The Mother of All Monsters

by Melisande

Story originally written for Hercules: the Legendary Journeys by: John Schulian

A raven flying over the land of ancient Greece would have beheld beauty and wonder. The wine-dark seas, tall, rocky hillsides crowned with ancient temples, creatures both amazing and terrifying, evildoers of great infamy and heroes out of legend - all might have been within the clear sight of such a bird. And on one particular day, this raven may have found two of the greatest heroes of that time and place walking down a dusty road.

The taller of the two was broad-shouldered and honey-haired and at the moment his crystal blue eyes were alight with laughter. The more compact of the pair was also broad-shouldered, but his hair was the color of ripened wheat in the summer sun, and the eyes that reflected his friend’s mirth were a brilliant sapphire.

The raven, had it not been indifferent to the affairs of men and gods, might have had difficulty guessing that the pair were men of legend. Both were obviously warriors, their physical grace and tanned strength making it an easy guess. But their leathers were worn and dusty and they wore no shining armor. Had the bird not flown on past so quickly, it may have seen differently. Their voices echoed to it, but the bird flew past, heedless of the deeds of men.

The taller man glanced up at the raven as it flew past, but his words and thoughts were in answer to his friend. “How can you think the monster population of Greece is thinning out? Aren’t you the guy that says ‘monsters ‘R’ us”? Where’s your evidence?”

“Oh, come on - think about it, Hercules!” the smaller man said, for indeed his friend was Hercules, son of mighty Zeus and the lovely Alcmene. “Just consider the vast number of strange creatures we tackled when we were just starting out, and in the years that followed, and then compare it to those we’ve seen lately. I’m telling ya, Herc - we’re seeing a definite decline in the monsters of Greece.”

Hercules laughed again. “Oh, please, Iolaus!” for in truth his friend was “the” Iolaus, the brave and loyal companion and shield brother to the son of Zeus. “How in all Gaea can you tell any difference?”

“Okay, think back to when we were still at the Academy - there was something new all the time. The Ghidra, the Phoenix, giants - and that’s just to name a few. And in your labors by yourself, you knocked off the Nemean Lion, the Stymphallian bird, and that giant … uh… what was his name? The one who tried to steal the cattle of Geryon from you?”

“Cacus,” Hercules supplied helpfully.

“Yeah -- see? And think of all the ones you and I have gone after together - the Hydra, the She-demon, Graegus - well, it’s just been a long time since we’ve seen that many.”

“It has not!” Hercules shook his head. “Iolaus, it hasn’t even been a year since we dealt with Graegus and the vanishing dead in Tantalus.”

“Well, it seems a lot longer!” Iolaus was undeterred in his opinion. “We used to have maybe one - two monsters a month at least!”

As the two men were speaking, they topped a small rise. Hercules had begun to retort when both his and Iolaus’ attention was caught by a violent altercation on the road ahead.

Several armed men were attacking a lone traveler in a wagon. Hercules and Iolaus only glanced briefly at each other, and in total agreement took off running and shouting at the attackers. Before they could even reach the men, the attackers saw them and melted away into the underbrush.

Iolaus ran past the wagon, scouring the forest for a sign of the men. “We scared ‘em off!”

Hercules grinned at the sound of disappointment in Iolaus’ voice, but stopped to talk to the victim of the attack.

“Hello, friend!” he greeted the man affably. “Bet you’ve seen better days!”

Suddenly, both heroes were startled by a voice on the road ahead, shouting, “Attack!” They glanced around to see a helmeted figure on horseback waving a sword in their direction.

That glimpse was all they had time to catch. Abruptly, Hercules and Iolaus saw armored men soaring down from the trees above them. And Hercules was even more startled when the supposed “victim” of the earlier attack jumped up and hit him.

The impact of the blow knocked the son of Zeus back briefly, but he recovered easily. He struck back with a roundhouse right that knocked his attacker soaring off the wagon. Hercules then swung away looking for Iolaus.

Iolaus caught his friend’s glance. “It’s an ambush!” he cried.

“Watch yourself!” Hercules shouted back, as Iolaus blocked several rapid blows from a much bigger guy. But then, the demigod’s attention was caught by one of the attackers running toward him, waving a sword and screaming.

As the attacker raised his weapon, Hercules grabbed his sword arm and kicked him in the belly, ripping the sword from the man’s nerveless hand when the attacker collapsed in breathless pain. Catching sight of two enemies running at him from opposite directions, Hercules leaped high and kicked out, striking both men and knocking them senseless to the ground.

Iolaus meanwhile ducked and blocked a roundhouse blow from the large man, which left the assailant off balance. In that quick extra moment, the blond hunter whirled, pivoting on one foot to kick the attacker in the face with all the force of his corded thighs. As the man flew backward, Iolaus turned to face another enemy with dancing energy.

Hercules whirled to look for Iolaus and caught sight of the helmeted horseman watching the battle from the side of the road. Since he seemed to pose no immediate threat, Hercules dismissed him, and his eyes flew to look for his friend.

Hercules saw Iolaus make a running leap onto the shoulders of his assailant. He boxed his ears so hard the man fell, dazed. Iolaus punched him once more and jumped free easily. Catching Hercules’ gaze on him, he called out, laughing, “Hey, Herc! Right in the sweet spot!”

“Yeah.” As he spoke, Hercules easily threw a new attacker over one hip, then parried a swordsman’s blow from behind and kicked the swordsman away. He caught the club of another, knocked him in the head, then pointed with his free hand to Iolaus’ right, shouting, “Iolaus! Pay attention!”

Iolaus spun to see three assailants rushing him at once. Before he could defend himself, two of the men drove him back into the wagon hard enough to briefly steal his breath. As they held him, a third brought up a mace and swung it toward Iolaus’ head.

Iolaus sucked in a breath and ducked, loosening the hold of his captors. He heard the mace crunch into the wooden side of the wagon and ripped his arms from his opponents’ grasp. He glanced up, saw the mace wielder struggling to pull the weapon loose, and struck him with a powerful right into the groin. The man doubled over, totally out of commission.

Iolaus sprang up, kicking out and punching another in the solar plexus. He ripped the mace from the wagon and hit the third attacker in the jaw with the handle. Then, jumping up and grabbing the side of the wagon, he kicked both men hard enough to knock them to the ground, groaning and spent.

Iolaus looked for his friend and saw Hercules knocking an enemy fighter into a tree. As the man began to fall, Hercules caught both the man’s arms on with either side of the sapling and yanked him stunningly into the tree several times. At the same time, with uncanny precision, he kicked backwards as another attacker was sneaking up from behind and knocked the man flying several feet.

Another call came from the helmeted leader on horseback. “Kill the son of Zeus!” The figure flourished his sword once more to rally the fighters.

Hercules still held his dazed opponent against the tree trunk. Another group of oncoming attackers ran screaming towards him. The son of Zeus kicked the poor sod’s leg out so that it struck the first man in the line of foes, and stopped the others by the force of the blow. When they rallied and rushed forward once more, Hercules struck with the arm of the man he held and knocked the first man hard enough to cause the others to fall like dominoes.

Hercules dropped the poor soul he was using as a weapon, and waded into the rest of the dazed group, knocking most of them out, and tossing one high in the air to land in the woods.

A final man standing came after Hercules, shrieking a war cry. Hercules sidestepped him, grabbed him in a grip of steel, spun with the force of his assailant’s momentum, and flung the man toward Iolaus with a shout.

Iolaus struck the man and felled him, but felt the impact in his knuckles with a grimace, shaking his hand rapidly.

Hercules winced in sympathy. “Sweet spot?” he called.

Iolaus rubbed his aching right hand with his left. “Yeah.”

Iolaus strode to stand beside Hercules and they turned to meet the leader of the fighters.

Iolaus taunted him. “Come on - take off your mask!”

The leader whipped his arm up in a flash, and the battle-honed reflexes of both men made them each dodge away from each other. The knife cut the empty air between them, struck the trunk of a tree just behind them, and lodged there, quivering.

The rider drew his sword as Hercules and Iolaus turned back to face him. They readied themselves to meet his attack, but the rider called, “Till we meet again!” and rode away, laughing.

Iolaus called after him, “Coward!” Then turning toward Hercules, commented caustically, “Won’t even show his face. How can you have any fun fighting a guy like that?”

Hercules chuckled. “I suppose you’d rather fight a monster?”

“Sure,” Iolaus snorted, “but are there any left?”

Hercules sighed. Here we go again! he thought.

Some time later, and leagues away, the helmeted man could have answered Iolaus’ question. He stepped into the cavernous lair of a creature of Chaos, one of the most monstrous of the brood of Gaea and Tartarus, Echidna herself. He watched guardedly as she rose before him.

The huge, monstrous form unfurled from a coiled position and revealed herself as a strange and terrifying combination of woman, serpent, and octopus. Her body was several times as long or tall as a man’s, with a sinuous, scaled, snakelike form ending in a mass of longer, coiled tentacles, all of which ended in deadly stingers. She had no arms, but instead four pairs of tentacles that writhed around her like other subservient snakes. She had the breasts and the head and shoulders of a woman, but the breasts were covered in the greenish-gold scales, as was her hairless skull. Her eyes were a glowing red, with catlike pupils, and her teeth were pointed and razor-sharp.

The eyes of the masked man observed watchfully, but without shock, as though their owner had beheld much that was evil and so could look on anything without dismay. The voice of the ancient creature filled the cavern, and was at once inhuman, rasping, and yet strangely mournful.

“You have known defeat, but you don’t know loss,” she stated with certainty.

The masked man answered, “Your words confuse me, Echidna. I have lost valuable mercenaries who thrive on violent excess.”

“But none of them sprang from your seed.”

The man shrugged, careless of the difference.

“Then you can’t possibly understand what I have lost. Or the pain and loneliness that I have suffered.” The creature sighed in a way that was almost human. “The Hydra, the She-Demon, the Stymphalian Bird --”

Echidna threw back her head and screamed raucously but with a pain that was real and raw. “All of them my children!” she cried. “And all of them slain by Hercules!”

The watcher replied indifferently. “Well, it appears he defeats monsters as well as mortals.”

Echidna screamed angrily, “He has not beaten me! Mother of All Monsters!”

The man bowed. “That is why I have come to you. Only you have the power to vanquish him.”

Echidna regarded the man with sudden cold eyes. “I want to see the face of the man who flatters me. Remove your mask!”

“It is not necessary -“

Echidna broke in with a screamed command. “Do it now!”

With a shrug the man complied. The face when revealed was strong, handsome and arrogant - that of a man in his prime, with deep-set eyes and a mane of flowing light-brown hair.

“And your name?”

The man bowed. “I am called Demetrius.”

Echidna regarded him unblinkingly. After a moment she spoke.

“Yes-s-s-s - Demetrius. You will do nicely. There will be no trace of Hercules or his family when I am finished. And you shall be remembered for all time as ‘the man who killed Hercules’!”

Demetrius folded his arms and nodded in cunning agreement as Echidna screamed with rage and anticipation …

The sun poured down like warm honey on the bustling agora in Thebes. Alcmene walked past the stalls, examining the wares. Though the mother of grown sons, and a respected matron, she was still as radiant as the sunlight. She approached one of the stalls and started examining some iridescent silken fabrics.

The merchant said warmly, “Greetings, Alcmene. I trust you are well?”

Alcmene smiled. “Never better, Pavane.”

“And that son of yours? I hear Hercules and his partner have been vanquishing infidels at every turn!”

Alcmene glanced up. “That’s Hercules and Iolaus, Pavane. You know I consider him as a son as well. I think you have reason to remember him.”

“I should guess that you would leap to his defense. Hercules and Iolaus then,” Pavane grumbled half-heartedly, and then grinned. “How could I forget the time when Iolaus and his gang were the most skilled shoplifters and thieves in this town?”

“It seems like yesterday,” Alcmene agreed, smiling at the memory.

“Of course, Iolaus changed his ways, and now he and Hercules are famous for good deeds everywhere - like stopping that civil war in Tantalus a while ago.”

“It seems that you know as much about what they’re up to as I do,” she said.

A woman at the stall, overhearing, spoke in some surprise, “Poor dear! And I thought he’d be the type of boy who’d look in on his mother.”

Alcmene’s fine blue eyes flashed at the hint of judgment in the woman’s voice. “Don’t you worry about me - I get along perfectly. And I’m very glad to know that my son and his friend are doing the wonderful work they do!”

The woman nodded, chastened, as Pavan frowned at her and began to show Alcmene some of his best fabrics.

Suddenly, a small man passing behind Alcmene grabbed her carry bag and pulled it from her shoulder. He darted off into the crowd as Alcmene cried out, “He’s got my bag! Someone stop him!”

The thief was already some distance away when a strong arm caught him and pulled him to a stop. The handsome man who held the thief took Alcmene’s bag and whispered incongruously, “Good work!”

He then pushed the man to stand in front of Alcmene. “Now - you apologize to the lady.”

The supposed thief appeared appropriately anxious and contrite. “Sorry.”

The tall, attractive stranger replied, “You’d better be. Make yourself scarce - go!” And the stranger aimed a swift kick at the man’s backside as he scurried off.

The charming stranger bowed to Alcmene as he returned her bag. “I believe this is yours, my lady?”

Alcmene laughed with relief and no little pleasure from the warm regard in the stranger’s eyes. “Why, thank you.”

“I am Demetrius, at your service, lady.”

“And I am Alcmene,” she answered.

“If you don’t mind, maybe I should walk with you awhile, so you don’t have any trouble.”

Alcmene dimpled in radiant pleasure, as she took his arm. “I wouldn’t mind at all.”

Demetrius patted her hand, and smiled into her cerulean eyes. I didn’t know she was so beautiful, he thought. It certainly sweetens the pot - at least until I hand her over to Echidna!

And Demetrius, the same Demetrius who had only the day before sworn his aid to the Mother of all Monsters to kill Hercules, smiled victoriously as he strode off with Hercules’ mother on his arm…

Several weeks later, it was another beautiful day, and, in the town of Kappadokia, banners, crowds, and games announced to all who came near that a festival was in full swing. And if that was not enough of a clue, the town magistrate in an ornate toga was calling all contestants to the games.

“Yes, come one, come all - who will be the next to try Hercules on for size? Just donate two dinars to our widows’ and orphans’ fund and challenge him to any event you like. Come on - step right up! Why - if you win, you’ll be the talk of all Greece!”

Hercules stood in the back of the cleared circle, smiling at the crowd. Having polished off several brave contestants, he was noticing the comments of the onlookers.

“It’s like throwing your money away!” one woman could be heard exclaiming. A man replied, “I wouldn’t get out there!”

He’s trying hard to look encouraging, Iolaus thought, grinning. He’s even gone out of his way to make it look hard, and not to make the contestants look bad, but it’s just too tough for him to pull his strength that much.

Iolaus sauntered over to stand by his friend, polishing an apple. “Great - no takers!” He grinned up at Hercules. “You’re wiping out charity in Kappadokia single-handedly, Herc!”

Hercules, always a bit uncomfortable when his strength made him stand out this way, felt that discomfort ebbing with Iolaus’ laughter. “Maybe we’ll give the people all your money, Iolaus,” he answered, with an answering grin. Iolaus bit into his apple, satisfied to have lightened the moment for his buddy.

The magistrate went on, somewhat desperately, “There’s got to be another challenger out there somewhere. Whaddya say, fellas? Two dinars is all it’ll cost you!”

Suddenly a big man stepped out of the crowd, and tossed a money pouch on the entry table. “I’ll donate ten dinars, if Hercules’ll match it!”

Gasps arose from the crowd, and heads swiveled to study the obviously deranged or totally naïve contestant. Hercules studied him thoughtfully.

“Ten dinars it is,” Hercules replied.

Waves of unbelieving comments swept the viewers. Iolaus could tell with a smirk that there were also waves of side bets, and wished he could get in on the action.

The big man smirked. “Fool!”

Hercules observed his opponent carefully. “He’s got a ploy of some kind. He’s pretty confident.”

Iolaus snorted. “I think he needs a lesson in humility.”

The big man grinned, entering the circle. “You’re the one that needs the lesson.”

Iolaus shook his head and traded a glance with Hercules that said, Do you believe this guy?

The event was to be throwing the ball and chain. The muscular man took the implement and tried a few practice swings. Iolaus could tell he had good form, but still wondered how he could believe he could best the strongest of all the sons of Zeus.

The man stepped into position, and began swinging the ball on the end of the chain. His muscled arms easily wound the spin into a rapid whirl. He whipped it into the toss with a loud cry, and the onlookers gasped again to watch it fly.

The ball plowed into the earth further than any seen that day. A chorus of excited voices rose in amazement. The field attendant ran to the site and measured from the markers.

“Two hundred and seventeen paces!” he called out.

Clapping and cheering broke out through much of the crowd. Other voices could be heard predicting Hercules’ superiority.

The big guy came to the sidelines where the two heroes stood. “Beat that!” he taunted.

“If you insist,” Hercules replied, shrugging. He glanced at Iolaus with a grin, and the blond man gave a victory gesture with the hand that held the apple.

The crowd was cheering wildly as Hercules took his mark, and began hefting the ball. The big contestant turned to stand beside Iolaus.

Looking out at Hercules, he said, grinning mischievously, “He doesn’t have a prayer!”

Iolaus looked at the man, with a thread of worry. “What makes you so sure?”

“You’ll see.”

Hercules began swinging the ball with incredible force. The big contestant called out, “Hey, Hercules - heard about your mother?”

Hercules head swung toward the man even as the ball swung faster.

The big man grinned. “It’s all over Thebes - she’s getting married!”

Hercules whirled to face the man and let go of the ball at the top of its arc. The ball flew in the air, and before Hercules could walk over to the big contestant, the ball plummeted and hit the man in the foot.

Iolaus winced and watched the man hop around, holding his foot, and howling with pain. The audience howled with glee.

“You’re lying!” Hercules snapped, stalking towards them. Iolaus grabbed up the chained ball and deliberately stood between Hercules and his opponent.

“No - I swear!” The man groaned. “Just came from Thebes. Everyone’s talking about it!”

Iolaus nudged his friend and proffered the ball and its chain. “Uh, Herc, I think you dropped this.”

Hercules glanced down at the implement distractedly. “Oh. Oh, yeah.”

He grabbed the chain, and without any pretense at the wind-up, tossed the ball as though it had been shot from a catapult. Total silence reigned for perhaps five seconds as the ball soared high over the trees at the end of the long field, and was still climbing when it was lost to sight. The audience erupted into wild cheers and thunderous applause.

But Hercules wasn’t there to receive the accolades. As soon as he released the chain, he tossed his money pouch onto the table. Running past the magistrate, he growled, “Make sure it goes to the widows and orphans!”

The official, momentarily cowed by the awesome display just nodded. But Iolaus, starting to run after him, called out, “Where are we going?”

“Home!” Hercules called back as they flew from the field …

Some time later, away in Thebes, Alcmene came out of her house and walked to the boundary of her property, where Demetrius was completing the last section of the rock wall, which had been started so long ago by Hercules.

Demetrius smiled at her and continued spread mortar. “Look strong enough to you?”

Alcmene returned the smile. “It looks wonderful. You know, you really shouldn’t go to all this trouble.”

“Oh, I’m just finishing what your son started. He had the right idea about protecting you.”

Alcmene laughed ruefully. “I think Hercules worries about me too much.”

“What is he going to say if I start worrying about you?” Demetrius asked provocatively, glancing up at her.

Alcmene answered, hesitantly, “You shouldn’t bother.”

“I’m only doing what my heart tells me to do,” Demetrius stated.

Alcmene laughed. “Trust me, you heart will beat a lot harder the first time a pretty girl half my age bats her eyes at you.”

Demetrius replied with convincing seriousness, “Why do you say things like that? I --- ow!”

Demetrius caught his hand, cut deliberately with the sharp edge of a rock.

Alcmene stepped toward him in concern. “Demetrius!”

Demetrius held his hand. “Oh, it’s nothing -“

“Why don’t you let me be the judge of that?” she asked tartly. “Here-“ she took his hand and examined it closely. “Well - you’ll live, but you still better let me clean it up.”

“Well, if that means you’ll hold my hand for awhile longer, I am all for it.” Demetrius stepped closer, his voice low and rich.

Alcmene smiled, obviously flattered, and took his hand to lead him into the house…

Hercules and Iolaus strode quickly along the road towards Thebes, both oblivious to the beauty of the beeches that lined the road, or the sparkle of sunlight on the lake just beyond them.

Iolaus was speaking soothingly. “So your mother’s got herself a boyfriend. Maybe you’ll wind up with a stepfather. Why are you so upset?”

“Iolaus - how do I know if this guy’s good enough for her? I never even met him!” Hercules gestured emphatically.

“Well, y’know, it is her life,” Iolaus replied, gently but firmly.

“I know, but -“ Hercules blew out a heavy breath in frustration.

“What?”

Hercules continued, anxiety and self-recrimination edging his voice. “It’s like I don’t know my own mother anymore.”

Iolaus always hated how harshly Hercules judged himself. “Herc, she’s gonna love you no matter what.”

Hercules wheeled around to face Iolaus, stopping in the middle of the deserted road. Iolaus had to step back to meet him.

“I don’t know why,” Hercules shot back intensely. “I’m away from home too much. If you stop to think about it, I spend more time worrying about total strangers than the woman who gave me life! It’s no wonder she has to turn to strangers herself.”

Iolaus felt a sinking guilt settle in his belly as he thought of how long it had been since he had seen his own mother, but he pushed it away for now. He caught his friend’s arm. “Hercules - you of all people have nothing to feel guilty about!”

“Tell that to my conscience!” Hercules snapped. He pulled his arm out of Iolaus’ grasp and stalked off down the road.

As Iolaus watched his friend stride away, the bright sunlight bringing the blond highlights from his now honey-brown hair. Suddenly, the years fell away to the memory of another time but an amazingly similar situation…

…They were on the road from the Academy to Alcmene’s house, because Hercules had invited Jason and Lilith to come home with him for the Mid-summer Festival. Iolaus, of course, knew without doubt he was invited, since he had been spending all of his holidays with them. They laughed, and joked, and broke into horseplay throughout the journey. Jason whined about his frustrated hope for fish-and-feta popovers. Their spirits were high and the day was golden until they topped the ridge that led up to Alcmene’s house.

“Look - there’s my Mom!” Hercules stated proudly, gesturing to the regal, blonde woman who stood waving at the door.

Studying the beautiful, well-dressed woman, Lilith began to worry that she might be forced to do “girl stuff”, and quickly asked, “Hey, Hercules, can I go with you on the boar hunt?”

Hercules turned to her, shaking his head. “No, Lilith,” he replied with a certain sense of importance. “That’s my job. I am the man of the family, you know.”

Iolaus, still looking past Hercules toward the house, broke in, “Uh - well, at least - you were.”

Hercules and the others followed Iolaus’ gaze and saw that a tall, dark-haired man had come out of the house to stand very close behind Alcmene, with a hand on her shoulder. Iolaus glanced up to see Hercules’ eyes widen at the sight of Alcmene slightly leaning back against the man.

Lilith asked, brightly, “Hercules - who is that?”

And Hercules was speechless, totally stunned at the sight. Iolaus watched the storm of emotions gather on Hercules’ face with a bit of amusement, but also a lot of apprehension.

This should be …interesting, Iolaus thought. In a teeth-pulling, bone-setting kind of way…

“And here we go again!” Iolaus sighed, watching Hercules storm away down the road. He bounced into a run to catch up with Hercules, wondering how close the present might come to the past…

At about this time, far away in Dronos, Echidna was using her power over Chaos to summon the Archers of Hera. She flung her tentacles like bullwhips, and with every snap, a tall, beautiful woman dressed in silver-armored costumes and headdresses rose from the floor. Each Archer carried a silver-chased crossbow with arrows formed from adamantine and the power of Chaos, created by Hephaestus at the order of his mother, Hera. Each could cause instant vaporization for any mortal impaled by it. In fact, the arrows’ force was so powerful that several of the bolts could destroy a god.

Echidna’s tentacles snapped out six times, and six stunning women stood to face her. But their eyes were as dark and cold as the spaces between the stars.

The Chief of the Archers bowed slightly to the Mother of All Monsters. “We’re here to serve you, Echidna.”

“Then serve me well!” Echidna cried. “Join my crusade to kill Hercules!”

“The warrior Demetrius is not enough?”

Echidna growled, “A mortal challenge the strongest son of Zeus? That will never be enough for me, no matter how much hate Demetrius has in his heart.”

“We will leave at once. But you know there is only one thing we can do when we confront Hercules …”

“Yes!” the Mother of All Monsters exulted. “You will kill him …”

“With arrows Hephaestus has crafted,” the Chief Archer replied. “But I thought killing Hercules was a pleasure you coveted, great Echidna.”

“It means more to me that his mother watches him die. She must know the pain I felt when he slew my children!”

“We can kill her, too,” the Chief Archer offered.

“No! I want her brought to me, so I can tell her myself why she was forced to suffer!”

“And then?”

Echidna bared her razor-sharp teeth in a travesty of a smile. “And then I will kill her.”

And the Chief Archer of Hera smiled as Echidna hissed in anticipation …

Miles later, Iolaus was still trying to calm Hercules down.

“You know you’re probably going to like him when you get to know him,” he said, hopefully, patiently.

Hercules shook his head. “We’ll see.” His grim voice and face bore little hope for the possibility.

“Ah, Herc - give your Mother some credit for having good taste!”

“Good taste?” Hercules scoffed. “She fell for Zeus, remember?”

“Yeah, but he is a god,” Iolaus reasoned. “He’s handsome and …”

Hercules stopped in the road and swung round on Iolaus fiercely. “And the reason why my wife and children are dead! Don’t tell me you’re going to defend him?”

Iolaus sighed. He should have known better than to try to reason with Hercules in this kind of mood. He glanced up at his friend’s stormy, intense face, and then back up the road - and was almost glad to see what lay ahead.

“Well, even if I did want to defend him - which, incidentally, I don’t! --” Iolaus glanced up at Hercules emphatically “ - now would not be the time. Look!” Iolaus gestured at the road with a nod of his head.

“Now what?” Hercules grumbled. He turned to see several bandits slinking out of the beechwood.

The grimy, dark-bearded leader of the band called out gruffly, “I got a proposal for you gentlemen - your money or your lives!”

Iolaus could have sworn Hercules growled, low in his throat. The son of Zeus stalked off toward the bandits, his teeth gritted. Iolaus just stood back and watched.

“Why can’t you people find an honest way to make a living?” he yelled back.

Iolaus began, “Herc --”

The bandit chief called to his men. “Get ready, boys - looks like it’s going to be their money and their lives!”

“I really don’t have time for this!” Hercules snapped, and threw an awesome roundhouse punch at the leader, knocking him high in the air, through the trees, and in a soaring arc into the lake. Iolaus watched as the other bandits were thrown far and wide; obviously, Hercules wasn’t pulling his punches at all today.

In moments, it was over, the bandits dispatched into trees or lake, and Hercules whirled to bark at him, “Well - are you coming or not?”

Iolaus blew out a heavy breath, shrugged, and strode to meet Hercules. As he walked under a tall beech that held a struggling bandit high in a forked set of limbs.

“Get me down from here!” the would-be ambusher cried.

Iolaus walked on past, explaining distractedly, “He’s missing his mother.”

“IOLAUS!”

The blond hunter quickened his pace. “I’m coming already! Keep your shirt on!”

And I wonder where Alcmene’s new boyfriend might end up, Iolaus pondered, glancing around at the robbers floundering in the lake and the treetops. Herc’ll probably give him the same welcome he gave the first one so long ago…

Iolaus quickly decided that having a tooth pulled was really not so bad compared to this holiday. Right from the greetings and introductions, the situation began badly and went downhill from there.

They had all been ushered inside and Alcmene had come to Hercules with her arms out for a hug. Hercules accepted it, but Iolaus noticed him watching the tall stranger over her shoulder.

And as soon as Alcmene had stepped back, Hercules nodded toward the stranger and asked, with a dangerous smile, “And who’s this?”

Alcmene was very well aware of Hercules’ tension - as was everyone in the room - but put her best face on it.

“Everyone - I’d like you to meet Capanius. He’s a good friend and I’m happy he could join us.”

Jason and Iolaus shook hands affably. Hercules was hesitant to follow, but too well aware of his mother’s training not to do so. Lilith smiled and waved as she was introduced.

Alcmene turned to Jason and Iolaus. “Boys - I’m afraid we have a full house, so you’ll have to sleep in the barn.”

The two young men laughed heartily. The Crown Prince of Corinth replied, “Sleep in the barn - that’s a good one!”

Alcmene just grinned and nodded. Jason’s face fell. Iolaus, who would jump off a bridge if Alcmene told him it was the right thing to do, gamely spoke up.

“Cool - to the barn!” He grabbed his bag and motioned to Jason, who echoed him in resignation and trooped out behind him.

Iolaus stopped outside the door. “Go on, Jase - I’ll be right behind you.”

The prince grumbled but walked on toward the barn. Iolaus stood quietly near the doorway with his back against the wall and listened.

Alcmene was talking. “Lilith, you can have Hercules’ old room.”

Iolaus winced. He knew how that would go over with Capanius around. He could hear Lilith gamely protesting, hesitant, not sure of the hidden vibes. “Oh, no - the barn’s okay for me, too. Hercules can have his room.”

Alcmene’s voice was gentle in the silence, but Iolaus could hear the stern reminder underneath. “Don’t be silly. Hercules insists - don’t you, Hercules?”

He finally heard Hercules’ mumbled reply. “Huh? Oh yeah, yeah. Go ahead.”

“Thanks,” Lilith replied, and Iolaus could tell from the speed of her footsteps that she was mainly thankful for a chance to get out of that room.

“And now,” Alcmene said, with a sigh, “I need more …firewood.”

“Oh, okay -- I’ll get it,” Hercules was quick to reply.

“Oh, no,” Iolaus heard Capanius reply, “You’re a guest - I’ll get it.”

Iolaus softly smacked his forehead with the heel of his hand. Capanius had put his sandal in it now!

Iolaus heard brittle silence for three seconds. Then Herc’s voice falsely bright, observed, “Ah - well. He’s right at home here, isn’t he?”

“Hercules!” Alcmene began sternly, but Capanius answered, reprovingly, “You’re in your mother’s house, Iolaus. Let’s just get ready for the feast.”

And at that, Iolaus fled to the barn, knowing that Hercules wouldn’t be far behind.

He’s gonna be impossible to live with! Iolaus thought, wondering if the holiday could be salvaged …

And the present-day Iolaus wondered much the same about this journey home.

Up the road, still some distance away in Thebes, Alcmene walked hand-in-hand with Demetrius through the agora. She caught Pavane’s eye and saw him smile with approval. However, she saw several of her female neighbors whispering together as they watched Alcmene and her new companion stroll past.

“Maybe I’m being too bold,” she murmured so only Demetrius could hear.

“Don’t be silly,” Demetrius replied, smiling. “All you’re doing is providing a public service - giving your neighbors something to talk about.”

Alcmene shook her head with a rueful smile. “I already did that when I was young and foolish.”

Demetrius brought her hand up to cradle it under one arm. “Don’t be so hard on yourself. All you were doing back then was listening to your heart. Sometimes that’s all you can do.”

She sighed. “I’m afraid I’m out of practice.”

“You mean you’ve sworn off love, like a drunkard swears off wine?”

“For a very long time. I wasn’t ready and - and other… situations required my full attention.”

“Perhaps you’re more ready now?” Demetrius suggested provocatively.

She regarded him pensively, but with a hint of promise in her azure eyes. “Perhaps...”

Alcmene and Demetrius had eyes only for each other. Had they looked around, they might have noticed the grizzled old mercenary in the shadows of one of the stalls they passed. As they walked on by, the old soldier stepped out and regarded the pair, especially the tall man. Then the soldier tuned to the shopkeeper and began to ask some low-voiced questions.

It was well into the early spring night when Hercules and Iolaus strode up the hill to Alcmene’s house. In the brilliant moonlight, the cottage and garden was as attractive as ever, but one difference was immediately apparent to Hercules.

“My wall!” he stammered.

“Yeah? What about it?” Iolaus asked.

“Someone finished it!”

Iolaus looked at him in some astonishment.

“You mean -- you didn’t?”

Hercules had the grace to look chagrined. “No, I did start it, and did a lot of it, but then there was that trouble with…”

Iolaus remembered. “Iphicles!”

“Yeah.”

Iolaus’ astonishment grew. “You mean you haven’t been back here since then?”

Hercules blew a breath out, uncomfortable and defensive. It wasn’t often that he felt the age difference between himself and the older Iolaus - in fact, usually he seemed older and more mature. But right now, he felt guilty and much younger.

“Well, I was going to finish it, Iolaus! It’s just that something came up. People kept needing my help,” he replied plaintively.

Iolaus let up on his friend, smiling slightly. “Well that’s the curse of being you, Hercules,” he replied gently. “It’s also the curse of being your mother.”

Hercules sighed, feeling some of the weight of his guilt slip away. The blessing of a friend like Iolaus was having someone who saw him for all that he was. Iolaus could see past the power and the fame - most of the time - and see that it often wasn’t a blessing or a pleasure, but a very real difficulty. The understanding in his friend’s sapphire eyes warmed him to the heart.

“I guess you’re right,” he acknowledged gratefully. Hercules looked toward the house, somewhat anxiously. “You…you wouldn’t wanna come in with me, would you? I’m sure she’d love to fix you dinner. She’ll wonder where you are.”

Iolaus heard Hercules’ unspoken plea for “backup”, and grinned. “No, thanks. I’ve already been through this once before, so I’m letting you handle it alone. Besides, I really need to go on to my place and see if it’s still standing.”

The blond hunter clasped Hercules forearm in their warrior’s handshake, trying hard not to laugh at the trace of panic in the crystal-blue eyes. It tickled him that Hercules could face a Hydra without a qualm, but a disagreement with his own mother gave him butterflies.

“Good luck, my friend!” Iolaus said, and walked away whistling jauntily.

Hercules sighed again, and faced the house. He walked slowly up to the door, wondering what he would say - what she might say. He paused near the entryway, something Iolaus said suddenly penetrating his discomfort.

Memories flooded back and he remembered himself stamping in through this very doorway at Mid-summer festival time, about two decades ago…

…Hercules slammed in through the beads decorating the doorway to find his mother busy at the table preparing the vegetables for the Mid-summer meal. Alcmene turned to glance at him coolly, then turned back to her work.

He folded his arms belligerently, watching her back. “I’d like to talk to you,” he stated, more of a demand that a request.

“I thought you would,” she replied, quietly, continuing with her work and allowing him to keep the discussion rolling.

Hercules fidgeted a moment, waiting for Alcmene to turn towards him. When she didn’t, Hercules made a production of stalking around to the other side of the table and falling into a chair.

Baldly, he demanded, “Who is he?”

“I met him at the agora, “ she stated, simply.

“The agora?”

Alcmene nodded, not replying to his contemptuous tone. “I needed help; he needed work, so…”

Hercules scoffed, “So he’s a hired hand!”

Alcmene shook her head, her eyes flashing dangerously. “No -a friend.”

Hercules escalated his attack, blind to everything but his own jealousy and hurt. “So - now you’re buying your friends at the agora?!”

Alcmene recoiled as if he had slapped her. “Don’t forget who you’re talking to, young man!”

She rose and paced away top the kitchen, placing the bowl of vegetables near the washbasin.

Hercules tried to rein in his temper. “I know you’re my mother, but I think I deserve to know what’s happening around here!”

Alcmene turned from the counter, placing her hands on her hips, and regarded Hercules with fiery blue eyes.

Hercules glanced up, but could only hold her gaze a moment before his eyes dropped. “It’s just that-“ he stammered, “You’re alone out here. There are men who would take advantage of that.”

She remained silent, and he continued, a bit desperately. “What do you know about this guy, anyway?”

Alcmene sighed, dropped her arms, and stepped back to the table. She seated herself and leaned toward Hercules, speaking winningly, “I know he’s good and kind, and he makes me laugh.”

Hercules still could not meet her eyes. He shrugged. “I still don’t trust him.” Alcmene sat back, frustrated. “Well, I expect you to be nice to him.”

Hercules replied, obstinately, “Why? Planting season’s done, right? He’ll move on, and I’ll never have to see him again.”

Alcmene’s eyes narrowed. “You may see him more often than you think!” she fired back.

Hercules’ voice was quiet, intense, desperate. “I want him outta here!”

Alcmene coaxing disappeared. “Hercules, this is my house,” she stated, patiently, but firmly. “I decide who stays… or who goes.”

Hercules shouted, “I want him outta here!”

Alcmene stood up, her patience cracking. “We should discuss this later when we’ve had a chance to calm down.”

Hercules, furious and heartbroken, jumped up and dashed out through the swinging beads of the doorway…

…the very doorway he stood in front of now. He squared his broad shoulders, gulped a breath and pushed at the heavy oak door, knocking gently.

“Mother?”

He stepped into the small entryway, and looked into the main room. A fire was burning in the tall fireplace, but the candles and lamps were low. He stepped further into the room, and found his mother…

…and a strange man clasped in a very intimate embrace, kissing as they lay on the wide couch before the fire. They were fully clothed, but Hercules still felt stunned, embarrassed, and angry.

“Mother?!” he burst out, gaping foolishly at the sight.

The two lovers pulled apart and sat up, obviously uncomfortable with Hercules’ scrutiny. Alcmene patted her hair self-consciously; Demetrius pulled his cape back over his shoulder.

“Ah… Hercules -you’re home!” Alcmene observed a bit unnecessarily, to cover her discomfort.

“Yeah… yeah, I guess I am,” Hercules answered, not knowing where to look.

Alcmene cleared her throat. “I… I wasn’t expecting you.”

“Yeah.” Hercules eyes flickered to the stranger seated beside her. “Yeah, I can see that. So - should I ask - what’s new?”

Alcmene’s eyes flashed with fire. She compressed her lips, obviously battling not to retort heatedly. She exchanged glances with the stranger, who rose and stepped forward.

“Well, I believe I am,” he replied, suavely. “The name’s Demetrius.”

He held out his arm. Hercules held his eyes for almost a beat longer than what was polite, before reaching up to clasp his arm.

“And I’m Hercules,” the son of Zeus replied, with an ever-so-brief Herculean squeeze of the man’s arm to remind him of what that name meant.

Demetrius gave no sign of pain or surprise with the quick crushing grip. He answered with a faint smile that conveyed worldly understanding of Hercules’ distrust.

“I thought you were. Your Mother has told me a lot about you.”

Hercules left subtlety behind. “Then you have me at a disadvantage,” he said, with a tight smile, but the challenge unmistakable. “Because I don’t know anything about you.”

Demetrius’ smile widened, appearing to accept Hercules’ fears and concerns with calm humor, but internally glad to have sown a seed of discord between mother and son.

Alcmene was less forgiving. Her eyes glittered with blue flame. “Hercules!” she snapped. She took a deep breath, and let it out, unwilling to display a family argument. “There’ll be plenty of time for you to get to know Demetrius. I think you’ll like him --” her chin came up, defiantly, “-if you give him a chance.”

Hercules smiled, his steely eyes never leaving those of Demetrius. “Sure.”

Demetrius interposed with a relaxed, affable charm, which nonetheless felt to Hercules both provoking and condescending. “I believe you two have a lot of catching up to do. I should be on my way.”

Alcmene protested. “But you came for dinner, and you haven’t eaten a bite.”

Demetrius glanced back up at Hercules. “I think Hercules here needs to eat more than I do. He’s … been traveling.”

He stretched out his hands to her, and Alcmene clasped them. “Until tomorrow.” Demetrius bent and kissed her on the cheek. He turned to Hercules and exchanged another handclasp. “I hope to see more of you, my friend.”

Hercules merely smiled in return, but his eyes remained icy. Demetrius bowed slightly and stepped past him to the door. Hercules turned to watch the man leave…

…and tuned back to find his mother, her arms folded, gazing up at him with THE LOOK - the one he remembered well from childhood, that boded no good for him at all.

He sputtered, “M-Mother, I was - I --”

“Not one more word! Do you hear me?” Alcmene’s expression and voice were implacable. “Not one more word from either of us, or we both might say things we regret.”

There was a weighty paused in which she silently dared him to speak, and he strove to find a winning argument, but discretion won out.

“Now - do you want dinner or don’t you?” she asked tartly, sweeping past him into the kitchen.

Hercules sighed and stayed put, wondering how such a small woman could make the strongest man in the world feel powerless…

The next morning Iolaus left his cottage and forge - now in a bit better order than when he had returned the night before. He strode off down the road towards Thebes with his carry sack to stock up on a few supplies. As he walked along whistling, he speculated about what had transpired between Hercules and Alcmene the night before.

If his mood yesterday was any indication, Hercules is not going to be any more welcoming to this suitor than he was to Capanius all those years ago, Iolaus decided.

The memories of that long-ago holiday brought a smile and a laugh to the golden hunter. After Hercules’ confrontation with Alcmene, there had been the disaster of the ball game, in which Hercules had done his best to sideline Capanius with one tackle - when the man didn’t even have the ball.

He remembered that Alcmene had then sent both Hercules and Capanius on the boar hunt. He and Jason had tried to predict whether they would return with the boar on a skewer, or one of the hunters.

Iolaus’ memories came to a halt as he reached the outskirts of Thebes. Amid the calls of neighbors and friends, Iolaus strolled the marketplace, restocking his provisions and catching up on the local news. He bargained, chatted, and observed the wares on display.

The direction of his morning’s activities changed rather suddenly. He turned away from old Endymion’s stall, complaining, “With prices like yours, no wonder I’m away so often!”

As he turned, an old soldier stepped toward him, and their combined momentum caused them to nearly collide. “Hey, take it easy friend, “ Iolaus cautioned, reaching out to stabilize the older man. “There’s plenty of room for both of us.”

The old mercenary reached out a hand to Iolaus. “Beg your pardon, sir, but are you Iolaus, friend to Hercules?”

Iolaus regarded the carefully. “Who’s asking?”

“A veteran, sir -battle of Leguria down on the Isterian peninsula. They call me Leukos, sir.”

“Uh-huh,” Iolaus replied, remembering the battle. “Well, no one calls me ‘sir’, Leukos. Iolaus will do just fine.”

“Then, it is you, sir!” Leukos beamed, but his voice and expression faltered. “I’m hoping you could lead me to Hercules, sir?”

Iolaus sighed. “I’d need a reason, “ he challenged.

“To save his life!” The man whispered anxiously.

Iolaus was taken aback, and spoke carefully. “Okay - that’s a good enough reason. You wanna explain?”

“No - only to Hercules.”

Iolaus chuckled. “Got over calling me a ‘sir’ pretty quick, didn’t you?”

The veteran made a calming gesture. “I mean no offense, but please - is there a place where I may meet Hercules - a safe place? I fear the wrong eyes are upon me.”

Iolaus watched the man carefully for a few more seconds. Relying on the instincts honed on the streets, he decided that Leukos was serious and trustworthy.

Finally, he replied, “Okay, then. Go out of town …”

Iolaus continued giving the old mercenary directions . Neither man noticed the robed and hooded figure, which stepped in front of the two some distance away. With the hood of the cloak pulled up, the two men could not tell that the hooded stranger was none other than Hera’s chief Archer.

With her head tilted slightly and her nearly godlike hearing, the Archer pretended to look at the wares spread before her, but in reality had all of her attention of the quiet conversation behind her…

The morning was off to an early start at Alcmene’s house. She and Hercules had risen early, and had eaten breakfast together. Their conversation had been of the doings of the village and the heroes’ adventures on the road. A tacit understanding seemed to exist between them that it was still too soon to discuss what lay between them.

After breakfast, they walked around Alcmene’s garden, enjoying the early blooms and greenery together. Then Hercules took his leave to go out to the barn to work on some chores for her. Alcmene worked contentedly in her flowers for some time; later, she retrieved a basket and filled it with blooms to bring indoors.

She was in the house arranging the flowers at the table and softly humming when Hercules returned. He entered, and hearing the sweet melody, said, “That tune brings back some nice memories.”

She smiled at him as she continued her work. “You were just a little boy when I used to sing it to you. It’s been a long time since I was that happy.”

Hercules came to stand beside her at the table. Touching one of the blooms gently, he glanced at her, searchingly. “But you’re that happy now, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I am.”

Hercules turned and stepped away from the table, obviously pensive. Alcmene turned to watch him, and spoke earnestly.

“Hercules - can’t you rejoice for me? Can’t you open your heart and let Demetrius in?”

“How can I?” Hercules looked back at her. “When I have no idea if he is worthy of you?”

“Well, I say he is,” Alcmene replied, firmly. “That should be all the assurance you need.”

Hercules sat down at the table, avoiding her eyes and saying nothing.

Alcmene sighed and seated herself as well. “You have to understand that I’m getting older, and … I don’t relish the thought of doing it all by myself.” She captured Hercules’ gaze. “I’d like someone in my life, someone to love.”

Hercules’ eyes dropped, as he shifted uncomfortably. “Are … are you two …uh …”

Alcmene’s chin came up; her eyes flashed.

Hercules couldn’t seem to stop himself. “I mean … you know… are you --”

“That’s my business, Hercules!” she retorted, curtly, but with a hint of a smile at his discomfort.

He squirmed awkwardly. “Yeah.”

“But I will tell you that everything about him says he could love me without qualification.” Hercules retuned his gaze to her as she went on. “Zeus couldn’t do that, and about the only other man I ever wanted to was Amphitryon.”

“One more explanation for Demetrius, right?” Hercules responded, with a trace of old bitterness.

Alcmene sighed again, then rose and returned to add the last few flowers to the arrangement. “He doesn’t need explaining, Hercules. He’s a wonderful man --honored as a warrior - successful as a farmer in the Arcadian highlands. And the most important thing of all is - he’s good to me.”

Hercules rose, and pondered carefully how to speak his thoughts. He watched her work for a second, and then said, “From where I stand, he’s still a mystery.”

“I think I think I’m a mystery to you, too,” Alcmene stated, plaintively.

“Yeah.” Hercules paused, his gaze going distant for a moment, then retuning to her. “Maybe … maybe you’re right, Mother. I’ve been gone so much lately that I never stopped to think how … lonely you are.”

“Then give me a chance to end that loneliness with Demetrius!” she entreated, her blue eyes, so like his own, regarding him earnestly.

Hercules put his arm around her, and felt her arms circle him. “Yeah,” he said, quietly, but both of them knew that this discussion was far from over.

On the other side of Thebes from Alcmene’s home, well away from the village outskirts, lay the home and workshop of the local tanner, Ayerius. Its isolated location was because, like any tanner’s establishment of the time, the substances used for the tanning process - like vats of stored urine - and the by-products of skinning made for very uncomfortable aromas in the immediate vicinity.

Anyone from Thebes also knew that, at this time of year, Ayerius traveled for some leagues into the hills surrounding the town minding his trap lines and bringing home new pelts and skins for his work.

Demetrius had heard Ayerius discussing his trip while he gathered provisions in the marketplace several days before. His absence and the isolated location of his place made it the perfect location for him to choose as a secret meeting place with Hera’s Archers. And so that was what brought them now to Ayerius’ tanning workshop.

When the Chief Archer explained the reason for their meeting, Demetrius was at first dismissive of her concerns. He had not been happy that Echidna had forced him to accept the assistance of the Archers in the first place, which made him inclined to reject any of their interference with his plans.

Demetrius turned away from the coldly beautiful Chief Archer and walked over to examine some of the curing fur pelts.

“Echidna sent you here for Hercules,” Demetrius said, with a patronizing tone and smile that made the Chief Archer bristle with irritation. “You shouldn’t concern yourself with anyone else.”

She shook her head at his obtuseness. “But the veteran I’m telling you about - he could cause trouble. He’s spoken to Hercules’ best friend.”

Demetrius shrugged. “They could be old friends. Hercules and Iolaus have fought in many wars.” His attention seemed to be focused more on the softness of a fox fur that he pulled off the rack, and that infuriated the Chief Archer even more.

She frowned and said, pointedly, “And so have you, Demetrius!”

He turned toward her, with the same condescending smile on his face. Stepping toward her, he answered, “Very well. If you think the veteran could cause trouble, eliminate him.”

He placed the soft fox fur on the Chief Archer’s shoulder, and walked past her out of the workshop, laughing softly.

The Chief Archer quickly pulled the still rank pelt from her shoulder, and stared after the retreating mortal, simmering anger narrowing her eyes …

In far-off Dronos, Echidna waited impatiently for news from either Demetrius or the Archers. So much of her long existence had become darkened and bitter since the long-ago disappearance of her husband, Typhon. The recent deaths of her children at the hands of Hercules had left her with nothing - nothing but the vastness of her grief and her thirst for revenge.

She screamed her rage and loss to the cavernous heart of her mother Gaea that enclosed her.

“Oh, my children! I miss you so!” she cried. “There’s an emptiness in my life that can never be filled. But this I swear - Hercules will die for what he did to you! And to me! To all of us!”

Her words became a shriek of fury and anguish that rang through the caves with the chilling resonance of coming despair…

Hercules left his mothers’ house after their discussion, refusing her offer of lunch. He felt he needed to have the solitude of the walk into town to ponder Alcmene’s arguments and his own concerns.

Walking through the beautiful countryside, he saw very little of it. His thoughts kept going back and forth between his own worries for Alcmene, innate distaste for the slick, suave Demetrius, and the niggling concern that perhaps his fears might be coming from his old jealousy for her heart.

Iolaus’ arguments came to his mind, as did his reference to that Mid-summer time so long ago. Thinking of Iolaus’ part in it brought up other memories, and at once they seemed as fresh and real as now …

Hercules strode up the rise to his mother’s house with Capanius matching his strides. He was tired and disappointed from their long, fruitless hunt, and that didn’t help the jumbled thoughts that filled his head. His anger and distrust of his mother’s suitor still simmered, but he had to acknowledge that the man was good with a spear.

And he did save your life, after all, his conscience nagged.

And he had to admit he had almost enjoyed Capanius’ self-deprecating humor about their missed opportunities with the boar. That banter continued as they approached the house.

“You tell her,” Hercules said, with a sigh.

“Hey - she’s your mother!” Capanius stated, in mock defensiveness.

Hercules grinned reluctantly, but then glanced up as he caught a whiff of a delicious aroma. They saw a fully skinned and dressed whole boar roasting on a spit over the fire in the outdoor hearth. Capanius noticed it, too, and cried, “Would you look as that - someone got it before us!”

“Come on,” Hercules said, with an almost congenial wave of his hand. “Let’s see who speared it.”

As they entered the house, Jason and Iolaus waved from the table where they sat preparing vegetables. Alcmene and Lilith stood at the washbasin; Alcmene was drying her hands, and Lilith was finishing washing up.

“So - who caught the boar?” Capanius burst out.

Hercules speculated, “Jason - or Iolaus?”

Lilith gestured at herself and Alcmene. “We did!” she proclaimed.

Jason added, “While we peeled potatoes…”

“I cut asparagus!” Iolaus chimed in.

The two frustrated hunters stared in shock.

Alcmene smiled to see their reaction. “We thought you two would be too busy butting heads to hunt one down.”

Hercules exchanged a quick glance with Capanius, and all could see just how accurate that guess had been.

“Well, congratulations!” Capanius said. He caught Alcmene in a hug and kissed her on the cheek. Iolaus and Jason caught a quick breath watched Hercules warily.

Hercules felt the uneasy comradeship with Capanius torn away in the rising of the red tide of anger and jealousy at that sight. He felt the gazes of his friends, silently urging him not to react stupidly, but it was all he could do not to attack Capanius. He whirled and fled outside instead.

He strode out to the small wall that bounded the terrace and sat down with his back to the house, steaming in anger and frustration.

Almost immediately, he heard footsteps behind him, striding out the door and crossing the terrace. Tensing, he expected Alcmene or Capanius himself to come into view, but he relaxed when Iolaus stepped over the wall and sat down beside him.

Iolaus at least will be on my side, he thought.

“Hey,” Hercules greeted him, gratefully.

“Hey,” Iolaus answered. Suddenly, he struck Hercules a snapping blow with the hand towel he held.

Hercules recoiled, startled. “What the --”

“What’s your problem?” Iolaus interrupted, regarding him with a frown.

Hercules huffed out a breath, furiously. “Not you, too, Iolaus? You just don’t get it, do ya? That’s my Mom is there - my MOM!”

“Oh, yeah, I get it - it’s your MOM!” Iolaus shot back, equally angry. “In that nice house, cooking you a nice meal - and waiting for you to wise up and get your ass back in there!”

Hercules looked away, furious and frustrated by his best friend’s betrayal.

“Yeah, whatever,” he answered, sullenly.

Iolaus was livid at that response. “Oh - well, then - You wanna trade places? Because I’d take a Mom like that any day! And if she happened to find someone that made her happy, then that’s fine with me! Because I’d want her to be happy!”

Hercules felt a trickle of remorse, knowing the home situation that had driven Iolaus into the streets, and later to make his home with his best friend and Alcmene his mother, who loved him like another son. Reluctantly, he felt forced to see things from Iolaus’ perspective, and didn’t find himself looking too good.

“You big dope!” Iolaus went on. “You know - some of us never had it this good.”

The blond cadet caught his breath before he said more. He watched Hercules’ profile angrily for another moment, then rose and walked back into the house.

Hercules turned briefly to watch him go, as upset now at the loss of his older friend’s understanding and approval as at the possible truth of his words. He turned back to regard the circling hills.

What am I angry about, really? he wondered. Is it that Capanius is really untrustworthy and manipulating Mother, or is it actually because I’m jealous of his possible place in her life?

He sat there for some time, gazing at nothing , but busy with uncomfortable thoughts…

The memories had crowded Hercules’ mind while he had made the trip into town, and found lunch in the agora. He had exchanged perfunctory greetings with friends and neighbors, but most seemed to sense his desire to be alone with his thoughts.

He was still sitting at the table in the agora when Iolaus found him.

“Hercules!” the blond hunter called as he rushed up to his friend.

The demigod, still preoccupied with old memories and current concerns, did not notice Iolaus’ air of urgency. “She’s really fallen for him, Iolaus.”

“Look, Herc, I know you’re worried about your mother, but right now, you’ve got other problems!” Hercules glanced up. His preoccupation vanished as he read his friend’s very real anxiety.

“Someone’s trying to kill you!” Iolaus stated.

Hercules shook his head, looking away with a dry laugh. “That happens all the time. I don’t have the energy to be impressed anymore.”

Iolaus laid a hand on his friend’s broad shoulder and shook it slightly. “Well, you better find the energy --”

As Hercules looked back at him with more serious attention, Iolaus sat down beside him, and continued, “ - otherwise, you won’t be around to worry about your mother!”

“What?” Hercules asked, startled.

“The guy who thinks you’re in danger - he’s a warrior,” Iolaus explained intently. “If we were in battle, we would trust him to cover our backs. He’s trying to do that for you now.”

“Where is he?”

“He’s out of town. I told him he’d be safe there.”

Hercules glanced down at the olive he had been shredding absently. He tossed it into his half-eaten lunch plate, and said, slowly, “You make it sound as if he was afraid.”

“He is,” Iolaus replied, seriously. “I’m tellin’ you, Herc, he’s very afraid!”

Hercules trusted Iolaus’ ability to read people. He sighed and stood, tossing some coins onto the table. “Then let’s go see him!”

They arrived at the ruined homestead to which Iolaus had directed Leukos. All was quiet, and appeared undisturbed. However, both heroes felt a sense of unease about the place, and they stepped warily.

Iolaus led the way around the desolate, broken farmhouse, pushing through tall vegetation. Both men were tensed as a raven flew up suddenly through the shattered skeleton of the building. They exchanged a rueful grin, but both felt a chill of warning up their spines.

“Leukos! Leukos!” Iolaus called, quietly, as they moved carefully around towards the back of the structure.

Then, just as they came to the back corner of the building, an ominous shape came into view, protruding from the straight line of the wall. It resolved into the motionless shape of a man, pinned to the wall by a gleaming silver crossbow bolt.

Hercules and Iolaus stared sadly. “I hope that’s not your man,” Hercules said, softly.

Iolaus sighed. “It is.”

Hercules observed, “No mortal shot this arrow. It was crafted in the forges of Hepahaestus.”

Iolaus glanced up at his friend. “That means Hera must be after you again!”

Hercules met Iolaus’ gaze in dawning fear. “Me or … my Mother!”

He bolted away, with Iolaus right on his heels…

At that moment, not far away, Alcmene was moving around her kitchen, packing a picnic basket with freshly baked loaves of bread and ripe fruit. She arranged it carefully and placed a clean cloth over the food, just as Demetrius entered the dwelling.

Smiling, he stated, “The wagon’s ready.”

“And so is our picnic lunch,” she replied, tucking the cloth gently in place.

“Ah, there’s nothing else to wait for --” he swept her into his arms, “- except this!” Demetrius pulled her pliant form to his and kissed her passionately. As their lips parted, he continued in a deep, alluring tone, “And there’ll be more for desert!”

Alcmene felt a thrill that was part desire, part doubt, and part intrigue. She smiled and picked up the basket as Demetrius stepped back, and made a deep bow before her.

Demetrius took the basket from her and, with a sweeping gesture towards the doorway, said, “After you, my dear.”

They exited the house and walked into the brilliant warmth and color of the early summer garden. “What a beautiful day!” Alcmene cried. She felt youthful and alive in the radiance of the morning and the excitement of possibility.

“The best one in a long time!” Demetrius agreed, placing the basket in the back of the wagon. There was an exultant quality to his voice that caused her to turn to look at him in wonder. But before she could comment on it, she heard the sound of running footsteps pounding up the pathway.

“Mother!”

She whirled to see Hercules running up towards the gateway, with Iolaus a short distance behind.

“Mother, there’s trouble!” he shouted.

She turned to look at Demetrius, and saw his eyes blazing with triumph.

Alcmene felt a catch of fear in her chest. “What does he mean?”

“Look for yourself!” the tall man purred. He swept a hand toward the side of the house where the wall curved.

All at once, three of Hera’s Archers rose from behind the wall, and trained their crossbows on Hercules. And from the other side of the enclosure, three more of the Archers rose suddenly.

Alcmene realized that Hercules, now running up to the gateway, was directly between the two sets of enemies, but far enough forward that they were not in each other’s line of fire.

She stepped forward, screaming, “Hercules! Look out!”

He turned and saw over his shoulder one group of Archers. Then, from behind him, he heard the Chief Archer shout, “Now!”

A wave of arrows shot towards the demigod. The speed of the divinely crafted bolts was too fast for even Hercules to pluck from the air as usual. One arrow was on target and struck him in the right side, the powerful force of the blow knocking him down and back against the newly completed wall. He fell, stunned and senseless, to the ground.

“No-o-o-o!” Alcmene cried, jumping forward to begin running to her son. Abruptly, Demetrius caught her from behind and held her against him as she struggled and cried.

Pounding up the pathway, Iolaus had watched in horror as the Archers rose, fired, and struck down his best friend.

“Hercules!” he howled, in fear and rage, racing toward the son of Zeus.

The Archers, smug in their victory, turned away and vanished in glittering waves. Demetrius pulled Alcmene’s arms behind her, cruelly, despite her struggles, and quickly bound them. He tossed her into the back of the wagon as though she were a bag of meal, pushing her back against the seat so she could not jump out.

Iolaus rushed up and flung himself down beside Hercules. He placed his hand over his friend’s heart, praying to Zeus to find it beating.

Demetrius ran around to the front of the wagon and leaped into the driver’s seat. “Now - to finish this!” he cried. He caught up the reins and slashed the horses’ backs with them. The animals, restless already with the cries and activity, bolted off down the trackway.

Iolaus caught his breath in a sob of relief as he felt the powerful throbbing of Hercules’ great heart. He snapped his gaze up to follow the retreating wagon. Alcmene, tossed in the bed of the vehicle, struggled to keep her loved ones in sight.

“Hercules!” She cried out, desperately. “Iolaus!”

Iolaus, riven by anguished doubt of the choice of whom to rescue, heard in her cry her instruction - to save Hercules first. He dashed away the useless tears that caused her retreating image to blur, and turned to his unconscious, wounded friend. He spoke in a mixture of challenge, entreaty, and determination, “Don’t you even think about dying, Hercules! ‘Cause I’m not gonna let you!”

The wagon sped rapidly away west. Alcmene, jostled and aching, was conscious of little of the journey. Her physical pain was nothing to the anguish of her heart. She knew her son was gravely injured; she did not know if the arrows shot by the strange Archers were powerful enough to conquer Hercules’ more-than-mortal strength. Her only ray of hope was knowing that Iolaus was with him.

Iolaus will do everything he can to help Hercules! Alcmene’s heart told her, but her head fretted. What if those arrows are fatal even for those with the blood of the gods? What if Iolaus is facing Hercules’ death alone?

I cannot think this way! Alcmene sent a prayer to Zeus, knowing that he still in his own way watched over his favorite son. Zeus, help him -and help Iolaus! She did her best to banish the mental image of Hercules falling with the arrow in his side, the bright red blood staining his yellow doeskin shirt. She tried instead to speculate on what Demetrius had in store for her, but her effort was wasted. She cared little what happened to her, if Hercules was hurt - or worse. Her tears still flowed for him.

After some leagues, the lovely, silver-clad Archers rode out on horseback from the woods by the roadside, and fell in train behind the wagon. They proceeded for many more leagues west in this manner, until mid-afternoon. At that time, Demetrius stopped the wagon near a wooded glade, and came around the back. To Alcmene’s irritation, he began rummaging through the picnic basket - the basket she had packed in the mistaken belief that it would be something they would share in love and pleasure.

“You had this planned all along, didn’t you?” she accused him coldly. “You never loved me - you just wanted to set a trap for Hercules! And I fell for it!”

He just smiled at her as he pulled a goblet and the flask of wine from the basket. Now the smile that had seemed to her charming and debonair before appeared slick, arrogant, and condescending.

“Why, Demetrius?” she continued, hotly. “Why would you want to kill someone who has done so much good?”

Demetrius shrugged. “Ambition, what else? Think of the awe and fear that all Greece will have of the man who kills Hercules!” He gulped the wine thirstily. “And besides - oh, but that’s for later. Perhaps you should be more concerned for yourself?”

“You can’t do anything worse to me than what you’ve done already,” Alcmene stated, stonily, a tear coursing unheeded down her cheek.

Demetrius swallowed. “I’m sure I can figure out something,” he said, mockingly.

“Is this where you kill me, Demetrius?” she demanded. “Is that what happens now?”

Demetrius shook his head, his grin widening. “Oh, no - I’m much too much of a gentleman for that.” He held out the goblet to her. “Wine?”

She lifted her queenly head haughtily. Demetrius shrugged, and turned to the foremost of the Archers behind the wagon.

“Ride ahead and deliver the news about our dear Alcmene,” he ordered. The Archer regarded him briefly, and then turned to her Chief for confirmation. Only when she nodded did the first Archer direct her horse past the wagon and canter off toward the west.

Demetrius gazed back at the rest of the group, unfazed at their distrust of him. “We’ll rest the horses here for awhile. At least one of you should stay near the wagon. We wouldn’t want anything to happen to our lovely Alcmene -- ” he turned back to her with an insulting familiarity - “until it’s her time to die!”

Alcmene shook her head, watching him with contempt and anger. “You’re a monster,” she spat.

Demetrius held out his arms, and his voice lowered dramatically. “I am nothing compared to what you’re about to see.”

Alcmene’s stern gaze never wavered, but she felt a frisson of fear. Oh, Hercules! she cried inside. I am so sorry I allowed him into our lives. You were right to distrust him. He is nothing like Capanius! Oh, my son - I am so sorry!

Iolaus meanwhile was anxiously watching Hercules breathe. He had carefully examined the wound, gently lifting Hercules’ shirt, and wondered how much more bleeding there must be inside, and what he was going to do about it. He knew the bolt must come out, but the idea of that barbed head ripping back through Hercules muscles and tissues terrified and sickened him. Right now, he sat with one hand over Hercules’ heart and the other gripping his friend’s shoulder. He prayed for Hercules to waken but was fearful of the pain when he did.

“C’mon, Hercules!” he urged. “I know you’re still with me!”

…IknowbecauseIcanfeelyourheartyou’reNOTdead!you’renotdead!youcan’tdie! GreatZeusdon’tlethimdie … Iolaus’ thoughts flew like frightened birds, and some of them tumbled from his lips.

“You can do it - I know you can!” You can do anything!

Iolaus paused for a moment, watching desperately for a sign that Hercules was regaining consciousness. He shook the demigod’s left shoulder gently, urgently. “C’mon - fight back!”

Iolaus held his breath as Hercules’ eyelids wavered, and he stirred. The hunter’s worst fears came true as Hercules suddenly awoke in a paroxysm of agony, screaming. He fell back, writhing in pain, while Iolaus held him steadily.

The son of Zeus reached out, and his questing hand found Iolaus’ shoulder, and grasped it as a drowning man grasps a thrown rope.

“Iolaus!” he cried.

Iolaus moved his left arm up to twine around his friend’s. “I’m here! I’m here! Take it easy!” Iolaus’ empathy with Hercules’ anguish was so great he barely noticed the demigod’s crushing grip on his shoulder.

Hercules gasped, breathless with the pain and with apprehension. “My mother?”

Iolaus stammered, “I - I don’t know! Demetrius carried her off!”

“Got to go -“ Hercules moved to raise himself, and shouted in agony. Iolaus caught him and held him.

“No, Herc!” he cried. “You can’t! You’re hurt pretty bad!”

Hercules looked haltingly down at the silver lancet buried in his right side, with the bloodstain expanding further around it every moment.

He reached for the arrow. Iolaus held his arm, partly guiding him, partly trying to keep Hercules from disturbing the bolt. The demigod’s strength was too great even now for Iolaus to hold him back. Hercules grasped the bolt and tugged, but cried out because the pain was too excruciating to continue.

He looked at Iolaus with swollen eyes. “Take it out!” he commanded. The piercing force of the pain caused tendons and sinews to bulge in his strong neck.

Iolaus’ heart ached with the devastation of hurting his friend more, but he tried to keep his voice calm. “Hercules - I …I might make things worse -“

Hercules writhed and clutched Iolaus’ shoulder tighter, causing the blond to grimace with pain. “Take it out! Or I’ll do it myself!”

“Okay,” Iolaus nodded grimly. “But it’s going to be like no pain you’ve ever felt!”

Hercules shook Iolaus’ shoulder. Through gritted, strong, white teeth, he growled, “PULL. THE ARROW. OUT!”

Iolaus remembered to breathe, and then nodded. Pushing away his terror for his friend, he reached down to take hold of the bolt carefully, tightly, and glanced up. Hercules met his eyes without flinching, and with total trust. Iolaus glanced back down and carefully adjusted his grip on the blood-slicked metal, fiercely willing his hands not to shake. He glanced up again, his eyes meeting his friend’s with an unspoken apology, the pulled the arrow straight out as fast as he could.

Hercules convulsed in another seizure of agony, a long scream ripped from his throat. Iolaus dropped the bolt and held him, breathless and horrified, as Hercules’ anguish battered him.

At last the trauma was too overwhelming even for Hercules’ strength. The screaming cry cut off abruptly and the demigod collapsed into unconsciousness.

Iolaus leaned back closer to his friend. He checked that the great heart was still beating, and then reflexively moved that hand to press down on the gushing wound with desperate force.

Placing his other hand on the side of Hercules face, he whispered in a choked voice. “Rest well, my friend!”

And then he began to shake …

After traveling for some distance through the afternoon, the cavalcade of wagon and Archers finally halted to camp for the night. As the Archers worked to make camp, Demetrius casually began to peel an apple he had found in the food basket. Alcmene regarded him icily.

“I should have known I couldn’t trust you,” she stated. “Your eyes were always as cold as stone no matter how much passion the rest of you was generating.”

“My eyes? Well, perhaps they’ll be brighter now that Hercules is no longer standing between me and immortality.”

Alcmene longed to wipe the ever-present smirk from his face. “Well, enjoy your power while you can, because anyone as cowardly and treacherous as you won’t be able to hang on to it for long!”

It appeared she achieved her objective, because Demetrius looked up from his task, and the heat of anger evident beneath his normally cool exterior. With hardened eyes and his smile now feral, he tossed the apple peel aside and approached her.

With the dull side of the blade’s point, he traced a line down her bare arm. “You know,” he stated quietly, dangerously, “Maybe I ought to kill you now.”

Fearless in her rage and hopelessness, Alcmene raised her chin and did not flinch at the touch of his knife. “Well - why don’t you?” she snapped. “I’m going to die anyway, aren’t I? Come on, Demetrius - kill me! There’s no other way you’re going to satisfy Hera.”

“Hera!” Demetrius’ smirk was back. “Oh, but -- Hera didn’t send me.”

She looked down at him from the wagon, puzzled, angry. “But no one else hates Hercules and me as much as she does.”

Demetrius chuckled. “Oh, no - Echidna hates you more!” He sauntered away, grinning and biting into the apple.

Alcmene stared after him, with dawning fear and shock …

Iolaus did not give in to his adrenalin reaction for long. There was too much to do to save Hercules, and in the hope of saving Alcmene. He closed his eyes for a moment, caught a deep, centering breath as his Eastern masters had taught him, and allowed his fears for Hercules to wash over him, through him, and then flow away. He released his terror of a future without his best friend, or his adopted mother, and directed all his energy on the here and now. His concentration sharpened, and his focus crystallized into the present moment.

He looked down to the hand he had almost unconsciously clamped over Hercules’ wound. He lifted first the heel of his hand carefully to check the effectiveness of the pressure. After a second or two, the bright blood began to seep back up past the hole in Hercules’ stained, golden shirt, but it was no longer the spurting flood that had followed the arrow’s removal.

He pressed the hand back down for a few more moments while he considered what he needed to do, mentally tallied the supplies he would need, and searched his memory for where Alcmene kept such things. Then he checked the wound once more and found the flow of blood even more sluggish. Iolaus could only pray that the internal bleeding would be slowing as well.

His plan made, Iolaus removed his hand slowly, made certain the blood still just seeped out, and then leaped up and ran into the house. Wiping his hand hurriedly on a kitchen cloth, he pilfered through Alcmene’s stores in controlled haste, and gathered bandaging supplies, herbal medicines, clean cloths and a basin. Most of these he placed in Hercules’ old room on a table by the bed; some of the clean cloths he brought with him as he ran back to Hercules’ side.

Dropping to his knees by his friend’s right side, Iolaus quickly made a thick pad of one of the cloths and placed over the wound, at the moment not removing Hercules’ shirt, just opening it up enough to be able to work. Iolaus then tore another piece of cloth into thick strips and began winding them around Hercules’ body. He was relieved at the moment that the demigod had fallen more upright against the wall instead of flat on his back.

Iolaus knew he needed a strong pressure dressing on the wound when he moved Hercules inside, since the hemorrhaging would likely start again. So he bound the fastening strips tightly and secured them with smaller strips he had torn from the ends.

Finally, he was ready to try to move Hercules inside. He blew out his breath several times, quickly evaluating the possibilities. Hercules was nearly a foot taller and was nearly twice his weight. They had learned as boys that part of what seemed to give Hercules his massive strength was having a denser bone and muscle structure than other men his size - what few there were - as though Zeus had caused him to be made from some unique form of flesh and bone.

Iolaus knew it was going to be torture on them both, but he had no options. He had to get the injured man into the house to care for his wound properly and to give him a better place to rest.

Iolaus stepped behind Hercules, close to the wall that held him up. He shoved Hercules’ heavy, boneless weight over slightly, with great difficulty, to be able to get directly behind him. Holding on to keep the unconscious man from slumping over, Iolaus then squatted behind him, slipped his arms around Hercules’ chest and locked his hands together. Then with a mighty thrust of his strong thighs, Iolaus pushed himself up and began dragging Hercules slowly, laboriously backwards. He caught ragged, gasping breaths as Hercules’ dead weight wrenched his entire body with each difficult step.

After several moments, Iolaus had to pause, lower his big friend, breathe for a moment, and re-lock his arms. Then he gathered himself, using his chi force as his masters had taught, and started moving again, dragging and pausing, dragging and pausing. Luckily, he did not have far to go, but it seemed to him to take forever, especially as Hercules roused slightly several times from the pain, crying out softly and mumbling incoherently.

Those cries struck Iolaus to the heart, but he choked out brief reassurances, and kept his focus on moving. Gradually, Iolaus maneuvered them into the house and finally into Hercules’ old room. He pulled the unconscious man to the bed and leaned him against the bed frame. Then Iolaus collapsed beside him, gasping and covered with sweat.

Now to get him up on the bed! Iolaus thought, with a groan and a thread of panic. He thrust the panic aside, quickly mulled over the possibilities, and decided on a couple of plans. He turned to Hercules, slumped beside him and shook him gently.

“Hey, Hercules!” Iolaus urged. “Wake up! C’mon, Herc - I need you awake here!”

The demigod’s head moved slightly. He groaned and muttered again, but either the shock was still too massive, or the arrow’s magic robbed Hercules of strength enough to regain consciousness totally. Either one brought Iolaus’ fears into his throat, but he savagely pushed them away again.

Time for Plan Beta, Iolaus decided. He pushed himself up into a squatting position close to his friend. He then caught Hercules’ limp left arm and wound it over his shoulders, clasping Hercules’ big hand with his own smaller one. He then wound his right arm around the larger man’s waist, holding tightly.

“Help me here, buddy,” he urged. Iolaus took several deep breaths and began straining upwards, doing his best to haul Hercules to his feet.

The demigod was massive, dead weight, and at first Iolaus thought his back, legs, or lungs would give out before Hercules budged.

“C’mon Herc - help me out here!” he cried. “Stand up! Get up, Herc!”

The pull of Iolaus’ strength on the wound may have caused enough pain to rouse Hercules slightly, or perhaps it was his best friend’s voice, but Hercules muttered softly, “Iolaus?”

Through a red haze of straining effort, Iolaus glanced over at his friend’s face, so close to his own. Hercules’ eyes were still closed, but there was a bewildered frown on his face.

“Hercules - please, just stand up!” Iolaus gasped out. “Just a little!”

Slowly, clumsily, the long legs bent at the knee, and the feet pressed to the floor.

“That’s it - that’s it, buddy!” Iolaus rasped. “Push now - push yourself up!”

The smaller man pushed himself and pulled the larger man. Jerkily, inch-by-inch, they began to rise. Luckily, the bed was fairly low to the floor, and with only a few more seconds of strain, they fell backwards onto the bed. Iolaus withdrew from beneath Hercules’ arm, and whipped himself into a back somersault onto the other side of the bed. He caught his friend as Hercules began to slide limply towards the floor again.

Levering his weight against the bed, Iolaus tugged his friend further up. Once most of Hercules’ weight was on the bed, Iolaus ran around to the other side and lifted the demigod’s legs there as well.

And then Iolaus collapsed beside the bed, panting hard and wringing with sweat. He waited only to catch his breath briefly, then jumped up to begin work again.

He checked his temporary bandage, and found it soaked with blood. He cursed fluently, but he had known it would probably happen with all the movement. He quickly rolled Hercules slightly to unfasten the golden shirt and remove it. Iolaus tossed the stained garment over the head of the bed, and then began to care for the wound.

He ran out to the well and brought back a hastily drawn pail of water. He poured part of it into the large basin. Taking a piece of Alcmene’s homemade soap, he quickly scrubbed his dirty, bloody hands and then rinsed them in the water remaining in the pail. Drying them quickly, he then took up another piece of clean linen and folded it into a thick pad. Laying it aside briefly, he pulled his knife from his boot and slit the strips of cloth that bound the now saturated temporary dressing in place. He pulled the used dressing away quickly, removing it with one hand and dropping it on the floor, while as the same time pressing the clean pad into place where the blood was gushing again after all the movement.

Iolaus held the pad down hard with both hands, frightened of the spurt of bright blood. Hercules groaned and moved slightly, but still did not waken.

“Take it easy, buddy,” Iolaus whispered, his voice catching. “It’ll be alright - it’s okay.”

Whether it was the soothing sound of his voice or the easing of the pain with stillness, Iolaus was not certain, but Hercules’ movements stilled after a moment. Iolaus continued to hold the pad down hard with one hand while the other sought Hercules’ pulse again. The demigod’s heartbeat was much more rapid than normal, but it was regular and strong, and Iolaus breathed a bit easier.

Iolaus held steady pressure on the wound for several long moments, barely lifting an edge at intervals to check the flow of blood. It began to slow gradually, and finally was nearly stopped, just seeping slightly.

Iolaus released the pad, leaving it in place. Knowing that this dressing, too, was mostly saturated, he folded another and quickly tore more wide binding strips. When those were ready, he removed the pressure pad, and dropped it with the former ones. He then carefully, efficiently cleaned the wound with another cloth saturated with water and Alcmene’s soap.

He took up a small jar of herbal ointment made from a recipe Hercules had learned from Asclepias years before, which was especially helpful to keep away the evil humors that made wounds go bad. He spread the ointment generously over the puncture wound, pressing it in gently with a small piece of clean linen. Iolaus added more ointment to the newly folded pad, and placed it over the cleaned wound. He then wrapped the wide strips around Hercules’ body, rolling him gently back and forth rather than trying to lift him, and tying them securely.

Finally, Iolaus wrapped a larger cloth around the bindings and secured it with specially made, toothed fasteners, which Cheiron had taught them to fashion years ago, and of which Alcmene had kept a store.

Iolaus sat back on the bed, taking a brief moment to catch his breath and rest from his labors. He watched Hercules’ chest rise and fall with comforting regularity, and noted that the dressing seemed to stay in place well. The realization of his own exhaustion and aching muscles suddenly screamed for attention, but he fiercely pushed it away.

He rose before the tide of fatigue could overwhelm him, and cleaned away the detritus of his work. After washing his hands again, he took another clean cloth, dipped it in the clean, slightly soapy water of the basin, and washed Hercules’ face gently.

Iolaus put aside the basin and linens, and pulled a chair close up to the bedside. He sat down at last to rest and watch each of the sleeping man’s breaths, holding Hercules’ hand until he should awaken …

In far-off Dronos, the Archer sent by Demetrius slowly entered Echidna’s lair to find the Mother of All Monsters curled into a ball of grief and misery, her upper tentacles wrapped around her serpentine body as though to hold herself together.

The Archer stepped closer, her feet causing the brittle remains of past victims of Echidna’s wrath to crackle and fragment noisily. The mourning creature rose, and whirled her great body, her upper tentacles unwinding, and her long tail whipping out to snap just in front of the Archer’s face.

The Archer flinched away, but stood her ground, even as Echidna roared out, “What is it? Why are you here?”

“Hercules is dead. We surprised him and attacked; he fell,” the servant of Hera reported tersely. Echidna studied her with the concentration of a snake about to strike, her deadly tail hovering within inches of the Archer’s eyes. At the obvious doubt thus expressed, the Archer added disdainfully, “No one survives our arrows!”

Echidna was apparently satisfied. She retracted her long tail to coil around her lower body, and her arm-like appendages spreading wide in expansive satisfaction. “Then my world is a better place!” she exulted.

The Archer smiled - a shark’s smile.

“And his mother --?”

“Alcmene is our captive. Demetrius will have her here tomorrow.”

Echidna’s cry made the caverns ring with vicious echoes. “Then tomorrow she will die!”

…He was aware at first of dark and bright, dark and bright, and a soft web of song. It was Iolaus singing, and for some reason his friend’s voice sounded broken and full of pathos. He knew every tone of Iolaus’ voice, and what it conveyed, and he well knew that Iolaus often sang when he was the saddest and the most afraid. He wanted to ask, wanted to find out what was making Iolaus so sorrowful, but the strength to summon his voice was not there.

Moments of song and silence wove in and out with his awareness, until slowly a thread of his power seemed to be seeping back. He pushed and strove to reach the surface of the cocoon of unusual weakness that held him back, and finally, finally, he found strength enough to open his eyes…

And it was dark and bright, dark and bright, but now with a shower of gold, and slowly the shades coalesced into forms, and eventually the blurred wash of colors and forms resolved into an anxious, hopeful, strained face.

He blinked several times, just watching the familiar features. In a few moments he could put a well-loved name to it.

Iolaus.

After more moments, he became aware of the lips shaping the voice that went with the face, still with hoarse with the weight of tears, calling him.

“Hercules … Herc … can you hear me? C’mon, you can do it - wake up now.”

And after a moment of watching and listening, he remembered - he was Hercules, and when Iolaus called he always answered.

“Iolaus?” he whispered, raggedly. “Iolaus --?”

Iolaus’ head dropped, and the weight of tears threatened to turn his voice into a quiet sob. “Thank the gods!”

And then Hercules found he could move, and in a heartbeat he was aware of the exquisite rush of pain, almost blinding him again. He caught a breath and stilled, and became aware of the warm cradling of his left hand in an anchoring grip. The hand was familiar in its calloused strength, and then he knew it to be Iolaus’ hand.

Iolaus’ head came up, and Hercules saw that his azure eyes were bejeweled with tears -- quiet tears that spilled onto his friend’s face without Iolaus being aware of them.

“Iolaus,” he breathed, his voice ghostly with pain. “Iolaus, why are you crying?”

Iolaus’ smile glimmered briefly through his tears, and Hercules felt some easing of his own fear. Iolaus shouldn’t cry - it wasn’t something Hercules ever wanted to see, he knew that. It made him hurt more than the inexplicable pain in his own gut.

“Because you woke up, you big lug,” Iolaus replied, bathing his face with a cool cloth. “I was afraid of … well, let’s just say I was beginning to wonder.”

“I’m awake ... I just … I just don’t feel too good right now.”

“Yeah, I guess not,” Iolaus answered, and that odd throat-catching weight was in his voice again. “I didn’t …I didn’t think anyone could survive an arrow forged by Hephaestus.”

“An arrow --?” Hercules felt a trickle of recognition, but his memory felt so muddled. “Hephaestus … I didn’t take his fire in me again, did I? I remember it burned like this … and I nearly hurt you. Iolaus - I didn’t ... I didn’t hurt you, did I?” It was the old fear, the fear that had always been the terrible thorn in his gift of power.

“No!” Iolaus replied fiercely, and the warm grip of his hand tightened, pulling the big hand close to his own heart. “Herc, no! Nothing like that! You didn’t - you couldn’t hurt me then, and you haven’t now. The arrow hurt you, and that’s why you’re …not feeling too good. One of Hera’s Archers shot you, remember?”

Another thread of clearer memory was added to the tapestry of remembrance that was being re-woven in his mind.

Iolaus went on, his voice choking again. “I don’t know … I don’t know if it was your great reflexes, or maybe your Dad’s intervention, but it’s a wonder that only one of those arrows hit you. They all fired … if even another arrow hit you … I don’t know if you -- if you would have --”

His voice broke off, and now Hercules understood the what was causing the drowning weight of fear and pain in his best friend’s voice.

“Hey,” he said, his own voice strengthening. His friend’s head came up, and the light from the window and the lamps glittered in the tears on Iolaus’ face. Hercules found his strength returning enough to grip the smaller hand that held his own. “I’m here, Iolaus. Not great, but getting better. But I’m here.”

“Yeah,” Iolaus replied, with a laugh that still had tears in it, but it was getting better, too, Hercules decided.

“Speaking of being here --” Hercules said, his head turning on the pillow, as he glanced around and recognized his childhood room in his mother’s house, “ - how did I get in here?”

Iolaus was wiping his face with his free hand. He answered, briefly, obviously minimizing, “I dragged you.”

Hercules regarded him in some amazement. “You dragged me?”

Iolaus nodded, with a slight smile. Hercules continued, slowly, “How did you …? Gods, Iolaus, I know you’re really strong, but - you dragged me?”

“Yes, Herc,” Iolaus answered simply. “I did. I had to, so I did. I’m not sure how. The amazing part is you lived through it.”

Hercules shook his head. “The amazing thing is that you did it,” Hercules stated, meeting his friend’s eyes, and wondering what was causing his continuing anxious expression.

Iolaus shrugged. “There wasn’t anybody else.” He caught a breath, appearing to steel himself for something. “And Herc, we’ve got to talk about--”

“Not anybody else?” Hercules wondered, glancing around, wondering where his mother was … thinking, She must be in the kitchen, but why hasn’t she …

“Not anybody else?” Hercules said again, and then like a crashing wave of icy water, the memories came flooding back suddenly. “Iolaus! My Mother --!”

He sat up quickly, despite Iolaus trying to push him back. The pain in his gut caught him with a white-hot spasm of agony, but the pain in his heart was suddenly even worse.

“Iolaus - why the hell are we sitting around? We’ve got to go after her--!” Hercules caught his breath on a cry of pain and held his side, all the while trying to push past the restraining strength of his older friend.

“Damn it, Herc, stop!” Iolaus cried, stung and fearful for what Hercules’ sudden movement could do. “That arrow came within inches of killing you! You were hemorrhaging, and the pain and blood loss wiped you out.”

“But, Mother --!” Hercules gasped, continuing to struggle.

“Don’t you think I want to go racing after her, damn it?” Iolaus demanded intensely, trying to hold him back. “She’s your mother, but of all people, you should know what she’s been to me!”

Hercules met his eyes, and the words weren’t needed. “I know - I know!” he choked out. “But we’ve got to go after her!”

Iolaus caught him and held him, as Hercules gasped and reeled with a sharp spear of exquisite agony. “Wait, Herc!” he pleaded, passionately. “You’ve got to heal up a little more. Listen to me, please! You’ve been hurt worse than I’ve ever seen you.” Iolaus’ fears surged as he watched his big friend struggling just to stay upright. “Rest a little longer, and we’ll both go after her.”

“Iolaus,” Hercules whispered, his silver-blue eyes meeting his friend’s azure ones with equal desperation. He glanced at the long fingers of mid-afternoon light, which poured in through the window. “If we wait - this bastard Demetrius -- he could do anything. She could be killed if we wait any longer!”

Iolaus sat back, reluctantly accepting the truth of Hercules’ argument. He also realized the futility of struggling against Hercules’ power, even now. Instead, he knelt in front of the son of Zeus, still supporting the ailing man as he edged forward, trying to stand, and tried to stop him with his words.

“Hercules - this is not just about you and Demetrius! Think about it - how did Hera’s Archers get involved in this?” Iolaus watched with his heart in his throat as Hercules continued to struggle not to fall or faint. “There’s some bigger force at work here - and, weak as you are -- it may kill you!”

Hercules heard Iolaus’ fear for him, but his own fear for his mother overwhelmed it. He pushed to gather his legs under him. “Then that’ll be a death worth dying!” he grated.

Iolaus felt his heart lurch. As much as he loved Alcmene with his whole heart as the mother his own mother could not be to him, Iolaus loved Hercules more, with every fiber of his being. He could not accept any concept of his friend’s death, even to save her. He fought to hold his voice steady and make Hercules understand.

“Damn it - Herc! Please wait just a bit longer,” Iolaus burst out, his fear for his friend a tangible force. “Don’t you see -- I could lose you both!”

Hercules shook his head. “I can’t wait - Demetrius sure won’t.”

“You won’t stand a fighting chance!” Iolaus cried.

Hercules pushed Iolaus away, even while he used that motion to lunge to his feet. His weakness struck him like a tidal wave. He felt himself falling, cried out, and took a staggering step to catch himself on a tall chest nearby.

“Then get out of my way, ‘cause I’m going after her!” he ground out, the agony and weakness leaving him bone-white and gasping.

At his back, he could literally feel the anger, terror, and anguish of his best friend, and understood it all completely. At times like these, Hercules couldn’t always tell where he ended and Iolaus began. He knew the moment that Iolaus’ fearful doubts and frustrated anger transmuted into resigned acceptance.

It’s just as well we don’t have to talk, he thought, holding the chest with desperate attention to staying conscious, and holding his side against the pain, since it’s all I can do to just breathe and stand here …!

He heard Iolaus sigh raggedly behind him, heard him pull the shirt from the headboard, and then the words came straight from that true heart.

“Not without me you don’t!” he declared, quietly fierce.

Hercules turned jerkily to find Iolaus stepping closer, holding out the bloodstained shirt in his left hand and holding out his right arm to help. He met Iolaus’ faithful, constant eyes with all that his friend’s declaration meant to him.

“Good,” Hercules breathed. He reached out unsteadily, took the shirt with his left hand, and passed it carefully to his right hand. With his right arm, he reached out for his friend’s willing shoulder. Iolaus stepped in close to help balance Hercules’ weight, without a thought of his own fatigue, or anguish , or despair, though Hercules could see it all on his expressive face.

“Thanks, Iolaus,” he whispered, as he leaned on his friend, “because I don’t think I can make it by myself.”

Ever, his unvoiced thought was audible to them both. Never ... not without you there …

The journey was a nightmare for them both. Under ordinary conditions, the rugged trail of the wagon would have been easy for the pair to follow at a fast lope. Now, despite the tall ash staff that Iolaus had quickly cut for him, Hercules’ progress was painfully slow. Each step was torture, and drained the demigod’s precariously built strength.

Iolaus watched helplessly as Hercules pushed himself beyond the limit of ordinary human endurance to keep moving. At times he faltered, or fell, but would struggle to rise even without Iolaus’ help, although the blond was there immediately to assist him. League by league they followed on, and Iolaus watched with continued amazement and worry as Hercules kept going. At times he appeared so dizzy and sick that Iolaus was certain he couldn’t go much further. But the son of Zeus -- though he might pause to catch his breath, nap briefly, or get a drink of water -- walked on. Once or twice Iolaus begged his friend to stop for a longer rest, but Hercules spurned his pleas, and kept moving doggedly.

Iolaus was easily able to follow the wagon’s trail. Though he said nothing of it to Hercules, he became more and more uncomfortable about why Demetrius had carried Alcmene off in the first place, and what might await them at journey’s end.

After several leagues, on a trackway by a lake, Iolaus noticed a change in the trail they were following. He knelt and examined the tracks, as Hercules struggled to catch up with him.

“Looks like the wagon was joined here by a gang of riders,” Iolaus related, pointing, as the demigod lurched to a stop beside him.

Hercules voiced their common thought. “The Archers!”

Iolaus was still brooding over the goal of the journey and didn’t like the direction of his thoughts - or the trail. “The only place in this direction is -“

“Dronos,” Hercules supplied, with a grimness that had nothing to do with his physical state. “And you what’s there!”

“Echidna!” Iolaus gasped, rising to his feet beside Hercules.

Hercules nodded, and began to struggle onward. “This must be her revenge, Iolaus.”

The hunter, stepping sideways to keep his gaze on Hercules, asked, “What do you mean?”

“She’s paying me back,” Hercules panted. “She’s paying me back for slaying all the monsters that called her mother.”

“So, she tries to have you killed while your own Mother is watching,” Iolaus surmised.

Hercules gulped another breath, and glanced at his friend. “But it doesn’t end there - now she wants to kill my Mother, too.”

Before Iolaus could reply, Hercules doubled over in pain and stumbled. He barely caught himself with his staff before Iolaus grabbed his arm and supported him. Observing Hercules’ face, Iolaus saw dark circles of strain and exhaustion beginning to form around the demigod’s eyes, becoming more pronounced by the moment in the pale face.

“Herc --! C’mon, it’s gonna be night soon,” Iolaus urged, as he supported Hercules through yet another spasm of pain. “We can’t travel much further.

Hercules managed to stay upright despite the blackness that had clouded the edges of his vision, and the sudden weakness following the wave of distress.

“No,” he replied, wretchedly. “Gotta keep moving.”

Iolaus wound Hercules’ arm over his shoulder and took as much of his friend’s weight as Hercules would allow.

“I’ll be right with you,” Iolaus promised, and they struggled onward …

Late that night, the Archer’s camp was quiet, with only the occasional stamp of horses and the pacing of the sentry disturbing the sleepy silence.

Alcmene was not sleeping, however, though she gave every appearance of it. She lay pillowed against a little tussock, but she had chosen this spot because she had noticed a sharp-edged rock nearby. She had positioned herself so that her bound hands met the rock. Under cover of the darkness, she was sawing away at the ropes along that sharp edge. When a sentry came closer, she stilled her actions and feigned sleep.

After a few more moments, her ropes were ripped apart. She paused a moment and glanced around. The sentry was at the farthest point of her circuit, and the rest of the camp was still. Alcmene rose slowly and slipped away quietly into the dark woods. When she was a little distance away from the camp, she started running faster.

A bit further distant, Alcmene stopped to catch her breath and get her bearings. But before she could glance around, she felt a strong arm grasp her and another circle her waist.

It was Demetrius.

“Not even a goodbye kiss, my love?” he purred in her ear. Alcmene groaned at her failure. “You should have better manners than that.”

And he half-carried, half-dragged her back to the camp…

Even later that night, Hercules and Iolaus had gained on their enemies because of Hercules’ absolute determination not to quit. Iolaus had persuaded him to take several small rests, and perhaps they had helped. With the demigod’s amazing recuperative powers, one never knew, Iolaus acknowledged, but still his friend was far from well. He had refused to stop and make camp, however.

“We’ve got to make up time on them,” he told Iolaus. “They’ll have to stop tonight and rest the horses.”

Iolaus was glad of the bright full moon that allowed him to see the wagon tracks. He was feeling more optimistic that they might catch up with the caravan sooner rather than later, and said as much to Hercules, but he was still concerned about Hercules’ weakened condition.

“It can’t be much farther now,” Hercules remarked.

“I’ll scout ahead and see,” Iolaus offered, and turned to trot off.

Unbidden and powerful, a vision flashed before Hercules’ eyes of Iolaus impaled by one of the screaming arrows of Hera’s Archers. He suddenly barked, “No!”

Iolaus stopped short by the vehemence of that tone, turned to face his friend.

“What?” he asked, stunned.

Hercules shook his head, but the image of Iolaus going through even a portion of what he himself had suffered brought Hercules’ heart into his throat. He couldn’t let it happen, if there was any way to prevent it.

And he won’t listen if I just say it out like that, Hercules knew. I’ve got to find another way to keep him safe.

“This is my Mother we’re talking about,” Hercules stated, his voice and face hardening. “That makes it my fight.”

He made the mistake of glancing down, and the brilliant moonlight illuminated the hurt betrayal in Iolaus’ eyes.

“C’mon, Herc - what’re you talking about?” Iolaus asked, quietly.

Hercules pushed past him, leaning heavily on his staff. “This is about family,” and even as he said it, he knew it was a mistake, and added hastily, “She’s my mother - I have to take the responsibility.”

Iolaus stood frozen for a moment, but suddenly darted around Hercules and planted himself directly in his friend’s path.

“I do understand that, Herc - and what’s more, you know I do!” Iolaus’ voice shook with passionate intensity. “You know this is family for me, too. Damn it, Herc, you and Alcmene are all the family I have right now!”

Hercules eyes dropped. His stern mask was sure to crumble at the sight of that bewildered hurt in his best friend’s face, but he had to keep Iolaus safe. “Look - it’s my job, Iolaus. I don’t want you sticking your neck out.”

“That’s bullshit, Hercules,” Iolaus shot back, fiercely. “After all we’ve been through together - the risks we’ve taken for each other - and you think I’m just gonna turn around and let you walk -- excuse me, hobble! - into Echidna’s cave and fight her alone, sick, and out-numbered?”

A spasm of pain, resignation, and frustration crossed Hercules’ face, and Iolaus knew it didn’t have anything to do with his wound.

“So - just look me in the eyes,” Iolaus challenged, stepping up closer and into Hercules’ face. “Look me in the eyes for more than two seconds, and tell me we’re not brothers in this, just like we always have been in everything.”

Hercules tried to speak, but his voice faltered. Tried to meet his friend’s intently burning blue eyes, but could not.

“C’mon Herc -“ Iolaus challenged, his voice breaking with the intensity of his feeling. “Tell me this doesn’t concern me!”

Hercules sighed, his plan in ruins. “Of course I can’t tell you that,” he whispered, roughly. “And of course, it concerns you, because we’re brothers, back-to-back. Always.”

The demigod was able to raise his head and meet his friend’s eyes now, and found Iolaus’ naked heart there. “But … you know I had to try to keep you safe,” he said, his voice ragged with fear. “Under the circumstances, I don’t know if I can. And you know how that makes me feel.”

That same old nightmare again, Iolaus remembered, from their youth. “I know. But safety is relative, Herc. We’re better together than not, Herc,” Iolaus said, with bedrock conviction. “ ‘Cause we’re brothers.”

Hercules gathered Iolaus in a quick one-armed hug. “Feeling’s mutual, brother,” he said, quietly, fervently.

Iolaus’ arm twined around the big man’s waist and hugged him back, then looked up at him, his intensity melting into understanding.

“Good. So - what are we waiting for?” he asked innocently.

Hercules smiled slightly, with another squeeze of Iolaus’ broad shoulders. “Nothing else - let’s go!”

“Together!” Iolaus added, as they moved off.

“Of course - why wouldn’t we be?” The demigod acted puzzled

Iolaus pulled away from Hercules and punched him in the arm.

“Ow! What was that for?” Hercules asked with a grimace and a grin.

“That’s what you get for thinking! Now let’s go get your mother!”

Dawn was breaking as Demetrius pulled the wagon to a halt in front of am arched cave entrance. He leapt from the driver’s seat and secured the horses. The riders halted their horses nearby and dismounted. The tall man stepped around behind the wagon and began untying Alcmene.

“Nervous?” He asked her, feeling her eyes on him.

“Should I be?” she replied, frostily.

With his smirking grin, Demetrius answered, “If I were you, I’d be scared to death!”

Alcmene’s regal chin rose defiantly. “Is that what you want, Demetrius? Would that make you feel like you’d scored some kind of victory over me?”

Her strong defiance wiped again wiped away his smile. To the Archers, he commanded, curtly, “Get her out of the wagon!”

Most of the Archers strode to the back of the wagon and began pulling Hercules’ mother out roughly.

Alcmene resisted effectively. “Keep your hands off me!”

“Carefully!” the Chief Archer warned. “Don’t hurt her - unless you want to take her place in front of Echidna!”

Alcmene, dropped to her feet forcefully, shook their hands off. “I think you should all die!” she spat.

Demetrius stepped closer to her. “They’re going to be outside standing watch.” He stated, running a gloved finger down her face. “Unfortunately, you’re going to be the only one dying, my dear.”

He briefly contemplated the waste of her beauty, but his thoughts were jolted away by her hand slapping his away from her face. His face twisted by a cruel smile, Demetrius grabbed her arm and twisted it behind her.

“Inside!” he ordered, and pushed her in through the tall doorway. With another push from behind, he caused her to trip over the litter of stones and bones covering the floor.

Alcmene glimpsed movement and heard growling and hissing in front of her as she began to push herself up. As her head lifted, she caught sight of the hideous Mother of All Monsters. Her eyes widened as her head tilted back, regarding the tall, scaled figure, as Echidna turned toward her and extended her tentacles.

“Welcome to the end of your life!” the hideous creature called.

Alcmene could only stare at the creature in horror and amazement…

Helios’ chariot was just above the horizon as Hercules and Iolaus made their way stealthily through the underbrush toward Echidna’s cave. They knelt side-by-side, peering through the bushes toward the entrance where the six Archers stood or sat.

“Welcoming committee,” Hercules observed.

Iolaus nodded, pointing. “Your Mother must be in that cave --”

“With Echidna,” Hercules growled, grimly.

“And Demetrius.” Iolaus’ tone matched his friend’s.

“We gotta get past those Archers.”

“Any ideas?”

Hercules surveyed the scene, noting the crossbows strewn on the ground, where the complacent minions of Hera had dropped them. He had a sudden memory of his friend and half-brother Hephaestus talking about the bows he was making for servants of Hera, and the particular powers he was placing on them.

A slow smile came to Hercules face. Iolaus knew that smile, and as Hercules glanced at him, he returned the smile with anticipation …

Back in the cave, Echidna roared, “Did it hurt you when you saw your son die? Did your heart crumble?”

Alcmene rose from the floor and stared at Echidna in regal challenge. “I’m not going to give you the satisfaction of seeing me cry!” she replied, bitingly. “Just kill me and get it over with!”

Demetrius, lurking behind, leaned against a rock and sipped wine from the flask from Alcmene’s basket. He leered at the sight of the tiny woman trying to stand against the female monster, and began to weave plans for his future as the infamous slayer of Hercules.

Echidna snarled, “You don’t get off so easily after raising a killer!”

“Hercules is no killer!” Alcmene flung back.

“Yes, he was!” Echidna hissed, triumphantly. “He killed my children! He killed them one after the other. No mother should have to endure that!”

Alcmene stepped forward, careless in her hopelessness and passion to defend her child. “Your children were monsters - just like you! They murdered and maimed for any god corrupt enough to use them. And now Demetrius has used you to help murder my son!”

“Liar!” screamed Echidna, snapping her poisonous tentacle at Alcmene. The woman ducked quickly with a sharp cry. Behind her, the snapping limb broke the top from a tall stalagmite with a rumbling crash.

The cacophony of screaming and crashing broke upon expectant ears outside the cave entrance. The waiting Archers exchanged satisfied glances.

The Chief Archer, who had been polishing her sword, nodded with a wicked smile. “It sounds like our mission is complete,” she gloated.

All at once, their horses startled, reared, and began to race away.

“The horses!” the chief Archer shouted. “Come on!”

Four of the Archers followed their leader running after their mounts. Suddenly, Hercules appeared out of the trees in front of them, holding his walking staff as a weapon.

The Archers, stunned and incredulous, skidded to a stop. With a feral smile, Hercules said, “Oh, it’s me all right!”

“Then you must die again!” the Chief Archer cried.

“Can’t you get it through your head?” Hercules replied. “I didn’t die the first time!”

There was a crashing behind the minions of Hera. They whirled to see Iolaus leap out of the underbrush near the cave entrance where their crossbows lay.

The golden hunter swept his knife from its sheath and brandished it like a promise of justice. “Maybe she’s not too bright?” he queried Hercules. He bent and caught up the closest crossbow and held the blade to the bowstring.

The Archers abruptly realized their danger. “The bows - get them!” their Chief screamed. The other four began running towards Iolaus, but it was much too late.

With a rapid snap of his wrist, Iolaus slit the string of the bow he held. With a sparkling flash and a fading cry, one of the racing Archers vanished. Iolaus dropped the ruined bow and leaped to the next, swooping with quick motion to sever that bowstring. Another Archer followed her sister into oblivion with a swallowed scream.

Iolaus dispatched the final two Archers in rapid succession, both disappearing in motes of silver fire. He looked up to see the Chief Archer watching with impotent hatred. She whirled on Hercules with a growling cry, swept her sword double-handed above her head, and brought it slicing down on him.

Hercules swung his walking staff up and caught the blade on it, just as Iolaus, dashing for the leader’s bow, caught it up and chopped the string in half.

The Chief Archer vanished with a wail and a scintillation of silver. Hercules almost fell forward as the force of her sword disappeared. He caught himself, and held his breath as the hitching movement sent a knife-sharp bolt of pain through his right side.

Iolaus watched as Hercules recovered and ran raggedly down the hill to meet him at the entrance. He observed the sweat-slicked pallor and heaving breaths of his friend worriedly, but commented instead on the swift destruction of their enemies.

“We owe a lot to Hephaestus telling you the secret of the Archer’s power!” He caught Hercules as the weary demigod lurched to a stop before him. The words gathered on his lips to beg Hercules not to go in the cave- at least not until he should catch his breath and gather the shreds of his strength.

His words dissolved unspoken as several screams, both human and non-human echoed from inside the cave.

“I’ve GOT to get in there!” Hercules cried, and Iolaus nodded. “GO!” he said.

Suddenly a shrieking whistle of an incoming dart alerted Hercules’ recovering superhuman senses. He pushed Iolaus down, while dodging and reaching out to catch a gleaming crossbow bolt that could have struck either of them.

The two men looked up to the edge of the woods to see the last remaining Archer who must have been set to sentry duty. She watched them with rage and hatred as she swiftly reached back to her quiver for another bolt.

The cries from within sounded even more insistently. Hercules, pulled between needs, flung the bolt rocketing back toward the Archer. The missile pinned the Archer’s arm to the tree just behind her.

“Iolaus!” he called, entreaty and command combined.

“I’ll take care of her - GO!” Iolaus ordered. Hercules spun to comply, but Iolaus voice briefly halted him. “Herc?”

The demigod threw a quick glance over his shoulder.

“Be careful!”

“You too!” Hercules replied, back-stepping into the cave entrance. “Take care of her and bring the arrows!”

Iolaus nodded, and took off running toward the struggling Archer. As Iolaus neared her, the servant of Hera freed her arm and paused to glance up at him with a cry of victory.

Her pause to gloat was her undoing, however. Iolaus knew he could not reach her before she could sweep an arrow into place, and could see no cover to shield himself from the arrow she would send his way.

Quicker than thought, the swift hunter pulled his knife from his boot as he ran and flung it with all his strength and practiced eye. The knife sang through the air between them, sliced the bowstring, and clattered to the rocky earth, even as the last of Hera’s Archers keened into dazzling nothingness …

Hercules staggered into the larger vault of the cave from the short entrance corridor. The sight that met his eyes brought a feral snarl to his face.

Demetrius stood with his back to the entrance, casually sipping from a goblet, while the twelve-foot tall figure of Echidna stood holding Alcmene up off the floor in one of her larger tentacles while her other appendages writhed around her angrily. Alcmene cried out, struggling in the monster’s grasp, as Hercules stepped forward.

“Put her down!” he roared.

The reaction was immediate and radical for his three hearers. Alcmene’s face lifted, transformed into radiant relief and joy as she shouted her son’s name. Demetrius dropped his goblet, which shattered with a loud crash, and whirled furiously. Echidna turned to look over her shoulder and echoed Alcmene, but in a voice of rage.

“Hercules! Why isn’t he dead?”

Hercules smiled grimly. “Bad Archers!” he answered.

Alcmene added, joyfully, “Good genes!”

Demetrius swept his sword from its scabbard, and faced Hercules with anger contorting his features. Hercules hefted his wooden staff and regarded the shorter man as though he was pond scum.

In a deep voice of cold fury, Hercules addressed Demetrius, “No one takes advantage of my Mother!”

Demetrius twirled his sword skillfully, and laughed as he watched the son of Zeus stagger towards him. “Perhaps not under normal circumstances, Hercules, but between the blood you’ve lost and the dark power of the Archer’s arrow in your veins, I’ll take my chances!”

On the last words, Demetrius whirled and slashed his sword in a powerful arc at Hercules’ head. Alcmene, seeing him weaker and slower than she could ever remember, shouted, “Hercules - be careful!”

Hercules ducked the flashing blade, and came up swinging the staff. Despite his weakness, his strength was still so much greater than mortal that the blow knocked Demetrius off his feet and flying ten feet into the cave wall. The mercenary fell in a boneless heap on the floor.

But the mighty effort drove Hercules to his knees, winded and gasping. The pain in his side was like a sharp knife stabbing into his lungs and gut. Echidna’s disappointed screeching kept him conscious out of fear for his mother. Slowly, slowly, he pushed himself up using the staff as a lever, blackness dancing around the edges of his sight.

Gaining his feet, Hercules caught several breaths and pushed the blackness back savagely. Leaning heavily on the staff, he stepped further into the cave to stand defiantly in front of Echidna.

“I said - put her down!” Hercules flung at the Mother of all Monsters.

Echidna’s tentacles boiled like a mass of sea snakes. “I think I’ll kill you both at once!” she screamed.

She felled Hercules with a superhuman blow, and simultaneously tightened her grasp on her other victim so much that Alcmene cried out with pain. One of the writhing limbs coiled around Hercules’ ankle and began pulling him forward towards her.

Suddenly, the tentacle with the glowing tip lashed toward Hercules, but the demigod blocked it reflexively with his staff. The Chaos power of the appendage snapped the strong ash into two pieces like a matchstick, and Echidna retracted the limb rapidly for a killing strike with a shriek of triumph.

Before she could realize her victory, however, Hercules sat forward and stabbed the sharply fractured end of one of the pieces into the tentacle that held his ankle. The stake severed the limb with a spurt of black blood.

Hercules scrambled up as Echidna pulled back her maimed appendage, screaming in pain and rage. The tentacle holding Alcmene loosened; she dropped a short distance to the ground, caught herself with one hand as she landed, and then ran to Hercules’ side.

Echidna, her whole focus now on Hercules, lashed blow after blow at him, which he parried desperately with the end of the staff.

Alcmene reached Hercules and had to touch him. He reached out to her, his eyes never leaving his battle with the flailing tentacles.

“Mother - run!” he shouted, pressing her behind him.

Alcmene watched him fight, gasping and sweating, with desperate fear for him. “I can’t leave you!”

“You’ve got to! Now, run!”

Alcmene backed up several paces, but still could not bring herself to abandon her son. Hercules glanced back and glimpsed Alcmene’s position. Anxious to divert Echidna’s attention from her, he began to move around behind the monster as he dodged and parried her blows.

“Come on, Echidna - it’s me you want!” he yelled.

He was glad when the monstrous being followed him, swiveling on her lower tentacles sinuously.

“Have it your way!” she cried. “You’ll die first!”

With several staggering blows to the shattered staff, Echidna swept the weapon from Hercules’ grasp and broke it into bits. As the tentacle lunged for him, Hercules caught it, and pulled twisting with all his might.

Alcmene looked up to see Echidna’s snakelike head wavering between Hercules and herself. Realizing that she might still be a distraction, she turned and ran, but Echidna’s voice boomed behind her.

“You’re not getting away!”

Suddenly a tentacle wrapped tightly around Alcmene’s ankle and jerked, knocked her down prone on belly and chest, and dragged her back towards the creature of Chaos.

“Mother!” Hercules cried out.

Alcmene felt stone scrape along one side of her body, and realized she was being pulled past one of the stalagmites that rose from the cave’s rocky floor. She reached out desperately, caught hold of the rocky prominence and held on.

Hercules - darting his attention between Echidna and his Mother’s position - tugged and twisted with renewed force as fear for Alcmene poured renewed adrenalin into his veins.

Suddenly, a shadow loomed over her, and Alcmene looked up into the rage-darkened face of Demetrius.

“You’re not going anywhere - ‘Mother’!” he said, scornfully.

He lifted a booted leg and pushed forcefully at the stalagmite. Abruptly, with a resounding crack, the rock broke at the base, and the stalagmite crumbled. Alcmene released the broken piece of stone with a cry, and was again pulled forward.

Echidna laughed mirthlessly. “Right back where you started!” she shouted. “You both die!”

Demetrius, standing and watching, joined her laughter. However, over the noise of Echidna’s cries and the grating of her tentacles on the stone floor, he had not heard Iolaus enter the cave holding sword and arrows and creep up behind him.

Echidna’s words still echoed as Iolaus shouted, “Wrong!” and brought the pommel of his sword down on the head of the gloating mercenary.

Demetrius fell heavily as Iolaus leaped to Alcmene’s aid, calling the name that he had used as a child for his “other mother”.

“Mena!” He dropped the arrows and caught Alcmene around the waist and pulled her up, but the tentacle wrapped around her foot held grimly. Hercules saw him, however, and abruptly lunged forward, pushing forward with the tentacle he held.

Echidna, caught off balance, tilted and had to catch herself with flailing appendages. The limb holding Hercules’ mother loosened, and Iolaus pulled her away. He caught her in a quick hug, and Alcmene embraced him with relief and joy.

“Iolaus - get her out of here!” Hercules shouted, his own relief dizzying.

Iolaus pushed Alcmene ahead of him and turned, looking for Hercules. The demigod saw him and shouted, “Go on! I’ll be all right!”

Iolaus gave a tight nod, whirled back to Alcmene and grabbed her arm. They started running for the entrance, dodging around another stalagmite.

Suddenly, Demetrius loomed up out of the shadows in Iolaus’ path. The golden hunter pushed Alcmene forward, out of his path.

“You’re not going anywhere!” the mercenary spat, brandishing his sword. “You’ll have to pass me first, you little runt!”

“Details!” Iolaus snapped, his eyes blue fire. He lunged at Demetrius, his sword flashing through such a rapid series of strikes that the larger man was pressed back steadily, his breath gasping as he struggled to parry them.

Alcmene’s fearful gaze darted from Iolaus’ battle just in time to see Hercules caught around the neck by another of Echidna’s long lower tentacles. She was horrified to see her son lifted off the ground and well above the floor, struggling and striking at the limb with fists and feet, but to no avail.

“Hercules!” she cried, her hands going to her mouth.

Iolaus heard her horrified call, and his heart lurched. He struck the sword from Demetrius’ hand and kicked him hard in the stomach. The mercenary’s breath left his lungs in a rush and he doubled over. Iolaus leaped into a scissor kick and struck Demetrius’ jaw with a definite crack.

Demetrius fell, wheezing for breath, but Iolaus whirled to see what was happening with Hercules. Despite his absolute trust in his friend’s strength and wits, watching Hercules flung about in mid-air from the strangling tentacle made him catch his breath with sudden fear.

The demigod met his eyes. “Iolaus! The arrows!” he choked out.

Iolaus spun around, spotted the crossbow bolts, and ran to get them. But Demetrius staggered forward and slashed his blade at the hunter’s face. Iolaus dodged, blocked the blow, and, as the mercenary stepped off-balance, kicked him in the thigh and struck him with a hard elbow to the face.

Demetrius fell, and Iolaus left him there, turning to locate the arrows again.

“Where are they?” he muttered, fear for his friend making his search harder. He caught sight of the arrows and leaped towards them. But just as he swooped down to grab them, Demetrius stepped behind him and struck him with the pommel of his sword, and Iolaus fell heavily.

The mercenary’s gaze was now on Hercules, being swung closer by Echidna’s waving tentacle. He stepped forward as Echidna brought him closer, and laughed at the demigod’s seeming helplessness.

“Now - it’s you and me, Hercules!” he cried, exultantly, and raised his sword high for a powerful, killing blow.

Hercules watched as Demetrius lunged, and swung hard to his right, just as the blow came forward. His sudden, strong movement jerked Echidna’s large tentacle right into the path of sword. The sharp metal bit into scales, muscles, and bone, shearing through them with all of the mercenary’s strength.

Abruptly, the limb was severed in a fountain of black blood. Echidna screamed with the searing pain, pulling the bloody stump back. Hercules fell and dodged the worst of the spray. He tugged the severed portion from his neck, dropping it quickly and dancing back out of the way.

Demetrius stood gaping, as though completely stunned by the rapid reversal of events. Echidna’s screaming alerted him to his danger, but he was not quick enough.

The largest lower tentacle came soaring toward him and struck the mercenary with the force of a tidal wave. Demetrius was knocked flying backward, crashed into the floor with bone-breaking force, and struck his head on a large, sharp rock. The resounding crack of fracturing bone made it clear that Demetrius would not be getting up.

Iolaus rose from the floor, and said, savagely, “Damn - I wanted to do that!” He caught up the arrows and turned to look for Hercules.

“Look what you made me do!” Echidna screamed at Hercules. The demigod gathered himself and started running toward the monstrous creature. He dodged her thrashing limbs and leaped into the flying kick that Iolaus had taught him so long ago.

Hercules’ booted feet struck Echidna with the force of his momentum and his not inconsiderable weight. The serpentine body flew backward and impacted with the cave wall between two pillars of rock.

Hercules turned back with a quickly commanding, “Iolaus!” just as his friend stepped forward and shouted, “Herc!” and tossed the quiver of shining arrows.

Iolaus stepped back and pulled Alcmene with him. He wasn’t sure what Hercules was going to do, but he knew it could be drastic and deadly, because he had seen the look on Hercules’ face only a handful of times in their lives. This son of Zeus had always had his rage under firm control, but the threat of harm to anyone he loved ripped that control away, and made him powerfully dangerous.

Hercules began throwing arrow after arrow with a strength and a skill that Iolaus had never seen him equal in all the contests of his life. Each of the bolts struck one of Echidna’s upper tentacles and pinned it to the slabs of rock on either side of her. The Mother of all Monsters keened with anguish and fury with every blow.

When she was completely pinned, Hercules turned slightly, and Iolaus thought it must be over. With everything he knew about his friend, Iolaus knew that Hercules never killed where he could incapacitate or divert a danger. But the demigod, his face in a snarling mask of fury, caught up Demetrius’ dropped sword and turned back to the screaming, flailing monster.

Iolaus caught his breath as Hercules leaned back, the sword in a throwing position, and the hunter knew it was aimed directly at Echidna’s heart.

Suddenly, Alcmene pulled away from his side and ran toward Hercules, crying, “No, Hercules - don’t!” She caught at his arm and held on.

The son of Zeus was much more his father’s son at that moment, and much less his mother’s. He shook her off and growled through clenched, white teeth, “If she’d had her way we’d both be dead!” He hefted the sword, and his great muscles tensed to throw it.

“It’s over now!” Alcmene said, passionately, catching his arm again. “We’re not monsters! We’re not instruments of death and destruction! We’re human beings! Besides --”

Alcmene looked up at Echidna, whose cries had lessened and quieted as Hercules’ mother had spoken, and now regarded her with a mixture of pain, anger and bewilderment.

“Now I know how she felt when her children died!” Alcmene continued, earnestly. “She felt the same way I did when I thought you were dead!”

Hercules growled again, now in frustrated fury. “Mother - she tried to kill you!”

Alcmene turned to him, entreaty in her beautiful azure eyes. “Hercules, Demetrius used her as much as he used me!”

Echidna looked down at them, and now bewilderment filled her snakelike gaze.

Hercules felt some of the bloodlust draining, but his anger was unabated. “What do you expect me to do?” he said, his gaze still not wavering from the monstrous form. “I can’t leave her free to kill more people.”

“I know you can’t,” Alcmene replied, holding his arm closer. “I’m just asking you to find a better way to stop her than by death!”

Hercules was still furious and uncertain. He turned to look at his mother, and caught sight of Iolaus behind him. He could feel that his friend was just as angry, just as conflicted about Alcmene’s pleas as he was.

Iolaus gritted his teeth, furious that anyone who had anything to do with Hercules or Alcmene being hurt might get away too easily. But he held his tongue, ready to let Hercules make the decision, and equally ready to back him up in any way.

Alcmene sensed their anger and ambivalence. She held his arm, but reached up to turn his face to hers, and twined her hand in his brandy-colored hair.

“Please, Hercules!” she begged. “For me!”

Hercules looked down at her, and felt the last of the killing rage drain away. He heard the justice in her words, but also knew he had a responsibility to keep her safe - to keep everyone safe. He glanced around, and an idea dawned.

“All right, Mother - all right,” Hercules said, with a deep sigh, lowering his arms and dropping the sword. “I won’t kill her.”

He looked at Iolaus and pushed Alcmene gently toward him. “Iolaus - take Mother outside and wait for me.”

Both his mother and his brother in blood looked at him doubtfully, with protests rising to their lips. Hercules raised his hands and said, “Trust me, okay? I’m not going to release her, but I won’t kill her.” To Iolaus he said, “Go on, Iolaus, please! I’ll be out in a minute.”

Reluctantly, Iolaus took Alcmene’s arm. “A minute - maybe two - I’ll wait,” he promised, his deliberate voice and serious gaze making it clear that he would return if it took longer. He turned and followed Alcmene out of the cave. Hercules turned to look at the now quiescent Echidna.

“So - will you kill me now that she is gone?” she asked.

Hercules shook his head. “Not because I don’t want to,” he replied, his voice as hard as stone, “but because she asks it.”

He sighed, and met the Monster’s stunned gaze. “Whatever you think of me from now on doesn’t matter. You never gave me a chance to tell you why I killed your children. Maybe you should think about what my mother said -- about how Demetrius used you, and think about how others may have used your children.”

Echidna cried out again, briefly, but Hercules could tell she was listening.

He went on, with an underlying fierceness. “But when you think of my mother, you should remember that she felt a kinship with you, as a mother, and it was her plea for mercy that saved you. Don’t come after her or any of my friends again!”

“What will you do?” she asked, as he turned to go.

“Keep you here with your thoughts - perhaps you may come to think differently,” he answered. He strode to the doorway of the large cavern as it narrowed into the smaller entrance corridor and began to strike the walls…

Alcmene and Iolaus, waiting outside, were both on pins and needles, not knowing what Hercules would do.

“Iolaus, what do you think?” Alcmene asked, quietly, worriedly.

Iolaus shrugged. “About your sense of mercy, or Herc’s sense of justice?”

She just nodded, and he smiled briefly. “Mercy always brings another chance,” he answered, with uncharacteristic pensiveness. “As one person who benefited from your mercy and love, how can I begrudge it to someone else - even Echidna?”

She smiled at him and patted his strong bicep that she held, but waited to hear what else he would say.

“And Herc? He never goes back on his word, and he’s the closest thing to real justice this world knows.” Iolaus glance up at the cave, just as a rumbling sound began inside it. “I only hope he’ll be safe delivering it.”

They watched, anxiously, as the rumbling grew louder and stones and rubble began falling around the cave entrance. The sounds escalated and the rock dust billowed from the dark doorway.

Iolaus had taken a step forward, when Hercules stumbled out of the cave entrance, and half-ran, half-staggered toward them. A wave of falling stones and dust filled the cave entrance, and slowly the rumbling died away.

Alcmene and Iolaus caught him gratefully as they met. Turning so they all regarded the blocked cave, Alcmene asked, “Will she be able to get out of there?”

Hercules shrugged, panting hard. Iolaus shook his head and answered for him. “With Echidna, you never know.”

Alcmene looked at Hercules, and reached up to brush the rock dust from his pale face. “I hope you understand why I couldn’t have watched her die.”

Hercules smiled at her briefly. “Mother, I do understand. I think - in a while, maybe - I’ll be glad you stopped me.”

Both Iolaus and Alcmene suddenly noticed that Hercules’ pallor was not just from the rock dust. The demigod caught at his side suddenly with one hand, and Iolaus’ shoulder with another.

“Hercules - are you all right?” Alcmene asked, catching hold of him as well.

“I’m fine - I’m fine,” Hercules said, slowly, as he felt the brief burst of adrenalin energy begin to wane. “Just a - a bit tired.”

But then he realized that everything - even the pain - was following the adrenalin, draining into a deep weakness that was at first just very light, and then very dark.

“Herc?!” Iolaus cried, as Hercules weight sank more heavily onto him.

“Well, at least - I thought I was fine…”

He suddenly sank into oblivion as he heard their voices calling his name …

It was dark, but the full moon and a host of lanterns illuminated the garden with golden brilliance. Hercules stood near the doorway and looked out. It was a beautiful night for the Mid-summer feast, and everything was done.

“There, that should do it,” Capanius stated, placing the bowl of beans on the table.

“Yeah, look at that, huh?” Iolaus agreed, elbowing Jason. “Who said we couldn’t cook, right?”

Jason answered, with a sad sigh, “There’s only one thing missing.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know already,” Iolaus replied, wearily. “We’ve heard it enough! You mean --”

Suddenly, Alcmene walked out of the house, beautifully dressed and carrying a platter full of lightly browned meat pasties. She set the platter down and took her place at the head of the table.

Jason cried, “Fish-and-feta popovers! Hurrah, Alcmene!”

Alcmene looked at Jason archly. “Lilith made them - I didn’t know how.”

“What a pal!” Jason said, taking a seat across from Iolaus near the foot of the table.

Hercules squared his shoulders, stepped out of the doorway, and walked to his usual seat on Alcmene’s left, but Capanius had just reached it. He felt Iolaus’ eyes on him from his place across from Jason, and knew his older friend was wondering if their earlier talk had paid off.

And it had. Hercules cringed inwardly when he realized how his behavior had appeared to Iolaus, who would have given a lot to have the love, care, and stability that Hercules had always known at home.

He stopped, glanced up at Capanius and down at Alcmene, then waved the older man to the chair beside his mother. Then Hercules walked down to the chair at the foot of the table, quickly pressing Iolaus’ shoulder as he passed.

“Well, everything smells wonderful!” Hercules said, with a smile, as he sat down.

Iolaus glanced around. “So - where is Lilith anyway?”

Alcmene smiled. “Oh, she’s coming.”

At that moment, Lilith stepped through the beads that covered the doorway, and said, brightly, “Here I am!”

She paused a moment, taken aback at the looks from her fellow cadets. All three did double takes, and appeared stunned.

She wore a long, flowing chiton that was embroidered with flowers, and appeared very different from the cadet with whom the three guys were accustomed to sparring, racing, and studying.

Lilith, wondering if she still had dirt on her nose, or some other non-girlish faux pas, asked, “What? What are you guys staring at?”

Iolaus stuttered, “Nothing - uh, well - really - You! You’re a girl!”

Alcmene laughed at their expressions, and turned to smile at the girl, as if to say, this is as it should be.

Lilith smiled, hesitantly. “Alcmene lent me this dress.”

“You look great,” Jason replied.

Lilith blushed and dropped her gaze. “Uh, can we just eat?” and she walked with a happy self-consciousness to her seat on Alcmene’s right.

Glancing around the table, Alcmene stated, “Oh - I forgot the bread! I’ll be right back.”

She rose and walked back into the house. Hercules watched her for a brief second, then resolutely got up to follow her. Iolaus watched him go with a bit of trepidation. He held his breath, hoping Hercules would get it right this time.

In the house, Alcmene was arranging the bread in a basket when Hercules came in. She looked up questioningly as her son entered.

“Hi,” Hercules said, awkwardly, as he walked over to her and stood, edging from foot to foot. “Well, I … I haven’t been very … um … understanding about things lately.”

Alcmene gave a ghost of a smile. “No, Hercules, you haven’t.”

Hercules looked down and caught a quick breath. “The thing is - I just want what’s best for you, y’know --” he glanced up and met her eyes briefly. “And you’re the best judge of that - I realize that.”

Hercules’ blue eyes, so like his mother’s, fell from her warming gaze guiltily, earnestly. “What I’m trying to say is - whatever makes you happy, makes me happy - okay?”

Alcmene reached up and placed her hand on Hercules broad shoulder. “Thank you, son.”

Hercules smiled, and took the basket from her. He gestured her out of the door before him. They came out, and the guests tried to look anywhere but at them - most of them anyway.

Iolaus glanced up at Hercules as he passed with an expectant look. When Hercules smiled and nodded, the golden-haired cadet returned the smile and the nod.

Hercules seated himself. He noticed Iolaus’ attention diverted by Alcmene, who asked, “Iolaus, would you like some asparagus?”

“No,” Iolaus replied automatically. There was a thump under the table and Hercules saw Jason watching Iolaus intently.

“Uh - Yes, Mena, I would love some asparagus,” he blurted, with a burning look as the Prince of Corinth. He took the bowl from her. “Thank you - some wonderful asparagus,” he continued as he carefully placed three pieces of the vegetable on his plate.

Well, that’s a first, Hercules thought. I’ve never seen Iolaus eat asparagus before. He could see that his Mother was equally amazed. Glancing across the table, Hercules saw Jason hide a smile, and wondered how the Prince had bamboozled Iolaus to make him eat a vegetable he hated.

Hercules smiled as an air of expectancy grew. He rose to his feet and said, “I’d like to propose a toast.”

The others turned to him and waited, smiling hopefully. He raised his glass and said, “To the boys for helping prepare this wonderful dinner!”

Jason grinned and Iolaus raised his glass to his fellow cook.

Hercules continued. “And to the ladies for bringing home the bacon. “ He lifted his glass, looking down the table to Lilith and Alcmene who smiled back.

“And to whatever - or whoever --” Here Hercules’ glance included Alcmene and Capanius “ - makes you happy!”

Capanius smiled at him and raised his glass in acknowledgement, while Alcmene beamed at him.

“And to Lilith …” He paused for a second. “Wow!”

They all laughed, and their glasses met in the toast. “Here, here!” the guys cried, in response.

“Let’s eat, all right?” Hercules urged as he sat …

And suddenly he realized that the darkness was becoming light, and lighter still.

And with that sensation also came sound. At first he thought it was the sound of sawing off in the distance, but then he realized it was much closer.

And then there was feeling and touch. There was a sudden uncomfortable awareness of a sharp ache in his lower right side, and it seemed very important that he should remember why it was there. But there was also another touch, a gentle weight on his left shoulder that was warm and living.

And finally there was sight, as his eyes slowly blinked open - the sight of the stars painted on the ceiling of his old room, with long fingers of morning light arrowing in through the windows. Wondering why he was there, he slowly let his gaze wander over his room, and it finally rested on a bright golden head pillowed on the bed beside him.

It was Iolaus, sound asleep, seated in a chair beside the bed, snoring softly, his face toward Hercules. The son of Zeus then knew where the sound of sawing had come from. He realized that the warm weight on his own bare right shoulder was his friend’s left hand - as though placed to stay connected and check his breathing. Iolaus’ right arm was curled under his head, and Hercules winced at the position of that arm and his friend’s back.

Something about seeing Iolaus when he woke up in his room seemed familiar, and suddenly -

--suddenly everything came flooding back. At first he wondered if it all had been a dream, and if they actually had faced Echidna, or if that was yet to be - if he was only just waking from the injury from Hera’s Archers.

But then he caught sight of Demetrius’ sword propped in the corner, and the bruise on Iolaus’ forehead that the mercenary had delivered in their fight, and he knew his mental images were memories, not dreams.

He moved his arm from where it lay on his chest and lightly touched Iolaus’ bruise, then gently, still weakly, laid his hand on the bright hair.

“Iolaus?” he tried to whisper, and was a bit surprised when no sound came from his mouth. Again he tried with better results, “Iolaus!”

There was no response, so Hercules tried once more to rouse his friend, ruffling the tousled curls and saying his name louder.

There was a stir beneath his hand, and the blond head lifted slightly, though the thick, long eyelashes did not lift.

“S’okay, Herc,” he mumbled. “Be home soon. You’ll feel better then.”

And the sleepy head dropped back to the curled arm, and the deep breathing began again, a bit quieter this time.

There were soft footsteps on the rush-strewn stone floor, and he looked up from Iolaus’ face to the face of his Mother. She smiled happily, and sat down on his right side, checking his bandage and pulling the coverlet back up gently.

“Don’t wake him,” she said, quietly, gesturing to Iolaus. “He’s exhausted, poor dear.”

Hercules looked down at his friend, and stroked the bright hair. “I don’t think I can,” he said, with a small smile. “I called him, but he’s not ready to wake up yet.”

Alcmene smiled warmly, her gaze resting on the sleeping man. “He wore himself out getting you and me back home.” She dipped a cloth in a waiting basin of cool water and herbs, and bathed Hercules face gently.

“I don’t doubt it,” Hercules replied, as she finished. “He must have already been drained by the time the battle with Echidna was over. He hadn’t slept at all from the time I was injured or throughout our journey to Dronos. He made me rest, and nap, but he stayed on watch, in case the Archers had any rearguards.”

He glanced down at Iolaus. “How did we get back home? I don’t remember anything after blocking Echidna’s cave entrance.

Alcmene nodded, as she put the cloth and basin aside. “We were both exhausted when you lost consciousness, but Iolaus pushed his fatigue aside and took charge. I suggested trying to find some help around the area, but he knew that the fear of Echidna had driven off most of the inhabitants, so he said getting back to Thebes was our best choice.”

She looked back at Hercules, and caught his hand. “Luckily, Demetrius’ wagon was still there, and he got you in it by backing the wagon up to a slight hill and dragging you into the wagon from the hill. He got us settled, and drove home. He stopped near dark by a thick bed of ferns, and made us a better bed in the back, so the wagon’s jolting wouldn’t be so bad. He drove all night, slowly, so the horse could do it.”

Alcmene’s loving gaze returned to Iolaus. “He was so afraid for you, but he knew I was, too, so he kept this amazingly positive attitude for me. When we got home, he helped me get you settled, then rode off for the healer. He knew I was afraid that this injury was greater than my skill.”

Hercules looked down at his sleeping friend’s face, humbled and amazed, as Alcmene continued. “Iolaus found the healer, brought him back, and stayed right here by your side while he worked with you, and for hours afterwards. I was able to get him to go have a quick bath, but he refused to sleep, until he just couldn’t hold his eyes open any longer. When I was certain you were just sleeping deeply last night, and there was no fever, I left him here with you and went to bed, because I knew that this would be the only place he would be able to rest.”

Hercules watched his friend for a few more moments, his hand resting lightly on Iolaus’ shoulder, and his heart in his eyes. After a moment, he looked back at his mother, as she sat quietly watching him.

“I dreamed about Capanius, Mother - do you remember?” Hercules said.

“Capanius!” she echoed, with a quick laugh. “Wherever did that come from? Oh - I see - Demetrius.”

Hercules nodded, and was glad to hear her light-hearted laughter. “I guess this situation brought back those memories. I - I just wanted you to know that I’m sorry that it turned out so badly with him. I know that I must’ve sounded a lot like I did back then with Capanius, but I think - I hope it wasn’t jealousy this time. Maybe it was a - a half-god thing, but I really had a bad feeling from the first time I heard the news of you two.”

Alcmene dimpled mischievously. “Hercules, are you meaning ever so gently to say ‘I told you so’?”

Hercules laughed -- and winced, as his wounded side protested. “No, really, Mother, I’m not - I promise!” he assured her, squeezing her hand for emphasis. “Iolaus talked to me, and I think - I think I would have reconsidered, but then - just meeting the guy … I had this really … uncomfortable feeling about Demetrius --”

Suddenly Iolaus bolted upright, looking around blearily. “Demetrius - where?!” he cried.

As Hercules’ and Alcmene’s laughter penetrated his confusion, Iolaus blinked, and his memories came flowing back.

“Good morning, Iolaus,” Alcmene said, beaming at him.

“Welcome back to the land of the conscious, sleepyhead!” Hercules added. “I was wondering when you’d wake up and stop drooling on my bed.”

Iolaus leaned back, stretching his sore back with many cracking sounds. “Listen to him!” he said to Alcmene, plaintively, though his eyes twinkled merrily. He gestured to Hercules. “Me spending the night right at his bedside and this is the thanks I get!”

“Yeah, you’ll do most anything for one of Mother’s home-cooked breakfasts, won’t you, pal?”

As Iolaus sputtered, Alcmene rose, laughing. “I think I’ll leave you two to your - ah - discussion. I believe that was my cue to start working in the kitchen!” She left the room busily.

“All right, Mena!” Iolaus called after her, gleefully rubbing his hands. “Now, that’s what I’m talking about!”

He looked at Hercules critically. “So - you look a bit better, Herc. How ya feeling?”

“Oh, kinda like I was hit by a magic arrow, ran to Marathon, and fought a giant snake woman,” Hercules replied, airily. “Other than that I’m good!”

Iolaus laughed. “All in a day’s work, Mr. Half-god,” he jibed. “Aren’t you ready to go build your Mother some more walls?”

“Maybe later - after I wrestle you for first dibs on breakfast!” Hercules replied, joining his friend’s laughter.

“Oh, you’re hungry already?” Iolaus asked, with assumed seriousness. “Well, too bad, Herc - Alcmene’s cooking the first course just for me! You’ll just be getting gruel and weak tea!”

“Nah, us half-gods get to skip that stage,” Hercules stated. “I’m feeling so much better I’ll get roast lamb, wine, and baklava!”

Iolaus shook his head. “Such delusional thinking - you must be feverish,” he sighed, and then grinned. “I think you’re feeling so much better just because you were right, and Alcmene and I were wrong.”

“Huh? What’re you talking about?” Hercules laughed, bewildered.

“About Demetrius,” Iolaus explained. “You’re doing better because you feel superior that you pegged Demetrius right, and we didn’t.”

“Well, I did,” Hercules pointed out, reasonably, his crystal-blue eyes dancing. “And I’ve politely avoided saying I told you so.”

“Good thing, too!” Iolaus snorted. “It just barely begins to make up for the way you treated Capanius all those years ago.”

Hercules shook his head. “I was protecting Mother,” he replied, his tone officious, but the laughter still lighting his eyes.

“Oh, is that what you called it?” Iolaus shook his head, grinning. A thread of seriousness entered his voice. “Well, Herc, despite the fact that you were right - this time -- you ought to start getting prepared for the day that some deserving suitor begins to court Alcmene - because it’s going to happen!”

“Yeah, well, I’ll burn that bridge when I come to it,” Hercules replied, a bit truculently, but with a grin.

Iolaus laughed. “Uh huh - here we go again -- that’s just what I’m afraid of!”

Hercules laughed, with him, ruefully, but suddenly the laugh became a gasp, and the demigod put a hand to his wounded side.

Iolaus winced. “Oops, sorry about that,” he said, watching Hercules with just a thread of returning anxiety. “You okay, Herc?”

Hercules glanced at him, and the seriousness of his eyes nearly made Iolaus fly up from his chair to find the healer again.

“Hercules?”

“Relax, Iolaus - I’m fine - really,” Hercules replied, catching Iolaus by the hand and pulling him back into the chair. “In fact, I’m better every minute - and for that - and for my mother being safely back in her own home - I’ve got you to thank, buddy. I couldn’t have made it alone - in fact, I might not’ve made it either, without you!”

Iolaus looked down at their clasped hands. “C’mon, Herc - you’re the one who fought Echidna. I just --”

Hercules squeezed his friend’s hand hard, and brought Iolaus’ eyes up to meet his own. “You just made sure I stayed alive, and made it there, and made it back, that’s all,” he said, fiercely.

Iolaus flushed, grateful but uncomfortable at his friend’s praise. “Yeah, well, you’ve done the same for me, Herc, a thousand times,” he replied quietly. “I’m just glad I could help and that - and that you’re all right.”

Hercules shook Iolaus’ hand back and forth, back and forth, but his eyes held his friend’s intently. “Thanks for that, Iolaus - for Mother’s life, and for mine. Gods, you did so much - ‘thank you’ seems so…so paltry a thing to say for all you’ve done!”

Iolaus shrugged, and his smile was brilliant in his reddened face. “It’s more than I need,” he said. “We’re brothers, Herc - it’s what we do.”

Iolaus paused for a moment, continuing seriously. “And part of that is taking care of each other, you know…”

Hercules, grateful and humble for such a friend, met his friend’s eyes with wonder, but suddenly became aware of an impish light twinkling in their depths.

Iolaus went on, soulfully, “…so I’m gonna make sure Alcmene makes you that nice gruel and weak tea - and I’ll heroically take the roast lamb and wine - oh - and the baklava - just for you!”

In the kitchen, Alcmene had been working happily. She was grateful to be there on a beautiful morning, and grateful beyond words to hear the quiet murmur of the bass and tenor rumble of voices from the other room, and for them all to be safe and healing.

Suddenly, one of those voices was raised in laughing protest, and scuffling sounds went with it.

“Mena!” the plaintiveness of Iolaus’ imploring cry was choked with laughter. “Mena - come quick! Herc is beating me up again!”

Alcmene crossed the large front room, wiping her floured hands on a cloth, laughing as she came. As she entered the room, she found Hercules, grinning and holding Iolaus in a headlock, scraping his knuckles vigorously through the tousled blond curls, while Iolaus struggled and pretended to hit the demigod’s strong arm.

She laughed delightedly, her joy magnified by their recent brush with death and parting, and by the countless versions of this scene, which she had observed over the last thirty-odd years.

“Hercules,” she scolded happily, “Don’t beat up your brother!”

Both men looked up at her so much like the boys she had known, with laughter and healing and love in their bright blue eyes, that Alcmene’s heart could have burst with the joy that filled it.

“Oh, my sons!” she said, and her voice was rich with love. “You make a Mother proud!”

--Finis--

Melisande
April, 2004



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