“Thief! Thief! The royal treasury’s been robbed!” came the hue and cry. “The King’s constables need help. All able bodied men report to the chief constable. Hurry! Before he gets away!”
“Who would do such a thing?” cried one man. “Is he mad?”
“How could a thief get into the treasury in the first place?” asked another.
“What does it matter?” answered a third. “If we don’t find him, the king will pick one of us to die in his place!”
“Then what are we waiting for?” the first voice said. “Gather everyone together! We’ll catch him! There’s only one way he could have got out of town! Let’s go!”
There was a general shout of agreement as men throughout the market place of Scyros formed groups and spread out to hunt down the thief. It wasn’t that they were particularly conscientious citizens, or that they cared about the king losing a few baubles. But Menelaus’ law that no crime in Scyros go unpunished could mean death for an innocent man, and that they would rally to prevent.
Sylvanus watched the other men of Scyros leave while he finished his ale. In a few minutes the square was deserted and no one was watching as he threw a coin on the table and left, heading in the opposite direction.
So, Autolycus had got away with it, had he? And now he wanted to rob and run? Oh ho ho no. Not if Sylvanus had anything to say about it. He had supplied Autolycus with the information needed to get into the vault and out of Scyros by a little known smugglers’ trail, and as far as he could see, the King of Thieves owed him a lot more that the few paltry coins he’d been given. Sylvanus figured that he was entitled to at least half of the take, having risked his own skin to aid in the theft. Autolycus was apt to ignore such courtesies, which meant that he would need a little ‘reminder’ from those who made his fame possible.
Sylvanus wrapped his ragged cloak around him and strode purposefully down the street. He knew exactly where Autolycus would be, and what needed to be done. It was time to round up a few of his friends and arrange a quiet meeting.
Autolycus felt very pleased with himself. The information he had purchased from that palace lackey Sylvanus had proven to be accurate and Autolycus had picked up some beautiful pieces of choice merchandise. To add interest to the game he had tipped off the sleeping guard that the treasury door was hanging wide open. In the ensuing chaos Autolycus had slipped into a crowd and disappeared, his loot stashed in a wooden box. He slipped out of town using the smuggler’s route Sylvanus had described to him and headed out to fence his goods in another town. He’d live very comfortably off the proceeds from this little venture until the money ran out.
Yes, Autolycus was _very_ pleased with himself! And when life got boring, he’d turn around and see what else was available in the treasure room of Scyros that may have been missed the first time.
But about a mile out of town, before the smuggler’s road met with the main highway, Sylvanus and his cronies stood between him and freedom.
“Leaving so soon, Autolycus?” Sylvanus asked sarcastically. “Without saying good-bye? Not very nice, is it boys?” he threw back to his four friends.
“Not nice at all!” Not polite!” “Nope, real unfriendly.” “Should oughta be a law,” came the replies. All five thugs began to advance on the lone thief.
“Sylvanus!” Autolycus said expansively, his mind racing as he searched the surrounding territory for escape routes out of this mess. What did this little weasel want now? He had been well paid for his information, and as far as Autolycus was concerned their business was finished. But minor confederates were apt to forget little courtesies when there was booty to be had. “What a lovely send-off from you and your - er - friends. Not that I don’t deserve the accolades and not that I wouldn’t love to stay and sign autographs for you all to impress your neighbours with, but extending my visit to Scyros right now was not part of my plans. I really must be trotting along!”
Sylvanus dropped his feigned cheerfulness and frowned as he and his followers advanced on Autolycus.
“Half that treasure’s mine, Autolycus,” he growled. “Or did you forget our deal?”
“What deal?” Autolycus said scornfully, tightening his grip on the strong box he carried. He’d go back and give himself up to Menelaus himself before he’d share one brass ring of his loot with the likes of Sylvanus. “I paid you plenty for your information. Deal’s done. I take all the risks getting this stuff and the profits, if any, belong to me.”
In answer, Sylvanus pulled out a sword and his friends closed ranks beside him.
“Not quite the way we see things, is it lads?” he snarled. His friends rumbled agreement.
Autolycus was trapped. There was no way he could continue down the road without going through that living barrier, and he could not go back without running into Menelaus’ soldiers, and neither prospect seemed attractive. There had to be another option! He looked long at one of the bigger men who looked strong enough to pull his plow all by himself. About smart enough to do so, too, in Autolycus’ not-so-humble opinion.
“However, I’m not above a little renegotiation,” he temporized. “After all, nothing is written in stone. Catch this, Buddy!”
Quick as a cat, Autolycus tossed the strong box to the plow-puller, who caught it in an awkward grip. Thrown off balance he had no chance of avoiding the punch Autolycus threw at his jaw and fell back, just as the thief grabbed the box and pushed past at a flat run.
“Don’t let ‘im get away!” Sylvanus cried angrily as he and his men gave chase. For this affront Autolycus was going to pay a lot more than half of the loot. He was going to pay with his life!
Iolaus tramped along the forest path to Scyros lost in thought. There were times when he wondered if Herc was right and the gods had too much time on their hands and so needed to mess about with mortal lives to break the boredom. That was the only good explanation for the events of the last few weeks.
First, there had been the whole incident with Xena. That had sorely tested his ego, his pride, his self confidence and his friendship with Hercules. It had taken a lot of soul searching on his part to acknowledge that he truly had forgiven Xena, still liked himself and that he still had a deep friendship with Hercules. The hunter never wanted to go through another episode like that again in a hurry.
Next, when he and Hercules had finally returned home, after weeks of travel to allow themselves time to talk, Alcmene had greeted them with more bad news. Jason’s soldiers were looking for Iolaus to charge him with treason! As if that were not enough, they were growing increasingly suspicious of Hercules, charging that he had consorted with Xena against the crown of Corinth. It had been some days since they had been to the farm looking for the partners, but it was only a matter of time before they returned and the last time they had been heavily armed. Alcmene was desperately afraid that the soldiers were operating under ‘dead or alive’ orders.
Hercules could not believe that Jason would ever question their loyalty. The king was their oldest and dearest friend, had stood by them on countless excursions, not to mention the quest for the Golden Fleece, and knew their worth better than any man living. The demigod vowed to get to the bottom of this, confronting Jason directly if necessary. Meanwhile it would be prudent for Iolaus to leave on an extended vacation, somewhere beyond Jason’s jurisdiction.
“Head for Scyros,” Hercules had suggested. “I know you’ve never been there but it’s the perfect place for you to hide for a while. Jason and Menelaus don’t like each other so they aren’t likely to cooperate to find you.”
“I could get to Sparta in about the same time,” Iolaus argued. “But Scyros will work, I guess. Join me there as soon as you’ve seen Jason.” He sighed as he packed and shook his head. “This is so not like him. D’you think he’ll listen to you?”
“He’s our oldest friend. I know he’ll listen!,” Hercules replied confidently. “He hasn’t forgotten our years together. I’m sure it’s all a misunderstanding that’ll be cleared up in a few days. ”
“So why don’t I go with you and back up your case?” Iolaus had reasoned. “I look guilty as sin slinking off like this.”
“Because there’s a price on your head,” Hercules told him. “A hundred gold pieces, Mother said. Enough for even some of our friends to be tempted to take a pot shot at you. It sounds like the soldiers are getting more than a little trigger happy and I don’t want to find out the hard way that I can’t catch all the arrows aimed at your back.”
“Hmph,” Iolaus grumped as he shouldered his pack. “A hundred gold pieces, huh? I think I’m insulted. I’m worth at least two hundred.”
“Yeah, well, better insulted and alive than worth more and dead,” Hercules philosophised with a shrug.
When Iolaus had completed his packing and kissed Alcmene goodbye, Hercules had walked with him to the end of the path to the house, then pulled him into a tight embrace.
“Go quickly and avoid the towns,” he said as he released his partner. “Keep moving until I can join you in Scyros. Be safe, my friend!”
“Be safe yourself, Hercules!” Iolaus had called back, a lump in his throat. He had turned his back on his friend and taken off at a steady trot.
That had been three weeks ago and all Iolaus had done since besides travel, was worry. He wondered if Hercules had succeeded in convincing Jason of their innocence yet, or if the price on his own head had been lifted. If not, he was going to have a terrible time being Herc’s partner.
Iolaus stopped in a clearing in the woods. Through the trees up ahead he could see a city and he hoped it was Scyros because he hadn’t eaten since the day before and he was hungry. A tavern or an inn would be a welcome sight right about now. Even more welcome would be the sight of his best friend with good news.
“Maybe Herc’s already there,” Iolaus thought with a smile. “We can have breakfast together and he can bring me up to date on all the news that’s fit to gossip about. And if he’s already eaten, well, I’ll have to eat his share and just listen while he talks.”
It was the best plan he’d come up with for a long time, even if he did say so himself. With a much lighter heart, he stepped forward and proceeded toward the city.
“Don’t let ‘im get away!” an angry voice commanded, somewhere up ahead.
Iolaus stopped short and searched with his eyes for the source of the voice. “Get ‘im!” yelled another man. Ah, there they were! Four -- no -- five, petty thugs going after that guy wiith the strong box. Didn’t look good for the poor sap, especially when he was surrounded. One thug grabbed the box and yanked it out of the man’s hands, then he and another began to grapple with the box, trying to open the lid. The lone traveller was being held immobile by two other thugs and being punched and slapped by the last of them. He struggled futilely.
“Not the face! Not the face!” the traveller pleaded.
His assailant hit him there anyway, as well as in the gut and sides, clearly enjoying himself with every blow.
Iolaus had seen enough. He sprinted to close the gap between himself and the violent tableau, then used his momentum to launch himself at the two men fighting to open the box.
“Look out!” one thug called out a warning.
“Too late,” Iolaus thought as he drove his feet firmly into the face of one man, then landed on one foot and pirouetted and kicked the box out of the hands of the other man. Before he could recover his balance, Iolaus head-butted him, knocking him to the ground. When both men had stopped moving, at least temporarily, he turned to the remaining thugs.
“You know, you guys really don’t want to do this,” he said as reasonably as he could. He looked the leader of the group in the eyes. “So why don’t you just let him go, huh?”
“Sounds like a good idea to me,” Autolycus agreed. The effect was spoiled however when one of his captives jerked his arm painfully up behind his back and his voice broke on the last word.
“Because he’s still breathing,” Sylvanus snarled.
One man who had just landed a few lucky punches against those two losers was not what Sylvanus would call intimidating. The petty thug failed to notice that the newcomer had not even broken a sweat over his exertions, he held his sword as if it were an extension of his arm and he had taken the easy, relaxed-yet-ready, stance of a trained warrior.
For his part, Iolaus could not believe this jerk. It was obvious to him at least that even en masse these clowns were no match for a trained fighter, yet their leader persisted in thinking that he held the upper hand. Iolaus hated people like that because he invariably tended to lose his temper with them, like he did now.
“Yeah, and he’d like to keep it that way, don’t you think?” he said, not even trying to hide his contempt for Sylvanus.
“Wise guy!” Sylvanus growled. “Don’t just stand there!” he said to the two men who had just regained their feet. “Get rid of him!”
The fight wasn’t long, nor was it very bloody, but it was decisive. Iolaus, with the surprisingly effective help of the traveller, was the winner hands down. He decided that one experimental move he had made was worthy of further study and development: He had tossed his sword sheath straight at an advancing opponent. It had punched point first off that man’s belly, hard enough to knock him down. The sheath had then bounced with enough force to arch back to Iolaus’ hand, whereupon he had used it to slash across the face of another opponent.
“Whadaya know?” he said to himself. “It worked. Have to remember that one.”
Sylvanus dragged himself to his feet. His men were being beaten, all four of them, by this scrawny little joker and that two dinar thief, and he could have sworn that they were all better fighters than anyone. How had the tables been turned so completely? No matter! He was not going to let them get away with this! He was gonna take that blond haired shrimp and -
Thump! Iolaus’ sword sheath put an end to Sylvanus’ internal tirade. He slumped to the ground, silent inside and out.
Autolycus, taking advantage of Iolaus’ timely arrival, had managed to defeat the two men holding him. Not really much of a trick, he snorted since they were both cretins and relied on size rather than any great skill in a fight. But that little guy, now, there was someone who bore watching. Sylvanus and his loser cohorts were one thing, but trained warriors were quite another.
Iolaus warily eyed the groaning, moaning thugs as he retrieved his sword after the fight. When they started to stagger to their feet, Iolaus took his stance again, ready to take them on, but all they wanted was to be gone. They stumbled off into the forest.
“Let’s go!” said one thug, nursing a painfully bruised stomach. No treasure, he was sure, was worth taking another beating like the one he had just suffered and he was ready to call it a day. Let Autolycus have it, he thought as he helped one of his friends to his feet.
But Sylvanus was not so easily put off. His face was bruised and bloody, his men were running and he had been cheated of his prize, yet he had one plan left to salvage his pride.
“We need more men!” he shouted angrily. “You haven’t heard the last of me! I’ll be back! Make no mistake about that!” He limped hurriedly after his retreating gang.
Iolaus relaxed as the thugs disappeared into the trees. He resheathed his sword and turned to meet the lone traveller who had pushed him to such extremes. The tall, dark man looked like he might be a merchant or a shop keeper, yet he had fought almost as well as someone trained at the academy. Not that Iolaus had been able to see much of the other man’s fight, but he had taken out two of those guys by himself, without too much effort either. Not bad, for a civilian.
Autolycus moved surreptitiously between Iolaus and the strong box lying in the dirt. He was grateful for the assistance, but he had no illusions about anyone’s altruism. The loot was his, and no other’s and he would not entertain any other claim. But if this little demon decided to help himself to a cut, Autolycus was enough of a realist to know that he would not be able to stop him. The guy was too good. But first, he would try making nice and see how that worked out.
“Not that I couldn’t have handled them by myself,” he said, “but - thank you.”
Iolaus picked up his carry sack and resettled it on his shoulder.
“It’s a little early in the day for highway robbery, isn’t it?” he asked.
“Not at all,” Autolycus said with a broad smile. “I try to start every day with a healthy dose of excitement. Bandits, lions, lynch mobs, angry fathers - anything to get the old heart started.” He lifted the strong box into his arms and tested the lid. It had come loose during the fight, he noticed, which could be a problem if this guy wanted to resume hostilities. Just in case he was wrong about him, Autolycus extended his hand, shifting the box onto his left arm.
“Autolycus is my name,” he said and grasped Iolaus’ wrist.
“Iolaus,” Iolaus replied as he returned the greeting. He nodded toward the city through the trees. “Is that the kingdom of Scyros?”
“It is indeed,” Autolycus answered. Conversationally he said: “Do you have business there?”
“Nah, just meeting an old friend,” Iolaus said with a shrug.
“This friend,” Autolycus said carefully, “is he in the -“
“Shush!” Iolaus interrupted and stood perfectly still. He had heard voices, angry voices heading their way. This could be trouble, he thought. That gang could have friends nearby and now they had rallied them to help. It was a risk one took when one refused to kill for no reason.
Autolycus, however, had recognized Sylvanus’ unmistakable whine and knew that the little twerp had betrayed him to Menelaus’ soldiers. Time to take what he could and go!
“Sounds like those bandits have returned,” he said. “They’re coming from over there somewhere.” As Iolaus turned to look, Autolycus reached into the box and palmed the most valuable of his acquisitions, a huge, deep red ruby, and tucked it into his belt, then snapped the lid of the box shut.
Iolaus frowned as he watched more and more men materialize through the forest. This did not look good! Especially since many of the newcomers wore uniforms and moved with the discipline of trained soldiers. Definitely not good!
“If it is them,” he said aloud, grasping the hilt of his sword, “they’ve brought some friends along. Looks like we’re surrounded.”
Autolycus smiled at that. He had no intention of discussing his recent activities with Menelaus’ minions. Besides, he thought, Blondie here is more than a match for these incompetents.
“Whadaya mean ‘we?’” he asked as he tossed the heavy strong box to Iolaus, who caught it awkwardly.
With a flick of his wrist, Autolycus dropped a long metal rod attached to a slender rope into his hand. One more flick and hooks sprang out of the rod and snapped into place to form a grapple. He began to twirl it around, faster and faster, gathering speed and force as he did so.
“You got me out of trouble,” he said to Iolaus, “I’m sure you can do the same for yourself.” With that he let the grapple fly into the trees, where it wrapped securely around an outstretched branch. He tested his weight on the rope, then swung away into the bush crying “Yodel-aye-hee-hooooo!” as he flew. In seconds he was gone.
Iolaus stood, still holding the strong box, staring after Autolycus. “What was _that_ about?” he asked, bewildered. He had come to the guy’s rescue and beat off the nasties, then the guy had glad handed him, tossed this box into his arms and disappeared like this morning’s mist. What was -?
“Where’s your partner in crime?”a stern voice demanded, interrupting his thoughts.
Iolaus realized with a jerk that he was surrounded by soldiers. All of them had spears levelled at him, ready to skewer him if he so much as sneezed. Man, was he in the wrong place!
“Partner?” he repeated, still confused. Suddenly, everything clicked into place. Autolycus was a thief! And these soldiers thought -.
“Oh nononononono!” he said hastily and dropped the strong box as if it burned him. “I don’t even know that guy! I was just-“
“Tell it to the judge!” the captain snarled as he grabbed Iolaus’ sword away from him. “You’re under arrest!”
“What for?” Iolaus demanded. Maybe he could brazen this out. After all he was a stranger here and had never been to Syron before and -
“You’re standing on it,” the captain said tersely.
With a sinking feeling in his gut, Iolaus looked down. The much abused strong box latch had taken one too many hits and had finally given way. Heaps of gold coins, ropes of pearls and twinkling precious gems spilled carelessly on the ground.
“Brazening is definitely out,” he thought as he eyed the treasure at his feet. He didn’t have the heart to resist as the captain snapped iron cuffs on his wrists and started to pull him toward Scyros. All he could do was stare at that priceless pile and feel sick.
As they dragged the hapless hunter away in chains, his fate already sealed by lies and the circumstantial evidence of the day, Sylvanus followed the soldiers into the city. He didn’t care that Autolycus had got away, and that there was now no treasure to share. The man who had defeated and humiliated him was about to suffer a just end.
Sylvanus’ didn’t even feel the pain in his battered face as he smiled wickedly.
It had taken longer than Hercules had anticipated to clear things up with Jason. One courtier after another had blocked his access to the king until the demigod’s vaunted patience had snapped. He had finally gained an audience with Jason by the simple expedient of barrelling through anybody stupid enough to stand in his way. Those who recognized the danger of inhibiting the progress of a thoroughly frustrated Hercules were later detailed to assist their less intelligent comrades to the infirmary.
When Jason learned the reason for his normally even tempered friend’s aggressiveness, he had been dumbstruck. It turned out that the king had never stopped trusting either hero, never issued any order for Iolaus’ arrest, and immediately rescinded any offer of a reward for his capture. He apologized profusely to Hercules that such a misunderstanding had ever come about, and vowed to investigate it thoroughly. By the time Hercules had set out to find Iolaus, proclamations had been issued concerning the hunter’s innocence and that there was no profit in trying to bring him to justice.
With Jason’s assurances that all would be well ringing in his ears, Hercules set his feet on the road to Scyros. A journey that would take most men three weeks would cost him just seven days’ worth of travel. When alone, Hercules could set a remarkable pace, one that even Iolaus could not match. Mid morning of the seventh day he walked through the gates of Scyros and headed straight for the most prominent tavern.
The pretty barmaid glanced up as a new customer entered. She looked more closely and noticed that this man was unusually tall, muscular and handsome. Unconsciously she straightened her dress and brushed ineffectively at the stains on the skirt. As the man approached the bar, she flashed him her most welcoming smile.
“What’s your pleasure, sir?” she purred as she gazed into his ice-blue eyes. “We have a very nice rabbit stew today. Shall I bring you a bowl or would you prefer something more, uh, special?” Mentally she licked her lips. My but he was a big one! she mused.
“Uh, no thanks,” Hercules answered uncomfortably. He cleared his suddenly dry throat. “Actually, I’m looking for a friend of mine. Maybe you’ve seen him? About so tall, blond hair, wears an old purple vest? Name’s Iolaus?”
The barmaid shrugged, letting her dress slip a little off her shoulder.
“Sorry,” she said huskily, and batted her eyes. “I don’t know him. You sure I can’t get you - anything?”
“No, uh, no, thanks,” Hercules said and backed up a pace to let her pass as she answered another patron’s call for service.
“Too bad,” she answered as she walked away, her hips swaying seductively. “Let me know if you change your mind, hmmm?”
Hercules cleared his throat again. So Iolaus was not here, nor had he been here. He would just have to find another tavern or inn and look there. Sooner or later, they’d reunite and share the good news of his reprieve. Hercules turned to go.
Leaning against the other end of the bar Sylvanus watched the exchange between the big newcomer and that strumpet of a barmaid. The ales he had downed since he had led those soldiers to arrest that blond runt as a thief had not quite dulled the pain of the beating Iolaus had given him. Drunk, in pain and needing to feed his own ego by making someone else suffer, he belligerently got up into the big man’s face.
“I just met your little friend,” he slurred. “He gave me this!” he added pointing to the ugly bruise that distorted half of his face.
Hercules eyed the man cooly. He hated dealing with drunks, especially those who bore the unmistakable marks of an encounter with an angry Iolaus.
“Well if you called him little, you’re lucky that’s all he gave you,” Hercules told him. There really was no point calling the guy a jerk, and he might know where Iolaus had gone. “Do you know where I can find him now?”
Sylvanus smiled nastily, relishing this part of his tale.
“In prison,” he said bluntly, enjoying the sudden shock on Hercules’ face. “For stealing the king’s prize ruby.” He giggled drunkenly. This was fun! “Punishment is -“ he drew finger swiftly across his throat.
As he expected, his audience had gone from shock to horror almost immediately, and he started to laugh, pleased with his own cleverness. Autolycus had disappeared and was in no position to finger him as an accomplis. Iolaus would never know of Sylvanus’ involvement, therefore, he was in the clear and a few coins ahead of the game. Oblivious to Hercules’ now scowling face, Sylvanus turned back to his ale, still chuckling.
Hercules had long ago learned the futility of revenge and he was normally a peaceable soul, but this oily little drunk got under his skin. There was no doubt in his mind that Iolaus was now in big trouble and needed his partner’s help, but first, a little poetic justice was in order. As Hercules left the bar he hooked his toe around Sylvanus’ barstool, just enough to flick it out from under him. Sylvanus pitched forward at the unexpected loss of his prop and his nose smacked with a loud crunch on the bar. Hercules, however, had by this time left the tavern and so missed the man’s satisfyingly blood-curdling howl of pain.
King Menelaus of Scyros boasted that his was the most inventive court in Greece.
He had always been fascinated by machines and gears, and when he ascended to the throne he had enticed the most inventive minds in Greece to study in his city. No expense was spared to make sure that these men could build and tinker to their hearts’ delight. Men and materials were constantly at their disposal and the investment had paid off handsomely in that new devices were soon to be introduced to the society of Scyros. The peasants would no longer have to haul water by hand because Menelaus’ inventors had contrived a new pump that drew water for them. A few more weeks work and it would be on the market. Carpenters would soon have better ways to drill holes in wood and to fasten wooden structures together thanks to the men in the Invention Chamber. All that was required was a little more fine tuning of the devices and that too would be ready for general use.
But the king was also passionate about maintaining the order of life in his city. Progress was all well and good but there was a great deal to be said about honouring traditions and the way things had been done for hundreds of years. When faced with two ways of doing things, an old traditional way and a new unproven method, Menelaus would almost certainly stick with the tried and true. If someone could come up with a way of performing traditional tasks in a new and efficient manner, that person was automatically hailed as royalty and could live in Scyros in comfort for the rest of his life.
Currently there were a number of new ideas being developed in the royal Invention Chamber. It gave Menelaus no end of pleasure to walk through the room, poking here and asking questions there, commenting on this and exclaiming over that. He would carefully pick up a model and examine it in minute detail, learning all he could without saying a word, then he would ply the inventor with questions until he thought he could understand the new device completely. Only one thing bothered him about any new item.
“Too many moving parts,” he fussed as he handed a geared widget back to its builder. “I keep telling you, think simple!”
The young man bowed to his patron. He had desperately wanted the king to approve his new work. If he could not build something worth keeping in this workshop, his only other option was to return to his father’s weaving shop.
“Keep it sweet and simple, yes my Lord,” he said.
“Yes, well, see that you do,” the king said, mollified. He moved on to a model that sported delicate wings and a seat between them where a man could sit. Hmmm, this had possibilities. Hmm.
“My Lord king,” a guard said, interrupting his thoughts.
“Someone here to see you, my Lord,” the guard said with a bow, now that he had the king’s attention. Menelaus liked these little courtesies and titles and tended to punish those who ignored them by banishing them to guard duty at the pond.
“Who is it?” Menelaus asked although he didn’t really care. He was far too busy to see anyone today, what with the upcoming trial and the farmers clamouring for his attention.
“Says his name is Hercules, my Lord,” replied the guard. In truth he had no doubt that the tall, muscular man waiting in the corridor was the son of Zeus, but it was always best to err on the side of caution with his king. People who interrupted him unnecessarily tended to be assigned endless latrine duty until they learned more discretion.
However on this day, luck was with him and the king’s attention was caught by the famous name. Menelaus concentrated hard as he tried to put a face and a history to that name.
“Hercules. Hercules?” the king mused. “Hmmm. I know that name from somewhere. Familiar, somehow, very familiar.” He thought harder, frowning, until a fragment of memory floated to the surface of his awareness. “Did I dismiss him some time ago? No, that’s not it. Was it he who invented that fire making thing? No, no, he’s still recovering from the accident. Hmmm, don’t tell me! Don’t tell me!”
Hercules had spent the better part of the afternoon just finding out where the king was and he was very tired of being told to wait or come back at a later time. He wanted answers and he was not leaving until he got them. He brushed past the guards and approached Menelaus.
“Your father is someone important, isn’t he?” Menelaus said as Hercules drew up beside him.
“Zeus, king of the gods if that sort of thing impresses you,” Hercules said shortly. Jeese, no wonder Jason didn’t like this guy! He hides in here playing with toys while a man’s life is at stake. But there was no point antagonizing this silly man since it may cost Iolaus a lot more than it would Hercules. “Your majesty, there’s a man being held in your prison. His name is Iolaus and he doesn’t belong there. He’s my friend and -“
“Ah, yes, the thief,” Menelaus said. Now _that_ name he remembered! Caught red handed and still claimed innocence! Some people never learned. “We’re trying him tomorrow. He’ll be executed shortly after that.”
Menelaus also prided himself that laws he had enacted ensured that the wheels of justice turned swiftly in his city. A criminal should neither go free nor wait an indefinite period until his sentence was carried out. It was the only humane way for justice to work.
“But your majesty -“ Hercules fumed as the king turned to poke and prod at another invention on a work table nearby.
“Now look at this,” the king said pointing to the model. “A new geared winch. With it one man raising a stone can do the work of four.”
“That’s great sir but -“
“But I don’t want three men out of four unemployed for the sake of progress. A most intriguing puzzle, don’t you think?”
“I can see where it would be a problem,” Hercules sympathised in a desperate effort to get the king’s mind back on Iolaus’ plight. “Now, about my friend?”
“Hmmm?” Menelaus looked up from the winch, surprised that Hercules had switched conversations on him, and to something so very trivial. “Your friend?”
“Yes!” Hercules said, his anger slowly rising. “You’ve got him in your prison and he doesn’t belong there!”
“Well he plundered my treasury!” the king fumed. He had been told the whole story by his chief constable who was very sure of his facts. “We still haven’t recovered the stone from my sceptre. It was a Dragon’s Eye Ruby given to my great, great grandmother by Melius the Mighty. A great beauty, my great, great Grandmother by all accounts. Melius wanted to impress her, but he had no easy job persuading the dragon to part with its eye. He finally managed it and thereby won the lady’s favour. We cannot have thieves stealing such an artifact without punishment, now can we.?”
Hercules sighed impatiently.
“But Iolaus wouldn’t do anything like that,” he said sincerely. “He’s the most honest person I know.”
“Then why doesn’t he tell us where the ruby is?” Menelaus countered.
“Because he didn’t take it!” Hercules almost shouted. Why couldn’t this fool see the obvious?
Menelaus was losing his own patience over this whole affair. No one had ever had the temerity to question his rule before and it did not sit well with him.
“I’ll be the judge of that!” he snapped.
“Not without a fair trial!” a new voice asserted. “Justice for the people! Fair trials for every crime!”
A young woman had entered the room, her arms burdened with scrolls, stylus, parchments and inkpots. She walked with a confident stride, her head held high, but the effect was ruined as her scrolls repeatedly dropped to the floor and she scrambled to retrieve them, only to lose more along the way.
“Oops! Just a minute!” she fussed as she pulled them hurriedly together.
Menelaus snorted derisively at the woman’s antics.
“Dirce!” he said with a long suffering sigh. “She’s famous for her entrances.”
“Wonderful,” Hercules answered. “I’m sure she’s very entertaining -“
“Yes, well, you’d better say that,” the king told him. “She’s your friend’s lawyer. I’d suggest you make her acquaintance.” With that the king left his Invention Chamber with as much dignity as he felt Dirce’s entrance lacked. Let this Hercules person deal with her and her causes! It might just teach him some much needed humility.
Hercules, meanwhile, felt his hopes, which had lifted slightly with the word ‘lawyer’ sink again as he watched Dirce fumble with yet another scroll. He caught her eye and forced a smile in her direction.
“Hi,” he said lamely.
The lady finally tamed her scrolls enough to advance toward him.
“Let’s go see my client,” she said excitedly. “I can’t wait to get started. This is going to be the trial of the century! It’ll set precedents for the next 20 years!”
“Yeah,” Hercules agreed without much enthusiasm. “Great.”
“Oh, it will be,” she assured him. “I’ve been studying the laws for hours and it is fascinating! Everything we need is here in the scrolls. Come with me to the prison and I’ll explain my strategy on the way. Get that for me, will you?” she asked as another scroll slipped from her grasp.
Hercules bent to comply and followed the still chattering Dirce. He caught up with her and placed a restraining hand on her arm.
“Just how experienced are you as a lawyer?” he asked. “How many clients have you had before this?”
Dirce gaped at the tall man in front of her. She didn’t want him thinking her unfit for the job if she told him the truth, but she didn’t want to lie. Either way she would lose his trust in her to defend his friend. She settled for the truth, but told in the most positive way.
“Iolaus is my first one!” she said with a broad, confident smile.
Hercules felt his hopes take another nose dive. This was all sounding worse by the minute, and unless this girl had a lot more up her voluminous sleeves than she seemed to, Iolaus was in very serious trouble.
“Your first?” he asked, hoping there was more.
“Mmmmm!” she replied with a vigorous nod of her head that sent her pigtails bouncing. She then turned on her heal and skipped along to the prison.
Hercules was left standing in the hallway watching her receding back and scrolls littering her wake. He shook his head slowly.
“Swell,” he sighed and followed her to the prison.
“There’s something you both should know about Scyros,” Dirce began as she started to organize and arrange her scrolls. She was sitting at a desk set up outside Iolaus’ cell. A request to release the man so that they could consult more easily had been met with a derisive laugh from the jailer. “No crime goes unpunished here, that’s the law. It’s supposed to give the people confidence to know that. Unfortunately, when the real culprit can’t be found, innocent people have been executed in their place.”
Iolaus couldn’t believe that he was hearing this.
“Oh, good,” he laughed ruefully. “I get exonerated for one crime I didn’t commit only to be executed for another crime I didn’t commit. What is this, Stomp on Iolaus Week?”
“I’m sorry, but the law is part of our tradition,” Dirce admonished him. “And as much as the king loves things that are new, tradition gets the best of him every time.” She turned back to searching through her scrolls.
“And you’re willing to let your tradition kill an innocent man?” Hercules demanded. He could not deny any king’s right to enact whatever law he deemed necessary to ensure the peace. Normally, he abided by those laws, no matter how strange they sounded because he believed in due process. But he was rapidly losing respect for the laws of Scyros that demanded a human sacrifice on the altar of tradition.
“I only care about protecting my clients,” Dirce said passionately. “Justice for the People! Humanity before Tradition! No beheadings without a Fair Trial!” She had unconsciously risen to her feet, shaking her fist in the air during her brief tirade. Her face reddened as she realized that the two men were staring at her suspiciously. She quickly sat back down and picked up a new scroll to hide her embarrassment. “But frankly, if we don’t find the real culprit, Iolaus’ goose is cooked.”
Iolaus looked pleadingly at his partner. Dirce was a nice enough girl, and certainly very pretty, but she was also new to this lawyer stuff and he didn’t completely trust that her head was in the right space concerning his case. Hercules was his last, best hope.
Hercules leaned against the cell door and spoke in a low tone.
“Do you remember anything else about this other guy?” he asked. “I mean other than ‘taller than me and dressed in green.’ That could be anybody in Greece.”
“I’m thinkin’! I’m thinkin’!” Iolaus whispered fiercely. He frowned as he concentrated. There was something, something vitally important, about that man in the forest. What was it?
“Well?” Hercules prompted.
The relevant memory popped into Iolaus’ mind. Glory be! He’d remembered!
“Autolycus!” he said excitedly. “He said his name was Autolycus!”
“Autolycus?” Dirce repeated. “He’s involved with this? We _are_ in trouble!”
“You know this guy?” Hercules asked.
“Everybody around here knows Autolycus,” Dirce answered with a shrug. “I’m surprised you’ve never heard of him. He’s something of a local legend. The peasants call him the “Prince of Thieves!” She sighed dreamily. It was all so romantic! She had seen the wily thief once as he had skulked in an alley opening onto the market place, and thought him very handsome and mysterious. He had smiled and stroked his dark moustache as their eyes met, then he had blown her a gentle kiss before disappearing into the crowd. The memory often filtered into her dreams. She sighed once more.
Hercules clearing his throat jerked her back to the present and she blushed thinking that he could read her thoughts concerning the thief. She began to shuffle nervously through more scrolls, refusing to look anyone in the eye until her heart stopped pounding.
“The king’s constables swear he’s uncatchable and Autolycus himself has sworn that he’d rather die than be brought to justice. Here’s his description,” she added handing it to Hercules.
“Well, I’ll just have to find out if he’s true to his word because I’m going to catch him,” Hercules said.
“But no one has ever done that!” Dirce said. “He’s just too good.”
“He’s never run across me yet,” Hercules answered as he scanned the sketchy description. It wasn’t much to go on, but it was more than he’d had before. It would have to do.
“Then you’d better hurry,”Dirce said. “The king has decreed that the trial starts tomorrow. Once that’s done, execution happens before sundown.”
“They don’t waste any time around here, do they?” Iolaus said sarcastically. “They worried I’ll spoil or something?”
“Don’t worry Iolaus,” Hercules said reassuringly. “I won’t let you down! How are you at stalling, Dirce? I’m going to need more than one day.”
“I may be able to get you three days,” Dirce said eagerly and began to search her scrolls again. “I saw that provision just this morning! Now, where did it go?”
“But what if you need more than three days to find Autolycus, let alone catch him?” Iolaus asked. “If he’s as good as they say he is -“
“Then I’ll make sure that the king feels guilty about beheading the wrong man,” Dirce promised him.
“That’ll be comforting,” Iolaus said, pressing his head against the bars. If he concentrated hard enough, maybe he could squeeze through the bars and escape. It made about as much sense as anything else had today.
A calloused hand closed over his own and roused him from his self pity.
“Keep your chin up, my friend,” Hercules said. “I’ll find Autolycus in time and prove your innocence. I promise you that!”
Iolaus smiled gratefully in reply. If ever there was a promise sure to be kept, it would come from Hercules.
“Look after him, Dirce,” Hercules told the young woman as he hurried from the dungeon. “I’ll be back within three days!”
“Good luck, Hercules!” Dirce called after him. As he disappeared from sight, she turned back to her client. “Now,” she said, clapping her hands, “let’s see about plea bargaining!”
Iolaus could only groan and hang his head. How would he ever survive three days with this dear child as his only protection?
Definitely not good, he thought.
Autolycus, the self styled King of Thieves, knelt by a swiftly flowing stream to refill his water skin. An uneasy feeling had been growing on him ever since that little blond guy - what was his name? Otis? Ellis? Iolaus! That was it! - Ever since Iolaus had saved his tail from Sylvanus and his goons. Autolycus told himself firmly that such a skilled and dangerous fighter could easily escape from Menelaus hired idiots. There was no reason to feel any guilt over leaving the unsuspecting man holding the bag. He’d be fine.
So why did Autolycus feel guilty?
He _did_ feel guilty, guilty as hell. Iolaus had fought bravely to rescue what he thought was a helpless victim and Autolycus had repaid him by sticking him with the evidence. It wasn’t as if the thief had never served anyone else in the same manner, (he had, and on more than one occasion) but never someone who’d just saved his life.
He stoppered his now full water skin and slung it on his back. It was time to move on, not dwell on the past.
“Get over it, Autolycus!” he ordered himself sternly. “He probably whupped those soldiers’ butts without breaking a sweat. He’s likely got his feet up right now, a tankard of ale in one hand and a wench in the other.”
He just couldn’t quite convince himself that he believed what he was saying.
The forest had become more quiet as he walked. “Too quiet,” he thought. He started to walk faster, but startled when he thought he heard something. “What was that?” He whirled around to catch any sight of anyone following him. Cautiously, he peered through the trees but saw nothing but leaves and the occasional bird. He was all alone.
Years of dodging constables, however, told him that his eyes were being cheated. “I’m being watched,” he concluded calmly. Ooookay, if someone wanted to play hide and seek with him, they’d better be ready to play it his way.
Without warning, Autolycus dashed off deeper into the forest. He avoided any visible track, even those he knew were made by animals instead of men. He ran until he got a stitch in his side, and whoever had been watching him was left far behind. When he looked behind him, he couldn’t see a soul. More careful study showed the trail behind him clear of any human life.
“Ha!” he snorted. “Lost ‘em! Knew I would!” With another short laugh he turned to resume his journey -
- and ran smack into a very big, very solid, very immovable man. His massive arms were folded over his deep chest and his handsome face was marred by a scowl. Autolycus hastily stepped back as much from the unshielded anger in that scowl as from the shock of running into someone who seemed to have appeared out of thin air.
“Autolycus, right?” the man said. It was more an accusation than a question.
Autolycus quickly searched his memory but could find no trace of humourless, PO’d giants in his past.
“Ah!” he said brightly. “You’ve heard of me!”
The giant shook his head and said:
‘Actually, not until yesterday. That was when I heard you took something that doesn’t belong to you.”
Autolycus tried for innocence, couldn’t quite muster it and switched to righteous indignation.
“Rumour and innuendo!” he exclaimed. He suddenly dropped to the ground and rolled, then sprang nimbly to his feet and ran.
‘Feet, do your thing!’ he thought as he pushed all the speed he could muster into his limbs. Faster and faster he ran, weaving an erratic path through the trees. Autolycus was a fast short distance sprinter which was usually enough to escape whatever soldier, mercenary, magistrate or angry father was chasing him. But now he ran full speed until his side ached and his lungs were gasping for air. He did not stop until he was certain that the giant had been lost in the distance. Finally he slowed to a walk and as his pounding heart slowed, he stopped and looked back down his trail. Nothing. He smiled confidently.
“Ha! All right! Lost him for good this time!”
With a careless salute back down the trail to his would-be captor, Autolycus turned to resume his journey -
- and ran smack into that same big scowling, solid, immovable man. The thief gave a little yelp of surprise and hopped back a step.
“Ooops! Sorry! My mistake! Weeeeelll, must be going now! Nice to have met you. Have a great day! See ya!” he whirled and almost succeeded in taking a step before a heavy hand seized him in an iron grip and jerked him up against a tree. Rough rope was bound expertly around his wrists.
“You’re too easy, you know that?” the giant taunted him as the knots were pulled tight. “I thought the King of Thieves would be harder to catch.”
Autolycus had been caught by constables before, big ones too. He had been tied up before with ropes a lot stronger than the ones now on his wrists. He had been held down before by men almost as big as this one. But he had never felt such physical strength in another human being. Yet big as this oaf was, he had moved with inhuman speed and absolute silence. Not only that, he had arrived at the clearing _before_ Autolycus, suggesting a measure of psychic ability. It just wasn’t fair! People sent to catch him were supposed to be big, stupid, awkward morons who couldn’t find their hats on their heads without clear directions. This guy wasn’t playing by the rules!
“Who are you?” Autolycus demanded as the giant quickly looped the ropes on his wrists.
“Hercules,” Hercules said, pulling the last knot snug. With a wicked smile he added: “Heard of me?”
“I am _so_ busted!” Autolycus thought desperately.
“Oh, well,” Autolycus stammered, playing for time to think, “that explains everything! Only the Son of Zeus could have found me.”
_Now_ what was he going to do? Hercules was ten times stronger than he and, by all accounts, no fool. But Autolycus had pulled his own irons out of worse fires before. There was always guile ...
“Actually,” Hercules said conversationally, “you left quite a trail. Next time you’re running from the law don’t stop to shake hands with every villager you meet. Your tip for the day. Let’s go.” He spun Autolycus around and pushed him back down the trail toward Scyros.
Autolycus was carefully and quickly working on the knots in the ropes on his wrists. They were tight and skilfully tied, but simple and relatively easy to defeat for a man of his skill. All he needed was a little more time.
“Ah, but Hercules,” he said as he began on the last knot. “How can I deny them? It gives a much needed thrill to their humdrum lives to say that they touched greatness like mine. Besides, they love me.”
‘Ego much?’ Hercules thought. As far as he was concerned, Autolycus was nothing but a common criminal and a cowardly one at that.
“Force yourself,” he said sarcastically. “And move. We haven’t got all day.”
“Speak for yourself, Big Guy,” Autolycus said as he felt the ropes loosen. “I’ve got all the time in the world.” The ropes fell away and he caught them in his hands. “Because whatever you want to do, it’ll have to be on your own. I’d rather do this!” He dropped to a crouch, then launched himself upward into a flip, landing with his hands in front of him and facing Hercules. With a flourish he slipped out of his bonds and flicked his right wrist to bring his favourite grapple into his hand.
Hercules froze at the sight of what looked like a weapon. He decided to give Autolycus some space until he determined what type of weapon the man was holding. The hooks sprang into position with a sharp click and Autolycus began to twirl the grapple around at a blinding speed.
Hercules cursed himself for a fool. Too late he had realized that the ‘weapon’ was actually a grappling hook and that Autolycus was about to escape once more.
“You’re only making more trouble for yourself,” Hercules warned him. “I won’t stop hunting for you.”
“If I didn’t like trouble,” Autolycus said as he let his hook fly into a tree, “I’d have gone into a different line of work. As for hunting for me ...” he tested his rope, “lotsa luck! _Yodel-aye-hee-hoooooo!_” He swung off into the forest. Seconds later, he had disappeared.
Hercules began to follow on foot. _That_ had not quite worked out the way he’d planned it.
“Maybe this isn’t going to be so easy after all,” he muttered and began to follow in the thief’s wake.
Easy or not, Autolycus had to be in Scyros within the next two days if Iolaus was to walk out of prison a free man. Closing his mind to any possibility of failure, Hercules lengthened his stride.
The hour glass was emptying fast.
Iolaus’ day had started out bad and proceeded rapidly down hill from there.
Dirce had stayed with him well into the night, but it was not as pleasant an experience as it might have been. Any romantic or playful atmosphere had been ruined by the locked door between them, the measly dinner that had been served to him (stale bread, salted meat and half a cup of water) and the lady’s interminable chatter about the finer points of law. She had finally left for the night when other prisoners had started to complain.
After only a few hours of fitful sleep in the damp little cell, Iolaus had been wakened along with the other prisoners for breakfast. At least, the glutinous, smelly mass of goo slapped into a cracked bowl had been called ‘breakfast’ by both the guard and the drunken kitchen drudge who had brought it. Iolaus had stared at his portion, and could have sworn that it stared back. His stomach roiled in protest as he contemplated eating the stuff. He scooped a little on his finger and put it in his mouth, then gagged on the foul taste and slimy texture. Most of the other prisoners reacted similarly, and some of the old timers nodded sagely as they pushed their own portions away.
“Lunch is usually a little better,” claimed one toothless old man who had been in the prison for the longest time. “At least you can keep it down. Ah, well. I needed to lose weight anyway.”
After breakfast, Dirce had returned, breezing into the prison, her arms laden once more with scrolls. Immediately, she had resumed her lecture on legal jurisprudence as it pertained to Scyros. Iolaus groaned inwardly and distracted himself by studying her medallion. It was the same design as the royal seal of Scyros and it contrasted nicely with the creamy smoothness of Dirce’s skin. It lay perfectly centred on her breast bone and at just the right point in her cleavage to -
“_Iolaus!_” Dirce yelled sharply. “Are you listening to me or not?!”
“Of course I am!” Iolaus assured her. “You’ve got my undivided attention! I heard every word you skin - said!”
Dirce’s frown deepened.
“We haven’t got time to fool around,” she scolded. “The trial starts any minute and I’ve got to find the right scroll. I saw it just a minute ago. Let’s see now -“ and she seized another scroll to open.
All in all Iolaus was almost glad when two guards pushed arrogantly through the prison doors and announced:
“The thief is to be escorted to the court!”
“_Alleged_ thief!” Dirce corrected him indignantly.
“Whatever,” he replied, already bored with the proceedings. He unlocked the door to the cell and dragged the hapless man out.
“No conviction without a trial!” Dirce shouted. “No execution without due process!”
The guards ignored her. Fuming, she tapped her fingers against a scroll in frustration. By chance, she happened to glance down at its title. With a triumphant little cry, she pounced on the parchment and yanked it open.
“Here it is!” she exclaimed as the guards snapped cuffs on Iolaus’ wrists. “Provision 99: Review of the Evidence by Outside Audit.” She snapped the scroll shut and clutched it like a weapon against injustice. “That’ll easily take two and a half days, maybe even three. It always takes longer than they think it will. This is great!” Dirce sighed with relief. She would get her delay, just as she’d promised. But one still needed to be realistic. “That still doesn’t give your friend much time to catch Autolycus.
“You don’t know Hercules,” Iolaus told her. “Once he puts his mind to do something, nothing stops him. If anyone can find the real thief, Herc can.”
“I hope you’re right,” Dirce sighed. “Because if the king doesn’t go for this or if something else goes wrong, you’ll be facing execution by night fall. Things happen fast around here.” She paused, then a wry smile spread across her face. “It’ll still vex him, though,” she said thoughtfully.
“Who?” Iolaus asked. This woman’s mind jumped around worse that his did! He wondered if she had ever finished a project in her life, she was so easily distracted.
“The king!” Dirce said. “He’s very impatient, especially when something takes him away from his inventions.” She giggled mischievously. “He’ll probably regret accepting my proposal.”
“What proposal was that?”
“Council for the defence!” she answered brightly. “I’m the one who came up with the idea! It’s the most radical idea that Scyros has seen in over a hundred years!”
“I’m surprised that the king went for it at all,” he said.
“Oh, he likes to think he’s progressive,” Dirce confided. “What a joke! He’s so rooted in tradition it’s a wonder he can buy new sandals when the old ones wear out!” Still laughing at her own joke, Dirce flounced out of the dungeon, scrolls dropping in her wake like feathers from an exotic bird.
“Get that for me, would you?” she called back to Iolaus.
With yet another inward groan, Iolaus bent to pick up the scroll. When he straightened up, a guard shoved him in the back to get him moving in the right direction, and he stumbled along after his lawyer.
‘Hurry, Herc!’ he thought as he retrieved other scrolls from the floor.
It had taken Hercules the rest of the day to pick up Autolycus’ trail again and very soon after that, night had fallen. Even a demigod needed light to follow a trail, so he was forced to stop and wait until morning to resume his search.
The night had seemed endless, with visions of Iolaus’ head on a chopping block creeping into Hercules’ mind. When he wasn’t cursing himself for letting Autolycus get away, he spent his time pacing his camp site, too upset to sleep or eat. The hours crawled by, interrupted only by the sounds of night creatures scurrying past him, happy to give as wide a berth as possible to this foot-pounding human. As soon as the sun had peeped over the horizon Hercules had stomped out his fire and moved on. He was exhausted, starving, worried and PO’d, but he was determined that Autolycus would not get away again.
Hercules figured that Autolycus was no doubt hoping to sell the Dragon’s Eye Ruby in some neighbouring kingdom as soon as he was certain that he was safe from pursuit. Obviously if Iolaus was executed for stealing the ruby, the law would lose interest in the real thief, and Autolycus would be free to do as he pleased. ‘Not if I’ve got anything to say about it,’ Hercules thought as he headed into a tiny village by the river.
He reasoned that the thief’s ego would demand that he make contact with someone to boast about his triumph over both the king’s soldiers and the mighty Hercules. Therefore, Autolycus was bound to show up somewhere soon. Since the peasants seemed to be the ones most impressed by his exploits, he would likely head for a village or town to glad hand whoever he met. Therefore, Hercules would begin his search by questioning everyone he could find in the villages surrounding Scyros. Slow and frustrating work, to be sure, but it was the only lead the demigod had.
In the first village he came to, people looked on him at first with suspicion as a stranger in town. When they heard that he was looking for Autolycus, they immediately changed their tune. Now he was a figure of pity, sometimes outright scorn. “You’ll never catch him!” he was told more than once. By midmorning Hercules had heard that line, or some permutation of it enough to almost believe it himself. But giving up, considering the consequences for his best friend, was not an option.
“Excuse me,” he said to an old woman who was fishing by the river. Hercules’ patience was wearing very thin, but he strained to be polite at least until he found Autolycus. After that he had promised himself a moment of pure rudeness at the thief’s expense. “Have you seen a tall man with dark hair and a green tunic? He may have tried to shake your hand.”
“You mean Autolycus,” the old woman answered with a knowing smile. She pulled on her line, and thought at the same time how she might play this great fool like the fish on her hook.
“None other,” Hercules said with a sigh. At least she was admitting that she knew who he was talking about, unlike some of the locals he had questioned.
“Sorry, not today,” she said with a shake of her head. “Need to find him, do you?” she asked, casting him a sly look.
“That’s the general idea,” Hercules said.
“You and the king’s soldiers both!” she cried and cackled with laughter. “They never had any luck at it. Think you’ll do better?”
Hercules held his temper. Alcmene had spent years teaching her son manners and respect for his elders no matter the circumstances and that early training stood him in excellent stead now, because this old fisherwoman had no idea how close she was to being pushed into the river.
“Is there anywhere else to cross the river?” he asked through gritted teeth.
The old woman shrugged, but her eyes danced with mischief. It was something of a local sport to send the king’s constables on a wild goose chase whenever they came to town looking for Autolycus. Everyone had a good laugh at their expense in the tavern afterward. Maybe she could serve this character in the same manner and have a fine tale to tell her friends at the end of the day.
“That one there’s the only one,” she replied, nodding toward the sturdy bridge at the end of the path by the river. “There’s another foot bridge about 20 miles down river, but it washed away. You never know, though. Maybe Autolycus flew across! He could have, you know. I’ve seen him do it a thousand times!”
It was obvious that he was being had, so Hercules thanked the old woman for her help and moved on up the path. There were plenty more people to ask, and not all of them could be on Autolycus’ side. Could they? He decided to ask some local merchant, someone who may have fallen victim to the thief. That might get him a better answer.
The old woman, however, was disappointed that he had cut off her game so soon. She had been hoping to send him on an extended search to Corinth.
“You’ll never catch him, you know,” she called after him.
Hercules ignored the woman’s taunts and continued up the path. Traffic on the river bank was increasing and he hoped to have better luck by finding the local market place. He was just about to ask directions when a hunched figure in a ragged cloak bumped into him. The beggar scurried off on his way with a mumbled apology for having intruded his loathsome self on such a respectable personage.
Hercules at first took little notice until he realized that the ‘beggar’ seemed uncommonly big and healthy, and his voice a little too familiar for an ordinary street rat. Comprehension hit him and he whirled around to see the retreating back heading straight for the bridge.
“Autolycus!” he shouted angrily. “Stop!”
“Damn!” Autolycus fumed to himself as he hastily shed his cloak and broke into a full run. He had been sure that even the famous demigod would never see through his best disguise, so certain in fact that he had risked both physical contact and the sound of his voice. After all, Menelaus’ soldiers had never had the wit to penetrate the dirty old rags to see the brilliant thief below. Complacent with their incompetence, he had badly underestimated Hercules’ intelligence.
“Last time I try that,” he vowed to himself as he sprinted toward freedom.
The old fisher woman stood in his path. Going around her would cost precious seconds which Autolycus could not afford to lose, so he made a prodigious leap up and forward to flip over her head.
“Pardon me!” he exclaimed as he sailed past. He landed on his feet running and fled full speed across the bridge. Without hesitation he plunged into a stand of trees and was lost to sight.
Hercules had tried to pursue the thief as soon as he had recognized him, but he ran into an unexpected problem. As soon as the populace realized that their roguish hero was about to be captured, they had crowed into the road, blocking Hercules’ path. He could not give chase without knocking people down, and some of them were children. The demigod was effectively slowed if not stopped. With a growl of frustration he began to run through the crowd as fast as he could. By the time he had pushed and woven his way out, Autolycus was long gone and blessed with a healthy lead. Hercules reached the other side of the bridge and looked frantically all around.
“_Auuuuuuutoooooolllllyccuuuuuuuuus!_” he roared as he began to run down river.
He broke into a ground eating, inhumanly fast lope, the kind of stride he used when time was of the essence and lives depended on him. There was no doubt in his mind that he would catch the tall thief. No man could outrun Hercules, in either a test of speed or endurance. Autolycus was as good as caught.
From the shadow of a huge ancient tree a tall figure stepped. He watched as Hercules disappeared over a hill, then turned to run in the opposite direction. There were plenty of places where he could hide, and he would need them soon. It wouldn’t be long before Hercules realized his mistake and doubled back, but by then Autolycus hoped to be long gone and well hidden.
“And I know just the place to go,” he thought as he broke into a steady jog. “I’ve been planning a visit there for years, just never got around to it. And it’s perfect! Big, rambling, lots of little nooks and crannies where no one ever goes. Rumour has it that it’s loaded with goodies for an enterprising fellow such as me to find. Considering the circumstances, I think its high time I paid my respects.”
Jogging and walking in turns, with no stops for lunch, it was the middle of the afternoon before Autolycus saw his destination in the distance. It was an old and stately mansion, dark, huge and imposing, tucked away in a valley some miles from Scyros. Everybody knew vaguely where it was, but few people ever went there. Stories abounded of both a fabulous treasure and a terrible danger, but at the moment all Autolycus could see was the perfect haven. This place was big enough to hide an army! He could stay here for as long as it took for ole Herc to give up and go home. But then, he’d never think to look all the way out -
“_Sweet Mother of Zeus!_” Autolycus swore.
He happened to look back down the road and saw, far in the distance but closing fast, a depressingly familiar running figure.
“Hercules!” he exclaimed. “How did he -? No time for that! Move, feet! Move!” He turned on the speed to reach the outer gate before he was caught.
Once inside, he raced through deserted corridors, weaving a complicated path. He knew that it would not delay Hercules for long, but it would give him time to put together one of his better escape ploys. The wily thief had been outrunning minions of the law for a lot of years and there was no way that he was going to have his reputation ruined by some two-dinar demigod.
Quickly he attached his grappling hook to a window sill overlooking a long disused courtyard. He dropped the rope out of the window, then made sure that it was in place. Satisfied with its position, he crouched down, gathered his strength, then leapt straight up to catch hold of a rafter over head. He flipped himself up out of sight, then ducked down on a beam to watch the show.
Hercules was angry. He was angry with Menelaus for having such ridiculous laws, angry with Autolycus for his cowardice and angriest of all with himself for wasting most of the day running in the wrong direction. He could do nothing about Menelaus without starting an international incident, he would deal with Autolycus when he caught him and he hadn’t stopped calling himself names since he’d realized he was going the wrong way. All in all, he was a very angry man, just waiting for an excuse to fight someone, anyone, preferably the thief who had driven him to such extremes.
He spotted Autolycus entering the old mansion and followed suit. Inside, a thick layer of dust on the floors and cobwebs festooned in every doorway clearly marked where someone had recently run through. Hercules followed the trail in the failing light, hoping to find Autolycus quickly and get out of this place. There was an eerie feeling to it that he did not like.
At last Hercules had come to what seemed like a dead end. Sure enough, the grappling hook was hanging from a window sill and it looked like Autolycus had slipped out through the window to the courtyard below.
“I can’t believe you made it this easy,” he muttered. “So, you want to play games? Fine with me! It’s out the window then!” Without hesitation, Hercules jumped through the window.
“Ho, Ho!” Autolycus laughed as he climbed down from the rafters. He chuckled to himself as he retrieved his hook. “Even the great Hercules is no match for the King of Thieves! Ah, how my legend will grow in the telling of this tale!” He finished rewinding his rope, turned to go -
- and ran hard into a very big, very solid and very angry Hercules.
“Can’t you do any better than that?” Hercules snarled. “I learned that trick when I was a boy.”
‘_How does he do that?_’ Autolycus thought desperately. He had leapt back out of reach and now began to twirl his grapple in a wide circle.
“Sorry Hercules,” he said. “I’ve got a reputation to maintain. Nobody, not you, not anybody, takes me to prison.”
But Hercules was no longer impressed by a swinging hook on a rope.
“I’m afraid I’ll have to ruin that reputation,” he said. Quick as a striking snake he lashed out with his hand and caught the grapple in his fist. With the slightest flick of his wrist the rope was jerked out of Autolycus’ hands.
Autolycus thought fast. He had no hope of escaping without his trusty grapple; Hercules was just too fast and strong. However ...
‘The world makes way for crazies!’ he thought. Shrieking a battle cry he charged, head first, straight at his foe. He rammed the demigod right in the gut, then slid inelegantly to the ground.
‘Mistake!’ he groaned. His head was pounding! ‘Man, that guy is solid!’
Hercules had withstood more than enough from this jerk, he reckoned. He’d had little sleep, gone hungry, suffered humiliation and chased Autolycus for almost a full day and he was very tired of being messed with. He reached down and grabbed the thief by his clothes and hoisted him over head, intending to make a new door in a nearby wall using the man as a battering ram. It was normally something that Hercules would not dream of doing, but this creep had driven him to the end of his patience once too often. Therefore, there would be no mercy.
“Gods above! Put me down!” Autolycus screamed as he struggled in the big man’s grip. He was scared, now that he was face to face with Hercules full might. Suddenly all those bards’ tales of the demigod’s strength came back to him with frightening clarity. He was about to die!
But his shout was enough to cut through Hercules’ blind rage. He took a deep breath and reined in his strength at the last moment, and tossed Autolycus against a wall just hard enough to slow him down.
“Ooof!” the thief puffed, the wind knocked out of him. He slid to the floor and lay there for a moment gathering his addled wits.
“So much for the direct approach,” he groaned.
Hercules was advancing on him, his eyes still flashing rage. All Autolycus could think to do was to throw himself at the demigod feet first. To both their surprise, the tactic worked and Hercules went down. Autolycus quickly retrieved his hook and tossed it over a beam. Just when he thought he was about to escape, Hercules picked up a rusted old axe and hurtled it into the beam beside where the rope had wrapped itself. The old wooden beam split and the grapple dropped, tossing Autolycus unceremoniously onto his fanny. He sat panting just long enough for a heavy hand to grab his shoulder and haul him to his feet.
Hercules was surprised when Autolycus landed a solid right on his jaw, but not enough to let go. However, if the guy wanted to fight, well, Herc was there to oblige him, and actually relished the chance to take his frustration out on someone. He tightened his grip on the man’s tunic and cocked his fist, ready to start swinging. Autolycus had taken hold of Hercules’ vest and was preparing to rain blows down in his own defence.
The floor under their feet cracked and shifted ominously. Autolycus watched as a long crack appeared at one wall and spread across the room to snake under his and Hercules’ feet. The two men eyed each other, their quarrel forgotten.
“Uh, oh!” they chorused.
With one more thunderous crack, the floor gave way and they both plunged through into the blackness below.
Iolaus sat nervously beside Dirce in the crowded little court room. His wrists and ankles were bound in iron. Two guards stood directly behind him and two more stood on either side of the king’s throne. At the doorway two more men stood with spears at the ready.
“You’d almost think they don’t trust me,” he whispered to Dirce.
“Ssshhh!” she admonished him. “The chief constable is giving his evidence. Our chance is coming up.”
“Its about time,” Iolaus groused. “I can’t wait to give my side of the story. How many times do I get to say “I’m not guilty”? ”
“Oh, that’s not the way we do things around here,” Dirce replied. “I just get to give the king enough evidence to support not executing you until the real thief is caught. You don’t talk at all, that’s what I’m here for, so just leave everything to me.”
Iolaus dropped his head on his arms in front of him. ‘Gods, I am so dead!’ he thought.
The chief constable finished his testimony and sat down. The king bowed his thanks and turned to Dirce.
“The evidence is in,” he said formally. “Council has two minutes for closing arguments.” He gestured to Dirce to proceed.
“Your Lordship,” she began respectfully, rising from her seat. “I propose that all evidence here today be subject to Provision 99: The Review of Evidence by Outside Audit.”
Menelaus shook his head. He had anticipated that Dirce would try to delay proceedings, and the Outside Audit would have been the perfect ploy so he had moved to negate it. These trials already took up hours of his valuable time and he would not allow them to be prolonged one minute more than necessary. Besides, his people deserved to see that justice in Scyros was swift and decisive.
“That won’t be possible, Councillor,” he said. “I retired Abagustus yesterday.”
“What!?” Dirce shouted, appalled. How could he do this to her?
“Who’s Abagustus?” Iolaus asked, confused and leery of the undercurrents in the room. If even the unflappable Dirce was upset, he was in big trouble.
“He’s the only outside auditor in Scyros,” Dirce told him as her own hopes sank. “How could you let him retire? Bring him back at once! My client -“
“Dirce, the man is 97 years old,” Menelaus reminded her. “The only thing he’s got energy for any more is to sleep.”
“But your majesty, couldn’t you -“
“He wanted to go and I let him.”
“But sir, it’s not -“
“End of story.”
“If you can’t think of anything better than that ...”
“Just - just wait a minute!” Dirce said and began to frantically search through her scrolls. “I’m sure there’s something here we can - ah ha! - Here it is! Provision 46!”
“That’s only for maritime insurrections,” Menelaus replied with a shake of his head.
“Right, right,” Dirce skimmed through a few more scrolls and looked hopefully at one tied with a red ribbon. There had to be something here that would work in her favour.
“Uuuummm - well - Oh! Yes! Here we go! Amendment 12K to Provision 7!” she cried triumphantly.
Menelaus sighed wearily.
“That one applies only to politicians with records of hereditary insanity,” he said.
“Oh, yes,” Dirce said, deflated. But she refused to give up. She snatched hurriedly at her scrolls, yanking them open at a feverish pace, scanning their contents for something, both legal and traditional that even the king could not deny her.
“Time is running out, Councillor,” Menelaus warned, impatiently tapping his foot. “The court is ready to pass judgement.”
“Wait! Just wait a minute!” Dirce’s hands were starting to shake and her palms felt sweaty as she rejected one scroll after another. This one? No, not that! Not with _that_ clause in it! This one? Nope, too broad. This one?
“Dirce, come on!” Iolaus prompted. He hated to put pressure on her, but the executioner-looking type person in the corner was pulling a black hood out of his tunic.
“Don’t rush me! Don’t rush me!” she said distractedly, discarding another scroll. She grabbed one more and prayed that this would be what she needed. She skimmed a few words. ‘Thank the gods!’ she thought.
“Well Dirce?” the king said. “Last chance. I now sentence -“
“I propose that the court enact the Erebus Test!” Dirce shouted, clutching the scroll in her hand. She resisted the urge to kiss it. “The ancient test of innocence!”
Menelaus looked at the young woman as if she had grown two heads. She couldn’t be serious! He had enacted the system of swift justice in Scyros because he had once seen a poor soul subjected to the Erebus Test.
“That could take days,” he protested out loud. “Besides, it’s barbaric!”
“Barbaric?” Iolaus echoed.
When Menelaus had not rejected the Test immediately, the hunter had allowed himself a measure of hope. But a niggle of doubt invaded his thoughts. If even a looney like Menelaus thought the Test was barbaric, it did not bode well.
Dirce, however, was desperate enough to insist.
“It’s part of our traditional law,” she declared. “And that’s the most important thing, isn’t it? Tradition? Honouring those practices handed down by our forefathers?”
Menelaus beckoned the bailiff to him and they consulted in hushed tones. Iolaus couldn’t decide if he should hope that they agreed or disagreed with his lawyer. He tried to get Dirce’s attention, but she was studiously ignoring him.
“All right, Dirce,” the king said as he finished his consultation. “The court will indulge you, but I personally think, and I want this in the record, that it would be more humane to let us execute the defendant right now.”
“Never!” Dirce shouted. “We’ll prove his innocence!”
“Ummm, yes, well, that remains to be seen,” the king said skeptically. “Court is recessed for two hours to allow the Erebus Test to be set up. We will reconvene at the pond.” He struck his gavel then rose and swept out of the court, followed by his retinue.
“Got ‘im!” Dirce cheered. She knew she’d get what she wanted, as long as she could find the right scroll.
Iolaus tugged at her sleeve.
“Barbaric?” he said. “_Barbaric?_”
Dirce looked innocently into his eyes. She debated with herself how much to tell him, fearing that if he knew too much, he might become too nervous, and he would need all the confidence he could muster. Therefore, she opted to leave him in blissful ignorance for the time being. She shrugged her shoulders, flashed him her most encouraging smile then scurried off to make sure that the chains for the first test would be comfortable.
‘I hurt alllllllllllllll over my body,’ Hercules thought as he slowly regained consciousness. The heavy beam that had landed on his chest wasn’t making him feel any better so he pushed it off him and pulled himself painfully to his feet. He rubbed absently at the back of his neck as he looked up through the hole he and Autolycus had made through the floor above them ... and the floor above that.
And the floor above that.
“Great,” he muttered.
Hercules gazed around the little room in which he’d landed. It was dimly illuminated by a thin shaft of light from high above, but that light would not last long. Very soon darkness would fall and he needed to find a way out before then. It was a sparsely furnished place, with only a narrow wooden bench attached to one wall. Broken pots littered the floor and an ancient pillar stood off to one side. The iron bound door at one end of the room was the only exit.
There was no sign of Autolycus.
Hercules panicked for only a moment until he saw the gaping hole in the floor with a grappling hook attached to its side. He knelt down beside it and cautiously looked down. As he expected, Autolycus looked back up at him.
The thief was clinging to the rope, dragging himself up hand over hand. He seemed to have been at this activity for some time because he was obviously exhausted.
“Autolycus!” Hercules said brightly. “How’s it hangin’?”
“Oh, ha ha,” Autolycus grumbled. “I don’t suppose you’d care to give me a hand?”
“Hmmm,” Hercules mused. “Let me see. You stole a priceless ruby, and left Iolaus to take the rap. I’ve wasted a day chasing you all over the country side. Yeeeeeah, I guess I owe you. NOT! Get yourself out of this one. You’re the escape artist.
“Now don’t be like that, Hercules,” Autolycus cajoled. “You’ve had a more exciting time today than any other day in your life. You have had the privilege of chasing the greatest thief that ever -Whoa!”
The grapple suddenly slipped, threatening to throw Autolycus into the pitch darkness beneath his feet. Instinctively he had grasped the rope even tighter, closing his eyes firmly against the sight of his own death. But the fall never happened. He slowly opened his eyes and looked up to see Hercules leaning over the broken floor, the rope clutched tightly in one hand.
“Maybe you’re losing your touch, huh?” he asked as he hauled the thief up to safety.
Autolycus laughed with relief as he was pulled up to the security of the solid floor. Slowly, he let go of the rope and stretched his aching muscles.
“Much better!” he breathed. “Thank you!” he said to Hercules, and meant it. He had felt real fear for his life as he had hung from that rope.
“You’re welcome,” Hercules said with a smile, and meant what he said as well. He wouldn’t have let Autolycus fall, and he really was glad that the other man had survived unscathed.
In the blink of an eye Hercules seized Autolycus, pushed him to the ground and pulled his arms behind him. This time the knot Hercules tied was tight, complicated and meant to stay tied.
Autolycus strained against the knots on his wrists. ‘Great Zeus, those knots are tight!’ he thought. ‘Think fast, Auto old boy, or you are _so_ busted!’
“I have to tell you Hercules,” he said, his mind racing, “this is going to put a strain on our friendship.”
“What friendship?” Hercules said scornfully. He dug the Dragon’s Eye Ruby out of Autolycus’ belt and stowed it n his own pouch. “You’re a thief and a coward. You stole this and left my best friend to be executed for it! Don’t give me any of this friendship crap.”
“I didn’t plan it that way,” Autolycus protested as Hercules dragged him to his feet. “I thought he could look after himself. If you’d seen how he wiped out -“
“Save it!” Hercules cut him off abruptly. He really didn’t want to hear this clown’s excuses. “All I care about is getting you where you belong. In court!”
He pushed Autolycus down onto the bench, satisfied that he could not free himself right away at least. Hercules turned his back on the thief and went to examine the door. Maybe he could open it without breaking it down and they could leave quietly.
Ever since Hercules had entered the castle, he had felt that it was not as deserted as it seemed. Long years of experience had taught him to trust that tingling sensation at the base of his skull. Right now it was telling him that something otherworldly was present, and that the sooner he and Autolycus got out of this place, the better.
Autolycus eyed the big man narrowly and glanced around his new prison. ‘What have we here?’ he said to himself as his eye fell on an oddly shaped object on the floor. ‘Why I do believe, it is a pot shard. That’ll come in handy since I don’t want to show all my cards this early in the game. Oh, ho! I am back in business!’
Stealthily, he began to edge toward his latest means of escape.
For two hours, Iolaus had paced in his cell, unable to rest or eat. Why convene at a pond? Why hadn’t Dirce told him anything about this Erebus Test? Why did even that looney Menelaus think the test barbaric? That worried Iolaus more than any threat by any man, monster or god had ever done. What was it his Uncle Flatus had once told him? Oh, yeah! When even the predators start running away, there’s something _really_ scary coming!
His feelings of foreboding were not assuaged when the guards came for him either. With neither word nor ceremony two of them laid hands on him and dragged him from his cell, barely allowing him to get his feet under him to walk. When they reached the crowd already gathered at a smelly, dead-looking water way, they immediately began to attach an enormous rock bound with chains to chains wrapped around his ankles, legs and torso, pinning his arms to his sides. Dirce hurried over to instruct her client just as the guards finished.
“That oughta hold you,” one of them said approvingly. “Have a nice swim!” He and his cohorts laughed raucously at the joke as they walked away.
“So how is this supposed to prove my innocence?” Iolaus said as he turned to Dirce. “I can’t even move, let alone swim.”
Dirce plastered a smile to her face, trying to convey a confidence to him that she did not feel. The mildest descriptions of the Erebus Test had not prepared her for what was about to happen and she suspected that her client might not survive to the end. However, she determinedly dragged up all the enthusiasm for the Test that she could muster and beamed it out to Iolaus.
“It’s called ‘dunking,’” she explained cheerfully. “You and the rock are thrown into the water. If you drown, you’re guilty.”
“Well, of course! Why couldn’t I see that one would naturally follow the other?” Iolaus asked sarcastically. “Dirce you can’t be serious!”
“Oh, I know it sounds ridiculous,” she answered, “but the Erebus Test was the only delaying tactic left to me. It was either that or have you chained upside down over a fiery pit until you roasted, which would have taken some time, I know, but in the end -“
“No, no, that - what you did - all makes perfect sense,” he assured her. He definitely should have headed for Sparta when he’d left Alcmene’s. These people were crazy!
“One other thing,” Dirce was saying as she spied the king and his guards approaching. “Don’t swallow the water. It’s filthy.”
“Let’s get this over with,” Menelaus said impatiently. “The agricultural Committee has a pig breeding crisis going on and my inventors have a new ground tilling device that I need to approve.” He signalled to the guards to proceed and they lifted Iolaus, chains, rock and all toward the pond.
Iolaus had already decided that there was more than one very good reason for getting through this test alive and in one piece. For one thing, he didn’t want to die and for another he was innocent of any crime. But he also knew that if he showed up at the River Styx with such a stupid story as this for how he met his end, Hades would never let him live it down. Since the god of the underworld really did have forever to tease him about it, Iolaus would refuse to give him the satisfaction of doing so. It was an irreverent thought at a time like this, but it was enough to make him square his shoulders and prepare himself for the ordeal to come.
“Any other advise?” he called to Dirce.
“Keep your head above water!” she called back.
All he had time to reply was “Thankyou!” before the guards tossed him into the water.
Iolaus hit the pond feet first and sank down through the murky water. It was cold and unclean and he hoped that there were no monsters lurking in the gloom. He had no idea how long he would have to stay underwater so with every ounce of his will he concentrated on staying alive.
Menelaus shook his head as he watched the water close over Iolaus’ head. This was ludicrous! Dirce was killing this poor man in a cruel and inhumane manner when an execution should be swift and relatively painless. How could she be so insensitive?
“You’re only prolonging your client’s agony,” he fumed as Dirce joined him at the pond’s edge.
“At least he’ll have a chance at proving his innocence,” she countered self righteously, “which is more than you gave him. I’m looking out for his rights.”
“Strange way of doing it,” Menelaus told her, and turned on his heal to walk away.
Dirce was left alone, staring out over the water.
“Come on, Iolaus!” she whispered. “Keep alive! Somehow, keep alive!”
Hercules gave the door handle another rattle, harder this time than the last. It stubbornly refused to break or to open. “How is it that in all this crumbling castle this lock is still in one piece?” he grumbled. Frustrated, he abandoned the handle and turned to survey the room once more to find something that he could use to good effect.
Autolycus watched the demigod while easing his foot toward a nice, curved, sharp-looking pot shard. He hoped to both mask the sounds of his activities and keep Hercules distracted from them by keeping up a line of chatter.
“You’re wasting your time, you know,” he said as he flicked the big, solid piece of pottery with his toe. It sailed end over end through the air and landed precisely in his palm just as Hercules turned toward him. “Trust me. I know something about prison doors.” He quickly began to cut the ropes on his wrist.
Hercules was barely listening as he explored his environs.
“I didn’t think you wound up behind them,” he said as he looked more closely at the pillar in the middle of the room. “You know what I mean. You’re supposed to be ‘uncatchable.’” The pillar had probably originally been used to chain the cell’s occupant while a jailer beat him. Well, he had a much more positive use for it now. He wrapped his arms around it and started to pull.
“The only time the jackals of authority catch me is when I let them,” Autolycus said. He could feel the ropes on his wrist begin to weaken as he sawed at them. Any moment now they would fall apart and he’d be free! “Then of course,” he continued, “I immediately escape to let them know that I can’t be stopped.” Ah, there it was! The last strand gave way and he shook the ropes off.
Hercules meanwhile had succeeded in freeing the pillar from its moorings and now held it top first in front of him. With a running start he bashed through the cell door. ‘Noisy, but effective,’ he thought as he put the pillar down.
“Oh ho ho!” Autolycus cheered as the door swung crazily on its mangled hinges. “Very impressive! I’d love to stick around and see what you could do to a treasury vault, but I really must be running along. Way past my bed time, you know.”
He stood up and made to run through the door, but Hercules reached out one long arm and snagged Autolycus’ tunic in his fist. He yanked the luckless thief back.
“You are _really_ starting to annoy me!” he said, an edge creeping into his voice.
With a firm hold onto the man’s clothes, he shoved Autolycus ahead of him into the corridor.
Time passed slowly while waiting at the pond’s edge. Every so often an air bubble would rise lazily to the surface and burst with a sickly ‘_plop_’ that made Dirce wince each time. As the sands in the hour glass spilled down, the bubbles came further and further apart. The young woman began to bite her nails. He had to survive! He had to! Just a little longer, Iolaus! She pleaded in her mind. Just a little longer!
The last grain of sand dropped down and the guards leaped to retrieve the man below the water.
“Get ‘im out of there!” ordered the captain. “Hurry it up! Get those chains off him!”
“Time’s up, my lord,” said a guard to the king, who was deep in conversation with one of his ministers. “We’re dragging the corpse out of the water now.”
“Fine, fine,” Menelaus waved the man away. Finally, this silly test was finished. It was regrettable that a man had to die so cruelly to teach Dirce how archaic that law was, but -“
“He lives!” a guard exclaimed as Iolaus was thrown to the ground. “By all the gods! He lives!”
Iolaus lay on the ground, his chest heaving. He coughed spasmodically as his abused lungs protested these sudden riches of clean, fresh air and hard, dry earth. But he felt good. Great, in fact, because he’d done it! He’d beaten their test of innocence and now they’d have no choice but to -
“You made it!” Dirce squealed delightedly.
“Yeah,” Iolaus gasped. “I managed to slow my heartbeat enough so I could hold my breath until they pulled me out. It’s a trick I learned in the East.” He coughed again and nearly missed Dirce’s next comment.
“Well it worked, whatever you did,” she enthused. “You’ve passed the first test!”
Iolaus stared helplessly at her. He couldn’t have heard right.
“First -_first_ test?” he asked weakly.
“Yes!” Dirce answered brightly. “You get tonight to rest a little, then you start fresh tomorrow with the next one.”
Iolaus couldn’t speak for a moment.
“How many tests are there?” he asked when he finally found his voice.
“Oh - not many at all!” Dirce hedged. “And I know you’ll romp through them!”
“But, how many?”
“Just - two more!”
Iolaus felt his spirits take their final and most fatal plunge. If he had to go through much more of this, he’d never last until the end.
“Well,” he said, “I hope the next tests are a lot easier than this one was.”
Dirce shrugged her shoulders and smiled weakly. Iolaus had shown remarkable strength to have survived the first test. Maybe not knowing exactly what was to come had given him the edge he needed. Well, it had worked the first time, she thought, so why mess with a winning strategy? With a final smile to her client, Dirce hurried off to see to the padding on the Pressing board.
“On your feet, thief,” the guard captain growled as he hauled Iolaus up. “Time for a little rest. Then we’ll see who’s been telling the truth around here!”
Iolaus didn’t even bother to protest as he was led back to his cell to spend another sleepless, hungry, lonely night.
“Hercules!” he prayed as he stumbled between the guards. “I need a miracle here!”
Deep beneath the great mansion, The Guardian stirred from its long slumber. Centuries ago it had entered this place at the behest of a cruel goddess who wished to punish the resident mortals who refused to worship her. For two days the Guardian had pursued the two leggeds through the halls and corridors, feasting on those too slow to escape. When all were dead or gone, it had gathered every treasure, bauble or costly thing it could find and hoarded them in the largest chamber in the mansion. By order of the goddess, no one would ever disturb this wealth or benefit from it again.
Over the years many had been lured by the rumours of the vast wealth waiting to be picked up. Many had come to the ancient ruin to see and to dream over the hoard’s glory, but few had escaped to enjoy even a brass ring of it. Now, there was someone else invading the Guardian’s domain. They had not yet entered the treasure room, but that did not excuse them. By order of the goddess, their doom was sealed. Silently, the Guardian went to carry out their sentence.
Throughout the night Hercules and Autolycus had wandered through the ancient castle, looking for a passage out. Hercules had taken the precaution of tying Autolycus again, this time keeping firm hold of one end of the rope. With a torch to light their way and the thief in front of him as they walked, he hoped to be out of the mansion before morning.
“Well this place certainly has a lot of character,” Autolycus said as they passed through yet another deserted, dusty room. “Interesting design, don’t you think? Early Assyrian but with definite neo-Babylonian influence.”
Hercules only grunted in reply. He had decided that as soon as he found a good strong piece of cloth, he was going to gag Autolycus. Not only did the man’s constant chatter annoy him, but he was certain that the less noise they made, the better. There was something in this place, and he hoped that if they passed through quietly, it would leave them alone.
Autolycus, however, wanted to focus his captor’s attention elsewhere than on himself, so he kept up a running commentary while he planned his next escape. There were still a few tricks up his sleeve, not to mention his left boot, inside his tunic and under his belt that the demigod had yet to notice. All he needed was a little time and an opportunity to use them.
They rounded a corner, passed through an arch, and Autolycus froze where he stood. His eyes widened round as saucers and his mouth went dry. He resisted the urge to pinch himself to make sure he wasn’t in a sleep-deprivation induced illusion. But even when he looked away then looked back, the vision remained unchanged.
“Oh! The fates have been kind!” he breathed in awe. “I’ve died and gone to Olympus!”
There before them in a high vaulted room, was a treasure more vast and more rich than even Autolycus could have dreamed. Gold, jewels and costly fabrics lay in random piles everywhere. Statues of bronze, marble and copper stood crowded together with intricately carved chests. Hardly any space on the stone floor was clear of something that shone, twinkled or gleamed with lustrous glory.
Autolycus skipped into the middle of this hoard like a kid let loose in a sweet shop, not knowing where to look and stuff his pockets next.
“Will you look at all this stuff?” he shouted excitedly. “Wheee heeee! Wait’ll I get my hands on you, you pretty, pretty things!”
“Keep your voice down,” Hercules hissed. The presence he had sensed was very close, maybe even in the room with them, and he could feel its displeasure. The demigod could only hope that if they left the treasure intact, whatever was guarding it would let them depart in peace.
But Autolycus was lost in his own plans.
“We could clean out this whole place in a couple of days!” he said gleefully. Hercules would do most of the work, of course, but then they’d both be able to live like kings themselves. The thief couldn’t wait to start!
“I don’t have a couple of days,” Hercules said tersely. “I’m not interested in this treasure and you-“
“All right then we’ll just take what we need,” Autolycus agreed. “Half for me and, well, some for you, I’m a reasonable fellow, if a little greedy. I’ll start taking my share out now and you can get your’s whenever. Come on! Untie my hands!”
Hercules took a deep breath and tried once more to convince Autolycus to leave this place empty handed and immediately. From the avaricious look on his face, this would be no easy task.
“Think, man, think!” he said urgently. The Presence was very close. “Would you desert a castle and leave all this behind?”
The tone of Hercules’ argument distracted Autolycus from his plans much more than the content.
“What are you driving at?” he said suspiciously. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but you sound nervous.”
“You’re wrong,” Hercules said. “I sound scared. Whatever drove these people away did it in a hurry. And unless I miss my guess, it’s still here!”
Autolycus almost believed the possibility until a chance flicker from Hercules torch bounced off a solid gold statuette. He gazed at the graceful figurine and greed again blinded him.
“Don’t be ridiculous!” he scoffed. “Nothing’s lived in here for centuries! Now untie me so we can start cleaning this place out!”
The Guardian slid across the floor, covered by the rich carpets strewn haphazardly under the treasure. These two leggeds were here to plunder this treasure which the goddess had charged it to guard, and it was time that they were punished.
Autolycus felt something shift and slide under his feet, something big and disturbingly strong. He looked down and saw a huge sinuous shape slide smoothly under an elaborately woven rug. ‘Uh-oh,’ he thought. ‘Where did _that_ come from?’
“Maybe ridiculous wasn’t the right word,” he said nervously.
“Come back this way,” Hercules said, beckoning him to back the way they had entered. “Maybe if we -“
“_Whoa!_” Autolycus cried as the Guardian reared up behind the demigod. It was much too big a snake to go crawling around without a keeper! Not only that it was blocking their escape. The thief felt his mouth go even drier. Hercules had moved carefully to stand beside him, which was reassuring in a way that Autolycus would never admit out loud. Right now he was frightened enough to forego the treasure if this nightmare creature would just let them go. He swallowed hard and tried to think of something to give him hope that they would survive this encounter.
“You don’t suppose it’s a vegetarian, do you?”
As soon as Iolaus had gone through the now familiar ritual of breakfast in the prison, it was time for the second part of the Erebus Test. The guards led him out to an open field where an enormous pile of stones and a wide wooden board waited.
‘So what’s next?’ he thought. ‘Pull those rocks on that board? I can do that! Maybe break all the rocks by noon? I can do that! Uh-oh, here comes Dirce and she’s got that way- too- happy smile on her face again. Not good!’
“_Good_ morning!” Dirce cried her greeting too cheerfully. “I hope you had a good night.”
“Well dinner was rancid and the guy in the next cell snored enough to rattle the iron bars,” Iolaus answered. “But then again, breakfast was inedible. So what’s with the rocks?”
“It’s called ‘Pressing!’” Dirce said as enthusiastically as she could.
“‘Pressing,’” Iolaus repeated. That didn’t make much sense. “‘Pressing?’”
In answer Dirce merely smiled more broadly, patted his manacled hands and walked away without another word.
“Wait! Dirce!” Iolaus called desperately. He tried to follow her, but two guards grabbed him and held him back.
“Hold still, thief,” growled one guard as he unlocked the manacles. “Take off that vest! Just do it!” he ordered when Iolaus hesitated.
When his vest was off, two more guards lifted the wooded board over his head then lowered it onto his shoulders.
“Hang onto it,” the chief guard ordered him. “It falls, you die!”
“What?!” Iolaus demanded, and quickly held onto the board with all his might. As soon as it was balanced and before the hunter could protest further, the guards began to pile stones onto the board.
Stone after stone was moved from the pile on the ground to the board on the man’s back. The guards were careful to maintain a balance so that none of the rocks would fall before all were in place. With each addition Iolaus felt his back bend some more and his knees buckle. At first he tried to make conversation, but after a while he had to reserve all of his energy for holding up his load. He hadn’t understood the guard’s instruction totally, but when the last rocks were being piled on his back Dirce reappeared, smiling her too-cheerful smile.
The last rock was put in place. “That’s good,” the guard said, “let’s go.” He and his comrades stepped back. They could not be accused of assisting the prisoner in any way during this test and so must keep their distance.
Dirce ducked under the board to talk to her client.
“Now,” she said brightly, “all you have to do is stand there for an hour and not let any stones fall. If you lose even one, you’re guilty and they execute you.”
Iolaus’ knees had started to tremble. His arms shook and sweat was already trickling down his face and body. He gulped in air and closed his eyes against the pain in his straining back. An hour! How on earth would he ever last a whole hour?” Out loud he gasped:
“Great! No problem!”
Dirce smiled and stepped back. She folded her arms and smiled approvingly.
“We can beat the system yet!” she said satisfied that her strategy was working. “That’ll show my father that I know what I’m doing!”
Iolaus’ attention was distracted from his aching body. What was this all about? Was he going through hell just so that she could impress someone else?
“Who’s your father?” he demanded.
Dirce looked at him in surprise. How could he not know who she was? He’d been in Scyros for long enough to have heard, surely.
“Why, the king of course!” she said, a little offended that Iolaus might mistake her for some other ‘Dirce.’ Not in this kingdom, certainly. Menelaus had forbidden anyone else to take that name after she had been born.
“The king!” Iolaus squeaked.
He shifted his balance just enough to disturb one of the stones and it began to rock ominously. Dirce saw what was happening, but by the rules of the test, she dared not help Iolaus to steady the load or his life was immediately forfeit.
“Look out!” she screamed in horror.
Iolaus felt the stone shift and moved to counter it, but he over compensated the move. The stone teetered crazily then toppled from the pile. With an agility that startled everyone he balanced on one foot and stuck the other one out to catch the stone before it hit the ground. Taking careful aim, he kicked up and sent the stone back to its place.
Dirce let out a breath she hadn’t been aware she was holding. Iolaus had resumed his stance with a new determination written on his face.
“That was close!” Dirce said breathlessly. “But you saved it! You’re amazing!” She clapped her hands excitedly. Iolaus really was an extraordinary man! When she noticed that the guards were giving her knowing looks, she blushed and became all brisk business.
“Now don’t worry,” she said. “Winning this case has become a personal matter for me.”
Iolaus shifted his hands slightly to get a better grip on the board. He sighed. Yeah, that was Dirce, all right. All she saw was the ‘case.’ She didn’t seem to see him as a person at all. Even if they won and he walked away free, he would still be just so much paper work to her. It was sad, really, that she focussed so much on nebulous ideas instead of the people they effected.
“Yeah,” he agreed out loud, his voice ragged with effort, “it’s kinda personal for me, too!”
He ignored Dirce after that. If he was supposed to hold up these stupid rocks for an hour, he would need some strategy of his own. His strength was melting away like snow in the sun and he needed to regain it.
He began to concentrate.
The Guardian swayed from one man to the other, its long tongue flicking out at them. It was confused that they had not started to run, but neither had they picked up any weapon to fight it. Two legged creatures always did one or the other, and it could not fathom any change in this routine. No matter. In the end they would both die, but in the mean time, the snake eyed them warily.
Hercules watched the giant snake as it loomed above them. It hadn’t attacked yet and he hoped that it would not unless one of them made a sudden move. Most beasts like this were attracted to movement so if they kept completely still, it might leave them alone, maybe even forget their presence. But he could see the light of just enough intelligence in its eyes to dash that hope. They would have to get out and soon.
“Don’t make any sudden moves and keep your noise down,” he told Autolycus. “Very slowly, back up to the wall. I’ll guide you.”
Autolycus nodded and began to move with as much grace as he could while walking backward. Hercules guided him, keeping a watchful eye on the snake. They zig zagged around the piles of treasure, but every time they changed direction, the Guardian would follow them with its baleful stare, daring them to try and escape its vigilance.
Finally, Hercules felt the solid wall behind him. He positioned Autolycus so that he could move quickly when the time came.
“Got any clever ideas?” the thief asked.
“Just one,” Hercules said grimly. “Be ready.”
“Ready? Ready for what?”
With one mighty punch Hercules shoved through the wall behind them. In seconds he had cleared a hole big enough for a man to crawl through. The snake roared with fury as it saw its prey getting away.
“I’d call that a sudden move!” Autolycus protested.
“Got a better plan?” Hercules asked as he pushed Autolycus toward the hole.
“Nope. Good plan. Love it! Couldn’t be better!”
“_Will_ you just go!” Hercules shoved him unceremoniously through. A glance back showed that the snake was almost upon him, its mouth open wide to chomp him with wicked looking fangs. He leaped through the opening himself, just clearing the edges, and landed in a roll beside Autolycus. The snake bumped hard against the wall, unable to follow the two men because of its size. It roared in protest.
“Phew!” Autolycus said, disgusted. “If it doesn’t eat us, it’ll kill us with its breath!”
The room where they had landed was not big, and it appeared to have once been an armoury. Shields and rusty swords littered the floor. Hercules kicked them aside as he rushed to the one door in the room and tried to bash it open with his bare hands. By the look of the rusty hinges and locks, this would take more time than he had.
“Hercules!” Autolycus screamed. “Heeeelllp!”
The snake, thwarted in its efforts to break through the wall, had lashed out with its long, sticky tongue and had captured the thief by one leg. Autolycus’ tied hands and position gave him poor leverage to resist and he was being dragged relentlessly back until Hercules hooked one arm around his waist and began to pull back. For a moment the demigod felt as if he was engaged in some bizarre tug of war, with Autolycus as the rope.
“Hey! I need that leg!” Autolycus yelled at the snake. “Lemme go!” Taking advantage of Hercules’ tight, sturdy hold on him, he hopped up and kicked the snake’s tongue with his free foot. With an angry hiss, the Guardian let go.
But they were not safe yet. Roaring loud enough to shake the ground, the snake began to bash its way through the hole. It was only a matter of time before the rest of the wall would come down. Hercules snatched up a shield and, using it as a barricade, pushed the giant creature back through the crumbling opening. The strength of the thing was tremendous! It took all of the demigod’s power just to keep it at bay.
In truth he knew that he could not maintain this battle because the creature was too strong. It had been created in the furthest reaches of time long ago and nurtured by a malevolent god, probably Hera by the feel of things. With a hatred of all living things to fuel its strength and her divine backing, Hercules needed every scrap of his own strength to keep it at bay. He gritted his teeth, dug in his heals and pushed against the monster as hard as he could.
Autolycus had decided that enough was enough. Hercules was fighting a losing battle with that scaley nightmare, and when he lost the shoving match, there would be no one left to protect Autolycus’ interests. That would never do! He nudged a spring hidden in his belt which tripped a short blade concealed in the leather to snap out. It was not big, but it was sharp and well able to slice through the ropes on the man’s wrists. Quickly he freed himself and scrambled to his feet.
“That’s better!” he said as he regained his feet. He hurried to Hercules’ side. “What now?”
“I’m thinking! I’m thinking!” Hercules said through gritted teeth. He pushed the monster back once more, but he was losing the battle and he knew it.
“Well, while you think,” Autolycus said as he reached inside his tunic, “I’ll get the door.” He pulled out his favourite lock pick and immediately ran to the door.
But try as he might, his arm was not long enough to get the pick to the right angle to enter the lock.
“Why is it,” he complained as he stretched his arm as far as he could, “that everything in this castle is in ruins but the wooden doors? Damn! My arm’s too short! This may take a little time! Keep that thing busy Hercules!”
“No problem,” Hercules grunted, bracing himself against a stone pillar. The mortar in it was old and brittle and began to give way under his weight combined with the pushing of the monster. Whatever Autolycus had in mind had better be fast!
Autolycus swiftly attached an extension to his lock pick and snaked his arm through the door once more. This time he reached the lock and the pick slid in easily. Sending prayers to any god that cared to listen for the lock to be rust free, he carefully twisted his pick until he felt the tumblers begin to move, then gradually fall into place. With a loud snap the lock opened and the door swung outward.
“Oh, _man_ I’m good!” he congratulated himself as he pulled his arm back inside. He kissed his pick loudly before shoving it back inside his tunic. “Hercules! Stop playing with that thing and come on! It’s time to go!”
Hercules concentrated everything he had into one last push with his shield. The snake’s head was repelled just long enough for him to dash to safety after Autolycus. The two men slammed the thick, solid door closed just as the monster crashed through the wall and rammed its head into the door, uttering an earth shaking scream of rage as it did so.
Hercules slid to the floor gasping for breath. He had fought a great many monsters in his time, but never one this persistent before. Usually they were content to give up the fight after they met determined resistance. He had to hand it to Hera, though. She had picked well when she had chosen this creature to guard her treasure. Closing his eyes for a moment’s respite, he listened as the snake thrashed through the armoury room, venting its frustration that its quarry had escaped. Eventually the noise subsided and was replaced by an ominous silence. Hercules exchanged a glance with Autolycus. The thief shrugged his shoulders.
“I think we scared it.”
Dirce was frantic with worry
Once the hourglass had been turned to time the Pressing Test, Iolaus had closed his eyes and stopped talking. No matter how she called to him he wouldn’t respond. With growing alarm she watched as his face became paler and more serene, his breathing more even, then more shallow. Finally he stood like a statue of Atlas holding up the rocks - absolutely still, seeming not to even breath. Dirce wanted to slap him or shake him to make sure he was alive, but feared that such a move would make him drop the rocks.
She could not say when the moment came that she was more concerned with Iolaus than she was with winning the case. But as the time dragged on Dirce looked upon him as a human, a brave, strong willed and worthy human more than a legal precedent. She had always liked to think of herself as interested in justice as an abstract, but now she wanted justice because Iolaus the man deserved it. With all her heart she wanted to brace herself under that load and take some of the burden on herself. But to do so would prove his guilt because he had needed help to complete the test. Agitated, confused and needing someone to listen, she went in search of her father.
Menelaus had retired to his Invention Chamber. He had no wish to watch as a man was tortured and still thought his way of swift sentencing was better. At least the poor man wouldn’t suffer. But Dirce had to learn everything the hard way, had done so all her life. He shook his head in frustration. Children could be so trying to a man’s patience!
Desperate for a distraction to his agitated thoughts, the king picked up the flying model and studied it closely. Now why couldn’t this work? It was simple enough, not too many moving parts. What if he -?
“Father! What are you doing?” Dirce demanded.
“I can’t quite get this to work,” he complained.
“I don’t believe this!” Dirce exclaimed. “The Pressing Test is almost over, and you’re in here playing with this - this - _junk!_ You have to witness the end of each test, according to the rules, or it isn’t ended. We’re all waiting outside and -“
“Oh, Dirce! How long does this game have to go on?” he snapped, frustrated with his daughter’s stubbornness.
“Is that what you think I’m doing? Playing?” she replied angrily. “I had no other way to get justice for Iolaus than to invoke the Erebus Test! Your stupid traditions wouldn’t even let him speak on his own behalf! You think I’m playing a game? Justice is not a game! Justice is life!”
“Yes, yes, I’ve heard all that before,” he said tiredly and turned back to the flying model. Dirce and her speeches! She’d always been flighty, jumping from one interest to the next, always leaving half-finished projects in her wake. She would soon tire of this passion and move to something else, just as she always did. Meanwhile this flying machine needed work before it would be of any benefit. He poked at one of the wing hinges.
“Will you stop that?” Dirce grabbed the model and slammed it down on a table. “You’re always paying more attention to widgets and gears than you do to your kingdom or me or anything else. Why can’t you act like a normal king?”
“Why can’t you act like a normal princess?” Menelaus countered sadly. “I love you, Dirce. But you act like a fuddy-duddy old maid who doesn’t have anything in her life but screwball causes. Feed the stag beetles! Save the harpies! There is so much more for you than that.”
“Well at least I believe in something!” she answered stung by her father’s condemnation. “You’re so buried in things you’re forgotten about everything else!”
“You think I don’t believe in anything!” the king said, offended in his turn. “I believe in the wisdom of our ancestors! I believe that we can stay stronger if we honour their legacy! I cling to tradition because I am trying to preserve our way of life in Scyros. That is the greatest responsibility that I have to give to our people! What more do you want of me!”
Dirce thought for a moment. What _did_ she want? So far he’d given her almost every concession she’d asked for and she’d certainly caught his attention like never before. So what else did she really want from him?
The answer came to her in a flash of clarity.
“I want you to care about people as much as you care about your inventions,” she said. “None of them work anyway.”
Menelaus stared at her in disbelief. Care about people? He _cared_ about people! Didn’t he make sure that his Invention Chamber produced only machines that would benefit his people? Hadn’t he made sure that laws were enacted to ensure that his people were safe to pursue their lives in peace? Most important, didn’t he uphold time-honoured traditions so that future generations would know their worth and be guided by them? Of course he cared about people!
It took a few moments before he could speak, he was so angry.
“Come on,” he huffed at last, “let’s get this Erebus Test over with,” and he stomped out of the room.
Dirce wanted to throw a tantrum like she hadn’t done since she was a little girl. How could he be so dense? Didn’t he see that his traditions were strangling his people, especially when it came to justice? She snatched up the unoffending flying machine model and pitched it at the wall, intending to feel very satisfied when it smashed into a hundred pieces.
Instead she stood aghast as the machine’s wings caught the air and began to flap, just like a bird’s. Dirce stared in wonder as it flew around the room, finally running out of steam and landing safely back on the table.
“Would you look at that!” she said out loud smiling. Something from this stupid Invention Chamber actually worked!
She knew that Menelaus was not a bad man, just a little befuddled by all the demands of being a king. He hid behind tradition because it was easy, but maybe he could be taught to blend the traditional with the innovative. It was worth a try, she thought as she followed him outside.
After all, the model had flown.
Two burly guards were carrying the stone board away when Dirce arrived. Iolaus staggered after them, his back bent and stiff from an hour of holding up all those rocks. Dirce ran up to him and threw her arms around him, supporting his weight for one blessed second of relief.
“You made it!” she cried happily as she hugged him.
“Yeah,” he said stiffly. He didn’t think his back would ever straighten up again and his entire body hurt. All he wanted to do was fall over and lie on the ground moaning in agony for a day or two. Just leave me alone and don’t kick me on the way by and I’ll be fine, he thought.
“How did you do it?” Dirce asked slipping her arm through his to help him walk. “Was it another one of those tricks you learned in the east?”
“Yeah, it was,” he told her, easing his back ever so slightly more straight. Ouch! “I just kinda separated my mind from my body. Became one with the rocks. All my Eastern masters could do it in their sleep. It’s very Zen.”
“Listen to the poor devil!” Menelaus said with pity and disgust. “He’s ranting! This test is too cruel for any man to endure and it’s driven him over the edge of madness. It would be kinder to put him out of his misery right now.”
Dirce jumped to his defence. She stepped between Iolaus and the king, protecting the weary man with her own body.
“You’ll do no such thing!” she said belligerently. “The Test isn’t over yet and he’s going to win!” She looked proudly at Iolaus who had finally managed to straighten almost all the way. In all her life as a princess and champion of many causes she had never met anyone like him. He was strong, brave, resourceful and patient, not to mention handsome and blessed with a sense of humour. This was a man she would be very happy to get to know better, after he had completed the next test. She smiled confidently at him.
“Iolaus can take anything you can throw at him!” she declared admiringly.
“Yeah, anything!” Iolaus agreed. He paused for a moment and considered what he’d already been through. “What are you planning on throwing at me?” he asked suspiciously.
“A wild boar,” Menelaus said, crossing his arms.
“Hunt a wild boar?” Iolaus said. “No sweat! Bring it on!”
“No, no, not hunt it,” Dirce said. “You’ll be in this pit with the boar for three hours. All you have to do is stay alive and not lose any blood.”
“Three hours?” Iolaus said, his heart sinking. “Are you serious?” Dirce nodded her head vigorously. He shrugged resignedly. “I can do that.”
“You’ll get time to rest first,” Dirce promised. “You look like you could use some food. They have to get the boar in the pit anyway. Come on!” she said, taking his hand. She led him to the royal kitchen to get the first decent meal he’d had in days.
The next hour passed too quickly for Iolaus. Dirce was solicitous and charming for once, encouraging him to talk and plying him with the choicest delicacies that the royal cook could provide. Hungry as he was, however, Iolaus ate lightly. He’d need all his agility to stay alive with a wild boar and a full stomach would slow him down. All too soon the hour was over and Dirce led him back out to the boar pit where the king awaited them.
“You’re sure you won’t change your mind about ending this insanity?” Menelaus asked.
“If this is the only way I can prove my innocence, then I’m ready to continue,” Iolaus answered him.
Menelaus gestured toward the covered pit. Two soldiers strained to lift the trap door revealing the angry boar, pacing and growling below.
Iolaus looked down and saw his new adversary for the first time.
“That boar is bigger than a horse!” he exclaimed. “Where did you find that beast any way?”
“It doesn’t matter, Iolaus,” Dirce said. “You’re going to get through this just like you did the other tests. I know you are!”
Iolaus looked at Dirce with new respect. Up to now she had only been concerned with getting under her father’s skin. But now she was looking at him, her eyes shining with admiration and respect seeing him as a person. He stepped toward her to tell her what he saw in her.
The king cleared his throat.
“We’re waiting,” he said impatiently.
Iolaus took Dirce’s hand and kissed it, looking deep into her dark brown eyes.
“I’ll see you in three hours,” he promised and stepped bravely to the edge of the pit.
“In with him, then,” said the king.
Iolaus didn’t wait for the soldiers to prod him with their spears. He stepped off the edge and landed in the dirt below, looking the wild animal right in the eyes. The boar grunted angrily, and Iolaus could have sworn that it scowled. He tried to calm it by holding his hands up and backing away, but with a bellow of rage it charged. Iolaus dodged by leaping frantically to one side at the last moment. He looked up hopefully to see if there was any way he could get out of this in time to see the trap door slam shut. Now the only light was that which filtered through the grate above him, barely enough to illuminate the beast in the pit with him.
“This pig is huge!” he screamed to the observers above.
Dirce hugged herself nervously and watched as her father set the hour glass to time the last test.
Hercules stared at the door in front of him, wondering what he would do next. They had wandered through the mansion after escaping the Guardian and had gradually worked their way to this broken down guard room. Listening closely at the door, they could both hear the muffled twittering of birds and they knew that they had at last reached a passage to the outside. The question now was how to get it open. A quick inspection showed a series of pullies and gears connected by ropes to the heavy stone door. Although the mechanism looked very interesting, there was no time to gawk. Just because they couldn’t see the snake, didn’t mean that it had given up catching them.
“Well?” Autolycus prompted him when he had stood studying the door for some minutes.
“It’s a door,” Hercules said as he ran one hand over the edge of it. Now he could see how it was supposed to slide up into the outer wall. Interesting, he thought. “It’s a portcullis.”
Autolycus looked at the door with new interest.
“They don’t make ‘em like that anymore,” he said. “Thank the gods! Hard to get through those bad boys in a hurry.”
“There must be a winch around here somewhere,” Hercules said as he poked into every nook and cranny near the portcullis. “It’d be close enough to work the door yet far enough to -ah! There it is!” He pointed to a wooden structure nearly buried under debris. Undaunted, he began to clear the rocks and bricks away.
“Oh, that’ll take forever,” Autolycus complained. Hercules threw him a dirty look, then turned back to clearing the rocks, ignoring the thief. Autolycus sighed. Why did he have to do everything? he grumped to himself. But if he didn’t at least try to lend a hand they’d never get out of here, and that snake looked like the vengeful type, not about to forgive in a hurry that these two had slammed a heavy door on its nose.
“All right, let me help,” he said resignedly. Hercules obligingly passed him over a sizable rock. Autolycus observed how easily the demigod handled it, and took the rock in his own hands. He remembered about semi-divine strength as he took the full weight of the stone. “Ooof! Nothing bigger than the Parthenon, please!” he said archly, setting the heavy stone aside. Hercules shrugged philosophically and handed him a small brick. “That’s more like it,” Autolycus said approvingly. “Can’t risk damaging these magic hands, you know?”
“Right,” he said. “Think of all the innocent people you wouldn’t be able to rob if your hands got all busted up from honest work.”
“Hey, I never wanted it that way,” Autolycus protested. “If I had my druthers, which I admit isn’t always the case, I’d focus on the corrupt and decadent. They have way more stuff worth stealing anyway. You should see how some of those magistrates live! Don’t tell me that crime doesn’t pay!”
Hercules couldn’t really argue with that. A lot of politicians robbed people far more than a dinar ante thief like Autolycus ever tried.
“Yeah,” he said as he continued his excavation, “that’s usually the way things work out.”
But Autolycus wasn’t listening. He felt in an oddly reflective mood. ‘Coming face to fang with death can have that effect on a person,’ he thought.
“As a matter of fact,” he continued out loud, “that’s how I got into this business.”
“Do tell,” Hercules said as he worked. He was a compassionate man, and it seemed that Autolycus wanted to get something off his chest. If that was the case, then Hercules was there to listen.
“A long time ago,” Autolycus began, “I was just a kid and I lived with my brother Malaegus. We had a little farm just big enough for us and his bride-to-be. Things weren’t perfect but they weren’t that bad, either. We got by and Malaegus was looking forward to settling down with Lydia. We both were! She was a great girl, was Lydia.” He fell silent, brooding about the past.
“So what happened?” Hercules prompted.
“About a month before the wedding a bloated merchant from Scyros tricked Malaegus out of his land and everything else he had, left him destitute. Then when Malaegus started to ask too many questions, the merchant had him murdered. Everybody knew who did it and why, but the powers that be did nothing. Nothing!” The old injustice still had the power to infuriate Autolycus, even twenty years later. He could still see his brother’s body lying in a pool of his own blood, his throat slit. He could still feel Lydia’s shuddering sobs as Malaegus was thrown into a pauper’s grave with barely enough funeral rites to ensure his passage to the after life. What was worse, he could still hear that old fool King Treleus, Menelaus’ father, saying that there was to be no further investigation. Malaegus was a nobody and the merchant was a rich and powerful supporter of the old regime.
“You know what they wanted me to do?” he asked indignantly. “My brother was dead and they wanted me to just walk away! They were sure as hell gonna forget I’d ever existed, so they wanted me to do the same for Malaegus. As if!”
Hercules had paused in his labour to look at Autolycus with sympathy.
“I’m sorry,” he said gently. “That must have been hard for you.”
“Yeah, well, it was,” Autolycus said, shaking off the anger at the unchangeable past. “I was all of sixteen and had nothing and nobody who cared what had happened. Lydia was married off to someone else and that was the end of that. So I delivered my own justice. I robbed that merchant of everything he had. I took everything but the tunic off his back, then I gave all of it, every last dinar, to the sick, the poor and this time _he’d_ have to forget about justice. He still had Malaegus’ land but no money to work it and no way to pay for a magistrate to go after me. He became the richest pauper in Scyros! Good, huh?”
“Poetic justice at its best,” Hercules agreed with a smile. If nothing else, Autolycus had style.
“Damned straight it was poetic!” Autolycus said. He chuckled at the memory of the language the angry merchant had used when he realized how his situation in life had changed, all because of a stripling kid he’d dismissed as not worth worrying about. “Well, after that I set out to make sure Scyros never forgot about me again. I became the outlaw you see today.” With a sly grin, Autolycus held up the Dragon’s Eye Ruby. “But not just any outlaw, either.”
The spell Autolycus’s story had woven was broken by the sight of the glittering jewel in his hand. Hercules snatched it back with a growl.
“_If_ you don’t mind -“ he said stiffly.
“That’s all right, I’ll get it back,” Autolycus shrugged. “After all, I am the King of Thieves.”
“Save it for court,” Hercules grumbled as he resumed moving debris away from the winch. This was taking longer than he had anticipated and he had that same uneasy feeling as when they had first met the Guardian. Time to go!
“You’re really serious about taking me back, aren’t you?” Autolycus accused him.
“You bet I am!” Hercules said. “Iolaus is innocent and you’re going to prove it!”
“Well that’s very Herculean of you, but there’s just one small catch to your little plan.”
“What, that you plan to get away with some cleverly hidden device? I already know that and I’m here to tell you it isn’t going to happen.”
“Whatever,” Autolycus said, dismissing this as bluster. “But if you take me back, and your friend lives, that means I die.”
Hercules paused for a moment. He respected all life and was staunchly opposed to capitol punishment, no matter how heinous the crime. Autolycus was a thief, admitted that fact freely, and was even proud of it. Did he deserve to die for it?
As he pulled more fallen rocks and bricks away from the winch, he pondered the dilemma of who was to be saved and how.
Dirce had paced nervously for two hours of Iolaus’ confinement with the boar. At first there had been more than enough noise emanating from the pit - outraged bellows from the boar, fearsome screams from Iolaus and assorted grunts, squeals and curses from both. But for the last hour there had been an eerie silence. The guards had passed money to each other as they wagered on the outcome of the Test. Dirce had scowled at them, stamped her foot and turned on her heel to stomp off and stare at the hour glass as it slowly emptied from one globe to the next.
She watched as the last grains trickled out and when the very last had fallen she jumped up.
“Time’s up!” she shouted urgently. “Lift the lid! Lift the lid!”
The guards scurried to do her bidding although they thought they knew the outcome. It was a shame, really, most of them thought. The little guy had shown admirable strength and courage so far and they had been rooting for him to win through to the end. But now they expected to be dragging his mangled corpse out of the pit as soon as they could get the boar out. Therefore they were all surprised when, a moment after the trap door had been lifted, a grimy hand appeared over the edge to grip it tightly, followed by the other hand. At last, a blond head, sweaty, dirty but unbloodied poked up out of the pit.
The soldiers cheered as Iolaus dragged himself up and lay for a moment’s rest over the edge.
“He lives!” they cried through their applause. “He lives!” Money started to pass back and forth again.
Dirce ran to embrace the hunter despite his filthy appearance.
“You’re alive!” she cheered, clapping her own hands. “You’re wonderful!”
Iolaus looked up and his exhausted face found a genuine grin for her.
“I’m better than that, Dirce,” he gasped heavily. “I’m free! See? No blood!”
“Oh, you are the best!” she said, tears of relief and happiness rolling down her cheeks. “How did you do it? Another trick from your Eastern Masters?”
“No, no, not this time,” Iolaus said as he started to pull himself all the way out. “I used an old hunter’s trick. First, I chased him around for a while until he got exhausted. Then I summoned up all my energies, looked him straight in the eye and put him into a trance. Then we just sat staring at each other until they lifted the door. I think I gave him a bit of a complex, though. Man, I’m glad that’s over!”
He leaned against a wooden pillar and barely noticed when a splinter of wood pierced his skin.
“It is over!” Dirce said as she hugged him. “And now the king has to see your innocence. Father, he’s passed all the steps of the Erebus Test. There’s not a scratch on him. Pronounce his freedom!”
Menelaus came forward, extending his hand to the triumphant Iolaus.
“You make an excellent point Dirce,” he conceded as he took Iolaus’ hand. “There is no -“ but he felt something slick on his skin. “Oh, wait a minute,” he said as he inspected the other man’s hand more closely. That slickness was a bright red.
“Where? Where?” Dirce cried, grabbing Iolaus’ hand from her father. “Oh, _no_!” she wailed, as she saw the trickle of blood from the little cut. “Oh, Iolaus! After all you’ve been through!”
Iolaus realized with a start that they actually planned to execute him because of a few drops of blood brought on by a splinter.
“You have _got_ to be kidding!” he yelled.
With a heavy sigh, Menelaus signalled his guards to lay hold of Iolaus and prepare him for execution. Too bad, he thought. The poor man had almost made it, but tradition must be satisfied, no matter what.
Iolaus had taken all he was prepared to take. He had remained silent for the last few days, trusting Dirce to look out for his interests. Now, it was time he gave these people a piece of his mind. Then he would kick some serious butt and get out of here for good.
“You know, I’ve played your little games,” he said furiously to the king. “I’ve passed your stupid tests and now you’re going to condemn me because I cut my finger _after_ I escaped from your pet boar! _You people are crazy!_”
“How dare you!” Menelaus said huffily. The guards seized the ranting man and held him fast.
“Hey!” the chief guard said. “Don’t you talk to the king like that or you’ll get in real trouble.”
Iolaus couldn’t help himself, and he burst out laughing.. The king was huffing and puffing because Iolaus had dared to criticize him to his face. The guard was warning him that he’d get in trouble because of his big mouth and he was about to be executed for a crime he hadn’t committed. To top it off, he was the only person in the room who thought the whole situation abnormal.
“Gee, d’ya think?” he guffawed. “Maybe he’ll punish me by, oh, I don’t know - an execution? Ooops, forgot! He’s already gonna to do that! So what’s left? Making me clean up after the boar?” Iolaus dissolved into helpless, crazy giggles.
“Enough of this jibber-jabber!” Menelaus said, his face beginning to cloud with anger. “Dirce, you asked for the Erebus Test and you got it. This man has proven himself guilty beyond doubt. Have him cleaned up and brought to the headsman. He will be executed at dusk.”
Several hours of steady going had finally cleared the winch of all debris. It was old, and some of the spokes were rotten, but it seemed to be mostly intact. To Hercules’ eye they would hold long enough to get the door up, but not much more. Once it was up, they’d have to work quickly before the old wood gave out. Of course, they still did not know if the gear attached to the winch was still workable or not.
“Well I hope it still works,” Autolycus said.
“Only one way to find out,” Hercules answered as he dusted off his hands. He grasped one spoke and concentrated all of his strength toward turning the wheel.
The mechanism at first refused to budge. But Hercules was not about to be defeated at last by a bunch of rusty nuts and bolts. The muscles on his shoulders bunched and strained as he heaved. Slowly, groaning in protest, the wheel began to inch along. Chains and ropes pulled tight, froze, and then grudgingly began to haul the heavy stone door up its long disused track. Hercules grabbed the next spoke and leaned into it with all his might and the door slowly rose.
Autolycus, encouraged by Hercules’ success, leaned in to help. The wheel was much too heavy for him to move and he knew that at this point his help was superfluous, but he was eager to get out and wanted to do anything to give himself the illusion that they would soon be outside in the open air.
With much sweating and swearing the door was finally raised almost enough to allow a man to crawl under it. Blessed sunlight streamed through to light up their prison and give them hope. Fresh, sweet air wafted in to tantalize their nostrils and flutter the cobwebs. Through the door they could see the fields surrounding the mansion.
“Looks like a beautiful day in the neighbourhood,” Autolycus said as he strained to help lift the wheel a little further. “Now how are we gonna keep that thing up long enough to get out there and enjoy it?”
Hercules braced himself against the wheel, holding it in place with an iron grip. He couldn’t both hold the wheel in place and get out of the mansion, nor would the wheel stay in place if it was not propped up. This was where an extra set of hands would come in handy.
“Find something to brace the wheel,” he said, grunting from exertion. “Hurry!”
“Right!” Autolycus said and began to search among the discarded bits and pieces on the floor for something big enough to use.
There were many broken pieces of wood to choose from. Autolycus searched at first in the more lighted area of the room, but there was not much usable stuff there. Some were too short, some were too long and most were too rotten to even consider.
“Autolycus! Come on!”Hercules grated. He had forced the door open as wide as it was going to go and he needed that brace. It was heavier than he expected and he was at an awkward angle to hold the winch up for much longer.
“I’m lookin’! I’m lookin’” came the reply from somewhere behind him.
“Stop looking and start finding!” Hercules said, his knuckles turning white with effort. “This thing isn’t gonna last much longer.”
Autolycus’ search had taken him beyond where the light could reach. He could still see, but the long, creepy shadows were making him doubt his eyes.
‘Is something moving back there in the dark?’ he thought, peering into the unlit corners of the room. ‘Nah, just my imagination. It’d better be just my imagination. Yeah. Sure. Just my imagination. Let’s see now. Gotta be something around here that’ll do the trick. Ah! Perfect!’
He hefted a thick plank and decided that it was both long and strong enough for their purpose. They were almost home free!
A sound that almost wasn’t there, a scraping, sliding, enormous something moving over marble floor, drifted past his ears.
‘Now _that_ was something moving back there in the dark. Oh, yeah. Something big and scaley and so not what I want to see!’
The Guardian slid into the light, hissing ominously. Now these intruders would pay for disturbing the sanctity of the Treasure Room. By order of the great goddess none must leave this place alive!
“Wrong place, wrong time!” Autolycus said to himself. He could see himself reflected in the monster’s evil-looking eye as he backed away. It was one of the few times in his life that he didn’t appreciate the sight of himself. ‘Not good!’ he thought. ‘Really, not good!’
Hercules was still holding the winch in place, unaware of the danger. What he was doing required all of his concentration and so he had missed the warning signals heralding the snake’s approach. As Autolycus drew level with his position his only thought was to brace the winch and get away from this house of horrors.
“Did you find something?” he asked.
“A little more than I wanted to!” Autolycus answered weakly.
Hercules finally turned to look and saw the Guardian in all its hideous glory bearing down on them both. He thought fast.
“Brace the wheel!” he ordered. Autolycus was startled out of his fear by the sharp words. “Quick! Now ram it in there good.” Hercules gingerly set a spoke against the brace and slowly eased his hold on it. “Is it holding?”
“Far as I can tell.”
“Good! Now get out of here!”
It was the last thing the thief had expected to hear.
“But - but - are you sure? I mean -“
“Go! Get out of here! I’ll be right behind you!”
Autolycus hesitated, unsure how to take this reprieve, but there could be no mistake of the demigod’s intention. He wanted to make sure that Autolycus was safe before he got himself out. Such sacrifice was alien to anything Autolycus had ever witnessed before. Only Malaegus, driven by filial love, had ever put the thief’s life ahead of his own. Yet here was Hercules, a man who owed him nothing, offering a gift only a brother -- or a hero -- would be willing to give.
The snake bellowed a challenge and Autolycus’ mind was made up in a flash.
“I’m gone!” he said and sprinted for the opening.
Hercules checked the brace one last time, and decided it would hold at least until they were safely outside then headed out after Autolycus.. He had no intention of trying to fight that beast again if he didn’t have to, it was too strong, and he felt no shame in admitting that fact. There was a good chance that it would be content to chase them away, then go back to its lair. But just as he was about to follow the thief through the door to the meadow beyond, a hot, sticky, slimy rope of muscle lashed and tightened around his neck and began to pull him back with an inexorable force.
He gasped for air as his hands flew to the coil. It was the snake’s tongue! Slowly the creature was both choking him and drawing him back, no doubt to get him close enough to chomp down on his head. No amount of clawing or punching was working to break that deadly hold! Desperately Hercules grabbed onto a sturdy looking pillar and anchored himself to it, hanging on for life itself. The snake continued to pull, but now it was meeting greater resistance and there were easier ways to bring down its prey. It let go and immediately went into a full attack.
Hercules snatched up a heavy stick from the floor. Even though his neck felt crushed and he could barely breath, there was no time to coddle himself. He could now see that this creature was a killer and if it got through him, it would never let Autolycus go. With Hera’s penchant for exacting revenge, there was not even any guarantee that it would stay in the mansion and not trouble the people of Scyros. Therefore, it had to be stopped here. He waited for the attack to come to him.
Autolycus was just about to dive under the door when he heard Hercules give a cry of surprise. The snake had wrapped its tongue around his throat and was about to devour him! The thief stopped and stared in horror as the creature relentlessly dragged the man toward his doom. How long could even the mighty Hercules stand up to such a foe? What could anyone do to help him?
Autolycus was not one to come to anyone’s aid but his own when it came to a fight. Self-sacrifice was not one of his character traits. Besides, he reasoned, he was no hero, and there was no real need since the monster had released its prey. But now, Hercules had turned to face his enemy, armed only with a stick and his courage. He was about to die to save Autolycus’ life and somehow, that idea had become as hard to swallow as concept of honest work.
There was a loud crack from the winch and the spoke leaning against the brace snapped off, dropping the door down until the brace caught the next spoke. If the wheel gave much more, there would be no way for the demigod to escape before the door closed completely. The thief looked out at the inviting sunshine, torn between his sense of self preservation and his growing sense of responsibility. One thing was certain, the odds of Hercules winning this fight would be greatly improved if he had help. Autolycus gave one more wistful look at the great, and safe, outdoors.
“I must be out of my mind,” he berated himself as he dashed back to do what he could.
Hercules took a wild swing at the monster, catching it on the nose. It roared once more in pain, then whipped its tongue out to wrap around Hercules’ weapon. They fought briefly over the prize
.“What do you think you’re doing?” Hercules demanded as Autolycus slid to his side and pulled the grapple off his belt. It had been hanging there ever since Hercules had pulled the thief up through the floor.
“I need this,” Autolycus said and began to swing the hook around with ever increasing speed. He let it fly up to catch around the creature’s mouth.
“I thought I told you to get outta here!” Hercules shouted as Autolycus pulled as hard as he could on the rope.
“I’ve always been a very contrary little boy,” Autolycus said. “Never could get along with authority figures. Don’t you worry about me, Hercules.” He let his full weight hang on the rope until the creature’s teeth must have been cutting into its tongue. That would smart!
With a scream of outrage it let go of Hercules’ weapon and went after the puny human that had caused it pain. Retribution would be swift and final! It flailed its head around and caught Autolycus full force in the chest, throwing him hard against a stone wall. He hit with a sickening crunch then slid down to lie motionless on the floor.
“Autolycus!” Hercules cried with alarm.
He had no chance to run to the man to help him. The winch was continuing to slip, spoke by spoke and the snake was still attacking. In desperation, Hercules swung his club with all the strength he could muster, hitting the creature just under its jaw. It was thrown back by the force of the blow, temporarily stunned. As another spoke cracked and broke, Hercules knew he had run out of time to finish off his opponent. He quickly dragged Autolycus up over his shoulder and fled for the opening.
“Let’s get you out of here,” he said as he ran.
But the creature was not finished with him yet. It flicked its tongue out once more, catching the demigod by the leg this time. He tripped and fell, and the unconscious Autolycus was thrown under the door to safety. As he was being pulled back by the angry monster, Hercules scrabbled in the dirt to find something that he could hold onto, but the floor was smooth with no crack big enough for his fingers to fit into.
“Oh no you don’t!” he yelled as he fought to regain ground. When the snake’s head was close enough he kicked out viciously and rammed his booted heel into the creature’s nose. Startled by this simple, but effective, trick, it immediately let go and backed off, shaking its head to clear the pain.
Hercules was on his feet and moving toward the door in the second it took the creature to recover. He dove under the door and rolled to land next to Autolycus’ crumpled form as the next-to-last spoke on the winch snapped off. A split second later the snake poke its head under the portcullis and began to slither toward them, still intent on their destruction. But the last spoke broke with a deafening bang and the stone door slammed down onto the beast’s head. It screamed and flailed, thrashing its tail and body, but to no avail. The door held it fast.
“That’s gotta hurt!” Hercules commented as he hoisted Autolycus once more across his shoulder.
Slowly, Hercules carried Autolycus out to lie in the sunshine. He arranged the man’s limbs into a comfortable position, then returned to the door to make sure that the creature would not follow them any further.
Sure enough, the Guardian was at last ready to call the matter settled. True, its quarry had escaped, but the treasure was still untouched. For now, the creature was content. Others had escaped before and it had let them go once they were outside the mansion. All it wanted now was to return to its lair and go back to sleep until the next fool should try his luck. It pulled and wiggled, inching its way back into the guard room, letting the door scrape painfully along its head. With one last growl of effort, it jerked its head free. Hercules came back in time to see the door slam into place once more and the Guardian disappear back into the mansion it had been set to guard.
Autolycus blinked owlishly at the noon-day sun. The last thing he remembered was flying through the air, then getting very intimate very quickly with a very solid wall. He had no idea how he had arrived outside, apparently safe, lying on the grass. Slowly he moved his head to look around but saw no sign of Hercules.
‘Now’s my chance!’ he thought and tried to roll over to get up. ‘Fat chance!’ he corrected himself as every bone and joint in his body protested with intense pain. ‘Oooooo-kaaaay, Autolycus, let’s just take this slow and easy.’
“Autolycus, are you all right?” a concerned voice asked. Hercules knelt beside Autolycus and gently but firmly pushed him back onto the grass. It was obvious that the thief was in pain. True, time was marching on and there was still a long way to go to reach Scyros, but the demigod needed to know the extent of any damage before they went any further
Autolycus summoned his most wry smile as Hercules’ hands carefully checked his shoulders and arms for broken bones.
“I was going to run away while your back was turned,” he said. “But I can’t seem to move my legs.”
“Then don’t try,” Hercules said. He couldn’t feel any breaks, but he had definitely heard a crunch when the thief had hit the wall. At the very least he probably had a few cracked ribs. Very carefully, Hercules pushed Autolycus onto his side and ran a hand down his back. There were no breaks or dislocations, but Hercules could feel the beginnings of fear emanating from the thief. He really couldn’t move and it frightened him. Hercules was moved to pity for the flamboyant man. He wasn’t such a bad sort, for all he was a thief and a scoundrel. Certainly he didn’t deserve this fate.
“You could have escaped,” Hercules said as he lay Autolycus on his back again. “I gave you the chance to go, to get away. Why did you come back to help me?”
Autolycus attempted to laugh, but it came out as a pain-filled cough.
“Oh, a lapse in judgement,” he said off handedly. “I hate when that happens!”
“I don’t think it was such a lapse,” Hercules said with a smile. “I know I couldn’t have got out by myself.”
“Just make sure you don’t forget that when you tell this story to your grandchildren,” Autolycus said as sternly as he could manage. It was difficult to talk around the agony that was his back, but there were future generations to consider here. He couldn’t go without making sure that everyone remembered the part the King of Thieves had played in one adventure of the Son of Zeus. Now that he thought of it, there was one more thing he had to do before his grisly end. Pain lanced up and down Autolycus’ side as he grabbed Hercules’ arm.
“Look, Hercules,” he said with a wince, “I don’t want your friend to die for something I’ve done. Get me to Scyros, and we’ll clear this all up.”
Hercules was surprised. He had imagined that Autolycus never admitted any crime to any authority figure no matter the circumstances, up to and including his death bed. For him to make the offer was a major indication first that his end was near, and that he felt remorse for leaving Iolaus holding the bag.
“Are you sure?” the demigod asked. “I’m sure if I just return the ruby, I can convince Menelaus -“
“That goof?” Autolycus tried to snort with derision. It came out as a rough squawk. “No, Hercules, this is the only way to convince him. Besides, I can’t have your friend taking the credit for one of my better heists. It would ruin my image!”
Hercules was not fooled for an instant, but he allowed the dying man his minor conceits and said:
“We can’t have that, can we? I’d better rig up some kind of harness so I can pull you back. Rest here. I won’t be long.” He moved off to find what he needed.
“Wait!” Autolycus called weakly and then cursed with frustration. Even his voice was losing power! “You can’t afford the time! If I know that dingbat Menelaus, and I do, then Iolaus’ number is up! If he hasn’t already been executed, he will be before sundown today! Menelaus likes things done before dark. I’d love to lie here and moan for an hour or so, but we’ve got to get to Scyros as fast as we can, and there’s only one way. You’ll have to carry me!”
By tradition, executions were performed in Scyros in the site of the king, in his throne room. It was considered the last dignity afforded to the condemned that their king had not abandoned them in their final hour. Menelaus himself supervised while the chopping device was set up and the blade was sharpened. Everything was prepared to ensure that the execution was swift and that Iolaus would not suffer unduly. Also, by tradition, there were at least five courtiers present and a royal recorder to take down any last words spoken.
Dirce paced back and forth before the throne. For hours she had been arguing with her father on her client’s behalf, begging for his life, pleading for mercy. She even tried to convince the king to commute Iolaus’ sentence to life in prison. After all her legal arguments had met with failure, Dirce was seriously considering throwing herself down on the floor and indulging in one of the screaming fits she had enjoyed as a little girl. But Menelaus was adamant that the traditional penalty for theft from the royal treasury was death, and death would be Iolaus’ punishment.
“Father, I can’t let you do this,” she warned, her voice rough from crying and her face streaked with tears. “Not when you know he’s innocent!”
It was almost sunset and the guards had already been sent to bring Iolaus up from his cell. Dirce was running out of time.
“But tradition must be honoured,” Menelaus said firmly. He had said the same thing, or variations of it, all afternoon. “It’s what defines us as a civilized nation.”
Dirce stamped her foot angrily.
“If this is civilized, then I wish you’d execute me instead of Iolaus!” she shouted. “Here’s a tradition for you, Father! I’ll even put my head on the block for you! There!” she said as she put her head in the space provided. “Go ahead! Chop my head off! I’m just as guilty!”
“Dirce! No!” Menelaus shouted, alarmed at her antics. He wasn’t entirely sure about the safety of the device, despite months of research and development. If the blade should slip, or if Dirce should accidentally jiggle the catch holding the rope that secured the blade in place above her head - well he didn’t want to think about the consequences. “Guards! Get her away from there!”
The guards hurried to do their king’s bidding, but found that the princess fought them as they pulled her away. She screamed and kicked, struggled to free her arms where they pinned them to her body and twisted in an effort to break their hold on her.
“Father don’t do this!” she sobbed. “He’s innocent and you know it! This is wrong! Please!”
“Dirce!” a new voice cut through her tirade. Dirce looked up to see Iolaus standing between two guards, his face full of pity and grief for her. “Don’t do this, Dirce,” he said softly. “Please don’t.”
Dirce relaxed enough that her captors let her go and she ran to Iolaus to throw her arms around his neck. He could not hug her back because his own hands were tied, but he could rub his cheek against her hair. It felt really nice, he thought, and it smelled nice, too. If he had to go, he could think of worse send-off than being in the arms of a pretty girl.
“I can’t let you die!” she whispered through her tears. “You don’t deserve this! I want you to be spared!”
“Oh, Dirce,” he sighed. “I don’t want to die, but if it has to be - well - promise me one thing.”
“Anything!” Dirce’s voice was barely audible.
Iolaus took a deep, cleansing breath. “That you’ll keep fighting for justice and reason. You’re on the right track there, but it’ll take time to get where you want to go. If you do that, my death won’t have been for nothing.”
The guards peeled Dirce away from the condemned man. She was crying uncontrollably, already consumed with grief that a good man had to die to satisfy a bad custom. She made one more appeal to her father to see reason.
“Father, _please_!” she said, kneeling before the king. “You _can’t_!”
Menelaus looked kindly at his daughter. She had grown up a great deal in the last few days and had learned some valuable life lessons, but there was one thing yet for her to realize. He reached out and took her hands in both of his.
“I’m sorry, Dirce, my dear,” he said gently. “I truly am.” He patted her hand once more and turned to the executioner. “Proceed,” he ordered, and sat upon his throne to act as witness to an execution.
Even burdened with the body of Autolycus Hercules could move faster than any mortal man. He had covered the distance between the ruined mansion and Scyros in only a few hours and was nearing the outer walls as the sun was disappearing over the horizon. A bell was ringing to signal the end of the day and burly men were pushing the heavy gates closed. In a few minutes, no one would be allowed in or out of the city. Hercules settled Autolycus into a more comfortable position then hurried toward the entrance.
“Wait! Stop!” Autolycus said, his voice quavering. “Put me down a second. I must rest!”
“You’ll rest soon enough,” Hercules said. “And if you think I’m stopping when we’re this close to freeing my friend, you really did take too hard a hit to the head!”
“But - but ...”
Hercules relented and slowed his run to a ground-eating walk. By his calculation, he would still make it to the gates on time.
“I’m not stopping, Autolycus,” he said. “But you’ll be more comfortable if I hold onto you a little tighter. It won’t be long now!
Minutes later, they were inside the city and Hercules was running full speed through the streets to reach the palace before time ran out for Iolaus.
“It’s not as bad as it seems, my boy,” Menelaus said as Iolaus was positioned within the elaborate machine. “With this Chopping Device my inventors have perfected, there’ll be no more sloppy work with an axe. It’ll all be over very quickly.”
Iolaus rolled his eyes.
“What a relief!” he said sarcastically. “At least I can’t say you never gave me anything!”
The guards locked him into place, his hands immobile and a basket placed beneath where his head would fall. Iolaus’ heart was pounding in his chest, so loud that he was sure everyone could hear it. He wasn’t afraid to die - as a warrior and soldier he had expected such a fate every day of his life - but this bogus trial and execution had angered him beyond belief.
Menelaus cleared his throat.
“If there’s anything you wish to say,” he said formally, “say it now.”
There was a great deal that Iolaus wanted to say. He wanted to rant at the king for his monumental stupidity. He wanted to scream at Dirce to go through her damned scrolls and find another precedent. Lastly, he wanted to leave a message for Hercules that he should not blame himself for his friend’s demise. He thought for a moment how to put all that into words, but somehow when he tried, they didn’t seem so important anymore. But there was something important to say to this foolish man in the silly hat.
“Two things, actually,” Iolaus said. “I’m innocent! Absolutely and without question! And - this is the most important thing - you should be nicer to your daughter. She deserves it.”
Menelaus stared at Iolaus. No one had ever dared to criticize or comment on how he had raised his child. Now this man, about to die and with no hope left to him was advising a king on his family life. The king looked at Dirce, who was also staring at Iolaus, but her eyes were shining with gratitude and she was smiling at him through her tears. Menelaus didn’t know what to think.
“Shall I enter that in the record, Your Highness?” the court scribe asked.
“Yes, well, that is,” Menelaus fumbled for his own control. He had a lot to think about from this day. “Tradition gives us no other choice. Let the record show the prisoner’s last words exactly.” He took a moment to gather his thoughts, then turned to the hooded man in the corner. “Commence the execution.”
The executioner bowed and picked up a ceremonial knife. He had sharpened it himself to make sure that the rope would cut easily. Grasping the knife firmly, he began to saw away at the rope holding up the Great Blade, ignoring the pale face of the man who was about to die beneath it.
Dirce whirled to face her father once more. She had mastered herself, and now felt a cold anger seeping through her. She loved her father, but she could not condone what was about to happen. She realized that it had happened many times in the past, and that it could not continue. He did not know it yet, but the king of Scyros was about to make a very dangerous and determined enemy. Dirce decided to give him one last chance to save himself.
“Father, if you do this, I will _never_ forgive you!” she seethed. “If Iolaus dies today by your hand -“
“I’ve told you I’m sorry,” Menelaus said, beginning to find her constant harping tiresome. “What has begun here is bigger than both of us. You will have to accept that as I did before I ascended the throne.”
“_STOP_!” a man bellowed as the door to the throne room was violently kicked open. Hercules, carrying the limp body of a man, burst into the room. He pushed his way to the throne, knocking guards aside in his haste. “Stop the execution! You’re killing an innocent man!”
Menelaus had leaped from his seat at the intrusion. The executioner dropped his knife in surprise, not quite finished sawing through the rope. Dirce began to jump up and down, clapping her hands with joy.
“What is this?” Menelaus demanded. “You can’t interrupt these proceedings! It’s not part of the tradition!”
“Father, it’s Hercules!” Dirce cried delightedly. “He’s here to save Iolaus! He’s got the evidence I need!” She paused for a moment and looked suspiciously at the demigod. “Don’t you? You do have what I need to get your friend out of this, right? Where have you been, anyway?”
Hercules gently lowered the unconscious man onto the deserted throne and propped him in place as best as could be arranged before turning to Dirce to answer her question.
“You,” he said pointedly, “were supposed to give me _three_ days.” He looked over to where Iolaus was still imprisoned in the Chopping Device. “How you doing?” he asked.
Iolaus swallowed hard and tried to slow down his heartbeat to a normal rate. Hercules had come back, just like he promised he would. A little later than he’d promised, mind you, but there he was nonetheless.
“You know,” Iolaus answered thoughtfully, “I’ve had better days. How ‘bout you?”
Before Hercules could answer, Menelaus blustered up to him, seething with anger.
“How _dare_ you put this stranger on the royal throne of Scyros?” he challenged. “Have you no sense of propriety at all?”
“Your Majesty,” Hercules said, not at all impressed by Menelaus’ display. “Say hello to Autolycus.”
There was an excited buzz in the room as the guards and courtiers took a second look at the dishevelled man on the throne. He was tall, dark haired and might have been handsome had his face not been distorted by pain and dirt.
“The King of Thieves?” Menelaus said, his voice full of wonder. His constables had been after Autolycus for years and had never enjoyed any success finding him. Now here he was, big as life, in the throne room of Scyros. The king didn’t know whether to be impressed or to order his guards to make an immediate arrest.
The sagging figure on the throne stirred at the sound of his name and self-styled title.
“Ah!” he said feebly. “You’ve heard of me!” He tried to rise to meet his accusers, but flopped back helplessly.
“He’s here as a witness for the defence,” Hercules said. “You must let him speak.”
“Well, then, you’d better be quick about it,” Menelaus told him. “We’re in the middle of an execution and we’re behind schedule.”
“You shouldn’t be even starting,” Autolycus said, raising his hand for emphasis. “You’re executing the wrong man.”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell them for the last two days!” Iolaus called out from his cramped position. He could see the rope twisting and stretching from the weight of the blade. These guys had better hurry up and let him go before something irredeemable happened.
Autolycus took a deep, ragged breath and continued.
“Iolaus didn’t rob the royal vault,” he said with a little laugh. He reached into his tunic and pulled out a glittering, red stone. “I did!”
Hercules suppressed a desire to throttle the man. He could have sworn that the ruby was still safely in his own belt pouch. The wily little jerk must have picked his pocket while they had been running across the fields to Scyros.
“The Dragon’s Eye Ruby!” Menelaus gasped. “It’s here! It’s safe!”
“It is indeed,” Autolycus agreed. He seemed to be losing his tenuous grip on his strength and his body wavered where he sat. “But I’m the one to take credit for this theft. You, sir, have had the honour of being robbed by the greatest thief - of all - times.” His eyes rolled up and he lost all ability to hold himself upright. With one last groan, Autolycus slid from the throne to the floor and lay still.
“Autolycus!” Hercules cried in alarm. He gently lifted the fallen thief, supporting him in his arms. “Hang on, man, hang on! Help is on the way!”
“It won’t get here soon enough,” Autolycus gasped. “I’m done for. That fight with the monster finished off what all the king’s horses and all the king’s men could not. But at least, I die with a clear conscience. Thankyou, Hercules. My mission is complete.” He took one more shallow breath, jerked spasmodically, then relaxed in Hercules’ arms. His eyes drifted closed and he lay very still.
Hercules shook his head sadly as he lay the thief down and folded his arms across his chest. He rose to address the king’s court.
“There you have the real thief, Menelaus,” he said. “Now you must -“
“The rope!” Dirce screamed. The rope was indeed about to snap. If Iolaus was not released soon, the blade would fall and he would die. “Father, do something!”
“But what?” the king asked, flustered by all that was happening. First, there was almost an execution and then the King of Thieves comes forward and dies in the throne room of Scyros - what was the world coming to? “Nothing like this has ever happened in Scyros before!”
“Terrific!” Iolaus grumbled. Just what he needed right now, a wishy-washy king. “Hercules!”
“Iolaus is no thief, you know that for a fact, now let him go!” Hercules was done with diplomacy. His best friend was about to die for no reason. If worst came to worst, he would defy Menelaus’ laws and break Iolaus out, but he hoped that the king would do the right thing without any coercion.
“But tradition -“ Menelaus wailed.
“Humanity is more important!” Hercules shouted, frustrated by this man’s obtuseness. “Start a new tradition! A tradition that puts people first!”
Dirce picked up on Hercules’ idea and she immediately knew how to motivate her father to decisive action.
“We could make a campaign of it!” she said eagerly. “I can hear it now: “Menelaus: A New King for a New Day!” Think how you could use it! You could rewrite the old laws!”
“Rewrite the old laws!” Menelaus repeated, shocked at such a radical idea. He paused for a moment. “Rewrite the old laws? I can do that?” The thought had never occurred to him before, but it had possibilities.
“You’re the king, aren’t you?” Dirce urged him. “You can do that sort of thing!”
“Would you help me?” he asked hopefully. He’d need her young head and enthusiasm to make this work, but they had been estranged for so long, he couldn’t be entirely sure that she would rally to his side.
“You know I would!” she said, smiling from ear to ear. She had longed to hear just those words ever since she had learned to read. They sounded very good to her.
“Well, in that case,” the king turned to his guards. “Let him go!” he ordered. “Quickly!”
But it was too late. The rope snapped apart and began to slide noisily through the gears of the chopper. Iolaus squeezed his eyes closed as the device rumbled through its sequence and the Great Blade began to fall -
And nothing happened. Iolaus cracked open an eye to see a familiar boot standing beside him. He followed it up to see Hercules holding up the blade he had caught just before it had connected with Iolaus’ neck. They both sighed with relief.
Dirce raced to release her client. She fumbled with the pin holding the trap down, but presently he was free and standing in front of her, a smile splitting his handsome face. She leaped into his arms and hugged him fiercely.
“Are you all right?” she asked, her arms still tight around his neck. “Oh, Iolaus! What if Hercules hadn’t been in time? I don’t like to think! But you’re free now! Free!” She kissed his face, not caring who witnessed her happiness. She looked up to see Hercules watching her and a question occurred to her. “How did you get Autolycus to confess?” she asked.
“He did it on his own,” Hercules said truthfully. “Turns out he wasn’t as bad as he wanted everyone to believe. But then, I’ve found that true about most people.”
“The proof of that is right here,” Menelaus said, holding up the ruby to admire its sparkle. “Take this to the royal vault,” he ordered as he handed the bauble to a guard. “Now that it’s back in our possession, all charges against Iolaus are hereby dropped! As for Autolycus, I want his body prepared immediately for a state funeral! Spare no expense! He would expect no less.”
“Oh, Father!” Dirce sighed and left Iolaus to hug her father. “You really are a pretty great king!”
“My lord! He’s gone!” said the chief guard.
“What do you mean? Who’s gone?” Menelaus said testily. He was enjoying being the object of his daughter’s admiration and did not appreciate any interruption.
“Autolycus!” Dirce exclaimed. “He’s gone!”
There was a general murmur of wonder. How could a dead man get up and leave? This would have the court buzzing for many days to come.
Iolaus sidled up to his partner.
“So?” he asked.
“Dunno,” Hercules shrugged. “But I can’t say I’m surprised.”
“Hey!” said a courtier indignantly. “My money pouch is missing!” Others began to slap at their own pouches only to discover that they too were gone.
“Can’t say I’m all that surprised about that, either,” Hercules said to Iolaus. The hunter smirked.
“Gonna tell me about it?”
“Mmmmm, maybe later. It’s _that_ kind of story.”
The excitement for the day seemed to be over with the disappearance of Autolycus. The Dragon’s Eye Ruby was reverently returned to its original resting place in the royal vault. There it glittered and glowed in peace for many years and was never again disturbed except for state affairs requiring the king’s sceptre. When Dirce ascended to the throne of Scyros many years later, she had the stone set into a beautiful gold crown which she wore every day to remind her how loyalty and persistence had won the day for her and two extraordinary men.
Since Iolaus had both been declared innocent and exonerated of all misdeeds, Menelaus saw no reason not to extend the full courtesy of his palace to the hunter and his partner. They were both made guests of the crown until their departure the next day. Over dinner, Hercules recounted his adventures in the old mansion on the outskirts of Scyros. His audience ooohed and aaaahed appreciatively at the description of his encounter with the Guardian and the tale of bringing Autolycus back. Iolaus, not to be outdone, soon had the king laughing harder than he had in years with stories of his travels with the Son of Zeus. Dirce hung on every word, sitting next to her erstwhile client with her arm possessively through his and admiration for him shining in her face.
Neither Hercules nor Iolaus had taken much rest in the past few days, so they both requested to take advantage of the comfortable room prepared for them as early as they politely could. Menelaus, seeing their fatigue, graciously gave them leave to retire, but Dirce followed them to their room, her arm still looped through Iolaus’.
“Are you sure you couldn’t use a night cap?” she asked hopefully. “We make some very potent ales in Scyros. You’d sleep like a baby.”
“No thanks, Dirce,” Iolaus said regretfully. If he hadn’t felt ready to fall asleep on his feet he would have taken the lively princess up on her offer. When she wasn’t trying to be an ultra efficient lawyer arguing the finer points of law, she was a lot of fun! But a sumptuous meal and the promise of a soft bed and warm blankets were adding lead weights to his eyes which meant that fun was not in the cards for him tonight. “We both could use some sleep. But I’ll see you in the morning before we go. That’s a promise!” He kissed her cheek, then followed Hercules into their room before he changed his mind. Dirce had looked very disappointed. He really was too tired, though.
Hercules had already thrown himself face down across one of the beds in the room, ready to sleep. Anyone else would have accepted that the demi-god was worn out from three days of chasing a master thief across the country side, but not Iolaus. He knew that his friend rarely was so tired that he could not stay awake, and he recognized a ploy to get out of answering any questions when he saw one.
“Herc!” he said. “Come on! Tell me what happened.”
“Go to sleep, Iolaus,” Hercules said into his pillow. “Have patience til we’re on the road.”
“C’mon, Herc,” Iolaus wheedled. “What really happened? You didn’t tell half the story back there!”
“Good night, Iolaus.”
“Kill joy,” he grumbled, then crawled gratefully into his own bed and fell immediately asleep.
Early the next morning, the two friends were ready to leave. Dirce had insisted on stuffing Iolaus’ pack with every delicacy she could lay hands on in the royal kitchen. They had been treated to a hearty breakfast with every whim catered to by the royal servants. Before they left, Menelaus had called them to his throne room one last time for some very friendly parting words.
“I can never repay you both for the good you’ve done my kingdom,” he said. “I’ve gained a connection to my daughter that I thought I’d lost forever when she started to grow up. I never realized how much I missed that until it was given back to me! I shall enjoy getting to know her again. Not only that, but together we can build the most progressive kingdom in all Greece and I have you two to thank for it. If you can both forgive the last few days, I would be pleased to welcome you back any time you’d care to visit us. For now, have a safe journey home, and give Jason of Corinth my warmest regards!”
Iolaus felt good as he shouldered his bulging pack and his sword. Dirce and her father were finding a new closeness as a family, which warmed his heart more than he could say. His good name had been cleared in both Scyros and Corinth. He was back on the road with Hercules and it was a beautiful day. How could things get any better than this?
“Iolaus!” Dirce called to him from the palace gate. She ran to catch up to him. “You left before I could say good-bye!”
“I thought we did that in the kitchen,” he said with a fond smile. She really was cute when she was genuinely happy. Too bad they both had responsibilities that needed attention. “But it’s great to see you now.”
“Maybe if we’d been better hosts, you’d stay for longer,” she said, gazing into his eyes. They really were the most incredible shade of blue. “There’s so much I’d like to show you, and I’d really like to get to know you as more than my client.”
Iolaus took her hands and shook his head regretfully.
“You and your father have a lot of work to do,” he said, “as well as family time to catch up on. But I’d like to spend more time with you, too. I’ll come back when things settle down.”
Dirce’s smile widened and her big brown eyes danced with pleasure.
“You will?” she said happily.
“Count on it!” Iolaus answered.
“I hope so,” she said. “You haven’t seen the best part of our country yet.”
Iolaus looked meaningfully into her eyes. They were deep enough for a man to drown in, he decided, and he’d better get moving before he did just that.
“I think I already have,” he replied huskily.
Dirce thought her heart would burst, it was so full of joy. Iolaus had to be the bravest, most honest, kindest and most wonderful man she had ever shared a cause with, and he was giving her every indication that her admiration was not one-sided. Her mind racing and her hands trembling with excitement, she threw her arms around Iolaus’ neck and pressed a hot kiss on his lips. It took only a moment before he was returning that kiss with all the same passion.
They stood that way until Hercules cleared his throat. People were starting to stare. Iolaus slowly withdrew from Dirce’s embrace and with a last pat on her cheek and a wordless promise, he turned to join Hercules on the road out of town.
“So give,” Iolaus urged his friend as they walked down the road away from Scyros. “What really happened? Why did Autolycus confess?”
“He really wanted to,” Hercules said. “At least, he really wanted to as long as he thought he was dying. When he hit that wall, he really did get banged up something fierce and I’m sure he’s covered in bruises. That crunch I heard when he hit was a collapsable pole he carries down his shirt. Amazing what some people will cart around with them! Anyway, he started feeling better while I was carrying him to Scyros and changed his mind again.”
“So how come he still confessed?”
“He didn’t have any other choice,” Hercules explained. “I made it very plain that I wasn’t about to let him go, so he’d better get used to the idea of following through. He must have figured that he’d find another way out of the mess he was in before it was his turn on the chopping block. Turns out he was right.”
“Yeah, much as I still think he’s a coward and a bastard for setting me up like that, he didn’t deserve to die for stealing a hunk of rock,” Iolaus agreed. “But how’d you explain his little disappearing act to Menelaus? The man isn’t _that_ stupid, you know.”
Hercules smiled at the memory.
“No, he’s not,” he said. “But he thought that I had no idea that Autolycus was faking it, and Dirce kept backing that idea up even though I’m sure that she’d already figured out the truth. She’s quite a girl!”
Iolaus laughed outright. Yeah, Dirce would do all right by her father and her country.
“Ah, Dirce!” he exclaimed. “What a girl! I can’t wait til we get to come back here again. She’s gonna turn this place on its ear!”
“Hey, what’s this?” Hercules laughed in his turn. “You were really taken by that young lady. You’ll have to tell _me_ the whole story now!”
“Hercules, I left my heart in Scyros,” Iolaus declared.
“Yeah, but you kept your head,” Hercules reminded him. Iolaus giggled.
There were other people on the road, mostly villagers and fishermen going about their normal business. They shared the road equitably and avoided getting in each other’s way, except for one hunched, ragged figure. He was a beggar, holding out his dirty hand for alms as he passed each person. Occasionally, someone would hand him a coin or two, but usually he went away empty handed. However, even if he got nothing, he never failed to nod his head politely and shake the hand of each man or woman he met. Despite the man’s ragged and dirty appearance, no one objected to this familiarity and no one refused his greeting. As he came near to Hercules, he ducked his head and stepped a little closer.
“Good day!” he said in a gravelly voice, then passed them by without either begging or offering to shake their hands.
“Good day!” the partners chorused. Maybe this was a local nut that everybody knew and tolerated.
Hercules put two and two together as he realized that he recognized that voice, disguised as it had been. He turned to watch the poor ‘beggar’ disappear around a bend in the road and smiled as he silently wished the man a safe journey.
“Friendly guy for a beggar,” Iolaus commented. “Someone you know?”
‘My friend, if only you knew!’ Hercules thought. “Could be,” he said out loud.
Iolaus frowned suspiciously. Usually Hercules liked people and couldn’t wait to greet even casual acquaintances and pass the time of day with them.
“You want to go after him and make sure?” Iolaus asked pointedly. ‘I know you’re up to something, Buddy, and you can bet I’ll find out what it is before the day is out,’ he thought.
Hercules made his decision. If he caught up with that particular beggar, they’d have to chase him all over Hades’ half acre for the next day or so.
‘Been there, done that,’ he thought
“Nope,” he said out loud, and turned back down the road.
Iolaus shrugged his shoulders. He could be patient and worm the information out of his partner or he could consider that Hercules had just spent the better part of three days pulling his tail out of a very big sling. With a private laugh of his own he admitted to himself that this meant that the demigod could act as weird as he wanted to and get no argument from Iolaus. He smiled at his friend’s back, then started to run to catch up.
Autolycus whistled merrily as he sauntered down the road out of Scyros. The purloined coins jingling in his pouch made a happy counter-point to his measured stride.
‘Ha!’ he thought. ‘I am _so_ good!’ Nobody had suspected a thing! He had fooled even the mighty Hercules and now the legend of the King of Thieves would grow even greater. He couldn’t wait to hear the next tale about his exploits and if he couldn’t find an obliging bard, he’d make up something on his own. Yes indeed, life was good! He felt like telling the whole world!
But the world wasn’t listening. There was no one to hear about his cleverness but the birds and a rabbit or two, and they were unimpressed.
Autolycus frowned and his jaunty step lost some of its bounce.
“Well, then, I’ll just, uh, find a local tavern and entertain the peasants for a while,” he decided.
But that wasn’t what he wanted, either. The common folk would hear and laugh and clap, but they wouldn’t _listen_, not like a friend would. Or a partner.
“Bah! Humbug!” Autolycus snorted and began to walk with a more determined pace. He had worked alone ever since Malaegus’ murder and had preferred things that way. He was a lone wolf, a maverick, a man with no attachments or obligations to anyone but himself. Partners, he reasoned, only got in the way.
The thief stopped short. Partner? Who said anything about a partner?
He started walking again, more slowly now.
Hercules had chased him relentlessly for two days, he thought, even risked his own life to catch him, all to save one man: his partner. In all Autolycus’ life, no one besides his brother had ever offered to do that much for him and he doubted that anyone ever would. If truth be told, most of the people he considered friends would turn him in to the authorities in a Peloponnesian minute if the reward offered were big enough. Heck, some of them would do so just to liven up a dull afternoon. Loyalty was not something that thieves, fences, or grifters practised much.
Something else he had noticed about that whole scene in the throne room was that Iolaus had not shown any surprise when Hercules showed up. He had been relieved, maybe a little miffed that the demigod had arrived in the nick of time and no sooner, but Autolycus could swear that Iolaus had _expected_ Hercules to succeed in his quest. That indicated trust, and a trust so rock solid that Iolaus had willingly endured days of hardship and torture because he knew that Hercules would not let him down.
Did Autolycus know anyone he would trust that much?
Completely stripped of his good mood, the King of Thieves sat down on a rock at the side of the road. When he had encountered the two friends on the road a little while ago, they had been passing stories of their experience back and forth. Autolycus had no doubt that when Iolaus was finished his dull little tale of woe, he would encourage Hercules to tell the far more thrilling story of his encounter with the King of Thieves.
‘No doubt the little jerk will hang on every word, too,’ Autolycus thought sourly. He pounded the rock with frustration. “What is the matter with me?” he raged at himself. “I meet one measly demigod! I endanger one insignificant little hero! One stupid act of altruism and I get all maudlin and lonely and start looking for a shoulder to cry on. Get a grip on yourself, Autolycus before you turn legit and start looking for stray kittens to save.”
He leaped up and started stomping down the road, away from Scyros, away from the sight of two steadfast friends, and away, he hoped, from this line of thought. A man in his position could not afford any distractions.
“Who do they think they are?” he fumed. “Pennon and Tellerites? Sigfriedion and Roylos? Partners! Bah! Who needs one? Not the King of Thieves, that’s for sure! I’ve got along just fine, thank you very much, for all these years alone and I don’t see any need to change. You won’t catch me knocking myself for a row of amphorae over some wimp that can’t even get away from a jail in Scyros of all places. Jails in Scyros! Puh-lease! I could have got out of there, robbed the vault again and been gone before they even suspected they’d been had!”
But a stray thought stole into his line of reasoning like a hint of seasoning in a dull dish.
_Hercules saved your life, over and over. And he protected you from that snake when he could have cut and run._
“Yeah, well, he didn’t,” Autolycus told himself sourly. “So? What does that prove? He’s softer in the head than your average goody two sandals, that’s all.”
But his conscience had suddenly grown relentless and refused to let the matter drop.
_Hercules didn’t desert his partner and he didn’t desert you. That’s called loyalty, by some, heroism by others and decency by the general populace. Even you were impressed. It’s why you offered to testify on Iolaus’ behalf in the first place_.
“Will you drop the decency thing already?” Autolycus screamed aloud at his conscience. “I’ve got a reputation to uphold! I can’t afford and I don’t want attachments! I’m the King of Thieves, dammit! I DON’T NEED HERCULES! I DON’T NEED ANYBODY!”
Only a mocking silence answered him.
With a deep sigh, he hung his head. For the first time in years he longed to have someone to talk to, someone to listen to him like Malaegus used to - like Hercules had done in the mansion. Hercules had shown genuine sympathy, even hinted that he might have done the same thing in Autolycus’ place. It had felt good, to tell that story and get some of the anger he still felt out in the open and, more importantly, have someone listen and understand how he felt. But the chance to do that again was headed in the other direction, along with a partner who could access that resource any time he wanted to.
It only took a moment for Autolycus to come to a decision. The concepts of unshakable trust, absolute loyalty, and friendship based on mutual respect and love were confusing him out of the nice, comfortable little niche he had carved for himself and the cure for that confusion was to study that pair of yahoos until everything in his world made sense again. He turned on his heel and headed back the way he had come from Scyros to pick up the trail of a certain muscle man and his short stop sidekick. At first he wondered if he had taken total leave of his senses, but the further he walked, the more he knew that this was the right thing to do.
“Where did they say they were going? It doesn’t matter because they just bought themselves a shadow, wherever they meant to go! I hear they come from Corinth so they might be headed back there. If so, that old sot Jason had better guard the Golden Fleece because the King of Thieves is on his way!”
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