Second Chances Part II: For Love’s Own Sake

by Arianna

Story originally written for Hercules: the Legendary Journeys by: Robert Bielak (Mercenary), Gene O'Neill and Noreen Tobin (Love Takes A Holiday)

All the way up the mountain path, as day receded into night, Iolaus felt disoriented by his new knowledge. How weird was it to think of that young woman as his grandmother? He kept telling himself it couldn’t be true, that his father hadn’t been the much beloved little boy who’d not been abandoned at all, but simply lost when a curse had overtaken his mother and his home. All he’d ever known, all his father had ever known, was that he’d been found by a tinker’s boy who had been sent by his mother to search for a father who was long overdue. Frowning, Iolaus figured the man he’d met briefly in the village behind him was the missing tinker. Sighing, shaking his head, he chewed on his lip as he wondered what kind of man his father would have been had Hephaestus not cursed that village so long ago, and he felt a surge of anger then, not simply for the injustice of it all, but hot, personal anger, for what he’d suffered as the son of a man who had grown up believing he’d been cast aside by those who had loved him…a man who had, for the rest of his life, distrusted love and rejected it when it was offered, lest he be hurt again.

Swallowing hard, the warrior flinched away from his thoughts, finding them too unsettling. He’d been at odds with his parent for almost the whole of his life, and when his father had been killed in battle, he’d felt what? Relief that the acrimony between them was over? Anger, that they’d never have a chance to mend their fences, to find some common ground? Regret, that he would never have the chance to win the respect and love that he’d craved from his father? He didn’t want to feel the guilt that rose in his chest now, for never having fully understood the man who’d given him life, and for never having felt sufficient sympathy for the losses and terrors that small child had suffered so many years ago.

Forcing the feelings away, unable to deal with the magnitude of what he was learning, still not completely certain that he believed it all, Iolaus focused on the task ahead. Aphrodite was still with him, grumbling to herself about having to make the long march up the steep path when it would be so much easier to simply ‘appear’ at the entrance to the caverns. She had taken off briefly, an hour before, only to pop back, complaining about being bored by having to wait for Iolaus to get there the mortal way, one step at a time. And so she muttered and chafed at the delay, wanting action and adventure, not the boredom and strain of the climb that was making her legs and feet ache. Still, she was determined to prove she could be as good as Hercules at the hero business, and so she slogged along in his wake. The warrior found himself smiling wryly to himself as darkness settled around them - he had to give her credit for trying so hard to be something or someone other than what she’d been born to be.

His thoughts turned to Leandra then and he bit his lip in anxiety for her. She seemed a sweet, gentle woman, still grieving for her lost husband and so very afraid for her missing son. In all that was happening, she seemed to spare little concern for herself and the fact that Hephaestus wanted something from her that she didn’t wish to give - or have it in her to give. How could she love another when she’d not finished grieving her husband? And why was Heph doing this, forcing himself upon a woman who didn’t want him? Iolaus shook his head, having more questions than he had answers. He’d never have believed the God of the Forge would force himself upon someone who didn’t want or love him - but then, he’d never thought Heph would curse a whole village either, simply because he wasn’t getting his way. Like some spoiled child. But, then, Hephaestus was a god, however friendly he’d seemed years ago. Evidently, as Hercules always reminded him, no god could be trusted.

Not even the one trudging up the path behind him, or so Iolaus thought then. He’d have to remember that - and not be surprised if ‘Dite left him high and dry once she ceased to be amused by this latest escapade.

There was little light left when Hercules eased his way across a narrow clearing, alert to every sound and shadow. Twice during his search, he’d evaded booby traps the mercenary had set to slow him down. He’d followed Derk’s trail to the edge of a small pond and, parched with thirst with his loss of blood and a day without water, he’d nearly drunk carelessly - but a mole slaking its thirst on the far side of the pool had fallen dead into the water, warning him that it was bad. Swallowing hard at the narrowness of his escape, Hercules had stood away from the fetid water and had tried to ignore his thirst as he carried on relentlessly. He’d just past a small copse of trees when the slightest movement flickered in the corner of his eye and he whirled, club held defensively, as Petronicus charged. The mercenary, with dirt smudged over his face and body, had been trying to merge undetected with the darkness under the trees.

“Your camouflage needs a little work,” the demigod scorned as he blocked Derk’s strike with his own rough club.

“Doesn’t matter. You’re still a dead man,” the criminal snarled, swinging his stave ruthlessly. They clashed together, and Hercules rued his weakened condition for Derk was more than holding his own. They pushed and tripped one another, rolled on the ground and sprang apart before either could get a good grip. As they scrambled back to their feet, the mercenary growled with ironic respect, “You’re good, Hercules, even with one arm. But are you good enough?” He swung his improvised lance hard, catching Hercules’ wounded arm and the demigod nearly passed out from the pain that shot through his body. The son of Zeus cried out in agony as he staggered back, and then whirled, swinging his own club to drive Derk back.

Panting for breath, the demigod backed a step to give himself room to manoeuvre, but the ground gave way under his boots. His eyes widened with stunned surprise and he yelled inarticulately as he dropped like a stone - he barely managed to clutch onto the rocky lip of what appeared to be an abandoned well - but, strong as he was, his one-handed grip wasn’t solid enough to give him the leverage to hoist himself onto solid ground.

Feigning concern, the mercenary smiled grimly as he assessed the demigod’s weakened condition and saw the stain of blood seeping through the filthy bandage. Prowling closer like a lion about to make his kill, he purred, “Here, let me help.” But help was the last thing he intended as he banged his stave down upon Hercules’ fingers, forcing the demigod to let go and plunge to the depths of the shaft.

Hercules yelled in range as he fell, but when he hit the rocky bottom, his shout was cut off as both breath and consciousness were briefly driven from his body. However, only scant moments later, he was groaning and pushing himself to his feet, his gaze already seeking the way out of this trap.

“That’s a dried-up well you’re in,” Derk called from above. “You better start digging,” he added, alluding to both their need for moisture.

“We’d find water a lot quicker if you were down here helping me!” Hercules shouted back even as he prowled. The bottom of the well opened up into a fairly wide area, the ground beneath his feet covered with shifting sand, the walls crumbling at his touch.

Laughing, the mercenary called back as he laid down on the ground, “True, very true - but I need my rest.”

Hercules grimaced sardonically and rolled his eyes as he continued his survey of the well. He spotted large broken shells on the ground, and then dug out another from the sandy wall - this one intact. His eyes narrowed in speculation when he tossed it on the ground, and it cracked and splattered its contents.

“Big eggs,” he murmured thoughtfully, a frisson of disquiet rippling up his spine as he hoped whatever had laid them didn’t return, at least not until he’d found a way out. “Looks like we’re not alone.” Continuing to prowl his prison, he listened to Derk’s breathing settle into soft snores and grinned a little, glad he wasn’t the only one who was exhausted by their game of cat and mouse. Gripping vines that grew along the wall one after another, he finally found one that didn’t pull lose and seemed soundly anchored near the open edge above his head. Grimly, he reached up and gripped it firmly, looping it around his wrist - and so he made his arduous climb, his feet scrabbling for some modest foothold as he patiently eased his grip higher and higher, looping the vine around his good arm so he’d not slip and lose ground, using his teeth to hold himself in place each time he let go with his fingers to reach higher…

Sleeping the deep sleep of the just, Derk was oblivious of the appearance of the demigod at the edge of the pit and didn’t hear the low grunts as Hercules hauled himself onto solid ground. For a moment, the big man lay gasping, fighting the hideous pain from his wounded arm and shoulder. And then he eased himself up quietly to slip to the mercenary’s side and kneel. Nudging Derk with his hand, he waited until the other man blinked into sudden wakefulness.

“Have a nice nap?” Hercules asked sarcastically before belting Derk hard enough to render him unconscious. He quickly bound the unconscious man’s wrists, and then he dragged the mercenary to the lip of the dry well and shoved him over to land with a soft thud below. After that, Hercules yanked out all the vines that grew around and down the sides, so that Derk would not find as convenient a route to freedom as he had. Sagging wearily to the ground, he lay on his back, cradled his fiercely hurting arm against his chest and looked up through the overarching branches to the stars beginning to wink in the night sky. He knew his wound needed attention, but he was shaking from exhaustion and too damned tired to do anything more at the moment. Closing his eyes, he let sleep take him.

Crouching in the lea of some tall bushes, using them for cover while he scoped out the entrance to the caverns, Iolaus wondered what they’d be up against once they broached Hephaestus’ lair. Much as he hated to admit it, he was glad to know he had a goddess -and the kind of power she wielded - on his side, but he worried that, since she didn’t have a clue about how to fight, that she might be caught off guard. He sure didn’t want Aphrodite to be hurt - a goddess with a grudge wasn’t a happy thought. Turning to look over his shoulder at her, he said quietly so as to not attract any unwanted attention, “When we get in there…”

“Uh-huh?” she cut in impatiently, eager to bounce her mace off someone’s head.

Standing directly in front of her to get her wandering attention, Iolaus cautioned sternly, “Be alert. Uh, keep moving. And, uh, Hercules and I - we always cover each other’s backs, okay?”

Frowning at him, she demanded cuttingly, “Do you rag Hercules all the time, too?”

Iolaus sighed and shook his head as he glanced back at the entrance, made uneasy by the fact that there were no obvious guards. Surely, Heph didn’t leave the access to his caverns wide open for just anyone to saunter in.

Aphrodite began to push past him as she burbled, “Look! There’s the entrance! Ooh, I can’t wait to mix it up!”

Once again, Iolaus blocked her path, slowing her down. “Aphrodite?”

“Uh-huh?” she muttered distracted by her enthusiasm and desire to have at it.

“Before we go in, um, I think I should teach you a few moves - just to see if you’re ready,” he offered, really wanting to do his best to ensure she’d be prepared for a fight.

“Okay,” she allowed, focusing on him and remembering how much he’d helped with the archery lesson. Learning a few moves sounded like a good idea and part of the role she was so anxious to play. Could be fun.

“All right,” Iolaus returned as he cleared his throat and assumed a balanced stance, ready to block whatever blow she tried and hoping she wouldn’t feel too badly about ending up flat on the ground. Waggling his fingers to draw her closer, he instructed, “Okay, try and hit me.”

She gave him a considered look and then swiftly kneed him, hard and sharp and deadly accurate.

“Uhhh!” he grunted in pained surprise as he doubled over, gasping for breath. “You’re ready,” he managed to squeak with a modicum of decorum as he fought for some dignity and straightened painfully.

Laughing at his discomfort, well pleased to have bested him at his own game, she postured as if ready to try another ‘move’ and chirped with overflowing confidence, “Next.”

“Listen, um, don’t you think it’d be a lot easier,” Iolaus suggested, still buying time to get his breathing, and the pain, under control, “if you just made Hephaestus fall in love with somebody else?”

“Eat sand!” she spat out as she shoved past him and marched unhesitatingly toward the cavern’s entrance and whatever action lay beyond.

“Goddesses!” Iolaus griped as he turned to limp after her.

As odd as it seemed, apparently there were no guardians at the gate, as it were. The cavern was empty and silent, their footfalls echoing hollowly against the stone walls. Iolaus’ attention was on the corridor leading off into the mountain when ‘Dite touched his shoulder and pointed over to the side, as she said, “Check out that statue. Cool.”

He paused and turned to look, just as the ‘statue’ of a mighty cat rippled and stretched as it came to life, its eyes flashing menacingly. It growled, low in its throat, as it sprang sinuously off its stone plinth, muscles bunching as it began to prowl toward them with feral grace.

‘Uh, Aphrodite,” Iolaus gulped as he tried to assess any weaknesses in the metal feline and wasn’t finding any, “time to mix it up.”

Crouching behind him, her eyes wide and dark with a fear she rarely felt, she said warily, “Um, I’m not really a cat person. Later.” And then she promptly vanished.

“Not a cat person?” the warrior echoed, his voice rising in disbelief - so much for backing him up as his partner. But, the cat sprang and he had no time to worry anymore about Aphrodite’s faithlessness in the face of danger. “Thanks for covering my back, Aphrodite!” he muttered disparagingly as he grabbed up a spear left near the entry by some man at arms and thrust it at the cat - who bit off the end of it with one vicious snap of the powerful jaws. “Good teeth,” he observed, trying for bravado, but his eyes were wide and his gut was clenching with fear. This cat was ‘way beyond his strength - fighting it wasn’t really an option. He made a few more feights with the mangled spear, then threw it at the beast before whirling into a dim passageway, and running for his life.

Torches flickered in iron brackets on the barren walls, and the air was hot and dry. He could smell the sulphuric fumes of the distant lava and hear the low rumbling and hiss of molten rock - and he could hear the scraping of metallic claws on the stone floor behind him, gaining on him - he could almost feel the breath of the monster on his neck, though he knew that was fancy. A monster like that didn’t breathe - which left him wondering how in Tartarus he was going to subdue or destroy it.

Running pell-mell down the seemingly endless corridor, hoping desperately for some shelter, or that he’d happen upon some cache of weapons, he came instead to a fork, the two tunnels curving away into shadows. “Which fork?” he muttered urgently, having no clue where he was going.

With no time to consider, and no signals, no signs to suggest where the tunnel might be leading, he arbitrarily chose the one on the left and kept running flat out, the cat close on his heels.

Hercules sat by a small campfire, carefully unwinding the thin gauzy bandage that was glued to his arm by dried blood and the encrusted yellowish green scum from his infected wound. His headache pounded fiercely, and he was still exhausted having only slept about an hour before Derk’s shouting from the well had awoken him.

In the pit below, the mercenary disconsolately dug through the sand, desperately hoping for water to slake his raging thirst. As he dug, he reflected soberly, “Look, the only way we’re gonna get off this island is if we work together.”

The demigod snorted and shook his head as he muttered, “Oh, yeah, now you want to work together.” Raising his voice, he called to his prisoner, “Just keep digging.”

Grimacing, Derk observed with a wry look at his bound wrists, “I could dig a lot faster if my arms were untied.”

“Yeah, I suppose you could,” Hercules replied agreeably, but with no intention of removing the bindings.

Derk cast a speculative look up at the top of the well. “What if I promise not to escape?” he suggested, wondering if the demigod would go for a deal.

“I remember the last time I gave you a break,” Hercules called back flatly. “Besides,” he added, his voice strained with pain as he pulled the dressing away from the raw, suppurating wound, “I like knowing where you are.”

Derk’s eyes narrowed at the pain he could hear in the demigod’s voice. He licked his lips and then reflected, “Your arm’s swelling? It’s probably infected. You could use my help fixing it.”

“I can handle it myself,” Hercules grated as he lifted the blade he’d earlier placed in the flames. His teeth clenched in anticipation as he drew it close to the wound, and then he burned away the infected tissue, hissing with the pain of it. He closed his eyes tight and simply endured, grunting a little in agony, before he allowed himself to remove the cauterizing blade and redress the ugly wound.

Iolaus pelted down the long, narrow, seemingly endless corridor hewn from the bedrock, and careened around a long curve, all too conscious that the mechanical cat was still hot on his trail. He was wondering if he would ever encounter anyone else in the caverns or if the tunnel just wound on and on forever, when he hit a sharp turn and was barely able to skid to a stop, teetering for balance on the lip of a long drop to the roiling, steaming red-hot lava far below. He gulped and flung himself backward, away from the edge, but there was no escape behind him, only the killer cat. “Wrong fork,” he muttered, wishing he’d gone right when he’d gone left, but hindsight wasn’t much help. Desperately, he looked around the floor for something he could use as a weapon, and the wall for handholds that might allow him to climb out of the monster’s grasp. He spotted two stalagmites very near the drop-off, and there was a long bit of wood, maybe four feet long - not much of a weapon, given how the cat had dealt with the spear. But, his gaze went again to the stalagmites - maybe...

Hastily, he grabbed up the stick and slotted it delicately across the tops of the upthrusting pillars of stone. And, not a moment too soon. The monstrous, indestructible cat appeared around the corner and sank onto its haunches to prowl toward him, its red eyes glittering with malice. Iolaus stood between the stalagmites, and bated the unnatural animal. “Here, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty,” he enticed, growing impatient when the cat only stalked toward him slowly. That wouldn’t work, at least not for him. He needed the monster to attack heedlessly if he was to stand any chance at all.

So he yelled disparagingly, “Come on. Here, kitty, kitty.” And then he growled and barked with menacing arrogance, offering his own challenge in a language the beast might understand.

The monster roared in fury, its metal muscles bunching, and then it leaped, jaws wide and claws extended - but Iolaus grabbed the length of wood and hauled himself up, flipping up, over and around it so the beast raced under and past him - and over the lip of the ledge to plunge into the fiery depths.

Landing lightly on the ground, the warrior peered down over the edge and laughed with delighted relief to have bested the creature. “Later!” he called irrepressibly, and then turned to retrace his steps to the other tunnel. He still had to find Leandra and rescue her.

And then he had to deal with Heph, to make sure he left the poor woman and her village alone.

The pirate scout found the pool of fetid water ahead of the others, and fell to his knees beside it. Driven by thirst, the villain ignored the foul taste as he slurped water from his hand - and promptly fell over dead.

When the others burst from the surrounding forest, they slowed and then backed away from the water’s edge when they verified he was dead, appalled and shaken, for it could have been any of them.

“Should we bury him?” one man asked doubtfully. Burial took time, something they didn’t have a lot of.

“Why waste the effort?” Sordis rasped as he stared down at the corpse, his throat dry with his own need for moisture. Rounding on his men, he briskly ordered, “You two, go on ahead. Split up if you have to, but find water. You!” he went on, pointing at two others, “Back to the ship. Bring water!”

“Aye, sir,” his men called, and then fled to do as they were bid. Sordis’ right hand man sidled close and murmured thoughtfully, “Doubt if these two have found water, either. They must be getting weaker.”

Nodding in agreement, the pirate captain looked off into the dark forest, knowing they could follow no further that night. Disgusted, he grimaced and muttered, “Let us hope they do not die before they tell us where they hid the gold.”

Derk dug industriously, scooping sand out of the growing hole with his hands, hoping he’d soon hit water. Reflecting that he was once again a prisoner, and having no doubt the Spartans would hang him, he grated, “I should have become a farmer like my father.”

“Then why didn’t you?” Hercules asked, vaguely curious but mostly just wanting to pass the time. He was fevered and dehydrated, and he, too, hoped Derk would find water in the ancient well.

“I didn’t have his touch for the soil,” the mercenary replied with a tone of old weariness, as if he’d tried and failed to live a different kind of life.

“That’s too bad,” the demigod replied quietly. “You wouldn’t be here now.”

Below him, Derk shrugged and then replied philosophically, “I guess it’s like every son. You either wanna be just like your father or just the opposite.”

Hercules’ gaze dropped as he swallowed and thought about his prisoner’s words. Unwillingly, he found himself thinking of his relationship with Zeus, and his general contempt for the gods and their self-serving ways. Certainly, he’d set out to be different, to make a difference for the good. Shaking off his ruminations, he refocused on Derk and challenged, “So you became a killer.”

“No, not a first,” Derk replied mildly, his answer surprising his captor. Unaware that his words were unsettling the demigod, raising issues and emotions Hercules preferred not to dwell upon, he continued, “Soldiering was just the thing to get me the furthest away from that farm.”

“So, you hated your father that much?” Hercules replied, making the assumption that it had been conflict between the mercenary and his father that had driven Derk to seek distance between them.

But Derk shook his head. “No, I…I loved him,” he admitted quietly, sadly. “I just wanted to go on my own.”

And again, Hercules found himself thinking about his complicated and strained relationship with his own father. He’d struggled to go his own way, and had suffered much over the years…but he, too, couldn’t deny that he still loved Zeus. Sighing, he shook his head, reflecting that in some ways, he and Derk weren’t so very different. After all, the demigod knew he hadn’t made much of a farmer, either, and though he tried to use diplomacy to solve problems, often, too often, it was his warrior skills that resolved the challenges and issues he confronted as a way of life. His thoughts were interrupted when his prisoner suddenly called out excitedly, “Water! Water! I found water! I hit water!”

Hercules moved to quickly look over the rim, down upon Derk, and saw the man scoop water into his hand and raise it eagerly to his lips - only to spit it out with a muffled curse.

“Salt,” Hercules said with keen disappointment, and the mercenary nodded in disgust as he pushed away from the hole he’d dug and climbed to his feet. When he looked up and met the demigod’s eyes, Hercules knew they were thinking the same thing. There was no point in remaining where they were - they would only die without water. It was time to move on. Wordlessly, Hercules tossed a long, sturdy vine down the shaft and looped one end of it around his back, holding on tightly with his good right hand as Derk climbed up.

Once he was standing beside the demigod, Derk said flatly, “I’ve been all over the east side of this island - and there’s no safe water to be found.”

Grimacing, Hercules looked up at the sky to get his bearings from the stars and replied matter-of-factly, “Then, we’ll have to head west.”

The ex-Goddess of Love flashed into Hephaestus’ forge and stood watching him work for a moment before saying softly, “Nice detail work.”

Startled, the ‘smith turned sharply and gaped at her, scarcely believing his eyes. “Aphrodite,” he breathed past the tightness of his throat, and then turned aside to hide the vulnerability in his eyes and the trembling of his hands.

Ambling toward him, she fanned herself with one hand. “Boy, is it hot in here,” she observed unnecessarily, but at a loss of what to say. It had been a long time since she’d talked with Hephaestus, and she’d caught a strange shyness in his manner, almost as if he were afraid of her. “But I guess if you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the forge,” she added with a small nervous chuckle.

“I haven’t seen you for centuries,” the God of the Forge murmured as he turned his gaze back to her. “You’re even more…beautiful than I remember.”

Grinning, preening a little, she chimed merrily, “Thanks, Heph. You, um, haven’t changed, either.” He flushed and looked away, turning as she moved around him so that his scarred face and withered side were always just beyond her sight. Not noticing, feeling a trifle giddy, she chuckled again and then sobered as she remembered why she’d come. Straightening and assuming a stern, no-nonsense expression and tone, she growled, “Okay, now let’s cut the small talk. Give up the grandmother babe, or else suffer my wrath.”

Startled, amused despite himself by her unusually prim demeanor, Hephaestus retorted, “Never. She wants to stay with me.”

“Listen up,” she said firmly then, trying to look threatening. “There’s no Goddess of Love, anymore. So you don’t wanna go one-on-one with me.”

Quirking a brow, his voice laden with layers of meaning, he challenged huskily, “Don’t I?”

Aphrodite’s lips thinned when he called her bluff and she took a deep breath. With a sharp yell, she launched herself at him, taking three fast steps then lifting in a double kick to drive all of her weight soundly against his chest, expecting him to buckle.

It was like hitting a wall of stone.

And she crashed ignominiously to the floor, while Heph looked down at her, apparently unmoved in every sense of the word. “Ah, tsk,” she whined as she examined her sandal. “You made me break a bootstrap. There should be, like, hazard pay to this job, or something,” she groused as she awkwardly pushed herself to her feet and brushed herself off, giving an extra rub to her very sore tush. Blowing out a breath, she assumed a fighting posture as she growled, “Listen, Heph, don’t make me repeat myself. Give her up, or else.”

Unable to help himself - she just looked so damned cute - he smiled slowly, dangerously. “Or else, what?” he purred. But then, as if realizing he was in danger of revealing his passion for her, he turned away to work on the Shield of Invisibility.

Heaving out a sigh at the way he was just ignoring her, but realizing another frontal attack had little chance of success, ‘Dite huffed a lock of hair out of her eyes and strode across the chamber to plop herself in a throne-like chair. Since brawn hadn’t worked, maybe she’d try persuasion. Heph had always been a pretty easy-going guy and surely he’d see reason. But, she’d no sooner sat down when Hephaestus looked up and made a small motion with his hand. Immediately, broad metal bands looped out from the back of the chair and encircled her torso, holding her firmly in place.

She blinked in surprise but then rolled her eyes. “This goes very nicely with my gauntlets, but you think this thing can hold me? Please,” she drawled sarcastically, and promptly vanished.

Unperturbed, Hephaestus filled a pitcher with water and walked over to the chair, where he poured the water over Aphrodite’s invisible head.

“Ah!” she exclaimed, rematerializing in indignation as she shook her head and glared at him as water dripped down her face and onto her shoulders and bodice.

“Zeus himself couldn’t get out of that chair,” he drawled as he turned back to his work.

“Well, it’s ideal for entertaining,” she replied sarcastically. “But I’m not into bondage, okay? Release me.”

“Of course,” he agreed readily, and then added, “once I wed Leandra.”

“So…you’re kinky. Who knew?” she teased mercilessly, but the water dripping from her hair and soaking her clothing was distracting, not to say downright uncomfortable. “This isn’t exactly drip-dry,” she sighed. “Can I borrow that cloth over there?” she asked rhetorically, as she willed the blue cloth covering something nearby to float to her.

“No!” Hephaestus protested, mortified, “not that one.” But it was already too late, and the exquisite bust of Aphrodite was revealed in its full glory.

Her eyes widened and she gasped as she gazed in wonder. “Wow, it’s beautiful,” she murmured with unfeigned admiration. With no hint of coyness, she added, “It’s so - me.”

Turning away abjectly, humiliated to his soul, his voice tight with pain, Hephaestus whispered hoarsely, “Even an ugly god can dream.”

Aphrodite’s lips parted as she gazed at him and finally understood. A look of compassion filled her eyes as she sighed and shook her head, wondering how she could not have known.

Iolaus felt as if he’d been wandering in the caverns for half the night before he finally found the sector holding the god’s private and guest quarters. The guard in front of a curtained doorway was a dead giveaway, and it took but a silent moment to render him unconscious with a swift, hard clip to the jaw. Catching him before he could fall, Iolaus shifted the unconscious man, so that’s he’d fall into the room, out of the way of others who might sound an alarm.

Leandra gasped as the man fell into the chamber, and cringed on the bed, afraid, but she relaxed immediately when she saw who was there. “Iolaus,” she exclaimed softly in surprise, not having expected anyone, let alone this stranger, would come to her rescue.

“Yeah, he wasn’t much of a guard,” the warrior replied quietly, keeping a lookout over his shoulder. Waving to her, he urged, “Come on.”

But she drew back and shook her head. “I-I can’t leave with you,” she protested, though she wished with all her heart she could go. But it was impossible. “The fate of too many others depends on me. My son…”

Iolaus let the heavy curtain drop over the entrance to the chamber, to muffle their words and hide his presence as he turned to face her. He hadn’t wanted to have this conversation yet, and certainly not here. He didn’t feel ready for it. But, she needed to know the truth - needed to know she no longer had to protect her missing son. Approaching her, he took her hands, and his voice was gentle as he said, “Leandra, I wish I didn’t have to tell you this. But Hephaestus has already punished Cyllabos once. What you think happened only this morning…happened over fifty years ago.”

She gaped at him, her eyes wide and afraid as she rasped, “That can’t be.”

Iolaus held her gaze as he continued, feeling brutal however kind he was trying to be. “Your boy escaped the curse because he was playing by the river,” he told her, his voice tight with the sorrow of knowing he was soon to break her heart.

“I don’t believe you,” she argued, trying to pull away, but he wouldn’t let her go.

“Believe this,” he said with utter sincerity. “Your son, Skouros - he was…” but he caught himself. He couldn’t tell her everything, not yet, not here. It was going to hurt her so much. And he found the thought of hurting her twisted painfully in his heart. “He’s my father,” he amended quickly, and reached toward his belt.

“That’s impossible,” she gasped, shaking her head, unable to take it in, unwilling to try. But her lips parted as she saw what he pulled from his belt. A medallion. Oh, gods…her throat tightened, and tears began to glisten her eyes.

“Here,” Iolaus murmured, holding it out to her. “My father had this hanging around his neck when they found him. He was three years old.”

She took it with a trembling hand, and sniffed as she blinked back the tears, to see it more clearly. “That’s my husband’s,” she said in wonder. “My son wears it to play soldiers.” Looking up at him, her voice cracked and broke as she asked mournfully, “Little Skouros…all grown up?”

“Yeah.”

It didn’t matter that her son was a grown man, older than she was now. It only mattered that he was her son and he was safe and all right. But she needed to see him, ached to see him. Reaching to grab Iolaus’ arm, she began to tug him toward the portal. “Please, take me to him right away,” she urged.

“No. No, we haven’t got time for that,” the warrior cautioned her quickly, lifting a hand to warn her to keep her voice down. “We have to get going.” Taking her hand, and then carefully lifting the curtain to ensure the passageway beyond was clear, he said with his own sense of quiet urgency, “Let’s get outta here.”

They had made their way safely along deserted, dimly lit stone corridors, and Iolaus had somehow gotten turned around in the confusing passageways, so now they had to get past the forge to make their way out of the mountain. The warrior caught Aphrodite’s eye, and signalled her to distract Hephaestus, so that they could sneak past. She blinked and then nodded, calling out brightly, “Hephy! Um, I always knew that you made weapons, but when did you become such a talented artist?”

“Don’t flatter me,” he rasped repressively, refusing to look at her as he concentrated on finishing the Shield. “I know what people think of me.”

“They think you’re brilliant,” she replied with candid honesty. “I mean, this throne is like…amazing. How does it work, exactly?”

Hephaestus looked up, and then limped to her side. He leaned down, about to release the mechanism, when she said softly, “You know? You’re kinda cute from this angle.”

Startled, he pulled back and looked at her with hurt reproof, believing she was trying to charm him with pleasant lies to manipulate him. “You’ll say anything to gain your freedom,” he charged, his expression and tone stiff, as he pulled back and lurched away. “I’ll release you after the vows.”

Confused by his sudden coldness, and his insistence upon marrying the mortal woman, she argued gently, “But you don’t really love Leandra, do you?”

Before he could answer, Iagos burst into the chamber, and cried out, “A dozen villagers came in through the tunnel - and took Leandra!”

Laughing outright at the ridiculous assertion, Aphrodite challenged bluntly, “A dozen?! Like - major liar, here.” Turning to Heph, her eyes wide with sincerity, she asserted, “Trust me, there’s only one.”

Iagos boggled a bit to find Aphrodite in his master’s forge, but he recovered quickly, assuming a wounded demeanor as he appealed to Hephaestus, “Why should I deceive you, master? I…I’ve served you faithfully all these years.”

“Let me guess,” Aphrodite cut in coldly, feeling repulsed by the man and instinctively loathing him. “Because you have no life? Because you hate your job? Because,” she continued scathingly, gazing around the room as she waved at the walls laden with swords, spears, and all manner of armour, “you have a real big yen for a lot of really cool weapons in here?” His eyes narrowed with anger but she looked away from him, dismissing him as she addressed Hephaestus, “This guy reeks of bad Karma. Can’t you feel it?”

“Don’t let her looks twist you around,” Iagos argued, a little desperately. She could ruin everything!

“Are you lying to me, Aphrodite?” Hephaestus asked, wanting so much to believe everything she’d said to him.

She held his gaze as she replied huskily, “There isn’t anything I’ve said to you that I didn’t mean.”

“Is that so?” Iagos challenged archly, his lip curling into a sneer of disbelief. Turning to his lord, he went on brutally, “She thinks you’re ugly, Hephaestus. Why don’t you ask her? Leandra loves you. If only there was some way to get her back.”

Aphrodite’s expression was appalled as she gaped at Iagos and then, shaking her head, she turned her limpid gaze upon the God of the Forge, willing him to believe her. But Hephaestus was torn. He’d believed in his ugliness for too long, had felt isolated, alienated and alone for too many aching centuries to risk losing the one woman he believed did love him as he was. His expression hardened and he turned away from her compelling gaze to wave at the armoured warriors against the wall. “Take them,” he ordered Iagos. “Go!”

It was scarcely dawn, but the pirates were back on the scent, like hounds after foxes. They’d found the dry well and all the tracks, and they hoped they’d finally found the treasure they sought. One of the pirates had been lowered into the shaft, to dig but, after a frenzied search, he called up with disgust, “Sordis. No gold buried down here.”

Sordis cursed under his breath as he turned away in frustration. “They could not have carried it this far,” he growled. “If it survived the storm, it’s back where they landed.” Taking a breath to cool his rage, he turned to reassure his men, so they’d not grow discouraged and grow restive. “Don’t worry, we’ll get them to tell us.”

“That salt water couldn’t ’a done ‘em any good,” Trayas speculated as he gazed down at the small pool of unpotable water seeping through the sand at the bottom of the well. “You think we’re gaining on them?”

Sordis nodded as he examined the tracks and then straightened. “They’re dragging their feet. They have to be on their last legs.” He grinned cruelly, anticipating a capture that could not now be long in coming.

Though hardened by battle and the sight of too many dead, too young, the mercenary still felt decidedly squeamish as he stared at the remains left dangling in the dead tree where the forest gave way to a rolling desert of sand. The man had been ripped apart by some force Petronicus could not begin to imagine, leaving only sickening strings of muscle and desiccated tissue below the intact upper body. “Oh,” he muttered, forcing back the bile that burned in the back of his throat, “I know he didn’t get up there without legs.”

“No,” Hercules agreed with a grimace as he looked away from the corpse, his gaze raking the rolling sand dunes that surrounded them. “My guess is he left them with whatever was chasing him.”

Derk turned to gaze at the demigod, a look of speculation in his eyes. “We’ve been on this island for two days. I haven’t seen anything big enough to do that.”

Nodding, his eyes narrowing in concentration, Hercules replied, “Sometimes, it’s what you can’t see that can hurt you the most. Remember those strange-looking pods we saw in the well?”

“Yeah, what about ‘em?”

“I think they were egg sacs.”

Derk’s eyes widened as he gaped at his captor. “Wow, they were huge,” he murmured in memory, and couldn’t quite repress a shiver of dread at what could lay such immense eggs.

“I know,” Hercules replied hollowly, his mouth as dry as the sand drifting on the ground. He could only hope that the creatures weren’t what he thought they might be, but the barren landscape, the size of the egg sacs and most especially the ruined state of the unknown dead man had the hackles rising on the back of his neck.

Derk sniffed and wiped his mouth with the back of one of his bound hands. “Well, oh great monster killer,” he drawled, “what are our choices?”

“There’s no water, no choices,” the demigod replied bluntly. “We keep heading west.” But, when he led off, his attention on the potential threat around them and not on his prisoner, Derk pulled the sharp remains of a shell he’d secreted into his belt while still in the well. And, as they walked, he sawed at the bindings around his wrists.

They’d not gone more than a mile when Hercules stumbled a little and curled forward to ease his wounded arm, the pain almost more than he could bear. In that moment, Derk pulled his wrists free and lunged forward, tackling the demigod and driving them both over the edge of a high dune. They rolled and somersaulted, plunging out of control down the long slope, and when they finally reached level ground, Derk resumed his attack, but Hercules slugged him hard, and then elbowed him in the gut, winding the criminal. “You fool,” the son of Zeus grated through parched lips and teeth clamped against the pain, “you should be saving your strength.”

Derk wrenched himself out of the bigger man’s grip and began to run, but hadn’t gone far when something that reeked of dead flesh lunged out of the sand and clamped down on his leg, pulling him to the ground. Hercules pounded his fist onto the top of the massive shelled creature, again and again, while Derk kicked frantically, trying to free his booted foot. Finally, the thing let go and slipped into the sand, only to resurface scant moments later, this time to grab Hercules’ leg. Derk fell on the monster, stabbing at it with his improvised knife, while Hercules battered its snout so, again, it let go and disappeared into the sand.

Panting, a look of abhorrent fear on his face, Derk demanded, “What was that thing?”

“A sand shark,” Hercules grunted, remembering the horrific monsters all too well from his encounter with them years ago while still a student at Chiron’s Academy. His gaze raked the sand and he spotted the remains of some grand stone building not far off - just the peaked roof and intricately carved capitol - but it was the only hope they had. “That way,” he pointed. “Run!”

They took off, loping as quickly as they could in their weakened and wounded condition, terribly conscious of the mound of moving sand speeding in their wake - the hump of a sand shark as it followed for attack - and afraid they’d not make it to sanctuary in time. Derk stumbled once, and Hercules hauled him quickly to his feet. “Hurry,” the demigod urged, and then, with one hand, he tossed the mercenary onto the plinth, while stopping his own movement cold, so that he stood as still as a statue as the sand shark, confused by the lost sounds or vibrations of motion, sped past and careened into the stone rising from the sand.

Once it had sped off, Hercules hastened to clamber onto the sunken roof before it returned.

“Where’d it go?” Derk demanded in a hushed voice as he looked out over the sand.

Whispering in return, Hercules replied, “Derk. The shell.”

Understanding, the mercenary tossed the shell onto the sand. Barely seconds after it had thumped heavily onto the ground, the sand beneath it was sucked down into a funnel and it disappeared, only to reappear with considerable force and it flew up and over their heads to land some distance away. The disgusted animal made a run at them, but sheared off as it reached the stone barrier.

“Guess it doesn’t like shells,” Derk observed dryly.

“Yeah, or burrowing through stone,” Hercules muttered.

Petronicus smirked wryly, but then shrugged wearily. They weren’t going anywhere, so he bent to examine his wounded leg. The sand shark’s teeth had gouged it badly above the boot and round his knee. Grimacing, he cleaned the injuries as best he could, and then bound his knee securely with a black cloth bandage he carried in a pouch inside his leather jerkin. Watching him, Hercules said quietly, “You’re pretty good at that. You must have had some practice.”

“When you’re a soldier, you learn,” Derk replied dryly, and then looked up at the demigod after tying off the bandage. “Tell me somethin’. Why do you keep saving me? The reward’s the same whether my head’s in a bag or not.”

Looking away, the demigod said tightly, “I told you before, I’m not interested in the money.”

“In what, then? Justice?” the mercenary asked and then laughed bitterly. “You can’t really believe that I’ll get justice.”

Unsympathetically, Hercules replied coldly, “You should have thought of that before you killed Lycus.”

Shrugging, Derk replied bluntly, “I doubt that Lycus gave it a thought when he killed the sons of the woman that hired me.”

Somewhat startled by that bit of news, Hercules protested, “I’ve known Lycus a long time. I’ve never known him to kill anyone.”

His eyes narrowing against the sun, Derk again looked up at the demigod as he replied matter-of-factly, “When was the last time you saw Lycus? There’s a family in Attica without any male heirs because of him”

Unsettled by the idea that his old acquaintance had turned to killing, for whatever reason, Hercules turned his face away and ground out, “All I know is that the courts decide guilt and punishment - not mercenaries.”

Unrepentant, Derk shot back, “Well, the courts didn’t punish Lycus, so I did.”

Shifting to give a disparaging look at his captive, the demigod demanded sarcastically, “And how do I know you’re even telling the truth?”

Bristling at the tone, the mercenary snapped, “‘Cause I’m not a liar!”

“No,” Hercules retorted scathingly, “you just kill people.”

Pushed beyond his patience, Derk attacked, driving them both off the flimsy perch they had on the stone roof. Landing on his back on the sand, the mercenary on top of him, struggling to strangle him, Hercules grunted, “This is not the time for this!”

“Why not?” Derk demanded, having had enough of the demigod’s insufferable, holier than thou attitude.

“I’ll give you three reasons,” Hercules grated as he turned his gaze to the side. Following the gesture, the mercenary saw the trails of three sand sharks closing in on them - and he yanked Hercules to his feet, hustling them both back onto the plinth.

Watching the circling sand sharks carefully, Derk growled, “You know, I didn’t do anything other than kill somebody who had killed someone else.”

“Revenge never evens out,” Hercules replied, sending a stone flying to distract the sand sharks. It was spat back over their heads. “It just perpetuates itself,” he continued and then added with a thoughtful look toward Derk. “You ever think about the families of the men you kill?”

“No, what’s the point?” Derk replied quietly, as he too began tossing small rocks, one at a time, onto the sand to keep the sharks busy. “It’d only make the work harder.”

“Maybe you should start,” the demigod replied flatly.

“Big mistake,” Aphrodite chided after Iagos had strode out, the armoured warriors in tow. “Giving that to the creepy Cretan with the awful aura.”

“Iagos is my friend,” Hephaestus reasoned flatly, the only friend he had.

“A guy who calls you ‘ugly’ to your face? Yeah, that’s a real bud,” she snorted. But, looking at him and seeing the tension in his shoulders and the pain on his face, she added more softly, “Besides, it’s not true.”

“You can stop lying!” he accused her, as he rounded on her, despair etched in the lines of his face and shadowing his eyes. “Hera, my own mother,” he grated, his voice hoarse and catching with emotion, “threw me out of Olympus because she couldn’t stand the sight of me.”

“‘Horseface Hera’?” she scoffed. “There are no mirrors in her home, and for one good reason.” When he turned away, his shoulders hunched as if awaiting a blow, she went on forcefully, “Besides, beauty’s not just what you look like. It’s also what you are inside.” Blinking, realizing what she’d just said, she paused and whispered in awe at herself, “Whoa, that’s like - profound.”

But her words were like lashes, laying open his soul and leaving him wounded and vulnerable. “Of all the Olympian gods,” he groaned, “only I am ugly. If Zeus had been my father, maybe my life would be different. But you have no idea what it’s like to be judged on your appearance alone.”

“Oh, yes I do,” she countered bluntly, but with stunning sincerity. “We have that in common.”

He snorted and shook his head. Taking up a rag, he burnished the Shield of Invisibility and murmured to himself, “It’s done.” Setting the Shield aside, he moved to pick up a crown he’d fashioned in gold and silver, and adorned with precious gems. It was delicate and exquisite, a work of art. He limped to face her and placed it upon her head. “This was intended for you,” he said with gruff emotion, fighting to retain some measure of control and dignity. Swallowing, he gestured toward the bands of steel that kept her captive and they sprang open. “You’re free to leave,” he told her, his voice low and achingly sad.

“Actually,” she said simply, the offer of more in her eyes, “I’m not in any hurry.”

He looked at her for a long, wordless moment, and then turned to limp from the chamber. “Goodbye, Aphrodite,” he said firmly over his shoulder, just before he disappeared.

Feeling oddly bereft and not a little disconcerted at being rejected, a new experience for her, the erstwhile Goddess of Love sighed and shook her head as she muttered, “That’s a first.”

Dawn had broken less than an hour before, but they’d made it some distance down along the mountain path toward the village. Leandra was breathing hard but not complaining as she struggled to keep up with the fast pace Iolaus had set in his urgency to see her to safety. He slowed by a copse of trees and, certain they had a good lead on anyone who might be pursuing them, said, “It’s all right. We can rest here for a while.”

But, tired as she was, Leandra didn’t want to stop. “No, I want to see my son,” she urged as she gripped his arm unconsciously. Hungry for information about her beloved Skouros, her words tumbling over themselves in her rush to find out what had happened to her son, she asked, “Where does he live? Is it far?” Her voice breaking, tears glazing her eyes, she whispered, “Will he even remember me?”

Iolaus looked away and swallowed hard. Gods, he wished there were some easier way to tell her, some way that would not hurt her. But there wasn’t. It simply had to be said, as gently as possible. Lifting his hands to hold her arms, his expression and tone compassionate, he told her haltingly, “Leandra, your son - my father - he’s dead.”

“No,” she cried, desperate to deny his words, their meaning. Her boy was gone. She’d never see him again. Her lips trembled and hot tears spilled onto her pale cheeks, and she leaned against him, burying her face against his shoulder.

“I’m sorry,” Iolaus murmured, his voice catching with the depth of his grief for her loss, if not his own. He’d never mourned his father’s death - had not thought it a tragedy, until now.

“I should never have let him out of my sight,” she wept inconsolably.

“Some things are meant to be,” he said softly as held her close, wishing he had more to offer that could be of some comfort to her. But, at least she could know that Skouros had not suffered, but died as he would have chosen to die. “It, uh…it happened in battle. He became a great warrior - a general.”

“Like his father before him,” she murmured, sniffing. Pulling away, wiping the wet tracks from her face, she said with as much stoic strength as she could muster, “Sons take after their fathers. I’m sure you’re a reflection of him.”

Iolaus nearly balked at that - being ‘a reflection’ of his father had never been his ambition in life. But as he looked down into her trusting eyes, and read the unconditional love there for the son she had never known, not really, he could not hurt her by denying her words or by telling her the truth, the full truth of Skouros’ life. Sighing, he nodded. “In a way,” he agreed; after all, he, too, was a warrior - he had that much in common with his father. “You’d have been very proud of him,” he added, because she needed to hear that.

She was struggling to take it all in, trying so hard to accept the terrible news bravely and not burden this good man any further with her woes. But, gods, she ached with the loss, and suspected she always would. “If only I could be with him just once more,” she sighed brokenly.

Iolaus hugged her tightly, but before he could offer more words of comfort, Iagos snarled from behind them, “That can be arranged.”

Pushing Leandra almost roughly away, Iolaus whirled to stand between her and the armoured warriors that were fast converging upon them. “Go! Go! I’ll come for you!” he yelled back over his shoulder. “Go!”

Distracted by his concern for her, he allowed the armoured warriors to draw too close, and one smacked him hard, sending him to the ground. “Ow!” he exclaimed, but quickly rolled away from the metal boots that sought to stomp him, and sprang back up onto his feet. He closed with one of the warriors, pelting the monster’s chest with rapid blows with the palms of his hands, but he might as well have been giving love taps for all the impact he had. The creature grabbed him and tossed him unceremoniously toward another, as if he were no more than a rag doll.

Leandra had paused in her flight, unwilling to simply leave him to his fate, and it was her undoing. Iagos caught her and held her tightly, as he yelled to his mechanical minions, “Kill him!”

“NO!” she cried out and struggled against him, but to no avail. He dragged her, kicking and screaming, away from the battleground, back toward the caverns, and she yelled in helpless desperation, “Iolaus! Help me!”

Iolaus heard her cry, and cursed his inability to go to her aid, but the armoured warriors had surrounded him. He kicked out, and wrenched himself free, rolling to trip one into another, and then leapt up with a good sturdy branch in his hands that he used as a stave to lash out at them, but the thick stick broke against their impregnable metal hides, and they just kept coming at him, slugging him with unbelievable strength and power, kicking him when he was down. “I should’a got a bigger stick,” he harped to himself breathlessly, and then bit off a groan at the pain of their blows. He had blood streaming from a cut on his face, and his whole body felt bruised and battered, scraped nearly raw.

Desperately, he rolled away from their mindless but effective abuse and he wondered fleetingly how he’d ever best these creatures. One charged and, unthinking, he dropped into a roll to trip it - and it plunged over his body, staggering to the edge of a short drop-off over a pond, and then flailed as it toppled into the water…and sank. “Getting that old sinking feeling, huh?” he chortled, giddy by having unexpectedly taken one of his adversaries out of the fight. But, the others were coming at him, marching with mindless but murderous intent toward him, clanging and clinking with an eerie promise of painful death. He swallowed hard as he thought fast - he had to take them both out, and soon, or they’d overcome his failing strength. So far, the only thing he’d discovered that stopped them was water. Looking around hastily as they drew closer and closer still, he spotted a vine dangling from a nearby tree, very close to the water’s edge. Biting his lip, he lunged toward it and grabbed it, using his forward momentum to take him out over the water, just barely evading the metal clutches of the nearest monster.

“Ahhhhhh! Ah! Uh! Uh!” he yelled, as he swung far out over the pond, as far as the vine would allow, and yelled again as he reversed direction, sailing through the air toward and then past them before they could react and grab him. When his improvised rope reached the zenith of its swing and he began to fall back toward them, he shouted, “Okay, you metalheads! Ahhhhhhh! Ahhhhhh! Incoming!”

He stuck out his feet, and used the strength of his whole body as he ploughed into the nearest armoured warrior, driving it back and into the second one that was still standing - so that they both lurched backwards, arms flailing for balance as he drove them back further still with the power of his forward momentum - until they both floundered over the lip of the hill’s crest and plummeted into the water below.

There was a mighty splash as his trajectory took him over the pond and then swung back over land, where he dropped lightly to his feet. “Now that rocked!” he crowed as he stared down into the water, watching bubbles rise and disperse, waiting to see if they would climb out. But, soon, the disturbed surface stilled and became as smooth as glass, the warriors too heavy to climb out of the muddy morass below.

“Bitchin’!” Iolaus approved jubilantly, but a scream recalled him to the fact that the fight for his grandmother’s safety wasn’t yet over. “Leandra!” he cried out in response, as he turned and pelted up the path after her, to free her from Iagos.

Leandra’s struggles had slowed the villain down, so it didn’t take long for Iolaus to catch up with them. Iagos heard him pounding up the path, too close to evade, and had no intention of trying to fight the warrior for her - his first and only impulse was to save himself from Iolaus’ wrath. And, for that, he needed a distraction. Iagos dragged Leandra to the edge of the cliff-face and held her tightly as he waited for Iolaus to appear.

“Leandra!” Iolaus called again, and then hove into view. In that moment, Iagos shoved her over the edge of the cliff and let go, letting her drop, screaming, as he turned and darted away.

NO!” Iolaus bellowed, fear and fury mingling in his voice as he charged forward, ignoring the fleeing Iagos, intent only upon knowing Leandra’s fate. His breath was tight in his chest as he skidded to a halt and peered over the edge, sure he’d see her crumpled, crushed body far below - and relief exploded when he saw she’d not fallen far at all, but had managed to clutch onto some vines growing from the rocks, and was now clinging to them precariously.

“Leandra!” he cried, as he looked about for a way down to her. “Hold on!”

She was holding on for dear life, trying very hard not to panic as she listened to the scuffle of his boots on rock as he climbed quickly, if carefully, to her side. But the roots of the vines she was gripping began to loosen, slipping, so that she dropped jerkily once and then again; she knew it could only be moments before they pulled away completely and she plunged to her death. Helpless and terrified, she screamed in inarticulate panic.

But Iolaus had reached her and clambered down far enough to put a strong arm around her while he gripped another stout vine. She trembled in his embrace, her fists clutching at his arm around her waist, holding on with all her might. “Okay,” he encouraged, keeping his voice as calm as he could, “you hafta help.” His boots found purchase, and he began to haul them up, toward the rim, and she reached out to grasp the thin edges of rocks, to help with the climb. “That’s it,” he encouraged warmly, pleased with her, proud of her. Come on.” In but a few, if very harrowing moments, he helped her up over the edge and crawled over to sprawl panting beside her, before pushing himself up to take her gently in his arms. “You all right?” he asked, his gaze searching hers.

“Yes,” she gasped, scarcely able to believe she had indeed survived, when she’d been so very certain she was about to die. “I’m fine,” she added, more to convince herself than him, as she dragged in a deep breath and then smiled shakily. “Thank you,” she exclaimed, reaching up to draw him into a fierce hug.

“Hey, we’re family, right?” he demurred softly, uncomfortable with her so obvious gratitude, not wanting her to feel she owed him anything.

“So we are,” Leandra replied, as she drew a little back so that she could look into his eyes. Caressing his cheek, she reflected with awe, “In one day, I lose a son and gain a grandson. To think, if Skouros hadn’t wandered off like that, you wouldn’t be alive.”

“Yeah, uh, I guess, sometimes…things really do work out the way they’re supposed to,” he replied hesitantly, blushing a little under her intense scrutiny. But he shrugged, and made to pull back, as if he’d done nothing of any real consequence, certainly nothing deserving of the unabashed look of gratitude in her eyes.

But she held him close as she whispered, her voice breaking with emotion, “What courage you have. I’m so proud of you.” And then she pulled him closer still, hugging him as if he were the most precious being in the world and, in that moment he knew that for her, he was.

“Thanks,” Iolaus managed to choke out past the sudden thick lump in his throat, as he clung to her and felt the balm of her amazing love for, and pride in, him warm him to his soul. Tears glistened in his eyes, and his lip trembled - for this was the first time in his whole life that someone in his family had expressed pride in him, and no one from his family had ever held him so close since he’d been a very small child.

They clung to one another for long moments, each needing to hold onto family, each joyous to have found the other - so unexpectedly and amazingly, so impossibly, that it felt a kind of miracle. But, gradually, the intensity of the raw emotions between them gentled, and they were both able to breathe again as they settled against one another. Sighing, Iolaus reluctantly drew back. His work was not yet finished if he were to ensure her safety from the depredations of Iagos, and even of Hephaestus. Looking down at her, love shining in his eyes, he asked, “You think you can make it back to Cyllabos on your own?”

“Yes,” Leandra affirmed, as he stood and then helped her to her feet. “Are you going after Iagos?” she asked anxiously, still gripping his arm, not wanting to let him go - certainly not wanting him to face more danger on her account.

“Somebody has to,” he said with quiet firmness as he gently broke her grip. He hugged her again, and kissed her brow before stepping away from her.

“Please be careful,” she begged him, her fear for him glittering in her eyes, her love for him resonating in her voice.

Again he felt that treacherous lump in his throat, so he just nodded, barely able to mutter, “Yeah.” But he managed to give her a reassuring smile before he turned away to race up the path to the entrance back into Hephaestus’ domain.

She watched until he was out of sight, and then looked out over the valley at her village and the river beyond. Tears filled her eyes, and she lifted a hand to her trembling lips. “Oh, Skouros,” she sobbed softly. “My baby.” But she sniffed, and rubbed the tears from her cheeks as she looked up at the clear sky above. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “Sorry you thought I’d abandoned you. I loved you, with all my heart. But, Skouros, you must’ve been so proud of your boy. He’s such a fine, fine man. Thank you for him. I’m so very grateful to have him in my life.”

Unwilling to simply be dismissed, Aphrodite went in search of Hephaestus, and found him brooding in his private quarters. Appearing silently behind him, she studied him for a long moment and then said with strained cheeriness, “Not happy with the decor? Hey, I think this place smokes.”

He stiffened at the sound of her voice, but did not turn to face her. “You’re still here,” he murmured with a world-weary sigh.

“Yeah, I cleared my afternoon schedule,” she said lightly, but sobered as she approached him slowly. When he still didn’t turn to her, she asked quietly, her tone deepening with both curiousity and compassion, “Tell me one thing - why Leandra?”

His rigid posture slumped in defeat and he swallowed hard as he finally turned to look into her wide, beautiful eyes. He looked and sounded humiliated, but he could see no option but to tell her the painful truth. “A pale imitation, but she reminded me of you,” he replied with aching candour. Shrugging, his gaze dropped as he went on, “When Iagos returns with her, I’ll send her back to the village. Cyllabos is free.” Again, he dared look into her face, his voice tight with despair and the pain of loneliness as he asked, “That’s what you wanted to hear from me, isn’t it?”

But she surprised him by shaking her head and drawing a step closer, to reach up and caress his scarred cheek. “No. What I want is the answer to my question,” she replied soberly, leaving herself vulnerable as well. “Do you love me?”

He drew in a sobbing breath as he reached for her and drew her close, holding her as he would something infinitely precious and fragile, yet with the strength to indicate he never wanted to let her go. “For centuries,” he groaned, tears of need and want, desire and love glittering in his eyes.

Touched to the depths of her soul by his simple but utterly sincere declaration, she smiled then, radiantly, as she drew his face down to hers, and kissed him with all the love she had to give.

“We’re going to be here until we rot,” Derk carped as he tossed a stone to provoke the sand sharks, and to help them keep tabs on exactly where the monsters were. The stone was, predictably, spit back over their heads.

Hercules took his turn tossing a small rock, as he asked, “Have you always been so optimistic?”

Sighing, the mercenary shrugged and admitted, “Uh, I’m just…I’m tired. I’m tired of being chased. I’m tired of running. I’m…just tired. If you don’t bring me back, they’ll just send somebody who will.”

Unrelenting, despite his growing internal misgivings about his earlier harsh judgment of this man, Hercules replied archly, “You should have considered that before becoming a killer for hire.”

Snorting, Derk rejoined caustically, “Well, the army doesn’t train you for peacetime work. Look - if we get out of this, I want to make a deal.”

“There’re no deals,” Hercules replied, shaking his head.

The mercenary’s lips thinned and he turned away, his posture rigid. But, then, he sagged a little, and his voice was rough with emotion as he turned back, to make his request, “Before you take me back, I want to see my family again.”

Taken aback, the demigod frowned thoughtfully and muttered, “Seems strange for a family man to be in your kind of business.”

Irked by the sarcastic and relentless harsh assessments of his captor, Derk grated impatiently, “It put food on the table, all right!” But he took a breath and forced himself to calm down before offering civilly, “You give me your word that I can see my family once more and I promise I won’t try to run away anymore.” When Hercules hesitated, he hastened to add with firm sincerity, hoping he’d be believed, “My word is good.”

The demigod blew a deep breath, and figured he was probably a fool to believe that, but he finally nodded. “Deal,” he agreed, his voice tight. “But I want something from you, first.”

Relieved, grateful, Derk quickly agreed, “All right. Name it.”

“You were right about my arm. It’s getting worse,” Hercules volunteered, if reluctantly. Even more reluctantly, he admitted, “And I…I need some help.”

Smiling ironically, Derk rose to his feet and reached to pull a short, rounded stick of wood from his boot. “Well, I’ve set a few limbs and I’ve cut a few limbs off…when necessary,” he said laconically as he held the stick toward the demigod. When Hercules looked askance at it, he added, “This is for you - to bite on.”

Hercules quirked a brow, but took it as he watched Derk unwrap the filthy, encrusted bandage from his arm. He winced with the pain of it, and knew full well that the repair of his damaged shoulder and the straightening of the damaged bones in his arm would be pure, unadulterated agony. Resigned, he put the stick in his mouth and bit down upon it.

“You ready?” Derk asked, and the demigod nodded tightly as he turned his head away and closed his eyes.

The mercenary took hold of his arm and in a single, smooth motion, drew it straight and pulled with all his weight to align the bones and pop the joint.

Hercules screamed, a low guttural cry of unendurable pain…and then he passed out.

Derk gazed down up the unconscious demigod with a curiously compassionate gaze, and then he set about cleaning the wound before splinting and rebandaging the arm before Hercules awoke, to spare a fellow warrior as much pain as he could.

And then he went back to despondently tossing stones onto the sand.

Nearly breathless, Iagos raced into the chamber barely a step ahead of his pursuer and stumbled toward the weapons arrayed around the central fire. Iolaus skidded to a halt in the entrance, and then strode in warily as he said soberly, “Okay, this can be easy or it can be hard. You choose.”

Reaching for the Shield of Invisibility, Iagos sneered in triumph, “I already have.” And then, to Iolaus’ surprised consternation, the vicious villain vanished! The warrior blinked as he moved further into the room, unprepared and unable to defend against being punched hard by an opponent he couldn’t see. He slammed back into the wall, and then doubled over with a painful grunt, air forced from his lungs as he took a solid blow to the solar plexus.

He swung hard, but failed to connect, time and again, while being smacked like an errant child. His temper flared but he held his thin control, knowing if he gave way to fury, he’d lose this battle. Iagos taunted him, calling, “Not there. Over here.” But, when the warrior swung around to follow the voice, the invisible man assaulted him from behind. Needing some room to move, some relief from being battered by an unseen enemy, Iolaus grabbed a broom and swept it in a wide circle to drive Iagos back.

“Very good,” the murderous menial applauded sardonically. “But how long will your luck hold out?” He laughed with rich enjoyment as Iolaus continued to sweep the broom in a wide arc. “A room full of weapons fit for the gods,” he crowed sarcastically, “and you choose a broom.”

Frustrated, Iolaus grunted, “Yeah. Well, I don’t wanna kill you, Iagos.”

“Then you’re both unlucky and foolish, not worth my energy. I’m leaving,” Iagos replied scathingly. But then a sword flew down from the wall, as if by its own accord and stabbed viciously toward Iolaus, who jumped back with a startled cry. Chortling, Iagos sneered, “I lied.” He stabbed again and again, driving Iolaus back and around the room to grab a sword of his own, laughing almost maniacally in his delight at being invisible and able to take his time humiliating this stalwart warrior before finally killing him. “Which side of the sword am I on?” he demanded, swinging the blade back and forth, the blades clanging together time and time again. “You’re trying to remember if I’m right-handed or left-handed,” he goaded, laughing uproariously.

Iolaus rolled away, toward the far wall and grabbed another sword, throwing them both unerringly as he called back with grim satisfaction, “That’d be left-handed.”

As the sharp tips of the weapons caught Iagos’ cloak and pinned him summarily to the wall, dragging him off-balance and startling him badly, he lost his grip on the Shield, which rolled to rest against the central fire pit, and he came back into view. Shrugging out of the cloak before Iolaus could catch him, the villain shouted venomously to the remaining armoured warriors standing idly by the wall, “Kill him, now!”

They clumped and clanked heavily into motion, circling around the central fire to converge on Iolaus, as the warrior backed away from them, mumbling, “Here we go, again.” He had enough experience to know he couldn’t fight them straight up - they’d make mincemeat of him. So he dodged out of their grip, leading them a merry chase, while Iagos gloated. In no hurry to depart, enjoying the spectacle of seeing his enemy defeated and destroyed, Hephaestus’ erstwhile servant urged the warriors on. Though Iolaus tried hard to evade them, he was being herded back against the wall, where he’d have no room to manoeuvre - he scrambled up onto the throne-like chair he’d seen ‘Dite sitting in earlier, and had nowhere else to go as the warriors crowded close.

Iagos, confident now that Iolaus was about to be torn limb from limb, eased around the back of the warriors to retrieve the Shield of Invisibility, which had rolled to rest against the stone rim of the fire pit. He bent to lift it, and was just straightening to leave when Iolaus kicked out at an advancing armoured warrior, driving the animated armour backwards, so that it stumbled into one of its comrades - who felt back against another, so that they were falling like dominos…the last one banging hard into Iagos who, off-balance, pitched head-first into the flames and fell screaming from view to the fiery lava below.

Their commander dead, the metal minions fell still and Iolaus shuddered and shook his head as he stumbled to the rim of the circular hearth. “What a waste,” he grated, his voice tight and his mouth dry at having witnessed such a terrible and unnecessary death. Wearily, he looked around the forge and sighed. It was over. Had to be over. He couldn’t believe after all that had occurred that Heph would still force himself on Leandra - it just wasn’t the god’s style. Surely, the true enemy had been Iagos, and he was no more.

Tired, hurting from the beatings he’d taken, Iolaus left the forge, following the corridor that would take him out of the mountain. He felt a need to breathe some fresh air.

Lying lethargically on the stone rooftop, the demigod and the mercenary threw small stones, one after the other, onto the sand around them, and scarcely blinked anymore when the little rocks were immediately spat back to sail over their heads. The sun, already hot, beat down upon them and burned their skin, leeching away what little moisture they still retained in their bodies. Their mouths and throats were parched and, though neither complained, deeming it a waste of breath, both desperately craved water. Two choices of action remained to them; remain safely above the sand and die of thirst, or run and risk being torn limb from limb and eaten alive by the vicious sand sharks.

Hercules watched Derk from the corner of his eye, and wondered if his quick and harsh judgment of the man, based on limited information, had been far off the mark. For every time he had saved the outlaw’s life, Derk had spared his own, and now had helped enormously by setting his arm, reducing the dislocation and rebandaging his wound - when Petronicus could have, as easily, killed him while he’d been unconscious. The demigod was grateful for the care given him, and though his arm still ached relentlessly, the fiery, nauseating agony had abated. Hercules tossed a stone in his turn, hardly even paying attention to his actions - but the lack of any response from the sand sharks was unusual. The stone lay on the sand, unmolested. His gaze darting over the sand, he called softly to Derk, “Throw another one.”

“What?” Petronicus grunted, half dozing in the blistering heat.

“Throw another rock,” the demigod said, sitting up, more alert.

Derk obligingly tossed out a stone - and it, too, lay where it fell. The two adversaries looked at one another and then back out at the quiet sand. “Maybe they’ve gone. Maybe - ”

But Hercules held up a hand for silence as he cocked his head. He’d caught the distant strains of men shrieking in fear and terrible pain. “Shh! Listen,” he murmured, then lifted his gaze to Derk’s. “They found somebody else,” he continued urgently, leveraging himself to his feet and leaping from their stone oasis. “Come on.”

Seeing that the demigod was racing toward the voices, and presumably the deadly sand sharks, Derk pointed in the opposite direction and called after him, “Shouldn’t we be going that way?”

“No, they may need our help,” Hercules yelled back as his long strides lengthened.

“Wait,” the mercenary protested, thinking it mad to run toward known peril when this was their chance to escape. But he rolled his eyes when the demigod kept running, and waved for him to hurry. Sighing, he shook his head as he jumped off the sunken roof and hared after Hercules. “Maybe they have water,” he consoled himself, needing some self-serving rational for racing blindly into danger to save strangers he could care less about - it wouldn’t suit his self-image or reputation at all to act with simple courage and even compassion.

Despite his injured leg and limping gait, Derk kept pace with Hercules and, as they crested a dune, they saw the three sand sharks leaping in and out of the sand, attacking men who scrambled for their lives and babbled incoherently with horror. They plunged forward, Hercules battering the hard shell of a shark, to drive it off and free a man whose leg was caught fast by the sharp, serrated teeth in the great, stinking maw; Derk grabbed hold of the arm of a bald man laden with gold, who was being dragged under with relentless strength. Several men were already beyond help, bloody bits and pieces of them littering the sand, and one was fleeing madly with no sense of direction only desperate to escape hideous, agonizing death. But a shark leapt out of the sand and caught him in the large gaping mouth and his piteous wails of terror rose into shrieks of pain, the blood-curdling wails abruptly ending when the monster plunged back under the dunes with its hapless victim.

Hercules had managed to drive off one of the sand sharks, and hauled the rescued man, Trayas, to his feet, holding him still, one hand covering his mouth to cut off the mindless screaming. “Shh, be quiet,” the demigod ordered sharply, if softly. “Don’t move. Don’t do anything.”

But Derk was having less luck. The pirate leader, Sordis, was dragged relentlessly lower and lower still, until only his head and shoulders, grasping arms and fists were clear of the sand. The man howled with the pain of whatever was being done to him below the surface, and his eyes were mad with panic and the knowledge of certain death. Derk dug in his heels, and hauled back, but he could not pull the stranger free. It seemed only moments, stretched into a ghastly eternity of fruitless effort, before only Sordis’ head was clear, then only his face, grimacing with horror until he suddenly laughed with insane abandon just before being sucked completely out of sight.

Nausea roiled in Derk’s gut. Though he was certain from their garb that the men they’d been trying to save were pirates, and he couldn’t honestly mourn their demise, he still felt sickened to watch any man die so hideously. Well aware of his own danger, he froze motionless as his gaze flickered around the sand and back to Hercules, who was still trying to restrain the thickset pirate who was gibbering, crazy with fear. Hercules kept urging Trayas to remain still and silent, but the fool could not resist the impulse to run as fast and as far as he could, to try to escape the monsters and a macabre, ghastly, death.

“Stay!” Hercules yelled, to no avail as the pirate fled mindlessly away, “Stop! Stop.”

Heedless of the warnings, the terrified man stumbled and fell, and then rolled to sit hunched on the sand, his fingers scrabbling in the dirt. He shuddered with fear, too frightened now to move, while Hercules and Derk remained frozen in place, knowing that any movement, any sound, could make them targets. There was a distant rumbling sound, the distinctive tunnelling noise made by a sand shark before an attack, and the pirate’s eyes widened as he felt the vibrations rise up through the ground beneath him. His eyes widened in horror, but he was paralysed with terror and could not move - could only sit and then begin screaming, until the sand shark burst up from directly beneath him. The beast rose in a high loop through the air, the doomed man in its jaws, and then tore back down through the earth, bearing its victim with it.

Derk and Hercules winced, but there was little time to mourn the hideous death for they knew very well that they, too, were still in danger of attack. Spotting some ruins about a quarter league away, Hercules pointed and called, “Head for those pillars!” Breaking into a run, he looked over his shoulder, urging, “Come on! Hurry! Come on! Faster!”

They could hear a sand shark tunnelling behind them, maybe more than one. Fear added fuel to their sagging energy as they both hurled across the sand, Derk slightly behind, handicapped by his bad leg. Panting, expression determined, the mercenary pushed off with his good leg into a long jump onto a broken stone pillar, barely missing the snapping jaws of the shark behind him. “Whoa!” he grunted as he teetered unsteadily and threw out his arms to balance himself.

Hercules had leapt onto a fallen column, his gaze suddenly speculative as he looked up at the remains of an ancient archway - now only two tall columns supporting a huge, rectangular slab of stone. Swivelling to Derk, he called softly, “Hey. You have enough energy to do a flip?”

Giving the demigod a quizzical look, the mercenary replied dryly, “Yeah - if my life depended on it.”

“It does,” Hercules assured him as he moved around the pillars of stone, assessing angles. Then he directed, “Get down in the middle, here.”

“What?” Derk boggled, not sure that returning to the sand was such a great idea.

“Just get down. I’ll tell you when to jump,” the demigod retorted as he shifted to brace against the stone plinth. With a heavy sigh, Derk reluctantly climbed down from his perch and stood slightly crouched on the hot sand. It took all he had to trust Hercules and wait like some sacrificial lamb for the coming attack. Sweat broke out on his brow as he heard the distinctive low thrumming of motion through sand, and his gut clenched - he could scarcely breathe as he stared at Hercules and waited…waited…

“Now!” the demigod shouted and Derk gratefully flew up in a high flip toward safety, even as a sand shark broke the surface, diving toward where the mercenary had been scant moments before - and Hercules pushed with all his might, toppling the massive stone arch. The tons of stone landed on the sand shark, squishing it; green blood and foul bile squirted from its remains, splashing Derk, so that the mercenary grimaced with disgust.

Wiping the scummy waste off his face, Petronicus rumbled sardonically, “Thanks.” Carefully, he made his way along the toppled column until he stood closer to Hercules and higher off the sand. “Well, there’s still two left,” he observed dryly. “You got any ideas?”

His jaw set with grim determination, knowing that if his idea didn’t work they would both be dead meat, Hercules grated, “Just one.”

“It doesn’t require leaping, does it?” Derk teased mildly, willing to try whatever the demigod had in mind. They wouldn’t last much longer under the scorching sun without water anyway. Better, in his view, to die trying to survive than to slowly broil to death.

Hercules described the strategy he had in mind and Derk licked dry lips before nodding. It was a desperate move, but then they were desperate men. Slowly, carefully, the two warriors shifted apart, picking their way along the cracked and broken tubular length of stone until they stood at opposite ends.

“Remember, run fast,” the son of Zeus counselled.

Derk took a deep breath and stepped gingerly down onto the sand, Hercules doing the same. And, when the demigod shouted, “Go!” they set off as fast as they could run, moving out parallel to one another. They dug in deep and pushed off, but the sand sucked at their boots, slowing them down. Derk limped heavily, but he slogged along as quickly as he could, acutely conscious of the low rumbling of earth moving behind him, of the sand shark tunnelling toward him. Hercules, too, was off balance and slower than he liked, weakened by his wound. But they both panted through gritted teeth, plunging ahead, not daring to look back, as they made their desperate bid for life.

Finally, Hercules yelled, “Now-w-w!

They turned sharply as one, Hercules to the left, Derk to the right, so that now they were racing toward one another. The sand sharks on their tails arced through the earth, following the vibrations made by their boots hitting the sand, speeding toward them, relentless. Deadly.

They were both sobbing for breath as they lurched past one another and pitched headlong into the sand, only barely escaping the leaping attacks of the sand sharks on their heels. But, their timing and endurance paid off - the two monsters collided, maws gaping wide and snapping reflexively shut, anticipating prey, so that they ripped one another apart in a fountain of blood and gore that rained down upon the two warriors sprawled in the sand.

“Ah-h-h!” Derk grunted in disgust, lifting a hand to protect his head from flying monster parts.

In moments, the carnage was over and there was silence. Blowing a breath of relief, Hercules pushed himself to his feet, and then reached out a hand to help Derk stand. “Let’s get outta here,” the demigod said with a slight smile of relief.

“Yeah,” Derk agreed. “Water’s west.”

But Hercules demurred, reasoning, “Those men didn’t drop out of the sky. Their ship, and their water, is east.”

For the first time since Hercules had met the mercenary, Derk grinned in happy anticipation of the end of their struggle for survival. “Let’s go,” he said, unconsciously giving Hercules a comradely slap on the back as he limped back the way they’d come, back to the beach.

It took far less time, especially once they again reached the forest, to head directly to the shoreline rather than follow the circuitous route Derk had initiated when he’d been trying to evade capture. In just under two hours, they heard voices raised as pirates gambled on the beach, wiling away their time as they waited for Sordis and the others to return. One called out, “Let ‘em roll!” And another chortled, “You owe me ten dinar!” The unwary pirates didn’t notice the two big men moving silently toward them across the sandy beach.

So, when Hercules gripped one’s shoulder, the pirate looked up in surprise, gaping as Hercules said tightly, “Hey! I need your boat.” The demigod slugged the man before the guy could blink or react. Derk hadn’t bothered with any introduction or explanation - he simply clubbed the other pirate into unconsciousness with one solid blow. Looking across the sand and seeing Derk throw away the club without following through on the attack, Hercules observed wryly, “I’m surprised you didn’t kill him.”

Derk shrugged selfconsciously, and his lips twisted with sardonic self-effacement as he drawled, “Well, I guess you’re rubbing off on me.”

Hercules quirked a brow in surprise, but then smiled slowly in approbation as he waved toward the rowboat that would take them out to the skiff that road at anchor not far off shore. It was a small and sturdy but light and nimble cog, designed to be sailed by two men, leaving the rest free to attack and board other ships. The two warriors would have no difficulty handling it, one on the tiller, the other manning the sail. “Let’s go see your family,” Hercules said as they shoved off and leapt into the wooden rowboat.

They had a deal and Hercules planned to live up to his end of the bargain.

Iolaus ambled slowly through the forest, along the narrow path that led to the valley and the village of Cyllabos. He was tired to his bones, not having slept much for two nights, and having been brutally beaten more than once, even knocked unconscious in that time. But, still, he felt a strange contentment, a kind of peace he hadn’t felt in a long time. As odd as it was to be older than she was, he had found his grandmother, and he’d seen love and pride in her eyes when she looked at him. Having been pretty much on his own since childhood, and rarely having felt unconditional approbation from blood kin, he felt warmed by her affection and somehow less alone. Which, he told himself firmly, was stupid as he wasn’t alone, exactly. He had Hercules, after all, and Alcmene, and Jason. Still, it was a good feeling to discover he had family of his own. Distracted by his thoughts, he was unaware of being observed until a sword swept down in front of him, barring his path as the flat of the blade pressed against his chest. Stiffening, preparing for yet more battle however much he wished the conflict was over, he looked up into Hephaestus’ steady gaze and solemn face. This was not the boisterous god he’d known in his youth, but a different, older incarnation, one in which the God of the Forge did not hide the scars that marred his face, or the weak arm he held carefully across his chest. Licking his lips, Iolaus nodded tentatively. They’d been friends once, years ago. He hoped they might still be.

“You trapped my panther, bested my shield…and defeated my armoured warriors,” the god intoned darkly, his gaze unreadable.

Shrugging, Iolaus swallowed and then replied negligently, as if it had been no great feat, “Guess I was on a roll.” But he looked around then, his expression troubled, hoping his erstwhile partner hadn’t been hurt by this stern and unapproachable god as he asked warily, “Where’s Aphrodite?”

In that moment, Aphrodite, resplendent in her trademark skimpy pink negligee and absolutely glowing with happiness, appeared by Hephaestus’ side and leaned against him as she wrapped a possessive arm around his waist. Looking down at her fondly, his expression softening with the love that radiated from him, he murmured, “You brought her to me. And for that,” he added, lifting his now open and vulnerable gaze to Iolaus’, “I’ll be forever grateful.”

“Me, too,” ‘Dite dimpled prettily and then chuckled, overflowing with high spirits. “Sorry I didn’t cover your back with those moves you showed me,” she chirped and then turned her adoring gaze to her partner. “I was busy showing Hephy here some moves of my own,” she teased and then lasciviously pinched his butt.

Jumping, startled and charmingly disconcerted, Hephaestus blushed as he muttered, “’Dite, please.” But a smile twitched at the corners of his mouth and he seemed well pleased.

“’Dite?” Iolaus echoed, hard pressed to contain his laughter, though his eyes sparkled with mischief and honest gladness that the two immortals appeared so blissfully happy with one another.

Smirking with an air of proprietal satisfaction, Aphrodite cooed, “The God of Fire. It only takes one little spark to start an awesome flame.”

Hephaestus blushed crimson and bowed his head, flattered but a little overwhelmed by her enthusiastic devotion. All of his dreams and fondest fantasies had come true and, in truth, his chest was tight and his throat constricted by how very much he loved her. Knowing she loved him as deeply was an unlooked for and never expected miracle, for which he would truly be eternally grateful.

“So…” Iolaus ventured, casting a hopeful look toward Aphrodite, “things are back to normal between men and women, right?”

“Totally!” ‘Dite crowed. Linking an arm with Hephaestus, she batted her eyes at her chosen one as she murmured huskily, “I decided to leave the action business up to my brother, Hercules.”

Iolaus blew out a breath, finally relaxing as he grinned. “That’s a relief,” he said with utmost sincerity. Backing away a step, he waved down the path as he told them, “Well, I’m gonna go and say goodbye to my grandmother.” He couldn’t resist the soft smile that grew as he thought of Leandra.

But Hephaestus raised a hand to stay him a moment more. “Remember,” he offered, wanting to express his thanks in some meaningful, tangible way, “if you or Hercules ever need any weapons - ”

But ‘Dite cut in pertly, “Hercules doesn’t do weapons.” Then, from the thin air, she conjured a scroll and held it out to Iolaus. “Oh, Sweet Cheeks, I already got a petition from some babe in Parthea,” she told him with a lascivious grin.

Iolaus took the parchment and unrolled it, his brows lifting and his grin widening as he murmured, “Evanthea, huh. She wants to see me again?”

“Go, and make somebody happy,” chimed the Goddess of Love.

“Yeah,” Iolaus sighed in anticipation of delights to come as he started to back down the path. But, just as he turned to lope away, she called out, “Or don’t you and Hercules do that, either.” Startled, Iolaus looked back over his shoulder and she winked devilishly at him, and then they both laughed.

The two Olympians vanished as Iolaus loped away, still heading for Cyllabos. Oh, sure, he wanted to see Evanthea, and he wasn’t one to carry a grudge, but that extra kick she’d visited upon him when he’d already been down rather cooled his ardour. Besides, he was really looking forward to getting to know his grandmother better.

He had lots of time to enjoy the company of both women before he had to be back at the port to meet Hercules. For the first time in days, he wondered fleetingly how Herc was doing and hoped his partner wasn’t too bored by the dull guard duty of escorting a prisoner to Sparta, not a fun place under the best of circumstances. Shrugging, he began to whistle as he ambled contentedly down the path.

The tow-headed lad said a quiet, “Thank you,” as his mother ladled rich and savoury stew into his bowl.

“You’re welcome,” she murmured lifelessly in return as she moved around the table.

Reaching for the round of bread on the table as she filled his sibling’s bowls, he wondered again why his mother had seemed so terribly sad the last few days. Oh, sure, his father was late coming home from his last business trip, but usually that didn’t make his Mom all tearful, or keep her awake in the night. Like last night, when he’d roused from a dream and saw her standing by the window, a shawl around her shoulders, just staring into the darkness.

They’d just begun to eat, all of them unnaturally quiet, made nervous by her odd and lingering mood, when there was a rap on the lintel.

“Who’s there?” their mother, Kara called out, standing away from the table.

“Daddy,” his little sister crowed hopefully, only to blink and then stare wide-eyed as a tall, muscular man eased inside.

“He’s not our daddy,” his older brother grated, disappointment shadowing his eyes.

“Then who are you?” his sister asked directly, never one to be shy or coy.

“I’m Hercules,” the demigod replied.

Kara stiffened, pain and anger flashing in her eyes. She’d been told by a friend, who’d come out from town to give her the dreadful news, that Derk had been captured by Hercules, practically on their doorstep. She swallowed hard and was about to order the despised demigod from her home, when Hercules offered quickly, with a gesture back toward the darkness outside, “There’s, uh, someone who’d like to speak with you, Kara. I’ll stay with the children, if you wish.”

Startled, now uncertain, she tried to read the expression in his eyes but saw only confusion and a kind of sorrow to match her own. When he again gestured wordlessly towards the darkness, she nodded jerkily and pulled off her apron, setting it on her worktable. Her eyes downcast so as to avoid having to look at him any further, she asked, “You don’t mind watching them?” She clutched her hands together to still their trembling. She didn’t want to hope, couldn’t bring herself to believe that the mighty Hercules would have brought her husband back to her, but who else could be out there in the darkness? Why else would the demigod have come?

“Uh, not at all,” he assured her.

“Thank you,” she replied with formal stiffness as she moved toward the door.

“Where you going, Mom?” her dark-haired oldest son asked, feeling the odd undercurrents and not understanding what was going on. Hercules was famous, a hero, and yet his mother looked at him like he was some kind of bug she’d like to squash, and the demigod looked uncomfortable, even embarrassed.

“Oh, I won’t be long,” she reassured him, sparing a warm glance for the other children as well. “You just listen to Hercules.”

And then she slipped past the demigod into the gathering night. Hercules watched her go, and then moved into the room, to sit at the table with the children. He couldn’t help the shaft of sorrow he felt as he looked at them, and found them so like his own lost sons and daughter. Nor could he feel there was anything right about taking a father they clearly loved away from them. Thoughtfully, he gazed at the doorway as they ate. Kara hated him, he could read that in her eyes and stiff posture. Sighing a little, he supposed he couldn’t blame her.

Setting aside a nagging feeling of guilt, he focused his attention on the children, asking their names and ages, and generally trying to keep them distracted, so they wouldn’t wonder where their mother had gone or why she was taking so long.

Outside, Kara had moved uncertainly around to the side of the house, and then gave a stifled cry of joy and longing when she saw Derk waiting for her in the shadows. She flew into his strong arms and clung to him, kissing him passionately.

“I was so afraid I’d never see you again,” he choked out as he pulled her close and held her as tightly as he could. Gods, he loved this woman, and their children, with every fibre of his being. The thought of never seeing them again was like a dagger in his heart.

He drew her further into the shadows and away from the cottage so that the children would not overhear them.

Inside, Hercules gathered up the bowls when the children finished eating, and got them to help him wash and dry them, showing him where to put them away on the shelves. He put another log on the fire and looked around the small, homey room.

“My dad used to tell us stories before we went to bed. Can you?” the older boy asked.

Hercules smiled at the suggestion, thinking he’d enjoy that, and nodded. “I, uh, I’m a little out of practice, but I’ll see what I can do.”

He held them enthralled with tales of faraway places and magical creatures until the two younger ones began to yawn widely. Then, letting the older boy climb onto his back, he carried the smaller children, one in each arm, into the small, curtained off corner that was their bedchamber. He gently tucked them into the single large bed they shared, pulling the thin blanket up to their chins, and he watched until they had fallen asleep. The home wasn’t fancy, but neither was it threadbare and impoverished; he could see that Derk had done the best he’d known how to do, to ensure their safety and wellbeing.

The demigod felt another stab of guilt at the thought of taking their father away from these children, and leaving them bereft of his care and support. But he consoled himself that, if Derk was telling the truth and there had been some legitimacy to the killing of Lycus, then their father might well come home again. The Spartans valued family and understood the concepts of revenge; when the truth came out during the trial, they might well honour the idea of a man avenging a family left with no heir.

Deep inside, the demigod began to sincerely hope he’d been wrong about Lycus, and that Derk’s actions would not result in a judgment of death.

Outside, her tears long dried, Kara leaned into her husband as they sat on a bench in their garden shed. Sighing, she said quietly, trying to keep fear and hopelessness from her voice, “Then, you’re going back with him.”

“I have to,” he said, his voice hollow. He bent his lips to her temple, drinking in the scent of her, the feel of her in his arms. “I gave my word.”

“Maybe Marcus can do something,” she reflected then, clutching at any possibility for hope. “He’s the new magistrate in Sparta.”

Derk shrugged, holding no such optimism in his own heart. He and Marcus had been friends once, long ago, but they’d gone down separate paths in life, and he doubted his old companion would want to acknowledge him now. “He’s more concerned with his career than my life,” he sighed starkly. Hard as it was, he couldn’t encourage his wife’s dreams for his freedom - it would only be harder on her when she later learned he’d been executed. For he held no doubt that would be his fate.

“But that’s so unfair,” she murmured tearfully, her voice catching and breaking.

“I know,” he agreed sorrowfully taking her hand and holding it gently; but in fairness and honesty, he had to add, “There’s a lot of things I’ve done…that I haven’t told you about that I’m ashamed of. I’m sorry.”

They sat quietly, clinging tightly together, for long moments, and then Kara stirred. Pulling away a little, she said, “I’ll wake the children so you can say goodbye.”

But he held onto her as he objected, “No. Promise me you won’t tell them I’m here.”

Startled by his vehemence, confused, she stammered, “But, why?”

He hesitated a moment, his jaw tight and his eyes dark with shadows, but then he answered hoarsely, “If they love me like I love them, they might end up like me, and…and I want a better life for them than that.”

“But Derk, you can’t just - ” she protested, but he lifted a gentle hand to her lips, silencing her.

“Promise me,” he repeated, his voice firm. “If they need someone to look up to, let it be my father…or Hercules.”

She regarded him sadly, almost too emotionally overwrought to speak. But she swallowed the lump in her throat and replied soberly, “I promise.” She reached up and stroked his stubbled cheek, her expression softening. “But you should see them,” she urged, knowing how much he loved them. “We just won’t wake them.”

Derk hesitated but a moment more, for he dearly wanted to see his children one last time. Quietly, they crept back into the house and lifted the curtain to the alcove. Hercules stood to move into the main room, to give Derk space to sit by the bed, and watch his children sleep in the dim, candlelit room.

The mercenary reached out to lightly touch the faces of each of his little ones, and his heart ached so fiercely he could hardly bear it. His eyes stung, and a single tear etched its way down his weathered cheek. Wordlessly, he brushed it away, and leaned back against his wife, closing his eyes to better feel the warmth of her and his hand lifted to clasp the one she’d rested on his shoulder. “I love you,” he rasped hoarsely. “All of you. If you remember nothing else about me, remember that.”

Reluctantly, Hercules lifted the curtain and gazed at them compassionately. “We’d better go,” he murmured, his own voice laden with sorrow.

Iolaus sat in the sun with Leandra, on a bench outside her cottage and enjoyed the peace of it. The scent of the flowers she’d planted filled the air and a light breeze wafted through the leaves of the sycamore tree that shaded the yard. She held his hand, knowing their time was growing short but reluctant to let him go.

When he’d returned to her the evening before last, she’d drawn him into her home and cosseted him, tending lovingly to his scrapes and bruises and then filled him with a warm, rich stew. He’d been tired, and for good reason, she’d reflected - the man had bested monsters and a god to save her life and her village. So she’d made up a bed for him by the fire, soft, fragrant rushes covered with a down-filled comforter, and gave him a blanket she’d woven the year before.

The next day, she’d cooked for him and plied him with questions about her lost son - and she’d sensed that she wasn’t getting the whole story.

Iolaus had found it awkward to try to satisfy her curiousity without hurting her with the full knowledge of the harsh, loveless man her boy had become. He’d skirted the truth, telling her that Skouros had been adopted by a Spartan couple, and left out the part about how they’d been self-righteous prigs who had treated the boy more as a servant than a son. Skouros learned nothing of love from them, but he did learn a great deal about discipline and honour, and had grown up wanting nothing more than to be a soldier in the Spartan tradition. Iolaus told Leandra about his mother, the gentle woman Skouros had married, and left out the part about how his father was scarcely ever home, or how cold and distant he seemed on those rare occasions when he returned from one war or another. He did tell her as much as he could remember about his father’s military prowess, knowing she’d take some comfort from hearing that he’d grown up like his father and grandfather, and would be proud of him. His eyes averted, he only said he’d left home while still quite young, and had attended Chiron’s Military Academy - but omitted the details of having been a street kid, living by his wits and light fingers. Once he began to tell her about Hercules, though, he was on more solid ground, and he grew more animated, regaling her with story after story about his amazing best friend and their adventures together. He didn’t mention his wife, Anya, or his lost children - he wanted to spare her the hurtful knowledge that she’d lost grandchildren she would never, ever know.

The day had passed quickly, broken by villagers who’d come by, embarrassed and chagrined by their behaviours toward him and Leandra, but they’d both been compassionate. Her friends and neighbours had been terrorized by Iagos and had only done what they’d thought they had to do to save themselves and their own families. Leandra brought out a vessel of wine, to toast their freedom and their life now, in this new time and her gesture reassured them. Iolaus began telling tales of what had happened in the years they’d missed, liberally salting his stories with humour, until they were all laughing - and soon, more wine was brought out by other villagers, and then someone drew out a harp. Before long, there was music and dancing as the whole village celebrated their second chance at lives fully lived.

The court was as busy as a market place, with people coming and going, guards shepherding bound and chained prisoners, relatives keening, witnesses posturing importantly, merchants hawking their wares. The Magistrate, Marcus, lounged on his throne-like chair, pounding his gavel and passing judgment on all who came before him. He’d just finished hearing the charges against a scruffy, blond man, and he drawled negligently, “Execute him. Next.”

“No! Please! H-have mercy!” the pitiful man grovelled desperately, falling to his knees as he appealed brokenly, “I was only trying to feed my family!”

Coldly, Marcus rolled his eyes and waved to the guards to haul the man out of his sight; deaf to the shouts and sobs of protest, he turned his attention to the next case. His aide leaned forward to announce, “Derkus Petronicus.”

Marcus turned a flat, hard look on the man who had once been his best friend, acting as if they had never previously met. Though he knew the case well, he asked, as if bored, “His crime?”

“Assassination of a public official,” his aide intoned officiously.

Completely ignoring Hercules, who had apprehended Derk at the court’s request, and with a last, cursory glance at Derk, Marcus snapped, “Execute him. Next.”

Stunned, the demigod pressed forward, holding onto Derk when the guards would have taken him away. “Hold on, here,” Hercules called out, appalled. “Doesn’t he get a trial?”

“He was tried, in absentia,” Marcus informed him frostily, “and found guilty.”

“I meant a fair trial,” the demigod insisted, if somewhat insultingly. He hadn’t brought Derk back to be summarily executed, with no chance to tell his own side of what happened and why. “What about counsel?” Hercules demanded.

Repressively, Marcus lectured as he stood to wash his hands and then ambled closer, “This is Spartan law. You do believe in the law, don’t you?”

“I believe in justice,” Hercules snapped back, infuriated.

“Hmm, justice, yes,” Marcus chuckled, his tone indulgent, as if humouring a dull child. He flicked a hand at the guards, weary of the debate and having other cases to hear. Derk’s fate had been sealed before he’d ever set foot back on Spartan soil.

“Now, wait a minute!” Hercules shouted angrily, appalled by the arbitrary, unconscionable ruling.

“Save your breath,” Derk rasped bitterly. “Spartans have their own kind of justice.” The death sentence was no more or less than he’d anticipated and, while he might regret it, he knew there was no purpose in arguing. Marcus had made up his mind and that was that.

But it’s not right,” the demigod grated through clenched teeth, his eyes sparking with fury.

“Neither’s what I did,” the mercenary replied with rare dignity, and then he lowered his gaze and let the guards lead him away.

Hercules look a little dazed as he shook his head slowly and looked around the crowd. No one was paying any attention. No one seemed to care a whit that justice was not being served by their court. No one cared that a man was about to be executed without ever having an opportunity to plead his case. It wasn’t right. Yes, Derk had killed Lycus, he freely admitted it - but he’d only killed when Spartan courts hadn’t acted to bring Lycus to justice for another death. It had been an execution, not a murder. Derk wasn’t some conscienceless villain but a man doing his best to provide for his family, using the only skills he had. Hercules didn’t agree with the decisions he’d made or the path he’d followed, but nor did the demigod believe the man deserved to die for exacting legitimate if useless revenge on behalf of that family in Attica.

Pushing his way through the crowd, sick to know he’d played a part in this travesty of justice - that in his single-minded certainty of his own ‘rightness’, he’d disregarded Derk’s assertions that this is exactly what would happen if Hercules brought him back to Sparta. Memories of trusting children and a grieving wife forced their way into the demigod’s mind, as did images of the time they’d spent together on that damned island. Derk acted with his own brand of honour. He was not a wanton murderer and his death would serve no good purpose.

Biting his lip, his eyes narrowed in thought, Hercules did not feel bound by law that was not just - neither the laws or rules of the gods nor those of man impressed him when they were soulless and just plain wrong. Knowing he had little time if he was to right what would be a hideous wrong, he strode from the crowded building, certain that it was his duty to intervene. Outside the courthouse, Hercules loped to the guardhouse by the gate and, when the soldiers were engaged in questioning people entering the city, he appropriated a bow and a quiver of arrows. The demigod felt no guilt about the minor theft or about what he planned to do, no question or hesitation lurked in his heart or mind - as always, he was confident in his own values and decisions and knew, with no doubt, that he was doing the right and necessary thing.

Derk watched the demigod leave, not surprised that Hercules had no stomach to stay and watch his execution. Hell, he’d leave too, if he could, the mercenary thought sardonically as he awaited his turn at the gallows. It was a busy day, with several being hung before him - he couldn’t help but wonder if they all felt as undeserving of such harsh punishment as he did. Snorting to himself, he stood stoically, his regrets and sorrows hidden in his heart.

Finally, it was his turn and he was shoved roughly up the short flight of steps to the killing platform, while they were still hammering the trapdoor brace into place.

“Get on with it!” a guard called out impatiently.

The thick, rough rope was pulled down over his head and tightened around his throat. He swallowed hard and clenched his jaw, determined to die as he had lived, with courage and a curious detached acceptance that what would be, would be, according to the Fates and their mercy. He saw the guard captain nod, and heard the brace pulled away - and he immediately dropped through the space that opened beneath his feet, the noose tightening painfully around his neck.

But, the rope had scarcely stretched before an arrow thudded into it, severing it neatly, and Derk fell to the floor beneath the platform. He heard someone call out, “Ooh! Look! Above!” and was conscious of a sudden frenzy of activity as another prisoner used the confusion to make a break for freedom. Thrown into confused disarray, some of the guards pursued the blond felon, while others lunged toward the mercenary, who pulled the hateful noose from around his neck as he hastily crawled from under the wooden decking.

One guard charged him, and he shouldered the man out of his way, swinging around to bring his bound fists down on the guard’s neck, knocking him out. And then Petronicus whirled to face another guard, lifting his bound wrists to meet the sword slashing down - a bold, risky move, but one that freed him from the last restraints. He dodged the next sword thrust, and then kicked out, knocking the weapon away before slamming his fists hard in powerful punches that rendered the guard unconscious. He turned and leapt into a kick, taking out a third, and then scrambled back over the platform to the windows beyond. Smashing through the decorative wood moulding, he quickly climbed out and raced away, the howling guards hot on his heels.

It hadn’t been easy, but the mercenary had evaded the guards, losing them in the crowded warrens and alleys around the busy market square. Finding an isolated corner, formed by shacks and storehouses leaning against the city wall, he’d climbed up and over, slipping down the other side and loped quickly into the forest. His wounded leg was stiff and ached badly, but he gave it no quarter as he ran for his life.

For, if he didn’t escape, he would surely die when they caught up with him.

Breaking from the forest into a stretch of grassland on the hill overlooking the shoreline, heading for the corel he and Hercules had taken from the pirates, he lurched up the incline and then lifted his head - and all hope of escape died in his heart. Hercules was standing square in his way - blocking his desperate bid for freedom. Groaning, panting for breath, he rolled his eyes and then demanded with exasperated despair, “Aw-w-w…don’t you ever give up? I suppose you’ve come to take me back again.”

But the demigod shook his head. “That was my arrow,” he said simply.

Stunned, never having expected assistance of any kind, let alone aid in escaping, Derk blurted, “Why?”

Hercules grimaced as he looked away. “What was happening to you,” he replied, returning his gaze to the mercenary’s gaze, “it wasn’t justice.”

Overwhelmed, Derk bowed his head. “Thank you,” he choked out, his voice nearly breaking with relief.

“It’s not that easy,” the demigod told him flatly as he dictated his terms. “You go back to your family. You be a farmer…a fisherman,” Hercules ordered. “But you put your mercenary days behind you.”

Derk took a deep breath and nodded. Moving forward, he grasped Hercules’ forearm in the warriors’ clasp as he vowed, “It’s done. I give you my word.”

“Good,” Hercules replied, his stern demeanor relaxing into a slow smile. But he stiffened again at the sound of a distant voice commanding, “Set up a perimeter!”

“We’d better get going,” Hercules said as he turned to lead the way down to their beached rowboat. “It won’t be long before they pick up your trail.”

Derk needed no urging, and by the time the soldiers had found his tracks, the two warriors were on board their small vessel and heading back north, the wind filling the large square sail. On the morrow, when they landed, Derk paused before heading home to his family, to his new life as a free man, and he would do his best to abide by the promise he’d made to Hercules. “Thank you,” he said solemnly, “for giving me a second chance. You won’t be sorry. I promise you that.”

The demigod took the proffered hand and they shook as warriors, as comrades. “I believe you,” Hercules replied soberly, before he smiled warmly and clapped Derk on the shoulder. “Now, go home. Your family’s waiting for you.”

Derk grinned and nodded, and then turned to lope toward the forest path that would lead him to his cottage and those he loved best in all the world. But he paused briefly before he disappeared into the trees, to watch the demigod jog along the beach and then cut up toward the hills, wondering where Hercules was going and what the Son of Zeus’ future would hold for him. “I wish you well, Hercules,” he murmured, and then disappeared into the trees, eager to get home to his beloved wife and children, to be the man they deserved him to be.

When the next day dawned, Iolaus stood outside Leandra’s home and thought about Parthea and his original plans when he’d left Hercules at the port. But then he looked back into the cottage, where his grandmother was kneading bread for the meal she wanted to make for them to enjoy later in the day. A kind of family reunion celebration she’d called it with a slow smile when they’d awakened that morning, hoping he’d understand and that he’d stay surprising him as he’d planned to go back to Parthea. He’d hesitated a moment, thinking of Evanthea, but he found he couldn’t refuse her. Nor did he want to, and was a little startled by his own desire to remain and enjoy time with this grandmother he’d not known he had. Family, he’d thought, a smile of gratitude and shy pleasure quirking on his lips as he’d nodded and hugged her, too moved to speak. Family who wants me around.

Warmth now filled his heart and glowed in his eyes as he watched her, and listened to her hum a light-hearted, happy tune and he marvelled that she felt such happiness to be doing this for him. “I’ll be back soon,” he called. “Just going for a walk.” She looked up briefly to wave hand white with flour, and to smile brightly at him. No doubt, Evanthea had charms that endeared her to him, and he sighed a little as he resolutely set his original plans aside. There’d be another time to dance with her. But this time, in this place, was special in a way that would never come again. His grandmother was cooking for him, taking great joy in his presence, and that was something he’d not known before. In the meadow outside the village, he carefully gathered bright flowers to grace their table, flowers to please her and, hopefully, to be a symbol of how much he treasured her and their time together.

As he plucked the blossoms, he thought about what stories he could share with her about his life that would give her a sense of peace, a feeling of having known him as he’d grown up and comfort that her grandson had grown into a strong man who lived an exciting life doing what he loved to do, a man who had married, sired a family and who now did his best to help others at the side of his best friend. Though some of the stories were sad, he decided she deserved to know about Anya and his boys, and he wanted to tell Leandra about them, about the joy he’d known with them. On his way back to her cottage, he found himself thinking about that other little boy who’d never really known any kind of home, or a friendship such as he’d shared with Hercules throughout the whole of his life. When he thought of Leandra’s little boy stranded alone by a river when his world had disappeared, a child who’d lost all sense of security and love in his life without ever knowing why, he felt pity for Skouros for the first time in his life, and no little compassion for the lost child his father had been. Sighing, he shook his head and, for the first time in his life, his heart ached for his father, a man he’d scarcely known. That little guy had learned at a very early, vulnerable age to not ever trust love, to always be wary of false security. It was no wonder he’d grown into the man Skouros had been. In an odd way, his new understanding of his father helped alleviate some of his long-buried anger, though he doubted he’d ever understand the man his father had become, or ever really forgive him for abandoning them.

Leandra was delighted by the flowers he brought to her and placed them in her best clay jar before setting them in the centre of the table. The scent of baking bread and simmering stew filled the small cottage, making it feel homey and cheerful. They sat together on the bench out in the sunlight, trading stories about their lives and getting to know one another and, when they sat down to the dinner she’d made, they felt like old friends - more, they felt like family, each of them filling an empty place in the heart of the other and soothing gaping if unseen wounds of sorrow.

All too soon, though he stayed yet another day, the time came for him to move on. In sharing the story of his life, he’d told her all about his best friend and she understood that he had to go, to rejoin Hercules - understood more than perhaps he realized that he’d revealed, that Hercules was his life now, his reason for being. Squeezing his hand, she shifted on the bench where they’d sat to watch the dawn together, so that she could face him, and she lifted her fingers to caress his cheek.

“You are the most amazing man,” she said soberly, admiration glowing in her eyes. “Not many would risk themselves to save a stranger, and that’s all I was to you the first time you came to my aid. I don’t know anyone else who would face down monsters and a god just to secure my freedom.”

“Ah, well,” he mumbled, embarrassed, blushing a little.

“No, listen to me, Iolaus,” she insisted. “I feel so very lucky to know you are family - so blessed to have such a grandson. You are a fine, fine man - strong and yet gentle; kind and compassionate and so very courageous. However you became the good man you are, I hope…I hope you are as proud of yourself, as I am of you.” She blinked against the tears that threatened and sniffed. Her voice cracked as she reached to draw him into a tight hug and whispered, “I love you, Iolaus. And I hope you will come to see me again… soon.” And then she kissed his cheek.

A lump formed in his throat, and moisture glittered in his eyes as he held her tightly. “I’m the lucky one,” he replied hoarsely. “Lucky to have found you. You’re my family, Leandra - Grandmother. I promise - I’ll stay in touch and visit as often as I can.” Pulling back, he brushed at his eyes and grinned at her. “And I’ll bring Hercules with me. I want him to meet you. And I want you to meet him.” He lifted his hand to tenderly brush a wisp of hair back from her brow, and then leaned forward to kiss her forehead. “I love you, too,” he said with quiet strength. “If you ever need me, never hesitate to send word - I’ll come, I promise.”

She stood with him, and they hugged a last time before he turned to go. At the end of the lane, just before it curved around a bend, he looked back and waved - and his glorious smile warmed her heart, lightening the sorrow she would always feel for her lost little boy. Bravely, she smiled brightly as she waved back and felt joy to know that though she’d lost her son, she’d gained a grandson, a man of whom she was very proud and found that she loved very much. As he disappeared from sight, she murmured, “Be well, Iolaus - and please, my dear one, please stay as safe as you can while you follow your friend - and do your best to keep him safe, though you never quite came out and admitted that that’s what you have committed your life to do.”

Then she returned to her cottage and thought about the demigod Iolaus was so devoted to - ‘Hercules, friend of Iolaus’ she recalled with a fond smile that first time she’d heard the demigod’s name on her grandson’s lips - and she hoped that they would both come to see her before much more time passed. She wanted to know this Hercules who clearly Iolaus deemed worth any sacrifice, and who was, quite evidently, her grandson’s hero. “You must be very special, indeed, Hercules,” she mused to herself as she puttered in her garden, “to have such an extraordinary man as my grandson as your good friend. I only hope that you value him as highly as he values you.”

Finis



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