King For A Day: Orestes' Story

by Owlharp

Story originally written for Hercules: the Legendary Journeys by: Patricia Manney

It wasn't like Orestes had never come to in a strange place before. Dionysos knew, there were periods of his life where it had been a daily occurrence. There'd be the first stirrings of consciousness, then the gradual creeping in of the all-too-familiar symptoms - the foul-tasting mouth, the griping belly and above all else, the aching head that could be soothed only by deep drafts, first of water, then of wine. Then usually he'd slowly become aware that he was lying somewhere ELSE ... somewhere other than his royal mattress, stuffed with the wool of thirty virgin ewes, or so it was said. There was always the smell of sour, once-drunk wine, and if he was lucky - and being a prince, he usually was - the scents, both natural and artificial, that would assure him that he had not slept alone. If his luck held, he would open his eyes and slowly focus on the sight of his previous evening's amusement. On unlucky occasions, he would open his eyes to the sight of Hector's frown, as the elderly general stood over his princely charge, ready to drag Orestes back yet again to that prison which the rest of Attica called the royal palace. It was almost a ritual, waking from a drunken stupor in a strange place.

This time it was different. He knew it from the first flickering of his awareness. The feelings were the same - head and belly pounding - but there was a different smell crowding rudely into his nostrils as he drew in the shuddering breaths that were bringing him back to consciousness. It was the scent of damp stone, rusting metal and moldy straw. He was cold all over, and the surface beneath him was hard. That woke him up a bit - not enough to open his eyes yet, but enough to start him thinking, trying to remember whatever he could remember of the night before.

There'd been the party. THAT, he remembered ... the girls ... the wine... and his distant cousin who looked just like him ... ... Iolaus ... that was his cousin's name... pleasant guy ... couldn't drink worth a damn, though ... or wouldn't ...

The thought of his cousin brought Orestes a sharp pang of guilt.

Oh gods, he'd made total jackass of himself in front of his new- found relation, hadn't he? ... It had happened again, after he had sworn to himself that this would be the end of it. He was going to be a king, whether he liked it or not, and he really did have to start acting like one.

At the party he'd been mildly buzzed, that was all. That was as far as he'd intended to go. But then he had caught that look of disapproval on Hector's face, and once again that had triggered an explosion of the feeling that Orestes knew so well ... the stupid, childish, knee-jerk urge to rebel against ... against everything ... to lash out against all the rules and the people who had been hemming him in since childhood, forcing him, herding him in directions that he himself had not chosen to go.

It was Hector ... the killjoy ... the eternal wet blanket ... treating Orestes like he was thirteen again ... embarrassing him in front of his new relation ...

So, Orestes reflected, all the while feeling the blood pounding through his aching skull, he'd thrown his good intentions away and perversely set out to justify every one of Hector's fears. Gods .... what a complete drunken moron he'd been. And it wasn't just the fact that he had been going through the wine like a party of Centaurs after a ten-day thirst.

There was the vague memory of boasting about "ruling like my father ... with a unending supply of feminine companionship..." THAT had been a cheap shot at Hector's endless efforts to cover up the old King's frequent strayings, to the point of refusing to even acknowledge them when a teen-aged Orestes had begun to ask questions ... pompous old hypocrite ... did he think Orestes was blind? ...

Orestes turned over on the hard surface, still unable or unwilling to open his eyes. His stomach rebelled at the movement, and for a moment, he thought he was going to be sick. Then the physical discomfort faded, to be replaced by more shameful memories.

He'd been blathering on about Niobe, too. What had he said? ... Another dim and uncomfortable memory gnawed at him ... something about "a big twit"... Oh now THAT was a clever remark, Orestes... Witty and perceptive - NOT! ... well, maybe she was a twit. He hadn't seen her in years ... but one thing was sure ... he was a bigger twit, by several hundred thousand orders of magnitude...

Well, he'd shown his ass and embarrassed himself thoroughly, and he might as well get up and get started apologizing. He'd begin with Hector ... no, better yet, he'd begin with his cousin ... seemed like a nice guy ... someone you could talk to ... maybe Orestes could convince him to stay in Attica for a while, after his coronation. ... show him ... AND Hector! ... that Orestes wasn't just the mouthy, wine-sodden asshole that he'd been at the party ... that he might even make a stab at being a decent king ...

But first he needed to get up, get out of here - wherever "here" was - and find two buckets of very cold water, one to drink and one to dump over his thudding head.

Yeah, he was awake. Let the mending of fences commence ...

Orestes sat up slowly and rubbed his eyes.

"Awake at last, your Majesty?"

The voice was not Hector's. Orestes squinted through the smoky dimness. When at last he was able to focus on who had spoken, there came a roiling in his belly that had nothing at all to do with the wine.

Standing over him, with a smile of triumph that burned even brighter than the torch in his hand, was General Archeus.

Orestes was suddenly very, very sober. One after another, a number of thoughts tumbled through his brain and landed with heavy, icy thumps in the pit of his stomach.

He was not in the palace or the royal hunting lodge.

He was in a cell, to which Archaeus clearly kept the keys.

That last flask he had drunk must have held more than just wine.

If he was here, then it followed that Minos must have been crowned in his place.

If Minos had been crowned in his place, then Orestes was probably going to die very soon.

And, worst of all, he had blown his last chance to be remembered as anything except an alcoholic embarrassment to the throne of Attica.

For some reason, that last thought made his eyes sting with an unaccustomed sensation that could only be unshed tears.

So his captivity began. That first morning, Archaeus had ordered his armored guards to bring Orestes water to wash with and to drink, followed by a tray of food and a flagon of wine. And for the first time in his life, or at least, in as long as he could remember, Orestes had refused wine.

Then Archaeus had started talking.

"Your Majesty must be wondering what all this is about. I want to assure you, straight off, that I have your best interests at heart."

"So you drugged my wine and kidnapped me so that I would miss my coronation?"

"I did you a favor."

Orestes snorted. At least his worst suspicions were now confirmed.

Archaeus continued. "It's common knowledge you have no interest in ruling Attica. Well, now you won't have to. I've seen to that. The coronation is over. Minos is King. Your brother assumes the throne and the cares of Attica - with my help, of course - and you will be free as bird. My soldiers will escort you through the forest to borders of Attica. I will see to it that you have money, and you can go where you want, and do what you will." He nodded at a soldier, who brought forth a heavy bag that clinked when it was set down on the table.

Orestes was silent for a moment. "Your soldiers will slit my throat the moment we're in the woods," he said flatly.

Archaeus raised his eyebrows. "You have my word."

Orestes just looked at him.

Archaeus went on smoothly. "Your brother Minos does not desire your death. You yourself have got to admit - you're no threat to him now. All you need to do is sign this promise" - he took a scroll from another soldier standing behind him - "saying that you will never return to Attica".

Orestes eyed him warily. Something was very strange here. What Archaeus was saying might be believable if anyone else had said it, but coming from Archaeus, it was automatically suspect. Nevertheless, Orestes had to admit there was a certain logic to it. He slumped back on the hard cot and dropped his head into his hands, wishing the blood would would stop pounding in his ears so that he could think clearly. Minos probably wouldn't want to kill him. While his younger brother's jealousy had been visible all their lives, it had never reached a murderous level in any of their sibling clashes. Minos might screw him over - like now - but he'd stop short of fratricide. Probably. Maybe. On the other hand ...

Moving briskly, Archaeus partially unrolled the scroll on the table and set a quill and a dish of ink beside it. "Come. Sign this, and you can be on your way".

Slowly Orestes got to his feet and stumbled through the open door of his cell towards the table. He leaned heavily against it as he reached out a shaking hand to unroll the scroll fully. It was a struggle to focus on the words - last night's drugged wine still had not fully worn off.

"It's all there". Archaeus' voice came impatiently, but there was a note in it that might have been what? Uncertainty? The gods knew, Orestes himself felt uncertain enough as he dragged his reluctant gaze over the neatly scribed text.

"Just sign it! You don't have to read the whole thing."

Orestes sighed and let himself slump against the table. "You're right," he muttered. "I've read enough. I'll sign it". As he said this, he met Archaeus' eyes and did not miss the sudden flare of triumph and relief in them.

He dipped the quill in the ink bowl and, taking a deep breath to steady his hands, he wrote hastily at the bottom of the scroll. Dropping the quill, he blew on the ink to dry it, then rolled it up and handed it to Archaeus with a flourish. "All right", he said, "It's signed. Now, I'm leaving". He snatched up the coin bag.

Archaeus unrolled the scroll.

Orestes actually made it halfway to the door before a heavy blow to the side of his head knocked him onto the hard, chilly floor.

Well, it had been worth a try, he thought, his head whirling and ringing with new pain. The room dimmed and slowly brightened again in front of his eyes.

Archaeus' face, contorted with anger, swam into Orestes' field of vision, and the parchment rattled as the general shook it. "That's NOT a signature!" he bellowed.

"No - it's a royal command!" Orestes found that smiling hurt, but he did it anyway. "It's probably physically impossible, but you can certainly try - " A kick in the side from Archaeus' boot cut him off short. He curled around the agony, but kept his eyes on Archaeus and gasped out "You know, I may be a drunk, but I can still read. What's on that scroll isn't a 'promise to go away'! It's a letter of formal abdication!"

Another kick caught him in the belly and flipped him over onto his face. He lay still for a few heartbeats and took a stabbing breath. Odd, that while his vision was fogging, his mind was clearer than it had been for a long time, and his thoughts were racing.

If Minos had indeed been crowned in Orestes' absence, that was the end of Orestes' claim to the Attican throne. Custom and law would support Minos' rights - there would be no need for any letter of abdication. So why was Archaeus so hot to have Orestes sign one? There could be only one reason.

Painfully he rolled onto his back and looked blearily up at the general who stood over him. "That's not the only lie you've told me today, is it, Archaeus? Minos wasn't crowned in my place. If he had been, you wouldn't be here, playing around with quills and scrolls." Even as he spoke, the picture was growing plainer and sharper in Orestes' mind. He drew another aching breath and went on. "You'd have cut my throat in a heartbeat and gone off to the palace to be the power behind Minos' throne! So what happened, Archaeus? Did your pretty plans fall apart?"

He saw the boot coming and tried to roll out of its way, but it crashed against the side of his head. Stars exploded and he fell down into darkness.

Things went rapidly to Tartarus after that. It wasn't just that he awoke with another splitting headache and manacles on his wrists this time.

It was that they left him for long periods of time in the darkness, and there was nothing for him to do but sit and think. The blackness before his eyes was like a mirror that forced him to look at himself, and the more he did this, the less he liked what he saw.

There was no point in being anything but honest. He had no audience but himself, so he didn't have to lie to anyone.

Archaeus had been dead right when he said that it was common knowledge that Orestes did not want to be king. And whose fault was that? Orestes asked himself, and knew the answer.

Twenty years. Twenty years of wine and wildness, rebelling with every fiber of his being against against the rules and expectations that were laid down for a prince of Attica, and not caring for a moment who might be watching. It was impossible not to be aware of his reputation among his own people. He would have had to be blind and deaf not to see the looks of amusement that quickly passed into contempt, or to hear the comic ballads that concealed sharp barbs within their verses. He'd earned the kingdom's disdain, and in earlier times he'd gloried in it.

At every rebuke from Hector, or even from the King himself, Orestes had felt only an all-too-brief reassurance that he was someone - anyone - other than the "future King of Attica" that everyone expected him to be. Roistering in the seediest taverns, surrounding himself with companions as debauched as himself, he could escape for a while from the suffocating fate that awaited him.

Well ... he'd escaped that fate, all right, he had to admit. When all was said and done, he wasn't going to be the King of Attica after all, barring the sort of miracle that only the gods of Olympus could perform. And his credit with those gods, he reflected, was small to nonexistent. The only one he might have any pull with was Dionysos - after all, he'd been a fervent worshipper since the age of fourteen.

Almost without thinking, he whispered aloud into the reeking darkness, "Dionysos, if there's some way you can get me out of this, I swear by the River Styx that every drop of wine served me for the rest of my life shall be yours, and yours alone. I will pour it out in libation and homage to you, if you rescue me..." the words died away, and he gave a sob of despairing laughter. Like Dionysos, or any of the gods would really give a damn ...

He rolled over on the hard pallet of his cell, trying to find a position that didn't hurt some portion of his body. He wasn't particularly successful, but at some point he must have fallen asleep.

An unknown time later he was awakened by a sound and became aware that there was light above him. For one lunatic second he thought his prayer might have been answered, but then he saw who was holding the torch that dazzled his eyes.

It was Minos, standing silently, staring down at him through the bars of the cell.

A thousand clever things to say flew through Orestes' mind, but he said nothing and just matched his brother stare for stare.

Minos moved a little closer. "I told Archaeus not to hurt you".

Orestes gave a sharp bark that might have been a laugh and rolled over, with his back to Minos.

"I did".

Orestes said nothing. What was there, really, to say?

Minos stood there for a while longer. Finally he sighed, and Orestes saw the torchlight move away and vanish.

The next thing that awakened him was the sound of his cell door opening. He looked up to see two of Archaeus' guards, one standing watchfully at the open door, and the other setting down a tray of food and a flask on the small table beside his cot.

"So what's on the menu, gentleman?" Orestes croaked, his throat desert dry. "Roast boar? Venison stew? Larks' tongues in honey?"

The only reply he got was a swift gesture towards the tray.

Well, at least Archaeus wasn't planning on starving him to death.

Orestes opened the flask and, to his surprise, felt an odd relief that it was water, not wine. He put it to his lips and drank it half empty before the taste registered on his tongue. What the hell was wrong with the water? There was a faint but acrid bitterness that accentuated his thirst instead of quenching it.

"What did you use this for - a pisspot? Next time, wash it out first!"

He spat the rest of the water out and turned to the tray. He had no idea what the time of day was, but his stomach had recovered enough from the drugged wine that he was hungry again. A wooden bowl held stew, and there was a plate of flat bread and slices of apple. He dug in, using the flat bread for a spoon. Clearly they thought he was dangerous enough to use a spoon as a weapon.

A bitter snicker broke from him. Oh, be afraid, he told the guards silently. Yeah, tremble...

The stew was lamb, greasy but still warm. He gobbled the first few bites down and then stopped. The same faint, bitter undertaste that he'd found in the water was also in the stew.

He took a bite of apple and chewed it slowly. And there it was again. He spat the half-chewed bits back on the plate and addressed the guards.

"Take this away, and tell Archaeus to hang his cook!"

Orestes did not miss the panicked look that the guards exchanged. They snatched up the tray and hurried out of his cell.

The echoes of their footsteps on the stone stairway had not died away when the first wave of dizziness hit him.

He crumpled to the ground, clinging to the side of his cot.

Oh gods ... he'd been afraid of this, from the first instant he had become aware of the taste in the water.

There were many ways to kill an inconvenient prince. Archaeus didn't even need to soil his blade with Orestes' blood. Not when poison would do his work for him.

There was a strong tingling sensation on his lips and tongue. He shivered.

He had to get rid of this. Now. He crawled to the privy hole in the corner of the cell.

A wave of sickness washed over him and spared him the trouble of thrusting his fingers down his throat. Again and again he retched, until he thought his belly would come out his ears. Finally, weak and trembling, he staggered back to his feet and collapsed on his cot.

This was no hangover. He and hangovers were best friends. This was nothing less than a first try at murder and what frightened Orestes was that there was so little he could do to prevent a repeat attempt.

The sound of footsteps on the stone stairs caused him to raise his head from the bed. He pushed himself into a sitting position and took a deep breath. Maybe they were coming to finish the job. Well, he'd be damned if he'd let them see him puking on the floor.

This thought caused him to laugh inwardly. Oh, brave words, Orestes... how many of your future subjects saw you heaving your wine-soaked guts out in one tavern or another? Shut up, he told his inner voice sternly. This is different... it's gonna be different. Even if it's my last moment of life, at least I'm going to do something right ...

"Your majesty..." came Archaeus' mocking voice. "My servants tell me you've insulted my cook!"

Orestes swallowed hard and kept his head high by sheer force of will. "He cooks well enough, but his seasonings are off. What did he flavor the stew with - hemlock?"

Archaeus laughed. "No, he's no Athenian. Besides, with hemlock, there's only one outcome - as Socrates discovered, didn't he?"

Astonishing, thought Orestes to himself. Archaeus actually had some learning. Who'd have thought it? ....

The general went on genially, "No, hemlock is too restricting. I like having more options..."

Orestes felt his head swimming again, and his belly twisted in the sudden grip of pain. He gasped and fell back against the bars of his cell. So much for royal dignity, he mused.

"Yes, that looks right," Archaeus commented. "Belly griping? Dizzy? Do you feel the ants running up and down your body - no, they're not actually there, you know. It just feels like it." He smiled down at Orestes, and drew a tiny glass flagon from a pouch that hung at his waist. "Tincture of aconite... a much better choice than hemlock. Sorry about the taste, though. I thought that maybe you'd be hungry and thirsty enough not to notice, but no doubt a princely palate is more sensitive. Well, anyway, do you know what the nicest thing about aconite is?"

Orestes just eyed him dully and kept silent. Archaeus went on, "You don't have to die from it! Isn't that wonderful? You see, with hemlock, there's no antidote. But aconite is a completely different story. All you need is a bit of this - " he pulled another flask from his pouch and waved it mockingly in Orestes' face - "and you'll be back to debauching in no time! And you know, all you have to do is sign a certain scroll that I have right here! What do you say, your Majesty? Aren't you tired of hurting yet?"

Orestes closed his eyes and turned his face away.

Archaeus gave a theatrical sigh. "You're just not in a cooperative mood at all, are you? Well, I'll just have to try a different line of argument then..." He made a gesture.

Even as Orestes struggled, he knew it was a lost cause. He found himself pinioned against one of the guards, while the other twisted a hand in his hair, forcing his head back and his mouth open. He choked as heavy hands held his mouth and nostrils shut, forcing him to swallow. Full-strength, the poison burned as it trickled down his throat.

They flung him to the floor and left him there. The last thing he heard was Archaeus' voice from the top of the stairs, "DO give it some thought, your Majesty. We'll give you one more chance!"

The torchlight faded away.

He waited for the sounds of the barred door at the top of the stairs closing, before crawling once again to the privy hole to rid himself of as much of the poison as he could. The effort left him gasping and shivering, too weak, for the moment, to haul himself back up onto his cot.

He stared up into the darkness and shuddered. But even as the horror of his situation threatened to overwhelm him, he found himself clinging to one tiny strand of hope.

Hector.

Hector would be looking for him. Orestes was as certain of that as he was of the pain that was currently ripping through his stomach.

Hector might have been a pompous, straitlaced old killjoy, but he was also doggedly loyal. Archaeus and Minos might have been able to suborn many of his courtiers, but Hector and his lieutenant, Linus, were not among them.

Hector had always been able to track Orestes down. No matter what tavern or brothel Orestes had taken refuge in, the old general would eventually find him. It was a trait that had never failed to annoy Orestes.

He looked up into the blackness and prayed fervently that the canny old bastard hadn't lost his touch. For the first time in his life, Orestes would be very glad to see him.

There was no way to tell how much time passed. Orestes found himself back on his cot with no memory of how he got there. There was light coming from the top of the stairs. Someone was coming down.

They had to be coming to kill him, he decided. Funny, but he almost didn't have the strength to care. He doubted that he could even hold a quill at this point. So, he was going to die...

He almost burst out laughing when he saw Minos standing there instead of Archaeus. So much for your deathbed despair, he thought to himself.

"How are you, brother?" Minos' voice quavered off the cold stone walls.

Orestes managed what he hoped was a malicious grin. "How do you think I am?"

"I didn't want this to happen! Archaeus said he wouldn't really hurt you!"

"And you believed him."

"He swears nothing else will happen to you, if you'll just sign the abdication. He'll let you go!"

"And you believe that, too." A spasm of agony ripped through Orestes, and Minos recoiled in fright.

After a few heartbeats the pain eased a bit. Panting, Orestes stared at his ashen-faced brother and whispered, "Archaeus did this to me. He has no intention of letting me live, much less letting me go. You are a fool..."

Minos seemed on the edge of tears. "Please, I beg of you, Orestes - give up the throne and let me rule."

If it hadn't hurt so much, again Orestes would have been tempted to laugh. He couldn't believe this conversation. But all he had the strength to answer was "No".

"Why are you acting like this? You never cared about being King!"

True enough, thought Orestes. Funny how imprisonment and imminent death can change a man's outlook... He found he could take a deep enough breath to reply, "I do now... I fear for our father's kingdom under your ... pathetic ... rule".

That seemed to incense Minos, for he bridled and spat back, "You're just like him! You both think that I'm inadequate! Well," he straightened up and held his head high, the princely fillet gleaming in the torchlight, "look at me now!"

Orestes did. He saw his younger brother - always the tagalong, the afterthought, the butt of such jokes as elder brothers will play on the younger - now grown up and no longer just an annoyance, but a mortal threat to Attica as the weak-minded pawn of an ambitious and unscrupulous warlord.

"I'm not impressed" Orestes whispered, and then his gaze shifted from his brother to further up the stairs, where death approached in the form of Archaeus and his lieutenant.

Minos heard them, too, and his eyes widened in sudden comprehension.

Orestes turned away. "If I can't live like a king, at least I can die like one". He couldn't bear to look at his brother any longer. Minos disgusted him almost as much as Archaeus did, but neither of them reached the level of disgust that Orestes had for himself. Well, he'd spoken the truth, at least. He would indeed try to die like a king, and maybe then his forefathers in the Underworld would not be too ashamed of him. No one else would know.

He didn't even fight this time, when they forced the poison on him.

For a long time afterwards there was nothing but the darkness and the agony in his belly. He lay on his cot and passed in and out of sleep or unconsciousness - at this point, there seemed little difference.

Gradually he became aware of voices and light. He stiffened. Was this going to be the final dose of poison?

He heard Archaeus' voice. "Stay at the top of the stairs. Keep the torches burning. Watch him, but do nothing, unless we are attacked. If we are - kill him!"

Orestes was careful not to move or react, as the light washed over him. He peered through barely open eyelids to see two guards lounging at the top of the stairs. Torches now burned in brackets all along the stairway.

Archaeus had mentioned being attacked. Orestes tried to stamp out the tiny flame of hope that kindled in him. An attack? It had to be Hector, coming to his rescue. But how could they possibly get to Orestes in time to prevent those two guards from killing him first?

Only a fool would keep hoping. He was definitely a fool, Orestes reflected, but not so big a fool as to think he could stay alive long enough to be rescued. He curled around the pain within him and passed out again.

At some point, he woke and realized that he must have begun to hallucinate from the poison. He saw himself free, bounding down the stairs outside his cell, laughing and talking to the two surprised guards. He watched himself suddenly head-butt one guard and then, in a flurry of graceful motion, knock both of them out.

The crash of the two armored bodies hitting the stone floor echoed in his ears. This was no dream. What the hell was going on?

He struggled to sit up. "Who... is it?" came dragging from his raw, parched throat.

The blond man who wore his face swiftly snatched up the keys from one of the unconscious guards and unlocked the cell door. His cheerful grin glittered in the torchlight.

"It's your humble cousin, cousin!"

Cousin...? Orestes stared, then remembered. His cousin... the one who'd looked like him... Iolaus ... the one he wanted to apologize to ...but not now ...

Iolaus was undoing the manacles on Orestes' wrists.

"How ... did you get past the ...guards?" It was the first thing that came to mind. The second thing was, where was Hector?

The manacles came off, and fell to the ground with a clink.

Iolaus briskly put an arm under Orestes' shoulders. "We've got to get you out of here!" For a moment, Orestes felt a tiny surge of strength, and he struggled to his feet. They moved towards the door.

The sound of Archaeus' voice from above doused whatever hope had flamed up in Orestes' exhausted mind.

"The only way the two of you are leaving here is dead!"

His knees went weak and he collapsed in the doorway of the opened cell. He watched in dull amazement as his cousin snatched up the slender sword that Archaeus - with typical bravado - tossed to him. There was no way that his cousin would be able to take on a swordsman like the general. Orestes knew this could have only one outcome, and he bitterly regretted that his cousin was now going to die for Orestes' sake.

For just a heartbeat, Iolaus looked back at him. "Stay there!"

It was an order just like Hector would have given, and it produced the same automatic annoyance. "He can't talk to me like that!" Orestes muttered to himself. "I'm ... the King!"

Neither Archaeus nor Iolaus heard this, locked in mortal combat as they were. They disappeared up the stairs. For a moment Orestes' heart sank, as his cousin seemingly abandoned him, but then his poison-fogged mind realized that Iolaus was doing something very brave and very wise - he was drawing Archaeus away from Orestes.

Orestes swallowed hard. No matter what his cousin had told him about staying put, he knew he needed to get out of here. He couldn't let Iolaus face Archaeus alone.

Both guards were still unconscious. He crawled on hands and knees to the nearest one, and took the sword from his scabbard.

The manacles clanked as he brushed against them, and an idea came to him. With shaking hands, he locked one manacle around the wrist of one of the guards, ran the chain through the bars of the open cell door, and then locked the second manacle onto the second guard.

That would be two, at least, who could not fight for their damned master for a while...

Orestes grinned to himself - a grin that became a grimace as he hauled himself, sword in one hand, up the stone stairs towards the sound of fighting.

Just getting out of the dank, fetid air of his prison was enough to grant him a little energy. He stumbled down the corridor towards the great hall.

There were shouts and the crash of something heavy falling, then the clash of metal and even more shouting.

There was also suddenly a pair of Archaeus' soldiers in front of him. If he had been thinking normally, he would have known that there was no way he could have taken them on individually, much less both at the same time. But he was not thinking normally - indeed it didn't feel like he was thinking at all. He simply launched himself - and when he looked around again, there were two bleeding bodies on the floor. He sagged to his knees, then heard a voice calling his name.

He looked up.

Minos was in front of him, with a sword in his hand.

For one insane second, Orestes wondered if Minos was going to kill him. That idea died, along with another of Archaeus' guards, who rushed Orestes, but discovered that Minos' blade was in the way.

Orestes abruptly found himself fighting back to back with his younger brother. Of all the strange and unexpected things that had happened that day, this had to be the most unlikely. The thought seemed to give him a burst of strength.

He gasped, "I never thought I'd see the day. Thanks, brother!"

Minos thrust at another attacker. "I could get used to this!"

Orestes kicked the guard in the belly, and he went down. "Maybe we should try it again sometime!"

The words had barely left his lips when one of Archaeus' men shoved his blade through Minos' chest.

"NO!!!!" screamed Orestes. His own sword gave answer and Archaeus' man crumpled to the floor.

Heedless of the rest of the fight now raging, Orestes caught his brother in his arms. Blood was on Minos' lips and bubbled out his nostrils. "Maybe I was good for something after all..." His eyes glazed over. "Farewell... my brother...". His last breath came out in a crimson froth, and his head fell back.

Orestes felt his eyes burning. He laid his forehead against his brother's face and for the first time since he was a child, he wept. For several heartbeats the tears ran silently down his face. Then he gently laid his brother back down on the floor.

The tiny burst of strength he had felt was gone. He could not even pick up his discarded sword. Numb, his knees shaking, he clutched the wall for support and moved towards the great hall.

His sight was getting progressively more clouded, and the pain in his belly was growing again. With dim relief, he saw Hector, Linus, and the others were indeed in the hall. They had come for him. He wasn't worth it, but they'd come for him.

Archaeus and his cousin were rampaging all through the and all the rest on both sides were watching, as though it were the latest drama in Apollo's ampitheater. Iolaus was bleeding from several slashes, but holding his own. Orestes knew he needed to be out there, helping his cousin, but his legs would not hold him.

He staggered and caught himself on a pedestal that held a large blue vase.

In front of the pedestal stood a dark-haired woman, anxiously watching the battle between the two swordsmen. She herself held a bloodstained sword. Orestes was certain that she was not one of Archaeus' people, and she looked strangely familiar.

Just then, his attention was caught by a flicker of motion. Out of a hallway came one of Archaeus' guards, sword in hand, heading purposefully towards the woman. She was so intent on the battle before her that she did not hear his approach. In his own turn, the soldier was so murderously intent on the woman, that he did not even notice Orestes clinging to the pedestal.

With shaking hands and legs that just barely obeyed him, Orestes snatched up the vase, took two wobbly-legged steps towards the soldier, and brought it down on his head.

The soldier collapsed to the stone floor. The noise of the smashing pottery caused the woman to whirl around.

In the heartbeat before Orestes, too, collapsed, he recognized Niobe, his much-maligned princess. He realized that she also must have come to his rescue. They stared at each other, and he desperately tried to say something, but the poison and exhaustion finally overwhelmed him. Nevertheless, as he went down into the darkness, he took with him a feeling of strange, unaccustomed hope.

Niobe sat beside the royal bed,looking at the man who lay in it and trying her best to hate him. It was not as if she didn't have good reason to do so. She had been the victim of a deception of such awesome proportions as to take her breath away. Even now, the thought of what had been done caused her to shake with rage.

"How could you have done this to me?!" she had almost screamed at Hector, once they were all safely back in the royal palace with thick doors between them and listening ears. Hector had stood before her, calm, courteous, and utterly unrepentant. "We felt that the fewer people who knew of Orestes' kidnapping, the better, " he had replied calmly.

"You crowned an impostor!"

"No. We crowned a King. We crowned Orestes - no matter who was wearing that crown in his name! Think, your Majesty! We did it for the sake of the kingdom - your kingdom, as well as Orestes'!"

Her anger did not abate. She honestly wanted to murder him. "And you couldn't have trusted me with the secret?! I - who am your Queen?!" A thought struck her. "Or am I Queen, since I apparently married an imposter?!"

Hector stared her straight in the eyes. "You married Orestes" he said, very quietly. "You are the Queen - and you have been the Queen since the day of the coronation".

The coronation. Oh gods, she thought, remembering how she had entered that day, hating the thought of marrying the drunken lout Orestes, hating even worse the possibility that she might end up wed to the weak-minded Minos. And then there had been those few brief days, when the man she had wed seemed to be so different from her expectations - an archer, a judge, a companion of wit and gentleness - that she had allowed herself to hope that her married life would not be the unrelenting hell that she had steeled herself for. But last night it had all come crashing down. The man who had become increasingly dear to her was now revealed as an impostor, one Iolaus, a distant relative of the king. And Orestes, the real king, had been rescued by that same impostor from imprisonment - but not before being poisoned by his jailers.

Orestes ... she looked down at him. Even now, the physical resemblance between him and his distant cousin Iolaus was indeed remarkable. The same mobile face, small stature and muscular build. Only their hair was different - Orestes', straight and flowing, the impostor's, a tawny-gold tangle. And their characters... She gave a soft, bitter laugh. So much for her hope of a happy marriage!

A sound drew her attention. Orestes stirred restlessly, and she reached out and touched his face. He was burning hot with fever, as the healer had said he would be. "Your Majesty, sometimes fever is the gift of the gods. It will burn the poison out of him - if he survives it!"

Did she want him to survive? Now that there was no one in the room but Orestes and herself, she could pose the question fairly.

As a prince and prospective husband, he was a drunken, arrogant, obnoxious, incompetent churl. He had a reputation for debauchery that had spawned hundreds of half-admiring, half-contemptuous folksongs. She had heard quite a number of his remarks about herself, in tales carried by falsely solicitous courtiers. As heir to the throne he had shown no aptitude or interest in any of the responsibilities of his future position. He was worthless. Attica would be better off without him, wouldn't it?

And yet ... last night in the prison, she had seen him fight the soldiers of General Archaeus, standing back to back with his brother Minos, the two united for a brief moment against the evil that threatened the kingdom. Minos had fallen heroically, taking a thrust meant for his brother - and she had seen Orestes weep for him. And finally, when she herself was embroiled in a fight with one soldier, there had been a loud crash behind her. She turned to see a second soldier laid out, a heavy pot having been smashed over his head by Orestes, who by now was losing his own fight against Archaeus's poison. Clearly he had saved her from being stabbed in the back.

She became aware that her hand was still on Orestes' forehead. She started to draw it away, but he moaned and his own hand came up and caught hers in a desperate grip. His bright blue eyes - another trait the impostor shared! - opened slowly and locked on hers.

"Ni...obe?" The word was barely audible, but he gasped at the effort and began to shiver.

"Yes, Orestes. I'm here". She pulled another blanket over him, and told herself she would have done this for anyone. "I'll call the healer".

"No! ... Please!"

Niobe had never heard that word from him before.

"That was you ... tonight...fighting ...?"

"Yes".

His brows drew down in a frown. "Why?"

There was no explanation she could give that would make sense. She answered simply, "I couldn't let them kill you".

"Minos said ... the same thing."

"I'm sorry he's dead. He died heroically". As she said it, she realized she was telling the truth.

"He's dead... and... now I'm ... dying too..".

"No. You're not. You won't!" She was surprised at the tremble in her own voice.

He went on as if she had not spoken, battling harder to get each word out than when he had fought against his jailers. "Niobe...I've got ...to tell you.... I'm sorry ... for ... everything. Please ...don't ...go..." the words trailed off and his eyes closed. For the moment, the fever had won the encounter.

For an unknown time she stood staring, not believing what she had heard. Maybe, she reflected, hope was not dead after all.

Niobe suddenly felt the sting of tears in her eyes. What a stupid mess everything had become! She had come to her wedding hating Orestes - and then found that her feelings were turning into something else, only to discover that the man whom she thought she might be able to love was not, after all, the man that she was wed to. And Iolaus, the dear stranger - she shook her head as the tears poured down her face. He was to leave tomorrow, and she knew in her heart that she would never see him again, and she knew coldly and realistically that this was how it had to be, no matter what wild fantasies were raging in the back of her mind. For a few moments she allowed herself to weep over the memories of the last few days.

After a while she quieted and wiped her eyes and started to think again. "And now - what?" she asked herself. There was no stability. Everything had changed - even Orestes himself. It seemed that he, too, was not the person she had thought he was. Of one thing she was certain now - she could not find in her heart to wish that he would die.

She saw that he was shivering again despite the furs and blankets that covered him. Not caring to think any further beyond the fact that he was cold and she was tired, she slid into the bed beside him. Orestes did not awaken, but like a child he sought out her warmth and pressed himself against her. She wrapped her arms around him, and the two of them slept.

As Orestes watched his cousin walk down the long hall towards the thrones, he reflected wryly that, despite the recent cataclysmic changes in his own life, he himself was still acting the contrarian. Once again he realized that he wasn't doing things the expected way, which was to say, the way his father would have wanted. Tough luck, Father, he thought to himself. I'm the King now, not you.

Almost as soon as he had regained consciousness and found himself back in the castle, he'd demanded that Hector tell him the whole story, over the protests of the castle healer who had simply wanted him to "Rest, your majesty - you must rest!" Orestes had finally ordered him out of the room, and then turned to the old soldier and said "Tell me everything. Now."

And so Hector gave an account - as blunt and precise as the old man himself - about how Orestes' cousin Iolaus had played the King in his stead; how he had been crowned and wed to Niobe, all in Orestes' name; how his cousin had displayed surprising wisdom and insight hearing cases at the monthly session of court, and in fact, cleared out half of the years-long backlog; how Iolaus had fought off Minos' minions singlehandedly, and bravely gone alone into Archaeus' fortress. In short, how Iolaus had performed his royal duties in an exemplary fashion - one that Orestes would be well advised to follow. Hector's admiration for Orestes' cousin was obvious. That was astonishing right there. As far as Orestes could recall, Hector had never admired anyone before - no one had ever quite come up to his standards.

Orestes knew he should resent that fact, but he could not. Hector was right. Although Orestes would never tell him so to his face. Well, not right now, anyway. He'd have to, some day, though....

Orestes knew only too well how the old King, his father, would have reacted to the news that he had been impersonated by someone, no matter how noble the motives. He would have seen it as an immediate threat to his hold on the Attican throne. The old King would have taken steps to remove that threat - probably up to, and including, a quiet assassination of the man who wore his face.

That wasn't going to happen. When Hector had finished his account, Orestes had reached out a shaking hand and whispered fiercely "My cousin's life is sacrosanct, Hector! Do you understand? He is safe, within our borders and beyond them. I know what my father would have done - but I am not my father!"

He had gotten the greatest shock of his life when the general saluted him solemnly and replied, "For which I am glad, your majesty".

Damn straight, thought Orestes to himself. All you had to do was look his cousin in the eyes, to know that this man would never be a problem. A crown would be the last thing Iolaus would want. Orestes could sense that. They were alike in one respect at least - both had a burning desire for freedom and a hatred of being trapped. Iolaus was the luckier of the two of them, Orestes thought. He could give up his borrowed crown and walk away, free to live as he pleased. Gods, how Orestes envied him! But he had come to the realization, back in Archaeus' dungeon, that that option was not open to him. At one time that thought would have driven him to wild rebellion, but now ...

He turned his head and saw Niobe looking at him anxiously. "Are you all right?" she whispered.

Well, no, he thought. Right now he was having a major fight of it, just to stay upright in his seat. Archaeus had been right about there being an antidote to the aconite that Orestes had been poisoned with - what he hadn't mentioned, however, was that it would make Orestes sick as a dog. The healer had been professionally upbeat about the whole thing. "Your majesty will have bouts of fever. It's a good sign. The poison will burn itself out of you". Oh thanks, that's a comfort.

He swallowed hard against a surge of nausea and gritted his teeth. He was going to make it through this audience, if it killed him. He knew he looked like hell right now - he'd taken one swift glance in the mirror as they had dressed him today - but he gave Niobe a nod and a fleeting grin of reassurance.

Niobe .... there was another matter. Hector had been very frank about the fact that she had clearly begun to respond to the imposter with something that looked like growing affection. And how could Orestes blame her? She'd come into the marriage expecting HIM, and gotten a hero instead, at least for a day or two. He could still hear her saying to his cousin, back at Archaeus' fortress, "You're not Orestes, are you?" The deep disappointment in her voice had penetrated even to his fading consciousness. He could understand her point of view only too well. The whole thing must have seemed like an exquisitely cruel trick by the Fates.

Would she leave him? He had a vague memory - made hazy by fever this time, not wine - of begging her last night not to go. It seemed that she had promised to stay, but that might have only been a dream. Or maybe him begging her was the dream. Orestes really wasn't sure.

One thing was certain - they had to have a talk. A long, serious, very private talk.

It was all very well for Hector and all his father's advisors to talk about royal duty and marrying for the sake of the kingdom. Niobe had probably gotten the same lectures from her parents and councillors, he thought fleetingly. Probably one of the few things that the two of them had in common. But he wouldn't hold her, if she wanted to leave. How could he expect her to stay in a marriage to a man for whom she felt only a richly-deserved contempt? Royal duties be damned - it would be living Tartarus for both of them. The one thing he could do for her to make up for the disappointment of getting him instead of Iolaus as a husband, would be to give her her freedom. If she wanted out, he'd find some pretext to dissolve the marriage, and he'd deal with all the official consequences that would no doubt ensue. Yeah, he'd get a raft of grief from a lot of different quarters, but at least then maybe she wouldn't hate him.

Definitely, they needed to talk. But not now. Right now, Orestes just needed to get through this last official parting with his heroic cousin.

Iolaus walked up to the foot of the steps and gave a respectful nod of his head.

Orestes took a deep breath. "Niobe and I would like to express our gratitude to you, Iolaus". He stopped short, as a spasm of pain flashed through him.

"I'm glad I could help". His cousin smiled.

"You did more than help..." Wasn't that the truth, Orestes thought to himself. "You healed my kingdom". Healed, hell! he thought. Saved it entirely, more like. If not for Iolaus being at the right place at the right time, Minos would indeed have become king and Archaeus would be running the place into the ground even now. "And you taught me the value of family..." Orestes continued, reflecting to himself that this distant cousin had probably done more good for Attica than any of her kings.

"Attica has never seen anyone like you". Niobe's voice echoed through the throne room. Orestes turned and looked at her. She sat straight and queenly in her chair. In her eyes, as in her tone, he could sense a deep sadness, and he felt a surge of pity for her. Her hero was departing, and she was being left with what she certainly saw as a far lesser man - if she saw him as a man at all. He couldn't hate her for that. In her position he'd have felt the same.

He turned his attention back to Iolaus. "I only hope that I can rule with the wisdom that you displayed".

Iolaus regarded him gravely. "I'm sure you will, your majesty".

"Orestes".

Iolaus smiled. "I'll try to remember that, the next time I'm back this way".

"Is there nothing we can do to convince you to stay?"

Iolaus shook his head. "I'm afraid not. I have a friend waiting for me at the Delphi crossroads".

Well, it had been worth one last try, thought Orestes. It would have been so good to have a long talk with this cousin, this honest man who was leaving a crown behind without a backwards glance. He nodded in acquiescence and tried to rise to his feet, but his legs were like rags and would not support him.

That's all right, he decided. This is one more tiny thing I can do for Niobe.

He looked over at her, noticing how the light from the skylight above the thrones glistened in her dark hair. She was truly so beautiful.

"I'm afraid I lack the strength to see you off. Niobe, will you do the honors?"

Orestes saw surprise first, then sudden panic in her eyes, but she nodded graciously. "I'd be glad to".

She rose and glided gracefully down the steps.

Orestes bowed his head. "Until we meet again, cousin".

Iolaus returned the smile and a brief bow. "Goodbye - Orestes!" He offered his hand to Niobe. She took it, and they walked slowly out through the throne room doors, leaving Orestes in the sunlight and the silence, wondering if he would ever see either one of them again.

EPILOGUE

It was dark within the hall after the brightness of the market place. Niobe slowly entered, her steps echoing in the silence. She had watched as Iolaus reluctantly - but never turning back - walked away from her and Attica. He had not even kissed her. She understood why, and there was a part of her - a large part, she admitted - that was grateful to him for that. He did not want to make their parting any harder on her or himself than it had to be. She had not lied when she told him that there would always be a place in her heart for him. And when Iolaus confessed that his feelings for her were no deception, the truth had been in his eyes. Both knew what could and could not be, and so he had walked away from her and the sun had shone golden upon his hair.

Her eyes blurred a bit as she looked up the hall. There sat Orestes, haloed also by the sun pouring through the great skylight above the royal thrones. He watched her silently as she came up the length of the room and stood before him.

"Niobe. We've got to talk". He swayed slightly and she realized that he had been holding himself upright only by force of will.

"We'll talk. But not until you're back in bed. I can feel you burning from here".

Orestes gave a brief laugh. "That's my masculine charm". He got to his feet and leaned heavily against the wall, his face white. "The healer said this would happen - the fever will keep coming back until the poison is gone". He tried a step and caught himself.

"Let me help you", she said softly. "Or, would you rather I called Hector?"

He looked up at her and asked, "Will you help me?"

Niobe felt the weight of the question. She slid her arm around him and answered gravely, "Yes. I will".

Back in the royal bedchamber, she helped him to climb once again beneath the furs. She looked around, found a chair and brought it over to the bedside, and sat down. They looked at each other.

"Orestes-"

"Niobe - " he interrupted her. "What happens now?"

"I don't know". She looked away. "Nothing has turned out the way I expected it to".

"I know what you mean." He started to smile, but then shook his head. The words came slowly, hesitantly. "Look... I know the sort of man you expected me to be. To be honest, I was that sort of man - until the night before my coronation. Yoou've got to understand ... I spent twenty years of my life doing everything I could to be something other than the "perfect prince" that my father wanted me to be. And I did a great job of it! Instead of a prince, I successfully turned myself into a drunken joke. You knew it, all of Attica knew it, but no one knew it better than me. And I got away with it - until I finally woke up in that cell with those shackles on". He rubbed the marks that were still visible on his wrists. "I had a lot of time to think, there in the dark" He shuddered. "I've never felt so helpless in my life - and I knew I was going to die". His blue eyes burned. "Archeaus meant to kill me. In a weird way, he did! I can't go back to being what I was. Being helpless and powerless... I won't forget that. I can't ever forget that..." He stirred restlessly and his eyes started to close. His face was grey with exhaustion.

"Maybe you should sleep now", Niobe suggested, but he looked up at her almost in fear.

"No!" he replied. "We've got to get this straight between us! I've got to know - " he broke off, panting. "Niobe, I've been given a chance to do things right, or at least differently than I would have. And one of those things has got to do with you.... You did your duty, in marrying me - or the man you thought was me. You did the right thing, the thing that everyone told you a princess should do. I can't imagine what it must have been like, to go through what you went through. ..." He swallowed hard. "Niobe, I got a second chance ... and I think it's only fair that you should, too. I know what you think of me ... and I deserve it. I've changed - but I realize that there is no real reason that you should believe me when I say that. Anyway ..." he took a deep breath and steeled himself. "Niobe, you don't have to be married to me."

Shock crossed her face.

He went on hurriedly, "I know what I expected from you - and I have a good idea of what you thought of me! But now we've got a chance to start this over. Niobe, if you want to be free, I'll understand. You were just as trapped by all this as I was. Doing time in a dungeon, I now know what that feels like! I don't want you to be unhappy. Say the word, and we'll find a pretext to dissolve this marriage - something that will leave you in honor and free to marry where you will. You won't suffer by it, I promise you, on the crown of Attica!"

Niobe just stared at him for a long time, her eyes huge and dark, all the color drained from her face. Finally she stood up and regarded him gravely. "Are you trying to tell me that you want me to go?" she whispered.

"Oh gods - NO!" The force of his sudden panic made things go black around the edges of Orestes' vision. Desperately he grasped for her hand. "I'm not a fool - I know you don't love me. But you came to my rescue. I won't forget that! Niobe, back at Archaeus' fortress, we fought on the same side. The future is all hazy, but the best thing I can think of is that we could go on doing that! And maybe we could even be happy together, fighting on the same side. Do you think there's any chance you could?"

Niobe got up abruptly and walked over to the window that looked out over the market square. Beyond the bustle of people below, beyond the great gates of the city, loomed the green-forested mountains where, somewhere, there walked a man who carried with him a small part of her heart. She sighed. But it was only a small part of her - the rest was here, and here it would have to stay. She turned back and looked at Orestes.

He was just as much a stranger to her as Iolaus had been - and maybe just as full of surprises.

She looked at him solemnly, almost shyly. "It's funny. I was going to say the same thing to you!"

"Then ... you'll stay with me?"

With almost ceremonial deliberation, she nodded.

Uncertainly he reached out his hand to her. She took it firmly.

"I have another thing to ask, " he whispered. "There are songs about what an archer you are. When I'm recovered... will you teach me how to shoot a bow?"

FINIS



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