Jason sat brooding on his throne. It was something he did a lot of these days. Everywhere he looked he saw the smiling faces of his children. He couldn’t escape them, couldn’t escape the memories of their tragic deaths at the hands of their own mother. In just a few moment she took the greatest joy in his life and reduced it to ashes. He took another long drink from the goblet in his hand. He was drinking too much, he knew it but there was no sleeping without it. And the nights were too long and dark to be without the comfort of sleep.
An aide entered the hall. He approached quietly, “Sire? Sire?” He waiting until Jason looked up at him, “Sire, there is a messenger here from the king of Mycenea, he also brings what appears to be a coffin, sir.”
That got Jason’s attention, “Send him in.”
The messenger had obviously been in a hurry. He hadn’t taken the time to remove the dust from his clothes before requesting to see Jason. He bowed low toward the King of Corinth, “Your Majesty, I come from your friend and ally, King Ryus of Mycenea. He brings news of great sorrow. Your queen has been found in our kingdom. When word of her presence came to us, the king, himself, rode out to fetch her, but when we arrived she had already done harm to herself. There were only a few breaths of life left in her. While I did not hear her words, my king did hear them and reported that she begged your majesty’s forgiveness. My King believed that in the end she was again in her right mind and knew of her fowl deeds. King Ryus believed she was greatly repentant and could not continue in this life knowing what she had done. He asked her why she had done it but Celesta had already taken her. The sympathies and condolences of my King and all his people are with you in this time. My King further wishes you to know that if there is anything he can do for you personally or for Corinth, you have but to ask. We return your Queen to you.”
Four men garbed as members of the royal guard of Mycenea entered carrying an elaborately carved coffin and placed it on the floor of the Audience Chamber. They turned and with the messenger, bowed.
Jason stood and found it difficult to speak. After a hesitation he replied with a simple, “Thank you.” He turned to the aide who had accompanied the messenger, “See that these men are fed and given accommodations.”
Then, the King of Corinth turned and fled as quickly as decorum would allow.
Atticus brushed his pants leg and watched the dust collected from the day’s travel float away. He didn’t think he was too far from Enola. He wondered for the millionth time why he was here. He should be tending to his crops, that’s what farmers did. How did he even know that highwayman was telling the truth? Atticus sighed and continued walking. At this point it didn’t matter if the rogue was telling the truth. Atticus had to know if his Lucina was here. If he didn’t at least check it out, he would always wonder if he had missed his second chance.
Lucina. She was so beautiful. He still couldn’t believe that she wanted him; a tall farmer with no meat on his bones. She had vowed then to fatten him up. She had tried, but farmers work too hard to put on weight. They were happy together and then it all went so wrong. Atticus had been over it every night since Lucina had ran away. He still didn’t know what he could have done to make things come out differently. He didn’t know what he would do now to make it right.
Atticus was so lost in thought, he didn’t hear two fellow travelers coming up behind him until one of them spoke to him.
“Hey, buddy, are you alright?” The blonde warrior asked.
Atticus jumped and the taller man caught his arm and steadied him.
“Easy, we didn’t mean to startle you.”
Atticus took a deep breath, “That’s alright.”
“You looked like you were deep in thought,” Iolaus ventured.
“Yes,” Atticus nodded, “yes, I was.”
A large man stepped to his other side,“Anything we can help with? I’m Hercules and this is Iolaus.”
Atticus did a double take, “You’re Hercules? The Hercules?”
Iolaus rolled his eyes behind Atticus’ back while Hercules grimaced.
“Yes, I’m that Hercules. Is there anything we can do to help? You look like you have the weight of the world on your shoulders.”
“No, it’s...it’s personal. Thank you for the offer.”
“Where are you headed?” Iolaus asked.
“That’s where we’re headed, you can look us up if you change your mind.”
“Thank you, um, I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name?”
Iolaus tried not to roll his eyes again, “Iolaus, and you are?”
“Atticus. Thank you, but I can handle my own problems.”
Hercules offered his hand, “Pleased to meet you Atticus. Normally, we’d offer to travel with you but we’re in a bit of a hurry.”
“Friend in trouble,” Iolaus explained.
“I understand. Good luck to you both.”
Twilight lit the sky as the edge of town came into sight. Hercules and Iolaus slowed their pace. They didn’t want to draw too much attention to themselves as they entered the town.
“So, Herc, do we know exactly where Salmoneus is? Enola is not exactly a small village with one street. I mean, it’s not Athens or Corinth but it’s got more than one inn.”
“I know the place is called the Pleasure Palace. From the description the messenger gave me, I don’t think we’ll have much trouble spotting it.”
Iolaus grinned, “The Pleasure Palace? I wonder what sorts of pleasures they specialize in?”
“I’m sure it’s not innocent fun,” the demigod replied grimly.
“And the messenger didn’t say why there was a big emergency?”
“No, but from his description of the town, we should be careful. This town has a reputation.” Hercules pointed toward the glow from a large number of torches, “Looks like there’s something going on over there.”
Atticus, shoulders slumped with worry, walked through the streets. Shadows lengthened with the coming night. He needed to find somewhere to stay. He had never been here before and wasn’t sure where he was going. He was told Lucina was here but not where exactly. He had heard how she was making her living and it was assuredly in a part of town he usually avoided as all good folk did. He could hear the music and people talking merrily in the distance. Perhaps the noise was coming from an inn, he turned toward the sounds.
A footfall behind him, Atticus turned and didn’t have time to react before something heavy crashed into the side of his head. Light flashed behind his eyes before darkness consumed him.
The two thugs drug Atticus’s body into the shadow of an alley. They pawed through his pockets and bedroll. A poor farmer, Atticus didn’t have much. With a low chuckle one of the thieves held up a small pouch with the letter “A” adorning it in gold. Someone had lovingly embroidered the victim’s initial on his pouch. The thief shook the pouch and grinned. It jingled with the unmistakable sound of coins clanking together. The second thug returned the grin and they disappeared into the night. Leaving Atticus unconscious in a pile of trash and shadows.
The Pleasure Palace was certainly a place of bright light and merry-making. The sound of drinking, dancing and carousing was obvious to the two men watching the establishment from across the street. Alluringly dressed women entered and soon exited with eager men on their arms, men who had obviously seen the rougher side of life. The denizens of the Pleasure Palace spilled out onto the street. There were several shady business deals being completed outside and around the building.
“I know Salmoneus is seriously into making dinars but this place looks a little disreputable even for him,” Iolaus commented.
Hercules nodded, “No wonder he said that his new business was more than he could handle. You stay here. I’ll go in and get Salmoneus and we’ll find out what’s going on.”
“No, I want you watching the door and my back. I don’t want any nasty surprises walking in behind me.”
Iolaus glanced at a small commotion on the street a few yards away as one thug shoved another. It died down quickly and business went back to normal. “Okay, Herc, it’s probably less threatening if only one of us goes in. I got your back. Just be quick or I’m going to have to come in looking for you.”
Hercules nodded and turned to head across the street.
Lucina had always been an accomplished dancer but she’d gotten better at it recently. She glided across the floor with practiced ease and grace. Her hips and hands distracting nearly every male in the place. She could do a little sewing but not enough to make a living at it. So, when she had to make her own way, there weren’t many occupations left open to her. She caught scowls from Mica and Heliotrope as she spun by them. They were jealous of her youth and beauty but Lucina envied them. They were past their prime in the profession and were able to make a living as serving wenches now. Lucina wasn’t old enough yet to be able walk between the men and not be noticed. She couldn’t get work in a decent inn. There were always too many questions.
She exchanged smiles with Salmoneus at the bar as she passed. He was a nice man, too nice to be running this place. He paid her to dance but it wasn’t enough to live on. Lucina began looking through the crowd for tonight’s supplement to her income.
Salmoneus ignored the bartender and reached over the bar for the pitcher to refill his glass. He blew a kiss at Lucina as a broad hand came down on his shoulder.
“Herc-,” Salmoneus stopped himself before he announced the demigod’s presence to the entire room.
“I want a word with you. Outside.”
Salmoneus picked up his glass and offered it to Hercules, “Wouldn’t you rather have a little toddy for your body? It would be good for you, get rid of some of that tension I sense you’re feeling. I’ll give you two drinks for the price of one.”
“Come to think of it, I could use some fresh air.” Salmoneus turned toward the open front door and saw two large, disagreeable looking thugs blocking his way. “On second thought, let’s go out back. It’s more private.”
The sounds of music and the crowd could still be heard through the closed door. Hercules surveyed the small courtyard behind the Palace. There were a several doors presumably leading to small quarters for the staff of the Palace. No one else was visible and there weren’t many hiding places. The small courtyard was closed to the street. One had to pass through the Palace or one of the quarters to get to it.
“Look, Hercules, I can explain everything.”
The demigod turned to face the salesman, “It better be good, because I came all the way from Arcadia as soon as I got your message. What are you doing in a place like this?”
“I had no idea what it was.”
Hercules wasn’t buying it, “Salmoneus...”
“If I’m lying, I’m dying. Just listen to me. It’s my brother-in-law’s place. He said it was a night club. Silly me, believing a guy who lies just to keep in practice. But here I am until the rodent gets back from Athens. The minute he does, though, trust me, I’m leaving like my toga’s on fire.”
“Why did you come here in the first place? Don’t you know this town’s reputation?” Hercules crossed his arms and leaned back against the wall. He had a feeling they’d be here for awhile.
“I couldn’t let that drag me down when I needed a testing site for something that will make the world a better place.”
Hercules sighed, “I don’t suppose I can stop you from telling me what it is.”
“Happy Hour! See, every day you have an hour where you sell two drinks for the price of one. It’s the hour that makes you happy, get it?”
“Right,” Hercules wasn’t impressed. “So, why am I here?”
“That’s the other problem, Do you know about Pilot?” Salmoneus whispered his name to make sure that he wasn’t over heard.
Hercules nodded, “He’s the local warlord, right?”
“Among other things, he’s into collecting protection money,” Salmoneus explained.
“So, you want me to take care of him for you?”
“If you wouldn’t mind.”
Hercules pushed off the wall and turned to go back inside, “I’ll think about it. It’s not as simple as just taking care of the head man. Unless this town wants to change, someone else will step into the shoes of every ring leader I take out. This town is full of Pilot’s men, if you have to stay here much longer, my interference could make things worse for you and your brother-in-law. Do you want me to upset the status quo?”
“I don’t want to get beaten up either.”
“We’ll check things out and then we’ll see, okay?”
“Come on, Herc. You’ve been gone too long. I don’t want to have to come in after you.” The hunter moved across the street and tried to see through the windows. There didn’t appear to be any trouble inside. Where was Hercules?
The door banged open. A thug reeled out dragging Lucina behind him. The man kept going. He had a long scar running down the side of his face and neck attesting to his choice of lifestyle.
“You and me, baby. All night long.”
Iolaus stepped forward, “Hey, take it easy with her.”
The thug stopped and turned to look Iolaus over. He stood at least a head above the hunter. “Who do you think you are, talking to me like that?”
“I’m more trouble than you can handle.”
Before Iolaus could show the creep just how much trouble he could be, Lucina stepped forward, placing herself between Iolaus and her client.
“If you’re trying to protect me, don’t bother. I’ve got a living to make.” She turned to her chosen meal ticket, “Are we going or not?”
He grinned evilly down at her, “You know we are.” Then, he turned his grin on Iolaus and steered Lucina down the steps and into the street.
Iolaus felt like the woman had slapped him in the face. He didn’t understand this at all. He never understood how a woman could allow herself to be treated that way. It was one thing to choose this profession but another to put up with abuse and disrespect. No one deserved that. He turned back to the door to find Hercules and Salmoneus standing beside him.
“Everything okay out here?” Hercules asked.
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Hercules are you sure you don’t want to stay? I’ve got the room, I can put you up.” Salmoneus offered.
Hercules shook his head, “No thanks. Not here. We’ll find somewhere else to sleep.”
Hercules walked out of the stable door into the morning sunlight. He ran fingers through his hair and called back through the door.
“Come on, Iolaus, let’s go. Rise and shine.”
“Yeah, yeah. I’m coming.” Iolaus appeared, squinting in the light. He staggered slightly as he stretched. “We have got to start sleeping in places that have pillows.”
Hercules stifled a yawn, “No argument there.”
They headed for the well in front of the stable. Hercules drew a pail of water and scooped himself a drink. Before he could quench his thirst, a middle-aged woman and her young son approached them.
“Excuse me, You’re Hercules, aren’t you?”
Hercules grimaced and turned toward her expecting to have another ‘You’re Hercules?’ conversation. Iolaus took advantage of the demigod’s distraction and grabbed the dipper from his hand.
“You fought with my brother Cleon in the Philippian Campaign.” the middle-aged woman continued. “He still says he never would have made it home if you hadn’t inspired him with your bravery.”
Hercules stepped away from the well, “Cleon didn’t need an inspiration. He was a fine soldier. Does he still live here?”
She shook her head sadly, “No, he moved away, like most of the other good men. He’s in Mynos now, building boats.”
Before Hercules could ask any further questions, a moan sounded from the shadows of a nearby alley. The demigod glanced around and found a familiar face struggling to sit up. Iolaus set down the dipper and moved toward Atticus. Hercules turned back to the woman, “I better see if I can help him. Hope our paths cross again.”
She watched Hercules hurry away and shook her head sadly, “This town...”
Hercules knelt next to Atticus. Iolaus was behind him supporting him. There was blood on the side of his face. It continued to ooze from a gash in his hairline. Atticus tried to move further but Iolaus held him on the ground, “Easy now. Not too fast.”
Atticus was disgusted with himself, “It’s what I deserve for not watching out behind me.” He checked his belongings and found he’d been robbed as he expected. “My money pouch, the thieves must have taken it.”
“Did you see their faces?” Hercules asked.
“No, they jumped me from behind.”
“I’ve always heard that Enola’s a tough town,” Hercules replied, “but I’ve got a friend here who’s not so far gone that he wouldn’t be willing to help you out. Why don’t we go see him?”
Atticus nodded his agreement. Iolaus helped him up. Hercules steadied him when he wobbled.
“Thank you. Here you are offering me more kindness than I’ve been shown in months. I don’t know how I can repay you.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Iolaus offered. “We just want to help.”
In Corinth, the King remained in his chambers. He had a glass of wine for breakfast but it did nothing to calm his soul. Even with the wine he had not slept, hadn’t even tried. He knew a message needed to be written to King Ryus but he couldn’t put the words together. He couldn’t even speak coherently to anyone. His mind was in such turmoil. The last few hours had been a blur of alcohol induced flash backs and nightmares but no rest.
Marcus, the head of his council, had come at some time in the night or was it early morning? Jason didn’t remember anymore. He had written a note to send back to Mycenea. Jason didn’t even know what it said. He didn’t care. He couldn’t deal with this anymore. At least it was over now, the woman who had murdered his children was dead but she might as well have taken Jason with her.
Oh, he needed to rest, if he could just get some sleep. Then, perhaps he could find some light in all this darkness that surrounded him. He looked at his chambers. He could still see his youngest son bouncing on the feather bed and laughing. Feel the weight of his daughter in his lap as he told stories to them in front of the fire. They were good memories but even the good memories were clouded by the darkness of their deaths. He couldn’t remember one without the other. He couldn’t remove the image of his children in their beds, their bodies twisted lying in their own blood.
He rubbed his swollen eyes hard, trying to erase the images before them. He sobbed but he could not cry. He had not cried. He was full of pain inside and there was no where a king could let it out. A king always has to be the king and he can not be the human man that he is. King was a mantle that he had learned to bear well and even enjoy, now it was a burden he could not bear on top of his own personal pain. Pain he had to set aside to lead his people. A king was responsible to his people first and his own life second.
Jason gazed out the window and longed to be free. To be free of this castle and it’s memories, to be free of the weight of leadership. He longed to just be a man. A man who was allowed to feel and mourn and laugh and cry. To go where he liked and as he pleased. But he was the King and a King is not a man. He is King. But he was a king that couldn’t be king until he dealt with his personal problems. If he couldn’t get past this, then he didn’t deserve to be King of Corinth and Corinth deserved better.
He envied his friends. Like in their academy days, Hercules and Iolaus were still out there slaying monsters and doing good. Those had been some of the best days of his life. He’d seen both of his friends at Iphicles’ wedding. Hercules had offered his help. He had lost his family in a tragedy all at once. Hera had sent fireballs to consume them. And Iolaus, he’d lost his family, too. Not all at once but they were gone just the same. He remembered Ania’s beautiful smile, how tiny her feet were when he’d held them after Hercules’ wedding. She’d been extremely pregnant at the time and as radiant as he’d ever seen a woman. And Deianeira; beautiful, feisty and determined, a match for Hercules in every way. All gone now. How did Hercules and Iolaus manage to get through this pain? This heartache that made you want to die?
Jason sat at the window and wondered where Hercules and Iolaus were now. Alcmene would know. She usually knew where they were, if not exactly, she would know the vicinity. Thebes was less than a day’s ride away if he left now.
Lucina held open the door to her room and tried to burn a hole in the large, rough-looking customer with her eyes, “Get out.”
“But I just got here,” he protested.
“You weren’t invited. Who do you think you are barging in on me?”
He backed her up against the wall, “I’m a customer, and the customer’s always right. Didn’t anybody ever tell you that?” He grabbed her arm and spun her around, leaving his back to the open door. Lucina struggled, trying to force him to release the tight grip he had on her arms. He held on, until something poked him in the backside.
“Ouch!” He spun around to find Pilot standing behind him. The local warlord was a swarthy, handsome man with well made leather armor and unlike most men in Lucina’s life, clean clothes.
Pilot advanced on the man, “I could hear the lady all the way down the hall. Now why don’t you do what she asked you to do?” He raised his sword and pressed the tip of it against the man’s neck.
Trying to back away the man replied hastily, “Take it easy, Pilot. I didn’t mean any harm. I was just trying...”
“Close the door behind you.”
The man did as ordered. Pilot looked Lucina up and down approvingly. “So you’re the Lucina who’s had all my men howling at the moon. A woman as beautiful as you should have guards outside her door.”
“Why would I need guards? Wouldn’t that hamper business?”
Pilot advanced on her, “Ah, but they would assure that we wouldn’t be interrupted.”
She backed away, “I planned on having the morning to myself.”
He barked a laugh, “Oh, a morning would never be enough to satisfy either of us.”
She stopped backing away realizing that she would never get rid of him by showing fear. “You’ve got a pretty high opinion of yourself, don’t you?”
He grinned confidently, “It’s deserved.”
“Then what do you need me for?” She took his arm and steered him toward the door. Surprisingly, he didn’t resist. He just laughed, enjoying himself. So, Lucina kept going, “Go on, you’re going to be happier by yourself anyway.”
He paused in the doorway and turned toward her, “You know, I like a saucy woman.”
She grinned at him and shoved him out the door. She shut the door hard and made sure he heard her putting the cross bar in place. Lucina sighed in relief and leaned against the door, closing her eyes.
Salmoneus was staying in his brother-in-law’s place. It was far above the means he could usually afford and the salesman clearly was taking full advantage of the splendor available to him. Hercules watched skeptically as Salmoneus tended to Atticus’ wound.
“My mother always wanted me to be a doctor. Why, with these hands I could have healed the lame, the blind...”
“Ow!” Atticus hollered obviously not thinking much of Salmoneus’ magic hands.
“Careful, Dr. Salmoneus. You might wind up with your first malpractice suit.” Iolaus called from the window where he was watching the traffic in the street outside.
Atticus grimaced, “He can’t hurt me worse than those thieves did.”
“See?” Salmoneus grinned smugly at Hercules.
“Right, a ringing endorsement. Look, Atticus, would you mind staying here until we get back?” Hercules asked.
“Yes, you should rest. You are welcome to stay here,” Salmoneus offered.
“Thank you. I’ve never been in a place this nice.”
“It’s my brother-in-law’s, but I got him a deal on the furniture.”
Hercules moved off and left them chatting. He glanced over Iolaus’ shoulder out the window. “Anything going on?”
“Nah, it’s quiet. So, we’re going to find Pilot?” Iolaus glanced up at his friend.
Hercules gave his friend a quick nod. “I think I’ll take a walk. His place of business shouldn’t be too hard to spot. Since they haven’t seen you in town, why don’t you see if you can over hear any information about the local operations. Since Pilot’s men don’t usually hang out in the Palace, there must be somewhere else.”
Iolaus smiled slyly, “There are advantages to not being a well known demigod.”
Hercules turned back toward the kitchen, “Atticus, what did your money pouch look like?”
“Nothing fancy, but it did have the letter A on it.”
Salmoneus stepped forward, “Where are you going? If you don’t mind my asking, that is.”
“To see Pilot.”
Remembering their last conversation about Pilot, Salmoneus shuddered. “You don’t plan on telling Pilot you know me, do you?”
Hercules smiled faintly, “Not if you promise you won’t hurt Atticus any worse than he already is.”
Pilot sat at the table while four of his men gathered around. A map of Enola was laid out in front of them. A fifth man slipped in through the door to stand at the back of the group. They were a tough looking group of thugs.
“Sorry, I was delayed. Someone was trying to follow me.”
“Did you lose him?”
“Yes, I--I’m sure I did.”
His hesitation wasn’t lost on his leader but Pilot continued with the meeting. He turned his attention back to the map. “We’ve got the manpower, we’ve just got to use it right. Hit two places at the same time. Maybe three. Even four. The possibilities are...”
Pilot was interrupted by a ruckus at the front door, the group turned to see Hercules striding into their meeting with a large, beefy guard in a headlock under each arm.
“Sorry to interrupt, I’m looking for Pilot.”
The warlord stepped forward, “You just found him.”
Hercules nodded to the two guards still under his arms, “The way these two donkeys made it sound, I thought you weren’t sociable. Or maybe you’re just embarrassed by how many poor people you’ve robbed.”
Pilot turned to his henchmen. He had better things to do than mess with this do gooder. “See why I like to be careful about who I let come in off the street? Teach him some manners.”
The henchmen rushed Hercules. The demigod responded by swinging the two guards out from under his arms and banging their heads together. He threw the guards at their fellow henchmen who dropped like bowling pins. Two of them tried to get back up and Hercules knocked them flat with his fists. A money pouch fell from the pile of thugs. It landed on the floor with the letter ‘A’ clearly visible.
Hercules picked it up and verified that it was Atticus’, “Thank you very much. I was afraid I was going to have to ask you for this, and you’d say you didn’t have it, and...well, you know how that goes.”
One of the henchmen tried to rise but Hercules stepped on him firmly pinning him to the floor. “I’ll let you know when it’s all right to get up.” He turned back to Pilot who had put the table between him and the demigod. “Where was I? Oh yeah, this morning I found the owner of this money pouch. Your thieves jumped him last night and left him for dead by the stable. I’m here to tell you that stops right now.”
The warlord wasn’t intimidated, “You think this...” He pointed at his men piled on the floor, “gives you the right to order me around? Who are you anyway?”
Pilot nodded and smiled, “Hercules. Well, I’d say my life just got a lot more interesting.”
“Unpleasant might be more like it,” Hercules countered.
“It would be easier on both of us if you just went some place that was a little tamer. This is my town.”
“There’s something you better understand, Pilot: I never leave a town until it’s better than it was when I got there.” Hercules lifted his foot off the pile of henchmen and turned toward the door. “Okay, you can get up now.”
Iolaus sat at a table in the shadows. He casually sipped his ale but he watched everyone. He watched and he listened. The inn was shabby and run down, definitely a dive for low lifes of all sorts.
A familiar face entered the inn and proceeded to the bar. Iolaus rose at once and moved to Atticus’ side.
“I thought you were going to rest?”
“I can’t, Iolaus. I have to do what I came here for.”
“Why are you here, Atticus? Let us help you.”
“I’m here to find my wife.”
“She ran away and I have to find her.”
“You think she’s here?” Iolaus wondered what a single woman would be doing here.
“That’s what I was told.”
The bartender walked over, “Get you something?”
For the first time Atticus looked up from the bar top, “I was wondering if there’s a place around here where a man can find, uh, female companionship?”
“Information’s not free, buddy.”
Iolaus interceded, “I’ll take care of this.” He turned Atticus back toward the door and walked him outside. “Atticus, your wife..is she...?”
“She’s selling her body to pay her way. I don’t care about that. I just want her to come home.”
“Does she want to come home?” Iolaus asked.
“That’s why I have to see her. I have to talk to her.” Atticus was desperate.
“All right, I’ll tell you where to go.”
Pilot stood outside his headquarters. His brown hair blowing in the wind. He issued orders to a man on horseback, “I don’t care if you don’t eat and I don’t care if you don’t sleep. You get the word to all of them. There’s 10,000 dinars waiting if they get here tomorrow, while Hercules is ripe for killing.”
“I won’t fail you, boss.”
“You better not, or I’ll have your head hanging on my wall - right beside anyone who doesn’t answer my call. Now. Go!” He slapped the horse’s flank and stepped out of the way.
Jason breathed in the fresh air and reveled in it. He was pleased. He had escaped from his castle with a minimum of fuss and only a few guards. In fact, Marcus had readily agreed that he should take a ride in the country and clear his head. He had said it with a sarcasm that hadn’t escaped Jason’s notice but he didn’t care, he was going to get away.
He knew these guards, he’d hand picked them for this very purpose. He knew that once they reached Thebes, he would be able to leave them in the village at the inn and travel on to Alcmene’s house alone. And he knew he could trust them not to take word of his visit back to the castle. They were loyal men.
Leaving Thebes behind, Jason quickly rode the last short distance to Hercules’ boyhood home. A place where Jason had only warm memories and was always made to feel welcome. In a way, Alcmene had given them all a home, a safe place. It was much as he remembered it. The gardens and the flower beds were larger but just as green and sweet smelling as he remembered. He easily spotted the gardener kneeling to tend something in one of the beds on this warm, sunny afternoon.
She heard the horse and rose to meet him, “Jason! What brings you here? I’m so glad to see you.”
She reached for him as he dismounted and pulled him into a hug. He melted into her embrace and held on tightly. It felt so good to be held again. To know that he was loved still by someone without reservation.
Alcmene sensed immediately that something was wrong. The way that Jason clung to her and didn’t let go. So, she held him for as long as he needed to be held. When he finally detached himself and stepped away, she gave him a good looking over. He was exhausted. The dark circles under his eyes, had dark circles. They were bloodshot and swollen. He looked terrible. She didn’t ask how he was, his eyes told the whole story.
“Come inside, you must be thirsty. How long has it been since you’ve eaten? You look like you’ve lost weight.”
Jason smiled faintly, “Alcmene, thank you.”
“For what? I haven’t done anything yet.”
“For being here, for being you.” He allowed her to lead him into the house and fuss over getting him some lemonade.
She sat down at the table across from him. “Now, what can I do for you?”
“Oh, he and Iolaus were heading north the last I heard, something about getting a message for help from a friend of theirs.” She saw the look of disappointment that he tried and failed to hide. “Jason, what’s wrong? Maybe I can help.”
“Everything, I don’t even know where to begin.” He rubbed his hand over his eyes. “They found Medea.”
“Oh,” Alcmene’s hand went to her chest, “How is she?”
“Dead. She killed herself in Mycenea. They sent her body back to me. I don’t even know what to do with it. I can’t put her in the ground next to the children...our children.”
Alcmene reached across the table and put her hand in his. She rubbed circles on the back of his palm with her thumb.
“There’s more. She was still alive when they found her. She...she begged for my forgiveness. Alcmene, how can I give her that? After what she did? How can she ask me that? I’m so tired. I feel so jumbled up inside, I can’t make decisions, I can’t think, I can’t eat. I can’t do this anymore. I don’t know how to go on like this.”
She came around the table and sat beside him. She encircled him in her arms and pulled him to her. He didn’t resist as she held him and rubbed his back, “You don’t go on. You’re in shock. Jason you have to release what’s inside you and let it out so you can deal with it.”
“I can’t. I’m the king. King’s not allowed to feel or be human.”
“Nonsense. That’s rubbish. You are most certainly allowed to be human. You’ve just lost the people most important to you in life, you can feel whatever you want.”
With her permission, the floodgate he’d held so tightly in place opened a crack and it all came gushing through. Alcmene held him to her and steadied him through the storm.
Iolaus hurried out of the inn and down the street. He had to find Hercules. Not that his partner couldn’t take care of himself but Pilot had just upped the ante. Evidently Hercules must have found the warlord this morning. Why else would he have put a 10,000 dinar price on the demigod’s head? Iolaus chuckled to himself. Pilot must have gotten the message. Hopefully, he’d find Hercules at Salmoneus’ place or Salmoneus would know where he was. The hunter hurried a little faster.
The Pleasure Palace opened after lunch but usually business was slow until later in the afternoon. Salmoneus had taken it upon himself to entertain Mica and Heliotrope in his quarters until things picked up. He flashed shadow puppets against the wall behind the bar.
“Get out of here, Salmoneus. That’s no rabbit. It looks more like a loaf of bread,” Heliotrope said.
“Use your imagination, Heliotrope...Ok, what’s this?...Mica, you’ve been the quiet one. Take a guess...” Salmoneus tempted.
Mica pondered the shadow on the wall. “Oh, I don’t know...It’s a...it’s a...caterpillar!”
“Wrong,” Salmoneus laughed, “It’s the love monkey.” With a growl of delight, he dove toward the sofa where the two girls were sitting. They all fell to the floor laughing.
Then, it was suddenly quiet and Salmoneus found his head between a pair of leather clad feet. He looked up to find Hercules staring back at him.
“Am I interrupting?”
“Hercules!” Salmoneus scrambled up off the floor.
A squeal of surprise came from the two women as they also fought to find their feet, “Hercules?” They gazed open-mouthed at the hero.
“Look at those muscles.” Heliotrope swooned, “It’s got to be him.”
“He’s a friend of yours, Salmoneus?” Mica asked.
Salmoneus smiled at her, “There’s nobody closer to me - in a manly way, I mean.”
Mica warmed up to Salmoneus, taking his arm. “Maybe you aren’t all hot air, after all.” She turned to Hercules, “Would you flex for us?”
Heliotrope joined her plea, “Just once, please.”
Hercules took a deep breath, “Afraid, I’m not that kind of guy, ladies. But thanks for asking.”
Mica nearly swooned, “Such a gentleman.”
Hercules took Salmoneus by the arm and guided him away from the women. “What do you think you’re doing, love monkey?”
“It’s therapy. I”m trying to make the girls feel better about themselves. They’re not as young as they used to be, you know.”
“You’re supposed to be taking care of Atticus,” Hercules reminded.
“Don’t grow an ulcer. He’s over here in the corner sleeping. Take a look for yourself.” Salmoneus lead the way, but the sofa in question was empty except for a blanket. Salmoneus frowned, “Well, he was here.”
“And now he’s out there,” Hercules closed the window that Atticus must have snuck out.
“Hercules? Salmoneus?” a voice called from the great room.
“In here, Iolaus,” Hercules replied.
Iolaus pulled the curtain aside, relief evident on his face. “Herc, I’m glad you’re here. Pilot’s put a price on your head.”
“That was fast. How much am I worth this time?”
“Not bad, 10,000 dinars.”
“Pilot’s doing well for himself, then,” Hercules surmised.
“Think we ought to do something about that, Herc?” Iolaus bounced on his feet, ready for a fight.
“Definitely, but we have to find Atticus first. Salmoneus lost him.”
“I know where he is.” Iolaus’ expression turned grim, “We need to talk about Atticus. We’ve got another problem to deal with.”
Atticus hid in the shadows of a doorway. It was a good vantage point. He could see all the doors in the hallway. There wasn’t much to see, the doors were all closed. There were guards in front of one of them but they were half asleep. Atticus took a few moments to try and figure out what he was going to say to Lucina when he found her.
A man came down the hall. Atticus pushed himself further back into the shadows. The man wasn’t paying attention to anything around him. He walked straight to the door behind the two guards. Two sharp raps and the door opened. Lucina stood in the doorway and ushered the man inside.
Atticus’ heart pounded wildly in his chest. It was suddenly hard to breath. He whispered her name, “Lucina.” He had one last glimpse of her before the door closed. The tall, thin farmer bowed his head, a picture of dejection. Then, he straightened and purposefully strode down the hall. The guards stepped forward at his approach.
“The lady’s busy.”
“But I’ve got to see her,” Atticus tried to sound firm.
“That’s what they all say. Wait your turn.”
“No.” Atticus lunged toward the door, but the guard grabbed him and threw him back.
“Get out of here or you’re going to have more to cry about than that cut on your head.”
Atticus rose up from the floor, more determined than before, “You can’t stop me.” He dodged around the first guard but the second one punched him hard. The force sent Atticus into the wall. He slid down into a crumpled heap on the floor. His voice, the sound of complete desperation, “But that’s my wife in there.”
Hercules found Atticus wandering aimlessly through the streets near the location Iolaus had given him. The farmer was completely oblivious to the townspeople giving him disapproving looks, thinking he was staggering around drunk. He didn’t notice Hercules’ approach until the demigod laid a hand on his arm.
“Atticus, are you all right?”
Atticus stopped and stared at his rescuer as through he were a total stranger. “No. But this time it’s not my head that hurts.”
Hercules pressed the money pouch into Atticus’ hand. “I don’t know if this will make you feel any better, but you should still have it back.”
Atticus stared at the pouch with the delicately embroidered “A”. “Thank you. You’ve gone to too much trouble for me.”
Pleased that the man had finally responded to him, Hercules put a reassuring hand on his shoulder. “Well, you look like you could use a friend. Want to talk about what’s bothering you?”
Atticus looked Hercules in the eye and found sincerity there. “All right.”
Hercules glanced around at the still staring townspeople, “Not around here, though. Let’s walk.”
Atticus tried to put the words together as Hercules listened patiently. They walked to the edge of town and began making their way back to the Pleasure Palace and the relative safety of Salmoneus’ quarters. Atticus talking out his troubles all the way.
“I used to tell everybody if they didn’t believe in luck, they ought to look at me. I married a beautiful girl like Lucina when I was just a poor farmer and 20 years older than her.”
“A little thing like 20 years isn’t enough to stop love, as long as love’s there in the first place,” Hercules replied.
Atticus answered with certainty and without hesitation, “She gave me two fine sons, Hercules. That’s how strong her love was.”
“Where are your boys now?”
Atticus paused, “They’re dead.”
“You have my sympathy. I know how painful that can be.”
“Then, it’s not a story? About the fireball that Hera sent down at your wife and kids?”
“I’m afraid it’s true.” Hercules paused, “But talking about it isn’t going to help me understand what you’ve been through.”
Atticus nodded, “There was a fever in the Istrian Valley last year. Killed people and animals. For awhile, I didn’t think anything was going to survive, but Lucina and I made it through. We had to. So there’d be somebody to bury the boys.” His voice broke, “Ionis was only three, Marcus wasn’t even a year.”
Hercules put a comforting hand on Atticus’ shoulder. “Take your time.”
Atticus swallowed hard, “All the life went out of Lucina after that. She kept saying it was her fault. I told her it wasn’t in her hands, but she wouldn’t listen to me. Finally, she ran.”
“And this is where you chased her?”
“She’s been other places. By the time I got to them, though, there wasn’t anything left of her but stories.”
“You’d be better off talking to your wife before you believe what anybody else says.”
“I’m not sure I can do that, Hercules.”
Pilot wasn’t happy. “You disgraced me, all of you.”
“But it wasn’t just anybody who bounced us around. It was Hercules.”
Pilot raised his voice an octave and mocked, “It was Hercules.”
“I’m trying to explain.”
“Save it. You’re going to see how real mercenaries operate soon enough.”
The henchmen glanced at each other in confusion. The same brave man stepped forward again to risk his leader’s wrath. “We didn’t join you to be spectators, Pilot.”
“Then, I better find something you’re suited for. The protection tariffs need to be collected from the local merchants. That shouldn’t be too much of a challenge for you.”
The thug flinched at the insult, “We were supposed to rob the tax collector.”
“He’s traveling with a guard these days. Before you go up against someone like that, I want you to prove you can squeeze a few dinars out of a shopkeeper with a broom.”
“If you want blood spilled, we’ll spill it,” he replied with conviction.
“Talk is cheap. Do it.” Pilot challenged.
Hercules stepped through the door of Salmoneus’ quarters but no one seemed to be around. Atticus followed him.
“Salmoneus, you home?” Hercules stopped to listen but no sound replied. “Guess not.”
“Any idea where he is?” Atticus asked.
“Probably off selling someone a bottle of snake oil.”
Atticus smiled the first genuine smile Hercules had seen on his face. “He is the type, isn’t he?”
Hercules returned the smile, “You noticed.”
Atticus figitted with an object decorating the table for a moment before he turned back to Hercules, “Are you going to help me with Lucina?”
“I wanted to get you back here first. You’ve had a rough day. Now, you’ve got some additional bruises to add to that gash in your head. You’re still not in any condition to be out running around.”
“All right then, I’m back where you want me.”
Hercules paused looking for the right words to explain himself, “I don’t know how to tell you this, Atticus, but getting a husband and wife back together really isn’t my department. Ask me to wrestle a serpent or battle an army of killers instead. That’s more my speed.
“But you’re the only one I can turn to. You know you are,” Atticus protested.
Hercules considered Atticus’ position, “I can’t argue with you.”
“Then you’ll talk to Lucina?”
Hercules saw the hope in Atticus’ eyes and couldn’t dash it to pieces. “I’ll try.”
“I know what you might be thinking, Hercules, but she’s as good a woman as ever walked the earth. She just....forgot it, that’s all.”
Hercules couldn’t dispute the pure love he saw in Atticus’ eyes.
Iolaus sat again at a table in the shadows but this time it was in the Pleasure Palace. The regulars had begun to slowly trickle in. Unlike the more disreputable inn on the other side of town, there wasn’t a steady flow of customers all day. Instead, they converged on the Palace in the evenings. It was a much cleaner place, Iolaus had been watching Mica and Heliotrope tidying and cleaning since Hercules had left. It was almost clean enough that the food might be decent. Iolaus had a theory that the cleaner the place the better the food. This theory was based on his experience of the opposite: the dirtier the place, the worse the food.
As the hunter sat pondering his theory, a beautiful woman walked in. Her head was held high. Though from her dress, she was obviously a fallen women, she maintained her dignity. Something that obviously didn’t escape Mica’s notice.
“You’re really something, you know that?
The woman turned to find Mica and Heliotrope cleaning a table near the door, “I’m not sure what you mean.”
Heliotrope turned to Mica, “Listen to her, acting sweet and innocent.”
“I’m just trying to get by the best I can.”
Mica sneered, “Well, your husband doesn’t approve.”
Lucina bristled, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Ask your guards. They’ll tell you.” Mica explained.
“Good thing Pilot put them outside your door or your loving husband would have caught you with one of your sweeties,” Heliotrope added.
Iolaus held his seat but took a closer look at the women. This had to be Atticus’ wife.
Lucina tried to stay calm, “Why are you saying this?”
“Stop worrying about us,” Mica advised, “and start thinking up what you’re going to tell that husband of yours when you come face to face with him.”
“It better be good,” Heliotrope taunted.
Lucina turned and ran back outside. Iolaus hot on her heels. He caught her arm and pulled her to a stop.
“No, I have to go. Let me go.”
“I will, I won’t touch you, I promise. Just give me a moment.”
She looked warily at Iolaus, “Who are you?”
“I’m Iolaus. I’m a friend of Hercules’,” Iolaus wasn’t afraid to drop a name in a good cause.
“The Hercules? I heard he was in town.”
“Yeah, he can’t keep his presence quiet for long. Can we walk? We don’t want to draw a crowd. I could walk you home. Make sure you get there ok?”
She hesitated only a moment, “All right.”
“I told you I was a friend of Hercules’, but I’m also a friend of Atticus’”
She stopped, “I have to go.”
“Please, just listen to me, that’s all I ask. Just listen.”
They started walking again. Iolaus glanced her direction, “Are you going to run again?”
“I have to.”
“Look, I don’t know everything that happened, I don’t know why you ran away but it must have been something terrible. Something you couldn’t bear anymore. But Atticus loves you, he loves you very much. He has been following you since you left. He’s not going to stop until he gets to talk to you. You don’t have to go with him. You don’t even have to say anything. Just listen to him. He’s not going to be able to find any peace in this until you’ve heard what he has to say.”
“I don’t know if I can.”
“Will you try? Just stay and see him the one time. Then, maybe you can stop running.”
Lucina kept walking. She looked straight ahead. Iolaus could tell that she was thinking.
Alcmene didn’t think Jason had eaten in awhile, a large meal wouldn’t be good for him now. So she had made a light soup for dinner. Jason was too upset to eat much else and he had ate, two bowls full.
They sat on the couch before the fire and continued the conversations they’d been having all day long. She didn’t judge him, she just listened and offered what comfort and advice she could.
“Oh, that’s awful. But it’s a relief to know she’s at peace now and that in the end, she regained her senses. That should be a comfort to you.”
“But how can I do as she asked? I want to. Zeus help me, but I loved her. I loved her with all of my heart. But I don’t understand why she did it? How could a mother do that? A mother who loved her children and Medea did love her children. How can I forgive what I can’t understand?”
“Her mind was sick, Jason. She wasn’t responsible for what she did. Yes, she did unspeakable things but it wasn’t Medea that did it, not the Medea that you knew. Something happened that changed her. I don’t know what caused it but she was sick, Jason. You owe her your pity and maybe even your compassion. But you don’t have to forgive her right now. Jason, I believe that some day you will be able to forgive her but it doesn’t have to be now. She is at peace, her mind is not tormented anymore, find your solace in that.”
Jason sighed, “I’ll try to see it that way. I have to get past this somehow. It’s just so hard to focus on political issues when they haunt my dreams. Every time I close my eyes, they are all I can see.”
“I think that’s pretty normal with children who suffer violent deaths. Hercules had a hard time accepting it all. Part of him is still working on dealing with it. I don’t think it’s something that you ever completely recover from. There will always be regrets, you learn to live with them and go on. Time helps and you haven’t had much time.”
“Corinth won’t wait while I take months to grieve. My crown is a weight so heavy, it feels like it’s crushing me.” Jason put his head in his hands.
Alcmene rested her hand on his back, “You need to rest. You’ll feel better after you’ve had some rest.”
“I can’t sleep. If I sleep, I’ll dream.”
Alcmene pulled him down to lie on the couch with his head in her lap. She stroked his brow, “Sleep. I’ll be here. I won’t leave you. Sleep.”
Salmoneus was terrified. There was a hangman’s noose around his neck. The other end of the rope had been looped over a beam in the ceiling. His hands were tied and he was standing on an old chair. One of Pilot’s thugs had a foot on the seat of the chair.
“I’m running out of patience with you, Windbag,” he snarled.
“But patience is a virtue,” Salmoneus whined.
The thug growled and shoved the chair an inch causing Salmoneus to scream along with Mica and Heliotrope. The two girls clung to each other near the unconscious bartender. After the thug had punched out the bartender, the other clients of the Palace took the hint and vacated the establishment.
Salmoneus balanced precariously on this toes, “Look, I’d love to help. Did anyone ever tell you green is a terrific color for you? But my brother-in-law is the one who handles the protection payments.”
“He’s not here, is he? So, I’m talking to you,” the thug got in Salmoneus’ face.
“So you are, so you are. But I don’t have anything to say. I mean, a lot of words come out of my mouth, but add them all up and what have you got? Nothing. Zip. Nada.”
“You don’t know how true that is....”
All eyes turned to the open door to see Hercules standing there, “...so why don’t you let him go?”
The thug grinned, “My pleasure.” He kicked the chair out from under the salesman. But as Salmoneus began to fall, Mica and Heliotrope ran forward and grabbed him.
“Nice catch,” Hercules complemented.
The thug moved to engage Hercules, “That’s the last thing you’re going to think was nice.”
Behind Hercules six more thugs enter the Palace while an additional 6 thugs entered through the back taking position behind the first thug.
Hercules glanced at the helpless man hanging from the ceiling, “Don’t go anywhere, Salmoneus.”
The demigod sidestepped a sword thrust, staggered another with an elbow to the chin and hurled him at some of the others.
Hercules shoved a table at two of the thugs as Iolaus burst through the door.
“What, you start the party without me, Herc?” Iolaus leaped the table and took position at Hercules’ back.
“Where have you been?”
“Oh, I got sidetracked by the other problem.”
Hercules grabbed a chair and began dropping the thugs right and left. Iolaus punched one and kicked another. Then, he flipped the first into the second, taking them both out of the game.
Meanwhile, Mica and Heliotrope nearly couldn’t hold Salmoneus up.
“You’re getting heavier, Salmoneus,” Mica moaned.
“But I just lost 15 pounds!”
“Hercules, help! We can’t keep him up much longer!” Heliotrope called.
“One second,” Hercules punched a thug and grabbed his sword. Turning the demigod threw the sword at the rope, cutting it neatly in two before lodging in the opposite wall. Salmoneus fell on top of the two girls who couldn’t hold him. They all landed on the floor in a tangled heap.
Iolaus punched the thug. The thug punched Iolaus. Iolaus punched back. The thug punched Iolaus again. Iolaus head butted the thug between the eyes and watched in satisfaction as the thug’s eyes rolled up into his head and he crashed to the floor.
Hercules held an unconscious henchman and swung him around, knocking out the remaining thugs. Salmoneus, Mica and Heliotrope cheered and applauded as the last thug fell.
“You, sir, are a great humanitarian,” Salmoneus congratulated.
“Mica and I will do anything for you.” Heliotrope offered.
“Anything,” said Mica in the most sultry voice she could manage.
Hercules smiled, “How about finding a new line of work?”
“That was fun,” Iolaus bounced up. “I needed a good stretch.”
“Your timing was excellent,” Hercules commented.
“As always,” Iolaus grinned.
“I need to know where Lucina keeps herself. We’ve got too many problems to deal with. Time to end one of the problems.”
“I can tell you where she is, Herc, but she may not want to come back.”
Hercules nodded, “She doesn’t have to, she just has to see him. Can you clean up this mess?”
“Oh, yeah, we’ll take good care of them. Right ladies?” Iolaus traded grins with Mica and Heliotrope.
Hercules left the Pleasure Palace and realized that they had drawn a crowd of townspeople. They met Hercules with cheers and hoots of approval.
“Tear the place down, Hercules! You can do it!”
“Start with this one and tear them all down! Clean up our town, Hercules!”
Hercules stopped and turned to face the crowd, “Why don’t you leave it standing and find a better use for it? Make it something the whole town can be proud of. Why waste it?”
Then, Hercules disappeared around the corner, leaving the townspeople to consider his words.
A small, wiry man stood before Pilot. He finished his report. “He didn’t leave anybody standing.”
Pilot shrugged his shoulders, “It doesn’t matter, we’ll get the money the owner of the Palace owes us later.”
“But Hercules is still out there,” The man was confused. This wasn’t like Pilot at all.
Pilot grinned menacingly, “After tomorrow, you can stop worrying about Hercules. He’ll be dead. I’ve just done a deal that will assure it.”
Lucina sat by her window. In her hands she held two small toys: a carved wooden horse and cow. They didn’t look like much but her husband had made them for the children. They were all she had left of the life she knew before. She didn’t know what to do anymore. She felt so torn inside. She couldn’t face the pain but she didn’t want to keep running either. The thought of seeing Atticus again, seeing the pain in his eyes every time she looked at him. Knowing that their children were dead because she couldn’t save them. A mother is supposed to protect her babies and she had failed. Atticus must see that every time he looks at her, she couldn’t put him through that anymore. She couldn’t face him and those eyes of his; those eyes that shown directly into his soul.
There were two raps on her door and then the door opened, but it wasn’t the guards. It wasn’t Atticus either. She hid the two toys beside her so he couldn’t see them and stared coldly at him.
“Didn’t the guards tell you I’m not seeing anyone?”
“There was trouble next door. They must have gone to see what it was,” Hercules replied politely.
“Well, you’ll still have to come back later.”
“I’m not here for myself, Lucina. I’m here for Atticus.” Hercules entered and closed the door quietly. “Don’t you think he’s waited long enough to see you again?”
“Why does he want to do that? All I’ve ever brought him is pain and heartbreak. He should be glad to be rid of me. He deserves better.”
“He doesn’t think so. None of what happened matters to him. He still loves you.”
“How can he? After all this.” She gestured to the room around her.
“If you talk to him, you’ll find out.”
She glanced up at Hercules, gauging the sincerity in his eyes, “But after what I’ve had to become, what I’ve done.”
“You’ll never convince Atticus that this is the real you. If you don’t believe me, maybe you should hear it from him.” He offered her his hand.
His eyes had told her to trust him, after a moment’s hesitation, she did. “All right.” She allowed the demigod to lead her from the room.
A crowd was still milling about in the street in front of the Pleasure Palace, discussing the situation. Hercules and Lucina rounded the corner and were sighted immediately. This time Hercules felt decidedly unwelcome.
“So that’s it! You came here to lie down with trash!”
“You’re no better than Pilot. You didn’t come here to save us!”
Hercules put a protective arm around Lucina and addressed the crowd, “No, I didn’t come here to save you. This town can’t be saved until you’re all willing to stand up and make the change. You have to be willing to help your fellow citizens in trouble, instead you force them into the shadows to survive. You judge without knowing the story. Nothing I do here will matter until you are all willing to help each other make the change you want to see in this town. I can get rid of Pilot but that won’t stop someone else from taking over his operation until you are all willing to stop being victims and stand up for each other and it’s going to take all of you working together and accepting each other.” He pulled Lucina closer to him and began leading her through the crowd.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“But you didn’t tell me you were Hercules. You’re probably used to having people adore you.”
“It’s not necessary.”
“Neither is this. But it’s what happens when you show your face in public with a woman like me.”
Hercules spared her a quick glance, “You don’t have to be a woman like that either.” He said with conviction.
But the truth of her words was shown when someone threw a rock at them. Hercules caught it before it hit Lucina. Hercules knew then that helping this town had just gotten harder.
What Hercules didn’t see were the eyes of the assassin lurking in the crowd. He didn’t see the knowing smile on the assassin’s face as he stood watching the entire exchange from the shadows of the blacksmith’s shop.
Hercules led Lucina through the Palace and out the back door toward Salmoneus’ quarters.
“If I’d known there were going to be so many angry words, I never would have come with you,” Lucina said.
“Words get carried away on the wind. Start thinking about your husband.”
“I think about him every day. How things got away from us. How much he deserved a good wife and mother for his children.” Lucina swallowed hard as they reached the door. “He was the first man who was ever truly kind to me. Talked nice, treated me the way I always dreamed my husband would. He even brought me flowers.”
“His feelings for you haven’t changed,” Hercules assured her.
“That’s a good sign. It means you can still care.” Hercules reached for the latch.
Inside Iolaus and Atticus watched the couple approach.
“Iolaus, what do I say to her? I still don’t know the right words.”
“Just speak from your heart, Atticus, and the words will come.”
Atticus straightened as the door opened. Lucina and Atticus stared at each other as though they were the only people on earth. Iolaus quickly moved to the door and joined Hercules outside, closing the door quietly behind him.
Atticus paused a long moment before responding, “Lucina, I’ve missed you so much.” He moved forward and embraced his wife but she didn’t respond at first. He breathed a sigh of relief as he felt her arms finally tighten around him for a moment.
Then, she backed away. She wouldn’t look at him. “Why...why did you have to do this? Why can’t you leave me be?”
“Because I love you, Lucina. I’ve never stopped loving you. And I want you to come back home with me.”
Lucina risked a glance at him, “You don’t want to be around me. Not after the things I’ve done.”
“That’s not you, that’s someone else you’re talking about, Lucina. All that matters is you and me getting through this together.”
“I can’t do that,” she responded.
Atticus was confused, “But why?”
She hesitated trying to control her voice which came out almost in a whisper but she couldn’t say the words any louder. “I see them every time I look at you.” She turned from Atticus’ pained eyes. “Marcus and Ionis. They had your eyes and your smile, and I loved them so much, and I still couldn’t keep them alive. Oh, Atticus, I dream about our babies every night.”
Atticus stepped to her and rested a hand on her shoulder, “There wasn’t anything you could do. The fever...”
“No, no, a mother brings children into this world, and she’s supposed to care for them. A simple thing like that and I couldn’t do it.” She sobbed as Atticus took her into his arms. She pulled away immediately. “No. You’ve got to let me go, Atticus. You’ll be better off if I’m not in your life.”
“But we’ve still got each other, Lucina. I think about our sons every day, too. And I think about you. Lucina, I hurt too. Sometimes it’s more than I can bear alone. I need you. I can’t get through this without you. We need each other. Please don’t make me lose you, too.”
“I...I don’t know what to say. I...I need to think. I...need some air.” She turned and fled into the fading daylight.
The assassin checked in with Pilot. He held his trusty crossbow loose at his side. He never left it out of his reach. In his business, he never knew when it would save his life.
Pilot looked him over, “Where are the others?”
“No others are necessary, just me and my crossbow. We’ll take care of this little problem for you.”
Pilot wasn’t convinced, “This is Hercules you’re going up against, not some pig farmer defending a shack in the middle of nowhere.”
“Hercules doesn’t impress me.” He held his crossbow close and lovingly stroked it. “There’s nobody I can’t take care of with my beauty here.”
“I wouldn’t have summoned you if that wasn’t the case. But I still don’t want you challenging Hercules on your own. You wait until more of your men show up before you make your move. Are we clear on that?”
The assassin’s eyes turned cold at the warlord’s lack of faith in him but he didn’t let it show. “I can wait as long as you want me to as long as you’re paying my expenses. I know how to bring Hercules to me. You just give the word when you’re ready.”
“Oh, I was ready yesterday.”
Atticus paced the room while Hercules and Iolaus watched and tried to calm and console him.
“What if she goes back to running? I might never see her again.”
“You can’t think that way, Atticus,” Hercules responded. “You’ve got to believe that sooner or later she’ll realize she’s strongest when the two of you are together.”
Atticus finally sat on a chair and put his face in his hands, “Faith can’t carry me any farther, Hercules. I’ve got to know for sure. I have to go find her. Try to talk to her again.”
Iolaus stepped forward to stop him, “No. The next move is hers. Give her some time. You’ve given her a lot to think about. It’s her decision now. You have to let her make it.”
“That’s easy for you to say; and hard for me to live with.” Frustrated, Atticus walked away to face the window.
Iolaus rubbed a hand over his face, “How does Aphrodite do this all the time? This marriage counseling thing is exhausting. And we still haven’t dealt with the warlord or the assassin.”
Hercules grasped Iolaus’ shoulder and gave him a small smile. “We’ll get to it. One thing at a time.” He turned to Atticus, “Will you be alright here tonight?”
“Don’t tell me to get some rest. I won’t. I can’t.”
“But you will still be here in the morning? We won’t have to go looking for you?”
“No, you don’t need to post a guard. I won’t go any where.”
Hercules turned back to Iolaus, “I don’t think there’s anything more we can do tonight, let’s go.”
“Can’t we stay here, Herc? Salmoneus has pillows.”
“I’ve already done enough to sully my reputation. Let’s give Atticus some space.”
Meanwhile, nearby in the Pleasure Palace, the assassin drained yet another mug of ale. He banged the empty mug on the bar and ordered yet another, “Do me again.”
Heliotrope stopped by the bar intending to refill her tray. The assassin grabbed her and pulled her to him. He kissed her hard. She struggled for a moment and then banged him on the head with her tray. He released her with a satisfied smile.
“Animal,” she moved to the other end of the bar to get her drinks.
Salmoneus watched as Heliotrope with a tray filled with drinks readied herself to move past the disagreeable patron again. This time he leered at her and grabbed her arm, she almost didn’t get the tray set down on the bar without spilling it all.
“You’re just what I’m looking for.”
She struggled but couldn’t break free of the hand holding her arm, “Let me go!”
Salmoneus knew he couldn’t let this go on. He took a deep breath and plunged in, “Uh, sir?” He continued when he knew he had the man’s attention, “You break her, you buy her. House rule.”
“Not for me, it isn’t,” he replied coldly. Without releasing Heliotrope, he pulled the crossbow from this back, cocked it and placed the tip of the arrow against Salmoneus’ chest.
“Hey, be careful with that. I don’t think I’d look very good with an arrow stuck in me,” Salmoneus stepped back.
“Then shut up and butt out.”
With more calm than Salmoneus thought he could muster in his life, he replied, “Do you mind if the girl butts out with me?”
Salmoneus saw the finger tighten on the trigger. But just then the door opened and another rough looking stranger stepped in. This one had a large ax slung over his shoulder. The two assassins nodded to each other and the second one went about his business.
Salmoneus was aware of unspoken communication but not what it meant. The man holding the crossbow on him shifted suddenly.
“Here’s something to remember me by.” He fired the crossbow but the arrow missed them both and buried itself in the wall behind the bar. “Hands off. I’ll be back for it.” He turned and strode out of the Palace with the man carrying the battle ax.
Salmoneus nearly fainted with relief. “Oh why, did I offer to take this job? Happy Hour is not worth this. Heliotrope, would you like to make some changes around here?”
Hercules sat by the well in the dawn light and brooded. He wanted to help the town but if they couldn’t help themselves, he was powerless. He wanted to help Atticus and Lucina but they had to decide what was best for themselves. And he’d ended up bringing a bunch of assassins to town. Hercules wasn’t worried about himself but this was not what Enola needed for certain. On the whole he felt pretty useless at the moment. He heard someone approaching and wasn’t encouraged to find it was Salmoneus.
“There you are. I can’t believe you still didn’t want to spend the night at my brother-in-law’s.”
“If you haven’t figured out why I didn’t by now, you’re never going to.”
“Wait a minute. If anybody’s got a right to be crabby this morning, it’s me.” On seeing Hercules’ surprised expression, he explained, “Last night, some maniac walked into the Palace and threatened to perforate me with his crossbow. Held it against my heart, for crying out loud. Look, you can still see the dent he left.”
Hercules squinted his eyes to see, “That’s a soup stain.”
“What? Oh yea, I guess it is. But the arrow stuck in the bar is not my imagination.”
“If you see him again, just yell. I’ll try to give him an attitude adjustment. But right now...”
“Atticus and Lucina? The girls at work can’t talk about anything else. They don’t say it but I can tell, they wish they had a man to come chasing after them like Atticus did.”
“I wish gossip could convince Lucina that her life is worth living.”
Salmoneus sat beside the demigod. “Hercules, you’re tearing yourself up because of what you lost.”
“Maybe so. If I had my way, nobody else would ever have to go through that kind of pain.”
“But in a situation like this, there’s only so much an outsider can do. After that, it’s up to the people involved.”
Hercules gave him a weary look that spoke volumes about how much sleep the hero had gotten last night, “I’m not going to argue with you. But you can’t blame a guy for trying, can you?”
“No. But I do have some news for you that should cheer you up. Heliotrope and I have been discussing some changes at the Palace. Let me buy you and Iolaus breakfast and I can fill you in.”
Hercules chuckled, “You have to wake up sleeping beauty first.”
Lucina hadn’t slept but it didn’t matter. She had all that mattered to her in her bag and she was going home. She had realized in the wee hours of the morning that her life wasn’t over and that hard as it would be to face the memories, she had to go on. Atticus had always been a kind man. If he needed her that much, then she owed it to him to try one more time to face it all.
She was just passing the stables when Pilot intercepted her. “Get out of my way.”
“The profession you’re in, you’re supposed to understand it’s the man who gives the orders.”
“I’m not working. I’m going home.” She tried to move around him but he stepped in front of her.
“I can’t let you go yet. Not until I’ve had the chance to show you how a beautiful woman should be romanced.”
“I’m not interested in romance.”
Pilot stroked her cheek and smiled, “That doesn’t mean we still can’t get friendly.” He moved toward her intending to show her what he meant with a kiss.
“Don’t do it, Lucina.” It was Atticus. They both turned to see him approaching them, “Lucina, don’t go off with this man.”
“Well, who do we have here?” Pilot asked. Lucina obviously knew him.
“My husband,” she whispered.
The warlord studied the farmer with obvious disdain. “Him? He doesn’t look like much.”
She shoved Pilot, “He’s more man than you’ll ever be.” She ran toward her husband, “Let’s go, Atticus. Let’s go now.”
“Not without my permission,” Pilot threatened.
Overjoyed, Atticus started toward her but Pilot pulled a dagger from his belt. With a toss he sank it into Atticus’ body. Lucina screamed.
Hercules and Iolaus heard the scream at the muffin cart in the market. They both ran toward the sound with Salmoneus trailing behind them.
A crowd had already formed around the weeping Lucina stroking her husband’s head in her lap.
“It’s all my fault, Atticus...I’m so sorry...”
He smiled at her, his love for her filling his eyes, “It’s all right. You’re coming home.” Then, he passed out in her arms.
Hercules knelt beside the fallen man. Iolaus tried to pull Lucina back.
“It’s alright, let Hercules have a look. Let us help if we can.”
She buried her head in Iolaus’ chest, “Everyone I love dies.”
“Who did this, Lucina?” Iolaus asked.
“Pilot. Atticus came offering his love and all Pilot wanted me for was his pleasure.”
Hercules looked up at her, “And you chose Atticus.”
“There was no choice. He was part of me from the day I met him. Even when I ran away, he was still with me.”
Hercules smiled at her, “Then nothing’s going to change. He’s going to live, it’s not life-threatening if we can get him some where safe.” Hercules scooped up Atticus in his arms, “Come on.”
“Uh, Herc. We’ve got a problem.” Iolaus nodded his head toward the entrances to the square. There were thugs and more heavily armed men, presumably the assassins, approaching. Pilot was grinning and leading the way. Their exits had been cut off.
Hercules sighed, all the problems were coming to a head at once. He didn’t think he and Iolaus together couldn’t handle it but they had to find a safe place for Lucina and Atticus until the fight was over. He turned to the gathered crowd.
“This man has been badly hurt. I need a place where he’ll be safe.”
“You won’t find it in this town!”
“He got what he deserved for carrying on with the likes of her!”
Lucina was distraught, “They are not going to help us.”
“Yes, they are,” Hercules replied.
Salmoneus ran up and Iolaus handed Lucina over to him as the hunter moved to guard their back, “Make it quick, Herc!”
“It’s easy to sit in judgment, isn’t it? All you have to do is run your mouths. You don’t have to do or risk anything. But none of you can be sure you’ll never face the same tragedy as my friends Atticus and Lucina. It could happen to anybody. I’m only asking you to show the same compassion that you would want.”
Cleon’s sister stepped forward. Hercules smiled at her.
“I’ll help them, and I can care for his wound. My house is right here.”
“You are as brave as your brother was,” Hercules said.
She returned his smile and led them inside.
Hercules set Atticus down and ran back out to Iolaus’ side, surprised to find Salmoneus already there with a sword in his hand.
“Salmoneus, you’re not a fighter.”
“No, I’m not. But if these people won’t stand up for themselves and what’s right, then I have no choice. And it’s not even my town, I’m just visiting!” He said it loud enough for those around in the crowd to heard him.
Iolaus saw the men in the crowd looking at each other with shame in their eyes. The hunter called to them, “Don’t stand there doing nothing. If you want to make your town safe for your families, do something.”
Several men stepped forward, others ran to grab weapons, pitch forks, branding irons whatever was handy. Soon, there was a sizable crowd standing in front of their heroes, protecting them from Pilot and his hired assassins and men.
“Get out of here, Pilot. You’re not welcome here anymore!”
“Take your hired goons and go.”
“Get out of our town!”
The crowd began to thin as they spread out to surround the thugs and drive them out of the square. Their numbers gave them strength and courage. The assassins were already back pedaling. They didn’t live here. They couldn’t fight the whole town. Pilot’s men were also less secure about this situation. The people usually cowered at their mere presence. This angry mob was something none of them had ever faced and weren’t sure they wanted to. They began to disappear.
Pilot, however, wouldn’t be intimated. He held his ground until the crowd thinned enough for Hercules to be seen behind a row of townspeople. Then, he charged screaming all the way. He swung at the townspeople in front of him and they leaped out of his way. Hercules did likewise, not realizing that Salmoneus was directly behind him and couldn’t see Pilot charging them. But Pilot didn’t either. He swung at Hercules as the demigod stepped out of reach. The warlord gasped in surprise as he impaled himself on Salmoneus’ sword. Salmoneus’ eyes widened at the sight of Pilot in front of him and dropped the sword. The warlord crashed to the ground already dead.
Salmoneus’ mouth moved but no sound came out. Hercules took him by the shoulders and turned him from the gruesome sight. He raised Salmoneus’ arm in triumph. The townspeople cheered. Salmoneus had saved them. He was the hero of the hour.
Hercules exited the front of the former Pleasure Palace and stretched. He had enjoyed a night in a real bed with real pillows and he was feeling much better. He was surprised to find several of the townspeople painting the front of the Palace and the sign had already been taken down. He joined Salmoneus across the street.
“Not wasting any time are they?”
“No, they’ll have their new senior citizen’s center by the end of the week.”
Hercules clapped Salmoneus on the shoulder, “That was a good idea you and Heliotrope had.”
“It was more her idea than mine. I’m not sure what my brother-in-law will think when he gets back.”
“The townspeople won’t let him do too much to you, Salmoneus. They won’t let their hero be hurt.”
The salesman smiled, “and I’ll sure miss the perks that go with being a hero when I leave. You better hurry, Atticus and Lucina are about to leave.”
Hercules nodded and made his way back across the street to where Iolaus was helping Atticus up into a wagon. His arm was in a sling and bandages were sticking out from beneath the collar of his tunic.
“Hercules, I’ve been trying to think of a way to thank you and Iolaus for all you’ve done, but I can’t find the right words.”
“Words aren’t necessary, Atticus. The only thing that matters is what you and Lucina do with the rest of your lives.”
“We’re going to make things right,” Lucina assured him. “Maybe even start another family.”
“We’d be honored if you’d both come to meet them someday,” Atticus said.
“You can count on it.” Iolaus shook his hand. “Safe Journey.”
Lucina waved as she slapped the reins to start the horses that would take them on their journey home. “Good-bye, Hercules!”
“Cherish each other, my friends!” Hercules called after them. He and Iolaus watched until they disappeared around a bend in the street. He patted his partner on the back, “We did good work here, Iolaus.”
“You mean Salmoneus did good work, he’s the hero now.”
Hercules smiled fondly at the salesman who was retelling the story to a group of young boys on the steps of the new senior citizens center, “Yeah, it’s nice to let somebody else do the hero duties for awhile. Almost like a vacation.”
“Jason, are you sure you won’t stay for lunch?” He looked much better after his long night of sound sleep but Alcmene was still worried about him.
“No, I’ve been gone longer than planned as it is. I don’t need them sending search parties out after me. I need to get back before they get too worried.”
She stopped him before he climbed on his horse. “Are you all right?”
“No. I’m not sure I will ever be all right again. But I do feel better, thanks to you. I don’t think I can get through another state funeral but I think I can get through a private cremation now. I like your idea about releasing her to the wind.”
“I’m glad I could help.” She hugged him yet again.
“Thank you, Alcmene. Just talking to someone helped.”
“Next time you need to talk, you know where to find me.”
“I do. Thank you.” He slipped his foot into the stirrup and pulled himself up on his horse. Taking the reins, he turned and headed toward the road.
“Don’t forget to eat or I’ll have to start sending you care packages.”
Jason laughed, “I’ll look forward to them.”
She watched him ride away and hoped that he would be able to handle what was ahead of him.
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