If she’d thought twice, she might not have agreed to the deal. Aphrodite reclined by the scrying pool in the grotto, chin on fist and a pout on her lips as she surveyed the picture rippling through the water.
“Having second thoughts?” The voice came out of nowhere, with no fanfare of sparkles to herald the sudden presence of her visitor. Trying not to look as startled as she felt, the goddess sat up straight. “You didn’t say it was going to be Sweet Cheeks.” She gestured at the two men shown in the pool.
“You didn’t ask.” The newcomer was her visitor from the day before, a creature professing to be the avatar of another god, and there to ask her permission to enlist the aid of one of the Greek mortals under her aegis. Flattered that another god, even one not in her pantheon, would even think to ask, she’d agreed without considering the details, like the fact that the mortal in question was the best friend of her favorite half-brother. Granted, what was happening wasn’t as bad as when Apollo had put the whammy on Iolaus, leaving him in a near manic state for the better part of a day.
“That’s my little bro’ down there,” she pointed out.
“He’s not the one who’s help we seek.” Gabriel, all iridescent wings, blond curls and bright blue eyes, gave her a reassuring smile.
“I know, but wither goes Curly, my brother is bound to follow. This-this isn’t going to get them in trouble, is it?” It wasn’t going to get her in trouble with Hercules, was it, was what she really wanted to ask.
“They’re more than capable of handling themselves, Aphrodite.”
“I know, but-I don’t know this god you serve, y’know?”
“Of all the Olympians, Aphrodite, you know Him the most.”
This puzzled her. “Who is it?” She was fairly familiar with the non-Greek pantheons in their general area of the world. Maybe knowing who it was would put to rest her fears.
Gabriel smiled and turned away, simply ceasing to be there before the turn was completed. Only his voice remained behind. “Love.”
The scene had been repeated a thousand times before. A cheery fire crackling in front of him, his partner collecting wood to keep it going for the night, a light breeze sighing through the trees. What made this time different was the amount of wood collecting at their campsite.
Hercules stared in bemusement at the pile of firewood. He’d seen Iolaus nervous, angry, happy, sad. He knew all of the signs for each state of mind. This one was new. The sound of his partner moving through the woods was a sure sign that something was amiss. Iolaus rarely made a sound as he wandered any forested area.
The subject of Hercules’ concern put in his appearance, carrying yet another armload of wood.
“Uh, that should be enough wood. It’s not that cold.” Hercules watched Iolaus place the armload on the pile and look around the camp as if searching for something. Trying to break the odd mood his partner seemed to have fallen into, he ventured onto a subject sure to get an enthusiastic response. “It’s a beautiful night, Iolaus---perfect weather for the Winter Solstice festival.”
“Yeah. Can’t wait.” The sigh that followed was at odds with his words, as was the disinterested tone.
Hercules frowned. “What’s the matter? You love festivals. And we are the guests of honor at this one.”
Iolaus flopped down onto the ground and leaned back against a small boulder. “No, you’re the guest of honor.”
“That’s not true,” Hercules protested.
“Hercules, they couldn’t care if I went or not.”
He couldn’t leave that unanswered. “We both saved the town from those bandits.”
“Okay,” Iolaus conceded, then added, “and who are they erecting that statue to?”
“Oh.” Hercules was caught on that one.
His partner chuckled a little, ready to let his friend off the hook. “Actually, you know I don’t care about that. It’s just-“ he broke off and searched for the right words. “Where am I going, Hercules? You know what I mean? What am I supposed to achieve in this life?”
“Iolaus---where did this come from?” Hercules searched his memory for something that could have brought this on. He was coming up a blank.
Iolaus struggled to put into words what had been on his mind for the last few days. “I mean---am I gonna be remembered as Iolaus? Or---‘The guy with Hercules’. Don’t get me wrong, I-I’m really honored to be your friend. I wouldn’t go anywhere else or---or be anything else. It’s just, I don’t know, I feel---” Restless wasn’t the half of it.
“Iolaus, people will remember you. Your time will come.”
“I don’t know-“ he trailed off, his own personal doubts eating at him.
Hercules, at a loss of how to help, tried to reassure him one more time. “Trust me.”
Iolaus gave him a smile. “Is this one of those demigod things? You just know?”
Hercules laughed. “Good night, Iolaus.”
Iolaus nodded and settled down for the night. “Good night, Herc.” He’d noticed that the demigod hadn’t answered his last question.
Polonius, king of Bethos, entered his private chambers after his long journey to Delphi. He found his wife awaiting him. The news he’d hoped to avoid sharing so soon upon his return weighed heavily on his mind and heart. “My dear Maliphone,” he greeted her. She was no longer the young woman he’d fallen in love with one summer day, but had aged well. Her regal bearing magnified day by day. She didn’t deserve the news he brought, especially in her condition.
“Ah, Polonius!” Maliphone greeted her husband with a hug and kiss. Her large belly, carrying the heir to the throne, pressed against him . “How was Delphi? No incidents, I hope.”
“Oh, the roads were safe for a change. And how are you feeling, my dear?” He took refuge in the niceties.
“Oh, I’m still having some morning sickness---but there’s nothing to worry about. All of my sisters had healthy babies.” Maliphone smiled, confident that the long wait for a child would be rewarded with a healthy baby in the end.
Polonius, no coward, decided that he had to broach the subject “Maliphone---while at Delphi, I visited the oracle.”
She smiled. Her husband had been nervous about this pregnancy. After years of no heir, he could have set her aside and no one would have faulted him, yet he loved her too much to abandon hope. No doubt he’d gone to ask if the baby would be healthy and whether it would be a boy or girl. “And what good news would you like to share with me?”
At the eager look on her face, he faltered. “It’s nothing. I don’t want to worry you.”
This wasn’t the answer she’d expected. “Polonius, I’m your queen. I want to share your news---good or bad.”
He mentally girded his loins and jumped in. “The oracle declared---that my kingship will be succeeded by a newborn child.”
Underwhelmed by this news, and relieved, Maliphone reassured him. “Of course! This child!” Her hand rested on her belly. “Provided it’s a boy; and my sisters assure me it will be by the way it’s positioned low.”
Polonius took a deep breath and admitted, “Not of the house of Polonius.” There, he’d rid himself of carrying the weight of such news alone.
Her denial was quick and vehement. “The oracle is wrong.”
Polonius regretfully shook his head. “The oracle is never wrong.”
Stunned, but determined to find their way around the prophecy, Maliphone searched her mind for an idea. Perhaps it was her own desire to safeguard her child’s future, or perhaps it was someone whispering ideas in her head; she gave voice to the thoughts that bloomed in her mind. “We will make it wrong.” She hesitated as if listening to something and then commanded, “Order the captain of the guard to round up every male child in the province under the age of one. Bring them to Bethos.”
She cut his protests off. “Do you want to lose everything we’ve worked for? All we’ve dreamed about?!”
His own hesitation was brief. “Guards!”
Iolaus was having trouble sleeping. He tossed and turned, then dozed for only a few minutes before he was once again struggling to find a position that would allow him to drift off. Finally, frustrated, Iolaus sat up. Something was wrong. He could feel it in the air. He looked across the dying embers of their fire. Hercules, normally sensitive to the slightest danger, slept on.
“So it’s nothing dangerous, Iolaus,” he chided himself even as he stood. Maybe there was going to be a weather change, or-he swore he heard something outside the light shed by their campfire. Casting one more look at his slumbering companion, he rose and took a few steps in the direction he thought he’d heard something. He slipped his knife free from its sheath in case he was wrong and trouble was about to find him.
He found himself on a path, in broad daylight. He turned back, but instead of Hercules, an odd rock formation greeted him. It almost looked like someone had carved the boulder into some kind of abstract piece of art. Turning back, he followed the path, the camp and his friend forgotten. That restlessness that had plagued him for days egged him on. Before him was only the path and by its side a gnarled old tree. One branch, like a twisted arm, pointed to his destination. Then, as suddenly as it had appeared, the path was gone, replaced by a stone wall that took up his whole field of vision. Mist and fog moved in, obscuring everything. Before he could move on, two glowing red orbs appeared and seemed to swoop at him like a dragon in flight.
“Ah-h-h-h-h-h-h! Yah-h-h-h-h-h!” He ducked, left only with the impression of the glowing-eyes-and some kind of ornate symbol that seemed vaguely familiar. When he stood up and his vision cleared, he could see a keyhole-shaped window in the wall. The mist still partly obscured things, but he could see a figure pointing upward. It looked like Hercules’ silhouette. A feeling of peace and calm suddenly erased any misgivings he had.
Iolaus took another step forward, hoping it was Hercules and his partner could shed light on this absurd sequence of events. Before he could go further, he was struck with a blinding light. He dropped his knife in surprise and tried to shield his face. “Ah-h-h-h-h!” He felt an intense heat on his upraised hands, yet the pain of the burn was distant. Lowering his arms, he found himself on the outskirts of their camp, his knife on the forest floor, the dying fire casting its reflection on the blade.
Iolaus snatched it up, sheathed it, then marched back to his blanket to gather his things, shoving them haphazardly into his rucksack. That done, he rose and began kicking dirt onto the fire.
Awakened, Hercules sat up and stared at his partner. Ascertaining that he wasn’t dreaming when a clod of dirt hit his chest, he questioned, “What are you doing?”
“I-“ Iolaus looked about the camp distractedly. “I have to go.”
Hercules knew Iolaus tended toward nightmares, but he usually just woke up screaming, not trying to leave camp. Since they hadn’t killed any monsters lately, that couldn’t be it. “Iolaus-- it’s the middle of the night. We’ll make the festival in time.”
“Oh, I’m not going to the festival.” That was definitely not in his plans, what plans he could muster up after that vision.
Hercules frowned. “Then where are you going?”
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “Hercules I have had---a vision.” It wasn’t the first time he’d had them, but this time it wasn’t a lightning strike nor poison messing with his mind.
“It must have been some dream.” Hercules watched Iolaus run a hand through his hair. It was a nervous gesture that he’d seen hundreds of times since their Academy days. Despite the darkness, his eyes could see that the palm appeared reddened. He stood and grasped Iolaus’ wrists and turned them palm up. Both were red, as if sunburned or he had grasped something very hot, yet they weren’t blistered. “What happened to your hands? They’re all red.”
Iolaus looked at them blankly for a moment and then giggled. Pulling his wrists free, he answered, “I have to go.”
Frustrated, Hercules asked, “Go where?” When he didn’t get an answer other than Iolaus picking up his sword and rucksack, he added hastily, “How about if I go with you?”
Fishing once more for a reason for this sudden need to leave, he added, “I just wish I could understand what’s going on.”
Iolaus looked up at him earnestly. “How can you understand when I can’t?”
That wasn’t the answer the demigod had wanted. “Well---let’s try---tell me about your dream.”
Iolaus sighed as if this was just one more delay he had little patience for. “Well, I can’t remember much about it. It, uh---there was, um---a gnarled, old tree and a---a carved rock and---you know, Hercules? I’ve never felt such a feeling of---peace and tranquility, like a---like a oneness, like a whole ocean of-- what?!” Iolaus stopped when he noticed his partner was looking at him incredulously.
“Uh, I-I didn’t say anything!”
“You were looking at me strangely. What?”
Hercules hesitated and then responded with the first thing that had come to mind listening to Iolaus try to justify this drive to leave. “No, it’s just---you know, Hera and the gods---sometimes they act in strange-- ”
“Oh, no, no, no---this is not a spell or anything.” Iolaus sounded sure of this. “This just feels too right. It’s---it’s a feeling that, uh---that I have to do this.”
It was obvious he hadn’t convinced Hercules of anything. He could see it in his friend’s puzzled expression. With a frustrated mutter, he gave up trying to explain it to Hercules’ satisfaction. Sometimes the demigod relied too much on logic. Gut instinct worked fine as far as Iolaus was concerned; at least this time. “I gotta go.”
Hercules gestured helplessly. “Where?”
Iolaus paused and then it came to him. “North.”
“It’s a bit vague,” Hercules pointed out. However, Iolaus had already headed out of camp.
Trinculos was a good thief. Maybe not the King of Thieves, but he could hold his own in the skills needed to survive and avoid the magistrate. He prided himself not only on those skills, but on his own sense of self preservation rooted in logic. A cool head and a cold heart had kept him alive since his father had died in one of those wars that plagued the city states of Greece. That’s why the past few days had been torture for him. Visions, nightmares, call it what you will, but he needed to leave-now.
His hand stole over the bag of stolen loot and then dipped in for a handful. Another hand clamped down on his wrist.
“Going somewhere, Trinculos?”
The thief started, but covered with the truth, for once. “Just taking my share.”
The man leaned in trying to intimidate him.. “I oughtta kill you.” Another of the thieves muttered in his sleep, shifting restlessly.
Trinculos dropped his voice lower. “You don’t wanna try.”
The other thief scowled. “What about tomorrow? You’re turning your back on the biggest take of our lives?!”
“Steal it yourselves!” Trinculos snarled. “ I have to go.” He didn’t wait for any more protests, but left.
As he exited, the restless sleeper awoke. “Where’s he going?”
“Ah, we’re better off without him. Guy’s been acting crazy for two days, now!”
Hercules and Iolaus strode along the path. This time it was Iolaus who was setting the pace and Hercules having to hurry to keep up. He’d have done a better job if he hadn’t been muttering to himself, trying to figure out why Iolaus felt this need to go to someplace which still remained a mystery. “‘North,’ he says. No province, no castle, no village, no nothing. Just---north.” It smacked of the kind of vision his relatives would take delight in inflicting on mortals, yet Iolaus had been adamant that Hercules’ relatives weren’t involved. “You don’t happen to have any idea how far north we’re going, do you?” Maybe this would help them discover where they were going.
Iolaus grinned briefly, giving his partner an affection look. “You know, this is really funny because usually on our journeys, I’m the one who does the babbling.”
“Babbling? What, you’re saying I’m babbling? Like I’m talking incessantly-babbling? Mumbling-anything-that-pops-in-my-head-babbling? That kind of babbling?” Hercules shut up when he realized he had been babbling.
“Hercules, if I get any idea as to why I’m doing this, I’ll let you know.” It was plain Iolaus really did wish he could allay the demigod’s fears, but all he could insist on was that this wasn’t from the gods.
“Great. You still have no idea how far north we’re going?”
“Good.” At least they had that straight.
The village was in a state of chaos. Soldiers rode their horses through the streets, trampling any who got in their way. Dismounted, they weren’t much better. Their targets were the women with infant boys under a year of age. Fathers, brothers, and husbands didn’t fair well in attempting to protect their loved ones.
“Please don’t take my baby! Don’t take my baby!” The woman tried to hold on to her son, but within moments he was wrested from her grip.
“Give me the baby!” the soldier snarled as he held it above her reach.
“No-o-o-o-o! Help! My baby!” Her cries were echoed by many others as they were hustled along with the infants from the village.
“Quiet! Quiet!” The commander’s voice shouted above the wailing, a futile voice amidst the suffering.
They’d been walking all day with no destination in sight or mind. Hercules had stopped questioning his partner. For years, Iolaus had followed him into danger without question. Could he do less? Granted, they didn’t know if danger was involved, but since it was unknown, he’d just assume the worst and be prepared for it. He nearly ran into his partner when Iolaus stopped. “What is it?” He didn’t hear anything unusual...
“I don’t know. This all feels familiar, but---I’ve never been here before.” Iolaus looked around, hoping something would trigger a memory as to why this place was familiar.
Hercules leaned back against a large rock formation, folding his arms across his chest. “Maybe you saw it in your dream,” he suggested.
Iolaus turned to look at him, to see if the demigod was just humoring him. The stone Hercules leaned against was carved into the three repeating shapes he’d seen in his vision. “Yeah, you’re right, I did. This was in my dream.” Iolaus slapped his hand against the smooth stone. “We’re going the right way.” He took off, not looking to see if Hercules was still with him.
Hercules looked briefly at the stone that had been his back rest and then hurried to catch up with Iolaus. “Of course. We’re-“ he gestured vaguely, “---going north.”
The farmhouse looked peaceful from the outside, however, one step into the interior found a flurry of activity taking place. Loralei held her son tight to her breast and whispered to calm his cries. “It’s all right.” She looked at her husband and then added, to herself, “Crazy.”
Uris looked up, distracted. “We need to get going.”
“How could you do this?” she protested. “Uprooting us like this? I don’t understand it.”
How could he reassure her? The truth was that he couldn’t, but he had to do this, for all of them. “Neither do I. Please, just listen to what I say.”
“How long will you be gone? Who’ll plant our crops in the spring?”
“Loralei, please---you’ll be safe at my brother’s.”
She shook her head. “It’s not only our well-being I’m worried about. I’m scared for you, Uris. I’ve never seen you like this.” For the past few days she’d find him standing completely still, his chores forgotten, a perplexed look on his face. He’d been distracted, barely responding to her questions.
“I’ve never felt like this. I can’t explain it. It’s just something I have to do.”
“All because of a dream.” That was the bitter part. It wasn’t because of war, or some disaster, no. All of this was due to a dream, a wisp of nothing sent by Morpheus.
Uris pulled her to him for a quick hug. “Believe me---I know how crazy it sounds. But I have to do it. Come on.”
Night had fallen. Hercules had had a devil of a time getting Iolaus to agree to stop, eat, and rest. He’d made the hunter set up camp while he did the hunting for fear that the driven man would just keep going. He’d never seen Iolaus like this. They’d walked all day. He should be tired and ready to eat and sleep, yet there he was, barely able to keep still, fidgeting like he’d used to back in the Academy classrooms. Hercules tore off a piece of the roasting rabbit and offered it to Iolaus.
The man who never said no to a meal shook his head. “No, thanks, Herc, I don’t want anything.”
“I can’t believe you’re not hungry. I mean, we’ve been walking since before dawn.”
Iolaus gave him a weak smile. “Yeah, I know. I-I just feel---I feel like we gotta keep moving.”
Hercules shook the piece of meat temptingly at his partner. “Maybe you’ll think better on a full stomach.”
“Wait a minute,” Iolaus frowned at him. “Are you saying I’m not thinking clearly?”
“No, I didn’t mean that. I meant maybe it’ll help you remember more of your dream.”
“Vision, not dream,” Iolaus corrected him. A dream wouldn’t explain his hands which remained red, yet didn’t blister nor hurt. “Hercules, you’re gonna find this hard to believe, but I’ve never been so focused in my life. Not even when I was in the East and studied under the masters there. I mean, I really feel this is so---right.”
“Good.” Maybe if he was focused, he’d remember more of this---vision. “And where are we going?”
“I told you, we’re going---”
Hercules finished it. “---north.” Iolaus nodded. “As long as it’s clear.”
“Crystal.” Iolaus rose. His friend was supposed to support him, like he did Hercules, but somehow he thought the demigod still harbored doubts. That hurt. He began picking up his things.
“Iolaus---wait!” Hercules set the bit of rabbit down on a large leaf and rose from the log he’d been sitting on. His partner didn’t stop but shouldered his pack and sword and started to leave. “Would you wait a minute?!” He didn’t see the bushes behind him move slightly as a figure holding a knife edged closer.
Iolaus shook his head as he left the light of the fire. “No, Hercules. You know, I mean---if you don’t wanna take me seriously, then don’t.”
Hercules didn’t look, but reached back with one hand and caught the wrist of the hand reaching for their dinner. With a jerk, he pulled the thief out of his cover and into the light of the campfire. Iolaus had paused and looked back with interest.
Trinculos let out a cry of surprise as he found himself nearly dangling from the big guy’s hand. “I didn’t mean any harm! I was hungry!” He didn’t expect any mercy and was prepared to fight for his life. A slight squeeze and his knife fell from his numb hand. Maybe ‘fight’ was a strong word. ‘Beg’ might work better.
“All you had to do was ask.” Hercules was aware that Iolaus had returned and picked up the knife. He let go of the thief’s hand and let him drop to the ground. “Come on, there’s plenty of food. Besides-“ he glanced at Iolaus, “I hate eating alone.”
“Thanks.” Trinculos looked up from his share of the rabbit. He wasn’t used to hunting for his food. Usually his quick fingers or stolen coins paid for his next meal.
The larger man appeared willing to forgive him since it meant his companion had decided to stay rather than let the thief at his partner’s unprotected back. “Do you have a name?”
“Why were you sneaking around?” The smaller man finally spoke. Trinculos could understand his suspicion. It wasn’t like they were near a city and this was a popular spot.
“You can’t be too careful. The hills around here are crawling with bandits. Which way are you two headed?” He ignored the blond’s suspicious looks.
“Oh, uh, that would be, ‘North’.” There was almost a smile on the lips of the large man. He appeared to be ignoring the annoyed look his companion gave him. “Why do you ask?”
Trinculos didn’t hesitate. He’d survived many a situation by thinking fast on his feet. “Maybe we could travel together. There’s safety in numbers.” Maybe he could rob them on his way north. It didn’t hurt to stay in practice.
It was obvious that one of them didn’t think that was a good idea. The look the blond gave Trinculos plainly said he knew the man was a thief and he expected him to rob them blind or slit their throats in the night. So it wasn’t a surprise when he voiced his objections. “No, no, no---you see-we travel really fast.”
Trinculos shrugged. “Fine by me. By the way, what are your names?”
Trinculos watched the two share a look. The larger one shrugged as if to say it was all fine with him, but it was the smaller one who answered. “Well, this is Hercules---”
“Hercules. The Hercules?” Maybe he’d have to revise his plans about robbing them. He would have to pick as traveling companion the one man in Greece who took bandits out of action as a living.
Hercules looked sheepish. It was always the same thing. People seemed surprised to find out who he was the first time they met. He suspected they thought he would be riding around Greece in a chariot, wearing a pristine white toga and a laurel wreath in his hair. “Uh, yeah. And this is--- Iolaus---the Iolaus.” Someday he’d like someone to say they’d heard of his friend.
“Who?” Trinculos gave the blond a passing glance before wiping his greasy hands off on his tunic hem and offering his hand to Hercules. “Pleased to meet you.”
“Pleasure.” Hercules reached to grip the offered wrist and noticed that Trinculos’ palm was reddened, as if sunburned. “Iolaus...” He indicated the thief’s hand. “Friend of yours?”
The three men stood staring at each other, their expressions ranging from wary to puzzled. For the first time, Iolaus wondered if a god was involved. The question was, who, and more importantly, why?
It was while they were taking a break so Trinculos could answer nature’s call, that Hercules broached the subject that had been interrupted at the thief’s appearance.
“Iolaus...” He trailed off and looked uncertainly at his partner.
“What ‘oh no’?”
“You have that look.” The hunter crossed his arms and kicked at a half buried stone in the ground.
“The one that says we’re going to have a discussion that’s better left...undiscussed.” He loved Hercules, he really did, but sometimes that god half of him tried Iolaus’ patience. It goaded Hercules to push and prod at situations and people like someone poking at a festering wound. Never mind the fact that he was usually right and things settled out in the end, it usually hurt someone in the process. Iolaus guessed it was his turn this time around. So he braced himself for more arguments about who sent the vision and why.
“Oh. Sorry.” Hercules unconsciously mimicked his partner’s stance, arms folded, leaning against a tree, and nervously bothering rocks with his toe. “I just wanted to let you know that-that I support you on this, um, quest.” He looked up and met Iolaus’ eyes. “I can’t count the number of times you’ve followed me on nothing more than a feeling I’ve had, without question. You’re acting on a similar feeling, and I want you to know I’m right behind you.” Even if I occasionally waver and question you, was left unsaid, yet both knew Hercules couldn’t help but challenge the unexplainable. It was part of his nature.
Iolaus’ stance relaxed and a sunny smile broke out. “Thanks, Herc. I really do wish I could give you the answers you want. As soon as I know-whatever-I’ll let you know.”
Trinculos chose then to return to their company. Looking at the two men standing there, grinning at each other, he asked suspiciously, “Did I miss something?”
Uris and Loralei moved as fast as they could. They hadn’t brought much, but between their food and blankets and the baby, they were fast losing ground. They’d stopped in the last village only to hear the rumors; rumors that resulted it their choice not to spend the night, but to hurry on. They’d been one step ahead of the soldiers scouring the countryside for women and their infant sons, but their luck was about to change. Uris looked back and his heart sank. “They’ve seen us. Hurry.” They were only a few leagues from the border. Once they crossed, the soldiers wouldn’t dare follow and threaten the uneasy peace with Bethos’ neighboring kingdom.
“There they are!”
Those words closed a vice around Uris’ heart. He dropped his bundle and pushed his wife in the general direction they’d been going. “Get to my brother’s!”
Frightened, Lorelei nonetheless refused to go. “No, I won’t leave you!”
“Go! Now!” He pushed her again and turned to face the soldiers. He heard Lorelei’s harsh breaths as she began to run with their son into the nearby woods. Looking around, he spotted a slender fallen branch that was nearly the length of a pitchfork. Taking it up, he held it like a quarterstaff, ready to defend his small family.
The soldiers picked up their pace. “They won’t get away now!”
“Easy pickin’s!” It would be, with them on horseback and the farmer afoot. The captain sent two of his men on foot to chase down the woman. The horses would be no good in the dense underbrush.
As a soldier on horseback rode down Uris, the farmer closed his eyes and swung his branch. He was no fighter, but he’d be damned to Tartarus if he didn’t try. Much to his surprise, he felt the impact through his hands as the makeshift quarterstaff connected and swept the soldier off his horse. He wasn’t so lucky with the next two soldiers. They’d seen what had happened and had dismounted to engage him on foot. Swords drawn, they hacked his weapon into kindling.
Uris expected to be next, but much to his surprise, rescue arrived in the shape of a tall, muscular man who grabbed one of his assailants and tossed him into a tree, knocking him unconscious. Uris watched open-mouthed as a short, blond man whirled past to launch himself into the air and kick the second soldier in the face. As the soldier fell, the blond landed and with a whoop and a grin, and launched himself after another soldier.
Iolaus hit his second adversary and then did a quick look to see where his partner was. The view wasn’t reassuring. Two more soldiers had dismounted and with swords at the ready, were converging on Hercules. He was too far away to help.
“Herc! Behind you!”
The response was immediate. Hercules reached up and grabbed the upper branches of a young tree and pulled it down with a flex of his muscles. As he let it go, it sprang back and slapped into the faces of the soldiers sneaking up behind him. They fell like trees to a woodsman’s axe. Hercules looked back at them and smiled. “Must’ve meant those two.”
The captain of Polonius’ soldiers had seen enough. They were outmatched by the newcomers. He briefly wished he had soldiers who could fight like these two before he called the retreat. The king needed to hear about this. Hercules was back in the area. He turned his horse homeward. “Yah!”
“Everywhere we go,” Hercules grumbled as he rejoined his partner to watch the soldiers recover their wounded and flee.
“Yeah.” Iolaus tried to cover his impatience to be moving again. Now that the battle was over, the urge to hurry north had returned. It was difficult not to just walk off instead of checking on the soldiers’ victim.
Hercules looked at the man they’d rescued. “You all right?”
Uris answered absent-mindedly as he rose from where he’d fallen after taking a blow from a soldier’s fist. He looked about frantically for his family. “Yeah, I’m fine. My family?”
“They’re over here.” The answer came from the edge of the woods. Trinculos appeared, escorting a worried Loralei, who clutched her son to her breast.
Iolaus snorted. “I wondered where you’d got to.”
“It wasn’t my fight! I don’t stick my neck out for anyone.” It was safer that way. People tended to disappoint him on a regular basis. This way, he never felt let down.
Hercules ignored the two. They’d been picking on each other since he’d first pulled Trinculos out of the underbrush. “Yeah. Ah, so--I-I-“ He realized he didn’t even know who they’d rescued. “I’m sorry---I don’t know your name.”
“Uris.” The farmer hugged his little family, relieved beyond measure. They were still safe.
“Uris, why were the soldiers after you?”
Loralei answered for him. “He wanted our baby. Another traveler warned us.”
Iolaus exchanged a quick glance with Hercules. “What do they want your baby for?”
Uris barely refrained from spitting as he spoke the king’s name. “King Polonius has ordered all babies under the age of one to be rounded up and taken to the palace.”
“He says it’s for a census, but we don’t believe that,” Loralei added.
Hercules nodded. “Neither do I. I’ve crossed swords with Polonius before.” He exchanged looks with Iolaus, who knew it meant Hercules had decided they needed to do something about this.
Uris fidgeted. “Ah---look---thank you---but we’ve got to get going.” He couldn’t stop now. He had to get his wife and son to his brother’s farm. Then-then he had to go-north.
Iolaus frowned. The man sounded as impatient as he felt. “You’re in a pretty big hurry for someone who almost got shish-kabobed.
Hercules had noticed the same thing “Where are you headed that’s so important?”
Uris looked uncomfortable. “Um-- north.”
Any other time such an answer might have sounded evasive. Hercule glanced at his partner. “Excuse me. May I?” He reached out and took the farmer’s unresisting hands. Turning them over, they could see that the palms were red, as if burned, but without any blisters. Another shared glance with his partner, and Hercules voiced their thoughts. “This is getting really---weird.”
They walked along a road they’d reached after getting through what had turned out to be a narrow strip of wood. Hercules, as usual, was trying to get to the heart of the mystery. “So---you’ve had the same dream.”
“That’s all he can talk about,” Loralei confirmed.
Uris explained further why they’d been caught out in the middle of nowhere. “I was dropping my family off at my brother’s. It’s a little out of the way. But it’s outside the Bethos Province---and they’ll be safe there.”
Hercules suggested, “Maybe we should go with you, in case you run into more soldiers.”
Iolaus couldn’t help it. “Herc-- ” he protested.
“Iolaus---I---I know your dream-“
“-vision is important to you, but we’re talking-children---babies at risk here.”
“Yeah---yeah, you’re right. I know.” Even as he conceded, he gave the demigod a look that clearly said ‘you don’t play fair’. Hercules nodded once in agreement.
“We should find out what Polonius is up to.”
It was Trinculos’ turn to protest. “Now, hold on here. Like I said, I don’t fight anyone else’s battles. This baby business-- ”
“Then you’ll just have to get used to traveling this bandit-filled road on your own, pal.” Iolaus didn’t have the patience to cajole anyone into following their course of action.
Hercules stepped in before more words could be traded between the two. “No. Look, there’s no reason for all of us to escort Uris’ family. Why don’t you go on ahead and see what you can find out. And we’ll meet up at---at---Kasi.”
Iolaus hesitated. He didn’t want to leave Hercules on his own, yet--- “You sure?”
“Okay, Kasi it is.” Iolaus took off without a backward look. Being pulled in two directions wasn’t a position he’d ever relished.
Trinculos, not looking happy, nodded in Iolaus’ direction. “I’m---going with him.”
“Hey, wait for me!” Trinculos hurried after the blond.
Hercules watched his partner out of sight and then turned to the small family. “All right---let’s go.”
Uris, more to reassure himself than his wife, placed his arm around Loralei’s shoulders. “You and the baby will be safe.” He wanted desperately to go with the other two, but he had this responsibility first. Then he too could go-north.
Polonius’ Captain of the Guard had returned. Not bothering to clean up or rest before reporting in to his liege, he found the king in the small room just off of the throne room. “Sire---Hercules is in the province.”
Polonius looked up from the map he’d been studying. “Hercules? Where?”
“At a border town. My men were pursuing fleeing families---and there was a small skirmish.”
They were interrupted by Maliphone, who had stopped in the doorway to see what had left the Captain with such a frown on his face. “What about those fleeing families? Did you stop them?”
“All but one, my lady---but the rest---”
She interrupted. “If I were the captain of the guards---and my king made a request of me---I should think that I’d do all in my power to keep my king happy. I would make it my life’s task to take my well-paid soldiers and seal the borders. I might even send my elite cavalry unit into the next province---to seek out any families who might have gotten away.” She had studied strategy at her father’s knee. Even her husband acknowledged she knew as much as any general on the subject.
The Captain persisted. “Begging my lady’s pardon-- ”
“And I would do these things as quickly as humanly possible.” The look she gave him would have withered a god. She watched him swallow nervously and then nod.
“Yes, my lady.” He left the chamber.
Maliphone approached her husband and ran a hand down his arm soothingly. “You look worried. You should be relishing the thought of gaining your revenge after the humiliation Hercules heaped on you at Kasi.”
Polonius made a helpless gesture. “My love---Hercules is a most formidable-- ”
“He’s one man!” She felt her anger start to surface and pushed it down. Such emotions couldn’t be good for her child. She hated the demigod for stopping their expansion, but more, she hated him for what he’d done to Polonius’ standing among the other kings. “You have command over thousands. Polonius---we waited so long for this---an heir to pass on our kingdom to. We can’t let this slip away from us now---can we?”
He looked into his wife’s eyes. Oracle or not, he owed it to her and his unborn son to secure the throne for their descendants. “You’re right, my love.”
They had finally reached the safety of Uris’ brother’s farm. Remos stood holding the baby while his brother and Loralei said their good-byes. Hercules stood off to the side, feeling like an intruder on the family scenario playing out before him. “You’ll be safe here.” Uris touched his wife’s face, trailing his fingers down her smooth cheek to caress her jaw. “ Remo, take good care of them.”
Remo nodded. His nephew started to fuss. His attempts to quiet the baby went for not.
Loralei knew the sound well. “He’s hungry.” She gave her husband one last hug. “You better go.” Yet neither budged from their place.
Remo smiled slightly and handed the baby to Uris. “Here’s your son. You should say good-bye to him as well.”
At the look on the young couple’s faces, Hercules finally interrupted. “Uris, I know it’s not my place...but if you’re having such a hard time leaving your family behind---are you sure you’re doing the right thing?”
The farmer gave his son back into Loralei’s arms. “No, but I’m sure it’s something I have to do.”
Trying not to break into tears, Loralei whispered, “I love you.”
Uris kissed her on her forehead before turning away. “We better go.”
Hercules sighed as he watched the farmer stride away. Looking back at the woman, he promised, “Don’t worry. I promise you, I’ll bring him back to you-safely.” He left her, muttering softly out of her hearing, “Even if I don’t know what’s going on here.”
“No fair. You pulled other mortals into your-thingy!” Aphrodite pouted. “You didn’t ask to use them.” The goddess was reclining in her giant clam shell, taking a break from wind surfing. Gabriel calmly hovered overhead, having shown up without fanfare at her call. She set down the mirror she’d used to spy on her brother and his friend.
“Uris is under Demeter’s aegis, the thief under Hermes’. I didn’t need your permission to involve them, Aphrodite.”
“It’s a mission that will require all their skills. Have patience, goddess. All will be made clear.”
“But-“ The angel disappeared. “I hate when he does that,” she muttered before going back to watching the mysterious journey unfold.
Several hours from where the fight had occurred, two men made their way north. Tempers short, they’d kept their thoughts to themselves till now. Iolaus pushed the pace, wishing it was Hercules with him instead of this thief who’d probably slit his throat under different circumstances.
Trinculos found the pace wearying. Finally, he protested. “What are you in such a hurry for?”
Iolaus didn’t even give him a backward glance. “You should know. You had the same ‘dream’.”
“I didn’t have any dream!” Denial seemed safer. Admitting any such thing meant he had to admit he wasn’t in control of his own fate.
At this, Iolaus stopped and whirled around to gesture at Trinculos’ hands. “Yeah? What happened to your hands?”
“I don’t know. Look, everybody has nightmares. I don’t believe in all that spells and curses stuff.”
“Well, I don’t think this vision had anything to do with spells or curses.”
Trinculos frowned. “Then what was it about?”
Iolaus snorted and turned back to the trail. “What do you care? You didn’t have it!”
Caught in his own lie, Trinculos fumbled for a reason, wanting the warrior to give him an explanation he could live with. He scurried to keep up as Iolaus took off once more. “I’m just curious. What did you see in your dream?”
Recalling the vision, Iolaus slowed his pace. “I saw this---this strange rock formation---like a---like a signpost. It was pointing somewhere, and, uh-“ Here he hesitated uncertainly, trying to find the words to describe the part that had startled him. “There were these glowing coals, like-like the eyes of some hideous monster.”
Trinculos felt a chill run up his spine. Pulling on bravado, he shrugged it off. “Yeah? Well, like I said, everybody has nightmares.” They just didn’t have the same ones.
As Hercules and Uris left the sight of Remos’ farm behind, the latter admitted, “I’ve never left home before.”
“Having second thoughts?”
Uris shrugged. “I feel like I should be with them. But something keeps urging me on.”
“If it makes you feel any better, Iolaus has the same obsession. And he’s one of the most sensible people I know-“ A smile came to the demigod’s face. “---most of the time.”
“He had the same dream?” Uris asked.
“Well, something very similar. He refuses to call it a dream. Said it was more like a vision. He can’t remember all of it, but it keeps driving him forward.”
Uris nodded. “I know. That’s the torment of it.”
“Well, what about you? I mean, do you remember any of your dream?” Iolaus had tried to put it in words, but Hercules could tell there was more there than his partner could express.
“Only bits and pieces. I can see an old, gnarled tree---almost like it’s giving me directions.”
This sounded similar. “Like a signpost?”
“Sort of. And I get this feeling that I’m going to be a part of something important---very important---me, a poor peasant farmer from Thessaly. Who’d have thought?”
“It’s not so surprising. Money isn’t a measure of a man’s worth.”
This brought a smile to Uris’ lips. The confidence in Hercules’ tone made him almost believe he could live up to the demigod’s standards.
“Round up the mothers and infants!”
Adara shoved her two oldest children under the bed. “Quick! Hide!” She carried her youngest son in her arms, the baby fussing over the commotion. Outside, she could hear the soldiers break into the home next door.
“Give me that baby!”
“Hand it over!”
Adara looked about for another place to hide. There was a darkened corner of her home, where her husband had temporarily set some grain sacks. She wedged herself in amongst them, hoping the soldiers wouldn’t notice.
Several large, brutish men entered, bearing the crest of the king on their armor. “Where’s that baby?!” Adara’s luck ran out as they spotted her and hauled her out of hiding. One of the soldiers reached for her son. “Give me that!”
“No! No! No! No! My baby!” Much to her surprise, they not only took her child, but hustled her out the door. “Where are you taking me?!” To her horror, she heard her daughter’s cries, and realized they weren’t just after the babies.
Iolaus had curbed his impatience by making himself eat once they’d gotten to Kasi. Then he’d questioned the villagers. That done, he’d stationed himself by the village well and waited for his partner, all the while ignoring Trinculos. The thief had simply gone to sleep beneath a nearby tree. Iolaus was too on edge to nap and several times had found himself pacing. He’d expected it to be near dusk by the time Hercules arrived, so it was with a great sense of relief that he spied his partner walking up the road with the farmer. He approached them after nudging Trinculos awake. “You got here fast.”
“Find out anything?”
“It’s like Uris says. Polonius’ men are rounding up every boy under the age of one. They swept through here this morning.” It had been a very unhappy and frightened village when they’d arrived.
Uris gave him an anxious look. “The infants?”
Iolaus shook his head. “Gone.” Why in Tartarus was the king picking on his people’s babies? The villagers didn’t have money for ransom. No demands had been made. No ultimatums. It made no sense.
Hercules frowned and then asked the question he thought he knew the answer to already. “What direction?”
Iolaus looked him in the eyes when he answered. “North---toward Tulosa.”
There wasn’t any choice. Hercules nodded. “Well, we have to catch up to them.”
“They have a head start and they’re on horseback,” Trinculos protested.
Hercules looked at Uris. The man knew the area better than any of them. “Is there a shortcut?”
Uris nodded. “Over the mountains---but it’s rough going.”
Hercules shared a smile with his partner. “Well, it’s never stopped us before.”
“Nope. Come on.” Iolaus didn’t even look to see if they were following as he took off for the mountains. They were still heading north and that was good enough for now.
They rounded a bend in the goat path they’d been following, trying to get through the mountains before night hit. Hercules’ three companions slowed and then came to a complete stop.
“What’s wrong?” Hercules cast a quick eye over their surroundings, listening for anything untoward when nothing obvious presented itself.
Uris nodded at a dead tree by the path, it’s gnarled branches bending northward. “That tree.”
Iolaus approached it eagerly. “Yeah---it was in my vision, too. This must be the right direction!”
Trinculos gave it a wary look. “Are we going or not?”
Uris, having about as much luck as Iolaus in getting the thief to admit to having seen the same things they had, whether dream or vision, urged, “Come on, Trinculos. Admit you saw the tree, too.”
Trinculos walked away, shaking his head. “I admit nothin’. I don’t wanna get involved.”
Polonius approached his wife. “Have you made the sacrifice to Hera?” At her nod, he prodded, “And her response?”
Maliphone smiled triumphantly. “She’ll help us.”
“Thank the gods.”
“But only with Hercules. The infants are our problem.”
Polonius grew worried. “Then the oracle was right.”
She touched his arm and laid her head against his shoulder. “Polonius, you worry too much. With Hera on our side, you’re going to be king for a long, long time. You don’t doubt her powers, do you?”
He laughed nerviously. “No! I just want some proof of her intentions! Some--!”
Maliphone interrupted as she pulled away from him. “Great Hera! Show those who doubt!” There was a flash of fire and wickedly armored soldiers appeared, the metal reflecting a red cast as if blood had been mixed with the iron at its creation.
Polonius was disappointed. “Soldiers! I don’t need more warriors. I’ve enough at my command.”
“These aren’t just any soldiers, my love.” She turned to the Captain of the Guard. “Captain, who’s your best man?”
The Captain nodded at a well-built soldier. “Go---show her.”
The battle was brief. Hera’s soldier blocked every blow, then finally reached out and grasped the blade of its opponent. The metal began to heat up, glowing like it had as the blacksmith put it to the flame for shaping. It didn’t stop there, but traveled up the blade to pommel. The surprised mortal tried to let go, but it was as if his hand had melted to the blade. With a scream, he burst into flames and then disappeared in a flash of light, only the stench of burning flesh left behind.
“By the gods!” Polonius’ soldiers backed up, eyes wide with fright.
Maliphone laughed. “Maybe I should be an oracle---because I foresee a good year for us, Polonius. You’ll have an heir to your throne and your revenge---on Hercules.”
Iolaus’ voice could be heard before he was seen as the men scrambled through the dense forest. “You think there’d be an easier way.”
Trinculos piped in right behind him. “I don’t see why you’re in such a hurry.”
“Stop complaining. That’s all you do.” Uris, his patience sorely tried by the need for speed and the thief’s numerous complaints, broke through the greenery to enter a small clearing.
“Busting our hump to get to Tulosa-all it’ll get us is a fight with Polonius’ soldiers.”
Hercules’ calm voice interrupted the latest quarrel. “At least we’ll have the element of surprise.”
“You’ll have it. I don’t risk my life for anyone. Besides, I have to be somewhere.” Trinculos shoved Uris aside and strode to the center of the clearing.
“Hey! Watch out!”
“Keep your shirt on---pig feeder,” Trinculos sneered.
“Hey, hey! We don’t have time for this.” Hercules stepped between the two men. It was worse than Trinculos and Iolaus going at it.
“What do you got against farmers, anyway?!”
With a snort, Trinculos admitted, “I used to be one before I wised up.” That said, he turned on his heel and followed the small game path that led roughly north. At least it would be easier going than making their own path through the trees.
Uris sighed. “I guess he doesn’t want to be friends.”
“These guys,” Iolaus shook his head, conveniently forgetting that an hour ago it had been he and the thief going at it.
Hiding a smile, Hercules agreed with all that wasn’t said by his friend in those two words. “Yeah. At least this game trail will make it easier to get where we’re going.” He was beginning to believe that Iolaus’ vision had everything to do with what Polonius was up to and not some ambiguous message sent by the gods in jest. The question still remained as to which of his relatives had sent it.
With another shake of his head and a laugh, Iolaus followed the other two men with Hercules bringing up the rear.
They reached Tulosa well before the soldiers. Hercules spoke with the town elders and they began gathering the villagers together. A few times they had to find the women who’d already hidden themselves in fear. Word had spread rapidly that all was not right in the kingdom.
Eventually, the four men met up in the town square, the area filled with the noise of anxious and frightened women and children.
Uris was the last to rejoin them. “That’s everyone.”
Hercules, relieved that they’d arrived in time to stop the kidnaping of innocent women and children, nodded. “All right. Let’s get them into the hills.”
Uris hesitated to question the wisdom of Hercules, but the father in him had to be reassured. “You sure they’ll be all right?”
It was Iolaus who answered. “Yeah, there are caves in those hills. With food and shelter, they’ll be safe for a couple of days at least.”
“And after that?” Trinculos deigned to join the conversation, having helped only with strong coaxing provided by Hercules.
“We try to keep one step ahead of them. What’s the next village?” Hercules looked to Uris for the answer, the farmer being far more familiar with the lands ruled by Polonius.
Bethos’ king anxiously paced the length of the room. “I don’t like this business-- ”
“Trust me. My plan will work.” His wife held every confidence that Hera would stand fast and aid them against Hercules.
“It had better.” Their conversation was interrupted as the Captain of the Guard entered.
“Your Highness, things are going well. We have almost two dozen infants and mothers in the castle dungeon.”
“And-- ?” Polonius gave him a pointed look.
“And we---still haven’t captured the family that eluded us at the border.”
A reluctant admittance followed. “And---we’re having problems in the southern part of the province. Hercules must have heard of our plan. He evacuated the villages at Tulosa, Vilos, and Leurissa before my soldiers got there.”
“Hercules---how? Your men were on horseback.” It was well known that the demigod preferred to travel by foot.
“Sire, the hostages slowed us down.”
“No excuses! I want that family. Take your cavalry and track them down. And I want Hercules’ head on a pike---now!”
“That won’t be necessary.” Maliphone placed her steepled fingertips to her lips, a half-smile playing behind them.
“My queen?” The Captain looked as puzzled as his king.
“He’s coming to us. All we have to do is to make sure he knows we’re holding the infants in our castle. A clever trap by your soldiers and Hera’s men will roast Hercules---like venison.”
Iolaus grumbled, “I can’t believe that took so long.”
“At least the babies are safe for a while, anyway.” Uris, too, felt the pull to move on without delay.
“I know everyone is tired, but we have to keep moving.” Hercules’ plan involved getting the women and children hidden in the caves that riddled the land. The villagers knew them far better than the soldiers and since they couldn’t be everywhere to protect the babies, they’d have to rely on that knowledge to keep everyone safe.
“Why? We’re not gonna do anyone any good if we collapse from exhaustion. Besides, we can’t save all the babies.” Trinculos, ever the pessimist, protested.
“Well, we can try, can’t we?” Even Hercules’ famous patience was getting a workout. He’d had to break up arguments between Uris and Trinculos, then Trinculos and Iolaus several times already.
They’d stopped to rest briefly after escorting the last group of women and children to the caves. Trinculos was squatting on his heels and idly sketching with a stick in the dirt.
Iolaus caught a glimpse of the pattern Trinculos was doodling and straightened up from where he’d been slouching. “What are you doing?”
“It’s nothin’.” Trinculos made to scratch the pattern out, but Iolaus stopped him.
“No, no, no. I’ve seen this. What is it?”
“I”m telling you, it’s nothing.”
Their conversation drew Uris’ interest and he picked up another stick. “This should be like this.” With a few deft strokes, he edited the lines.
The thief frowned. “What do you mean, ‘Should be’? You’ve seen it too?”
“In my dream. More like a sword.”
Excited, Iolaus nodded. “Yeah. And look.” He scrounged up two green acorns from the forest floor and set them in the circle. “Two baleful eyes set in gold. It looked-I don’t know-- regal.”
Reluctantly, Trinculos admitted, “All right, I saw it too. So what?”
Hercules had watched the three finally agreeing on something. “So, you’ve all had the same dream. And you’re all going to the same place, for the same reason.”
“But what place?” Trinculos eyed his companions as if hoping they would suddenly have the answer.
“I don’t know. It’s just--this dream has been guiding you all northward, right? The last town north of here is Bethos.”
Iolaus nodded.“Then we are going in the right direction.” He rose, practically dancing in place in his excitement.
“Whoa! Hold on here. You’re talkin’ crazy. You’re gonna walk right into Polonius’ palace, past all his guards, and---and soldiers? Count me out.” Trinculos stood, tossing his makeshift writing implement onto his rough sketch.
“I’m not so sure you can count yourself out. You’re a part of this whether you want to be or not. You’ve all had the same---calling.” It was almost as if a veil had parted and Hercules could see a little bit of the pattern. Not all of it yet, but enough to stifle the doubts he’d been having over Iolaus’ dream or vision or whatever it was that had driven his friend this far.
“A collective misfortune. Thanks, guys, but I’ve got a career.” Trinculos grabbed up his pack. A tie broke and some of the contents tumbled to the ground, including several gold coins.
Hercules looked at them, then back up at the thief. “So I can see.”
“Nobody try and stop me.” Trinculos’ knife was out and he waved it as a threat while he shoved the coins back into his pack with his foot. He backed away from them and disappeared into the woods.
“Shouldn’t we try to bring him back?” Uris looked torn. Hercules imagined he wanted to do the right thing, but like Iolaus, he was driven to another path. He just hoped it didn’t get them killed.
“Yeah,” Iolaus eyed his partner. “Especially since you think he should be with us.”
Hercules shrugged. “That’s something he’ll have to decide for himself. Let’s get out of here.”
“You look frustrated, Polonius. What’s the matter?” Maliphone ran her hands up her husband’s arms.
“The captain and I have been interrogating the new mothers for the past three hours. They either can’t or won’t tell us which one of them gave birth to the new king.” He rather thought it was the former. None of them struck him as having a treasonous nature.
“That is unfortunate.”
“Well, how will we know which baby to kill?”
Maliphone smiled, a malicious gleam to her eye. She wouldn’t let anything come between her unborn son and the throne. Sacrifices had to be made. “It’s really very simple. Kill them all.”
“I’ve never seen a city so quiet.” Iolaus glanced around. “Well, except the ones destroyed by monsters, warlords, rampaging giants, mad gods-“
“You’re not helping,” Hercules interrupted.
Uris said aloud what everyone was thinking. “Where is everyone?”
“You’re expecting a fanfare?” Iolaus studied the ground. A lot of tracks milling about, not really helpful.
“I didn’t expect it to be deserted.”
Hercules held up a hand, signaling silence. “It might not be. Keep your eyes open.” Hercules sensed it before he actually heard the twang of a bowstring. His left hand shot up even as he jerked his head back. He caught the arrow intended for him and looked up in time to see a bowman knocking another to his string. There was a sudden yell and another figure appeared by the soldier to knock him from the balcony on the second floor of the tavern. Standing where the man had been was Trinculos.
Hercules smiled, his faith in human nature vindicated. “I’m glad you decided to rejoin us.”
Trinculos shrugged. “You were right. I didn’t have a choice. Whatever this is about---it’s too big to walk away from.”
“Let’s go.” Hercules gestured his small band onward as Trinculos descended from the balcony.
Uris held out his hand to the thief. “Welcome back.”
“Yeah, well, this doesn’t change anything-much,” Trinculos grumbled before taking the offered hand.
Polonius eyed the peasant woman. She didn’t seem special. “So? This is the one Hercules helped escape?” The Captain of the Guard had crossed the border and tracked the woman to a farm. He’d risked setting them at war if the neighboring king had learned of it. Desperate times demanded risks, he supposed.
“Yes, your Majesty.”
Maliphone walked around the woman, eyeing her until the cold stare caused her to fidget. “And why are you so special that the son of Zeus takes it upon himself to spare your child?”
“I---uh---I don’t know, my lady. Please---can I see my baby?”
“Don’t know? Or won’t tell?”
“I don’t know, my lady! I swear!”
Unsatisfied, but realizing she wasn’t going to get any information from the ignorant woman, Maliphone turned away. “It doesn’t matter.”
A soldier entered and whispered in the Captain’s ear. Frowning, he turned to his lieges. “My king, my queen. Hercules has entered the city.”
“Your men are ready?” Polonius asked, trying to hide his anxiety. Could they thwart the demigod and the Oracle’s words?
“Yes, your Majesty.”
Maliphone smiled as if they’d already triumphed. “No, it doesn’t matter at all.”
The Captain signaled his men to take the peasant woman away. “No! No! No-o-o-o! Please! I just want to see my baby!” Loralei’s cries fell on deaf ears.
The four men had reached the outskirts of Bethos. They looked down at the castle that housed King Polonius. It looked nearly impenetrable.
Hercules glanced at his partner. “You thinking what I’m thinking?”
Uris eyed the two and then hesitantly asked, “You figure we’re heading for a trap?”
“Wouldn’t be the first time.” Iolaus shared a smile with Hercules. Not the first time and certainly not the last.
“Come on, then. We don’t want to disappoint the king.” Hercules took the lead. The best assault was a frontal in this case.
Polonius put on a false smile as he awaited his ‘guests’. Word of the presence of the demigod and his annoying companion had reached his ears before they’d even passed the gatehouse.
“Hercules! Welcome to Bethos.”
Hercules didn’t waste time. “Where are the children, Polonius?”
“So, this isn’t a social visit?”
“Where are they?!”
Giving up on the idea of feigning ignorance, Polonius answered, “Where you can’t get them. Unless, of course, you want to go through them?” The throne room filled with soldiers dressed in armor that reflected the color of blood back when it was hit by light filtering in through the room’s windows. “Oh, and Uris,” he’d been informed by his Captain that the farmer with them was the same man who’d been rescued by Hercules, “your wife says to tell you that she loves you.”
“You black-hearted pig!” Only Iolaus’ arm shooting out and blocking his path kept Uris from trying to attack the king. It probably saved his life as Polonius’ guards moved forward between him and the king.
Heretofore silent, Maliphone finally joined the conversation. “Not a proper way to address your king. And he will remain your king---for a long time.”
Hercules shook his head. “Not after this, he won’t.”
Rising, Polonius gave Hera’s soldiers the command they’d been itching to fulfill. “Kill them all!”
That was the signal to separate. It was understood on Iolaus’ part that Hercules would take the oddly armored soldiers. They were Hera’s creations, after all. He could see the emblem of a peacock stamped into the metal on their chests. He signaled their two companions to go for the mortal soldiers as well. He figured the thief knew how to protect himself. Most thieves learned early or didn’t make it to adulthood. The farmer was the only one he worried about.
Iolaus found himself facing off with the Captain of Polonius’ guard. Rapidly drawing his sword, he blocked the first swing, ducked the second, and came up inside the man’s guard to smash the pommel of his blade into the surprised Captain’s face. Iolaus didn’t even bother watching him drop before he moved on to his next opponent.
Hercules, having drawn Hera’s soldiers away from the rest of the group, wondered what special abilities the goddess had endowed the creatures with; it was rarely the same thing twice. He grabbed the nearest soldier only to snatch back his hands with a roar of pain after shoving him away. A quick glance showed his palms red and blistered. “Great.” He looked up to see the soldiers now had him hemmed in. With a defiant shout, he flung himself between their feet in a somersault to rise up out of reach and near a weapons rack. He snatched up a spear, casting a quick glance around for his companions.
Uris was facing up to a human soldier, ducking and dodging blows. Trinculos was using his money pouch to slap at his opponent. Hercules saw him get the man off balance and then land a kick to his mid-section. That was all he had time for before the next of Hera’s soldiers got within striking distance. He used the butt of the spear only to have the creature grab the end for a tug of war. Suddenly, the shaft burst into flame, traveling from the soldier’s hands to Hercules’, forcing him to relinquish his grip. This was not going well.
Iolaus, somehow having lost his sword, danced by, spinning in a series of kicks to take out some more of the regular guards. “Need help?”
“Nah, I’ve got it.”
“Okay. Just yell if you change your mind!” With a war whoop, Iolaus spun away.
Hercules ducked behind the weapons rack and slapped at the spears so that they swung up in their clamps and hit the oncoming soldiers. One stumbled back into a table. Grabbing the rack, Hercules shoved it into two other soldiers and drove them back against a wall, trapping them between the rack and a stone column. It wouldn’t hold for long, but it gave him a few seconds of breathing space.
Hercules flung himself back toward the table and threw his weight on the opposite side, causing the struggling soldier on the other end to fly overhead and crash into a fellow goon. The contact resulted in an implosion and both disappeared.
Hercules, a thoughtful expression on his face, muttered, “Interesting.” It looked like he’d found their weak spot.
Even a skilled warrior could lose his edge after the last few days of traveling, fighting, and rescuing, so it wasn’t totally amiss that Iolaus was affected by fatigue. He found himself grabbed by two soldiers. They rushed him across the room as if determined to run him into the heavy oak table where war plans were made. This was where skill and old hunters’ tricks came in handy. Just as they reached the table, Iolaus’ foot swung up and he planted it on the edge. The force of the sudden stop ran up through his body. He shoved up with his leg and threw himself into a backwards somersault, midair. It had the expected effect of breaking the soldiers’ hold on him and putting him into a position to stomp, kick, and punch his way to freedom.
Hercules began trying to maneuver the enemy into positions for further collisions. At one point, he brushed up against a mooring on the wall. Wound around it was a rope leading to a metal wheel suspended from the rafters and holding dozens of candles. He ducked as a sword swung his way and ripped through the rope. The iron wheel sagged. Spotting the other mooring, Hercules smiled. “Perfect.”
It didn’t take long for him to get to the other side of the room. Picking up a sword along the way, one that looked suspiciously like Iolaus’, Hercules cut the rope and flung himself under the falling wheel. Catching it, he then threw it like a discus. The spinning object slammed into one of Hera’s soldiers, knocking him into another. There was a satisfying implosion.
Hercules once again took in his surroundings, immediately finding Iolaus more by his whoops and shouts than seeing him behind the soldiers scattered about fighting his ‘team’. Uris had taken up a fallen quarterstaff and was on the offensive.
Hercules realized his mistake in letting his attention wander. He felt arms enclose his upper body and the staff of a spear pressed across his chest, followed by searing, burning pain. With a shout, he did a modified ‘Thermopolae’. Using the spear’s shaft in place of Iolaus’ hands, Hercules grabbed the wood and pulled the soldier over his head. He counted on the creature keeping hold of the spear and he wasn’t disappointed. As the soldier went flying over his head and into the last remaining goddess-born soldier, Hercules watched the satisfying impact end in another implosion.
“Finally.” He turned back to the fray to see Polonius grab a sword and advance on Uris’ unprotected back. Before he could make a move, a shout from Trinculos was followed by a knife hilt seeming to appear out of thin air, the blade embedded in the king’s chest. This was followed instantly by the queen’s scream of denial as she tried to catch her husband. Hercules knew he was dead. The knife was dead on for the heart.
Uris had quickly glanced back and taking in the situation, shouted at the thief, “I thought you didn’t stick your neck out for anyone.”
“I didn’t have a choice.” Then it was Trinculos’ turn to duck as Uris suddenly hefted his spear and threw it into the guard who’d risen behind the thief, his sword raised to strike a killing blow.
Satisfied that the two were safe, Hercules looked for his partner who was finishing up on the last guard still standing. Iolaus was blocking a series of blows as the guard tried to take him down. In a sudden move, Iolaus swung down and around, his leg striking up. Hercules winced in sympathy as Iolaus’ heel connected with the guard’s chin. The man dropped like a rock.
Iolaus straightened up, bouncing on the balls of his feet, ready for the next opponent only to find he was standing amid nothing but moaning and groaning bodies on the floor.
Hercules smiled at his partner, then turned to Uris. “Let’s go find your family.”
It was done. Polonius was dead, Maliphone was in their custody, and the women and babies were once again free. Hercules watched Uris reunite with his wife and son, feeling that familiar relief of a job well done with no innocent lives lost.
His thoughts were interrupted as Maliphone was led past by the city’s guards. “You forget. I carry the heir to Polonius’ throne in my womb.”
Hercules frowned at her. “And you forget the laws of succession in Bethos. If the king dies without a living male heir the people may elect their next ruler.” He watched the color leave the queen’s face.
Iolaus added, “I think you’re a couple of months too short. Have a happy exile. Hasta la vista, baby.” At Hercules’ confused look, he shrugged. “I think I heard one of your relatives use it. It seemed to fit.”
“Must have been Strife.”
“Most likely,” Iolaus agreed as they watched the queen leave the throne room. “Well, that’s it. That’s what we were supposed to do.” Yet Hercules could see that he didn’t look totally convinced even as he stated what appeared to be the obvious.
Trinculos, relieved to have done with it, retrieved his pack where he’d dropped it during the fight. “I have to admit. Felt pretty good saving all those children.”
“Yeah,” Uris agreed, “but I’m not sure that that’s the end of it.”
“Me, neither. Take a look.” Night had fallen and Hercules had noticed an unusual light coming through one of the throne room’s keyhole-styled windows. A star had appeared in the heavens and shown down on the world with a light that seemed to beckon. Hercules’ sudden sense of something more to come was confirmed when Iolaus fairly bounced on his toes with excitement.
“Hercules! This is my vision. You---and that star.”
“Then maybe you should follow it.”
They traveled to the outside of the city, and not wanting to spend another day in Bethos, decided to bed down in the forest as they followed the star. Even Loralei had caught the excitement and made no complaints. They’d been forced to set the pace based on her speed, but no one said anything as long as they were headed toward the new star in the night sky.
They were sitting around the fire, having had their fill of bread and cheese they’d bought at the last tavern they’d passed before leaving Bethos. Trinculos stared up at the star, its light casting odd shadows in the clearing where they’d chosen to camp. “This is what the dream was all about.”
Uris nodded, his arm around his wife’s shoulders. “It’s true. I can feel it. It’s a sense of calm--and-and peace.”
Conversation drifted off as the day’s excitement caught up with them and they bedded down for the night. Some time in the early hours, before dawn beckoned, Iolaus found himself wide awake. At least, he thought he was awake. Everything was crystal clear, though. Considering the moon was only half full, that alone was unusual. The fire had died down to embers. A look around the campsite showed that Hercules and Loralei were still asleep, the baby as well, nestled in her arms. Their other two companions were missing.
Iolaus scrambled to his feet. A quick search and he could see where they’d left a trail through the brush and trees. He followed. If Hercules wasn’t awake, it was because nothing was amiss. He trusted the demigod’s senses more than his own most times.
He reached the edge of the forest to see a vista before him. “Okay, I stand corrected. This isn’t real. It’s a dream or-or another vision.” The land before him wasn’t the forested, hilly domain surrounding Bethos, but arid, almost resembling a desert. Below, nestled amid the gently rolling sand dunes was the outskirts of a town. The light that he finally credited to that unusual star seemed to shine brightly on one building in particular. From the sight and sounds, it was a barn of some sort. He could see the figures of Trinculos and Uris already making their way toward it.
Iolaus didn’t flinch when a hand came down on his shoulder. He remained quiet until the weight of eyes staring at him made him turn to Hercules.
Hercules gave him an encouraging smile. “Just a hunch---but somehow, I believe that what you’re about to witness is bigger and more important than anything we’ve ever done.”
Iolaus had to agree. That compulsion he’d had to go north was now prodding him toward the ramshackle building. “Going to come with us?”
“No. Go on. I’ll---I’ll be here.”
Iolaus gave him a long look, then whispered, “Okay.” He didn’t look back as he rapidly caught up with the other two.
Hercules stayed there, certain this wasn’t for him but for the other three men. Yet he remained, watching the tableau, unaware that another pair of eyes watched him.
“I don’t get it. What’s this have to do with Sweet Cheeks?” Aphrodite frowned at her winged companion. She’d promised not to reveal the source of Iolaus’ visions only after reassurances that no one was being led into a trap they couldn’t get out of-and monitoring the whole affair a safe distance from Hercules’ wrath.
Gabriel smiled. “It’s the little things, Aphrodite. They have a domino effect. Uris’ son will grow up to become a wealthy merchant. His son in turn will travel to the east and settle down there. Eventually, many generations from now, his descendant, a wise and wealthy astronomer, will meet with a king and another astronomer who follow the star. Together, the three will come here, to fulfill what has been foretold. See? They come even now.”
In the distance, the goddess could see a small caravan approaching, the beasts laden with goods. Before long, they’d reached the same building her favorite mortal had entered. Three men dismounted and slowly made their way inside.
Still not seeing the total significance of the moment, the goddess, nevertheless felt the importance of the moment, much like her half brother. “I hope this is all worth it.”
“It is, Aphrodite, it is.”
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