Crucible of Heroes Part Two: The Golden Fleece

by Ceryndip

Portions of this story originally written for Hercules: the Legendary Journeys by: Andrew Dettmann and Daniel Truly

Iolaus shifted against the rock, looking for a more comfortable position. He, Hercules and Jason had been several days camped at their old fishing hole and they planned to stay for several more. After dealing with some of the more serious aspects to do with their relationships after the death of Hercules’ second wife, the three friends had been able to finally get to the truly relaxing part of their trip. Not that everything was completely okay with Hercules again, that would take time. The hard feelings had been smoothed over and talked out and the three were comfortable with each other’s company again. Iolaus repositioned the end of the fishing pole between his crossed knees and laced his fingers behind his head.

“Now, this is the life; the sun, the water....”

“The lack of fish,” Jason finished for him from his rock a few feet away. “Is it still going to be ‘the life’ when your stomach starts rumbling and there’s nothing but nuts and berries to eat?” As soon as the trio were talked out and ready to get down to serious fishing, the fish, it seemed, had taken the hint and disappeared.

“We’ll catch something before dinner. Have a little faith,” the hunter admonished

“Faith,” Jason repeated. “Well, we’ve always had faith in each other and it’s worked out pretty well for all of us so far. Hasn’t it?” He looked toward Hercules, sitting a few feet away at the water’s edge, dangling his bare feet into the lake.

Hercules nodded, “Things haven’t always worked out the way we planned but they have worked out, somehow.”

Iolaus and Jason traded concerned looks. Their friend was still grieving. He probably would for some time to come. It wasn’t a pain that they could fix but they could still be there for him and support him. That’s why they were out here for a few days.

Jason sat up and stretched before settling back against the boulder. “I don’t think anything turned out quite the way we planned. We sure didn’t turn out to be those three young heroes we envisioned at the Academy, did we?”

Iolaus snorted, “Naive is what we were; young and idealistic. We were gonna save the world from everything.”

“You don’t have limitations when you’re young,” Hercules explained. “A big part of experience is learning where your limits are and how far you can go. That was a hard lesson for me; learning that I couldn’t be everywhere at once, that I couldn’t save everyone.”

“But you’re the mighty Hercules, everyone says so,” Jason quipped trying to lighten the dark mood that had fallen over the conversation.

“Not so mighty,” Hercules replied.

Iolaus had remained quiet during the latter part of the conversation. He knew exactly what Hercules was talking about. He’d always known the price his friend paid for being a hero. Even at the very beginning. “I remember when you first learned that lesson. It was our last great adventure together at the Academy.....”

“Come on, Herc! I’ll race you, loser has to buy dinner!” The blond mop of curls danced backward in the road ahead of his friend.

Hercules shook his head, “Iolaus, you don’t have enough money to feed yourself today.” He never did. All the self-supporting students found extra dinars very hard to come by.

“That’s just temporary until we can get out there and save a few villages and then we get to eat free for the privilege of saving them. They’ll be greatful.”

“The way you eat, you better hope for very grateful. Iolaus be careful, you’re going to step in a hole or something and how great a hero will you be with a broken leg?”

Iolaus danced from side to side in demonstration of his prowess, “I know the road to Kora’s intimately, Herc. I could walk it backwards and blindfolded. I know -- umph!” Iolaus suddenly found himself airborne momentarily before he hit the ground with a very un-hero-like thud.

Hercules grinned at his friend as he stepped over him, “Told ya.” The young demigod offered a hand to the young man who sat stunned on the ground a few feet away. “You okay?”

He looked up, “Oh, yes, I’m fine.” He looked over at Iolaus who had run headlong into him walking backwards. “Sorry, I ran into you. I am in a dreadful hurry. Can you help me? I must find Jason of Corinth. I have a...a message for him. It’s very important.”

Hercules pulled up the messenger and glanced back toward Iolaus who nodded his unspoken agreement. “Come on, we’ll take you to him.”

The two young friends continued to exchange concerned glances whenever their eyes met. They watched as Jason packed up his belongings. He moved slowly and silently. The prince wasn’t sure what to say, he felt like he was in shock. He knew he needed to hurry but at the same time he couldn’t make himself move. Jason fumbled with a tunic and dropped it to the floor. Hercules retrieved it and handed it back placing what he hoped was a comforting hand on his friend’s shoulder. Not knowing his own father, he could only imagine what Jason might be going through.

The young prince acknowledged the gesture with a sad smile before finishing his packing. “I...I’ll leave the rest. I can send someone back for it later.”

Iolaus stepped forward, “Jason, slow down, are you okay?”

He took a slow breath and nodded, “I can’t believe this is happening. If you knew my father...He is...was such a strong man.”

“How bad is he?” Iolaus inquired.

“The message said he’s been unconscious for almost a week now. They’ve tried everything, but he just keeps getting weaker.”

“You’re going to be king, Jason.” Hercules commented neutrally. It wasn’t a question but a statement. He didn’t know how Jason felt about it. When they had discussed it in the past, Jason wasn’t sure he really wanted the throne or the responsibility.

He nodded, “I don’t know if that makes me sad...or excited...or scared.”

The trio turned as a rustling from behind them announced Cheiron’s arrival. The Centaur warrior who was their teacher could move without being heard and often did through the dormitories to keep tabs on his students extracurricular activities but today he was on a much more important visit. The boys moved to allow Cheiron into their circle. The tall centaur placed a hand on Jason’s shoulders, “I’m sorry for the urgency of your leave-taking but you shouldn’t worry, you’re going to do fine. The people of Corinth are lucky to have you.” Cheiron offered his hand and Jason took it as Cheiron continued, “You show them the same kindness and character you’ve shown here, and they’ll be loyal to you forever. I assure you.”

Jason nodded accepting his teacher’s words and their handshake turned into an embrace. “You will look after the messenger?” Jason asked.

“I will. Chef is already preparing him a meal and he’ll have a bed tonight. Travel safely, Jason.” Jason watched as Cheiron turned and left the dormitory. He reflected on the time he had spent at Cheiron’s Academy and all the things he had learned here, not just about fighting and academics but real things about life and how it should be lived. He turned to his friends, “I should go.”

Hercules stepped in front of the young prince, “You know, Jason. I was just thinking - maybe I should go with you.”

“Oh, no, Hercules. I couldn’t ask that of you,” Jason protested.

“You’re not asking. I’m offering. Besides, you may be the new king, and a king needs a bodyguard.”

“And bodyguards always travel in pairs,” Iolaus hastily explained, “You know, since the first one usually screws up! So if he goes, I go!”

Jason regarded his friends with the first smile he felt was genuine since he’d gotten the message about his father. These two despite their knack for trouble, really were his friends. He knew deep in his heart that no matter what, they would stand by him. It didn’t matter to them whether he turned out to be a good king or not. And right now Jason felt like he could use a friend, a couple of them. “It looks like I’ve got me a pair of bodyguards, doesn’t it?”

“Just give me a moment to grab my good frock so my appearance won’t embarrass your majesty once we reach the palace.” Iolaus bowed deeply and Jason gave serious thought to thumping him in the head but thought better of it.

“Alright but be quick about it, knave.”

“Knave? must be talking about you.” Iolaus darted out of Hercules’ reach as the two ran to grab their packs.

The road to Corinth was usually well traveled but this evening there were few others to be seen. Hercules and Iolaus tried to keep things light. They knew their friend was worried about his father and his own future and rightly so but brooding on it wouldn’t help. They would have to deal with whatever happened when they got to Corinth. So they continued their brisk pace with their packs slung over their shoulders.

“So Jason,” Iolaus started with a gleam, “if you do become king, is there a coronation festival?”

Jason shrugged, “I guess so. I never thought about it much. I thought it was not going to happen for a long time yet.”

“And I suppose that you’ll have to think about picking your queen.”

Jason nodded seeing where Iolaus was going, “Providing an heir for peaceful succession is expected but not necessarily right away. Traditionally, I think there is a little ceremony called the ‘Parade of Virgins’.”

“But there’ll be so many girls, and you can only choose one....What happens to the leftovers?”

Jason laughed and threw his arm around the blond’s shoulders, “Don’t worry, Iolaus. I’ll make sure you’re introduced.” The prince made a grab for the blond curls but Iolaus ducked out of the way, grinning. Jason turned to Hercules expecting the demigod to make a smart remark but found him looking thoughtful instead, “You’re being awfully quiet, Herc.”

“Jason, let me ask you something. Do you think you were born to be a king, or raised for it?”

“I’m not really sure what you mean.”

“Well, what do you think is more important? The fact that you have royal blood, or that you grew up with everybody knowing you were the king’s son?

Jason gave it some thought, “Both, I guess. I don’t know. I’m just going to have to pray to the gods that whatever it takes, I’ve got it. Why do you ask?”

“I was just thinking about my father. I’ve never even met him that I know of. You hear about him sneaking around down here pretending to be other people. So maybe I met him and never knew it. He’s king of the gods, not that I would ever follow him to his throne, different situation entirely there, but I just wondered if being the son of a king...”

“Feels any different than anybody else?” Jason guessed. “You’ve known me long enough, you should know by now that I don’t feel any such security. Being king, a good king is a huge responsibility but I don’t feel any different than any other mortal. Now you, you’re the son of a god, maybe that does feel different. Being the son of a king carries a responsibility. What does it mean to be the son of Zeus? Is there a responsibility implied by that birthright that you must shoulder? You’re the only one that can answer that, my friend.”

Traveling at night was always a risky proposition and Jason was glad to have his two bodyguards accompanying him. As the sky darkened the three friends moved closer together with Jason in the middle, that didn’t stop them from being startled for a split second when half a dozen thugs dropped out of the trees squarely on top of them.

Hercules, as always, was the first to react, reaching out to snatch the club away from one of them and properly clunked him over the head with his own weapon. Jason and Iolaus dove at a pair of them driving them to the ground and rolling off them, only to rise kicking and punching at a third man. Hercules in the meantime had dispatched another with a mighty swing of the club. Jason and Iolaus rose as one to find Hercules dangling the final bandit by the scruff of his neck. His feet swinging a foot off the ground.

Jason gave the man a visible once over. His clothes were dirty but not patched or torn. They were made to look dirty. “You’re no bandit. Who sent you?” When no answer was forthcoming, Hercules gave the man a rough shake. Jason repeated his question, “Who sent you?”

“Pelias.”

The single word left Jason dumbstruck, “Pelias? He’s been missing for years, presumed dead since long before I was born.”

“Who’s Pelias?” Iolaus asked glancing at Hercules to see if he knew. The demigod shrugged and shook his head.

“He’s my uncle, my father’s brother. Why would he send you after me?” Jason waved a signal for Hercules to lower the man.

“Pelias rules Corinth in your father’s place. He struts around issuing orders like he’s already king. You are a threat to him.”

“Me? I don’t even know him.” Jason gave the man another appraising glance, “Leave Corinth and take your friends with you. We don’t need or want your kind around my kingdom. Come back and you’ll face my wrath because I will be the king and I promise you, you’ll never see the light of day again.” Jason turned his back on the man and walked up the road.

Dropping the man in a heap in the middle of the road, Hercules and Iolaus ran to catch up with him. “Are you just going to leave them there? Just like that?” Iolaus was astounded.

“Just like that,” Jason nodded. “Do you think they bought it?”

Iolaus traded looks with Hercules, “Herc and I did.”

“Good, now why wouldn’t I be told that my uncle had returned? And more importantly, isn’t it interesting that my father should fall so ill at the same time as his return?”

“You think your uncle had something to do with it?” Hercules asked.

Jason almost laughed, “You don’t? As quickly as he has assumed power even though I am clearly the rightful and sole heir?”

“But he’s your uncle. Shouldn’t you give him the benefit of the doubt.”

“Every family has a few power hungry schemers; royal families, doubly so. Look at your family, Herc, you of all people ought to know how nasty family can get. I don’t know this man but I’m sure not going to hand over my kingdom to him. The timing of his return is just too close for coincidence. Come on.” Jason pivoted and set off down the road again with Iolaus at his side.

Hercules paused and looked around for the men they had just defeated. They had vanished. He glanced toward the woods in time to see a shimmering cloud disappear from sight. The tell-tale sign of a divine being vanishing off to where ever they go after they’ve been spying on the mortals. Hercules sighed knowing this would all be much more complicated than they thought.

The lights burned low in the palace. A steady stream of candle-bearing subjects kept vigil outside. Inside, none dared to disturb the old prince while we was with his brother. Affairs had been tense since Pelias’ return. Several of the servants had commented on how different the two looked. Bets were being taken in the lower levels of the palace that the two men didn’t completely share the same parentage.

The large man leaned forward in his chair. He was studying the pale visage of the man before him in the bed, “You’re not looking well today, Aeson. Not well at all. That’s not going to make your subjects very happy. They’re worried about you, praying for you, holding vigil. It seems that you were very well-liked...” His tone turned mocking, “...Which can only mean you were weak. No king should be liked. Fear is a far better method by which to rule. It’s a pity you won’t see how well it’s working for me.”

A petite, leather-clad goddess shimmered into existence behind her larger relation.

“Discord, I’ve told you not to just appear in the castle. What if someone were watching? And they are always watching. Haven’t you been listening?”

“Chill. I’ll be leaving in a moment. Jason is still on his way, your hired thugs weren’t prepared to run into Hercules and his buddy.”

The man smiled and turned back to the bed, “You hear that? Your son is coming, Aeson, and he’s bringing friends, the more the merrier.”

“The young prince also knows about you. Well, not you, you.”

“I know what you mean. Hercules didn’t see you?”

“No, he was too busy worrying about his little friend, the prince. I don’t know why we have to go through all these charades. If you want this kingdom just take it and be done with it. Why all this sneaking around?”

“Because Zeus wouldn’t approve. He has a fondness for this particular kingdom for some reason I’m sure I couldn’t even imagine. Besides, we play this right and we can rid ourselves of that meddlesome half-brother of mine once and for all and no one on Olympus need be the wiser.”

“Oh, let me, let me,” she begged.

“Easy, all in good time. We must be patient.”

The trio presented themselves at the city gate just before dawn and had to wait for an armed escort to come and take them to the castle. Jason graciously nodded to all the well wishers and concerned citizens as they traveled on horseback through the city. News of his return had spread like wildfire. There was hope in the eyes of the people when they saw Jason but the city itself felt like it was under siege but undersiege from what?

“Cestus!” Jason called as they neared the palace and he saw the head of the palace guard waiting for him. They shook hands as old friends do. “How’s my father?”

“Not well,” The stocky man led them into the palace and up the back stairs toward the royal chambers, “his physicians don’t understand it and nothing they have tried seems to have had much if any effect.”

“And this Pelias?” Jason asked.

Cestus shook his head, “I didn’t work for your grandfather, so I didn’t know Pelias from before. There are none still in the palace staff that knew him personally. Young sir, I find him to be a wholly unlikeable fellow. He talks of war making and power. He is very different from your father. But how did you know of his arrival? He asked, ordered, that you not be informed until your arrival?”

“We were attacked on the road coming here by men hired by Pelias.”

Cestus gave Jason the once over, “You’re not hurt?”

“No, I’m fine. I had Hercules and Iolaus with me.”

Cestus flashed them both a smile of gratitude. “That’s good. I was concerned when I wasn’t allowed to send an escort to bring you from the Academy.”

“Cestus, do you think Pelias had anything to do with my father’s illness?”

“I wish I could say that I did but I don’t see how. Your father became ill a day before he arrived. And as a member of the royal family we had to follow his orders.”

“I understand, Cestus, but you don’t trust him, do you?” Jason asked.

“No, I don’t.” They arrived at the door to the King’s chambers. “Pelias has been near King Aeson round the clock since he arrived. He’s been speaking for the king.” Cestus paused, “Jason, if things don’t go well....I and my men will support you. You are the rightful heir.”

“Thank you, Cestus. Let’s pray it doesn’t come to that.”

Jason pushed open the door and entered, Hercules and Iolaus right behind him.

“Enjoying yourself, Uncle?” Jason asked.

“Jason!” He rose and met Jason half way offering his hand. The prince didn’t take it. “How are you, my boy? So sorry to bring you home under these circumstances.” Pelias offered his hand. Jason didn’t take it. Instead, he moved directly to his father’s side. Pelias turned to follow only to find his way blocked.

“That’s far enough,” Hercules said looking closely at Pelias. There was something very familiar about him.

“So, Jason. Friends of yours?” Pelias asked innocently.

“Hercules and Iolaus are my bodyguards. They’ve been pretty busy, as a matter of fact.”

“What are you suggesting?”

Jason turned to face him, still sitting on the edge of his father’s bed, “I’m not suggesting, I’m accusing. What have you done to my father?”

“To him, nothing. For him, a great deal. I’ve stepped in as king, just as he requested. And, I might add, my armies are rapidly expanding Corinth’s borders. It’s the least I could do.”

“Well your reign is over. I’m here now. If my father is unfit to rule, then that makes me king.” Jason spoke the words with far more quiet confidence than he felt but his face betrayed none of his insecurities.

Pelias unrolled a parchment and read, “By imperial decree, I, King Aeson, of sound mind and soul, but falling under physical ailment, name as successor to the throne of Corinth, my brother, Pelias. His ascension supercedes that of my son. Due to unrelenting immaturity, Jason is hearby declared not worthy to rule.”

Jason exploded, “That’s a fake! My father would NEVER have written that!”

Unable to reach Jason, Pelias flung the scroll at him, “Look at that signature! Is that not Aeson’s signature? Is that not the royal seal?”

Jason examined the document. It was his father’s hand and it was the royal seal. the seal that was kept in a secret alcove in the wall of the King’s study that only Jason and his father knew about. But how did Pelias get it? This was impossible but irrefutable. Jason nodded, “That only means your knife was at his throat, you bastard!” Jason lunged at Pelias. Hercules and Iolaus held him back.

Pelias raised his hands, a gesture indicating he did not want to fight. “It would be nice if we could just ask him, wouldn’t it? But your father’s sick, and he doesn’t appear to be getting any better. So short of some miracle, the decree stands. I am king of Corinth.”

Hercules and Iolaus released Jason as they felt the fight go out of him. He gazed sadly at his father.

Pelias continued graciously, “I’ll give you a few minutes alone with him. But when I come back, you better be gone! And if I ever catch you in my palace again, I’ll personally nail your head to a stick and parade it around the town square! Now you’ll have to excuse me...” The door to the king’s chamber banged closed behind him.

Jason slumped to the bed, “Father, I don’t know if you can hear me. If there was just some way I could know your true will...I don’t know what to do. I’m sorry I’ve let you down. I know what this kingdom means to you, I’ll think of something. I know in my heart that you didn’t mean this. I know you didn’t give Corinth to the likes of him. I’ll think of something, but you have to hold on. I need time to figure this out. You have to buy me that time, father. Please.” The hand Jason held squeezed his ever so slightly but it was enough.

Jason, Hercules, Iolaus and Cestus sat at a small table in a corner of the palace kitchens. Around them servants went about their daily chores. Jason smiled in greeting and nodded at the familiar faces who were trying to be encouraging to the young prince in passing. He saw hope their eyes, hope that was placed in him. Jason knew these people. Growing up in the palace he had spent much time here in the kitchens begging for food or playing by the large warm fire that always burned here, coming here to this very table seeking advice for the troubles of childhood. All of these people had had a hand in raising him, in influencing the man he had become. The time for talking was over, these people depended on him now to be their leader. In their eyes he saw more than hope, he found faith. They believed in him. Those who knew him best his entire life, put their faith in him now, he would not betray them. Jason let out a slow breath, not realizing until that moment that he had been holding it.

The prince of Corinth looked at his companions with newfound resolve. “Options, I need options. You three are my trusted advisors in this. What can we do? Give me choices.”

“The scroll is real then? I know it looks real but we had hoped...” Cestus began.

Jason nodded, “It is my father’s signature and if he doesn’t regain consciousness enough to refute it in front of witnesses, it is legally binding.”

“Then we have to find a way around it, we have to find a cure for your father,” Iolaus thought out loud.

“He’s seen the best physicians, they’ve come up empty,” Jason replied.

“What about Asclepius, Herc?” Iolaus asked.

Hercules shrugged, “Like most of my family, I don’t know how to find him and I can’t make him help us if I could find him, but maybe this is the answer. Jason, what about the Golden Fleece? What if we were to get the Golden Fleece?”

“Impossible,” Cestus stated firmly.

Hercules turned to the head of the palace guard, “Why is it impossible?”

“Whoa. Slow down,” Iolaus interrupted. “What’s the Golden Fleece?”

Jason rolled his eyes, “You never did pay attention in class. It’s the skin of a ram made of pure gold, sacrificed to Zeus by a king named Phrixus. And it has the power to cure any illness....”

“But your highness,” Cestus protested, “Do you know how many men have tried to retrieve the fleece? Hundreds. And they’ve all wound up dead.”

Jason glanced conspiratorially at Hercules, a grin playing at the corner’s of his mouth, “But Cestus, my old friend, they didn’t have the son of a god on their team.”

Cestus looked at Hercules in new light, “A demigod?”

“Zeus is my father,” Hercules stated with pride.

“You’re sure you can get it?” Jason asked.

“Jason, think about it. Think about waltzing back into the palace with the Golden Fleece. Think about laying it over your father. His eyes opening, looking up at you, knowing you saved him. And think of that bastard Pelias, his lie exposed. All the people of Corinth would thank us. Think of the glory!”

“Herc, are you sure about this? You’ve never had much luck retrieving Zeus’ stuff before--” Iolaus began, trying to be a voice of reason in a conversation that felt spinning out of control.

“That was always to get my father’s attention. This is different besides Iolaus is just scared,” Hercules continued, confidence oozing out around every word.

“Hey, I’m not scared of anything!”

Hercules ignored his partner and continued, “but you and I could do it, Jason. We have to. We can’t let that bastard get away with it. We just can’t send your father to his grave without a fight?”

Jason agreed, “No. We can’t.”

“Wait a minute!” Iolaus managing to finally be heard, “If you guys are going to get this fleece, so am I!”

Hercules clapped a hand on Iolaus’ shoulder, “I knew you’d see reason, buddy.”

“Wait, you’ll need transportation and supplies to Colchis and back. that’s all the way to the eastern shore of the Black Sea,” Cestus interrupted. “We can’t let Pelias know what’s going on. Jason your father has commissioned a new ship, The Argos, it’s still under construction and not yet part of the Corinthian navy. It’s been finished for a week but your father has been too ill to commission it. I don’t think Pelias knows about it. I could send a handful of men that I am certain are loyal to your father and yourself to retrieve it and sail it down river to a point near the Academy.”

“Pardon my barging into the conversation, your highness,” A woman Jason recognized as being in charge of the kitchens said, “I know it’s impolite to ease drop, but if you’ll need provisions, I can get whatever you need from the palace stores. If it’s a choice between our young prince and that rat upstairs, there’s no contest. We’ll serve Prince Jason and we’ll have him as our next king if we have anything to say about it. Just let me know how long and how many and I’ll see to it that there’s enough food.”

“Thank you.” Jason suddenly felt humbled.

“What about weapons?” Iolaus asked, “We’ll need weapons.”

“The palace armory is watched too closely. Everything is accounted for. Pelias has been keeping a close watch,” Cestus reported.

“I can ‘borrow’ some from the armory at the Academy,” Hercules offered. “I have the key this week, it’s my turn to see that everything’s been put away after practice.”

“Your Highness, I can only provide a few men from the palace guard without it being noticed.”

Jason nodded, “Not a problem, we’ve got a few friends back at the Academy that will come.”

“I have one more concern,” Cestus began, “Hercules as a demigod, you can assure that the gods will watch over this journey and protect my prince?”

Hercules hesitated only a moment, “I’ll make sure of it.” He held Cestus’ eyes and his confidence won out over Iolaus’ whispered protests wanting to know how Hercules was going to do that.

The boys gathered around a single candle in the Academy barracks. They were as quiet as a group of teenage boys could be.

“Is everyone here?” Jason asked. He took stock of the faces in the gloom; Otus, Castor, Artemus, Valerus, Lycenus, Enyo, Thamus, Liardus, Archivus. “Archivus what are you doing here?”

“Someone has to keep a record of events to make sure that history gets who did what right.”

“Alright, I’m not going to argue, it would just wake up more people. You can come.”

“Good, then you won’t mind if I tag along as well?” Lilith slid into the circle of candlelight.

“Lillith, how did you know? Iolaus, did you tell her?” Jason asked.

“Relax, it wasn’t Iolaus, you guys are so loud, I’m surprised the whole Academy doesn’t know. So, I can come? I’m a good fighter.”

“She is, we can use her,” agreed Artemus. The others nodded.

“Alright but that’s it, we need to get moving. Does everyone have their packs? We’ve got to meet the ship at the port of Iolcus at dawn.”

“Then you’d better make haste,” Cheiron’s booming voice filled the room startling everyone. Shoulders sagged as the headmaster entered. The journey was over before it began. “You all need to learn a little more stealth. It wasn’t hard to figure out what you were up to. I’m not going to stop you. I realize how important this could be but I’m here to give you a warning. There is so much more you all need to learn. You’re not ready for this. Your lack of stealth proves it.”

Hercules stepped forward, “We’ve got nothing to worry about. The gods will be with us!”

Cheiron moved toward Hercules, to speak one on one, “A man on a mission can only depend on one person. The gods are fickle, you of all people should know that. Confidence is good, Hercules. It can be your friend in battle. But it’s not far from confidence to foolhardiness, and that can get people killed.” He leaned in even closer, “You, more than any other, cause me concern. You have great powers, but until you learn the discipline that goes with them, you’re just plain dangerous. Hercules even you have limits and your overconfidence will cause you to exceed them. Be careful.”

“I’ll bring them all home, don’t worry.”

“That’s exactly what does worry me.”

Hercules turned toward the others without another word to his teacher and the group departed into the night. Cheiron stared after them, silently imploring whatever gods would help to keep watch over them.

The night moved on without incident. Sails were trimmed and the Argo slid from the bay into the sea. Her sails lit from the light of the dawn.

Jason stood at the wheel, steering the powerful ship through the waves. He turned and looked up toward the lone figure in the crow’s nest. The one crewman who was looking behind them instead of in front, “Lycenus! Anything?”

The short but trim man leaned over the edge of the basket in which he stood, “No sign of anyone following. And nothing but fair seas ahead.”

Jason nodded, “Then next stop, Colchis.” He turned to Hercules standing beside him, “My father’s return to the throne has begun.”

The door opened and Discord walked in. She wasn’t dressed in her usual black leather, however. She wore the clothing of a common but well dressed peasant. A long skirt hid her legs and the blouse while a little more revealing than most, still covered all the vital parts. She pulled and tugged at her blouse.

“Do I really have to wear these wretched clothes?”

“Do you want to face the wrath of the god of War for giving away his plans too early?” Ares asked matter-of-factly. It mattered not to him what her answer was, if she tipped his hand, retribution would be swift and complete. He had spent far too much time and effort in acquiring this bit of countryside without the other gods knowing about it. “You were sent out to spy on the royal brat and his friends. I assume that you have something to tell me or you wouldn’t be here jeopardizing my plans.”

Her appraisal of the war god changed rapidly, it was not a day to dally and make small talk, he wanted to get straight to the punch, then so be it. “Jason and his friends are going after the Golden Fleece. They are going to try and take back the throne with it.”

That got his attention, this was a novel approach and not at all what he was expecting from a bunch of kids. He smiled slowly, this could be interesting, “When?”

“Early this morning, they set sail from Iolcus bound for Colchis.”

“Who?”

“Cadets from the Academy.”

“What about Cheiron?”

“There were no hooves on the ship. He stayed behind.”

Finally, a smile, “Good. Then it’s just a bunch of snot-nosed kids, led by a weak-willed runt. They’ll be killed.”

“But Hercules went with them.”

A bigger smile, “That’s the whole point. You bait the trap hoping to land the biggest fish. Now, get out! I must speak with someone.”

“Gladly, anything to be rid of these clothes.” She twirled away in a storm of sparks.

Ares turned and left the King’s chambers, striding down the hall he entered a little used door to a vacant passage. The spiders had moved in during it’s long period of disuse. Cobwebs grabbed at him as he passed. The ancient chamber at it’s end was no better. A single swipe of his powerful arm removed only the top layer of webbing. He kneeled before the shrine. “Mother! I want to talk to you! Come down here!”

Thunder crashed overhead and a long tendril of black smoke coiled and twisted around the shrine. A far-off screech of peacocks signaled the arrival of the queen of the gods. “You dare defile my shrine with your arrogance?”

Ares snorted, “Then, you need better housekeepers. What arrogance I have, I learned only from you.”

She laughed softly, her face smiled at him from within the smoke, “What a mother tolerates in her son. So, how are things?”

“Could be better. I don’t exactly enjoy masquerading as a mere mortal. A god shouldn’t have to stink of skin.”

“Patience. I will have Corinth away from the clutches of my husband and we’ll both be rid of that miserable bastard of his. What news do you have for me?”

“Jason has set sail to retrieve the Golden Fleece.”

“Excellent. He shows promise. He might actually be able to save his father with it. If he can get it without getting himself killed. And your half-brother?”

“He’s right where he’s supposed to be, at Jason’s side.”

An evil laugh filled the room, “Little bastard has no idea what’s coming, does he? That living, breathing slap in my face...Well, he won’t breath for much longer.”

Ares dared to broach the subject knowing full well that it might get him knocked on his ass by one side or the other. “Mother, what if Zeus finds out what we’re doing?”

“He never will. You father’s ‘attention’ is, no doubt, buried somewhere else. He won’t notice a thing until Hercules is deep in his grave, and you and I are doing our best to cry at the funeral.”

“We’ve underestimated Hercules before, mother,” Ares pointed out.

“That’s why you’re here in that dreaded mortal skin, to see that the deck is stacked in our favor and no one returns from that little expedition alive.”

“With pleasure, mother.”

The ship sliced through the waves as though it took no effort at all. They had made good time but it would still be several days journey to reach their destination. The winds were steady and all hoped it would remain so. On deck, the lamps flickered in the night. It was a warm night so the crew stayed up on deck to eat their meal of salted beef.

“I hope the Fleece is washable,” Iolaus stated.

Jason shot him a perplexed look, “Washable?”

“I can’t wait to walk back into your palace and stuff it up Pelias nose.”

“I can’t wait to see my father get off that bed, fully alive again.”

Hercules wandered over with a dreamy expression, “I can’t wait to see Mount Olympus.”

“Mount Olympus is for the gods, why would you get to see it, Herc?” Iolaus asked.

“Because after I get the Fleece, my dad’s gonna want to show me off.”

“Is there nothing that you can’t turn into a plot to get your dad’s attention? Can’t you just be happy being yourself. You’re pretty impressive you know, all by yourself. You don’t need his approval.” Iolaus threw his last piece of meat overboard and walked to the other end of the ship. His strides making it obvious that Hercules was not welcome to join him.

Lilith stood at the stern of the ship. Iolaus joined her leaning on the rail. For awhile they watched the waves recede behind them.

“Gets old after awhile doesn’t it?” She asked and he nodded. “It’s gotta be hard for him though, being different from everyone else, trying to fit in with no one to show you how. We all know that he really doesn’t have any pull with the gods but if it makes him feel better to say he does, what does it hurt?”

Iolaus turned to look at Lilith, “It makes people overly confident, him included. Over confident people take on too much and end up making mistakes and getting hurt or worse. I know Herc, he can talk the big talk but can he take it when things go wrong because of it?”

“Have you talked to him about this?”

“Tried, he’s not ready to listen.”

Lilith nodded, “Cheiron says that sometimes you’ve just gotta let people walk off the cliff before you can help them. I guess it’s a good thing that you’re here to pick up the pieces and put Hercules back together again. Maybe he’ll listen then.”

“And if somebody gets hurt?” Iolaus asked.

“We all chose to be here. With or without Hercules and his divine family, we’d be here. We know things might not go well but that’s a risk we all chose to take. That’s what heroes do.”

“How’d you get so smart?” Iolaus asked giving Lilith’s shoulder a nudge with his own.

“Ever tried fitting in when you’re the only girl?”

“Hmmmm, don’t think so, I’ve never been a girl, but I am the only poor thief, does that count?”

“Yeah, you are a pretty poor thief, got yourself caught and sentenced to the Academy, I wouldn’t be bragging about that.” She grinned and nudged him back.

“Ha. Ha. That was a long time ago, Lilith. I’ve found a new calling.

“Yeah, me too.”

“Land ho!”

Jason ran up from below deck, “What is it Lycenus?”

“An Island. I can see women on the beach. They look like they’ve been marooned or something.”

A sweet, hypnotizing melody arrived on the wind. Little tantalizing catches of it could be heard as the winds shifted from one direction to the other. As they neared the island, the entire crew could hear the magical tones. They stood entranced by their beauty.

Hercules and Jason practically fought over the telescope. Lilith didn’t know what they saw but they were unanimous that they must go ashore immediately. Lilith could see the figures dancing around on the beach and she didn’t think they looked in distress. They weren’t dressed for distress. In fact, they were hardly dressed at all.

“Are you guys alright?” She asked. The reply was in one voice as they clambered into the row boat. Lilith reluctantly followed tucking her sword in her belt just in case.

The beach was made of fine, white sand that sank under their feet. Lilith continued to follow behind the males in the group. “Guys, can we at least keep our eyes peeled? We’re venturing onto an unknown island here!”

No one was listening to her. They only had ears for the three sobbing beauties before them. Their skin was glowing, golden tan and perfect, their eyes crystal blue, their voices like magic. They were perfection. Hercules was the first to approach them.

“It’s all right. We won’t hurt you. We’re here to help.”

Iolaus elbowed Hercules in the ribs forcing him to move over, “My name’s Iolaus!”

Jason, not to be outdone, stepped almost within touching distance of the first woman, “What’s wrong? Why are you crying?”

The others crowded forward. “Are you stranded?” Castor asked.

“Is your boat wrecked somewhere?” asked Liardus.

“Who does your hair?” Lilith’s voice dripped with sarcasm.

The woman shrugged and smiled, a vacant expression on her face.

Hercules had an inkling that something was amiss, “I don’t think she can speak, or even understand us.”

She took a bite of fruit allowing it to drip down her chin and the droplet to splash on her barely covered breast. Seeing Iolaus’ interest, she handed it to him and crooked a finger, leading them up the beach. The males were totally mesmerized by the women and happy to follow. Lilith waved a hand in front of Jason’s face, then Iolaus’. They didn’t even blink. She was the last to move, rolling her eyes all the way, “Please! You guys aren’t buying that little Missy Kissy stuff, are you? Come on! And that off-the shoulder toga has last year written all over it! Guys? Guys?”

The woman led them into a cave, the most richly decorated cave they’d ever seen; furs and pillows covered everything. Flickering torches set into the walls gave a romantic dusk to the lighting. Platters of food adorned large tables. Strings of grapes draped the corners.

“By the gods!” exclaimed Valerus, “Look at all this!”

“The water sparkles like wine!”

“You’ve all done well these first few days,” Jason proclaimed. “Let’s relax, camp here for the night. If it’s all right with you, of course.” He turned to their hostess who just giggled but as her guests all separated to enjoy the various aspects of the cave, her gaze fixed on Hercules and turned threatening.

After the food had been consumed, she began to dance. Through a seductive arm gesture and an erotic hip sway the siren began to work her magic. Otus reached for a piece of fruit, Jason snatched it away, “That’s mine!”

The siren laughed and continued her dance. Her gyrations growing with the rhythm of the music. Hercules pulled his eyes away and blinked back a wave of dizziness, his vision blurring and doubling. “Is anyone else feeling a little weird?”

He looked up and found Lilith smiling at him. Hercules returned her smile and she approached him.

Enyo bit into a piece of meat only to find it swarming with maggots inside. He dropped it with a scream. The maggots were gone. Liardus laughed at him. Enyo grabbed a sword, “What are you laughing at?” They began to battle each other, swords clanging.

Fights broke out all over the room, everywhere except with Hercules and Lilith, finally drawing close enough, they share a passionate kiss. Until Otus slammed into them, knocking them both to the floor. Lilith suddenly came to her senses and slapped Hercules, “What do you think you’re doing?”

Confused, Hercules ducked her next swing and shoved her away, his vision blurring again. He looked around and saw the fights and the siren whirling through and between them and finally, saw the truth and the siren for what she was. “No, no, stop! Stop fighting!”

Hercules was blind sided by Iolaus diving into a fight with Jason. Realizing that they couldn’t listen to him, Hercules snatched up a long piece of seaweed from the floor and began tying everyone up so they couldn’t hurt anyone. There was a lot of yelling and most of it not very nice. Once he had everyone secured, it quieted down as they one by one passed out. The siren was no where to be found, or her two friends. They had disappeared when they realized that Hercules wasn’t succumbing to their spell anymore. Hercules collapsed next to the fire. He berated himself for allowing this to happen. How stupid could he be? This was such an obvious trap and he led them all right into it. He rubbed his hand over his face and lowered his hand to stare at the floor. He is vision was captured by a drop of something red. Quickly, he did a head count and realized that he was missing two cadets. With increasing dread he followed the blood drops. Outside the cave he found two bodies, Liardes and Enyo, where they had fallen after killing each other. Hercules fell to the sand beside them and buried his face.

The sun was high in the sky when Hercules woke to the sounds of yelling. He had left everyone tied up in the cave. Quickly he returned and released his fellow crew members.

“What happened? How did we get like this?” Thamus asked.

Castor shook his head, “ I don’t know...but I’ve got the worst headache of my life.”

“We...We...It’s all so dim, “Jason began, “Was there a fight?”

Hercules knelt to untie him, “More like a war. Something awful came over us...”

“From the food?” Jason guessed. Hercules shrugged.

He untied Lilith. She gave him a strange stare, “I remember you and me...” They both looked away horrified.

Iolaus staggered to his feet, holding his head between hands as if that might keep it from exploding, “”Uugghhh. All I remember is Hercules trying to kill me.”

“I was trying to tie you up so that you couldn’t kill anyone. Believe me, you got in a few good hits of your own.” Hercules absently rubbed the side of his head where someone had connected with it. “Whatever happened to us, it was that girl.”

“Wait!” Jason exclaimed wildly looking around, “She’s gone!”

Lilith smirked, “Now, why doesn’t that surprise me?”

“And Liardus, he’s missing, too!”

“Jason,” Hercules said, “He’s outside, Enyo, too.”

Hercules followed the group out of the cave to find them staring dumbfounded down at the two bodies of their friends. Hercules had trouble looking at them in the light of day, “It’s my fault they’re dead. I didn’t realize what was happening fast enough. I couldn’t stop them. I didn’t know they were out here. I didn’t check to make sure I had everyone when I tied you all up. I...I’m sorry.” He felt lightheaded and sick to his stomach. Hercules turned away from the group unable to face them or his own failing.

“We’ll take them back to the ship,” Jason said, “Give them a proper burial at sea once we’re back underway.” The cadets moved to pick up their fallen comrades.

Iolaus turned to Hercules, “Come on, Herc. We all fell under her spell, you’re not any more responsible than the rest of us.”

“But I am, Iolaus,” Hercules whispered. “I am. I’m the son of Zeus.”

Iolaus didn’t feel like getting into it. Hercules was hurting enough without any, ‘I told you so’s’, to cement his failure in his own mind. Iolaus didn’t want to think about what his friend would put himself through if he continued to hold the belief that he was responsible for everyone. “Come on, Herc. We have to go.”

That night a storm battered the ship, keeping everyone below decks except for the 4 palace guards that had been sent to help sail the ship. They remained on deck while the Argonauts, as they had dubbed themselves, stayed below. The winds couldn’t decide from which direction they were going to blow. The Argo’s passengers were thrown from one side of the cabin to the other through out the long night. They were a subdued group, still reeling from the discovery that morning and the hastily arranged funeral. They had barely begun their journey and already they had lost two of their number. They were all plagued with doubts now. Was Cheiron right? Did they still have so much to learn? Were they not ready? But they had to be. Jason and his whole kingdom was depending on them. These matters weighed heavily on the Argonauts and with the constant buffetting of the storm, there was not much sleep to be had.

The morning brought further complications. The ship had been damaged in the storm. They needed to replace the mast before they could continue much farther. It had been cracked in the storm. Lycenus’s position as lookout was hampered further by a think fog that had descended after the storm. He couldn’t see land, if it was a few feet from the ship. Morale sank further as the fog failed to lift as the day wore on. For three days the fog persisted and the Argo was allowed to drift, finally coming to rest against a rocky outcropping. Luckily the damage to the hull was minor and easily repaired.

As the fog finally lifted on the fourth morning, it revealed an island off their starboard bow. As Jason, Hercules, Iolaus and Darvonius, one of the guards, approached the shore in the row boat, they found an old man waiting for them.

“Ahoy there. You’re late, I’ve been waiting for you.”

“Waiting for us? how did you know we were coming?” Jason called to him as they hauled their boat onshore and got out.

The old man used a stick to find his way to them and they realized that he was blind. “I was told by the voices. I hear voices sometimes, usually when the gods send someone to try and help me.”

“Help you with what?” Hercules asked.

“My home is infested with Harpies, I can’t seem to get rid of them, it’s a curse you see. I keep praying to the gods for help and forgiveness and every once in awhile they send someone to try and help me with them. You sound nice and strong, maybe you’ll succeed where the others have failed.”

“By failed, you mean, they failed to get rid of the harpies, right?” Iolaus asked.

“Not exactly. These harpies are a really nasty bunch, once they’ve gotten a taste for blood, I’m afraid that, well, they get really nasty.” Not wanting to deter his helpers he added, “But this time the voices gave me some advice for you but I can only give it when you’ve taken care of the harpies.”

“Oh, now, this just reeks of a trap!” Iolaus exclaimed. “Let’s just get our tree and get out of here.”

“No, please, you’re my last chance. I can’t even enter my own house. I have to live outside here in the cold and damp. You must help me. You must. At least come look over the situation before you decide.”

Not wanting to leave a helpless, blind man alone on the island, Jason made him another offer, “We’ll take you with us, you can live in Colchis, that’s where we’re headed.”

The old man was taken aback, “That’s the first time anyone’s offered me that but I couldn’t, I just couldn’t. This is my home. I have to stay. Please just come see.”

He led them up a rocky path to a stone keep up on the hillside of the small island. Cautiously, Hercules and Iolaus opened the door and peered inside. It was gloomy and messy but no harpies could be seen.

“Are you sure about this, old man?” Iolaus asked.

“Yes, I’m sure. They are there.”

“How many?” Jason asked.

“I’m not sure, could be 2 or 3, could be more. I can’t see them to count them, you know.”

“Sir,” Darvonius spoke up, “the furniture has been pretty well demolished and is useless. The old man will have to start over if he stays. I wonder if we could lure the harpies down low enough, if we could spread some oil on the floor and when the harpies get down here to attack us, we could ignite the oil and...”

“Whoosh! No more harpies. Great idea!” Iolaus complemented.

“I have some oil around back, if you young folks want to try it. These walls are good, sturdy stone. A little fire won’t bother them. This way.”

All thoughts of a trap were forgotten in the preparations to try the guard’s idea.

Jason hefted the oil drum, “I’ll pour and you two can fend off any attacks from above.”

“No Sir, I can’t allow that.” Darvonius firmly stated, “You are too valuable. I will take the oil.”

“Darvonius...”Jason began.

Only to be cut off by the guard, “No, Sir. I promised Cestus that I would look after you and I don’t break orders. I will go in. Hercules and Iolaus can protect me. I won’t allow you to endanger yourself further, your highness.”

Seeing the set of the man’s jaw, Jason realized that they were just wasting valuable time in arguing. “Alright. I’ll stand by the door with the torch. Just get in there and back out as quickly as you can.”

With the old man holding the door from behind and Jason in the doorway with the torch, the three ran in. Darvonius immediately began to spread the oil. Smelling the fuel the harpies screeched toward them from the ceiling to defend their territory.

Hercules and Iolaus had swords drawn and began to swing wildly as the four harpies drew near. Being taller, Hercules was able to connect with various appendages as they dangled close enough. Iolaus continued to swing his sword at them and they kept their distance but they weren’t happy about it. The enraged harpies continued to scream and threaten by taking swipes with their clawed limbs.

Iolaus felt the oil slicken the floor beneath his feet, “Are you just about ready Darvonious?” he asked.

“Yes, let’s go. It’s finished.”

Hercules and Iolaus headed for the door with the guard right behind them.

“Throw Jason!” Hercules called as they were about to pass through the threshold. Just as Jason let go of the torch, Darvonius’ foot slipped in a puddle of oil and he went down. Hercules and Iolaus stepped through the doorway and turned as they heard Darvonius cry and felt him go down behind them. Hercules reached for the man but a harpy snatched him out of his grasp. Iolaus grabbed Hercules and pulled him out of the way as the torch hit the floor and the room became a fireball. Darvonius had time for half a terrified scream before the flames took him and the harpies.

“Iolaus! Why did you do that? I could have gotten him! I--”

“No, you couldn’t have. There wasn’t time, Herc.”

“No, I could--”

“Stop!” Jason yelled, “Iolaus is right. We’d have lost you both and that’s not acceptable.” Jason sat down on the ground, “Darvonius knew the risks, he accepted them when he took the job.” Jason took a deep breath and turned to the old man. “We’ve taken care of your harpies, now what message do you have for us? and do you know which god it is that’s giving you these messages?”

“No I don’t but this time it was a different voice giving me the message. The first voice told me you were coming and that I had to make sure that you went into the house. They were sending you to be killed, I’m sure. But the second voice came later. It was a nice voice. She sounded very pretty. She left something for you and said that you’d need it. I think it’s a bird.” The old man retrieved a small bird cage with a single dove in it. “She said that if you follow the bird, you will survive. I don’t know what.”

“Definitely a god, they never give out complete information.” Iolaus observed.

Hercules hardly heard a word, he stared at the door to the keep. He was numb. He followed blindly as Jason and Iolaus moved into the forest and cut a new mast to replace the cracked one. Hercules swung the axe with his mighty strength to cut the tree and used the same divine strength to pull it to the sea and then back to the ship. It was all a blur. He allowed another crew member to die. How could he have let that happen?

Iolaus and Jason exchanged a look of understanding across the table. Iolaus stood and retrieved a second bowl of stew. As he passed behind Jason, he leaned over and whispered, “I’ll talk to him.”

Jason nodded, “Let me know if you need me.”

At the deck door, Iolaus paused and observed his big friend for a moment. Hercules sat on a coiled rope, his back to the mast, staring out at the waves. He didn’t see them, he was lost in a sea of his own making, a sea of guilt and doubt and blame. He was being far harder on himself than any of them could have inflicted on him for it. What exactly had Hercules done? He had tried to save them all from the sirens but they all walked into that one willingly, stupidly, but willingly. He had tried to save Darvonius and Iolaus had stopped him, there wasn’t time. No one could have asked more from him, yet Hercules shouldered all the blame. That wasn’t true either, Jason had his share as the leader but Jason was accustomed to leading, whether he realized it or not. Maybe he didn’t have experience allowing men to go to their deaths but that was something he had thought about and expected would happen. He was prepared to do that for his cause. But what had Hercules done?

Hercules had lied to the others about getting the gods to protect them. He had no such pull with his relations. He gave them a false sense of security and now it was obvious that things were going the other way and it was not the protection of the gods they had but their wrath. That wasn’t anything new for Hercules or his friends. Iolaus sighed, not certain what he should say but trusting that the words would come.

Iolaus closed the hatch loudly behind him with his foot so that Hercules would know he was there. He handed his friend a bowl. Hercules accepted it with a nod and sat it on the deck in front of him. “Thank you but I’m not hungry.”

“Herc, you have to eat, you need your strength.”

Hercules snorted, “What good will that do us?”

“A lot, more than I think you know. Hercules, you can’t protect us all. You are one man, one extra strong man but you can only do what one man can do. You can’t promise divine protection just because you are related to the gods, Herc. We haven’t met too many gods that actually like you and none of them would lift a finger to protect you, let alone the rest of us. You can’t depend on the gods, they’d just as soon we fail than succeed. And at least one of them is trying to make sure we fail.”

“And one left the bird for us. One is trying to help,” Hercules pointed out.

“Maybe, we don’t know what that’s for yet. Could be another trick, you know.”

Hercules nodded his agreement as Iolaus continued, “The point I’m trying to make here, Herc, is that we can’t depend on the gods, none of us. But we have you, you may just be extra strong but we can depend on you, not your father, not the other gods, you. We agreed to come on this mission knowing that we could depend on you. We came knowing the risks, we chose to come. We all know you, Hercules. We know that you can only be where one man can be and do what one very strong man can do. You can’t always save everyone but if we choose to be there and we choose the risks, we know that you’ll do your best to be there for us but if something should happen to us, we made the choice and you may not be able to stop it. But that doesn’t make it your fault, Herc. That doesn’t mean that you are to blame, it just means that you can only do what one person can do. Even gods have their limitations just like us mere mortals. We do depend on you, Herc. We depend on you to be Hercules and to do what Hercules can do. You have to decide who Hercules is and what he can do and whether or not he needs the gods to do it. Just think about it, Herc. And eat, it tastes terrible but you need food. Think about it.”

Iolaus stood and went back below decks leaving Hercules to this thoughts. What if Jason didn’t have anything to do with this? What if this whole thing was just another plot to rid the world of Hercules. He didn’t even know his father or most of his family, yet half of them were trying to kill him. Was Jason’s father dying because of a plot to kill Hercules? Or was there more to it than that? Was he endangering Jason and all his friends just by being here? Why would the gods be involved with this otherwise? Was Iolaus right in that they all chose to be here despite the risks? Did they really understand the risks? Was Cheiron right and they weren’t ready for this? If even part of this turned out to be a plot to kill Hercules, then wasn’t Hercules responsible for bringing them all out here in the first place and the responsibility for any deaths or injuries would be his burden to carry, wouldn’t they? If he could just talk with his father, he knew some of these doubts would be resolved. Was he leading all of his friends to their deaths, was he responsible for their lives?

At dawn, Hercules went below decks and woke everyone up. He watched tiredly as they struggled in to the galley half dressed. Iolaus collapsed next to Lilith and stared up with bleary eyes, “What’s this all about, Herc?”

“Yeah,” Lilith agreed, “What’s so important that you have to get us all up like this?”

“I have something to say and I need everyone to hear it. I’ve been thinking about what you said last night Iolaus and I need to know that everyone understands. You all know me, you know who my father is but just because I am related to the gods that doesn’t mean that I have any influence with them. In fact, it could be the opposite. We know the gods are involved in this now but we don’t know why. They could have designs on Jason’s kingdom or they could just be out to get me. They’ve tried before. I don’t know how far they will go but if they want this journey stopped, I know they will do everything in their power to stop it. I am half god, you know that, you know what I can do and I will do all that I can to keep everyone safe but that may not be enough. If you came because you thought that I could do more, I’m sorry that I misled you. I’ll try not to let anyone else be hurt because of my stupidity. I just needed you to know that.” He sat down heavily on the bench and put his head on the table.

“Hercules,” Otus sat beside him, the bench creaking under the combined weight of the two largest men aboard, “We know you’ll do all that you can. That’s all any of us can do.”

Castor joined them, “Yeah, we know that you have issues with your father and you’re desperate to meet him or at least attract his attention. Who isn’t trying to get the attention of their father around here? We’ve seen your schemes to do that but this is important. Jason needs us and that’s why we’re all here. That’s why you’re here, to help Jason, right?” There were nods all around the room.

Lilith took Hercules’ hand from across the table, “Hercules, we know that we’re going to face danger. That’s what heroes do but as long as we can face it together and depend on each other we’ll be ok and we’ll get the glory!” They all cheered at that sentiment.

Hercules felt better but he still felt responsible. Iolaus saw his lingering doubt and nodded trying to reassure him.

The Argonauts scanned the horizon and saw nothing but cliffs. No way through to the east in any direction. Jason called up to Lycenus in the crow’s nest, “Anything?”

“Yes, there appears to be a narrow passage over there,” he pointed toward the south east. Jason steered that direction, as they grew closer to the vertical rock walls, they could all see it. The gap was very narrow and the walls appeared to float with the waves, sometimes closer together and sometimes farther apart.

Archivus sat on the railing, scroll in hand madly scribbling, “Will we fit through that?”

Valerus sat beside him, “At the widest gap, no problem but if we can’t pass through before it closes again, it could crack the hull like a walnut and down we’ll go.”

“That’s a comforting thought,” he said but he wrote, “Valerus was ever the optimist...”

Lycenus had climbed down the mast and disappeared below decks, returning with the cage, “Jason, what was the message you got with that bird?”

“Follow it.” Jason moved the ship in closer.

“Wait a minute,” Thamus said, “How do we know that the message is authentic? How do we know that it’s not another trap?”

“It’s obviously a trap,” Iolaus stated.

Jason sat the bird cage down, “The blind man heard two voices, the first he knew had told him of others coming to be killed by the harpies before. The second voice brought the birds and he said it was a nice voice a new one to him.”

“A nice voice? We’re going to risk our necks for a nice voice?” Castor asked. “Well, that’s just fine.”

Jason stood tall before them, a leader, “Anyone that doesn’t want to take the risk we’ll put off in the row boat. If we succeed we’ll pick you up on the way back or send someone for you later. If we don’t make it through, then you’ll be on your own but you’ll be alive. Colchis is just on the other side of these cliffs and my father doesn’t have much time. We don’t have much to spare. Do we go or not?” Jason looked to each argonaut in turn and each agreed to go, even Castor, “I’m not staying behind, so forward seems to be our only option.”

Jason handed the cage to Iolaus who moved forward and when the signal was given, released the single dove. The gap widened to receive the bird.

“Go Jason go!” Lycenus called from the bow by Iolaus. The ship moved forward behind the bird. The silence was palpable as the ship moved through the gap.

Hercules grabbed an oar and began pushing against the sheer rock face moving the Argo forward, “Come on, we have to stay with the bird!”

Thamus didn’t move toward the oars. He backed up and continued backing until he hit the railing in the stern. He face had paled and his hands shook. “No, we have to get out, we’ll be killed!”

Jason tore his eyes from the sight ahead to spare Thamus a glance, “Don’t be crazy, Thamus. We have to keep moving forward, that’s our only chance.”

“No, we’ll be crushed, we have to go back!” He turned and jumped off the stern of the Argo. He surfaced and began swimming madly in the direction they had come from.

“No!” Hercules screamed, he threw down his oar and began moving toward the stern. It took several argonauts holding on to him to get the demigod to stop and listen to Jason.

“Hercules! We have to get moving or we’ll lose the whole ship. We need you!”

The ship rose in the water with a lurch under the strain of all the water being forced through the ever narrowing gap and the Argonauts leapt to their oars and began pushing with everything they had. The dove outdistanced them. As the bird flew into the clear the gap immediately began to close again.

“Faster!” Jason yelled.

They were almost clear but the walls were closing in fast. The ship screamed as the cliff touched the stern and scraped last last few feet and then they were floating free again. The crew hardly dared to breath as they checked for damage. There were long gouges along the rear of the hull where the rocks had drug along the side seeking a grip, but there were no leaks. The Argo had held.

Iolaus looked up to see Hercules standing alone in the stern staring out at the now closed cliffs. He walked up behind him, “Herc...”

Hercules’ gaze didn’t move from the cliffs, “He didn’t have time to get out Iolaus. I let another one die.”

Jason joined them, “He made his choice, you couldn’t make it for him and you couldn’t stop him. Come on, we have to set the sails.”

The Argonauts tied up at the dock in Colchis with relief. They had arrived, now they only had to retrieve the fleece and be back on their way. They cleaned up and created the smartest honor guard around Prince Jason that they knew how. By the time they reached the palace, King Aeetes was waiting to receive them.

“Prince Jason,” He rose from his throne and offered his hand. “I know your father well. I was troubled to hear of his illness. Corinth has always been an ally to Colchis. How can I help you, young prince?”

Jason bowed, “Your majesty, my father does not have much time left to him. The best physicians our land has to offer have been unable to help him. I feel that the fleece is our last hope to save him.”

“Save him or claim your throne? I understand that your succession has been called into question.”

Jason bristled but tried not to let it show, “My father is my first priority at the moment. If he can be saved, then succession will not be a question at all. However, I cannot think only of my father. If we should not arrive in time, then I must consider the needs of my people and what will serve them best.”

“And that’s you, of course,” Aeetes replied, sizing up the young man.

Jason didn’t care for this line of questioning and decided to change the subject, “You are the keeper of the Fleece, I have stated my need for it. What must I do to obtain it?”

“Straight to business it is then. You must prove yourself worthy of being allowed to make the attempt. I will give you a seed. You will sow the seed and the outcome will determine your worthiness. If you are deemed worthy, then my daughter, the true keeper of the Fleece will lead you to the sacred grove where it is kept and there you will face your greatest challenge. We will begin at dawn tomorrow.” With that the king rose and left the audience chamber.

Iolaus was confused, “So you have to show them that you can be a farmer before they’ll tell you where the fleece is?”

“Not exactly,” Jason explained. “The seed will grow something that I’ll probably have to kill.”

“I’ll do it,” Hercules stated.

“No, Hercules. This is my father, it’s my kingdom and it’s my fight. If I can’t do this, I am not worthy to rule Corinth and this is all worth nothing. I have to do it.”

That evening, they were invited to a feast at the palace. Jason sat at the head table with the the royal family.

“Should you be successful, you’ll still be one of the more eligible royal bachelors, I’m told. My wife thinks that you should meet our daughter, just in case.” He finished with a grin. “My daughter, Medea.”

She took Jason’s breath away from the first glance. Her ice blue eyes and raven black hair captivated him into speechlessness. He barely noticed her blue dress which hugged her body in all the right places. He felt like a bungling idiot when he rose to pull out her chair for her and seat her. His hands suddenly felt huge and just wouldn’t do what he asked of them.

Lilith leaned forward and addressed the males at her table in a whisper. “Pick up your jaws boys, she’s royalty and not about to give the likes of any of you a second glance.”

“But she is giving our boy, Jason, the eye. Way to go Prince of Corinth!” Iolaus shouted as the table shushed him.

Medea made herself comfortable as a servant sat her newly filled plate before her. “Tell me about Corinth, Prince Jason. I’ve never been there.”

“Just Jason please. It’s a beautiful country with, I guess you’d say a little bit of everything; Coasts, grasslands, forests, a few mountains.”

“Sounds lovely, you’ll have to give me the tour some day.”

“It would be my pleasure. I’d like to see more of Colchis. My father has told me about it since I was small.”

“After dinner, perhaps you’ll join me for a walk. I can at least show you the palace grounds.”

“I’d like that very much,” Jason tried to smile as charmingly as he could.

“Well, well, well, you’re sauntering back in here a little late for a man who’s got to win the fleece tomorrow,” Iolaus commented as Jason tried to sneak back up the gangplank of the ship. The prince joined Iolaus at the railing and leaned his back against it.

“Who appointed you Mother Hen? I thought that was Lilith’s job.”

“Come on, I saw the way you and that princess were looking at each other. There were enough sparks at the head table to burn down most of the palace.” Iolaus grinned at his friend. “Come on, give, what happened?”

“We walked, we talked, and that’s it.”

“That’s it? You didn’t try anything?”

“Iolaus, trying something could result in damaged relations and we need her father’s approval at least until we get the fleece and get out of range. Besides, I really like her. There’s something about her eyes that I could just get lost in. Suddenly, I didn’t want to rush, I wanted every moment to last an eternity.”

His companion laughed, “Oh man, you got it bad.”

“I’m going to bed, as you said, I’ve got a big day ahead of me tomorrow.”

Just after dawn found the Argonauts and the royal court assembled in a field on the outskirts of the city. King Aeetes strode in front of the assembled groups, “This is not a trial to win the fleece. What takes place this morning is for the right to attempt to retrieve the fleece. Prince Jason of Corinth asks for this right and only he can demonstrate his own worthiness. No assistance will be rendered. It is a difficult task, are you sure you want to go through with this?”

“Yes, sir. It’s my father’s only chance. I have to give him that chance.”

Aeetes moved forward and handed Jason a small burlap bag and a jug. “Good luck to you, son.”

Jason took a deep breath, grasped the bag, nodded at Aeetes, turned for one last look at his comrades and walked out into the field. Not knowing what was going to happen, he walked well away from the others before opening the bag and dumping the contents into his hand. A single seed no bigger than the end of his little finger fell into his palm. It looked harmless enough. He squatted down and with his fingers, dug a small hole. He dropped the seed into it, covered it over and poured some water from the jug over it.

Then, he watched. Nothing happened. He waited, nothing happened. Then, the ground beneath his feet began to move. What could almost be described as a groaning sound issued from below ground. Jason backed away. A large hand burst from the ground a few feet distant. Jason pulled out his sword and held it in his hand. The giant hand was easily as wide as Jason himself was tall, it was attached to an arm allowing it to blindly search the ground. The prince kept himself out of it’s way.

The ground erupted as the rest of the giant emerged from the ground. Jason ducked as dirt rained down on him. How was he supposed to fight this alone?

The giant having stood to his full height, raised a foot to take a step, the foot hovered over Jason’s head. He leaped up and stuck his sword in the bottom of it’s foot. The giant screamed in outrage.

“Good going, Jason, piss off the giant,” he said to himself.

The ground shook as the enormous foot hit the ground. Jason fell. The giant leaned over and growled at Jason. It lifted the other leg in an attempt to squash Jason under foot. But the prince rolled and swung his sword. It connected with the heel of the giant. Again, the ground shook violently as the giant fell. Jason rolled to his feet and stepped out of the way as a puddle of liquid poured from the gash in the giant’s heel. He had to move further away as the giant twitched and kicked. As more and more liquid leaked out of the gash the giant seemed to deflate. After a few minutes it had melted back into the earth from which it came.

As Jason stood staring at the ground before him, he heard a faint roaring. It got louder and he finally realized that the crowd was cheering. He’d done it.

King Aeetes shook his hand, “The first, you are the first to defeat Talus. You are your father’s successor. My daughter will lead you and your party to the sacred grove where the fleece is kept. But I warn you, it is protected and you’ll have to get past the protector. Your father has always been a good friend. I would hate to loose Colchis’ sacred treasure but if this is your father’s only hope, then, I wish you success.”

Medea came forward and took Jason’s hand. She gestured to the others to follow them and they walked together into the forest.

The Argonauts held back, giving Jason and Medea a little space. Iolaus walked beside Hercules, “How do you supposed Jason knew to cut it’s heel like that?”

Hercules shrugged, “Maybe it’s something Cheiron will teach us next year? Jason is a year ahead of us.”

Archivus chimed in, “I don’t know how he knew, but it was brilliant. This will all make the most wonderful story. It’s got everything: adventure, romance, tragedy. I wonder what we’ll find when we get to the grove?”

“What’s worse than a giant?” Iolaus asked.

Medea’s blue cloak flapped in the breeze, “Jason, I’m not supposed to help you or say anything about what you will face in the grove.”

“I understand.”

“But I don’t want anything to happen to you. I know we don’t know each other well, hardly at all really. But I feel there’s something between us. I felt it the first moment I saw you and I think you feel it, too.” She looked at him with the question in her eyes.

Jason nodded, “Yes, when I saw you, it was as if, I don’t know, I’ve never felt that way before. I can’t describe it.”

“Do you think there could be a future for us?”

“That’s a little premature, don’t you think?”

She smiled, “Yes, but I’m considering something that would violate my oath as keeper of the Fleece. Before I do that, I need to know that the possibility of a future exists.”

“I don’t want you to do anything that you would regret. When I become king of Corinth, I will need a queen, I don’t know if that queen is you but before I met you, I hadn’t met anyone that I thought about becoming that queen.”

“It’s enough. I can not help you once we reach the grove. The others may help you but I can not. I will leave you there and go back to the palace alone. The protector is old and I don’t want him harmed. I will tell you that there is a special mixture of herbs that will help the protector to sleep very deeply.” She pulled a small leather bag from her belt and placed it in his hand. “For our future whether it’s together or just as good allies as our fathers are. Once you have the Fleece, follow the path on the other side of the grove and it will lead you back to your ship. I must leave you here. The grove is just ahead. Good luck to you Jason of Corinth.” She bowed deeply to him and he kissed her hand. They shared one last lingering glance and she was gone, her blue cloak floating behind her down a third path.

Jason watched her leave until she was out of sight, then he turned to his companions.

“Wow, so should we worry about you being bewitched?” Lycenus asked.

“Maybe,” Jason admitted, “but we have to save my father first.”

“Did all that intimate conversation tell us anything about what we’ll find ahead?” Castor asked.

Jason grinned and held up the bag, “Who knew having a thief in our midst was going to give us an advantage. You were a good thief, weren’t you, Iolaus?”

“Before he got caught anyway,” Castor commented snidely.

“I was the best, of course,” Iolaus swaggered toward Jason shooting Castor a dirty look.

“Then, this is all yours.” Jason deposited the bag in his hand. Iolaus opened it and peered inside, “dust? Magic dust?” he guessed.

“Something to put the protector to sleep so we can grab the Fleece.”

“And just what is this protector?” Lilith inquired.

“She didn’t say. Let’s go see what this is all about.”

They emerged at the edge of a beautiful clearing. It wasn’t terribly large but it definitely was the right place. The Fleece hung, golden and beautiful, in the center of the clearing on a simple wooden framework. The protector however, wasn’t so simple. A large green and gold dragon lay curled up beside the Fleece. It’s wings folded around it in sleep.

“Ok,” Jason whispered, “Iolaus will sneak over and get the dragon to inhale the dust, then I will go get the Fleece. The rest of you circle around the clearing and meet us on the other side. That’s the path back to the Argo.”

“No, Jason, I’ll get the Fleece,” Hercules said.

“Hercules, I appreciate your offer but it’s my father. I’ll do it. You lead the others around quietly. If Iolaus does his job there won’t be any trouble.” The prince of Corinth gave Hercules a no nonsense look that said he shouldn’t argue. Hercules nodded and moved off gesturing for the others to follow.

Jason and Iolaus stood and stared at the dragon. Iolaus had been staring at the dragon since he set eyes on it. He couldn’t tear his eyes away. “So, I’m supposed to just get it to inhale this stuff?”

“Yes.”

“That means that I have to get real close to it, huh?”

“Yes.”

Iolaus took a deep breath, “Okay. I can do this.”

“Yes, you can.”

Iolaus nodded his head once and stepped forward. He crept slowly and silently being cautious of twigs and branches. It took time and everyone held their breath except the dragon. Finally, the former thief drew close enough to feel the dragon’s breath. He poured the dust into a shaking hand and held it out, not daring to breathe himself. The dragon sucked the dust in with his next intake of breath and snorted. Two small flames shot from his nostrils. Iolaus jumped but held his ground, still not daring to breathe. The dragon shifted position and settled once again. Iolaus let out the breath he’d been holding and took a tentative step back, then another and finally turned around and walked over to where Hercules waited with the rest of the Argonauts.

It was up to Jason now. He waited and watched a bit longer. The dragon’s breath was slow and steady and deep. The prince moved forward slowly directly to the Fleece. He made short work of cutting it down with his knife. The Fleece fell into his arms. He stood and held it a moment. So many hopes hinged on it’s retrieval, so many hopes. He spared a last glance at the dragon still soundly asleep on the ground nearby. He turned and forcing himself to walk slowly, he made his way out of the clearing and into the silent celebration on the path back to the ship.

Medea sighed with relief. Both her old and her new friend were unharmed. She could ask for no more in that moment. A great treasure had been lost to her people but they knew they would not be the keepers of the Fleece forever. Such objects have purpose. She hoped that this was the destiny the Fleece was intended for. She vowed to herself that she would see Jason again. She had to.

Lycenus and the 3 remaining Corinth guards had the ship ready to sail as soon as the Argonauts returned. It was quickly decided that it would be faster to return by taking the Ister River and approach Corinth from the north rather than sailing all the way around the cliffs in order to return the way they had come.

The real party took place on the Argo. A feast was held and much merry making and boasting ensued. Jason stepped out on deck to get some air and found Hercules standing at the rail alone.

“What’s with you?” Jason asked as he leaned on the rail.

“What do you mean?” Hercules asked.

“You. You hardly stayed long enough at the party to eat and you’re up here sulking. What gives, friend?”

Hercules sighed, “Four people have died, in this quest for the Fleece and I couldn’t stop it.”

“None of us could have stopped it, Hercules. We all came into this with open eyes. We knew the hero business had risks and those risks might mean giving our lives in the quest. That’s what heroes do. Why blame yourself?”

“Because I should have been able to stop it.”

“Why because you’re a demigod? That’s bull, Hercules. Yes, you have gifts. Yes, you need to learn to control them responsibly but that doesn’t make you responsible for everyone else.”

“I know, but I feel responsible. I have these powers, I ought to be able to use them for good.”

“You can use them for good but that doesn’t mean that you will be able to do everything and save everyone. Those are the limits that Cheiron keeps talking about.”

“I know. I just need some time.”

“OK, You think about it. I’ll go back to the party.” Jason turned and found Iolaus leaning against the mast behind them. He’d heard it all. As he passed by he whispered, “If you intend to stay his partner after the Academy, you’d better be be ready. He needs a keeper for his conscience.”

Iolaus nodded and waited until Jason disappeared below before moving to stand next to Hercules. He didn’t say a word. He simply stood there leaning against the railing, watching the waves. He didn’t need to speak, sometimes it helps just to be there.

“WHAT!!! How is that possible? Mother, how could they possibly have survived Talus and the dragon and gotten their hands on the Fleece?”

“Calm yourself, Ares. They had help, that little slip of a girl that belongs to Aeetes and they will pay. You needn’t be concerned about that.

“So what now? They’ve got the Fleece and are on their way back here with it. What route did they take?”

“The shortest route, of course, time is of the essence for them any way. The Ister.”

The war god reflected, “There still may be a way to stop them. I’ll take care of it.”

“I knew you would.”

Jason and Lycenus sat staring at the bank of the wide river. Something wasn’t right. They’d sailed over half the way home and suddenly the muddy bank was getting wider as if the water level was dropping. As if the water from the river were being diverted somewhere else but Jason couldn’t imagine where. They had lifted all the sails to increase their speed as much as they could. The Argonauts had grown quiet, waiting for the sight of the Mediterranean or to hear the Argo scrape bottom.

“How much farther do you think?” Lycenus asked.

Jason shook his head, “I don’t know. A few days maybe less.”

“We’re not going to make it are we?” He asked.

Jason replied in a voice that could barely be heard, “I don’t think so.”

They could see the bottom. They had been passing ships that sat deeper in the water than the Argo that had run aground since yesterday. They’d thrown overboard everything that they could to lighten the ship’s load and make her ride higher in the water. But it was only a matter of time. The crew sat on the deck watching and waiting.

“So, when we do hit bottom, what are our options?” Iolaus asked.

“We walk,” Valerus said.

“We can’t walk home from here. Are you going to swim the Mediterranean?” Lycenus commented.

“Then what do you suggest?” Valerus shot back.

Lilith stood and paced as she thought, “We’re close right? Maybe we could push the ship on the mud?Use the oars.”

A couple of heads nodded. “It’ll be rough going though, we’ll all have to push together.” Andreus, one of the Palace guards suggested. “I used to go out on my father’s fishing boat and we have moved it that way through swamp land. It’s possible but it’s back breaking work.”

“Whatever it takes, we’ll do it.” Iolaus said standing as well, “We are Jason’s father’s only chance.”

“Thank you.” Jason said.

The ship lurched as a loud scraping sound could be heard from below. Iolaus and those standing grabbed something to keep their balance. The Argo’s speed slowed dramatically and then stopped. The Argonauts looked at each other and then at Andreus.

“Divide up evenly on either side of the ship. Everyone get an oar,” Andreus ordered. “Hercules we’ll need your strength back here in the stern.” Hercules nodded and moved. Even Jason took up a position as Andreus continued, “set your oar into the mud beside the ship. Make sure that it doesn’t tangle with the other oars. When I beat the oil drum, you push, if we all do it together, our combined strength will move the ship. Everybody ready?” Getting nods all around he began beating the drum, a slow steady rhythm. They all pushed. At first nothing happened and then the ship moved forward an inch, two, three and they were on their way again.

It was back breaking work and hand blistering work. The cadets were unused to this kind of labor and their palms and fingers quickly blistered. They had to tie strips of fabric around their hands to protect them. All the while the water level continued to fall. Andreus forced them to take regular breaks and drink water and rest.

During one of these breaks, Iolaus staggered up from where he had collapsed and made his way to the stern where Hercules was working alone. “Hey, how are you holding up back here?”

“Ok, I’ll be fine.”

“Herc, your hands are bleeding. Andreus! We need some more bandages back here.”

“I said I was fine.”

“Herc, it’s ok, we’re all going through this. We just need to clean this up--”

“We don’t have time, We have to keep moving. If we don’t more people will die. I--”Hercules saw the shocked look on his friend’s face, “I’m sorry, Iolaus. I just can’t let any of you down.”

“You’re not. Herc, we need you and that means taking care of you so you can keep taking care of us. That’s what teamwork is, taking care of each other so all of us can continue.” He had taken the bandages off Hercules hands as he spoke. Hercules’ hands were swollen and crusted with dried blood.

Jason brought over a bucket of water, “Everything ok back here?”

“No,” Iolaus replied before Hercules could. “He needs to soak these and have them rebandaged before we can continue.”

Jason nodded, “Okay, Everybody we’re breaking for lunch, let’s see what we can find to eat.”

“Come on, Hercules.” Iolaus didn’t give him a chance to protest, “Let’s go sit in the shade and I’ll fix you up.”

It went on for three days and still Lycenus could see no end to their struggles. He could see the blue line of the Mediterranean in the distance but it was still so far away. Andreus took Iolaus’ position in the front so that he could stay back with Hercules more and more. The demigod hardly spoke to anyone, thus was his determination. The others slept, Hercules stood watch, unable to sleep. He would not allow anyone to spell him from the stern. Iolaus made sure that his hands were cared for and that he drank plenty of water.

Their collective strength ran out within sight of the clear blue water ahead. Try as they might, they just could not push the Argo any further. They had maybe a quarter of a mile to go. They slept on it, hoping against hope that the morning would yield fresh ideas and spirit.

“Andreus,” Jason began, “You are our expert in these matters, what can we do?”

Andreus was leaning over the side examining the ship and the river bottom. “We’ve ran completely out of water and the mud we’re pushing through is piling up at the bow. We need to get the Argo back on top of the mud and not in it as she is now. We can cut some of those trees and use them to roll her, like when she was built. But we’ll still have to dig her out.”

“So we need two teams; tree cutters and mud bunnies.”

“At least it’s a change.” Lilith commented as she pushed a mound of mud with her hands. Iolaus standing in mud well above his knees, took the offered mound and pushed it out of their way. He was covered in mud. “You should see yourself,” Lilith commented.

“And you think you look better?” Iolaus asked. “I thought you women liked to lay around in the mud?”

“Yeah, it’s supposed to make your skin soft and beautiful. I don’t feel soft and beautiful.”

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” Iolaus quipped. He didn’t even notice when he was hit in the back with a mud ball.

A great crash sounded as another tree fell, “They ought to have about all the trees we’ll need. Do you think we’ve got enough of the mud cleared away?” Archivus asked. Only the whites of his eyes could be seen through the layer of mud covering him. Even the curls in his hair were frozen in position by a firm caking of the mud.

Iolaus appraised the situation, “I think so, these first few are what’s going to be hard. We’ll have to be careful not to tip the ship or let her fall back into the mud.”

With the first log in place at the bow, the entire crew stood sunk to their knees in the mud, ready to push on the sides of the ship. Several were a few feet out from the ship with the oars positioned to keep the ship upright as they maneuvered her onto the log and out of the mud. With a great heave the ship began to move. Hercules stood behind the stern and gave it all he had. The Argo’s bow slipped up on the log, Quickly, another log was moved into position and the heaving repeated. Then, a third log and a fourth and she was up out of the mud at last. The crew was too tired for much cheering but their hearts were lighter. Now it was just a matter of providing the brute force necessary to move the ship on the logs and moving the logs around from the back to the front.

After a brief rest, they began again and now with the ship on rollers the work did not seem as difficult as it had with the oars. Or perhaps it was just the nearness of the sea that encouraged them. They could smell the salt air and knew their labor was nearly done.

They switched jobs frequently to keep everyone from getting too tired, except Hercules. They needed him on the stern, they couldn’t move the ship without him.

Jason pushed alongside of Iolaus, between shoves, they talked.

“Iolaus, when I said that you’d have to be the keeper of Hercules’ conscious, I didn’t mean it literally.”

“I know, but you’re right. Someone has to look out for him. He’ll keep sacrificing until it kills him and then he’ll sit in the Elysian Fields feeling guilty for all the people he couldn’t help. Herc has his faults but he’s a hero, a greater hero than any of us could even dream of being. He needs us, he needs me, to help him. If Hercules is going to choose a hero’s life then he’s going to need someone looking out for Hercules while Hercules is looking out for everyone else. I’m just an ordinary guy, Jason. There’s nothing special about me, but if I can help him, keep being a hero, then that’s something worth doing.”

Jason stopped and stared at Iolaus as if he’d never seen him before. The layers of mud made it difficult to see the man’s features but his heart shown clearly through, “Don’t ever say that you’re not special, Iolaus. You’re more of a hero than you know.”

With a last mighty shove the Argo tipped up and slipped into the blue water of the Mediterranean. This time the Argonauts did cheer and then dove into the water themselves. Hercules fell to his knees exhaustion weighing heavily on him now that the work was finally done.

Jason and Iolaus were at his side immediately, “Come on, Herc, the cool water will help revive you.”

“I don’t think I can make it,” he said simply.

Jason hoisted an arm over his shoulder, “I think we can help.” Iolaus did likewise and they supported the demigod to the water’s edge and then down into it. The coolness soothing the aches and pains they all felt.

Corinth was but a short journey via the open sea. The cadets, dirty and tired, filed off the Argo at the same dock where they had begun. They all looked a little different, older, more mature. They had seen something of life, something new, something difficult, next time they would be more prepared.

Jason clutched the bag containing the Fleece to him. “I know it’s been a long journey, but I’d be honored if you’d all come with me to Corinth. I’d like to introduce each of you to my father.”

They all agreed readily, all except for Hercules.

“I’m sorry, Jason. I’d like to...but I can’t go.”

“Herc, I thought you were part of this team. We need you,” Iolaus stated.

“I know, and I am, but I can’t go, Iolaus, Jason. You go on ahead. I just need some time.”

“You’re going to miss the chance to help throw Pelias in chains. Not to mention a great celebration.”

Hercules forced a smile, “Have a good time for me.”

“Herc...” Iolaus began.

“I can’t. You go on, Iolaus. I know how much you enjoy parties. I’ll catch up later maybe.”

The lure of a party was too much, “You’re sure?”

“Yes, go on.”

The cadets headed off merrily down the Corinth road in the wagons left by the Palace guards. Hercules watched them leave. He felt torn inside. He was part of the team but the team wasn’t complete and somehow that was his fault. He had to go apologize to someone.

“Cheiron?” Hercules asked quietly. This time of day the Academy’s headmaster could usually be found in his office.

“Hercules! We got the word a little while ago. The mission was a success. But shouldn’t you be on your way to Corinth with the rest of your companions?”

“Cheiron, I...I failed you. I’m sorry.”

Cheiron came around his desk and led Hercules to the bench against the wall. “How have you failed me, Hercules?”

“Lairdus and Enyo, it was a trap and I didn’t see it in time and they killed each other and Darvonius, he’s one of the palace guards, I could have saved him but there wasn’t time and Thamus, he...he just panicked and I could have saved him but I had to stay and help the others. I let them die.”

“That’s ridiculous.” Cheiron lifted Hercules’ gaze from the floor with a gentle hand on his chin. “Those men chose their fate when they left that dock the first day. They all knew they could be killed. Hercules, this is what all that talk of limits is about. You have greatness in you. Your mother saw it - it’s the reason she sent you here. I see it too. You’re going to do magnificent things in your lifetime and help many people. You are already a hero. No one else could have moved that ship across the mud. Hercules did that. We heard about that feat days ago. People saw you pushing that ship and the word spread. You have made a name for yourself, Hercules, a reputation. All of the Argonauts have. You are the talk of all Greece.”

“We are? But I wasn’t able--”

“You are all heroes and no you did not save everyone. The world doesn’t deal in absolutes, Hercules. You did the best you could, no one will ever ask more of you than that. You cannot make choices for others, we must each make our own choices in this life and we must each live with the consequences. Sometimes our choices force others to live with the consequences as well. If you continue to do the work of a hero, there will be others who you can not save. You must be able to deal with that. You are human. You are just Hercules, nothing more, nothing less. Hercules will make mistakes and he will grieve for those lost because he has a heart. And his heart will make him a hero more than his strength will. Gifts do not make one a hero, Hercules. The heart makes one a hero. Do you understand that?”

Hercules was silent. He needed a moment to process all that had been said. Finally, he sighed, not completely convinced but beginning to understand, “I think so.”

“Good. Now, it’s a long walk to Corinth, use it to think about what I’ve said. Go to your friends, they need you. A team is only complete when all the members are present. Go.”

In Corinth, the Argonauts burst into the castle and made their way to the King’s chamber. Pelias was there waiting for them.

“Get away from him! My father needs to breathe fresh air.”

Pelias clapped, “Bravo, Jason. You’ve surprised me. I thought that voyage would be the end of you and your young friends. I was wrong. I’m not too big to admit it. But this crown stays on my head! You saw Aeson’s decree.”

“That scrap of paper will mean nothing when my father wakes up and sees the treachery you’ve wrought!” Jason shoved Pelias back and flung the Fleece over his father’s comatose form. Jason leaned down, “Father? Father, it’s me, Jason. Please, wake up. Come back to me.”

The Fleece glowed with a golden light. Suddenly, Aeson stirred and moaned, his face flushing with new life. Jason and the Argonauts gasp. Pelias stepped forward and even he looked amazed that it worked. He put a hand to Aeson’s throat. “By the gods! You’re right! His pulse is quickening. He’s coming out of it, he’s...” Pelias grabbed Aeson’s head and twisted, an audible crack signaling that the neck was broken. “...Aw, a turn for the worse.”

The King dies. Jason staggers back in horror, “No, no, no, no...”

“Oh, yes, yes, yes! Your father is dead, and I dare say you’re on your way to the other side as well.”

Jason pulled his sword and charged, screaming with rage, “I’ll kill you, you bastard.”

“Sorry kid, think again,” Pelias vanished in a swirl of sparkles, only to reappear behind Jason in his usual more comfortable garb.

“Ares!” Iolaus yelled.

The door to the room slammed open, Hercules strode in a new man, “I leave you guys alone for just a couple of hours and you get into trouble. What am I going to do with you guys?”

“No, he’s mine!” Jason screamed and leaped on Ares’ back. The god of War grabbed the sword from the prince’s hand as he threw him over his head. Jason crashed into the wall and bounced back with a vengeance. Ares lifted Jason’s sword and impaled the prince on it. Jason’s scream of outrage turned to pain and shock. The sword entered his abdomen and protruded out his back. Ares yanked the sword out and turned, awaiting next comer.

Iolaus and Archivus caught the prince and lowered him to the floor, pulling him out of the way madly trying to staunch the flow of blood.

“Get him, Herc!” Iolaus yelled.

Hercules, already moving, dove at Ares and his momentum carried them both through the open window. They crashed into the roof of a small shed and rolled to the ground. Ares sprang to his feet. The people gathered below to pray for their king gasped in recognition and then screamed in outrage.

In the distance a peacock screamed and it all fell together for Hercules. “You’re not alone in this, Ares. Hera’s behind it, too. She used to be top god around here and she wanted to make a comeback, didn’t she? It’s not just that you wanted Jason and his father out of the way so you could set up a puppet government. You saw a chance to do away with me in spite of Zeus’ edict not to harm me.”

Thunder rumbled ominously. The crowd searched for the coming storm but there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

“Think you’re pretty smart, don’t you, Hercules? You’ve exposed my little plot to take over Corinth. Alright, I’ll give you this one. But I’ll be back and you’re little king won’t know what hit him.” The war god vanished in a sparkle of glitter.

“What’s this about, Hercules?” A man from the crowd stepped forward to ask, “What did he mean about a plot to take over Corinth?”

“He’s losing blood fast, too fast,” Iolaus called to Archivus, “Get the Fleece.” Leaping over Jason’s feet, Archivus pulled the Fleece off of the father and helped Iolaus drape it over the son.

“Come on, Jason. You’ll be ok.” Lilith pleaded.

“Yeah, your kingdom needs you,” Iolaus encouraged.

The Fleece, again, glowed with the unnatural light. Jason’s eyes fluttered and opened, slowly focusing on a room full of people, not just the Argonauts but half of the palace staff.

“Iolaus?”

“I’m here buddy,” Iolaus lifted the fleece and probed the wound beneath it, now not finding a wound at all. “I think you’re going to be alright.” Iolaus slumped against the bookcase behind them, closing his eyes in relief.

A cheer went up.

“My father’s dead. I’ll never be alright again.”

The cheer died in mid voicing. Minds turned to immediate concerns.

“Clear the room,” Cestus ordered. “Prince Jason is well but he will need some rest before the coronation. We have a coronation to prepare for. You all have your duties.”

Nodding the crowd of staff dispersed. Lycenus and Archivus helped Jason to a chair.

Iolaus rose on legs still weak with relief and moved to the broken window to check on Hercules. “Herc’s down there with a crowd of people. I don’t see any sign of Ares. Maybe he split when his cover was blown.” Iolaus caught Hercules’ attention and waved to him to come back into the castle. A servant brought water and distributed to the now silent group.

Hercules burst through the doors, “Jason! You’re alright?” The prince nodded wearily. “Jason, it wasn’t just Ares. Hera was in it, too. She wanted to reclaim Corinth for her own.”

Jason absorbed this new information before motioning to Cestus, “There is an old altar of Hera’s down the hall. It’s not been used in decades, I don’t care what it takes, destroy it.”

“I’ll take care of that for you, Jason. It would be my pleasure to dismantle it,” Hercules said. “I have a feeling that I’ll be doing that a lot in the coming years.”

A huge cheer went up as the crown was set upon Jason’s head but no cheer was louder than that from the Argonauts. The day before a hastily crafted plaque was hung next to the Fleece commemorating the sacrifices made in it’s retrieval. In that manner, no one would forget the price that was paid for a long, long time to come. The day before that, Corinth had lain their beloved king to rest. It had been a busy few days for every one.

As promised an immense party was held. A party that spanned the entire city, the entire kingdom. But Hercules was dressed for travel. He approached the throne and bowed awkwardly if not irreverently to the new King.

“Well, your majesty. I’m sorry you came to the throne the way you did, but my best to you. I know you’ll reign for a long, long time.”

“Thanks, Hercules. You sure you won’t stay? This party’ll go on for days. And I’ll be staffing my Royal Cabinet soon. I could use a military minister.”

“Maybe in a few years. I need to go home, let my mother know I’m okay. And I’ve got a little more to learn from Cheiron, I think before I head out into the big world again.”

“I will miss the Academy.”

“You won’t have time to miss it, you’ll be too busy running a kingdom.”

Jason rose and clasped Hercules by the arm in a warrior’s handshake. Then, his attention was captured by the entry of a woman in a stunning blue gown with sapphire blue eyes and the blackest of hair, “Excuse me, Herc, but I see a visiting dignitary that I must greet. Come by and visit, you’ll always be welcome here.”

Hercules shook his head as Jason sprinted down the steps and away.

Outside the palace the party continued. Hercules turned away from the party and headed toward the edge of town. Iolaus appeared at his side, also dressed for travel. His pack over his shoulder. “Yep, lotta people, lotta problems, lotta things to do.”

“I’m sorry. Are you going somewhere?” Hercules asked innocently. They hadn’t discussed it openly but somehow Hercules felt that they had a new understanding of some sort. He just wasn’t sure what it was.

“Yeah, I’m coming with you!”

The ever present weight on Hercules’ shoulders seemed to lift, and for the first time in a long time, he felt like teasing, “That’s weird. I could’ve sworn that you just said you were coming...”

“I did! Herc, you seem to attract trouble. I don’t know what it is - maybe you’re too gullible, maybe you don’t have good judgement...”

“Maybe you are rubbing off on me?” Hercules suggested.

“My point is, I just hate the thought of you out there in the world, being stomped by giants, or lake-dragons... You know, getting your ass kicked somewhere, with no one to help you out!”

“Getting my ass kicked?” Hercules wondered.

“Well, maybe not kicked and we’ll call Jason if there’s giants, he’s good with them. But stabbed. Or speared maybe! Whatever. I’m just saying that we could stay a team after we leave the Academy. I mean, you’re a big guy. I’m a little guy. Trouble seems to come in all sizes. We could work together....”

“Okay.”

“I mean, we could...what’d you just say?”

Hercules put his arm around Iolaus’ shoulders in a brotherly fashion, “I said okay.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, really. I don’t think it’ll be any fun to slay monsters by myself. Who will I celebrate with?”

“Yeah! This is gonna be good!”

The two friends continued as they left the city and headed into the countryside. The sun set and a beautiful starlit sky appeared above them. A shooting star traveled the breadth of the sky and it reminded Hercules of something. “Iolaus, you know how I’ve been trying so hard to get my father’s attention?”

“Kinda hard to miss, Herc.”

“I think I’ve finally figured out how to get a rise out of the old man at last.”

Iolaus rolled his eyes in a long suffering gesture, “And how’s that?”

“I just have to follow my heart.”

Hercules sat down his fishing pole and picked up a rock.

“Herc, that’s cheating.”

“So sue me.” Hercules waded out into the lake.

Jason had given up on the fish long ago and returned to camp to see what he could scrounge to eat. Iolaus had removed his boots and joined Hercules soaking his feet in the cool water. The hunter looked up after a long silence to find Hercules gazing at him fondly. When the demigod finally spoke, his voice was thick with emotion, “Iolaus, you knew all that about me, even back then?”

“I can’t say when exactly but somewhere during that journey on the Argo, I knew that I was meant to spend my life at your side, Herc. I knew that you’d never stop trying to save everyone and make everything right. I knew you’d need someone at your back. Someone that you’d accept looking after you when you needed it; when you did all you could and still couldn’t make it all right.” Iolaus shrugged, “Your life’s work is helping people, mine is helping you.”

“I couldn’t do it without you, Buddy.” Hercules knew full well that the lessons he had learned so long ago, were lessons that he still struggled with. In an ideal world Hercules should be able to save everyone and fix everything, but the world was not ideal and he needed his friends to remind him of that occasionally even after all these years.

Iolaus smiled and nodded, “I know.”

“I suppose we should get back to it, the hero business, I mean,” the demigod suggested.

“Only if you’re ready, Herc.”

“I’m ready, but first, we should catch some supper. Go find me some more rocks.”

“Herc, that’s cheating,” Iolaus’ stomach rumbled loudly.

“You want another meal of berries or would you rather I cheat?”

“Cheat! Cheat!” Jason called from their camp in the shelter of the trees, letting them know that he’d been listening to all that was said. “Let him cheat, Iolaus. I’m hungry.”

“I’ll get the net, partner,” Iolaus grinned.

Finis
6-23-05



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