. "You think Deianeira would want you to go marauding round the countryside, burning down temples and frightening innocent people?”
"You don't understand, Iolaus."
"Actually, I think I do."
"Really?" Hercules answered, his voice soaked with sarcasm. "Because I don’t remember your whole family being wiped out in a moment by a thunderbolt sent by Hera."
Iolaus was stung by the retort and hurt that his friend could be so insensitive, but he forced himself to carry on calmly. "You know what I mean, Hercules. Hera was just as responsible for my family's death as she was yours."
"And that gives you the right to tell me I'm dealing with the loss of my own family all wrong?”
"That's not what I'm saying. Listen - you were there for me when Ania and Aeacus died, you helped me deal with what I was feeling, stopped me doing anything stupid. I just want to return the favour, that's all."
Hercules didn’t respond. Iolaus took a deep breath. This wasn’t going well and he knew that his next words would provoke Hercules' already uneven temper. But he couldn't think of any alternative. Soft talk and persuasion weren't going to get through to the big man. Maybe the harsh truth would touch something he'd hidden deep inside.
"Herc, I know you think that seeking revenge on Hera is going to help, but it isn't. It won't bring your family back ..."
"I know it won't bring them back!" Hercules interrupted, his anger flaring. He began to pace. "But I can't let her get away with it, Hera has to pay for what she did."
"Hercules - I'm not saying that Hera shouldn't pay. But not now, not like this. Herc, you've spent your life protecting people, defying Hera ..."
"Yeah, well, I'm done helping people for the time being."
"Like the guy who came to see you the other day?"
Hercules eyes narrowed. "Is there anything you don't know? Yes, - just like that guy."
"What did he want, anyway?" Iolaus asked, playing for time to allow Hercules time to cool down.
Hercules shrugged. "Something about a She-Demon terrorising his village.”
“What difference does it make? Ister, I think.”
“That’s near here, Herc. Why don’t we head down there, kill the monster ...”
“That’s not gonna happen, Iolaus.”
"Sure - because you have more important work to do!" Iolaus said drily. There was a momentary silence, then the blond continued, "Hercules, don't you see? You've never refused to help anyone before. If you start down this road, if you let Hera turn you into someone you're not ... you're playing into her hands. She wants you to stop helping people ..." He stopped speaking as Hercules wheeled round, his face white with anger.
"Are you trying to tell me I'm doing Hera's bidding, now?"
Iolaus faced his friend, jaw set. "If you carry on like this, then yes, you are."
Hercules turned away from him, his expression one of raw fury. "I’ve heard enough! You'd better leave, Iolaus, before I do something I regret."
Iolaus stood his ground. "Can't you see what's happening? This isn't you - Hera’s using your anger ...”
Desperately, Iolaus reached out to touch his friend’s shoulder. "This isn't what Deianeira would have wanted ..."
Hercules flung off the arm and roared, "How dare you try to tell me what Deianeira would have wanted!" He raised his arm and before Iolaus had time to register the danger, a punch to the jaw had lifted him and flung him onto his back several feet away.
Hercules watched through a red haze obscuring his vision as his best friend tried to get up, groaned, then sank back to the ground. Then the demigod turned abruptly and ran off down the track.
Birds flew from the trees in alarm as maniacal laughter sounded from somewhere above and a lone peacock feather floated down, landing at Iolaus' feet.
Iolaus had hit the ground with such force that he’d been winded momentarily and helpless to do anything to stop his friend as Hercules had run off. Now, he groaned and forced himself into a sitting position. He felt his jaw gingerly and winced. Hercules sure packed a hell of a punch. His face would be swollen up like a melon the next day. He supposed he should be grateful that the demigod hadn’t stayed to finish the job, yet he also knew that if his friend had used his full strength he could easily have killed the blond with just the one blow
He got to his feet slowly and sat down heavily on the flat rock. Locating his carry sack, he took out a skin of water and drank deeply.
He had failed. Alcmene’s faith in him had been misplaced - obviously, his friendship with Hercules hadn’t been enough. One part of him was saying that he should go after Hercules, track him down and try again. Another part of him was deeply hurt at the way he had been treated and told him to let the demigod get on with it and take the consequences. These conflicting sides warred with each other for a few minutes, until another voice, the voice of truth and reason, cut across them. Yes, he couldn’t deny that Hercules had hurt him - both emotionally and physically. But he also knew that Hercules wasn’t in his right mind because the Hercules he knew would never have treated his friend in that way.
Out of the corner of his eye he caught a flash of colour - the sun sparkling off an object on the ground. He reached down and picked up a turquoise and green coloured feather. His pulse quickened. The sign of Hera! He looked around him quickly, but apart from usual sounds of the forest, there was no sign that anyone was around. He fingered the feather thoughtfully. Its presence here was certain proof that Hera had an eye on his friend’s movements and undoubtedly approved of the recent scene between them. He scowled. Hera was a devious witch and he was determined that she wasn’t going to win this time.
Iolaus felt a renewed determination to get through to Hercules. But he knew it was pointless to try to confront the big man again while he was in this mood. After all, Iolaus knew where his friend was going - he still had six temples to destroy. Maybe when his anger cooled a little there would be another chance to reason with him.
Iolaus’ thoughts turned to Hercules’ tale of the man from Ister who’d asked for help. While Hercules headed for the temple to the east of the village, the villagers were being terrorised by this She-Demon. Well, that was something he could help with. If Hercules wasn’t himself right now, it was up to Iolaus to hold up their end until the demigod sorted things through. He would go to Ister, rid it of the She-Demon, and then return to Hercules’ trail.
Decision made, Iolaus felt a lot better. He got to his feet again, slung his carry sack over his shoulder and set off towards Ister.
Hercules ran, anger pumping adrenalin through his veins. Eventually, he reached a place where a huge oak tree stood solidly before him. To its left the road to Ister curved around the obstacle, stretching away into the distance. To his right a smaller path wound up into the trees - the route to Hera’s temple.
Now that he’d stopped, he found that the blood was no longer pounding through his veins and he felt exhaustion beginning to seep through his limbs. His headlong run had brought him to the crossroads in record time, so it wouldn’t hurt to take a short break. He sat down in the shadow of the oak, puled a water skin out of his carry sack and took a long, welcome drink.
Since that terrible night he had deliberately kept his mind and emotions focussed on his hatred of Hera and put all his energy into the task of destroying her temples. Now, his anger dissipated by physical exertion, he once more felt numb and empty.
His thoughts turned to the recent meeting with Iolaus and with a pang of regret and guilt he began to remember some of the things he’d said, the way he’d used his friend as a convenient target for his anger. Yet Iolaus had deserved it, he told himself. How dared he try to tell Hercules how he should deal with his grief? How dared he presume to think he would know better than Hercules what Deianeira would have wanted?
Reluctantly, he allowed himself to recall Iolaus’ words. “...you're playing into her hands. She wants you to stop helping people.” "This isn't what Deianeira would have wanted ..."
Deianeira. A vision of his wife’s face came into his mind and a sudden, almost physical, pain sliced through him. He’d pushed thoughts of his wife and children deep into the background of his mind, focussing his conscious thoughts only on his desire for vengeance. Now, images of Deianeira came flooding through. The way she looked, the way she smelled. The almost magical knack she had of seeing straight into his soul. He fell to his knees, ramming his fist again and again into the coarse bark of the oak, but the physical pain did nothing to alleviate the ache in his heart. He examined his fist absently, watching as blood ran down his wrist, soaking into his gauntlet. He gave into the memories, allowing his mind to range through the years he had spent with his wife. Fragments of conversations floated amongst the images.
"That's who you are,” Deianeira was saying. “People call for help, and you are - " " - and I always go. I know." He heard himself interrupt with a laugh.
"Yes." Deianeira said simply.
"But I can't stand to see the gods play with people's lives - you know, anybody's lives." "I know that,” she answered softly. “and I love that about you."
His mind wandered to another conversation, as they lay together in bed, Deianeira saying lovingly, "You're Hercules. Don't try to change that-- not for me; not for the kids. You'd only be lying to yourself."
The scene shifted, this time in the open air, Deianeira laughing up at him. "Who's the mighty Hercules going to help next?"
His mind moved on, bringing to recall fleeting scenes of some of the hundreds of people who’d come to him for help down the years. An old man, saying, "You've got to help us; there's a monster!" A young man, running up to him, no breath to utter anything more than, "Hercules!" A young boy, tugging on his arm, "We need you!"
Hercules put his head in his hands. Suddenly, with these memories flooding back and Deianeira’s smiling, understanding face before him, his plan to wreck vengeance on Hera seemed wrong, out of place. Then a light seemed to go on in his mind and he knew. Iolaus was right. This wasn’t what Deianeira would have wanted. She’d have wanted him to go on helping people, whatever the cost. What he was doing now, the mindless destruction, would accomplish nothing and was just what Hera wanted. He was playing into the goddess’ hands, just as Iolaus had tried to explain to him. Deianeira was gone, but her death didn’t have to be for nothing. The way to honour her memory was to be himself, helping as many people as he could, thwarting Hera in her desire to cause pain and suffering to mankind.
He finally allowed himself to cry, great, wracking sobs that shook his body. The tears flowed for a long time and finally, worn down by his emotions, he drifted into asleep.
It was past dusk and the cave looked grim and foreboding in the twilight. Tomos moved as close to the cave mouth as he could and hid behind an outcrop of rocks as the warrior had instructed him. His heart was pounding with a mixture of hope and fear.
When he had encountered the blond stranger in the She-Demon’s meadow, he had at first thought the man was just another traveller who had strayed from the trail, and had warned him about the monster that had taken the lives of many of the villagers. When the stranger questioned him about this he had explained how his uncle had gone to fetch the legendary Hercules but returned without him and then bravely faced the She-Demon alone. He had not returned. The man’s face had turned grim when he heard that, but all he said was, “Hercules sent me to help you. My name is Iolaus.” Then, without further explanation, he’d asked Tomos to show him the way to the cave. Sternly instructing Tomos to wait outside, whatever happened, he had drawn his sword and disappeared into the darkness.
Tomos had done as he was told. There was something about this stranger that gave him hope. Admittedly he wasn’t your archetypal warrior - to start with, he stood little taller than Tomos’s uncle Lycus. Yet although he was slight of build, he was well-muscled, obviously fit and moved with the lithe grace of a warrior. Tomos hadn’t had much experience of warriors, but his short time with Iolaus had convinced him that he was dealing with the genuine article.
Iolaus moved deeper into the cave, following a wide passageway, sword drawn, alert for any sight or sound of the monster. Out of the corner of his eye he kept glimpsing flickers of movement. His acute hearing picked out strange, slithering sounds in the shadows, but there was no sign of the She-Demon.
He continued on until the tunnel widened out into a large cavern. One moment he was alone, the next she had appeared as if from nowhere, a vision dressed all in white. He was so surprised, he almost dropped his sword. He had expected a monster, but standing before him was a beautiful woman and her voice, when she spoke, was mesmerising.
“Have you come to offer me your love?”
Iolaus was momentarily spellbound by the melodious voice and found his eyes drawn irresistibly to hers - dark whirlpools of shimmering chestnut that seemed to draw him into their depths. He dragged his eyes away, telling himself sternly to get a hold of himself. This must have been the way she’d lured the others into her trap - soft talk and a beautiful countenance lulling them into a false sense of security, for who could imagine that such an exquisite creature could be a monster? He answered pleasantly, ‘That wasn’t exactly what I had in mind.. Actually, I was thinking more along the lines of killing you, if that’s all right with you, of course?”
She laughed then, a pleasant, tinkling sound that grew louder and harsher, echoing off the walls and around the cave. Suddenly, she moved, a thick, reptilian-like tentacle snaking out from beneath her skirt and shooting towards him so fast that he barely had time to dive out of its path. He saw the tip of the tail glowing red and made a mental note that this was where the danger lay. She screamed then, a hideous, high pitched sound and Iolaus rolled quickly to his feet, resisting the urge to put his hands over his ears. The tentacle leapt towards him again and once more he dived, this time rolling several times before leaping to his feet behind the relative safety of a twisted pillar formation in the centre of the cave.
Outside the cave Tomos heard echoes of the She-Demon’s scream. He swallowed nervously. Iolaus must be in trouble. He couldn’t just stay here, waiting like some girl. He was a man - well, fourteen years was almost a man - he had to go and help his new friend. Trying to stop his hands shaking, he made his way cautiously into the cave.
Iolaus’s luck had run out the third time she’d struck and he was pinned against the wall, a coil of her tentacle wrapped around his waist, the glowing tip only inches from his face. His sword had been torn out of his hand and before he’d had time to draw his knife, he had been imprisoned by the weight of the huge, powerful limb. Now, with his arms pinioned at his sides, he was reaching desperately for the knife in his belt. Slowly, the glowing tip crept closer. Even more slowly, his fingers were edging closer to the knife, until he felt the hilt beneath his hand. He grasped it firmly and with one final effort twisted his hand round. He felt the knife penetrate and then slide into something solid. The She-Demon screamed in rage and pain and loosened her grip. Quickly, Iolaus squirmed his body out and dived for safety. He’d felt something warm and sticky on his hand - he’d hurt her and she was bleeding. Now was his chance, now was the time to move in for the kill.
“Iolaus? Iolaus, are you all right?”
Iolaus and the She-Demon heard the voice at the same time. She laughed, and he saw her intention in her eyes before she slithered into a hole in the ground.
Panicked, Iolaus shouted, “Tomos! Go back! It’s too dangerous for you in here! Go back now!” He ran back down the tunnel towards the entrance and the sound of the boy’s voice. The She-Demon’s scream sounded ahead and, rounding a bend in the tunnel, Iolaus saw Tomos, standing seemingly frozen at the hideous sound. From the ceiling above, Iolaus saw the She-Demon’s tentacle coiling down, ready to strike at the boy. “NO!” he shouted, hurling himself forward, shouldering the boy out of the way. Tomos hit the ground and watched in horror as the obscene, glowing tip touched Iolaus on the shoulder. Immediately, a shimmer of gray began to spread from his shoulder through his body and within seconds Iolaus was gone and in his place stood a stone statue, a grotesque representation of the warrior in full flight.
Suddenly Tomos found his legs were working again. He scrambled to his feet and ran for his life. Behind him, the She-Demon emerged fully from the ceiling. Ignoring the fleeing boy, she stopped to admire the latest addition to her collection, caressing the cold cheek. She had so enjoyed fighting him - none of the others had even offered any real resistence. This one had given her a good fight, might even have beaten her but for the fortuitous interruption of the boy. She stroked the cold face again and laughed in delight. Hera would be so pleased with this one.
When Hercules woke, he was momentarily disoriented. Looking up, he could see the sun just beginning to rise above the trees. The last thing he remembered, the sun had been sinking towards the horizon; he must have slept the night through. He got to his feet slowly and stretched, trying to work some of the stiffness from his back.
Fully awake now, he began to notice that he felt different. The anger that had dominated his every thought for the past couple of days was still simmering below the surface, but muted by a sense of peace.
He remembered the moment when he’d finally realised that Iolaus had been right - he’d been going about everything the wrong way. Iolaus! Suddenly, with a sick feeling in his stomach, he remembered their encounter. Iolaus had risked their friendship and even, as it had turned out, his own life, to help his friend turn away from the wrong path. And how had he responded? Hercules replayed the fateful conversation in his mind, feeling an overwhelming sense of shame at the way he had treated his friend. A faint tingling in his hand reminded him that he had actually hit the blond, practically knocking him senseless and although he was sure that Iolaus hadn’t been badly hurt, he hadn’t even bothered to go and check on him. How could he have done that?
He’d really messed up big time. Iolaus had always been there for him, had been the most loyal friend anyone could possibly want, and Hercules had rejected him twice within a couple of days. Hercules wasn’t sure their friendship could survive this and felt a physical chill at the thought of losing his friend. He knew that he sometimes took Iolaus for granted, particularly over the past few years when his own attention had been mostly fixed on his family, but amazingly, Iolaus had always been there when he needed him. The thought that this may no longer be the case was almost more than he could bear.
Yet for Iolaus’ sake, maybe that would be for the best. Iolaus was a prime target for Hera’s wrath. Sooner or later, she would hurt him - she had already caused the death of his family - and Hercules knew he couldn’t let that happen. Iolaus would go home and if he was no longer associated with Hercules, he would be safe. He could live his life without the shadow of the wrath of a goddess hanging over him. Hercules would continue travelling, keeping well away from Thebes, diverting Hera’s attention away from those he loved most.
He refused to think about the loneliness of a life on the road without the hunter at his side. He had to accept his destiny and he was sure now that this could never include the companionship of either a friend or a family.
He hesitated, unsure what to do next. Then he remembered where he was - the road to Ister. That was where the stranger was from, the one he’d refused to help. He felt another flush of shame as he recalled the cold, indifferent way in which he’d treated the desperate farmer. Well, perhaps it wasn’t too late. He would head for Ister, rid the village of the monster and then take the road home. It might be better to give Iolaus a little time to cool down before he ...
The She-Demon. He’d told Iolaus about the She-Demon. A lead weight settled in the pit of his stomach as he realised with a sickening certainty that Iolaus wasn’t on his way home. He had gone to Ister, to fight the monster. Alone, without Hercules to watch his back.
Heart pounding with fear for his friend, Hercules took off at a fast run. Iolaus had a long head start on him, but maybe, just maybe, the demigod could still get to Ister before his friend took any action. Hercules wouldn’t let himself think about what might have happened if he already had.
Hercules slowed his pace as he neared the village of Ister. It wouldn’t do any good to run straight into the She-Demon in his haste. First of all he needed to get his bearings and find Iolaus.
“Turn back, heedless traveller!” cried a high, wavering voice and Hercules started as an old man, stooped with age, hobbled out into the path in front of him.
“Ister is no place for the living anymore,” the old man continued.
“Who are you?” Hercules asked
A boy of about fourteen years came up beside the old man. “This is Thoas. He says he’s a seer. Anyway, he’s got it right this time.” His tone was bitter. “A She-Demon is turning the men of Ister into stone.”
“That’s why I’m here,” Hercules said.
“You’ll only join them,” Thoas said.
“I don’t think so.”
“What makes you think you’re different from all the rest?”
Hercules shrugged. I’m Hercules.”
“You’re Hercules?” The boy cried. “But ... Uncle Lycus said you wouldn’t come with him ...”
The old man interrupted. “Her..cu...les! You have my sympathy.”
Hercules was surprised. “Well, thank you. I didn’t know the news about my wife and children had travelled this far.”
“Your wife and children?” The old man looked surprised. “We don’t know anything about that - I was talking about your friend, Iolaus. He’s dead!”
The words he had been dreading echoed round the demigod’s head. Iolaus was dead. First Deianeira and the kids, then the man who was as close to him as a brother. Iolaus was dead and it was all his fault.
He felt sick and dizzy; the path began to spin before him. He was vaguely aware of someone grabbing his arm and he felt himself stagger back a few paces until he felt the solid trunk of a tree against his back. Gratefully he leaned against the rough bark and closed his eyes. Immediately, welcome darkness flooded his vision, but not for long; it was quickly replaced by an image of Iolaus - his expression unusually serious. In his mind, Hercules reached out towards his friend, like a man sinking in quicksand reaching for solid ground. Iolaus was saying something and the demigod strained to hear his words. “You can’t give up now, Hercules. The people of Ister need you. You have to kill this monster. Do it for me - do it for Deianeira. Don’t let our deaths be in vain.”
The image faded and Hercules heard himself call out, “Iolaus! No! Don’t leave me ...” But his friend was gone and in place of his voice, came a stranger’s voice calling, “Hercules! Hercules, are you all right?”
He dragged his mind back and opened his eyes, focussing with difficulty on the concerned face of the young lad.
“Hercules?” The boy’s voice was high-pitched, frightened.
With a supreme effort, Hercules straightened and attempted a smile. “I’m sorry - I’m fine. It was just a shock to hear that ...” He couldn’t say the words out loud. His voice trailed off. “It was ... a shock.”
The boy looked at his steadily for a moment, then said in a small voice, “Iolaus ... he fought the She-Demon. But it was my fault he was killed. He was trying to save me. If I hadn’t gone into the cave...”
Hercules laid a hand on his shoulder. “What’s your name?”
“Well, Tomos. It isn’t your fault Iolaus is dead. It’s mine. I should have been here with him, watching his back.” He paused, his throat constricting as he fought back tears. He closed his eyes again, willing himself to keep it together. Iolaus was right - this was not the time to allow his emotions to take over. The mourning would come later. Now, he had a job to do. He cleared his throat. “Tomos, show me the She-Demon’s lair.”
Tomos shook his head slowly. “You shouldn’t go there, Hercules. She’s killed enough people - my brother Oreston, my uncle Lycus ... Iolaus.”
The news of Lycus’ death struck another blow. If he’d come when Lycus had asked, the farmer would be alive now.
“Then let me end it for her - right here, right now.”
“How do you know you can?”
Hercules smiled grimly. “I’m undefeated. Now, show me the way!”
As he entered the cave Hercules’ eyes were immediately drawn to a stone statue standing in a small recess near the entrance. It was in the form of a man, short in stature. He had been captured in action, his movement now forever stilled. With a shock, Hercules realised it was Iolaus. He slowly reached out a hand and touched the statue’s shoulder. It was cold, lifeless. “I’m sorry, Iolaus,” he whispered. But your death isn’t going to be in vain, I promise you that.”
He stood for a while, lost in memories of his friend. The statue before him was such a stark contrast to the picture of Iolaus he held in his memory - vibrant, laughing, so full of - life. Hercules closed his eyes for a moment, he could hardly bear to look at the pale, cold shadow of the man he had known. Then he took a deep breath and moved on into the narrowing passageway.
The deeper into the cave he went the more cautious be became. There was no sign of the She-Demon, but the air was suddenly torn by a high-pitched, ear shattering scream. He felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand to attention.
He started as a large rat ran across his path, then castigated himself for his edginess. He needed to concentrate. Any monster that could get the better of Iolaus was not to be underestimated. A little further on, where the tunnel opened out into a large cavern, several more rats were gathered round something on the ground. He kicked them away and bent down, touching the ground gingerly. His hand came away sticky and he sniffed the substance cautiously. Blood; but not red, human blood. It was green - the She-Demon! He smiled in grim satisfaction. He knew Iolaus wouldn’t have been taken without a fight; he must have wounded the creature, which meant that she was vulnerable.
He stood up and caught sight of a figure lurking in the shadows the other side of the cave. Its eyes were fixed on him and as he straightened up slowly, it moved forward to the centre of the cave.
“Don’t hang back in the shadows, Hercules. Step out, where I can see every wonderful inch of you. I know you can see me.”
He could see her clearly now. She was beautiful - and deadly. He could understand how her beauty and mesmerising voice would have lured the villagers into danger. He moved closer until they were face to face.
“Don’t you wanna touch me, too?” she purred.
“I had something else in mind,” Hercules answered drily.
“You’re scaring me, Hercules. I don’t like being scared. I like being loved. Don’t you like being loved, too?”
“Not by somebody with scales on her rear end.”
As she was speaking, Hercules could see a tail-like tentacle slithering slowly out from beneath her dress, scaly and ridged like a massive snake. She screamed in fury at the insult and the tip of the tentacle flew towards him. Hercules was ready for her and flung himself aside. The glowing tip missed its target and by the time he’d rolled to his feet, she had gone.
“Don’t go,” Hercules called. “The fun’s just starting.”
He heard her slithering away and ran after the sound, picking up a stout stick en route. He found himself in another passageway that led upwards to another cavern. He stood still for a moment, listening. Suddenly he felt a sharp tug on the stick and it was pulled out of his grip in one powerful movement, disappearing into a crack in the roof of the cave. Laughter sounded from above.
Hercules circled the cavern carefully, scanning the roof for cracks through which she might appear. Then his ankles were grabbed from behind and he fell, rolling back down the tunnel. He stopped his fall by bracing one leg against the wall and got to his feet, cautiously making his way back to the cavern.
She was standing there in full view, smiling.
“The last one was good - did you see, I’ve kept him in the cave with me, he’s so special. But I think you’re going to be my favourite statue.”
Before Hercules could think of a satisfactory rejoinder, the tentacle snaked out again, so fast that this time he didn’t move quickly enough and it wrapped itself round his throat, squeezing tightly, cutting off his air supply. Hercules grabbed it desperately with both hands, trying to throw her off, but the limb was as thick as a tree trunk and she was very strong. The glowing tip edged closer and closer to his face. Desperately, becoming faint from lack of oxygen, he grasped the tail just below the lethal tip and with a final superhuman effort turned his body sharply. The tip hit the wall of the cave, contact with the stone sending shock waves back through her body and she screamed, loosening her grip. Hercules pulled the coils from his neck and dived to one side, breathing in welcome lungfuls of air. He pushed himself to his feet and ran, watching as the coiling tentacle followed in his tracks. A plan of sorts began to form in his mind. He ran round a pillar, waited until he saw the glowing tip in his wake, then dived across the limb, landing with a thud against the wall of the cave. The tentacle followed, the glowing tip once more hovering only inches from his face.
She laughed in triumph and raised the tip to strike the fatal blow, only to find that she couldn’t reach - her tail was knotted around the pillar and stuck firm. She tried to pull it free, but it wouldn’t budge and her screams grew more and more frantic.
“I’m getting really sick of that infernal racket,” Hercules grunted as he edged careful away from danger. He made sure he was well out of range and then walked up to her calmly. It was time to finish this. She screamed at him again, defiance etched in every line of her body. Then with a tremendous effort she pulled herself free. Hercules heard the swooshing sound of the tentacle shooting towards him and sidestepped. The glowing tip shot past him, hitting her square in the body. Her final scream was cut off as her colour began to fade into gray and within seconds all that remained was a stone statue.
He stared at the new statue for a moment. Then he whispered, “That one was for you, my friend,” turned and walked away without a backward glance.
Moments after the She-Demon had turned to stone, Hercules heard shouting outside the cave. He ran back to the entrance where the statue of his best friend had stood. The statue had gone and in its place was a bewildered, battered but definitely warm and breathing Iolaus. Hercules couldn’t believe his eyes. It had never occurred to him that the She-Demon’s victims would be returned to life on her own death.
Iolaus looked up as Hercules approached. The demigod grasped his friend by the forearms, needing to reassure himself that his friend was really alive. . “Iolaus ... I ... you ... I thought you were dead!”
Iolaus was still looking dazed, but Hercules saw a dawning comprehension in his eyes as the reality of the situation began to sink in.
“Iolaus?” Hercules examined his friend’s face in concern, wincing at the sight of a large, ugly bruise to his jaw that hadn’t been caused by fighting the She-Demon. “Are you ... are you all right?”
Iolaus nodded slowly. “I’m fine. I ...” His eyes clouded. “It was ... it was dark - like night when there are no stars in the sky - and I couldn’t move, it was like my mind was alive but I had no body.” Hercules laid a reassuring hand on his friend’s shoulder. “I guess you must have been in some kind of limbo - your body trapped in the stone, your spirit trying to get to the Underworld.”
Iolaus shivered. “It isn’t something I want to go through again in a hurry.” Then, as he looked at his friend, the demigod saw something click in his mind as he remembered what had happened between them. The blond stiffened imperceptibly and pulled back from his friend.
“Iolaus,” Hercules began, desperately searching for the right words, but he was saved by the excited chatter of Tomos who had rushed up to them, followed by a number of villagers who all now crowded into the mouth of the cave.
“You did it, Hercules! You did it, and they’re all alive, all of them!” Tomos said excitedly. He dragged two men forward. “My brother, Oreston! And my uncle, Lycus!”
Hercules was suddenly surrounded by well wishers wanting to shake his hand and thank him for saving the village. He glanced at Iolaus, but his friend stood silent beside him.
Lycus, shaky, but also smiling from ear to ear, shook Hercules hand vigorously. “Hercules! You came - you came and you saved us all! How can I thank you?”
“You don’t need to thank me, Lycus,” Hercules said awkwardly. “ If I’d come sooner maybe less people would have been caught by the She-Demon.”
“That isn’t important now, Hercules. You came, that’s all that matters!”
“Yes, it is important,” Hercules said with a glance at the still silent Iolaus. “When you came to ask for my help I - I was in a bad place, I’d just suffered a personal loss. But that was no excuse for not helping you. I should have come with you.” He glanced at Iolaus whose expression was impassive. “That’s who I am.”
He vaguely heard Lycus say, “Well, apology accepted, Hercules. Now, you will stay with us, won’t you? This is cause for celebration! Tonight the village will put on a feast that will never be forgotten, and you’ll be the guest of honour!”
“Thanks for the offer, Lycus, but ...”
Tomos grabbed his uncle’s arm. “Iolaus is a hero, too, uncle! He was very brave, going up against the She-Demon on his own, and I know he’d have beaten her, if I hadn’t got in the way!” Iolaus coloured slightly as some of the villagers crowded round him, shaking his hand vigorously.
“Two heroes, then!” Lycus said cheerfully.
“Actually, four heroes!” Iolaus said, extracting himself with difficulty from the rapt attention of a couple of young women. “You did a brave thing, Lycus, taking on the She-Demon alone.” He turned to Tomos with a stern look. “As for you, Tomos - I thought I told you quite clearly to stay outside.” He paused and grinned at the chagrined look on the boy’s face. Reaching out a hand he gripped Tomos’s wrist in the traditional warrior’s handshake. “But you showed a lot of guts coming into the cave when you thought I needed help. I’m proud of you.”
Tomos’ face lit up with delight at the praise and he returned Iolaus’ grip firmly, stuttering something incoherent. Lycus caught Iolaus’ eye and smiled. He had already heard from his sister that Tomos had been blaming himself for Iolaus’ death. Words of praise from the warrior were just what the boy needed to hear.
Lycus turned to Hercules. “So, you and Iolaus will join us for the celebration, then? You’re welcome to stay at my place, I can easily make room.”
“Really, Lycus, we can’t stay. We - we have some unfinished business to take care of,” Hercules said, catching Iolaus’ eye. His friend said nothing. Hercules went on, “And we really need to check the She-Demon’s lair, to make sure there’s no more danger. But you go ahead and celebrate - you deserve it.”
“Well, if you’re sure?”
Herculed nodded encouragingly.
“Well, thank you again, Hercules, and you, Iolaus. Come on Tomos, let’s go and find your mother. We have a feast to arrange!”
Lycus and Tomos led the way back through the meadow and one by one the villagers joined them until the two heroes were alone.
Iolaus looked back into the dark of the cave and shuddered. “You don’t really think there’s still anything in there, do you, Herc? ‘Cause I don’t mind telling you, I’m not that keen on going back in to find out!”
Hercules couldn’t help smiling. He knew full well that Iolaus would be back in the cave like an arrow from a bow if he thought there was still any danger to the villagers. “No, I don’t think there’s any danger, Iolaus. The She-Demon is gone. I just wanted - I thought we needed to talk.”
Iolaus shrugged. “Fine. Let’s talk then.”
Now the time had come, Hercules struggled to find the words. There was so much he wanted to say, so much he had to say and any words would be inadequate. “Iolaus,” he began, “I’m - I’m sorry. The way I treated you, the things I said to you back there - it was unforgivable.”
“Nothing is unforgivable, Hercules,” Iolaus replied seriously. “I just need to know - why did you come here?”
“After we - talked - I was angry. I didn’t want to hear what you had to say, I was so focussed on getting revenge on Hera. But when I calmed down everything you said came back and I started thinking about it. What you said about Deianeira not wanting this - you were right, Iolaus. I knocked you down for telling me what my own wife would want me to do, but you were right and I was wrong. She’d never want me to go against my nature and seek revenge. She always understood why I had to keep helping people. Even after we were married, she understood.”
Iolaus nodded. “She was an amazing person, Hercules.”
“Yes, she was. And so are you, Iolaus. If it hadn’t been for you, I’d still be on the wrong path. You saved me, my friend.”
Iolaus shook his head. “No, I didn’t. I just helped you to see what you knew all along. You saved yourself.”
Hercules looked at his friend seriously. “You’re right in a way, but I need you to understand something. If you hadn’t come after me, if you hadn’t had the courage to face me and say what needed to be said, I don’t think I’d have made it. And I’m more grateful to you than you can ever know.”
Iolaus looked away so that Hercules couldn’t see the tears that had sprung into his eyes. “It’s good to have you back, Hercules.”
“Iolaus, the things I said ...”
“Are forgotten,” Iolaus interrupted. “I know you didn’t mean it. You were in pain and you were angry. There’s nothing that clouds your judgement like anger. I should know, right?”
Hercules shook his head. “You have a hot temper, Iolaus, but what I was feeling - it was different. I was out of control. I’ve never felt like that before, and it scared me. What if it happens again?”
“It won’t. Anyway, even if it does, that’s what I’m here for, right? I’ll always be here for you Herc.”
Hercules was silent
“Iolaus, I’ve always relied on you, always taken it for granted that you’d be there when I needed you. But it can’t be that way any more. Not after what’s happened.”
“What do you mean?” Iolaus asked uneasily.
“I’m going away, Iolaus. Far away from everyone I care about. It’s the only way.”
“That’s rubbish, Herc. What are you saying - you’re going to let Hera rule your life?”
“Pay attention for a moment, would you? The people in my life get killed. That’s the price they pay for my friendship and my love. If you stick around me, sooner or later you’re going to get killed too.”
Iolaus was silent for a moment. Then he said quietly, “That’s a risk I’m prepared to take.”
“Yeah, well, I’m not,” Hercules replied firmly. “I’ve just lost my family. I’m not prepared to lose my best friend as well.”
“Hercules, do you think I haven’t thought about this? Do you think I haven’t considered the risks involved in being your friend? Hera caused the deaths of my family too - but I’m not going to let her dictate what I do with my life. You need me, Hercules. You know you do. Who else is going to keep you sane and make you laugh when you’re taking yourself too seriously?”
Hercules had to smile. It was true - Iolaus was the only one who treated him like a normal person, and he needed that. He ran his hands through his hair. “Iolaus - I don’t know. Too much has happened too quickly. I need to think about this, about what I should be doing with my life.” He paused. “I need some time alone, Iolaus, to think things through and really come to terms with the loss of my family.”
Iolaus studied his friend closely. Maybe he was right - he needed some space to think, to put everything in perspective. He remembered how desperately he himself had needed to get away after the death of his son and how the experience had led to healing and acceptance. Hopefully this would happen to Hercules too.
“I think you’re right, Hercules. Take some time, think things through - but when you’re ready, come home, okay?”
Hercules nodded. “I will, Iolaus. Go home and tell mother - tell her I’m sorry, but that I’ll be all right now; and I’ll be back when I’m ready.” He gripped Iolaus’ hand in a warrior’s handshake.
“Be safe, Hercules,” Iolaus said simply.
“You too. I - I’ll see you.”
He turned and walked quickly back down the track through the meadow. Iolaus watched him climb the hill out of the valley and disappear into the distance. His heart was filled with a mixture of sadness for his friend and a feeling of emptiness at the thought that he might not return.
Yet the demigod had promised that he’d be home, and Hercules didn’t break his promises. And if he did decide to stay away, well, Iolaus knew that he wasn’t going to accept that as a decision. He remembered the moment in the East when he’d realised that Hercules was, quite simply, his life, and recalled Yu-Lin’s final words to him as he’d left to travel home. “You say Hercules is your life, part of your soul. I say that your soul is love and that the two of you share a life, a destiny.” He still believed that those words were true. The two of them did share a destiny. Wherever Hercules went, whatever happened, Iolaus knew his place was by his friend’s side, whatever the consequences.
With a lighter heart, Iolaus set off down the track towards Thebes and home.
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