The autumn leaves lay thick on the ground, crackling beneath their feet as they made their way to Thessaly. Hercules was looking forward to celebrating Hestia's festival in Pharsalos; it had been a while since he had had some time off, and he could use the distraction. Their recent encounter with Hera’s new Enforcer still weighed heavily on his mind. For a few hours, he had lived in a world he did not ever want to return to - a world where Iolaus was dead, and he was alone forever. As he sat there on the beach, Iolaus' lifeless body heavy in his arms, he had thought he would go mad with grief. Leaving Iolaus behind in Hades' realm had been the hardest thing he had ever done; only the mission Hades had set him, the drive to get Iolaus back, had kept him sane.
He shivered. Iolaus didn’t notice; he was singing something about muses and Centaurs, but Hercules could barely make out a word in three. The general meaning was crystal clear, however, and he had to smile as Iolaus finished his song with a whoop, neatly lifting him out of his sombre mood.
“You’re not excited about this festival, are you?”
Iolaus grinned back at him. “What’s not to get excited about? Beautiful women, games, wine-tasting, beautiful women, great food, beautiful women...”
He laughed, and Hercules nodded, running past the long list of Iolaus’ girlfriends in his mind. Hmm. Thessaly. The redhead, with the...no, that was Epidauros.
He risked a guess. “Will Electra be there?”
Iolaus’ look of complete indifference told him he had hit the mark. “Maybe.”
“Maybe that’s why you’re singing - off-key, I might add.”
Iolaus stopped walking and faced him. “Wait a second. I was not sing-”
A rough voice coming from the direction of the crossroads interrupted him. “Hand over your money.”
They turned and saw an old man being manhandled by a gang of robbers in the middle of the crossroads; his wife stood off to the side, clearly terrified.
“We have no money! We’re poor travellers!” the old man cried.
Hercules sighed. So much for time off. Iolaus was still staring at the scene in amazement. “Man - wherever we go!”
Hercules nodded. “It’s amazing, isn’t it?”
Together, they strolled toward the crossroads.
“Is there a problem here?” Hercules inquired.
“No,” sneered a bearded robber, “we’re just having a little discussion.”
Iolaus nodded in understanding and turned to Hercules, his eyes gleaming with the prospect of a good fight. “Ahh. See?” He turned back to the robbers. “We love discussions.”
Fighting with Iolaus at his side was like a dance; they didn't even need to look at each other any more to get into the rhythm of it. They moved in, Hercules taking on the first robber on the right, Iolaus the one on the left. Hercules punched his man out, hauled him up to throw him into a bush, then thought better of it and threw him into Iolaus’ opponent instead. Even after that the guy still had some fight left in him, but a well-aimed kick sent him flying into the trees.
The rest of the robbers closed in on them, their long wooden staves whipping around and around; Hercules traded a look with Iolaus and grinned. Two or three heartbeats later, both Hercules and Iolaus were armed with two broken staves each, and Hercules decided it was time to show the robbers a move or two of his own. He whirled the staves around in a complicated pattern that made Iolaus stop and stare for a moment, and then the remaining robbers were on them. Iolaus used his staves to punch a robber in the face, while Hercules went into a whap-thwack-and-spin routine. The sticks were fun to handle, he decided, but they got in the way too much; no weapons at all was still the best way to go.
He turned to Iolaus, and with one nod of agreement they threw the staves over their shoulders. It was time for something else, while the supply of robbers held out; they had not had this good a workout in a while.
“What do you want to try next?” Iolaus asked.
Hercules considered. “Thermopylae.”
“Oh, no,” Iolaus muttered, making a face, but Hercules pretended not to hear him.
The move was still very effective; Iolaus’ weight spun over his shoulders with ease, despite his protestations, and knocked out the men behind him. The rest of the robbers apparently decided they had had enough and made a run for it. “They’re like a two-man army,” Hercules heard one of them yell, and grinned. “It still works,” he said to Iolaus.
“Yeah, if you’re eighteen,” Iolaus muttered, rubbing his right shoulder with a grimace.
They walked up to the old man and his wife, who stood beside their wagon, white with shock.
“Don’t worry," Hercules said. "They won’t bother you any more.”
“Lahti and I can’t thank you enough,” the old man said, and his wife added, “We’re on our way to Kastus. If we’d known the road was full of bandits we would have paid for escorts.”
Kastus. That was well out of their way, but he had to make the offer, knowing that Iolaus would understand - they could meet up again later in Pharsalos, and no harm done.
"Well, how about if I escort you there?”
"Yeah - we’ll do it for free,” Iolaus chimed in, and Hercules turned to him.
“We? I thought you were in a hurry to get to the festival.”
Iolaus gave him a look. “Well, yeah, but -”
“No, Iolaus -" he gestured toward the couple, "I can walk them both there.” He expected an argument, but what he got was a nod, a quick "OK," and then he was left to stare after Iolaus as he made his getaway.
“Hey!” he yelled after his rapidly disappearing partner, suddenly uneasy.
Iolaus braked himself, turned, gazed at him expectantly, and Hercules found himself lost for words. What could he say - take it easy? Be careful? Watch out for Enforcers?
"I'll, uh, catch up with you later,” he managed. Iolaus gave him a wild-eyed look. "Wha- Sure, yeah, OK." And he was off again, leaves stirring in his wake.
Hercules turned back to the couple. “He loves festivals," he said blithely. "Shall we go?”
“It’s awfully nice of you to accompany Styros and me to Kastus,” the old lady said, smiling down to him from her perch atop the cart.
Hercules smiled back at her, glad to see that she'd gotten some of her color back. “My pleasure.”
Styros chimed in, “Lahti and I have worked too long and hard to give up our life savings to bandits.”
“You know, we’ve thanked you," Lahti went on, "but we haven’t even learned your name.”
Hercules was about to introduce himself when the sky suddenly darkened. Looking up, he saw clouds gathering with incredible speed, even though there was very little wind. This had to be the work of the gods. He turned to his fellow travelers, intending to warn them, when lightning struck the tree above their heads.
"Look out!" he yelled, throwing himself toward Styros and Lahti in a desperate attempt to protect them. Something heavy slammed into his head, and he went down into darkness.
Hercules woke with a splitting headache. His head hadn't hurt this badly since...since when?
Someone was holding him, petting him worriedly. "It's stone!" he heard someone else say, and opened his eyes.
An old woman bent over him. "That’s quite a knock you took there," she told him. He wondered if he knew her; she did not seem familiar, but she was clearly concerned for him. "You all right?”
“I’m fine," he said, trying to convince himself as well as her. "Once my head stops pounding," he added wryly.
He touched the knot on his forehead and winced. A couple of logs lay scattered around him on the road. Taking a closer look, he saw that they were indeed stone. Having a tree fall on top of you was bad enough, but a petrified tree was something else again. His head hurt badly enough that it was difficult to speak, to think, but he managed to add "Thanks for your help.”
“That’s twice you’ve saved our lives,” the old woman said, and the old man added, “And we still don’t know your name!”
He looked up, opened his mouth to introduce himself as he had done a million times before, and - stopped. A shiver ran through him. “Neither do I."
“This may not help you remember your name, but it should keep the swelling down,” Lahti muttered.
She had propped Hercules up against a tree, because his legs would not obey him quite yet, and now she was fussing over him. He wished she would just leave him alone, but he could barely talk over the war drums that pounded in his head, and she was determined to clean up the bloody gash in his forehead. The scrape of the wet cloth hurt, but he did not pay much attention. He kept hunting for memories, thoughts, feelings, but they fluttered past him like moths, leaving him with no name, no history.
“We better get going, Lahti," Styros said. "We must make Kastus by sundown.”
“Kastus?” he asked, trying to grab at the memory that came with the name. He could feel it there, lying just out of reach, but it would not come.
“Ring a bell?” Lahti said.
He sighed and gave up, slumping back against the tree. “No.”
The bright sunlight hurt Hercules' eyes, and the road seemed to sway back and forth. He kept walking, but he took hold of the wagon's pole to steady himself. The pain in his head had lessened, but he still did not know his name, did not know why he had been travelling to Kastus or what his occupation was. It was beyond frustrating, especially since Lahti and Styros had apparently just met him and did not know anything about him either.
“You don’t remember any of your past?” Styros prompted again.
He sighed. “All I can see are blank faces.” It was like trying to catch dreams. He saw colors, images, all without substance. He knew he had loved people, disliked others - he could feel the shape of the emotion, but that was all. Maybe he lived in Kastus. He rather hoped so. If there were people who knew him there, loved ones who called him by name, surely it would help him remember.
“Styros? Who was that cute little man he was travelling with?” Lahti asked.
That stopped him cold. "I was travelling with a cute little man?” How odd. That definitely did not feel right; in fact, he had the strong urge to correct her.
Lahti nodded. “Blond, blue-eyed...said he was going to a festival." She turned to her husband. "Don’t you remember his name?”
Styros shook his head. Hercules stared at them both, perplexed. If he had been travelling with someone, and Lahti and Styros had both seen him, where was he now? It seemed highly suspicious that the man, whoever he was, had left them just moments before the lightning strike.
“Milius!" someone yelled, and he looked up to see an armed party approaching and two soldiers running toward him. "Prince Milius!"
He looked around, prepared to get out of the way of a royal party coming up behind them. However, there was no one there, and the soldiers halted right in front of him.
"By the gods, you’re alive!” said the first soldier, an impressively mustachioed man who opened his arms wide as if he wanted to embrace Hercules.
“Our prince has come back to us,” said the second soldier. Both wore expensive leather cuirasses, decorated with silk fabrics and studs, and matching winged helmets. They looked like an elite force, not bored guards who would play jokes on passers-by; yet that was the only explanation Hercules could think of.
“Excuse me?” he tried.
To his stunned surprise, the first soldier went to one knee and knelt before him, and then the second followed suit. This was going way beyond a joke.
“My lord," the mustachioed man said as he got up again. Then he chuckled and opened his arms again, and this time there was no escaping the embrace. "My friend!"
Hercules just stood there as the man's arms tightened around him. So much for hope. This man knew him, called him friend...and stirred no memories at all. They might just as well have been strangers. It was impossible. How could he not remember?
"I can’t believe that you’ve survived all these years!” the man said, stepping back and beaming at him. “Welcome back, Sire," the other soldier chimed in.
“You know this man?” Styros asked. The second soldier turned to him and barked, "Fool! This is Prince Milius, returned to us from the war by the mercy of the gods.”
By the mercy of the gods? Which gods? And what war? The stench of blood, the hammering of swords on shields, the cries of the dying - yes, he had been in wars, but they were as nameless as he was.
The soldiers knelt to him again, and he tried to make them get up. "No, no, please-" They stared at him. "Please, I mean - I'm sorry, but I don’t know who you’re talking about.”
The soldiers' faces clouded. “Oh, Garas," the first soldier said mournfully, "he doesn’t remember us.”
Garas nodded. “Must be shock, or a war wound.”
The first soldier came up to him, smiling sadly. “Oh, come, my prince. You’re in safe hands, now.”
“Where are we going?” Hercules asked. It was the only question he could think of that even made sense.
The man grinned at him familiarly. “Your castle. Your kingdom! Huh?!”
It was impossible. It was wrong. Yet there was no denying the truth - this could not possibly be a joke.
"So...I'm a prince," he tried, and got only a firm nod and a slap on the back from the man who called himself his friend before they hustled him toward the waiting horses.
Lonius had sent a rider ahead to the castle, and when they entered, the hallways were lined with people. Hercules tried to catch their eyes, to see if anyone looked familiar to him, but their heads bent in respectful bows and no one would look at him. The castle felt nothing like a home; the granite walls seemed close and oppressive, and the many candles did little to dispel the gloom. He yearned to be back outside, walking under the trees and breathing fresh air.
"Milius!" cried a high, cultured voice as they entered a highly decorated hall, their footsteps echoing on the stone. Hercules looked up to see an elaborately dressed and coiffed woman rise from a huge clamshell-shaped throne, lifting her hands in welcome as if she were posing for a sculpture. Then she abandoned the pose and ran down the steps to meet him.
"My son!" she said, and wrapped her arms around him. "Thank Heaven!"
“You’re--my mother,” Hercules said. He realized he was being rude, but he could not embrace this woman as a son would. He felt no warmth toward her; in fact, he instinctively disliked her. If this was his mother, he was willing to be that there was no love lost between them.
Lonius came to his rescue. “He’s lost his memory, Queen Parnassa. Undoubtedly from the war.”
This did not seem to dampen Parnassa's spirits. “Well, that doesn’t matter," she said brightly, like a hostess trying to reassure a guest who has just broken an heirloom. "The important thing is--you’re safe!" She threw her arms about him again, and this time he could not stop himself from wincing. Apart from everything else, her perfume assailed his nostrils, and the metal embroidery on her gown scraped at his bare chest. He was uncomfortably reminded that he was dressed in leather and a ragged vest, whereas the queen and the courtiers around him wore silk and brocade.
"Your memory will return in time," Parnassa was saying. Her long fingernails dug into his arm. "And your wife can help in that area,” she added casually, gesturing toward his right.
For a moment, the words did not make sense. Hercules gaped at her, then followed her gaze to a beautiful young woman with long dark hair, clad in royal purple and gold. She wrung her hands together nervously, and her dark eyes seemed sad, though she tried to smile as Hercules' gaze met hers.
"Wife?” Hercules breathed. He took a few steps toward her, and Parnassa crossed to stand at the young woman's side, putting her hand on her shoulder as if to calm her.
"Milius," the young woman said, smiling tremulously. She stepped up to him and drew him to her, her hand winding in his hair. He could feel her trembling against him. "I thought you’d never return.”
She drew back and looked up at him, and her earnest gaze unsettled him. He was not sure if he knew her - she did not seem any more familiar than the rest of his entourage - but her vulnerable beauty struck him to the heart.
“I’m sorry," he stuttered, "I--”
“Is something wrong?” she asked, still gazing up at him, and he could not find the words to answer her.
“He can’t remember anything, Kirin," said Parnassa. "Something to do with the war. He’ll need your help.”
That seemed to reassure her. “We'll have a lot of catching up to do, then." Her smile came more easily this time. "Your sons can’t wait to see you,” she added.
“Sons,” Hercules said. It sounded strange, yet right, and a small warm happiness uncoiled in his belly. I have sons.
It was only the first day of the festival of Hestia, a celebration that would last for a full week, but the tumblers' troupe had already arrived and the air was filled with music and laughter. Iolaus strolled round the main marketplace of Pharsalos, dodging now and then to avoid a passing tumbler and enjoying the festive atmosphere. Everyone was dressed in their best clothes, all the houses were decorated with lanterns and flags, and the feasting would go on deep into the night. The place was exactly suited to his mood: there was nothing he wanted more right now than to celebrate being alive.
Iolaus wandered past the archers' range and paused to watch the shooting. There would be a competition later, and he would definitely take part, but right now it was just a bunch of boys practicing. He grinned at them as their arrows thunked into the target and walked on, only to bump into someone he knew - Juris, the son of the magistrate. They had last seen each other two winters back, when Hercules and he had been tracking a man-killing mountain lion.
"Iolaus! Good to see you!" Juris gave him a broad grin and clasped his arm enthusiastically. "Where’s Hercules?”
It was the inevitable question, but he didn't mind it from an old friend. “Oh, you know, off being heroic," he said airily, "creating the stuff that legends are made of." There, that sounded more impressive than 'escorting an old couple back to their home'. Never let it be said that he wasn't protective of Hercules' legend. "He’ll be along soon.”
“I hope so," said Juris. "The festival wouldn’t be the same without him.”
“Yeah,” said Iolaus absently, scanning the festivalgoers for familiar faces. It was probably true; for one thing, Hercules would be spared having to kiss the priestess of Hestia to insure a plentiful harvest next year. It was the sort of thing Iolaus would not have minded at all, even though the priestess was ancient, but Hercules always got flustered about it in a rather endearing way.
Juris gave him a sly look. “Looking for Electra?”
"No," said Iolaus, pretending to be startled. Giving up the game, he leaned closer to Juris and asked in an undertone, "Is she here?”
“Yeah, and she’s looking for you,” said Juris, waggling his eyebrows.
That was better news than Iolaus had hoped for; he had not seen her in two years, and he had half expected her to be married already. “Really?”
“She wants you to meet her cousin!” Juris said, tapping him on the chest for emphasis, and then walked off before Iolaus could respond. Cousin?
Hercules was overwhelmed, outnumbered and outmatched, and he did not even attempt to defend himself. "Two against one!" he yelled with what breath he had left. "I give up!"
Protos and Macareus giggled and dived on top of him again, and he fell back against the bed, grinning. The boys had been shy with him at first, which was hardly surprising - they did not remember him, and he did not remember them - but some instinct had prompted him to ask them to show him their toys, and that had broken the ice.
It was the first thing today that felt simple, right, familiar; wrestling with his boys, tousling their carefully combed hair, making them laugh. Yet he couldn't have done this before; Kirin had told him that Macareus had been only two when he went to war, and Protos had not even been born yet. With that thought, the pain in his head flared up again.
He looked up to see Kirin standing at the foot of the bed, watching them with a fond smile. Just then, Protos smacked solidly into his abdomen, and he huffed out his breath in surprise.
“Boys, it’s time for bed,” Kirin said.
He wasn't sure who was more disappointed, the boys or he, but they scrambled off him obediently with only a token "Awwww."
“Now, kiss your father good night," Kirin said, "And go wash up.”
The boys' careful kisses on his cheek touched him. He wished them good night and watched them go, not sure why their giggling voices drifting down the hallway should make him feel sad.
“Along with everything else, I’d forgotten how much I miss my family,” he said half-aloud.
“You’re very good with them,” Kirin said softly, sitting down on the bed beside him. She smelled like roses, and for a moment the scent took him back, but the memory faded again before he could grasp it.
“They’re good kids,” Hercules offered.
“Well, they should be," Kirin said, smiling. "They’re your sons.”
“Yeah.” He sighed. His unresponsiveness must hurt her, but she was his wife, and he would not, could not deceive her.
"Is anything coming back?” she asked. Her voice was so gentle, so kind.
“I won’t lie to you. I have this sense-- This feels good, and warm, and natural, but every time I think back, all I can see are blank faces,” he said haltingly.
“There’s no rush," Kirin said softly. "It’ll all come back.”
She sat very close to him, and her breath warmed his face. He raised his right hand and tentatively touched her dark hair, her cheek; she was soft and warm and beautiful, and he could see how his touch moved her, and yet she was still a complete stranger to him.
He took his hand away with an effort and looked down.
“We have plenty of time,” Kirin said.
“Yeah,” he whispered, and wondered at the sadness in her eyes.
It was market day in Kastus, and the town square was crowded with market stalls. Hercules made his way through the narrow streets, hemmed in by armored soldiers and trying not to fidget too much.
That morning, he had woken from a troubled sleep to find his old clothes gone. Parnassa had sent servants to dress him in black silk pants, black boots, a shirt of white velvet and a long brocaded sleeveless overdress in midnight blue, with a red silk scarf to serve for a belt. It all fit perfectly, and no wonder: over breakfast, Kirin had mentioned that this had been one of his favorite outfits.
He wished he felt comfortable in it now. The long sleeves hung in his food and caught at every roughness, and the brocade felt stiff and unresponsive compared to the loose doeskin vest he had been wearing.
They turned a corner, and one of the soldiers' spears nearly tripped him. Irritated, he turned to the man walking beside him. “Lonius, I appreciate your arranging this tour for me, but do we really need all these bodyguards?”
The marketplace looked peaceful enough. All the merchants and townspeople seemed to go unarmed, which was surely a good sign, and it felt ludicrous to march through the place surrounded by soldiers.
Lonius gave him a considering look. “One can never be too cautious, my lord. You have many enemies in the neighboring kingdom of Gorgos.”
“Why is that?” Hercules asked. Had he been such an ogre in his former life? Yet the people did not seem alarmed at the sight of him; some even wished him 'Welcome home' as he walked past, although most just sank to the ground in deep bows and curtseys.
“It’s very complicated," Lonius said. "Betrayal, revenge... Goes back generations.” Not a very satisfying answer, and he sensed that Lonius was withholding the truth from him, possibly because he thought he was not up to hearing it.
“I’m still not comfortable with these clothes," he muttered, "or people bowing down to me.”
"I’m sure it’ll grow on you, my lord, as your memory comes back,” Lonius said comfortingly. The people of Kastus were small and dark or olive-skinned, and he felt like a giant among them, even when they did not increase the distance by bowing. He wondered what his father Cassius had looked like - had he taken his looks from him? Parnassa, too, was small and dark, although she carried herself so well that she appeared taller, and so was Kirin. Both the boys had taken after him, though, being blond and tall for their age. It all made sense, and yet - he kept feeling as though he were sleepwalking, moving through a dream he could not awaken himself from.
"Hey! I know that man!” someone yelled behind him. Hercules turned around, but Lonius grabbed his shoulder. “Come, my lord.” They walked on.
“-- and he’s not our prince!" the man behind him went on, his voice fading into the distance. "I saw him in Corinth once-- ”
“Why did he say that?” asked Hercules, almost to himself. The man's words echoed his thoughts, or his fears. He's not our prince.
“Five years is a long time, my lord," Lonius said, clapping him on the shoulder. "You know, you look different now. So do we all, huh?" He laughed, but the laugh rang a little hollow. Hercules wondered if Lonius were afraid of him.
Lonius beckoned to a citizen. "You! You remember Prince Milius, don’t you?”
The man stammered, "Uh, I’m not sure.” His eyes met Hercules' nervously.
Lonius stepped closer. “You’re not?”
The man looked terrified. “Oh, uh -- I mean, of course I do. It’s just that without his beard..." All of a sudden he sank down to kneel at Hercules' feet. "My lord--”
“No, no," Hercules said, "Please. Stand.” He helped the man get back up, thinking: Beard? I had a beard? He rubbed his chin, wondering what could have possessed him.
Lonius urged him on, through the thick of the market and into a side alley, their soldier escort falling behind. "I think we can get through here."
The alley was a dead end. As Lonius cursed, muttering that all these alleys looked the same, Hercules turned round to see half a dozen men jump down from the city wall, blocking their exit.
They were strange, outlandish figures, clad in black, with more black cloth wound about their heads and obscuring their faces. Ululating warrior cries pierced the air. Yet, to his own surprise, he wasn't afraid of them. He faced them calmly, and as the first warriors charged toward him he seemed to know instinctively what to do. It was the work of a moment to pick up the wine barrels that littered the alley and use them as weapons; the barrels seemed light to him, but the warriors went down under their weight and did not get up again.
It was all over in less time than it would take to peel an apple. The remaining warriors ran off, and Lonius sent his soldiers after them as soon as they arrived.
“What was that all about?” he asked Lonius.
Lonius' expression was grim. "I recognized one of them. They were sent from Gorgos to assassinate you." If this happened all the time, no wonder the fighting felt so familiar, Hercules mused. Yet something about it had felt off, unbalanced, as though he had been fighting with one arm tied behind his back.
"Let’s get back to the palace,” Lonius urged, and Hercules followed, hoping he would finally get some answers. He wondered if his so-called bodyguards had been bought off; it was far too much of a coincidence that they should lag behind just as Hercules and Lonius were ambushed. Or maybe they're just incompetent. That was certainly a possibility, given that their captain didn't seem to know the way around his own city.
Iolaus stood near the small vineyard at the edge of town, staring at the road that led out of the city. More festivalgoers kept arriving, but none of them was Hercules. Worry chewed at him. Kastus was only two hours away from Pharsalos, three if the old couple's horse was slow. Hercules should have been back yesterday. Even if he had decided to stay the night in Kastus for some reason, he would have been here by now, since he was an early riser. Whatever it was that had kept him, Iolaus had a bad feeling about it.
“Why so glum, Iolaus?" Juris asked him. Iolaus started; he had not even noticed his arrival. "You should be enjoying yourself!”
“Hercules should have been here by now,” he muttered.
Juris looked amazed. “You’re worried about Hercules? If he can’t take care of himself, who can?”
“Yeah, I guess.” There was no point in trying to make Juris understand. People always thought that Hercules was invulnerable, and Iolaus was not about to enlighten them.
"Come on," Juris urged, "You’re judging the grape-picking race.” He thrust a small drum and padded stick at Iolaus.
“No, I don’t think so.” He wanted to keep watching the road, even though he knew that the first thing Hercules would do upon his arrival was to go looking for him.
Juris gave him a sly look. “Electra’s in it.”
That got his attention. He followed Juris' gaze to the rows of vines, and there she was - Electra, as gorgeous as ever, turning her head to give him that little smile he remembered so well.
He grabbed the drum blindly. "OK!" he said loudly, making sure everybody could hear him, "When I start banging the drum, you all start picking the grapes!”
“All right!” yelled the women, amid much giggling. They took up their places at the end of each row of vines.
“The first one to the end wins! Everybody ready? Go!”
The bystanders laughed and whooped as Iolaus began the drumbeat. He stuck close to Electra, who filled her basket rapidly, gaining on her competitors.
He yelled boldly, “A kiss for the winner!” and grinned as the grape-picking went even faster. He could not keep his eyes off Electra, who was nearly at the end of her row and kept giving him come-hither looks.
"And the winner is...” he began, holding out his arms to her, but then he felt a tap on his shoulder. He looked round in surprise. Before he knew what was happening, a sturdy farmwoman put her arms around him and nearly squeezed the stuffing out of him, then kissed him with such fervour that he thought she might leave a permanent imprint. He tried to break free, to see where Electra had gone, but the woman grabbed him and kissed him again, giggling all the while.
Suddenly he did not mind so much that Hercules had not arrived yet. This would have given him ammunition for weeks.
The royal apartments were beautifully furnished, but they were also dark and cold. Kirin had had the fire laid and candles lit, and that helped, but the place still felt stifling - the sun could not have set yet, but it might as well be midnight inside the castle.
Hercules poked up the fire and stared into the flickering flames, trying to still his wandering thoughts. Someone had taught him to do that, to stare into a candle flame and count his breaths until he found his center, someone he knew intimately...
The flames danced before his eyes, taunting him with shapes and half-glimpsed faces.
He turned away from the fire, frowning, only to find Kirin watching him. He hesitated, then sat down next to her on the low couch.
“Tell me something," he said. "How did we meet? It might help me to remember.”
“One day I was in a field picking flowers," Kirin began in her soft voice, "and I looked up and there you were, staring down at me. You said that you had never seen anything more beautiful than those flowers." She laughed, as if remembering that moment. "I was shocked that a prince could talk to a commoner like that.”
“There’s nothing common about you,” Hercules said. She cast down her gaze, laughing softly, and then went on, "You sent me flowers every day during our courtship, dozens of them. You even scattered flower petals on our bed on our wedding night." Her gaze met his daringly, and Hercules held his breath; the very air seemed charged with tension.
"Is any of this coming back to you?” she asked. She lifted her hand and gently stroked his cheek, and he could not help leaning into the touch.
“I get these glimpses, but I still can’t see any faces,” he said. He looked down to hide his feelings; it was terrifying to think that that might never change, that he might never know who he had been.
“Maybe this will help,” Kirin said softly, and bent towards him until their lips touched. Her lips were sweet, and for a moment he leaned into the kiss, but he drew back while he still could. She was lovely, and his heart tripped whenever he looked at her - but she was a stranger still, and the fact that they were married did not change that.
She turned her face away from him, mortified, and he sighed. "Kirin, you’re very attractive, and I feel you’re a good person, but...I’d rather wait until I get my memory back. Can you understand that?”
“Of course,” Kirin said firmly, and they both smiled awkwardly at each other.
After Iolaus managed to extricate himself from the embrace of the woman who had won the grape-picking competition - the woman who sadly was not Electra, but her very sturdy, very strong cousin Eumelia - he was quite ready to go and have a restoring drink or three, but Juris wouldn't hear of it, and Iolaus found himself judging the grape-crushing competition as well.
Not that he minded, he thought with a grin as he watched Electra climb into a huge vat full of grapes, her skirts hoisted up high above her knees. No, he didn't mind at all.
There were several vats of grapes, each taller than a man, and when all the competing women had climbed into them, Iolaus yelled: “On your marks! Get set! Crush!”
The crowd yelled and cheered as the women began crushing the grapes with their bare feet to the beat of Iolaus' drum, and the sharp, sweet scent of grape juice filled the air.
“Come here, sweetie!” someone yelled right in Iolaus' ear. He turned, startled, and found himself hoisted abruptly up into Eumelia's grape vat. The woman had the grip of an Atalanta, and she had no intention of letting him go; she grinned madly and began stomping down on the grapes again, holding on to his shoulders to make him follow her lead. He couldn't think of a way to stop her without resorting to violence, so he gave in with as good a grace as he could, even as he felt himself slipping on the grapes, his boots slick with juice.
All around him, people called his name, pointing and laughing. Yeah, very funny, he thought as Eumelia leaned down on him with her full body weight and he sank deeper and deeper into the tub. If they really intended to make wine with these grapes, they had better learn to like the taste of his boots.
Someone else had taken up his drum - Juris? - and it seemed to take at least an hour before the drumbeat stilled and he could finally, finally climb out of the vat. He barely managed it; he was so slippery with grape juice that he couldn't gain purchase on the wood.
The juice was everywhere. His hair dripped with it, his clothes were plastered to his body, and his boots sopped juice as he clambered down over the edge of the vat and dropped down onto the ground with a splash. He tried to catch his breath, holding on to the vat for support, and then Eumelia's...assets were in his face again. He dragged his gaze further up to see her grinning down at him and looking disgustingly clean, her expression somehow expectant. Oh, yeah. The competition.
He gave her a weak smile and began, "The winner of the grape-crushing competition...” but she forestalled him and grabbed his arm, nearly wrenching it from its socket as she dragged him up into the air again. People clapped. Apparently they had won. How nice.
Eumelia just kept standing there, holding his arm and smiling, and he was debating which Eastern hold to use on her when Juris ran up to him with an old man in tow. He looked both worried and excited.
“Iolaus, you’ll never believe what this crazy old coot told me! He said he saw Hercules, dressed as a prince.”
Iolaus stared at both of them. Maybe they'd been getting into the grape juice, too - the fermented kind. Or maybe the old man was a little addled, he thought, looking at the bloodstained bandage around the man's head.
As if guessing his thoughts, the old man said fiercely, “I’m telling you, it was him! Plain as day! I met him in Corinth years ago, and I know Hercules when I see him.”
The man's voice had the ring of truth, and his eyes were clear and sharp. Iolaus stepped up to him. "You saw Hercules? Where?"
“In Kastus," the man said. "In royal robes, no less. And not enjoying it very much, if you ask my opinion." He motioned to his wounded head. "They tried to shut me up, but eh, they don’t scare me.”
Hercules? In royal robes? For one mad moment Iolaus thought he meant Iphicles, but that was just as impossible. For one thing, Iphicles was in Corinth dealing with the Parthians, and for another, Iphicles and Hercules looked as little alike as Hercules and Ares, half-brothers or not.
The worry he had been pushing away all day surged up again, and he forgot all about the bath he had so been looking forward to. Kastus. He needed to get to Kastus, right away.
Hercules was playing with his sons again. They tumbled over him like bearcubs and he fell back against the bed, helpless with laughter, then looked up to see his wife standing at the edge of the bed. She carried his daughter in her arms. Her warm laugh took the sting out of her words; she was saying that it was past his daughter's bedtime, and the noise the boys made had woken her up.
He moved over in the bed, making room for his wife, and she lay down beside him and put his daughter in his arms. He stared down at her small sleepy form and shuddered. He did not have a daughter.
Then the bedroom faded away and he was walking along the shore with his mother and one of his oldest friends, chatting with them. Although he couldn't really hear what they were saying, he was happy to be with them, happy to be home. The sand shifted under his feet as he walked. Hadn't they been walking in the palace a moment before? But no, that wasn't right; his mother didn't live there, had never lived there, and the palace and the throne now belonged to - who?
A moment later he couldn't remember what he had been worried about; his mother laid her hand on his arm, smiled at him - he could not see her smile clearly, but he felt the warmth of it - and he basked in her welcome. She was saying something about settling down, but he couldn't quite catch it. The sun was hot upon his back, and the water as bright and flat as steel.
He smiled back at her and walked on, his boots slipping as he tried to find purchase on the sand. His mother's hand on his arm gripped him tightly, her nails digging in. It was very quiet; he could hear nothing except the crunch of the sand under his feet and his own heartbeat. It was as though the world had shut down, as though everything around him was holding its breath. Waiting for something. Waiting for something to happen.
Then he heard it. A hoarse voice, calling from above - "Hercules..."
He sat up abruptly, his heart thumping in his chest. A dream. It was a dream.
"Milius?" a soft voice asked. It was Kirin. He tried to get his breath back, to compose himself.
“Are you okay?” she asked, clearly worried for him. He only wished he knew how to answer that.
“What a strange dream...” he muttered, half to himself. His clothes were clammy with sweat, and his heart was still pounding double-time. The fear, the horror had been so real, but the images made no sense at all. Why would he be so terrified of dreams about his children, a daughter they might have been planning for? Of a stroll down the shore?
“Dream about what?” Kirin asked, but he couldn't face telling her. It was all too absurd. "Nothing, nothing." He stood up. "I think I’ll take a walk. Maybe it’ll clear my head.”
Kastus' marketplace looked familiar to Hercules this time, but only because of the tour Lonius had given him yesterday. The people bowed to him again, making way for him, scurrying out of his path like mice. Lonius had said he would get used to it, but he was only getting more and more annoyed. Why didn't they stand up for themselves?
He walked deeper into the market, looking for someone who did not appear too overawed at the sight of him, someone sensible. Finally he walked up to a basket seller, an older man with a careworn, gentle face who did not cast his gaze down as he approached.
“Excuse me," he began, and the man startled and began to bow down to him. He touched the man's shoulders to keep him upright. "Don’t," he said. "Do you-- do you recognize me?” He fixed the man with a pleading gaze, trying to show him how much he wanted to hear the truth, not some flattering lie.
“No, my lord," the basket seller answered, adding, "but I really didn’t see much of you before you went off to the wars.”
“But you do remember seeing me before the war. Do I look the same?”
“No-oo," the man said, hesitating. "But you had a beard then.” Hercules sighed. The beard, again. He opened his mouth to ask the basket seller more questions, but a voice interrupted him.
“Prince Milius! Ha ha!" It was Lonius, coming up behind him with a full complement of bodyguards. He sounded as jovial as ever. "We were looking all over for you, my lord. You had the queen and your wife worried.”
He sighed. “Well, I thought I might take a little unguided tour.” He couldn't keep all his frustration out of his voice, but Lonius didn't seem to pick up on it. Shouldn't his best friend know his moods better than that? Didn't he have someone in his life he could talk to, someone who could help him figure out how to live without a memory?
“Not a wise choice without a bodyguard," Lonius said, waggling his forefinger at him as if he were a child. No, whatever they had had in the past, Lonius could not be his confidant. "You never know when your enemies may strike again."
That was another thing. He still did not know what he had done to have enemies in the first place, but there had to be a better way than walking around with guards on his tail for the rest of his life.
"Let’s have a drink; there’s a tavern up ahead," Lonius was saying. He let Lonius take him by the arm and lead him away.
Kastus was full of people, milling around the marketplace and getting in Iolaus' way, but none of them were Hercules, and when he asked them if they had seen a big handsome guy with long hair, they just stared at him. Of course, that was an understandable reaction, given that Iolaus was still as purple as his vest, but he wasn't in the mood to be understanding. He needed to find Hercules, and he needed a drink. Maybe not in that order. The big, well-lit tavern at the edge of the marketplace looked like just the thing, but for the guards stationed outside it. Iolaus paused to stare at them. They wore heavy armour and winged helmets, and from their stiff stance and forbidding looks it was clear that they were on duty. They didn't look like mercenaries.
He stepped boldly up to the doorway, intending to find out what they were guarding. Perhaps he would get some answers here.
"Off limits," growled the guard to his left, thrusting a spear across to block his way. "Royalty inside.”
"Royalty? Who--" he began, but the guard on his right gave him a hard shove. "Stay out, I said."
In response, the guard took a swing at him, which Iolaus ducked without thinking and returned with interest, and the fight was on. He hadn't even counted the guards, which was probably just as well.
The guard to his left thrust his spear at Iolaus' midriff, and Iolaus took it away from him and butted him in the stomach with the other end, then knocked him over. One down, and now he had a spear. The odds were looking better already, he decided as he hit the guard to the right neatly between the legs and brought him down.
He wielded the spear like a stave, whipping it through the air until it whistled, and thwacked two more guards with it as they rushed him. They didn't stay down, and he dropped the spear to get in close, hitting them with a fast flurry of punches until they sank back to the ground. Four down.
A mustachioed man in even more ornate armor leapt out from the tavern with a yell, sword levelled at Iolaus' chest. Iolaus spun around and got his sword arm in a hold, then punched him in the face a couple of times to convince him to let the sword go. The man resisted, so he slammed him against the wall of the tavern for emphasis, his right hand pressing against his throat until he could feel the man's strength begin to ebb.
Strong hands clamped down on his shoulders and dragged him away. He did not resist; he knew the grip of those hands. Relief washed through him as he looked up into Hercules' face, smiling. Huh. What was that outfit he was wearing?
"About time you show--" he began, and then Hercules hit him.
A red haze washed out his vision, and his ears roared as he wavered, stumbled, fell to the ground. He fought the blackness that came riding in, but it closed in fast, and his last thought came on a swell of grief and bewilderment: If I die here, I don't think Hades will let me go. Not when he hears that Hercules sent me.
Hercules stared down at the attacker he had felled, relieved to see the fall and rise of his chest. The man had gone down so fast that for a moment, he had been afraid he'd killed him. He hadn't intended to punch him so hard, but there was something about the man that unsettled him, and his reaction had been instinctive.
This was not one of the blackclad assassins who had ambushed him earlier; he looked as unlike them as it was possible to imagine. For one thing, he was a lot smaller, and for another, he was purple. Not just his ragged, patchwork vest, but every bit of exposed skin and hair - and there was a lot of both - was as purple as a sunset. Could it be some kind of disguise? The guy was obviously a skilled fighter; the alley was strewn with unconscious guards, yet when Hercules dragged him off Lonius, the man had smiled at him, had made no move to attack. It didn't make any sense.
He crossed his arms and kept staring at the man, trying to think, but then Lonius came up to him and clapped him on the shoulder in thanks. “I was afraid of this, my lord. I think we have another assassin.”
“Why is he purple?” Hercules asked. Of all his questions, for some reason that seemed the most urgent.
Lonius just shrugged. “Insanity? Birth defect? Who knows?" He drew his sword, then offered it to him by the hilt. "But I think you should get rid of him once and for all.”
He turned to look at Lonius. There was no doubt in the man's eyes, and conviction rang in his voice. He took the sword. Sunlight glinted off the sharp edge. Its weight felt good in his hand; clearly, he had handled a sword before.
He looked down at the unconscious man and meditatively lowered the sword until the tip rested against his skin, just below his ribs.
"Kill him, my lord," Lonius urged. "He's your enemy!" His voice sounded sharp, eager. Too eager. What kind of man had he been, that Lonius thought he would do something like this?
He took the sword away and gave it back to Lonius. "This doesn't feel right. Escort this man to the border unharmed, as a gesture of peace,” he instructed, his voice gaining strength as his confidence flooded back.
“But, my lord," Lonius protested, "He was sent from Gorgos to assassinate you!”
Yeah, Hercules thought, and I'm listening to the advice of a man who thinks insanity can make you purple.
He drew himself up. For the first time, he felt like a prince, like someone who could lead a nation. “You heard my wishes.”
With satisfaction, he watched as Lonius ordered the guards to take up the unconscious man, then walked back into the tavern. If the man did come from Gorgos, perhaps this would be the first step on the road to peace between the two cities.
Something burned on Iolaus' closed eyes, warm and familiar. Sunlight. He opened his eyes, cautiously, and saw blue sky and the roofs of houses. Memory rushed in, and he snapped his eyes shut again, waiting for another blow. It didn't come.
He swayed up and down, and realized he was being carried. Not by Hercules; by several people. What in Tartarus was going on? Were they carrying him to a healer, or had Hercules given him back to the guards after punching his lights out? It hurt to even have to consider that, but he had no choice. If Hercules had hit him only a little harder, his neck would have snapped. That meant all bets were off as to the state of the demigod's mind. Couple that with the fact that Hercules had been wearing some kind of royal outfit, just as the old fellow had said --
"The streets are empty here," a commanding voice said above him. "This is as good a place as any.” Well, that was clear enough. He counted the footfalls. Only two men. Piece of baklava.
They dropped him to the ground, and he let his head loll as if he were still unconscious, listening to their breathing as they stood over him. Then he hit out with his feet, catching them both in the groin. He sprang up, kicked them again while they were still doubled over. They folded. He checked to see that they stayed down, then ran.
All the entrances to Kastus' royal palace were guarded, of course. Iolaus hadn't expected anything else. But he was well versed in the ways of palaces: unless the place was under siege, there was always a way in.
He walked slowly up to the trade entrance, nearly bent double under the weight of a huge basket full of geese. The guards looked down at him disdainfully, but he didn't think they recognized him; he had taken the precaution of wrapping his head and upper body in an old, threadbare grey cloak.
"What's your business in the palace?" asked the oldest guard. The geese cackled.
"Why, I'm delivering a silk dress to the Prince," he croaked, imitating the quavery, deeply sarcastic voice of his late great-aunt Eidithia. "What's it look like, half-a-brain?"
"Why, you--" said the younger guard, but his companion held him back. "Easy. Don't let her get to you."
No, just let me get past you, Iolaus thought, tottering up the shallow steps with care as the basket wobbled on his back. I'm just a harmless, infinitely annoying old woman.
"Hold," cried a third voice from just inside the door. Iolaus sneaked a glance upwards and recognized one of the men he had fought at the tavern. Uh-oh.
With a tremendous heave, he threw the basket into the air, sending the geese hurtling toward the guards. The birds went crazy, flying into the startled guards' faces, honking and gobbling and pecking at their winged helmets.
"Quick, catch them!" Iolaus cried in his best falsetto, drawing the cloak closer about himself. "They're for the Queen's supper!"
To his surprise, the guards obeyed him and began to run after the geese, crashing into walls and each other as the panicked birds tried to escape.
So, the Queen has a reputation, Iolaus reflected as he slipped into the trade entrance. Interesting.
Queen Parnassa was taking a bath, in a bath chamber the size of Corinth's throne room. Iolaus crouched behind a huge potted basil plant, nicely camouflaged by the dark purple leaves. All he could see of the Queen was a bare neck and the back of her head; the rest was hidden beneath a lake of soap bubbles, which was probably just as well. He could not afford to get distracted.
He had crept through the entire palace as quietly as a ghost, slipping into side corridors or hoisting himself up on ceiling beams whenever he heard a guard approach, but to no avail; there was no trace of Hercules. At last he had managed to sneak into the royal apartments, and found the Queen in occupance.
Two maids approached, and he ducked down even further, then peered out again, watching as the maids upended glass vials to pour perfumed oils into the bath. Rose musk tickled at his nose, and he hoped he wouldn't sneeze.
Then a man came in, and Iolaus stiffened. It was the mustachioed man who had attacked him at the tavern. Judging from his elaborate dress armor, he had to be at least a captain of the guard, perhaps even a general. He had to be fairly high up, if he could approach the Queen in her bath like that - unless they were lovers, of course. Now that would be embarrassing.
“What is it now, Lonius?” the Queen said. Her voice was cold and commanding. Definitely not lovers, then.
“I’m not so sure your prince will lead us into battle after all,” Lonius said, sounding annoyed and worried.
Iolaus rubbed his sore jaw. Your prince. That had to be Hercules. Had Hercules deliberately taken on the role, the way Iolaus had once pretended to be Orestes? Well, in that case, he could have given me a damn hint before knocking me out.
“If you’re still worried about the people of Kastus accepting him as their prince, then don’t," the Queen said dismissively. "After the ceremony it won’t make any difference.”
That sounded familiar. Was Hercules about to be crowned as king? Huh. Maybe there was even a princess he was supposed to marry, just like Iolaus had had to marry Niobe. Iolaus winced. He didn't want to think about Niobe.
“Oh, we have bigger problems than that,” Lonius said, and Iolaus tuned into the conversation again.
“What?" the Queen asked. "He regained his memory?”
“Hah! Worse," Lonius said, gesturing angrily. "Instead of invading Gorgos, your Prince Hercules wants to make peace.”
“We just need one more day," the Queen said. "Once Hercules vows his allegiance to Hera, it won’t matter what he thinks. He’ll be under her spell and do whatever she commands. Just keep him busy until then - don't give him time to make trouble."
Lonius nodded. "I was thinking of having him review the troops, maybe show him our siege engines and fortifications. Perhaps that will convince him that we need war, not peace.”
"As you like," the Queen said, waving a dismissive hand. "Just guard him closely."
Lonius gave her a nod and a long, measured look, then turned on his heel and walked out of the bath chamber.
Iolaus sat back, not even bothering to watch as the Queen finished her leisurely bath and then summoned her maids to dry her off.
It was much worse than he had expected, but then, it always was when Hera got involved. At least, even if Hercules genuinely didn't know who he was, his personality had not changed - Lonius' comments about the new Prince wanting to make peace were proof enough.
That meant that Iolaus had a chance. If he could just catch Hercules alone, make his case, then surely Hercules would listen to him, if only out of politeness. It was the 'alone' part that was going to be tough, with all these guards and servants around, but he had to try. One more day, the Queen had said. He had to get Hercules to recover his memory before tomorrow.
Hercules was glad to be outside again, away from the oppressive atmosphere of the castle and the crowds of people bowing to him. The lush green woods and fields outside the city walls were much more to his taste, and if he had been alone he would have been happy to take a stroll, breathe the fresh air. But he was not alone. He had not been alone since losing his memory, and it was really starting to grate on his nerves.
"Look," Lonius was saying. "Isn't it magnificent?" He indicated the siege engine in front of them with a sweep of his arm. It wasn't as though Hercules could possibly have overlooked it: the thing was a mobile castle, about three stories high, built out of wood and reinforced with steel. More soldiers moved about inside it, aiming crossbows through the firing slots or looking out from the revolving guard tower. The siege engine looked incongruous in such a pastoral setting, even ridiculous, but Lonius spoke of it with a pride and fervor that made it clear that he couldn't wait to use it.
"Who thinks up these things?" Hercules muttered. He looked at the four heavily armored horses that pulled the engine; they seemed nervous, flicking their ears.
“Ingenious, isn’t it?" said Lonius. Yeah, that's one word for it, but not the word I would use.
Apparently feeling that Hercules was not sufficiently impressed, Lonius added, "A combination of levers and pulleys can fire a spear through a house.” He waved his arm at the soldiers inside the moving castle.
In response to his signal, a thick spear shot out from an opening in the castle, aimed at an abandoned farmhouse that was used for target practice. The spear sliced through the air and then thunked into a wall.
At Lonius' insistence, they walked over to inspect the wall. The spear had gone straight through a hands' breadth of solid stone. Lonius chuckled, sounding very pleased. "Impressive, huh?"
Hercules shook his head. “I still don’t understand why you’d want to do this.” He was not going to wage war on a neighboring province, not without a damn good reason, and testing some bloodthirsty inventor's latest creation wasn't it.
There was a loud crack, like leather snapping. The horses neighed, and they both turned at the sound to see the horses galloping away to their left, dragging the siege engine behind them. The soldiers yelled at the horses and each other as they were dragged off, their loud voices panicking the horses even more.
“What are you idiots doing?! Get back here!” yelled Lonius, then stalked off to deal with the problem. Hercules remained behind, staring at the spear stuck in the stone wall. He tried to drive away the image of what that kind of force would do to a living man.
"Psst!” hissed a voice behind him. He turned, surprised. There was an old haystack behind him, walled in by a wooden fence, and someone was hiding behind the fence. It was the purple man.
“What are you doing here?” Hercules asked, more curious than alarmed. If he was an assassin, he wouldn't be trying to attract my attention - he would have stabbed me in the back by now.
“I’m trying to figure out what’s going on," snarled the man. "Why did you hit me, before?”
“You were trying to hurt my friend." Or so he had thought, at the time.
The man looked outraged. “I’m your friend!”
Hercules sighed. Oh, great. And the world continues to not make any sense whatsoever.
“Why are you purple?” he asked. It seemed more polite than, "Are you insane, or am I?" And besides, he really wanted to know.
The question seemed to drive the man past all patience. “What does it matter?" he choked out, sounding as though only the fear of discovery kept him from yelling at Hercules at the top of his voice. Yet he clearly wasnt all that angry, just frustrated, although Hercules wasn't sure how he knew that with such certainty.
The purple man wriggled out from behind the fence and stepped in front of Hercules, glancing back to see that Lonius and the other soldiers were still occupied. It occurred to Hercules that the horses' sudden escape could not be coincidence; this man must have engineered it, cut a rein or a strap or something to create a diversion. All so he could talk to Hercules.
"You really can’t remember who you are?” the man asked, his blue eyes intent on Hercules' face. He was the first person who really seemed to want to know the answer to that question; Lonius just kept reassuring him that his memory would come back, and Kirin mostly behaved as though it already had.
"No," he admitted, sighing in frustration. "Nothing."
“That’s crazy!" The man gestured wildly, his words falling over themselves. "You’re-- you’re Hercules!Son of Zeus! The slayer of the Minotaur, the Hydra!”
Son of Zeus? Maybe Lonius' 'insanity makes you purple' theory had some merit after all. He hadn't felt like a prince, and he certainly didn't feel like some sort of half-divine hero. He felt like...well, like just a guy, not someone who could throw lightning or went around rescuing princesses.
“I’m sorry, but that doesn’t ring a bell,” he said politely. "And my name is Milius."
The purple man practically danced around him in frustration, apparently forgetting all about the need to stay concealed. The guy had more energy than anyone Hercules had ever met. Of course, that didn't mean much, given that he couldn't remember more than two days back.
“Okay, okay, don’t panic," the man muttered, sounding as though he was talking to himself. "We've got to jog your memory. Um. You remember the Cyclops?”
His expression was so hopeful, so expectant, that Hercules almost felt guilty. "No."
“The Stymphalian bird?”
"Sorry,” Hercules said helplessly.
The purple man made a sound like a growl. "Okay, um...Typhon? Echidna?" Hercules shook his head. They were all just names to him, and the man was beginning to look desperate.
"Alcmene! Jason! Deianeira!"
This was getting ridiculous. "No. Look -"
The man shook his head, almost vibrating with urgency. "No, listen to me - we have to find a way to get your memory back. I mean, I'd ask Zeus, but you know how he gets all cagey and won't tell you anything except that the food is bad or something, and I'd rather not--Oh, hey, do you remember that?"
"No," Hercules said pointedly, glad to get a word in edgeways. A thought struck him. "What's your name?"
The man took a deep breath. "Iolaus. It's Iolaus."
There was a pause. The creaking of the siege engine and the neighs of the horses seemed to fade as they stared at each other. Iolaus' eyes went wide. He stood still, now, as if afraid his movement would break the spell, completely focused on Hercules.
At last, Hercules shook his head. "No."
The silence that followed was broken by someone yelling, "Get him!"
Hercules turned to see the soldiers running toward them, waving clubs and spears. Lonius was right behind them, signalling urgently toward Hercules to get away.
"Maybe you'd better go," Hercules said, on impulse. "Lonius thinks you're an assassin." He still didn't know who the man was, or whether he could be trusted, but he didn't want him to get killed, either. "An insane assassin," he added.
Iolaus stared at him. "I'm not going anywhere," he said as the soldiers closed in on them both. "We've got to figure this out. Do you remember Jason and Alcmene getting married?" He ducked under a blow and came up to ram his attacker in the stomach. "You were swallowed by a sea monster--"
Hercules watched in amazement as Iolaus casually fought off half a dozen guards, talking all the while about all the far-fetched adventures he claimed they had shared.
"What about the time Autolycus got me arrested and you came in just as they were about to chop my head off? No?"
He jumped up and kicked two men at once, then added, "Xena! You have to remember Xena. We had this big fight over her, but --" he paused to knock another soldier out cold with a backhand blow, "--we got over it and fought Xena's men instead. Or how about the time Aphrodite conned me into taking one of her golden apples?"
Iolaus rolled his eyes and whipped around to body-check a soldier who came up behind him. "You've got to remember that, it was the stupidest thing I ever did. No? Okay, how about --"
Hercules stepped forward and put a hand on his shoulder to restrain him, as far as that was possible. "Iolaus-"
Somewhat to his surprise, Iolaus instantly went quiet in his grasp, looking up at him with that same damned hopeful look - and a spear butt rammed into the back of his head, knocking him out cold.
Hercules turned angrily to Lonius, holding a limp Iolaus up by the back of his vest. "I did not order you to attack him. He's not even armed!" And he still wiped the floor with you, he added privately. So much for those troops you're so proud of.
Lonius bowed his head and dropped the spear. "I'm sorry, my lord, but the men have standing orders to protect you, and this man is obviously insane."
“He’s quite a story-teller,” Hercules said meditatively, looking down at Iolaus' unconscious form. He wanted to shake the man, tell him to wake up. To see all that energy transformed into stillness was just...wrong.
Lonius snorted. “Story-tellers don’t look like grapes. This guy’s crazier than a harpy.”
"I'm-- not so sure," Hercules said. The stories the man had told had been outrageous, true, but there had been such passionate conviction in his voice..."Have him brought back to the castle and let a healer look at him. I want to talk to him when he wakes up."
Lonius opened his mouth as if to protest, but Hercules stared him down. "Do it."
He relinquished Iolaus into the soldiers' arms. Something moved at the edge of his vision, and he turned to see the siege engine topple sideways, unbalanced by a missing wheel. A man lay under the axle, screaming as the huge structure shifted down upon him. Hercules ran to him, followed by Lonius and the rest of the soldiers.
"Get back," he yelled to the soldiers milling around him. He bent, took hold of one of the spikes that protruded from the bottom edge of the engine, and pulled. The siege engine creaked and groaned as he pushed it upwards, away from the groaning soldier.
"Get him out of there!" The soldiers dragged the man away, and he let go - slowly, so the siege engine wouldn't collapse entirely.
He stared at the siege engine as it settled back, creaking. How in the world had he managed to do that? The thing had to weigh as much as a house, and yet it had seemed the natural thing to do.
“You always were uncommonly strong, my lord,” Lonius said behind him.
“I was?” Unnaturally strong, more like. Hercules ran a hand through his hair, unnerved. Son of Zeus, Iolaus had called him.
He paused, considering the idea.
Hercules canceled the rest of his inspection of the troops and sent Lonius to escort the wounded soldier back to the castle, picking his moment carefully so that Lonius would have to obey him or look bad in front of his men. He wasn't inclined to trust Lonius, or to believe that the man would follow his orders, not anymore.
He walked through the green woods along a small forester's track, not headed anywhere in particular, just enjoying the sunshine and the sound of sparrows chattering in the trees. After a while, he crossed a larger track, with deep wagon ruts and the prints of many feet; a road to other cities, other provinces, other lives.
As he set foot upon the wagon track, a thought came to him: I could just keep going. He took a deep breath, considering that. He had no money, no memory, and no means of livelihood, but he was in the peak of health and ridiculously strong; there would always be work for him, somewhere. He could just keep walking. Gather nuts and roots when he got hungry, make a fire when night fell, sleep in his clothes and be up again by sunrise to see what the new day brought...It would be a good life. Simple, but happy.
It worried him that the idea was so appealing. How could he want to walk away from his life? He had responsibilities: the children, and Kirin.
Kirin. She was so warm, so loving, and there was an unhappiness about her that he wanted to take away. He wanted to be the husband she deserved. That thought felt warm and right, and he turned away from the wagon track and onto a side path, one that curved away into the fields and back toward the castle. As he walked past the edge of the woods and into a meadow filled with wildflowers, he resolved that today, he would make Kirin smile.
After Hercules had managed to get Protos and Macareus to bed - they kept asking for stories, but he had none to offer, so finally he made them laugh by telling them all about the purple man - he walked into the bedchamber, carrying the wildflower bouquet behind his back. As he had hoped, Kirin was waiting for him.
“You’ve done wonders for the children," she said, turning away as if she was too shy to speak to him directly. "They’ve really missed having a father.”
“I feel like there’s been a lot missing out of my life, too." He walked around her so he could see her face, and handed her the flowers. "These are for you.”
She made a sound that was almost like a sob, but then she smiled at him tremulously. “Oh, that’s very sweet.” She cradled the flowers in her hands.
“You say it as if I’ve never done anything like this before.”
She darted a quick look at him, then looked away again. “No, it’s just that he -- I mean, you -- you were never so kind and gentle before the war. The war must have changed you.”
He laid a hand on her shoulder, very gently. She turned toward him, and he lifted his hand and stroked her hair. It was so soft, and she smelled like roses. “How could I have ever treated you differently?” He must have been a brute, to treat her with anything but tenderness. Perhaps he would never remember; perhaps it was for the best.
Her face was in his hands, but she did not turn away this time. She lifted her chin towards him, and he bent down toward her and kissed her. Her lips were warm, her hand came up to clasp his neck, and the sweetness of it was almost more than he could bear.
When their mouths parted, she said “I think I’m falling in love with you," and paused, swallowed. "All over again.”
He might have doubts about who and what he was, but he couldn't mistake the sincerity in her voice, her eyes. She loves me. Whatever I am. The thought brought a fierce joy, and he wanted to kiss her more than anything in the world.
“I still can’t recall our past," he said as she smiled up at him. "But the way I feel about you, I don’t think I can wait until I do.”
“Then don’t," she breathed. "Don’t wait.”
This time she kissed him, telling him without words that she wanted him, that she did not fear him, that she had longed for him since the day they met. Her hands curved around his back, and she drew him towards the bed.
They had put Iolaus in the dungeon, which had been carved into the bedrock below the castle. Like every other dungeon he had ever been in, it was cold, damp and uncomfortable, and had iron bars for walls. He lay back upon the narrow bench that served as his bed, thinking. It was clear that the Queen was the real power here, the one who had set everthing in motion, and that he was a danger to her plans. She wouldn't want to have a witness around, someone who could remind Hercules of his former life.
He sighed. Yeah, because that has worked out really well so far.
At least, from what he had overheard Parnassa and Lonius saying, it sounded like the Queen was not sure of Hercules yet, not until he went through her little Hera-affirming ceremony. So there was still a chance, if Iolaus could get to him in time.
They had not bothered to put chains on Iolaus, probably because they were not intending to hold him for long. He was pretty sure that the only reason Parnassa had not had him killed outright was that Hercules would want to know what happened, and she could not risk it yet. So if I don't get to Hercules in time, I'm going to be dead anyway. He sighed. It's always good to have the proper motivation.
Hmm. He could yell, pretend to be sick, make a ruckus until the guards came in to stop him - but they probably wouldn't bother. Nobody in the castle would be able to hear him this far below.
As he considered and discarded more escape plans, he heard voices in the corridor, echoing off the stone. They were coming closer.
"...could get into a lot of trouble for this, my lady." Gruff, irritated. One of the guards.
He closed his eyes and slowed his breathing with practiced skill, letting his muscles go slack against the bench. This couldn't be the Queen, come to kill him; the guard would never speak to her in that tone, and the Queen would not bloody her hands. A handmaiden, under her orders?
"Don't be insolent." He did not recognize the woman's voice.
The barred door to his cell clanked open. He kept his eyes shut, kept breathing slowly.
Soft footsteps; the woman, coming in. The guard must still be outside. Warm breath on his cheek as she bent over him, then a hand, barely touching his shoulder.
He turned fast and grabbed her wrist, prepared to fight for his life.
The woman shrank back, tried to tug her hand away, and stared at him in fear and confusion. This was no assassin. She was young, beautiful, dressed in a nightgown and a silk overdress; it looked like she had just gotten out of bed and had thrown on the first thing that came to hand. She carried a jeweled knife in her left hand, but it hung slack against her side.
“Who are you?” he asked. He did not let go of her wrist, not just yet.
"I’m Princess Kirin," she said. "Milius’ wife." He stared up at her. Milius' wife. Oh, this just keeps getting better.
Her expression changed into bewilderment. "Why are you purple?”
“I like it." The next person who asks me that question is going to get a boot to the head. "What do you want?”
She sighed. “I want to know about your friend.”
“Because I’m in love with him, and I think he’s in love with me.”
He dropped her wrist and let his head fall back against the bench. "Oh, great."
Look on the bright side, Iolaus, he told himself. At least now you have a way to get out of here.
Kirin had a great scream. "Guard! Please, come!" she cried, and the guard came running.
Iolaus pressed the edge of the knife against Kirin's throat and bared his teeth. "Put down your sword and open the door."
The guard gave him a disgusted look, but he obeyed; the barred door swung open.
"Okay, now get back," Iolaus ordered. He moved into the torchlit corridor, pushing Kirin in front of him, his knife still at her throat. "Don’t make a sound, or I’ll kill her."
Another guard came running from the corridor. “What is going on here?” This one looked a lot less easy to impress. Time to turn it up a notch.
“You behave," he growled, "or your princess dies.” He widened his eyes and gave the guard a mad dog stare.
“Who cares?” said the guard. Tough crowd.
Kirin stared at the sneering guard. “You pig!” Iolaus got the knife away from her throat just in time as she surged forward and kicked the man neatly in the crotch. The guard bent double in agony, and Iolaus grabbed him and slammed him against the barred door until he went down, groaning. The other guard tried to rush Iolaus, but he stepped aside at the last moment and pivoted to kick him in the stomach, then hoisted himself up on the bars and kneed the man in the face.
Two guards down, and reinforcements did not seem to be forthcoming. They ran for it, Kirin leading him through empty, echoing corridors until they reached a bedchamber. The huge bed was empty, the drapes thrown back.
"He’s gone," Kirin said worriedly. "They must already be preparing him for the ceremony.”
Iolaus nodded. “Will Hera’s priests be attending?” They would need some kind of disguise, and Kirin didn't look much like a guard.
Kirin looked bewildered. “Of course.”
"Okay. Here’s what we’re going to do.”
Hercules had woken up alone, with Kirin nowhere to be found. He had thrown on some clothes and gone to investigate, worried that she was unhappy with what they had shared last night, only to run into Lonius and a dozen guards.
They had whisked him off to dress him in ceremonial robes and then to the banquet hall, where he had been served breakfast, alone at that immense table, and nobody had answered any of his questions until Lonius informed him that it was time to rehearse his pledge.
Apparently today, the first day of Autumn, was the day when the kingdom of Kastus renewed its vows to its patron goddess, Hera the Bountiful, so that they would not suffer in the coming winter and get a good harvest the next year. It had all sounded very dull, but by the time the guards accompanied him down rough-hewn stone stairs to a cavern, deep in the rock, he was beginning to feel uneasy.
For a temple, it was a sombre place, and he wondered if a goddess they called the Bountiful would not prefer something more cheerful. There was one small opening in the rock high above the altar, the only source of sunlight; the rest of the cavern was lit by wax candles, flickering against the bare rock. The altar itself was a tall stone structure, topped by a green crystal ornament. He watched as a line of robed and hooded priests filed into the cavern, accompanied by yet more guards, and then the two guards stationed at his side motioned him forward, where Queen Parnassa stood waiting.
She stepped forward and clasped his shoulders in greeting. It took all of his self-control not to shake her off. There was something cold and calculating about her, and all the blue and green finery she wore only reminded him of scales and teeth.
“I’m proud of you, my son," she said. "You’ve memorized your pledge?”
He gritted his teeth as she kissed him on the cheek. "Yes. Mother." He couldn't let the people of Kastus down, if this ceremony was so important to them - couldn't offend this goddess, whoever she was - but he really wanted to, if only to piss Parnassa off.
The Queen stepped back into position in front of the altar, flanked by two of the hooded priests, and Lonius came up to whisper something in her ear. Hercules couldn't hear what he said, although he could tell from the Queen's determined smile that something had gone awry.
She opened her arms wide. "Let the ceremony begin."
Hercules sank down to his knees in front of the altar, as he had been instructed, uneasily aware of the priests standing behind him - he could feel their eyes boring into his back.
The Queen continued, "We gather once more to pledge our loyalty to Hera -- our patron goddess -- and to thank her for delivering our Prince Milius back to us. Today, my son will show his gratitude by vowing his allegiance to Hera, asking for her guidance as he leads us in battle, that we may vanquish our enemies."
Hercules frowned. There had been nothing about battle or asking for victory in what Lonius had told him about the ceremony, or in the words of the ceremony themselves, for that matter. Well, she can dream of war all she wants, but it's not going to happen; I'll make sure of that. First thing after the ceremony, he would send out an envoy to Gorgos.
"My prince?” the Queen prompted.
"On this, the first day of the autumnal equinox," he began, stumbling over the words he had barely had time to learn, "I vow my allegiance to --"
The name stuck in his throat, and he tried again.
"I vow my allegiance to --"
He stopped again. The Queen bent forward, her gaze intent upon him, reminding him more than ever of a snake waiting to strike. It didn't feel right; none of this did. Why was the atmosphere so gloomy? Why so many guards at a religious ceremony? And if this was so important to the people of Kastus, why weren't they here?
One of the priests was suddenly at his shoulder. "Hercules - don't."
He looked up, recognizing the voice, and watched as Iolaus threw back his hood.
"Don't," Iolaus said urgently. "Don't do this. Trust me." His voice rang with conviction. In the gloom, his stained skin did not look so absurd - it darkened his features to the color of his indigo robe, making him stand out amid the gaudy armor of the guards and the peacock finery of the Queen. "Hera is your enemy--"
The Queen stepped forward, interrupting him.
"This troublemaker interrupts our ceremony," she said, her voice hard and cold. "There is only one punishment for such sacrilege. Kill him."
When Hercules didn't move, she stared intently up at the green crystal that topped the altar, and he followed her gaze. The sunlight that streamed down from the small opening high above the altar had reached the stone, and it pulsed brightly in the light. Hercules wanted to look away and found that he couldn't; the green light filled his vision, coloured his surroundings, beating in time with his heart.
All around him, the guards closed in, twenty men or more, until Iolaus and he were standing in a ring of spears and swords.
Someone handed him a sword, an ornate jewelled thing. It felt right in his hand, its balance familiar, almost comforting as he aimed it at Iolaus' unprotected throat. The sunlight gleamed off the point; it was needle sharp.
"Kill him," said the Queen. Her voice was very soft.
All he needed to do was cut there, sever the artery in the neck. One stroke, to end all the uncertainty, to commit to his new life and never look back. His stomach roiled, and he felt dizzy. His heart beat like a drum, faster and faster, in time with the flashing of the crystal.
He gazed into Iolaus' eyes. There was no fear there, and Iolaus did not move away from the blade. It seemed to him that he could thrust the point home as slowly as he liked -- that Iolaus would just stand there and take it, giving him that same intent, hopeful look even as his blood spilled out. As he lay in the dust, gripping the dagger they had forged together. As he died in Hercules' arms, bloody-mouthed, smiling. As he--
Hercules dropped the sword and yelled as the memories came down upon him like a rockfall, dimly aware that around him, the guards were moving in. He couldn't see, couldn't move; images, sounds, feelings tumbled over him, faster and faster.
“Kill him! Kill them all!” the Queen cried, all control gone from her voice now. Hercules pushed the memories down by sheer force. He knew who he was, now - the details could come later. He blinked as the green haze washed away from his vision, and looked up to see the crystal dim and fade, then looked back down just in time to catch the spear aimed at Iolaus' chest.
"Good catch," Iolaus said, and grinned. It was all the welcome he needed.
Together they swung into the fight, back to back, the movement so familiar that he didn't need to think or remember, only act. He picked up a candlestand and used it as a staff, swinging it end over end to create some room for them to fight in, while Iolaus used his hands and feet and anything else that came to hand, including the guards themselves.
Looking round, Hercules saw that Kirin had joined the fight and was holding her own against Parnassa, and for a moment he forgot everything else. I can't stay with her. She's not my wife, and I can't be her husband, and I can't stay. It hurt, and he knew it would hurt more to tell her so. Then he had to block another swordthrust and there was no time to think.
Iolaus tore off his priest's robe, which was hampering his moves, and dazzled a guard by swirling it around him, then muffled his head in it and knocked him out with a flurry of punches. Hercules dropped to his knees and swung his candlestand in a low circle, catching the guards' knees and ankles and laying them out on the sandy floor of the cavern. But more guards kept coming, and Iolaus backed into him and said urgently, "Thermopylae!"
"What?" He knew the name, but the memories were all jumbled up, and he couldn't access this one immediately.
Iolaus pressed against him, back to back, and called out "One! Two! Three!” He raised his arms instinctively, holding the candlestand horizontally over their heads, and bent forward as Iolaus grabbed it and rolled over his back, kicking out at a trio of guards.
That move, so well-honed, so familiar, brought back a few more memories. He grinned and surveyed the downed guards all around them. "Still works."
A sword cleared its sheath with a soft hissing noise. Hercules turned and faced Lonius just in time to avoid the swordpoint stabbing at his midriff, then grabbed the man by the wrist, kicked him in the belly and pushed him in Iolaus' direction. Share and share alike.
“This is for the tavern," Iolaus was saying as he punched Lonius in the face, holding him in position by a firm grip on his long braid. "And this is for the field.”
Iolaus let go, and Lonius wavered and tottered toward Hercules. He held the man upright with one hand clasped around his arm and said, "And this is just on principle, friend.”
The punch dropped Lonius like a felled tree.
They turned to see Kirin trying to hold off an enraged Parnassa, and ran to her help - but even as Hercules arrived at Kirin's side, the Queen sealed her own fate. She charged Kirin with the heavy candlestand, trying to impale her, but Kirin stepped aside just in time, and Parnassa ran full tilt into the altar. The stone pillars and ornaments swayed back and forth, then toppled down upon her. When the dust cleared, she lay unmoving.
Hercules looked down at her still, white face and knew that Hera had claimed her own. "The queen is dead!" he cried. "Put down your weapons! As your prince, I command you.”
The men looked at him, then at the Queen, and obeyed. Swords dropped to the cavern floor.
As the soldiers filed out of the cavern, carrying the body of their Queen, Iolaus and Kirin joined him.
"Hercules-- are you really back?” Iolaus asked urgently. Hercules smiled at him and put a hand on his friend's shoulder. "Yes, I am, Iolaus." He could feel the tension in Iolaus' shoulders ease. I missed you, too.
Hercules paused, eyeing him up and down, and Iolaus tensed again, as if bracing for something.
"You know what?" Hercules said. "You look good in purple.”
Hercules walked toward the castle gates, Kirin on his arm, Iolaus at his side. He didn't know what to feel - it was all mixed up inside. It was an incredible relief to have his life back, and to leave the gloom of the castle behind, but leaving Kirin and the children was another matter. She had willingly deceived him, but he had forgiven her for that already; it was impossible not to, once he knew that Parnassa had threatened to kill her children unless she obeyed. That woman had been pure poison. He didn't know whether to be more relieved that she was dead or that she was not his mother.
He halted at the great wooden gates and tried to prepare himself for the last, awkward goodbye, when Protos and Macareus ran up to them, yelling “Hercules, wait! Wait for us!”
He turned and lifted the boys into his arms. “Now, you two, listen to your mother," he said, pretending to be stern. "Good princes obey their queen, don’t they?”
They nodded obediently, their eyes wide, and they reminded him so much of Aeson and Klonus that for a moment he couldn't speak. "C'mon, give me a hug," he managed, swallowing back his grief, and put his arms around them both. It was hard, very hard, to let go.
The boys said their goodbyes, and he saw that Kirin biting her lip, trying to hold onto herself just as hard as he was. "I'll miss you," he said to them as they walked off, and Kirin stepped up to him at last.
“And we’ll miss you,” she said in a low voice.
He took her arms, gently, and said: “I’m sorry this can’t end differently.”
She looked away. He knew what was coming - it was only a repeat of what they had already said, standing before the fireplace in their apartments - and steeled himself.
“It could. If you wanted it to,” she said at last.
“No." He looked into her eyes, willing her to understand. "You know what I do, what my life is about.” From the corner of his eye, he could see Iolaus leaning into the wall next to the gates, his posture clearly proclaiming that he wasn't listening - in fact, wasn't even there at all.
“No, I know," Kirin said, and swallowed. She stood very straight. "And I could never keep you from your destiny. The world needs you too much." She sounded like a Queen already.
He looked away before he could stop himself, hating the awkwardness, the wall that had risen between them - knowing at the same time that they could never be again what they had been.
"Will you come back this way again?” she added.
“I’ll come back this way again,” he said. It was such an empty promise, but it was all he had. He could not give her a month, or even a year - that was not how his life worked, and she knew it.
“I’ll think of you always,” she said, trailing a hand through his hair, and he swallowed.
"And I you," he whispered, took her hand in his, then bent to kiss her one last time. She met him passionately, clinging to him, and for a moment he feared that she would beg him to stay - but then she stepped back, far back, and looked at him with a smile that was as bright as it was false.
"Goodbye,” he said, and she nodded.
As he stepped through the gate, Iolaus materialized at his side. "You OK?"
He did not look back.
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