Disclaimer: We gratefully acknowledge the lifelong inspiration Ray Harryhausen has provided on our journey through Filmland.
It was dusk when Iolaus finally reached the city. The spectacular sunset that had accompanied his entrance to the outskirts of Corinth was now fading into a dusky rose. Helios had already pulled his chariot over the horizon but the day’s heat still lingered and Iolaus was looking forward to a long pull of quenching ale. He quickened his step as he walked through the busy streets.
The nearer he got to the centre of the city the more activity there was around him. Flickering lamps glowed in the twilight, creating a welcoming warmth and lighting the wares of the street vendors who would not close their stores until the streets were once again empty. Iolaus was surrounded by laughter and as the sound of voices rose in happy banter around him, he felt himself relax. This place was safe and it held some good memories for Iolaus, he was looking forward to seeing some of his old friends.
As he approached his destination the warrior looked down at his wrapped arm, he had become used to the sling he wore but his arm itched under its wrapping and he would be glad to finally be free of it , ‘Not long now’ Iolaus thought as he looked up at the big double doors ahead of him. From inside he could hear the muffled sounds that indicated a fight, a one-sided one at that. Looking back down at his broken arm a small smile pulled at the warrior’s lips, he’d already proved that he was more than equal to bettering an opponent with only one good arm; perhaps he’d get one more chance before going back to being a two armed warrior.
With a bounce in his step Iolaus strode up to the doors and pulled one open far enough to squeeze inside where he was met with a warm blast of air and a confusion of sounds. There was laughter coming from somewhere deeper inside the large room and a bubble of conversation created a background to the loud exclamations coming from an area to Iolaus’ right. Nobody had noticed his entrance and so he made his way towards the sounds of disturbance.
He was quick to size up the situation, a man, smaller than Iolaus, was angrily shouting up at another man. Not a wise thing to do as the other man was huge. He was taller than Hercules with broad shoulders and a vast girth, his muscles may not have been as finely honed as those of Hercules or Iolaus but there was a lot of strength in him all the same, and from the look on his face this man would as soon crush you as look at you.
This didn’t faze Iolaus one bit and he strode up to the big man a serious frown on his face, and with authority said, “Hey, pick on someone your own size!”
The huge man slowly turned and looked steadily down at Iolaus before replying, “There’s no one my size.”
The two glowered at each other for a long moment; two warriors sizing each other up before battle. Neither one noticed that the room had fallen silent, as everyone turned from their conversations to watch and see what would happen next.
“Ah,” Iolaus appeared to have given the other man’s comment some thought, “You have a point.”
And here the two men could no longer keep up the pretence and Iolaus laughed, grasping the other man’s arm in a warrior’s greeting and exclaiming, “Otus!” Otus grinned happily and enthusiastically returned the greeting.
In the background a voice started reciting, “And then the legendary Iolaus arrived! Had he been delayed by the arms of battle - or perhaps it was love that made him late?”
Iolaus turned to see a bearded man sitting on a nearby table, quill and parchment in hand, resting his feet on a chair, warm brown eyes smiling a greeting.
Iolaus strolled over and looked over the other man’s shoulder to read the parchment, “So you’re finally gonna put me in one of your stories, Archivus? You know - last time I didn’t get a mention.”
Archivus grinned, “Sometimes truth has to be sacrificed for art.”
The other people in the room had soon returned to their own conversations once it was obvious that there would be no blood shed and Iolaus was the only one who noticed the small movement in the rafters.
“Whoa! Heads up!” he called out just as a black-clad figure swung down from a chandelier and landed gracefully beside the hunter. The newcomer was a handsome man, with a strong jaw and neatly trimmed beard and he smiled warmly and gripped Iolaus’ shoulder in greeting, “Welcome Iolaus!”
Iolaus gave the new arrival an appraising look, noting that he was still as perfectly turned out as ever, and then he grinned as he greeted yet another old friend, “Castor! Still defying gravity I see.”
Castor just shrugged as if it were nothing, “I do what I can to ignore those birthdays I keep having.”
Archivus had decided that they’d had enough time to say hello and nodding towards Iolaus’ sling, said, “What stories can you tell about that?”
Iolaus looked down and gave a little shrug of his own, “Oh, you know, the usual thing, a couple of hundred barbarians, a beautiful maiden in distress, you know how it goes.” The twinkle in Iolaus’ eye matched the one in Archivus’ and they both grinned, they had fallen into the old patterns of banter almost as if they’d never been apart.
Archivus jumped down from the table and rolling up his parchment and concealing it and his quill in his robes, he slapped a hand on Iolaus’ back and said, “Come on, Iolaus, most of the other Argonauts are already here.”
Archivus led the group through corridors lit by flickering torches, the sounds of merriment slowly fading until they could no longer be heard. Iolaus followed him through an archway before all three men stopped moving and stared in wonder at the sight that met their eyes.
Iolaus’ face was bathed in the golden glow emanating from the fleece hanging on the far wall; its light warming the room and filling everyone there with a sense of well-being. Iolaus realised that he was holding his breath; he’d forgotten how awe inspiring it was just to see the fleece.
In a reverential tone Archivus could not help adding his own narrative, “Behold the golden fleece, the reason for this reunion - and the tie that will bind us forever.”
Iolaus sighed in wonder and unable to tear his eyes away from the glowing fleece said, “Can it have been so many years?”
Castor too spoke in hushed tones, “In my humble opinion we’ll never have a greater cause.”
Iolaus finally looked away from the fleece to see the other Argonauts as they gathered together, “Or a greater leader than Jason.”
He didn’t notice the doubt that filled Archivus’ voice when he replied, “Ri-ight - Jason.”
Remembering the great adventure that had brought the Golden Fleece back to Corinth Iolaus smiled. “Is he back yet? I heard that he was off on another quest.”
Castor, Archivus and the Argonauts that had already gathered, eyed each other uneasily, none of them wanting to be the ones to break the news; Iolaus and Hercules had always been close to Jason. Archivus broke the uncomfortable silence, he managed to stutter out a vague agreement before spotting someone and pouncing on the distraction it would cause, he said, “Oh look! There’s someone else you’ve got to see! Iolaus, do you remember the fair Phoebe, daughter of Lycenus the lookout?”
Iolaus turned to see a young woman smiling at him. This couldn’t be Phoebe, this woman was, she was - and then he remembered just how long had passed, the child he remembered had now grown into a beautiful young woman. “Yeah, but - only as a child. Phoebe, I was sorry to hear about your father’s accident.”
Phoebe’s smile fell from her face and she frowned, anger flashing in her blue eyes, “Don’t call it an accident. No accident could’ve killed him.”
Ever the appeaser, Archivus tried to calm Phoebe down and get her to see reason. “Phoebe, there’s never been anything to prove otherwise. Maybe you should let it go.”
In response Phoebe pulled a length of narrow leather from her belt and twisting the leather round a pellet of stone expertly flicked her wrist round twice before letting the pellet fly. It hit the castle wall with such velocity that it embedded itself into the mortar that filled the gaps between the stones there. Satisfied that she’d made her point, Phoebe stormed out of the room.
Iolaus watched in open mouthed amazement. “Wow! She’s a feisty one!”
Nobody else spoke they just nodded as they watched her retreating back, relieved that she was on their side.
Hercules was in a hurry, he was late meeting Iolaus and the other Argonauts and he couldn’t wait to see his friends all together once more. The demigod sincerely hoped that Jason would be there, he was worried about his friend, he had taken the death of his family hard and the responsibilities that came with his crown must be weighing heavily upon him. Hercules worried about the rumours he had heard of Jason going on a new quest, he remembered his own ‘quest’ after Deianeira and the children had gone and shivered, glad that he’d had a good friend to set him back on the right path.
Darkness had now taken over and the only light was from the braziers and torches of the local merchants who wanted to make the most of the reunion of the famous Argonauts and the influx of tourists to the city. Hercules was lost in thought and was startled when a merchant waved something in his face, “Ah! Buy a souvenir to remember your visit to Corinth. I have actual strands of the golden fleece.”
Hercules pushed the man’s hand away from his face, irritated by the intrusion but still polite he shook his head, “No thank you.”
Unfazed by his reaction the merchant tried another tack; surely the visitor would want something to remember his trip by. “How about a model of the Argo, a detailed replica of the famous ship that carried Jason and his crew on their quest?”
Hercules almost laughed at the man’s ignorance of his identity, instead he waved his hands across his face showing that he didn’t want anything, and said with a remarkably straight face, “I’ve - already seen it.”
The gangly merchant reached across his stall and picked up another souvenir to see if that would entice the man, it was a doll of Hercules, with wild hair and incredibly broad shoulders, but it wore Hercules’ familiar yellow vest and woven leather pants, not having noticed the similarity the merchant waved it at the retreating back. He looked at the man walking away from him and then he looked down at the doll, as recognition crossed his face the merchant called after Hercules, “Falafel, remember my name if you ever want to go into merchandising!”
Hercules hadn’t gone much further when he heard the sounds of angry men coming from an alleyway, “Hand over your money!” “Come on!”
Quickly Hercules darted down the alley and took in the situation, a man sat huddled against a wall as three others stood over him. They were pulling at the man’s ragged clothing and when he didn’t comply with their demands for money they started kicking him. Hercules moved swiftly, one of the men shouted again, “Hand it over!” and Hercules in a pacifying voice said, “Not this time boys.”
All three men looked at Hercules but not recognising him they weren’t scared, instead they saw an opportunity for a little workout and some more funds for their money pouches. Hercules took no time to persuade them of the errors of their ways and after dispatching the last of the three watched them run off, “I said, ‘Not this time’. Didn’t I make myself clear?”
He thought of chasing after the men and taking them to the magistrate but decided it wouldn’t be worth it, he’d given them a good scare and he wanted to check on their victim. He turned to where the man still cowered, his hands held tightly over his head in fear. “Well, if you’ve got a home to go to, my friend, maybe I should take you there.”
The man looked up at Hercules with haunted, bloodshot eyes. His face was haggard and his skin grey, salt and pepper stubble covered his cheeks and he screamed at Hercules spittle flying from his lips, “No! No! You want to take me to the fire below. I won’t go - no!”
Hercules felt rooted to the spot, it couldn’t be, he looked at the pathetic man before him and his heart broke. Unable to find his voice, a whisper of sound was all he could manage to greet his old friend, “Jason.”
Hercules hadn’t been able to rouse Jason enough to get him to move of his own volition and reluctantly he had slung his friend over his shoulder. As he walked with heavy heart towards the palace, the demigod wondered what demon it was that Jason was seeing and how he had reached this state without Hercules and Iolaus hearing about it. They should have been there for their friend - he’d needed them. He had needed Hercules and Hercules had let him down. He vowed that he wouldn’t do so again, that he would help Jason through this no matter what it took.
When he pushed open the heavy door and entered the palace he wasn’t met with shock or surprised gasps and the reaction of the crowd made him realize just how far Jason must have slipped. Archivus was just leading Iolaus and a few of the other Argonauts from a back room and he was first to spot Hercules and his burden.
“Who’s your passenger Hercules?”
“Jason.” As he answered Hercules helped Jason regain his feet, and the King swayed unsteadily in place. A look of sadness crossed Archivus’ face but Iolaus, displaying the same shock and confusion that Hercules had felt, rushed forward to Jason’s side, “What happened? I thought he was on a quest?”
Hercules sighed as he replied, “I think he lost his way.” Noticing that Jason was showing a little more awareness of his surroundings Hercules placed a big hand on his shoulder taking care not to use any of his strength in the touch - Jason seemed as if he would blow away on a strong gust of wind - “Welcome to the party, Jason.”
Jason looked around him, his blurred vision and the spinning of the room not helping to keep him very steady. He stared with distrust at the men surrounding him, “I don’t want to be here.”
Hercules felt as if he were talking to a recalcitrant child rather than a grown man - a leader of men - a hero. He spoke gently but firmly trying to break through the haze of confusion that seemed to be surrounding Jason. “Well, of course you do. You were our leader.”
Iolaus looked on, horrified by the change he saw in the once strong vibrant man. “Yeah, no one belongs here more than you do.” He said thinking back to the quest to claim the Golden Fleece, Jason every inch the heroic leader. It was hard to equate that image with the drunken man wavering before him and his heart broke a little at the sight.
Castor, his features a mask of concern, moved close to the king, “Listen to them Jason, they’re right.”
Jason saw the sadness and hurt in the eyes of his two oldest and closes friends and wanted a pit to open up and swallow him. He didn’t want their pity, he didn’t need their sorrow, he wanted them gone and he said so. But knowing his friends well he knew that they wouldn’t leave him so he would have to leave them, on unsteady legs he started towards the door.
A fuzzy face appeared before his eyes and he recognised the voice that came from it as Domesticles, an Argonaut he remembered as a solid safe presence with gentle hands, the familiar voice was that of a teacher recalling a wayward but bright student, “Not so fast, let’s have a look at you first.”
Jason felt his upper arm being held tight and winced as a hand pushed his head upward to the light. As he watched Hercules explained what had happened and Domesticles spared him a glance and a quick shake of the head, he spoke lightly though, not wanting to weigh his words with accusation, “Maybe he started celebrating a little early.” The smell of alcohol on Jason’s breath was overpowering.
Castor was getting impatient, “We’d better get him out of sight before ‘they’ see him.”
Several of the Argonauts nodded their agreement but Iolaus frowned and looked to Hercules for an explanation, Hercules turned to Castor, “Who are ‘they’? What are you talking about?”
As he spoke several men entered the room, they were led by one tall thin man with mousy hair that reached his shoulders in a lank fringe, he took in the situation with a glance and a tight smile ghosted over his lips before he schooled his face into a more sombre expression, “So, the king has returned.”
Archivus turned away to hide the expression of distaste that crossed his features but Castor didn’t hide his anger, “There’s your explanation Hercules.”
The newcomer, ignoring the exchange, looked at Jason disdainfully, taking in the dishevelled appearance and the wavering stance, “Seen any Demon’s lately?” he taunted.
Jason growled, this man was the centre of everything, and showing that he hadn’t completely lost his hold on reality he replied, “I’m looking at one right now.”
Hercules could feel the tension between the two men and was growing more and more confused, “Excuse me - but who are you?”
“My name is Marcus; I’m the chief regent of Corinth.”
Iolaus’ eyebrows flew up as he turned to Hercules and mouthed, ‘Regent?’ Hercules felt the same surprise and again berated himself for not returning to visit Jason sooner.
Noticing their surprise Domesticles offered an explanation, “He takes care of the day to day running of the kingdom for Jason.”
Hercules couldn’t understand what was happening here, “Jason, you’ve always had advisors - every king needs them, but a regent? Why would you need a regent?”
Jason was unable to meet his friend’s gaze and he let his eyes lower in shame, he wasn’t the man Hercules had once called friend - not anymore. “Things change.”
Marcus, apparently, wasn’t one to be ignored. He was seething at the disregard of the Argonauts and particularly Hercules and Iolaus, oh yes, he knew who they were. Touted all over Greece as ‘heroes’ their do-good ways made him sick, it was obvious that Hercules had never come across a real opponent or he would have long ago found his way to his father’s side on Olympus.
He spoke with barely concealed venom as he glowered at Hercules daring him to contradict him. “We won’t tolerate any more of Jason’s public displays. If you ‘Argonauts’ can’t keep him out of trouble, his days as King are numbered.”
Marcus watched the reactions of the people around him and well satisfied turned on his heel to leave. Iolaus was incensed. How could anyone, let alone this weasel-upstart-pretender speak like that of Jason? He shouted after Marcus, “Who do you think you are, talking to Jason like that? Don’t walk away from me! I’m talking to you!”
Glad that he was needed to reign in the apoplectic Iolaus, Hercules called him back, taking hold of Iolaus’ arm and hoping that the feel of his touch would bring the hunter back from the rage he felt. Hercules could feel his friend vibrating with indignation and anger under his touch. He left his hand on the hunter’s free arm until he was sure that Iolaus had calmed and then turned back to the Argonauts who were discussing Marcus.
Castor was shaking his head and saying, “Jason’s always bumping heads with Marcus and his men.”
Iolaus snorted at this, he wasn’t surprised that Jason and Marcus didn’t see eye to eye, what did surprise him was that Jason would put up with the likes of that sneering rat.
Another of the Argonauts, Artemus, who had remained silent until now said with bitterness in his voice, “Ever since Jason took to drinking.”
Archivus frowned and responded, as ever, trying to see the situation from all sides “You’d do the same if you had his nightmares, Artemus.”
Castor was nodding, “Jason’s been like this ever since -”
Artemus didn’t let him finish, “Jason poisoned Medea against her friends and family. Glauce was protecting those children, and Medea killed her.”
Hercules was worried by what he heard in Artemus’ voice, too much hatred and not enough compassion. He could understand the man’s pain; the woman that he loved had been nursemaid to Jason’s children. When Medea had, in her madness, killed her children the nursemaid had attempted to stop her, only to be murdered alongside the children she loved.
But that wasn’t an excuse for Artemus to wallow in self-pity or use Jason as a scapegoat for his anger. In a soft but strong voice, Hercules reminded Artemus of the price Jason had been made to pay, “She also murdered Jason’s children.”
Iolaus was nodding vigorously, how could anyone forget that? He couldn’t understand how anyone could let their anger cloud their judgement so badly as to miss what was staring them in the face Jason needed their compassion not their contempt. He turned to see how Jason was taking all of this only to see him staring intently at a barrel that stood to one side of the room.
Jason hadn’t been listening to the conversation, he’d been looking at the barrel and thinking about the wine that was held within, the blood red wine that could blot out his pain, stop him from fearing the demon, the wine that numbed him from the heartache for a short time. His eyes were betraying him though, the barrel seemed to move as he stared at it and the voice of his daughter seemed to echo from within, “Help me father.”
He didn’t think his heart could take any more it was too much, far too much. He tore his eyes away from the barrel and looked towards the main doors. The demon had entered the room, he stood, his heavy armour blocking his face, in the doorway staring at Jason. He’d come back for him, but the demon wouldn’t take him, he’d never let him!
Domesticles had noticed the king staring at the entrance and daring to approach him said, “Is there something you need Jason?” Jason had never allowed any of the Argonauts to call him ‘King’ or treat him any differently now that he was the king, it made Domesticles feel a little uncomfortable calling the king by his first name, but it irritated Marcus and that was enough to ensure that all the Argonauts remembered to call the king by his given name.
Jason turned to his companion and grabbed his sleeve in both hands, “Domesticles, he was here. Did you see him? The demon was right over there!”
Domesticles nervously glanced over at Hercules and reminding himself that this was Jason and once their leader, he patted the king’s shaking hands that still gripped his sleeve and said kindly, “I think you’ve been dreaming again there, Jason.” Domesticles almost wished that the demon had stood in the doorway; he hated to see Jason like this.
Jason was desperate for his friends to believe him; he knew he was right, he couldn’t be imagining this demon. “I saw him in the alley too.” he said, pulling his hands free and turning to face the rest of the Argonauts, desperate to see just one face with belief written on it. Instead he saw Hercules sadly shaking his head, “It was me you saw in the alley. Maybe we should talk about this Jason.” But Jason recognised the tone he’d used it himself on his children when he was humouring them. If Hercules was only humouring Jason then what was left for him? Even his friends were deserting him, with a heavy heart Jason turned away his eyes coming to rest on the unopened barrel. “I need a drink.”
Hercules didn’t know what he was going to say, he got no further than, “Jason…” before the party-crashers arrived.
All Tartarus broke lose as the palace was invaded by a masked hoard, Jason stared horrified as a masked demon burst from the barrel he’d been salivating over. Hercules and Iolaus along with their Argonaut comrades wasted no time in responding to the threat. Swords were drawn and where swords weren’t available, anything to hand was used in their place. Pewter tankards were clashed against the heads of the enemy, plates smashed against their armour; a handy bench was lifted by Otus and swung to lay out three of the red and black liveried soldiers at once.
Hercules and Iolaus were, as always, working as a well-oiled machine but the gate-crashers kept coming for more. Iolaus risked checking to see if Jason was all right and spotting him holding a sword and standing up to one opponent he smiled grimly. His friend might be a bit out of breath and unsteady on his feet, he may even think that he was up against three instead of only one, but he was still willing and he still swung his sword expertly. Satisfied Iolaus turned back to his own opponent and ducked a blow before dropping to sweep the man’s feet out from under him, Hercules finishing the move by giving a well placed kick and sending the man rolling speedily across the floor.
Glancing up Hercules noticed that they seemed to have overcome their attackers, who were all rushing to leave the palace; it wasn’t until he heard Jason exclaim that he spotted the tall leader exiting with the Golden Fleece flung over his shoulder.
Iolaus caught his eye and the two men barely nodded at each other before Iolaus was grabbing a couple of the Argonauts - fleetest of foot and quietest amongst the group - and sidling out of the door after the fleece.
Iolaus had been gone for nearly an hour and Hercules and Jason were both beginning to feel the edges of worry niggling them. Iolaus was an expert tracker and an outstanding warrior, he could look after himself, but he was also their friend and one thing nobody could resist was worrying about their friends.
The Argonauts had moved to the room the Golden Fleece had been displayed in, it seemed the right place to be whilst waiting for news of its fate, and they milled around talking nervously while Hercules leaned against the wall next to Jason, who sat dejected on a bench.
Somebody must have sent for Marcus because he entered the room at that moment, sneering at the men as he passed through them, he walked over to the back wall and stared at the empty space there. Turning on the gathered men he shouted, “This is a disgrace! You Argonauts are as low on honour as your drunken leader.”
Hercules pushed himself away from the wall and spoke quietly in response, “The longer I listen to you, Marcus, the more I don’t like you. Be careful with your words. As for the fleece, we’ll get it back.”
Just as Archivus made his approval of Hercules’ words known, there was a commotion at the back of the room. Iolaus and his companions had returned; breathless but determined the hunter pushed his way through the Argonauts to make his report to Hercules and Jason.
“We tracked them to the harbour, they had a ship - they’re sailing east.” Iolaus’ eyes sparked with determination, this was by no means over yet.
Hercules smiled grimly and nodded his approval at his friend, “Is the ‘Argo’ still sea-worthy?”
Marcus had been upstaged once more by these friends of Jason, and he was fuming, what right did Hercules have to come in here and take over the decision making from the regent? He wasn’t king, he wasn’t regent and he wasn’t even in Corinth all that often. But his blustering response was cut short, “But you can’t just …” was as far as he got before Hercules continued, “I’ll take that as a yes. Gentlemen - we’re going after the fleece again.”
Domesticles was not one to be caught up in the moment, his steady nature and sensible approach had been valuable to the Argonauts many a time in the past, “I’m not going anywhere until I know who we’re going after.” He was looking at Iolaus as he spoke.
“They call themselves Blood-eyes, they’re a cult - they worship Hera.”
An Argonaut called out, “Fanatics!” everyone there knowing what that meant. Men willing to kill for their god, instead of men willing to die for each other or the families they left at home.
Castor had been quiet up until now but there was something he wanted to know, “Did anyone see their leader?”
Several men were shaking their heads, they hadn’t seen in the confusion, but Jason stood, “I saw him. It was the demon.”
Domesticles shook his head and muttered, “There’s the wine talking’ again.”
Jason heard and rounded on his old friend desperate for someone to believe him, “No, it was him. I swear it. He’s the one took the fleece.” He looked across at Hercules and pulled his shoulders back, trying to put some of the old Jason into his voice he said, “I brought the fleece back once; I can do it again.”
Hercules moved to stand beside Jason and put a supportive hand on his shoulder, and as Iolaus moved to stand at Jason’s other side Hercules said knowing that he was speaking for both of them, “Jason, we’d be proud to go with you.”
Iolaus looked expectantly at the familiar faces that surrounded them, “Anyone else?”
There was an uncomfortable moment’s silence while the Argonauts regarded their once proud, now broken, leader, and then Domesticles said what was in all their thoughts, “Look - I’m - I’m willing to go. I - I believe we all are but - but we want you to lead us, Hercules.”
He finished with a rush and looked at his feet, embarrassed that he had spoken. Hercules stared at him, how could an Argonaut turn his back on the greatest leader they’d ever had? How could they forget so easily, Hercules’ shock was evident in his voice when he said, “But he’s our leader.”
Iolaus listened to the arguments of the men around him, standing close to Jason in silent support. Perhaps he wasn’t the man he once was - right now, but he could be again, if his friends helped him. Iolaus looked across at Hercules, they wouldn’t be able to help if they lived in denial, Jason wasn’t up to leading a major expedition like this and the men didn’t trust him enough to follow him. Hercules would have to realize that.
Ignoring the cruel barbs Artemus was throwing towards Jason, Iolaus kept his voice soft, knowing that Hercules wouldn’t ignore the tone or miss the unspoken message. Jason needed their help - they couldn’t do that by pretending he was fine. Looking Hercules directly in the eye, but keeping a gentle hand on Jason’s arm, Iolaus said, “They have a point Hercules.”
The demigod hadn’t wanted to accept it but he knew the truth even before Iolaus spoke. He sighed this was a very sad day, “All right. I’ll lead the expedition if that’s what you want - but Jason navigates the Argo. Any complaints?”
Of course nobody had any complaints and the rising chatter that filled the room was full of excitement for the adventure to come. Iolaus grinned and slapped Jason on the back, “We’re gonna get the fleece back Jase, and we’re gonna be great!” Jason couldn’t help smiling back at Iolaus the other man’s enthusiasm was infectious.
No one noticed Marcus as he slipped from the room, screwing up his face in distaste. They would pay for this, it had taken a lot of work to turn Jason into this sad drunken figure being propped up by his friends, he wasn’t going to let all that good work go to waste. They would pay spectacularly.
Preparations didn’t take long. As soon as the denizens of Corinth heard that the Argonauts were going after the fleece they offered up whatever supplies and aid that was needed to get the Argo ready.
The ship was buzzing with activity throughout the night, and come the early morning’s high-tide all was almost ready. Iolaus was bringing a final barrel of water onboard when he noticed Jason standing at the bow, beside the Argo’s figurehead. Rolling the barrel into place Iolaus decided to take a break and went to join his friend.
The sea was an exquisite shade of green and the distant breakers were an excellent indication that they would make good time under sail for the first part of their journey at least. The Argo had always been a fast ship, quick to manoeuvre but still solidly built and Iolaus felt that dependability through the movement of the decking under his feet. He watched the sea undulating and sparkling in the bright early morning sunlight as he stood beside Jason. He didn’t speak not wanting to interrupt the other man’s thoughts.
Eventually Jason acknowledged his presence, “They’ve got quite a head start - think we’ll catch them?”
Iolaus paused to consider, “With you at the helm? No problem.”
Jason chuckled at the confidence in his friend’s voice and then he sighed, “I’m not the same man Iolaus. Don’t rely on me.”
“Why don’t you climb out of that well of pity you’re wallowing in over there? You’re still Jason, you’ve saved my life too many times to count, and I know that you would again if I needed you. I believe in you Jason - you should too.”
Jason looked back out to sea for a long time before replying, when he did he seemed to be ignoring Iolaus’ comment, but the hunter knew his friend well enough to know that he’d taken it to heart. “Time’s getting on, we need to go or we’ll miss the tide. Come on Iolaus, let’s get everyone aboard!”
Iolaus grinned briefly before disappearing into the mass of people on the deck. Jason soon heard him yelling down to the Argonauts on the dock to board. He watched as the Argonauts soon cleared the ship of everyone who didn’t belong and took a deep breath, he wanted Iolaus to be right, but he was scared that the demon had other ideas for him.
It might have been a bright, beautiful day outside, but in the depths of the palace it was gloomy and the room Marcus had chosen for his meeting was poorly lit, dark shadows flickered across his face. He wouldn’t be seeing the Argo off like half of Corinth, shouting and waving from the quayside as the Argonauts once more journeyed forth on a great adventure in search of the Golden Fleece. Instead he was secreted in a little used part of the palace meeting with a woman of cold regal appearance. She was of indeterminate age; neither old, nor young she seemed somehow ageless. Marcus kept his head deferentially lowered as if he were a little scared of her.
However, his voice was strong and assured when he spoke, “The Argonauts are finished. Our champion will make sure of that.”
The woman wasn’t impressed by his confidence, perhaps she knew more of the reputations of Hercules and his friend than Marcus, she said, “He is only a mortal. Take this in case he fails us.”
She detached a bag from her belt, and held it out to the regent. He hesitated to take it; not liking the sound of dry bones rubbing together that was coming from whatever was contained. “What is it?”
Holding it open to him she smiled and as she dropped each ivory item into his cupped hands, said, “Insurance - to ensure that none of the Argonauts will survive, even if they do return.”
Looking into the bag, Marcus realised that it was filled with teeth, but like no teeth he’d ever seen before. They were large, far too big to be a man’s, and pointed - almost like a dog’s incisors. Something stirred in his memory and he began to smile, but then he remembered that they still had a demigod to content with. “But what about Hercules, no one has ever been able to destroy him.”
The woman laughed, “Until now.” And with that she was gone, the space where she stood now empty, the torches on the walls guttered as the air was displaced, but Marcus hardly noticed. He reverently ran his fingers over the precious gift in his hands. Hydra’s teeth, oh what a powerful and awesome gift he had been given by his goddess, he would not let her down.
Strife laughed his cackling laugh, head thrown back as Ares waited patiently for him to finish - the only sign of his growing impatience a small flicker at the corner of his eye. Finally Strife spoke,
“Oh, you should have seen me Uncle. I was magnificent.” He leaned heavily on the arm of Ares’ throne to recover his breath, but the low growl coming from its occupant soon made him stand back. “Marcus lapped it up. He thinks Hera is helping him. It’s working out perfectly.”
Ares allowed himself a small sardonic twitch of the lips, but he didn’t want to give Strife too much praise, ‘keep ‘em hungry for more’ was his way of thinking. So, he turned his head as if he was bored, “Maybe nephew, maybe. You’d better hope it works.”
“Oh it’s gonna work, it’s gonna be so good. Wait until you see the skeletons, they are awesome!”
Ares had reached his limit of Strife and waved his hand, the young god disappeared in a puff of blue smoke. Ares laughed, wondering how his nephew would explain his sudden appearance in Aphrodite’s bath house.
Hercules and Iolaus were standing together at the bow of the ship, the other Argonauts had fallen back into their old roles so smoothly that it was hard to believe that so long had passed since they’d worked together as a crew. Both men felt their hearts swell with pride as they watched, there was nothing for them to do for now and they knew better than to get in the way of the others.
Just then the lookout pointed and called from the crow’s nest, “Ship ho!”
Iolaus and Hercules both turned to see and shading his eyes Iolaus pointed to a small black speck on the horizon. “There! That must be it.” He added in a quiet voice, “Do you think he’s up to it Herc?”
“He’s a hero Iolaus.”
Iolaus sighed, sometimes Hercules wouldn’t accept that things didn’t come in black and white, sometimes gold became tarnished. “I know, but to hear the others talk about him - for them that Jason doesn’t exist.” Iolaus knew that if the men didn’t believe in their leader, it didn’t really matter how good he was - they wouldn’t follow.
Hercules didn’t want to hear any more, “I’ll believe that when I see it.” His eyes returned to the distant ship, “It’s just hanging out there - daring us to follow.”
Iolaus recognised Hercules’ attempt to change the subject but he decided to let him. He wanted to believe in Jason just as badly as Hercules. He remembered what the demigod had been like after he lost his family; even hero’s had off-days Iolaus just hoped that having his friends supporting him would be enough to bring Jason back.
The hunter screwed his eyes up against the glare of the sun and tried to see some detail, “I wish I could see how many are aboard, I can’t make out a thing.”
Phoebe had come forward wanting to see the other ship and overhearing Iolaus she couldn’t help showing off a little, “There are - twenty black-clad warriors wearing the red peacock eye, nine at the bow, eleven at the stern. One of them walks with a limp. I think he has a gammy left leg. There may be more below deck, the boat’s running low in the water.”
Hercules grinned at the young girl, “Your father had the eyes of an eagle as well.”
Phoebe’s eyes flashed, obviously still full of anger at the loss of her father, every mention of him seemed to set her at odds with the world, “I’ve got more than good eyes. I’ve got a fighting heart.”
Iolaus’ eyes grew round as he looked over Phoebe’s head to Hercules, this one was more than feisty she had a strong determination to prove herself worthy of the Argonauts. He was very glad that she was on their team. Hercules smiled at her but wanting to quiet her fervour answered in a soothing voice, “Well, let’s hope you don’t have to prove it. Ah, the wind’s switching. Maybe we can get back some of the distance they have on us.”
He turned away to talk to Jason leaving Phoebe alone with Iolaus. He sidled over to her and nodding towards the distant horizon asked, “Can you really see all that?”
Phoebe grinned, “I made up the part about the limp.”
The Argonauts had worked hard to close the gap and now they waited as the wind and Jason took on the task. Iolaus was spending the time talking to Phoebe and Archivus, exchanging tall tales and telling Phoebe about times they had spent with her father. Hercules was watching Jason, who stood at the helm the wind tugging at his hair. Jason looked more at peace as he faced the wind, feeling its breath and listening to its whispers, pushing the Argo through the water to the wind song only he could hear. Hercules was glad of that, it was good to see the men getting along so well after such a long time apart, and it was very good to see a little of the old Jason emerging.
From behind him Hercules heard a shout; it was Valerus, “Otus!”
Everyone turned to see what was happening and the sight that met their eyes was enough to make one or two Argonauts snigger with laughter before quickly quelling their giggles. This was no laughing matter. Otus, his face a thundercloud, was holding Artemus by the throat; he’d lifted him off of his feet and was holding him high in the air. Artemus was weakly batting at Otus’ arms, his face turning deep red.
Hercules moved quickly as Iolaus watched with concern, ready to move if he should be needed. Hercules put a hand on Otus’ back, “Put him down Otus.”
“Do I have to?”
“If you want to get along with me you do.”
Otus frowned and finally put Artemus down, releasing his neck at the same time, “Okay. But he keeps saying things about Jason”
Artemus lay in a heap on the deck, gasping for breath and clutching his neck. Hercules had the feeling that he was overplaying his reaction, Otus was a sweet natured man, and very strong, if he’d really wanted to hurt Artemus he would have broken his neck. Remaining calm Hercules said, “Is that right? What’s the problem, Artemus?”
The Argonaut found his breath quickly enough to respond, “Jason is gonna lead us to disaster. That’s the problem. He destroys everyone near him - just like he destroyed Glauce!”
As he spoke Artemus rose to his feet, leaning heavily on Valerus who had come over to see if he could help. Valerus shook his head sadly, “You’ve got to let it go, sometime, Artemus or it’ll destroy you.”
Artemus was able to stand on his own now, and everyone in the vicinity could feel the heat of his rage as it burned through him. Castor stepped forward hoping that he could make the man see reason, “We all know you loved Glauce, but Jason didn’t kill her. Medea did.”
Artemus spat at Castor’s feet, “It may as well have been Jason! And you’d admit it too, if you weren’t so busy kidding yourself he’s still a hero.”
Valerus sighed and turned away, unable to cope with the single minded hatred emanating from his old friend, “The man is a mess.” No one was quite sure whether he was talking about Artemus or Jason.
As everyone started turning back to their conversations and work Hercules shouted after them in exasperation, “What’s happened to you? All of you! We used to be a team.”
Iolaus watched sadly, he exchanged a glance with Jason, who had remained quiet throughout the confrontation, apparently concentrating on steering the Argo, but Iolaus had seen him stealing looks. The two men knew that Hercules was being naïve if he thought that they could all go back to the happy family they’d once been. Too much had happened; too many men’s feelings were running high. Iolaus silently sent Jason his support and received a nod of acknowledgement. All might not be sweetness and light in the Argonaut family, but they still were a family and they would get through this - together.
Jason was relishing the feel of the salt air on his face, the warm worn wood of the Argo’s wheel responsive beneath his touch. He’d forgotten what it felt like to steer her, the feel of her cutting through the waves at his bidding, the deck beneath his feet gently rising and falling if he got it right. He could almost forget the demon he could almost forget his need to find the bottom of a barrel - almost, but not quite. He looked up at Hercules who was making his way to Jason’s side.
“Disappointed in me Hercules?” Jason knew the answer already, he was disappointed in himself.
“How can I be disappointed in you, Jason? I know what you’re going through.”
Jason shook his head sadly, why did they have to lose so much? He spoke softly, “Yeah. But you’re stronger than I am.” He left unspoken the thought that came unbidden, ‘and you had Iolaus to drag you back.’
“You can do the same, all you have to -”
Jason waved his hand in the air impatiently, “I don’t want to hear it. I’m tired of my problems. All I want from you is a promise, Hercules.”
“After we catch up with these thieves, make sure the fleece gets back to Corinth.”
Hercules frowned, unsure what Jason meant, he was beginning to wonder if he’d been right to insist Jason came along. “What are you talking about? You’ll take it there yourself.”
Jason heaved a big sigh, Hercules just couldn’t seem to understand he’d thought that the demigod of all people would be able to understand. “I brought about the death of my family. The gods have sent a demon to punish me. It’s just a matter of time now. But if we can recapture the fleece, then people might still remember me kindly.”
“Jason, the fleece isn’t what made you king.”
“Maybe not, but it’s the only thing left of me that anyone respects.”
Before Hercules could think of a reply there was a shout from amidships and he quickly excused himself and ran to see what had happened. Jason watched him go with a heavy heart. Hercules just wouldn’t accept that he was the only one that still saw the old Jason when he looked at his friend. He couldn’t accept that things change and that perhaps they couldn’t return to the way they once were. He returned his attention to the sea and the sails, adjusting the wheel slightly to compensate for a change in the wind’s direction.
Hercules found a group of Argonauts standing round the steps down into the hold, peering into the gloom he could make out a familiar crown of bright hair and he pushed his way through the crowd to make his way carefully down the damp wooden steps.
Sprawled at the bottom lay the body of Otus, his head at an odd angle, his neck obviously broken.
Hercules asked the small group around him, “What happened?”
Artemus was the first to answer, “I don’t know. I found him like this.”
The demigod looked sadly down at his old friend, shivering at the unnatural position he lay in. “His neck’s broken.”
Artemus said, “He must have fallen down the stairs.”
Iolaus had been quiet until now because he was deeply saddened by this discovery, Otus had been a gentle giant, kind and sweet natured and loyal to a fault. But he had to say what he believed, “No. Otus was too agile.”
“Those steps are pretty slippery.” Artemus shrugged and then looked around him, uncomfortable under the scrutiny of several pairs of eyes. “What are you staring at me like that for?”
But before anyone could answer, Phoebe’s voice drifted down into the dark hold from above, they would have to leave the matter of Outs’ death for now, a more pressing matter had presented itself.
Phoebe called again, “Land ho!”
As the subdued group emerged from the darkness below Jason waited impatiently for news. Blinking and screwing up their eyes against the bright sunlight, Hercules and Iolaus made their way to the side of their navigator who impatiently asked, “What’s the problem?”
Iolaus looked away, out across the ocean to the distant ship that they were trailing, to die in battle was one thing, to die like this - he shook his head trying to free himself of the morbid thoughts that were flowing through his head. He heard Artemus answer Jason’s query, he didn’t have the heart right now to tell his friend the bad news, and he knew that Hercules felt the same.
Artemus, however, had no such reservations, “Otus is dead.”
Jason, horrified, looked between Hercules and Iolaus, daring them to deny the terrible news. Iolaus kept his gaze out to sea he couldn’t be the one, Hercules would have to confirm the news. He closed his eyes as he heard his friend’s voice saying what he hadn’t been able to, “He - slipped. He fell on the stairs.” And as it had come from Hercules everyone accepted the explanation, Hercules would know the truth, they trusted him. Iolaus absently flexed the fingers of his hand, trapped in its protective covering his arm felt weak now, no longer the valuable tool of a warrior. It was frustrating.
In the background he heard Archivus speaking aloud the words he was writing, as if they were all part of a mythological tale. If only that were true, if it were Otus’ sisters and brother would not need to grieve for him then, his father wouldn’t have to bury a son. Archivus’ voice droned in the background, a comforting familiarity, as Iolaus found Hercules beside him at the rail, he didn’t look at his companion when he spoke, “So, he fell?” He knew better, so did Hercules.
“He was killed. But until we find out by whom-- we don’t need everyone looking over their shoulders.”
Iolaus nodded in agreement, but he couldn’t let his worry go, “Do you think it was Artemus? He didn’t like Otus.”
Hercules looked down at his friend; he knew that Iolaus had been particularly fond of the gentle giant. He clapped a warm hand on Iolaus’ bare shoulder and squeezed in an attempt at comfort. His words weren’t of comfort though, that wasn’t their way. His words were to the matter at hand, “Why would he draw attention to finding the body?”
Iolaus didn’t acknowledge Hercules’ offered comfort but he felt it and appreciated it all the same. Instead he answered his friend’s question. “On the other hand - who else would want Otus killed?”
This was the thing that bothered both men. One of the Argonauts had turned bad; one of their friends had murdered another of their friends. They tried to remain level headed - if they didn’t who would? And how many might die as a result? But how could they not feel their worry, how could they not express their sadness? Hercules answered his friend softly, “Yeah.” And for a moment they both turned to watch the other ship as it curved towards the nearby island.
Phoebe watched carefully as the distant ship turned and disappeared from sight behind the island. She was looking for a good secluded bay where they could weigh anchor without being detected. Finally she smiled and let out a triumphant exclamation. She quickly showed Jason her find and he steered the Argo gently into a bay hidden by the island from the other ship and from prying eyes on all sides by the steep slopes of a volcano.
The small group of Argonauts put to shore on a beach black with volcanic sand and before moving off they checked their surroundings. The beach edged the sea in a natural bay, to their right it was replaced by the verdant steep slopes leading towards the volcano. Above them hung a heavy black cloud, this volcano was awake. The air was filled with the smell of smoke and sulphur and Iolaus wrinkled his nose in disgust, he knew that if they stayed too long here he’d spend the next week coughing his lungs up. Briefly he looked out to sea and wished for the clear bracing salt air but then he turned and trotted up the beach. He was the best hunter amongst the Argonauts and Hercules didn’t need to order him to start tracking their prey.
They followed the shoreline around the small island until they found where the Blood-eyes had come ashore and then the group waited while Iolaus scanned the ground with an expert eye. It wasn’t long before he looked up at Hercules, “They went that way, up the cliff.”
It was a steep climb and they were all breathing hard by the time they reached the top. Jason was lagging behind, and when he finally caught up to the others he could hardly catch his breath. Leaning his hands on his knees he wheezed until his racing heart had settled and his breathing had eased. Looking up he realised that everyone was watching him, Artemus with disgust, Valerus and Archivus with pity; he glanced across at Hercules and Iolaus, his stomach fluttering with fear of what he would see in their eyes. All he could see was concern, but he was disappointed enough in himself for all of them. He would have to pull himself together.
Once he was sure that Jason was all right, Iolaus led the way through lush forest, the volcano’s peak still lay above them but from under the emerald canopy he couldn’t see it. He couldn’t even smell it from here and for that he was very grateful, he guessed that the trees somehow soaked up the smoke before it could penetrate their crowns.
After a few minutes of silent travelling Iolaus turned and put a finger to his lips, “It’s them.”
Hercules had seen the same movement, they’d found the lookouts, “How many guards?”
Phoebe pointed as she softly said, “Five - three in those trees and two in the rocks over there.”
Iolaus smiled, she was good. “There’s two more behind that bush.”
Surprised Phoebe raised her eyebrows she hadn’t spotted them even with her eagle eyes, “How did you know?”
Even Hercules, who had witnessed Iolaus’ skills first hand on many an occasion was impressed, but even as he asked the question he knew what his friend would say, “Yeah, how ‘did’ you know?”
Iolaus grinned, “It’s an old hunter’s trick.”
Hercules shook his head as ever amazed by his friend’s ability and turned to Jason - the Argonauts might have made him their leader for this adventure but Jason would always be their true leader, “Jason, what do you want to do?”
Jason glared fiercely at the trees where Phoebe had seen two lookouts, he could see nothing but he felt his anger overflow, with everything that he had suffered over the last months this was just the last straw. “Attack!”
Knowing that he couldn’t stop the other man, Hercules followed Jason and hoped that they wouldn’t alert the other Blood-eyes while they were taking out the guards.
It didn’t take long to overcome the Blood-eye guards, they worked quietly and quickly, and more importantly they worked as a team. Domesticles and Phoebe downing a guard with his bulk and her skills with a slingshot, Iolaus dealing with the two guards Hercules sent his way and then being shushed by Hercules when he was about to crow his delight. Covering his mouth and grinning, Iolaus looked around for the next opponent and he didn’t hide his disappointment when he realised that all the guards had been accounted for.
Blood was pumping, adrenaline flowing, the Argonauts were on a high from their first success. Hercules knew that this was a dangerous time, a time for their leader to remind his men of their objective, ensure that their heads ruled their hearts. He knew that Iolaus, whilst bubbling over with energy, would keep his focus, he wasn’t so sure of the others. But as they crouched behind some bushes watching for movement from where they knew the Blood-Eyes should be camped it was Jason that couldn’t wait any longer.
He felt the victory over his opponent in his veins he’d forgotten the strength, the power it gave him. Jason might be a washed up old king, but he still had what it takes, he could still get the fleece, and his life, back. Standing, he thrust his sword in the air, startled Hercules whispered frantically, “Jason, what are you doing?”
“Trying to regain my good name, Argonauts attack!” he shouted as he ran forwards through the undergrowth. It was as if a spell had been broken, after the stillness there was pandemonium. The Argonauts forgot who was leading them, they forgot the need for stealth, they felt the lust for battle and they followed Jason.
Iolaus watched in horror as his friends scattered, he shouted after Phoebe as she ran forwards and glancing at Hercules he decided that it was too late for caution now, he raced after her hoping that none of them would pay for their blind foolish attack. Hercules watched helplessly as he saw the movement in the branches above them that confirmed his worst fears, “Hold on - it’s a trap, they’re trying to split us up!”
Valerus had managed to outflank a group of the Blood-eyes without their detecting him and as he watched them he took some steadying breaths, hearing a noise behind him he whirled around only to relax, the person he saw was no threat. As he turned back to the task at hand pulling an arrow from its quiver he didn’t see the smile on his companion’s face, and he never got the chance to let his arrow fly.
Archivus, for once, had left his quill and parchment secreted in his robes, he was still giving a running commentary of the action he could see, trying to ingrain it in his mind so that he could write everything down later - when there was time. “As the fair Phoebe watched, two of the evil Blood-Eyes attacked her companions, Domesticles and Artemus. Artemus, full of rage, swung his sword mightily and engaged in battle with one opponent leaving the other to Domesticles. But Phoebe was not content to just watch she snapped her wrist with expert care and let fly her deadly weapon, felling the enemy who had been about to drop from the trees above and finish Domesticles.” Archivus breathed a sigh of relief as Domesticles downed his man with a round-house punch grinning his thanks at Phoebe.
Iolaus yelled over to Archivus as he battled two more Blood-eyes, “Hey don’t forget about me!” he kicked one in the midriff as he caught the other’s fist in his hand and punched him in the face with it repeatedly until the man fell senseless. Walking away from the two downed men, he grinned at Archivus, “That’s two Blood-Eyes and with the use of only one hand I’d say that’s the same as at least four.”
“Iolaus, with his usual flair, despatched the remaining Blood-Eyes, even though he was hampered by a bound wrist and the other hand tied behind his back, he was also hobbled and had been struck blind earlier in the day. - Does that suit you Iolaus?”
The two men laughed and as the danger seemed to have passed for now, turned their attention to finding their comrades.
Jason had run at the opposition with nothing in his mind but getting his reputation back, having men beside him who respected him and trusted him. His anger at himself, his disgust at what he’d allowed himself to become had finally exploded into this battle fever and he ran after every Blood-eye he saw, bellowing his ire, and swinging his sword. He didn’t feel tired, his arm didn’t shake he had too much adrenaline running through him to feel the toll he was taking on his out of shape body.
He could see a figure ahead of him, running away, running from him. He gave chase and barely noticed that he was being lured further and further away from the other Argonauts. Finally he burst into a clearing; surrounded by the tall trees of the forest it was covered in lush grass dotted with wild flowers. On another day, in different circumstances it would be a nice spot for a picnic. Today however … Jason turned in a circle, holding his sword at the ready before him. There was no one there, but he felt eyes watching, he waited.
There, suddenly springing from the shade of the trees strode the demon. His demon, he moved forward to meet him. Finally he had someone to fight, finally he could free himself. He shouted at the demon, “You’ve haunted me long enough!”
Their swords clashed.
Jason was tiring rapidly, his sword ten times its normal weight and his breath coming in hard burning gasps. The demon was bigger, stronger, and faster than him, why had he been so arrogant that he thought he could win this? But Jason was stubborn too and he wouldn’t go down easily.
The demon’s mask taunted him as it swung its sword in a big arc, giving him plenty of time to duck below its deadly edge. As he ducked, Jason turned meaning to sweep the demon’s feet from underneath him but his timing was wrong, and all he succeeded in doing was tripping himself up. The demon silently gloated, pushing him onto his back with a foot and standing astride him it held its sword over Jason’s chest in readiness for the final blow.
Hercules had lost sight of Jason and he was worried. He could hear Iolaus and some of the others as they fought their own battles, the sounds reassuring him that all was well with them, but there was no sign of Jason. He’d meant to keep close to the king, protect him if it was necessary, but two Blood-eyes had dropped onto him from above and the seconds it had taken him to dispose of the threat had been enough for Jason to disappear from sight.
Hercules ran, his long loping stride eating up the ground, as he followed the trail he hoped Jason had taken. It wasn’t long before the clang of sword hitting sword could be heard. Picking up his pace Hercules didn’t pause until he’d broken out of the trees and into a sunlit clearing.
He didn’t break stride as he took in the scene before him, the Blood-eye leader standing astride Jason’ prostrate form, sword raised. Knowing that he had no time left, Hercules leapt into the air, aiming at the Blood-eye with both feet and sending them tumbling onto the grass and away from a dazed Jason.
Even though his breath had been taken from him the Blood-eye rolled quickly to his feet and swung his sword at Hercules’ head. The demi-god needed all his quick reflexes to lean back and catch the sword between his hands; pulling it from his opponents grip he flipped it so that he was able to swing it at the Blood-eye. The masked man knew that he was beaten and beat a hasty retreat into the trees, scrambling up a tree trunk as nimbly as a squirrel and disappearing into the dense foliage.
Hercules wasn’t able to track him with his eyes, so he didn’t bother following, instead he turned to Jason, who was levering himself up from the ground with his sword. When Jason noticed his approach he looked up at his old friend and said, “You should have let him take me.”
Hercules was taken aback by the defeat he heard in Jason’s voice, but this wasn’t the time to talk about it. Hauling Jason to his feet and herding him back to where they’d left the others he just said, “I couldn’t do that. Come on. Let’s make sure everybody else is still in one piece.”
Iolaus had stayed with Phoebe, he felt protective of the young girl. He remembered her father fondly and he knew that although she was well capable of looking after herself, she was still inexperienced and he’d never forgive himself if something should happen to her. So, whilst Archivus and Artemus had gone to see if any of the others needed help, he had waited with Phoebe and Domesticles. Waiting didn’t suit him well, and he was impatiently pacing when Hercules finally returned with Jason in tow.
Hercules took in his friend’s tense shoulders and Phoebe’s nail biting and frowned, “This doesn’t look good, what happened?”
Iolaus threw his hands up; surely Hercules already knew what had happened, “Huh! It was a trap; there were dozens of them out there!”
Phoebe piped up, “Yeah, we’re lucky to be alive.”
But it seemed that one of the Argonauts hadn’t been so lucky, Archivus and Artemus came into sight bearing a hastily put together stretcher, and on it was laid Valerus’ body. Archivus was uncharacteristically silent as they gently laid the body on the ground, but Artemus was not so reticent, his body thrumming with anger he said, “One of those savages stabbed Valerus in the back! His quiver was still full of arrows. He didn’t even get off a shot.”
Jason closed his eyes against the sadness that overwhelmed him before turning to the Argonauts that stood close together, “He was too brave a warrior to die like this. There never was a greater archer.”
Artemus turned on Jason, his anger boiling over, “You’re the reason he’s dead! You led us into this trap!”
Hercules held his hands up in a placatory gesture, positioning himself between Artemus and Jason and he felt Iolaus move to Jason’s side behind him. Keeping his whole attention on Artemus he fought to stay calm and not release the anger he was feeling towards the other man. “Now is not the time for pointing fingers Artemus.”
But Artemus wasn’t going to let it go that easily, he turned in a tight circle before coming up to Hercules and jabbing his finger at Jason over the demigod’s shoulder. “Yeah, well - well - maybe I should just kill this old drunk!”
From behind Hercules, Iolaus could see the rage in Artemus’ face and he put a calming hand on Jason’s arm. As he watched Hercules try to keep control of the situation Iolaus wondered yet again whether it had been Artemus who had killed Otus. He could understand the man wanting to kill Jason, but what had Otus ever done to him? Except disagree, except defend Jason against his words. Was that enough reason to kill a man? Iolaus shivered, if a man was that desperate, that full of hatred, who knew what he could be driven to?
Hercules wasn’t getting very far with the angry man and Phoebe, who had a short enough fuse of her own exclaimed in exasperation, “This is insane, we shouldn’t be fighting amongst ourselves!”
“He’s going to get us all killed!”
Hercules had reached his limit and he shouted at Artemus, “No, he won’t!”
From behind him Jason stepped forward, Iolaus watching helplessly, “Don’t be too sure of that.” He said before walking past the demigod and disappearing into the trees.
Hercules turned to see the worried frown on Iolaus’ face, “I’d better go after him.”
The unspoken need to fix things was in Hercules’ face, Iolaus just nodded, “Yeah.” If anyone could get through to Jason it was Hercules, he had to believe in him. In the meantime he had a few choice words for the rest of the Argonauts.
He kept his voice quite ensuring that the others paid attention, “Phoebe was right. We’re the Argonauts, or had you all forgotten that? We’ve lost Otus and Valerus already do you want us to lose more friends? Because if we don’t work together, put our differences aside, then we will. Artemus, you might think you hate Jason right now, but you know he’s just a vent for your anger. You’ve suffered a great loss, but so has he. Don’t put blame where it’s easiest to put it, move on. Let Glauce rest, Jason’s suffered enough - so have you.”
Iolaus turned away, not really caring whether Artemus had heard his words or not, he suddenly felt very old and very tired. Archivus followed him, and smiled his approval, his own sadness evident in his eyes, “It’ll be okay Iolaus - we’re the Argonauts, it can’t be any other way.”
Iolaus smiled at his friend’s conviction, but he felt a little better for the reminder and he slapped the bard on the back before turning back to the others, “Right! Lets sort ourselves out whilst we wait for Hercules and Jason to come back. Did anyone find any water? Domesticles, you’re with me, we need to see which direction they’re headed in.”
Hercules found Jason back in the clearing, he was staring into the trees, it was almost as if he were daring the demon to return and finish his job. Hercules sighed, he hated seeing his friend in so much pain, “This isn’t going to solve anything.”
Jason turned his back on Hercules, unable to bear the compassion in his eyes. “That’s easy for you to say, it wasn’t you that led them into a trap!”
“You can’t take the blame for everything, Jason.”
Jason barked a short laugh, “No, only for the things I’m responsible for. Haven’t you always said that a man has to take responsibilities for his actions - or does that not apply to an old broken down has-been like me?” Jason didn’t give Hercules time to reply, he gestured towards the tree line, “Maybe the demon will come back to finish his job, that’ll save a lot of trouble for everyone. Go on Hercules, get out of here!”
Hercules grabbed Jason by the shoulders and none too gently turned him so that they were face to face. Gripping his friend tightly he raised his voice, “He’s no demon Jason! He’s just a man.”
Jason shook himself free of Hercules’ grip, rubbing his shoulders where the demigod had held him, “You don’t know that!”
“Yes, I do. He was no demon, he was flesh and blood, I hit him, Jason, I felt his flesh, and I heard his grunt of pain. He was no demon.”
Jason stared at Hercules, knowing that his friend would not lie but unable to believe the truth, “No - the gods would never send a mortal to destroy me!”
Hercules rubbed a hand over his face, how could Jason believe that? “The gods don’t have anything to do with this! You’re haunting yourself, Jason.”
“But…but…?” Jason’s legs were fast turning to jelly, after all the fighting and thrill of battle, the pain of realizing he had led his men into a trap and one of them had been killed because of him, and now discovering that his demon was nothing more than a man - it was too much for him. He let his legs fold beneath him and he sank to the ground.
Hercules sat beside his friend, a hand resting lightly on his back, “Jason. I know how it feels. Hera might have killed my family but it wasn’t her that sent me my demons - it was me. And it wasn’t until Iolaus nearly got himself killed for me that I realised how wrong I’d been. Please, Jason, let us help you.”
Jason sat in silence for a long time before nodding his head tightly; he knew that his friends cared deeply for him and that went a long way towards filling the hole in his heart.
After rejoining the others, Hercules had led them after the Blood-eyes and the fleece. Iolaus had found their trail easily enough and once he’d pointed it out to Hercules it had been simple to follow. They were making good time, even though they were following a path that led steadily upwards.
Phoebe’s eagle eyes were the first to spot their target, “There they are!” Seeing that the group of men were winding their way high up on the side of the volcano she shook her head, “I can’t believe where they’re going!”
Iolaus moved up beside her and groaned, the air was bad enough here but right in the heart of the volcano it would be unbearable, “Yeah, I hate volcanoes.” He muttered resignedly. His chest already felt tight, he shouldn’t be out of breath from this little trek, but he was panting as if he’d run to Marathon and back. Hercules knew it would do no good to ask Iolaus to go back to the Argo, and asking if he’d be all right was just as pointless so he settled for a sympathetic glance in Iolaus’ direction before returning his gaze to the volcano, “We’ll need a plan.”
Jason knew how dangerous this was going to be, he didn’t want to be responsible for any more deaths. He needed to prove to the others - and to himself, that he could do this, that he was still worthy of his people’s respect. “Save yourself the trouble. I’m going in after the fleece by myself.”
As he spoke he pushed passed Iolaus, trying to ignore the shock and hurt on his friend’s face. “Jason - !”
Couldn’t Iolaus see he was just trying to protect them “No! This is my responsibility, no one else’s. I lost the fleece - I’ll get it back.”
Hercules’ voice was enough to stop him in his tracks, “Jason! We’re the Argonauts. We came here together. We finish this together.”
The two men stared at each other for a long moment, the other Argonauts watching with baited breath, willing Jason to accept the line he was being thrown. Finally Jason rested his gaze on the others and saw the Argonauts of his memory, a team, a family, and all waiting on his word. He grinned, feeling better than he had in a very long time. “I’d appreciate the company.”
They had followed the easy trail left them, too easy in Iolaus’ opinion; it was almost as if they wanted the Argonauts to follow them - until it had led them inside the volcano. The cave’s entrance had been hidden, but not difficult to spot, and once inside they’d seen that it had been adapted to the needs of the Blood-eyes, a door had been built into the rock, the kind with pulleys and levers and a stone door that rolled down to block your path. Torches adorned the walls at intervals the only thing missing was their host.
Iolaus looked around him and said sotto voice, “So where are they?”
Phoebe’s eyes once again spotted the movement before anyone else, to one corner of the cavern they found themselves in was a raised outcropping of rock, it was surrounded by a flame filled abyss and it was from this corner that she spotted the movement. “Someone’s up there!”
Everyone turned to look and someone called out what they could all see, the Blood-eye leader, once known as demon standing looking down on them and carrying the golden fleece over his shoulder.
Archivus, always keen on getting his facts right for the tale he would one day tell, asked, “But who is he?”
“Jason’s demon.” Hercules was beginning to understand just who the demon was, looking round him he confirmed his suspicions, and catching Iolaus’ eye he could see that the hunter wasn’t far behind him in the realization.
Domesticles spoke in surprise, “But it’s real!”
Jason echoed Hercules’ own words, knowing that in doing so he was acknowledging his error and hopefully moving forward. “Flesh and blood just like you and me.”
It was time to end the show and so Hercules yelled up at the figure that stood above them, “Take off your mask, Castor!”
Nobody could believe his words, but looking around they all suddenly realized that Castor wasn’t with them; he’d disappeared in the woods and not come back. Somehow, none of them had noticed. Against their exclamations the black figure stood proud with the fleece, arrogantly removing his mask with a flourish. Castor sneered down on his old cohorts, feeling very superior to them.
The horror was clear on Jason’s face, how could an Argonaut turn traitor? “Why are you doing this Castor? How can you? You’re trying to destroy us.”
“You should know Jason, you and Hercules and all the rest of you glory hounds. You stole the honour that should have been mine. But now I’ve finally proven that I’m better than you.”
Artemus had finally found a new outlet for his fury and he was happy to let his anger show, big man Castor, standing all the way up there where they couldn’t reach him, he wouldn’t feel so big if he was amongst them. “Well come down here and prove it!”
Phoebe had been watching silently, she hadn’t known Castor for long and so didn’t feel the betrayal that the men surrounding her did, but - suddenly everything made perfect sense, suddenly her own anger burned brightly, “You killed my father!” she shouted, willing Castor to be arrogant enough to want to face them up close and personal.
“He found out about my plans. I even ruined the great King Jason. After Medea killed your family Jason, with a little help from your Regent, I became your living nightmare.”
He was goading them, pushing them into trying to reach him, hoping that in their anger they would forget about the burning chasm between them, but Hercules was onto Castor’s plan and he was having none of it. The heat from the volcano was growing every second, and the flames were shooting higher, the volcano would soon erupt and they mustn’t be there when it did. “Leave him! Let him die here.” Not even the Golden Fleece was worth their lives.
Castor threw his head back and laughed, signalling to his men, hidden in the cavern’s roof he enjoyed his victory. “You’re only delaying the inevitable, Hercules. He’s going to die with the rest of you when this volcano erupts. These splendid warriors will make sure that you don’t leave - until the fun starts. You may have lived as warriors but you’re going to die as fools.”
Suddenly they were surrounded, Blood-eyes were everywhere, and the door, which was their only escape route, was slowly lowering. Phoebe shouted a warning before turning to the battle.
The sounds of clashing swords and the grunts of effort filled the air as the Argonauts fought to find a way out of the volcano. Too busy with the battle most of them forgot about Castor and the fleece, but Artemus found himself without an opponent for a moment and he looked up to see what Castor was doing.
He didn’t know why he called out to Jason, after everything he’d said to the man in the last couple of days he would have thought Jason would be the last person he would turn to, but no, it had to be Jason - there was no one else with the right. Castor must have some kind of escape route planned and he was about to take it. “Jason! The fleece!”
It was enough, Jason took in the situation with a glance and nodding acknowledgement to Artemus he turned to the gaping chasm to see how he could cross. He had purposely ignored Castor’s remark about Marcus, vowing to confront the man later, now wasn’t the time and so he could focus his attention entirely on Castor and the fleece.
The thought of failure never entered his head, the thought that he was past his best, a drunken has-been was never considered. Jason was an Argonaut and he would retrieve the fleece. He smiled as he spotted the stone pillars that crossed the gap, ‘Keeps it interesting’ he thought as he wondered why it was that these things were always there to help but never to make it easy. Leaping on to the first pillar he wobbled briefly before steadying himself for the next leap.
Iolaus was hot and the sulphur in the air was irritating his lungs but he could feel the energy flowing through his body as he took on one Blood-eye after another. He had to admit to himself that he wasn’t as able as usual, he needed the occasional help from a fellow Argonaut, he’d quickly learnt that when Phoebe yelled ‘Duck!” he needed to duck - fast. His wrapped arm still in its sling, fastened tightly to his chest didn’t get in the way, but even after all these weeks he was still forgetting that he didn’t have the use of that arm.
Cursing Maceus and his ‘torture’ for the thousandth time Iolaus adjusted his stance to compensate and kicked out at the latest opponent. One more Blood-eye dispensed with he checked on the progress of his friends. Hercules was knocking the heads of two Blood-eyes together, having just thrown his knife to block the downward movement of the door - it didn’t look like it was going to hold for long, they’d have to hurry. Phoebe was flicking her wrist and yelling “Duck!” at Domesticles, who rolled into a tight ball and bowled two Blood-eyes over as Phoebe dispatched the third. Iolaus grinned those two were becoming quite a team. Jason was - by the gods! Jason was crossing the fiery chasm in an attempt to reach Castor and the Fleece. Iolaus watched with pride as he saw some of the old Jason determination shine through.
Artemus looked like he was in a bit of bother, he had two Blood-eyes who were slowly pushing him towards the edge, Iolaus was about to help his comrade when Hercules yelled at him and he turned with his sword raised, only just blocking the downward sweep that would have cleaved his head. He threw a cheery ‘thanks’ to his friend and concentrated on his latest opponent, hoping that Artemus would find help from another source.
When the third Blood-eye joined the first two Artemus knew that he was in real trouble. He’d never been the best swordsman amongst the Argonauts, he’d always been able to hold his own but these odds required the likes of Iolaus or Jason. Not daring to check his friends to see if anyone was free to help him he shouted out a desperate plea, knowing that there were only inches between him and a fiery oblivion.
Jason was closest, and he turned to see a leather-clad Blood-eye raising his sword for a final blow. Without thinking, Jason raised his own sword and shouting his denial, threw it. Artemus dived out of the way and watched from the ground as the sword entered the other man’s chest. Blood spurted and he fell, dead before he hit the ground. Artemus used the surprise to his advantage and pushed one Blood-eye into the chasm, Iolaus, having dealt with his own opponent, running to finish the other.
Castor looked down over the edge of his safe platform he had to admit Jason was a surprise. After their earlier encounter he hadn’t thought the old king had it in him, but never mind that - he’d lost his chance now. He yelled down at Jason, who was balancing precariously only halfway across. “Goodbye Jason, take a last look at the fleece!” and with a flourish he turned and disappeared into an opening behind him.
Jason knew that he’d never catch Castor and he could hear from Hercules’ frantic shouts that time was running out for the Argonauts, they would soon be trapped. So, he turned and made his careful way back to safety. Artemus offered him a hand and pulled him back to solid ground, he had the look of a man with a lot on his mind but there was no time for talk now and Jason herded him towards the door.
Hercules had spotted that his knife was beginning to give way and he’d lunged for the door, pushing a shoulder underneath it. Its weight was insistent and he knew that he wouldn’t be able to hold it forever so he started yelling at his friends, telling them to hurry. Kicking out at a Blood-eye he looked for Iolaus, most of their opponents had fallen and Iolaus was just finishing with one as Hercules called to him, “Hurry!”
Iolaus ran to the doorway and paused beside Hercules, he was out of breath, his lungs burning from the bad air, “You going to be okay?”
Hercules knew that on any other day Iolaus would have waited with his friend and made sure everyone else was safe before leaving himself, but today, in an active volcano, he knew that it would be foolish to stay longer than he needed to, “Yeah, go!”
Iolaus grinned, “Good!” and ran out under Hercules’ arm alongside several of the other Argonauts. Phoebe was the only one left and Hercules was about to hurry her when he spotted the Blood-eye, he was going to need both hands to deflect the sword and he readied himself to let the door close with him, and Phoebe, on the wrong side. But before he had the chance Phoebe let fly with her slingshot once more, and once more her aim was true. The pellet hit the Blood-eye in the middle of his forehead and he fell instantly.
Hercules grinned at Phoebe as she ran passed him and couldn’t resist a last comment as he let the door fall, looking down at the Blood-eye he said, “Nothing like a woman’s touch.”
Once they were outside and reasonably clear of the volcano the Argonauts gathered to catch their breath for a moment. Phoebe shuddered as she looked back the way they had come, “That was the first time in my life I ever thought I might miss.”
“Well, I’m glad you didn’t - thanks.” Hercules turned his attention to Iolaus, who was standing off to one side on his own. “Hey.”
Iolaus turned to his friend and grinned, “Hey yourself.”
Iolaus cleared his throat, it felt a little raspy but not as bad as he’d thought, “Yup, I’m okay. What about Jason?”
Hercules looked across at their friend and smiled, “I think he’s going to be just fine.”
The object of their attention was in conversation with a confused Artemus who was saying, “You saved my life, Jason. Why?”
“You’re an Argonaut - and you would have done the same for me if the situation had called for it.”
Artemus nodded, Jason was right, and he realised that he wasn’t angry any more. He still missed Glauce and he wanted Castor brought to justice, but the all-consuming rage that had burned in him for so long was extinguished. He looked at Jason and saw the leader of the Argonauts and a man he’d gladly follow anywhere.
They’d rested long enough and Iolaus could feel the rumblings deep within the Island, “Herc?”
Hercules raised his voice above the general chatter, “We’d better get out of here before the whole Island goes.”
Phoebe exclaimed, “But what about the fleece?”
It was Jason who answered. “I’m afraid it’s buried for all time. People are more important Phoebe - every time. Come on, back to the ‘Argo’.”
Jason stood at the helm, a very different Jason from the one who had steered them to the Island, this Jason wasn’t wracked with doubts this Jason was strong. But he was sad; sad that people had died so that he could find his way, sad that he had failed in his quest for the fleece, even though he knew it was the right thing to do. He wasn’t sure that he would have known that without the help of his friends.
He looked across at Hercules and Iolaus, who were both leaning on the rail, they’d taken their vests off and were making the most of the sun and the sea breeze, and they stood quietly watching the waves. Sometimes he envied them their closeness, but he knew that it came at a price and he didn’t envy them that. He was very glad that he had them both as friends. As he was watching them Iolaus turned and waved at him. Saying something to Hercules, Iolaus made his way up to Jason and stood beside him for a long time before speaking.
“How’re you doing Jase?”
“I’m doing good, Iolaus.”
Iolaus raised an eyebrow in query, and Jason laughed, “Really. Thanks to Hercules - and you. I feel like the old Jason.”
“Even if you didn’t retrieve the fleece?”
“Even then. I meant what I said to Phoebe, people are more important. I regret losing the fleece, but I regret losing Otus and Valerus more.”
Iolaus’ voice was so quiet Jason could hardly hear his reply, “Yeah. Castor has a lot to answer for.”
Jason’s gaze was drawn to the volcano’s peak, which had almost disappeared over the horizon, “I think he has paid Iolaus. I think he has paid.”
Just then Archivus came to join the friends; he had little to do and was keen to get Jason’s view of the adventure. “Jason, Iolaus.” He said in greeting. “It’s good to have you back Jason.”
Jason nodded his thanks as Archivus continued, “We may not have the fleece, but we have our captain.”
Jason smiled sadly at the bard, “I’m not sure if the rest of my kingdom will be so forgiving.”
The Argo returned to a muted welcome. As soon as the people discovered that the fleece wasn’t on board they watched in near silence as the Argonauts disembarked - it was good that their heroes had returned but they carried two bodies and they hadn’t recovered the fleece. The people of Corinth had seen the fleece as an emblem of their good fortune, without it they were afraid.
They still had enough love for their king left to cheer him as he left the Argo, he had always been fair to his people and they had felt his pain when Medea had slain his children. There was sympathy in the faces of the crowd, but no hope, they seemed resigned to their fate.
They had only been in the throne room for a moment before Marcus stormed in, “You failed, Jason. And this council has no choice but to strip you of your crown.”
It was Artemus who was first to respond, “You can’t do that. Jason’s our king.”
The Argonauts stood sending defiant stares at Marcus, but the Regent just smiled, “Yours, perhaps - but not the public’s. They won’t tolerate a king who lost the fleece. And what else does Jason have to cling to?”
Hercules pushed his way forward, so that he was standing beside Jason and facing Marcus, “Well that’s an easy question to answer. He has his honour, his dignity, and the fighting heart that proves he is still our leader.”
Marcus was enjoying himself and it showed, he was positively gloating as he spoke again, “All of which amounts to nothing when there is a new hero present, a man who won back the fleece when Jason - and the rest of you pathetic dreamers - could not. Behold, the future king of Corinth.”
With a flourish of his arm Marcus heralded the arrival of none other than Castor, who swept into the room with a swagger and the Golden Fleece slung carelessly over one shoulder. He passed the fleece to a couple of servants who reverently placed it back in place on the wall behind the throne. Castor extended his arms and declared, “I - Castor - proclaim myself the worthy ruler of this land.”
Iolaus, watching with disgust, mumbled, “A bit full of ourselves aren’t we?”
Those Argonauts that heard the remark sniggered quietly as Marcus extended his moment in the spotlight, “You’ve proved yourself an unworthy king, abdicate your throne, Jason. And save yourself the humiliation of having it taken from you.”
Jason stepped forward, “Very well - I will abdicate -”
Hercules exclaimed in shock, “Jason, don’t!” and the voices of other Argonauts joined him in protest, but before their outrage could grow Jason held up his hand, “No, let me finish. I will abdicate - if Castor will fight me man-to-man. Winner takes the throne.”
Castor laughed at that, and Iolaus wanted nothing more than to wipe the sneer from the arrogant man’s face as he said, “I beat you once, old man. I can do it again.”
Iolaus and the other Argonauts felt a fierce pride in their leader when they heard his reply, “I was beaten by my demon. ‘You’ could never defeat me.”
Marcus was getting nervous, he hadn’t expected Jason to be so confident he’d expected a broken man being propped up by his old friends. He had been hoping that Hercules and Iolaus would be too concerned for their friend to concentrate on their opponents. Instead, he was faced with a group of highly trained, highly experienced and all too angry, heroes. He fingered the Hydra teeth in his pouch it was time to use their trump card. He stepped forward to stand beside Castor and spoke to him quietly, “Hera has given me the power to destroy them all!”
Castor pushed Marcus away, “No. First I will humiliate Jason - then we can kill the rest of them.”
Marcus wasn’t interested in Castor’s need to boost his ego, he didn’t care if the other man needed to prove himself against the has-been hero, all he cared about was succeeding and Castor was about to throw their best chance away. So, even as Castor moved forward to engage Jason in battle he moved closer to the brazier that was warming the room, taking a handful of Hydra’s teeth from his pouch he held them over the burning coals for a moment before shouting, “Death to the Argonauts. It is Hera’s will.”
He threw the teeth into the fire and stepped back.
The brazier spat flames as the teeth fell into its heat, for a moment nothing happened and Marcus began to wonder if Hera’s gift was all that it was cracked up to be and then a loud popping sound came from the hot coals. A second later a shape rose out of the brazier. It formed before their eyes, six foot tall and ivory in colour, its appendages grew from the air, until it was standing before them, sword in hand, teeth chattering - a skeleton. Several more followed it from the brazier’s heat until they were standing at attention side by side, swords and shields raised. They paused in contemplation of the room, heads to one side, before they moved off, the bones of their feet clattering on the stone floor.
No one moved for a long moment, stunned into silence the occupants of the room stared at the skeletons before raising their own weapons in readiness. Castor waved at the skeleton making its way toward him, “Kill one of the others. This one’s mine.”
Apparently the skeletons were willing to follow Castor’s orders because this one veered to one side and started after Domesticles.
Once again the Argonauts sprang into action, shocked by the sight of their otherworldly opponents they didn’t let that stop them - they couldn’t afford to, these skeletons were fast, and a body thrust really wasn’t enough to do the trick, their swords would just get caught up in their adversary’s ribcage, so each man had to adapt his usual fighting style. They were all well able to do so and Hercules watched with pride as Archivus brained one of the skeletons with a heavy book, crushing its skull. When it had fallen he stamped on the skull so that there was nothing left. Both men tried to ignore the death throws of the creature that had never had real life. Its bones rattling and clattering before it finally grew still.
Not having any vocal chords the skeletons didn’t speak but they did still make a keening whispering sound, like the sound of the wind calling through mountain crags. It made Phoebe’s skin crawl, but she wouldn’t let it stop her and she fought off the two skeletons that were coming her way as best she could. She sighed a big sigh of relief when Hercules came to her aid, he grabbed a tall stand, usually used for lighting its crown was normally filled with candles. Hercules pulled the crown away and threw the stand like a javelin, managing to skewer three skeletons against a pillar.
They chattered to each other in annoyance, but this was only a setback for them, having no flesh could be a major advantage in a fight. Twisting round on the pole the middle skeleton tried to swing over so that he could reach his sword, which had fallen to the floor. Before he could do so, Hercules picked up the sword and swung it, severing the skeletons arm. It dropped to the floor and writhed there before falling still. Ignoring the keening wail coming from the skeleton Hercules pulled the pole free and carried it to the window. He gave silent thanks that the throne room had a sea view and launched the pole and the three skeletons out of the window and onto the rocks below.
Iolaus had had enough of these skeletons, they wouldn’t stay down, unless you jumped up and down on their bones - which was something that creeped him out way too much to want to do too often. He was beginning to lose his breath, a result of the volcano and he spotted something that would help. The curtains acting as a draft excluder would be perfect for what he had in mind, but they were gathered up and held together by a cord and it wasn’t until he reached for them with both hands that he remembered his broken arm and the sling. It hadn’t bothered him during the fighting, not at all. Iolaus pulled himself free of the sling and pulled the curtains from the wall.
Turning, he was just in time to dump them over the heads of the two skeletons that were attempting to corner Phoebe, which gave the pair plenty of time to dispose of their strange opponents without endangering themselves. Grinning at each other they turned to see who was next.
Iolaus felt so much better without his arm strapped to his chest, his balance was back and though his arm felt weak it was still far better than having to take all and sundry on one-armed. He faced the next skeleton with a smile, these guys were seriously bizarre and hard to bring down but he was relishing the rush it was giving him. Clashing swords with his skeletal opponent Iolaus said, “You give new meaning to the words crash diet!” Before sweeping his sword in a big horizontal arc and decapitating the skeleton. Unnervingly it stayed on its feet and kept swinging its sword, it couldn’t see anymore - Iolaus found time to wonder how empty eye sockets could see in the first place, before dismissing it as a ‘god thing’ - finally after Iolaus had hacked off its sword arm, it stumbled and fell in a heap of bones to the floor.
Throughout the fighting Jason and Castor had been exchanging blows, Castor got a lucky glancing blow to Jason’s sword arm with the edge of his blade and Jason clasped his hand to the wound, it came away bloody but it wasn’t a serious cut. Castor was still too sure of himself and he couldn’t help gloating, “The pain is just beginning, Jason.”
Jason parried another thrust of Castor’s sword, before dancing forwards and looking for an opening, “I can take it, Castor. Can you?”
“The only pain I feel - is from seeing an old has-been like you on the throne.”
Jason could see that Castor was overconfident, he just needed to bide his time, “Enough with the chitchat Castor, lets see what you’ve got.”
They were fairly evenly matched and they moved around the room, dodging pillars, Argonauts and those horrible skeletal soldiers that Marcus had magiked up from somewhere. Jason concentrated on that opening that he knew would come sooner or later - he knew Castor’s style from the old days, he knew that he was the better swordsman now that he was no longer seeing demons. Finally the opening came and it was over. He pushed his sword through Castor’s defences and watched his one time comrade’s surprised face as he fell to the floor, Jason’s sword in his chest.
Jason looked around him but the others seemed to have dealt with the skeletons without his help. Except - Marcus was holding more of those damn teeth in his hand and reaching out for the brazier. Jason yelled a warning to Hercules who was closest. Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion, Hercules yelled and dived to catch the Hydra’s teeth even as Marcus threw them towards the brazier; Artemus and Jason both ran to restrain Marcus who turned to flee. Tripping over his own robes the one time regent of Corinth found himself falling onto the metal railing that ran round the brazier to keep people from getting too close. Jason reached out a hand to save him, but he was too late. Marcus was dead, and Hercules was triumphantly holding aloft the Hydra’s teeth, still safely cool and inanimate.
“You bumbling, foolish, stupid, idiot!”
“Now, now Unc, I don’t think you need to…”
Ares paced the room as Strife tried to make himself as small and invisible as possible. Not invisible enough, Ares stopped pacing and stood before his nephew, his eyes blazed as he glared down at the incompetent fool. “Don’t call me that! You used ‘all’ my Hydra’s teeth! Fool! Have you got any idea how hard it is to get those things?”
Strife, for once taking the sensible route, stayed silent. He looked at his feet instead, but when he looked up he saw a gleam in Ares’ eye that made him even more nervous.
“No, I don’t suppose you do know, do you? Hmmm, perhaps it’s time that you learned. Strife, your penance for messing up this time is to replace my Hydra’s teeth - each and every one of them.”
Strife gasped, this was far worse than he’d thought, Unc must be really mad, “But, but, Ares, I don’t know anything about Hydra’s, or extracting teeth.”
“That’s easy, Hydra’s, big creatures, lots of heads, poisoned fangs - oh and they really, really hate going to the dentist.” Ares laughed, this could be most entertaining, it might almost make up for Hercules, Iolaus and that dratted Jason saving the day once more.
“Then Iolaus rushed forward and heedless…”
“… of his own safety smote two of the demonic rattling skeletons…”
Iolaus rolled his eyes as he read the scroll over Archivus’ shoulder, “Don’t you think this is getting a bit too flowery?”
“No! Most assuredly and certainly, no!”
Iolaus gave an involuntary shiver, “I’m going to have nightmares about those things, clattering and clicking.”
Archivus nodded, he didn’t think any of the Argonauts would escape those particular dreams, “Yeah, and the way they talked to each other - too creepy.”
Just then Hercules entered the room with Artemus and Domesticles pulling Phoebe behind him, hurrying to catch up, “Hercules, can we talk to you?”
“Sure, what’s on your mind?”
Artemus appeared to be nervous and he took a deep breath to calm himself before speaking, “I think - Phoebe should be made an official Argonaut. Because of her bravery on the quest and -”
Hercules held up a hand to stop the flow of words, “You don’t have to convince me Artemus. I’d be proud to count Phoebe amongst us, and I’m sure everyone else would agree.”
Phoebe stepped forward, a little overwhelmed by the thought that she was now officially an Argonaut. She’d always been so proud of her father, now she hoped he would be proud of her. “Then I accept, in hopes that I honour the memory of my father.”
“Phoebe, you already have.” Hercules looked around him but didn’t find the person he was looking for, “Has anyone seen Jason?”
Iolaus was the one to answer, “He was in the throne room awhile back, Herc.”
Hercules smiled his thanks and left them to celebrate - he needed to talk to Jason.
He found the king seated, not on the throne as was his right, but on the steps below it. Jason turned to Hercules as he entered and indicated that he should sit with him. “I’ve been thinking, Hercules. Castor made me realize that I’d been right all along, Medea wouldn’t have done what she did if - if it hadn’t been for - damn him! Marcus has a lot to answer for. He’s responsible for the death of my children! How - I can’t - Damn him for never giving me the chance to confront him. ”
Hercules raised an eyebrow in query and Jason explained, “Marcus. I realized, well, when Castor shouted in the volcano, I realized the truth - Marcus had been behind Medea’s madness. Whether it was with the help of Hera or on his own, he was responsible for my children’s deaths, not poor Medea, I blamed her for so long Hercules. And poor Triestes, my old General, Marcus was behind his death too. I hope Hades has something really nasty planned for Marcus.”
Hercules sat beside his old friend, a hand on his shoulder. He knew that words wouldn’t help there were no words to express the demigod’s feelings, so he simply said nothing and let Jason wrestle with his thoughts. After a long time Jason spoke again, it was pointless to dwell on Marcus and Castor they were dead, now it was time to look forward.
“I’m always going to miss them.”
Hercules nodded, “I know.”
“All I have to do now is figure out what comes next. I guess you understand that feeling.”
Hercules remembered back to the dark days after he lost his family to the fireball Hera sent. “I do Jason, and it isn’t easy. I made some wrong turns, but in the end I realized that my family would have wanted me to go on, to do something with my life that they could be proud of.”
Jason thought for a long time before replying, “My family would want me to take care of the people in my kingdom. I think I can do that now.”
He stood up and turned towards the Golden Fleece, finally back on the wall above the throne, he might not have brought it back physically but it was Jason that given it back to the people of Corinth. “Will Hera try again Hercules?”
Hercules also stood and looked at the Fleece, “Whatever comes, Jason. You’ve got the Argonauts on your side.”
Jason smiled, and for the first time in a long time the smile lit his eyes with genuine pleasure, “I heard something about a celebration - they can’t celebrate without us!”
Hercules laughed and the two men went to join the party, which was beginning to get quite loud in the outer rooms.
The Argonauts had celebrated long into the night and as they sat round a long table, too tired to do more than talk now, Jason rose to his feet a tankard in his hand. “A toast - to Hercules. It was his confidence and example that brought me back from the dead to this wonderful moment.”
Hercules stood and added his own toast, “And a toast to Jason, he’s always been my hero, and he always will be.”
To the sound of loud cheering Iolaus rose to his feet raising his goblet high in the air, with relish he shouted “To heroes!”
There was a chorus of, “To heroes!” that was almost enough to wake the entire kingdom before the Argonauts finally called it a night and made their weary way to their beds and a peaceful sleep.
Finally only Hercules and Iolaus were left sitting at the table. “So…”
“He’ll be okay.”
“Know any Hydra’s that need decapitating?”
“Not right now Iolaus, why? I thought you’d be wanting a bit of fresh air and a lake for some quality fishing.”
“Would be good but… I need to get rid of the nasty taste those skeletons have left. They made my teeth itch.”
Hercules gave a dramatic shiver. “Scary skeletons, seriously scary. How’s the cough?”
“Fine, all gone.”
“And the arm?”
Iolaus grinned, “That Hydra isn’t going to know what hit it.”
“Just don’t knock its teeth out Iolaus, don’t knock its teeth out!”
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