Hero's Heart

by Melisande

Story originally written for Hercules: the Legendary Journeys by: Jerry Patrick Brown

The one cruel fact about heroes is that they are made of flesh and blood.
--Henry Arthur Jones

Prologue: Somewhere in Taphos

The whirling coin sparkled with reflected light as it soared and then fell to land on a mound of its fellows. The richly dressed man sitting at the desk covered in dinars regarded the golden pile with immense satisfaction, and cupped double handfuls of the coins in his hands, reveling in the sensation.

“I love my money!” he sighed aloud, enjoying the sound of the coins jingling as they fell through his fingers.

Suddenly he realized that the jingling sound was getting louder, though all the coins had fallen. He glanced up to see a spray of golden denarii coalesce into the form of a woman.

The wealthy man regarded her with suspicion and unease, unconsciously circling the pile of gold with clutching arms. Obviously a goddess, the dumpy little woman wore a long blue chiton overlaid with a crimson and gold tunic that stood out from the waist in stiff pleats. Her dark hair was braided elaborately; delicate chains of coins of all kinds were woven through the braids and decorated her neck and wrists. She breathed and moved with the sounds of jingling coins.

“Who are you?” he snapped. “What do you want?”

In a quavering, singsong voice, the dumpy little woman replied, “I’m Fortune, Goddess of Luck!” she answered, and bustled toward him busily. Gesturing to the mound of denarii, she added, “And your luck has been pretty good, Lexus … up till now.”

Lexus bristled with affronted pride, “It’s not luck! I’m a hard worker - I hustle! Ask anyone in the market.” Suddenly his eyes narrowed as the little goddess regarded him knowingly. “Wait a minute - what d’you mean - up till now?”

“Well,” Fortune began to pace in front of the carved desk, “You’ve made no offerings to the gods to say ‘thanks for the good life.’ From all appearances you’ve loved your money more than your wife and family, and you haven’t used your fortune to help others - and you’re supposed to do these things, you know,” Fortune lectured, pointing an accusing finger at the irritated Lexus.

“Oh, yes, I know, I know,” he answered crossly. “I’m a busy man! It takes work to make the good life happen, I’ll have you know. My family understands that. I’m sure they must. As to helping others - well, I’ll fix it first thing.” He turned back to his gold dismissively. “Now, you’ve delivered your good advice, you can show yourself out - good-bye!”

Fortune tiled her head and smiled, shaking her forefinger at him once again. “Not so fast, Lexus. First, we’ll see if your good luck continues.”

She held up a large ten denarii gold piece, with a smiling sunface on one side, and the sunface crying on the other side. “I’ll toss my coin. Heads, you win. Tails, you…you don’t.”

“You mean I could lose my money?” Lexus burst out, dismayed and outraged.

Fortune regarded him with a sad wisdom in her dark eyes. “You could lose even more, but find what is truly most precious to you. After all,” she spread her hands out to indicate the mound of coins the rich merchant hunched over, “this is *only* money.”

“*Only money*?!” Lexus cried, clutching the pile close. “It’s *my* money!!”

“Okay, okay!” Fortune replied, frowning, holding her hands out in a calming gesture. “No reason to get hostile - this is just business, you know. Sheesh!”

Lexus heard that phrase with a feeling he’d never known before. Always before, he’d been the one saying “it’s just business” to some loser who didn’t play the commerce game as well as he did. Suddenly he felt on the edge of understanding how those “losers” felt.

Fortune silenced him further with a chiding glance, then dramatically prepared to flip the coin. An expert flick of fingers and thumb sent the coin spinning end-over-end into the air. As it fell, Fortune caught the coin easily with her right hand and slapped it onto the back of her left.

Lexus peered closely as she uncovered the coin. The sunface that was revealed was the sad one, the crying one.

Lexus had lost the toss.

Fortune glanced up regretfully, and shrugged. “Er - sorry, Lexus,” she sighed.

Lexus started up out of his chair with a desperate, threatening look. Fortune backed away, her hands out in a pacifying gesture.

“Oh, now don’t you get upset. It was a fair toss, by the rules. Nobody likes a sore loser” she scolded. “Besides which, didn’t you say luck had nothing to do with your wealth? I guess you’ll find out, huh?”

And abruptly, a curtain of sparkling light and jingling coins wafted in front of Fortune and she disappeared. Before he could convince himself that it was a bit of bad beef or a blot of mustard that had caused this bad dream, Lexus heard a loud pounding on the door of his counting house. Raucous voices called his name from the street.

Lexus walked to the door in a daze of disbelief. When he opened it, a fussy fellow with a sharp nose held a scroll in front of his face.

“I’ve come about these back taxes you owe!”

“I don’t owe any taxes!” Lexus snapped, but then wondered about the last several years when he had bribed the tax appraisers - had someone talked?

Suddenly, a swarm of merchants, traders, and minor bureaucrats came running from all directions and crowded his doorway, waving suddenly discovered scrolls of bills and accounts yet to be paid.

Lexus suddenly realized these creditors were out for his blood - and worse, his money. It dawned on him that perhaps fate or Fortune had more to do with his wealth than he had ever imagined …

Chapter 1 No truer word … was ever spoken than that the largest heart is soonest broken. -- Walter Savage Landor Elsewhere in Taphos …

The town square at the agora was brimming with most of the townspeople, laughing, cheering, preparing food, decanting wine and broaching barrels of ale. An air of celebration filled the agora, and it centered on two men.

“Friends - I give you the heroes that saved our village from the bandits! Three cheers for Hercules and Iolaus!” called out one of the celebrants. “Hip, hip, hooray!” The crowd echoed the cheer and shouted out two more cheers.

Hercules sat at the feasting table, smiling and nodding in acceptance. He forced down his usual discomfort with compliments and rewards for what he saw as his duty. He accepted a mug of ale from the local tavern-keeper, Nick, and looked around for Iolaus.

He’s got to be loving this, Hercules thought, grinning.

The son of Zeus spotted Iolaus surrounded by well-wishers, also holding one of Nick’s mugs. Hercules’ grin faded slightly as he observed his friend’s expression. Iolaus was smiling and chatting with the people around him, but there was something in his face, a tightness around his eyes that most people would miss.

Iolaus must have felt Hercules’ gaze, because he glanced up and their eyes met. Iolaus excused himself from his admiring throng and, limping slightly, made his way to sit down beside Hercules.

“Hey, buddy,” Hercules greeted him. “Pretty cool celebration, huh?” He clapped the smaller man’s broad shoulder, and thought he saw a brief wince just before Iolaus smiled.

It was a good smile, but Hercules noticed it seemed to lack his pal’s usual bubbling enthusiasm. Glancing up at the friends that surrounded them, Iolaus replied, gaily, however. “Yeah, no town gives a party like Taphos!”

Cheers greeted this statement, and on the other side of the square, a group of musicians struck up a dancing tune. Many of the group surrounding the heroes whirled away to join the dance, and the rest turned to watch and clap, leaving the two friends in a brief moment of privacy.

“Enjoying yourself, Iolaus?” Hercules asked nonchalantly, but with keen blue eyes on his friend’s face.

“Sure! This is great!” Iolaus said, breezily, taking a swift pull from his mug. The silence that met his statement made Iolaus meet his friend’s searching gaze, and the blond hunter shook his head with a brief chuckle.

“Okay, can’t hide anything from you, can I, Herc?” Iolaus rubbed his shoulder. “I’m just feeling every one of my almost forty years tonight, and it’s irritating!”

Hercules shook his head and grinned. “Hey, pal, I think your aches and pains have a lot less to do with your years and more to do with the fairly amazing feats you performed today in our fight with the bandits.”

Iolaus glanced away, and his laugh was suddenly less pleasant. “Yeah, I performed some feats today alright.”

Before Hercules pursue his inquiry, one of the townspeople, Mentas, came up and clapped Iolaus on the shoulder. “Hey, Iolaus - you were amazing today! I don’t know how you covered all that ground to spear that bandit just as he aimed that arrow at Hercules. And that arrow hitting the bandit Hercules was fighting right in the throat - great Athena’s helmet, that was unbelievable!”

Hercules smiled at Mentas’ timely arrival. “He was pretty amazing now that you mention it, Mentas!” Hercules was a bit taken aback to see Iolaus just smiling perfunctorily at their fellow warrior.

“Yeah, well,” Iolaus began, with unusual diffidence, but Mentas shook his shoulder. The smaller man winced ever so slightly, and both Mentas and Hercules noticed.

“Hey, sorry, Iolaus!” Mentas pulled his hand away and held it up.” I didn’t mean to aggravate an injury. But, gods, it’s no wonder you’re sore! I saw you pull that other raider from his horse by his spear, and lay him out. What a move!”

“Oh - Actium?” Hercules asked his friend. Iolaus’ smile grew a bit as he nodded. At Mentas’ baffled look, Hercules explained briefly, “The battle where we first used that move.”

Mentas grinned, with an appreciative shake of his head. “Both you guys have all our thanks, you know? Not many fighting men here in Taphos, and having you two older, seasoned warriors made all the difference. Thank you!”

Hercules winced inwardly at the choice of words as the well-meaning young man exchanged warrior’s arm clasps with both of them. “Now for some ale and a pretty girl!” he cried, grinning.

Hercules looked back at Iolaus, whose smile faded as he watched Mentas dance away into the crowd with the all the vigor and resilience of his twenty years. The blond hunter turned his eyes back and saw Hercules’ gaze on him.

“What?” Iolaus asked, gruffly, and took another deep drink of the ale.

“That’s my line, Iolaus. And don’t give me anymore Minotaur droppings about your great age.” Hercules kept his voice light and bantering, without the concern he was beginning to feel inwardly.

Iolaus shrugged one shoulder. “Well, part of it must be, because I’m really feeling it today, you know? But everything Mentas was talking about - damn it, Herc! - I was almost too slow! That archer had you in his sights, and he was good. As it was, that arrow just missed you by inches.”

Hercules shook his head. “The point is - it missed me - and you did it, Iolaus. The villagers didn’t exactly follow our battle plan, you know, and you did really heroic work to get to that guy from your position.”

Hercules clapped Iolaus on the other shoulder and shook him gently. The smaller man grinned but then grimaced.

“Ow, ow, ow, Herc! That one’s sore, too!” Iolaus glared at him. “And I’ll bet you’re not sore at all, are you?”

Hercules was saved from answering when soft, cool feminine hands replaced his gently. He and Iolaus looked up to see an old “friend” of Iolaus’ standing behind him.

“Iolaus, are you hurt?” Lucina inquired, massaging his broad shoulders gently. “Be sure to find me before you leave - we can’t let one of our heroes go without treating your injuries!”

She smiled and passed on through the crowd, a subtle perfume drifting behind her. Iolaus sighed, smiled, and turned to meet Hercules’ grin.

“Well, maybe I didn’t do so badly, after all,” he said, grinning back, and lifting his mug in a toast.

“See, I knew I could convince you,” Hercules said, chuckling. Their mugs clinked together, and the two heroes drank each other’s health.

On the Outskirts of Taphos …

“Everything gone -- in a heartbeat!” Lexus bitterly exclaimed to his wife, Okaleia, as they made their way on the trail to Nemea. He was sweating and panting, having obstinately kept his rich brocaded robe on, despite the heat of the day.

Okaleia glanced at him and sighed. She loved him, but knew him too well. He would get over this blow and prosper, but acceptance of their changed circumstances would take more time for him than it had for her. He was the creative one, she was the practical one. It was evident right now -- he would not give up his rich but heavy robe for traveling, while she had almost immediately sold most of her rich clothing and jewels to provide them with some money for their journey, and found plain, comfortable clothing for their long walk to Nemea.

Okaleia glanced furtively at her husband as she formulated a soothing reply. In her secret heart, she was actually glad of this change in their circumstances. She had seen more of her husband this day, and they had spoken more together than they normally would in a week, due to the press of his business dealings.

And even more important than that - she had felt needed again. Needed to help him personally, not just to manage his household. She was actually reveling in the feeling, and in being with him closely again. She had always known that Lexus had thrown himself into his work for her sake and for that of their now grown children, but somehow he had forgotten his purpose in the doing.

Now if I can just get him to realize it, she thought. Aloud, she replied stoutly, “You couldn’t help it, Lexus.”

Unknowingly, she flayed his conscience, as Lexus remembered Fortune’s words.

From all appearances you’ve loved your money more than your wife or family…

He glanced at her, unable to verbalize his deepest regrets. Instead he fretted, “But living with relatives - how is that going to look? And - and you having to deal with my sister-in-law, how uncomfortable that will be!”

Okaleia heard his words, but also a little of the deeper feelings beneath them. She smiled at his frowning countenance. “It’s only until you get back on your feet, dear,” she replied, matter-of-factly, knowing sympathy would only frustrate him now. “You’re a smart man, Lexus - you’ll find a way for us, I have no doubt.”

The merchant felt a slight loosening in the tight worries that had bound his gut, but another fear surfaced. “And that big shot brother of mine - boy, is he going to stick it to me!”

“Maybe, at first,” Okaleia nodded, scrupulously honest. “But you know, Lexus, it may not be as bad as you think.”

“How on all of Terra not?”

She smiled up at him. “Actually, I don’t think you’ve noticed it, but I think your brother really admires you, deep down. And everything he’s done has been to try to emulate you, Lexus, rather than to compete with you.”

Lexus irritation changed to a thoughtful consideration. “You think so?” he asked, but looked as though some memories had fallen into place with greater understanding in the light of his wife’s observation.

“I’m sure of it,” she replied, patting his arm.

They both smiled, but then their attention was caught by a change in the trail. It was ending at a high cliff with a racing river deep in the gorge below. A very rickety rope bridge spanned the wide expanse with a dubious promise of passage.

All of Lexus’ hope vanished in anger and frustration. “Now this! We’re supposed to cross on this hazard? Why haven’t the town councils maintained this bridge? Gods know we pay enough taxes to have something worthy of the Romans!”

Okaleia gazed at the bridge, as fearful of the old bridge swaying sickeningly in the wind as he husband was angry at it. “Are there any other options?”

“Yes, but we’ll have to backtrack through Taphos, risking another hoard of dunning creditors in this nightmare to get to the coast road, and it will take another day to get to my brother’s house outside Nemea.”

Okaleia realized that this delay could possibly break down the slight hope that she had begun to instill in her husband, and who knew if he would be able to find it again.

She stepped forward, placing the handle of her basket over her right arm, and grasped the ropes used for handrails. Gingerly she stepped onto the first board. Though weathered and creaking, it seemed solid beneath her weight.

“I don’t think we need to take the longer way, Lexus,” she said. She was proud of keeping her voice from quavering as she glanced over her shoulder at him.

“Okaleia - are you sure?” he asked, gently touching her shoulder. “I seem to remember that you’re not overly fond of heights.”

She shrugged. “I got over this bridge years ago when I came with you to Taphos. I’ll just keep my eyes on the other side.”

He still hesitated, torn between not wanting to go back through the village, and his gnawing fear that Fortune’s spell might not be done with them. Concern that he had not shared the goddess’ visit with Okaleia also niggled at him.

“We’ll be fine, dear, really,” his wife assured him.

His desire to move on won out, and her let her assurance persuade him. “All right, but be careful. Don’t look down and keep to the edges of the boards near the ropes, all right, love?”

“I will -- don’t worry, Lexus.”

“And Okaleia --” She turned to look at him, happily inquiring. “- thank you for believing in me,” Lexus said gruffly

The brilliant smile that Okaleia gifted him with was almost worth everything that had happened. And then she turned and started over…

Nearby on the outskirts of Taphos …

Hercules and Iolaus were laughing as they strolled down the trail from Taphos. The party had definitely improved, and Iolaus’ spirits had lifted by the time they said their farewells to the grateful townspeople.

“So, I lost track of you and Lucina there for awhile, Iolaus,” Hercules observed, innocently, as they started down the trail from town. “Was she treating your aches and pains?”

“Well, naturally, she felt that my injuries deserved special attention, Herc, what with us saving the town and all,” Iolaus answered nobly, but his eyes were wicked with laughter. “I guess the other ladies knew that since you’re a demigod, you wouldn’t be ailing at all, so you wouldn’t be needing any extra care from them.”

“I thought you looked like you felt a lot better,” Hercules answered. Suddenly the rest of Iolaus’ sly statement registered and the son of Zeus did a double-take. “Wait a minute - ‘the other ladies--!’ Iolaus - how many, uh, ‘nurses’ did you have?”

Iolaus regarded Hercules with mock reproof, his azure eyes now alight with laughter. “Hercules, I’m surprised at you. I would think that you of all people would know that a good patient never tells.”

Hercules pushed his friend’s shoulder hard enough to cause Iolaus to dance sideways, as he burst out laughing.

“So - no more worries about having one foot in the grave, huh, pal?” Hercules asked, grinning broadly.

“Let’s just say that the care I received was very … life-affirming!”

Hercules laughed and feinted another blow at Iolaus, who danced out of reach.

“Hey, watch the shoulder, Herc!” Iolaus jibed, grinning. The two friends began to spar good-naturedly.

Suddenly, their game was interrupted by a woman’s scream rending the air from a short way ahead on the trail. The two heroes barely glanced at each other before taking off running all out toward the sound.

They rounded a curve in the trail and came up a short rise to find themselves at the edge of a steep, rocky gorge. Immediately their senses were keenly aware -- of the woman frozen at one side of the rope bridge, clutching the hand rope for dear life -- the almost palpable smell of fear in her stance and staring eyes -- the grinding roar of the river raging through the narrow gorge far below them, and the ominous sound of ancient planks creaking in the rising wind. Even as they watched, a patch of broken boards closer in to the bank loosened and fell away, clattering against the rocky wall of the gorge before plunging into the river below.

Hercules glanced at the bridge and planks, and decided it would hold - mostly. He stepped to the edge of the bridge and tested the rope, then called out to the woman in a calm voice.

“You’ll be all right - stay where you are! I’m coming!”

He started to step onto the first plank when Iolaus called from behind him, “Herc-wait!” and at the same time a man’s voice called from below them.

“Somebody help me! Help!”

Both heroes looked down and to one side of the bridge, and saw a tall, heavy-set man hanging from a ledge by his fingers as his feet scrabbled for holds on the damp rock wall. His heavy robe billowed out around him, catching wind like a sail, and threatening to pull away his tenuous grip.

Hercules and Iolaus exchanged quick glances. “You go after him, Herc,” Iolaus commanded. “I think this bridge is much more likely to hold me than you!”

Hercules moved to follow Iolaus’ direction immediately. “I resemble that remark,” the demigod quipped bleakly. As they passed each other in the narrow end of the trail, Hercules gripped his friend’s arm briefly. “Be careful, Iolaus.”

“You, too, Herc,” Iolaus cautioned, then turned his complete attention to the bridge. He began easing out onto the same edge of the rope walk that the woman stood on. As he moved, even his weight caused the bridge to sway slightly. He saw the woman’s knuckles whiten even further, and knew the movement had frightened her even worse.

“It’s all right - it’s okay,” he called gently. The ropes are holding fine. Stay where you are and I’m coming to get you.”

Meanwhile Hercules had found a thick, ropy vine growing down the side of the cliff. He tugged on it powerfully, and when it held he began descending toward the other victim. As he neared the man’s position, Hercules spoke calmly, “I’m almost there. I’ll have you in a minute.”

“Can’t hold on!” the man panted.

“Yes, you can,” Hercules soothed. “I’m almost there.”

As the son of Zeus reached the ledge that the man’s fingers clutched, he bent his knees, powerful thighs bulging and reached down. “Give me your hand.”

The man’s panicked blue eyes raked him. “You’ll never hold me!”

“Trust me - I’ll hold you. I’m Hercules.”

You’re Hercules?”

Hercules would’ve rolled his eyes if the situation weren’t so dire. “Yes - now grab my hand!”

The man’s eyes widened with terror, but he let go with one hand and reached up. Hercules caught him by the wrist with a grip of steel.

“Now walk up with your feet as I pull,” Hercules commanded.

The frightened man clutched Hercules’ wrist and belayed himself up the wall as the son of Zeus pulled, the massive muscles of his arms, legs and chest tightening, lifting the man with only a little effort. The man’s feet stepped to the ledge, and he caught the thick vine with his other hand.

The terrified man muttered thanks as he clutched Hercules’ hand convulsively. The demigod decided to give him a brief breather, and gazed up to check Iolaus’ progress.

Iolaus was moving with an easy grace, slow, even movements that flowed with the bridge’s motion, not against it. He kept his feet on the very edges of the boards over the supporting rope, and moved his hands one by one on the upper rope, never letting go with both hands.

Suddenly, Iolaus stepped on a plank that seemed to split beneath his feet. As the board cracked and fell, Iolaus’ right foot dropped with it, and the blond hunter’s leg followed.

Hercules caught his breath but kept himself from crying out. All he could do was hang onto the male victim with a grip that would leave bruises and watch his friend struggle to keep from falling further.

With brute strength born of years at the forge, Iolaus pulled his leg back up to the footrope. Hercules could hear him groan and knew that his injured shoulder could not be in great shape.

Iolaus stabilized his position on the ropes, and then the brilliant blue eyes down below him caught his gaze. He met Hercules’ gaze with a slight smile, and a brief nod. He saw the bigger man’s face relax slightly as Hercules nodded back.

Iolaus turned away to start edging toward the woman again. Hercules resolutely turned back to his own victim and spoke quietly.

“Let’s get you out of here, all right? What’s your name?”

“Lexus,” came the terse reply. The older man opened his eyes and nodded trustingly. “My wife?” he whispered.

Hercules glanced up at the bridge. “My partner Iolaus is helping her. He’s the best.”

Lexus followed Hercules’ gaze, and saw Iolaus reaching out his hand and talking gently to his wife.

“I can tell he is,” Lexus replied, anxiously. “But I’m afraid for them both. You see, my wife is terrified of heights.”

Hercules immediate thought was, Then why is she out on that bridge? But he knew that this was neither the time nor the place for questions. He directed the man quietly to hold to the vine as they made they way slowly from foothold to foothold.

The two men were about halfway up, and the sheer angle of the cliff had begun to level off slightly. They were able to lean into the bank and climb with more ease. It was a lucky thing they had reached this point because suddenly the vine began to give way.

Hercules felt it immediately, and quickly transferred his hold to a root. He still clutched Lexus’ hand, so he tightened his grip, and shouted to the other man, “Let go of the vine! Hold onto me!”

Lexus was startled briefly, but then felt the vine giving way. He let go of it, and rapidly grabbed Hercules arm above his other hand as the vine slithered down the wall beside them, and away into the gorge.

Lexus saw a projecting spur of stone and caught it, easing up on his hold on Hercules. They were nearing the top, when they heard Iolaus calling to the woman. Both men turned to look up anxiously at the scene on the bridge.

“Okay - it’s all right!” Iolaus was telling her. “Now don’t move, and don’t look down.” He caught her wrist and said, “I’ve got you. Can you edge a little closer to me, and keep your feet on the rope?”

Iolaus wanted to get her over a large gap in the planks before trying to catch hold of her too tightly, but he knew he had to get a good initial hold, and get her to ease closer without looking down through that gap. Even with Iolaus’ athletic experience and eye, the raging water below was a little disorienting and terrifying. He could tell this woman was terrified beyond reason.

“Now, can you look at me - just at me, and give me your hand?” Iolaus wheedled in his sweetest voice.

The woman’s lips whitened further as she tensed more, her gaze relentlessly on the horizon. “I can’t! I’m afraid!”

“I know, but I’m here to help you.” Iolaus tightened his grip on the woman’s wrist, and gently slid her clutching hand a little closer towards him on the rope. “I’m Iolaus -- what’s your name?”

The woman’s shivering tension ebbed ever so slightly as his calm demeanor penetrated her haze of panic. “O-Okaleia.”

“Good, good, Okaleia,” Iolaus replied, his voice warm and comforting. “Now, can you slide your left foot toward me? Just keep it right on the rope - there won’t be any boards in the way right now. Just ease it over.”

After a brief moment of indecision, the woman’s foot began slowly to slide along the rope closer to his position.

“Wonderful! You’re doing great! Now can you slide your right hand, and then your right foot the same way you just did the left? I still have your wrist, and I won’t let go. Keep your left hand and foot just where they are, and slowly slide your right hand along the rope without letting go.”

She obeyed his instructions implicitly, her gaze still fixed on the horizon. As Hercules watched his partner perform the rescue with care and quiet competence, he felt a surge of pride.

He’s doing it! He’s going to get her off that bridge!

Iolaus, meanwhile, was conscious of nothing but the slow step by step process of bringing the woman closer, without any sudden surprises that would cause her panic to erupt. He felt she was now ready for the next step.

“Now, Okaleia, I’m going to let go of your wrist, because in a minute, I’m going to ask you to take my hand with your right hand, okay? I want you to keep your left hand and your feet just where they are, but when I let go of your wrist, you let go of the rope with your right hand, and reach over and catch my hand, okay?”

Okaleia was beginning to relax tiny bit by tiny bit as she responded to the authority and warmth of his voice. She answered, briefly, “Okay.”

“All right. Now, remember. Leave your left hand on the rope, leave your feet on the rope, and don’t look down, okay? All right, I’m letting go of your left wrist.” His actions matched his words, “and I’m reaching across you to be ready to catch your right hand. When you let go of the rope, reach this way for my hand with just that right hand. No other moves and don’t look down, okay?”

“Okay.”

“Good,” Iolaus replied, trying to keep his voice reassuring. “All right, let go with your right hand and reach toward me.”

Okaleia obeyed. She let go with her right hand, and began to reach toward Iolaus. Their fingertips were almost touching when the basket that hung on her right wrist bumped the rope, and was knocked off her arm so that it first flew up in front of her face, and then it began to fall.

Unconsciously, her eyes followed the path of the basket as it fell down, down, down into the churning depths of the rapids below. Iolaus saw her gaze change and called to her, urgently.

“No, no - don’t look down!” He grabbed fruitlessly for her hand, but she suddenly flailed it out of his reach.

Iolaus’ cry grabbed the attention of Hercules and Lexus as they neared the top of the cliff. Hercules watched in horror as Okaleia’s gaze followed the basket down into the abyss.

“Okaleia! Look at me - please!” Iolaus commanded, trying to catch her eyes, trying to radiate calm to her through his voice. “Just hold on to the rope, and step a little closer. Step a little closer, and I can hold you!”

Abruptly, Okaleia’s eyes widened in sheer terror at the churning waters and sharp rocks below. Her muscles tensed and she screamed piercingly in mindless panic. She suddenly twisted and lunged for Iolaus.

His athlete’s reflexes responded. He reached to catch her, but just as he feared she wasn’t close enough for him to catch her waist. He caught her under one arm and Okaleia grabbed him around the waist.

Iolaus felt her whole weight jerk him downward, twisting him sideways. He clutched her tightly with his free arm and fought to keep his grasp on the rope.

One of the terrified woman’s feet found a plank, but the force of the impact snapped the cracked wood. It broke beneath her, and both her legs flailed into open air. Her feet kicked back and forth in the large gap, mindlessly trying to find a foothold that didn’t exist, and pulling horribly on Iolaus’ already strained shoulder and chest muscles.

“Iolaus!” Hercules roared, powerlessly, though he knew Iolaus could not hear him above the raging waters and the woman’s ceaseless screams.

“No - please stop! You’re fighting me! I can’t hold onto you if you keep doing that!” Iolaus cried, trying to make her hear. He tried to pull her up and catch her up higher, so that she could reach around his neck, but their positions and her panicked struggles pulled against him.

Worse, her hold was slipping, her frantic kicking and their sweat making her hands unable to stay clasped together. As her hands slipped apart, she desperately grabbed his clothes, clutching for a handhold, but the leather of his belts and pants was slippery in her grasp.

“Okaleia - listen to me! Listen! Stop struggling! I can get you if you’ll stop!” Iolaus cried. But Okaleia’s terror had made her mindless and deaf, so she continued to scream and kick.

Bit by bit she continued to slip.

Hercules divided his attention between the fearful tableau on the bridge, and finding his way over the rough crest of the cliff. He hauled Lexus up behind him with an unconscious surge of strength that was astounding even for him, but no one would ever know of it, even Hercules himself.

“Please, please - stop fighting - stop kicking!” Iolaus begged the woman frantically as her grip slipped down his body. Dimly, he felt like his shoulders and chest were being ripped apart by her weight and the force of her movements. He fought with clenched teeth to hold to her and to keep his death-grip on the hand rope.

Iolaus unclenched his jaw to plead with Okaleia again. “Please, be still! I can still lift you! Be still!”

It was meaningless to the mindless woman. Her screams rose as her hands slipped from her hold, but Iolaus valiantly, amazingly, caught by her wrist, and fought with every fiber of his being to hold on.

The blond hunter clenched his teeth, and the powerful muscles of his shoulders, neck and back stood out in stark relief, tendons bulging, as he battled gravity, wind, muscle fatigue, and the victim’s mindless struggles to try to pull her up to safety.

It seemed to Hercules that he was succeeding, but a sudden burst of higher wind down the gorge billowed her robe out like a sail, and tugged her downwards again.

All at once, their grip slipped from wrist-to-wrist to only the desperate clasp of hands.

“Don’t let me fall!” Okaleia screamed.

“Be still!” Iolaus implored her frantically, still trying to make her understand. “Hold on!”

But Hercules could see that their sweaty clasp was loosening as she continued to kick. Now only their fingers grasped and the woman’s fearful shrieks intensified.

Hercules, his eyes still on Iolaus, hauled Lexus upward. They were almost to the top of the cliff, and his only thought was to get to Iolaus, and help him.

But his hopes were dashed by another powerful gust of wind that suddenly swept through the gorge. He and Lexus both stared fearfully at the pair on the bridge as the force of the wind struck them.

Iolaus felt the gust strike him and for a moment felt as though his body was being torn in two. His desperate eyes met Okaleia’s wild gaze, as the fierce wind tore at her skirts --

-- And it ripped her fingers from his frantic grasp.

She plummeted downwards towards the churning water and jagged rocks with a final shriek that ripped Iolaus’ heart, and disappeared beneath the crashing current.

“NO!” he screamed, staring after her with stark horror etching his features, his arm still hopelessly reaching after her.

Hercules, watching him, had never seen the shock, despair, and defeat that filled Iolaus’ face at that moment. The son of Zeus shook himself out of his own shock and shouted, “Stay there, Iolaus! I’m coming!”

Iolaus was motionless - deaf, dumb, and blind to everything but the rushing water that had swallowed the woman he had tried to save.

Hercules pulled the equally shocked Lexus up onto the top of the cliff, and walked him to the edge of the path. He pushed the unresisting man down onto a convenient stone and caught the man’s chin to pull his gaze to him.

“Sit here, Lexus - don’t move! All right? Just rest here.”

The former merchant nodded dumbly, shocked, lost, and bewildered.

Hercules turned and tore down the path to the bridge. He found Iolaus in the same place, hanging on the ropes as though petrified. And Hercules released a breath he didn’t even know he was holding.

The son of Zeus stepped onto the first plank, and then the second, but felt the boards creak ominously beneath his weight. Frustrated, he leaned toward Iolaus and held out his hands.

“Okay, Iolaus - you need to get over here, now, okay?” Hercules called calmly, gently. “Just get your other hand on the rope and start moving slowly back this way. Come on!”

Iolaus slowly looked up from the terrifying abyss, and reached with agonizing slowness to catch the hand rope with his sore, aching right hand. As Hercules continued to speak softly to him, the shocked man turned slowly to the sound of his voice. It seemed to take him a moment to comprehend his presence and his words.

“Come on, buddy - nothing more you can do. You tried your best! Come on over here now!” he cajoled calmly but urgently.

Iolaus stared at Hercules a moment longer, then finally said hoarsely, in a voice Hercules could barely hear, “Herc - I didn’t mean … I didn’t mean to … I couldn’t hold her!”

“I know, Iolaus, I know,” Hercules called, gently. “You did everything you could! Just get over here, now, buddy, okay? Come on!”

Iolaus looked around briefly, then turned back to face his friend. “Gods, Herc - I dropped her - I dropped her! How could I do that?”

“No, Iolaus - no! You did the best anyone could! She panicked, and couldn’t get over it. That’s why she fell. Come on now, come back - please!”

Iolaus closed his eyes, and for both of them in a breathless moment everything hung in the balance. Hercules waited, unable to breathe.

After a moment, the son of Zeus edged out onto the bridge but everywhere he stepped was just too precarious to venture further. He reached for his friend, but as close as Iolaus was, he was too far away.

“Iolaus - you’ve got to come back over here, now - for me,” Hercules implored, as gently and quietly as possible over the roar of the river far below.

He stretched his hand out a little farther. “You’ve got to, or otherwise, I’ve got to come out after you, and I don’t think that will work. Come on - please!”

Iolaus opened his eyes again, and his shock seemed to be ebbing slightly. He met Hercules anxious eyes and nodded slowly.

“Okay. I’m coming, Herc. Stay there.”

He slowly began making his way back, but with none of the effortless grace he had shown before. It was evident that Iolaus was having to concentrate fiercely to get his tired, strained muscles to obey him.

Hercules continued to reach out as far as he dared, and to murmur encouragement. Iolaus made it past the biggest gap, and was almost within Hercules’ reach when another board snapped.

Both of Iolaus’ feet were taken out from under him this time, and his right hand could not hold the rope. It had been weakened by the long tense struggle to hold Okaleia, and his grip failed.

“IOLAUS!” Hercules cried. The big man took a chance on the most solid looking board and lunged for his friend. The board creaked, but held.

Hercules caught Iolaus and pulled him up. Several quick steps back to the edge, and they fell to the solid ground, still entwined. They lay there for several moments, totally exhausted.

Hercules clutched Iolaus convulsively, unable or unwilling to let go. Iolaus was shaking with shock and spent muscles, and after a moment the demigod realized he was sobbing quietly, whispering over and over, “Oh, gods, oh, gods!”

Hercules held him tighter and whispered into the bright hair, “It’s okay, Iolaus. It wasn’t your fault. You did good, you did good!”

After a few more moments, Iolaus stilled. Hercules asked quietly, “You ready to get up?”

He felt the bright head nod. Hercules tightened his grip, however, and replied, “Well, you’re gonna have to give me a minute longer.”

There was a watery chuckle, and Iolaus’ grip on him tightened a few seconds then pulled away. Hercules allowed it, and sat up with his friend. He looked away while Iolaus wiped his eyes and caught a deep breath.

“A bit better, now?” Hercules asked him quietly, turning to look at his friend. Iolaus shrugged, his face shadowed by pain, grief, and weariness, unable to meet the larger man’s searching gaze.

Hercules reached up and laid one hand along Iolaus jaw in a gentle but commanding clasp just under one ear. He turned his friend’s face to him, and Iolaus reluctantly met his gaze.

“You did everything right,” Hercules said, quietly, forcefully. His topaz-blue gaze met Iolaus’ despairing sapphire one, trying to convey his bedrock certainty.

“But, Herc - I dropped her! I dropped her --!”

“You were amazing to hold her as long as you could, Iolaus!” Hercules said emphatically. “No one could have done better!”

“You could have!” Iolaus turned shaking away Hercules’ comforting hand.

Hercules shook his head. “I wouldn’t have made it out that far, and you know that! You knew from the first that bridge wasn’t going to hold me. She was too terrified, and she fought you too much.”

Iolaus shook his head. Hercules was about to remonstrate further, but suddenly heard footsteps shuffling up the path towards them. He stood and pulled Iolaus up with him, releasing his friend’s arm only to catch his shoulder and hold it. They turned to see Lexus walking haltingly toward them. Hercules reached out and steadied the man and felt Iolaus tense beside him.

Lexus looked past them at the empty bridge, and then back at their faces. “She’s gone?” he whispered, trying to comprehend the tragedy in its suddenness.

Hercules nodded and glanced down at his friend’s face. Iolaus watched Lexus with anguish and guilt etched into his handsome features.

“I’m sorry - I’m so very sorry,” he said hoarsely, his voice ruined by emotion and strain. “I couldn’t hold her.”

Lexus nodded, distractedly, but Hercules could tell from his absent gaze that the man’s thoughts were not on Iolaus, but seemed to be shadowed by his own guilt.

“It was so fast - so fast,” he murmured. “Fortune has turned against me, and now I’ve lost Okaleia. And I didn’t get to tell her …”

His voice trailed off. Hercules watched the man closely, and did not see Iolaus look away, flayed by his own perception of the man’s words.

“Let us walk you back to the village,” Hercules said gently. Iolaus swallowed his guilt and moved numbly to the man’s other side.

We’ll get him back, and then I’ll take care of Iolaus, Hercules tried to reassure himself. He’ll be all right. He’s strong. We’ll get through this together.

But Hercules could not push away the nagging concern that had flared at Lexus’ words.

Fortune has turned against me …

Back in Taphos …

By the time they reached the market place, word had spread like wildfire and a small crowd had gathered to watch Hercules and Iolaus escort Lexus back to town. The shocked, new widower had managed to give Hercules a garbled account of creditors descending like vultures, of losing his fortune, and why he and his wife were on that fateful trail out of town. He had also mentioned that he had one merchant friend left in town, and that was where the heroes were taking him.

For Hercules, the trip was agonizingly slow. He felt he had to make sure the mourning man made it to some place of refuge, but he was much more anxious to take time with Iolaus. The smaller man walked on the other side of Lexus with his head down.

As they passed more and more of the townspeople, Hercules hoped that Iolaus would discount the doubtful looks of those who did not know him, but find solace in the many sympathetic murmurs of those who did know his skill and heroism. A rush of whispers seemed to sweep across the knots of onlookers as they passed - some concerned for the widower, but many more conveying their empathy for the blond hunter.

Hercules glanced at his friend from time to time, but could tell nothing of his friend’s thoughts from the closed, stony mask of his features. He knew - the town seemed to know - that Iolaus had done his best to save the woman - but did Iolaus know that? Rationality said yes, but that demigodly sixth sense of knowingness Hercules possessed seemed to be tying his stomach into knots. He wasn’t sure what he feared, but fear gnawed at him.

At last they reached their destination in a street just off the agora. Lexus’ friend and his wife took the grieving man in readily and gently, assuring Hercules that they would care for him. The wife led the still-stunned Lexus into the house murmuring quiet words about warm drinks and a comfortable bed.

The merchant, Acura, looked past Hercules to see Iolaus standing with his arms locked around himself, staring at the ground.

“Iolaus - thank you again!” Acura called. “We’ll take care of Lexus!”

Iolaus nodded in answer, but looked away quickly.

The merchant sighed and looked back at the son of Zeus.

“You know, Hercules, Iolaus single-handedly kept two bandits from setting fire to my shop in the agora yesterday. But I’m concerned that all the good he did then won’t sponge this tragedy away from his mind any time soon. Take care of him, too!”

Hercules smiled, grateful for the kindness to his shield brother. “Thank you, Acura, that means a lot to both of us. I’ll do my best!”

Hercules turned back to his friend and touched his shoulder gently, mindful of the way Iolaus had been favoring that joint.

“Come on, Iolaus, let’s go,” Hercules said gently, all too conscious of the many onlookers that still watched and whispered.

Iolaus started silently, still locked on his own dark thoughts, but turned obediently enough and began walking beside his friend. Hercules felt the tension vibrating through Iolaus’ shoulder, and wondered how to begin to comfort him. The onlookers seemed to press a bit closer, and Hercules could tell many wished to comfort Iolaus, but some just pointed and whispered in morbid curiosity.

Suddenly, Iolaus looked up, and glanced around somewhat wildly. “Well - what are you looking at?” he shouted. The onlookers gasped at the suddenness of his outburst and shrank back. “I dropped her! She’s gone, and it’s my fault!”

Hercules’ hand tightened on his friend’s shoulder. “Iolaus!”

Iolaus twisted beneath his hand, broke away and whirled to look up at Hercules. “What?!”

“It wasn’t your fault!”

Nick the tavern keeper stepped out of the crowd. “Yeah, Iolaus! We heard what happened, and we know you. Nobody blames you!”

Iolaus shook his head. “I blame me!”

Hercules stepped in front of the blond hunter and caught his gaze. “Iolaus - there was nothing you could have done!” he said earnestly. He gestured at the nods around them “They know it, too. She panicked, and fought everything you tried to do.”

Nick nodded, and murmurs of agreement filtered through the throng, but Iolaus could only see the few doubtful faces.

“I could’ve not dropped her!” Iolaus replied, passionately. He looked up at Hercules, furious with self-judgment. “You wouldn’t have!”

Hercules glanced around at the onlookers. “Please, everyone - I know you mean well, but could you give us some space?”

Nod and quiet words of agreement met his plea, and the crowd around them melted away, returning to their chores and daily business, but not without a few brave souls who quickly whispered comforting words to Iolaus or gave his arm a quick pat.

“Now,” Hercules said gently. He steered Iolaus through the agora to a quiet square beyond, and then let go of his shoulder. “Let’s have it. What’s going through your head?”

Iolaus paced for a moment and then burst out, “Herc, I don’t -I don’t know how to get around this!” he choked out wretchedly. “I always thought it would be me getting hurt - you know - taking too many chances. Trying to be as much of a hero as you.”

He sighed and scrubbed a hand over his face. “But this time, somebody else paid the price!”

“What, and you getting hurt or d-dying in her place would be preferable?” Hercules asked.

“Rather than what just happened?” Iolaus gestured wildly back toward the bridge. “Yeah - it would be to me!”

“Well, not to me!” Hercules replied fervently. “Look, Iolaus, you can only take responsibility for yourself, and you did all you could. More than anyone else I know. It was an impossible situation. I couldn’t have made it out on that bridge - and you knew that. And even for you it was treacherous. She nearly pulled you in, too.”

Hercules watched his friend’s face, but saw only stubborn self-blame. He stepped closer, and spoke more quietly, but with a bedrock certainty.

“You weren’t responsible for her being in that place at that time, Iolaus. You weren’t responsible for her choosing to try to cross that hazard of a bridge, either. And you tried with every fiber of you being to help her, and it was working - until she panicked. You did all you could to save her.”

“But I didn’t, don’t you see? I dropped her!” Iolaus cried, pacing away and back. “Damn it, Herc -- I felt her hand slip from mine! I saw her face as she fell! And if I hadn’t been sore, stiff, and aching from the battle yesterday, I could have held her, I -“

A thread of panic fueled Hercules’ anger now. He caught Iolaus’ arm and turned him around abruptly. “Stop it, Iolaus - you don’t know that!”

“Maybe, but neither do you!” Iolaus snapped back, jerking his arm out of the demigod’s grip. He paced away again, agitatedly striking his palm with his fist.

Hercules took a breath and did his best to push his anger aside. He searched his mind for some other argument, frustrated in the face of Iolaus’ uncharacteristic hopelessness. But Iolaus spoke first.

The blond warrior stopped suddenly as if stunned by an abrupt realization. He whispered, “That’s it. I just can’t let what happened happen again.”

Hercules, dumbstruck at the speed of events, numbly watched his best friend and shield brother sit down heavily on a nearby bench in the quiet square.

“What does that mean?” he finally asked, hollowly.

Iolaus shook his head, not looking up. “It’s over. I quit!”

Hercules stalked closer. “Quit? What do you mean, quit?”

“Just what I said, Herc,” Iolaus replied, with a quiet resignation. “You can do this job by yourself. You’re Hercules --” Iolaus glanced up with a bitter smile, but looked down again quickly. “And you don’t seem to have lost a step or a minute since you were sixteen, except to get better and stronger.”

He sighed, but continued in a whisper, “Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have dropped her.”

Hercules shook his head in disbelief. “Ten years ago she would have pulled you in with her in the first two minutes!” he burst out. “You were twenty pounds lighter, and all twenty pounds is muscle you’ve put on since then!”

It was Hercules’ turn to pace now. “Think about it, Iolaus. Ten years ago you hadn’t been East and studied with Yu Lin. Ten years ago you had just started to work in the forge. Your strength and abilities have only improved.”

Iolaus shook his head. “Ten years ago my muscles were young and resilient, Herc. I could run all day, party all night, and fight the next day, and never feel it!”

“Maybe so, but you still don’t know if any of that would have made the difference. You might have been younger and more resilient, but you were also hotheaded and inexperienced - we both were! Ten years ago Lexus and his wife would probably have fallen and taken us both with them.”

Hercules turned and looked at Iolaus, hopeful that his words had made a difference, but Iolaus continued to shake his head.

“I just can’t do this anymore, Herc,” he said, hoarsely.

The son of Zeus strode to his friend’s side and knelt in front of him. “Iolaus - you’ve got to think of all the good you’ve done. Think of what all these people have told you. It’s not easy, but you’ll get past this.”

The smaller man frowned, but his face remained closed and set. Hercules reached up and caught Iolaus’ arm and shook it briefly. “You’re my friend and you’re my brother. You know what that means!”

Iolaus sighed. “Yeah,” he whispered, and his eyes closed briefly. “That doesn’t have to change. But if you need a partner - ”

His azure eyes opened and met Hercules’ troubled gaze “- better get someone else.”

Hercules shook his head. “You say that like a partner is someone interchangeable, like the wheel on a cart.” He replied with a quiet fierceness. “It doesn’t work that way, Iolaus - you should know that.”

Iolaus looked away suddenly. He did not or could not reply, but Hercules could tell by the tension in his body that he was still not convinced.

Hercules took a deep breath and summoned all his calm, reason, and logic. “Look, buddy, maybe you just need some time.”

Iolaus shrugged. “I don’t know if … I don’t know how to get past this, Herc.”

“Well, look, King Trancas is expecting us tomorrow in Mysia. We’ll take our time on the way and talk it out.”

Iolaus shook his head. “There’s nothing to talk about.”

“Yes, there is,” Hercules replied with deliberate calm. “Give it time and we’ll --”

Iolaus pushed Hercules aside, standing and striding away several steps. “Herc - I meant what I said! I feel like I’ve got to get away. I need a fresh start or a new life or something. Like you said I need time - but it’s time away by myself that I need. Time and space to sort this out.”

Hercules knelt where he was for long moments. Fear, anger, empathy, and hurt rushed through him in a tangled stream, but somehow he knew it was worse for Iolaus right now. After a moment, he found a thread of strength past his fear and stood to face his best friend.

And my partner - whatever else he says, his stubborn thoughts added.

“Okay,” he said, quietly. “If that’s what you want. I’ll go on to see Trancas alone, and see what he needs. When I finish there, I’ll be back.”

Iolaus regarded his friend searchingly, heartsick to let him down and break their partnership, but unable to see any way that he could continue in the same way.

“Herc - I don’t know - I …I don’t know where I’ll be.”

“That’s all right, Iolaus,” Hercules replied, and held out his arm. As Iolaus slowly clasped it, Hercules caught his friend’s arm with his other hand as well.

As though stating a vow, Hercules met Iolaus’ gaze and spoke fiercely.

“I’ll find you.”

Their eyes held for a long moment, and finally Iolaus nodded. Without another word, he tore his grip from his friend’s, and then turned and walked away in a swirl of dust, and disappeared into the crowded agora.

Hercules stood and stared after Iolaus for long moments, unable to quell the heartsick worry that filled him.

Chapter 2

Memories still burning - will they ever let me go?
Still raging on, so long, so strong.
Leaving me yearning for the day, I’ll never ask-
How long will it be till this heartache is gone?
--Pamela Rose, “I’ll Get Over You”

Later in the evening, on the road to Mysia …

Hercules sat on a log staring into his solitary fire. As he listened to the wood crackle and watched sparks soar upward, he pondered everything that had happened that day, and wondered how it all had gone so wrong so fast. He was also trying his best not to worry about Iolaus, but not succeeding very well.

Suddenly, next to the fire, a shower of golden spangles and chiming coins glittered in a sparkling rain just past the fire, and one coin bounced off one of the stones to fall at his feet, Puzzled, Hercules glanced around and picked up the coin. Seeing the sunface depicted on the coin, he rolled his eyes.

“Fortune!” he uttered, irritably and dropped his head in one hand. “I’m not ready for this.”

The shower coalesced into the figure of the short, slightly dumpy goddess. Hercules peeped up over his sheltering hand, and sighed in resignation.

Fortune bustled toward him in agitation. “Oh, Hercules, I feel terrible! What should I say? I’m sorry?” Before Hercules could reply, she threw up her hand and turned to pace, answering her own question. “For starters! Ah - I don’t know - it doesn’t seem like enough!”

She turned back to Hercules sweeping her hands out as though measuring her remorse. “I’m at a loss for words!”

Hercules waited a beat, then smiled sardonically. “That would be a first!”

The sarcasm passed over the goddess’ head. “No - you see - it’s my fault!” she declaimed. “That woman dying … Iolaus blaming himself … breaking up your partnership --”

Hercules’ smile vanished. He sat up with a suddenly fierce attention. “Wait - wait! You’re responsible for what happened?”

Fortune paced to and fro even more quickly, gesturing in agitation. “Y-y-y-yes and n-n-no - well, in a way -- uh, I don’t know -” she stopped and turned to Hercules pleadingly. “What do you think? Did I screw up?”

Hercules raised his hand and started to speak, but Fortune turned away with a wave of one be-ringed hand, talking again. “Maybe I don’t want to know!”

She turned back to look imploringly at Hercules. “Do I?”

Hercules was totally bewildered, but also beginning to get impatient and not a little bit of concern rising in his gut. He put his hand up toward her, palm out to forestall any further outbursts.

“I have absolutely no idea of what you’re talking about!” he declared. “Look - why don’t you start at the beginning … and Fortune?” She looked up inquiringly. “Make it short!” he ordered.

“I can do that!” she replied, waving her arms as though erasing her words to begin again. “What’s to tell?”

Hercules shook his head in frustrated consternation, but Fortune found her train of thought. “Oh, okay. That Lexus - he lost the toss. He was pretty sore - like I was picking on him.”

Her fists went to her hips as she frowned. “What else is new?” Fortune huffed defensively. “I was doing my job. I can’t make deals. I got rules! Break the rules and I might end up as goddess of - of - ah --” her hands revolved like windmills “ -- dirt or something.”

Hercules waved a hand to catch her attention. “Okay, okay, I’ve got it … I think … so far. Could you …?”

“What - get to the point?”

“Yeah.”

“I can do that.” Fortune paced in front of Hercules, on a roll now. She continued dramatically, with many illustrative gestures.

“Lexus loses his money … they decide to go live with his brother in Nemea … they wind up on the bridge … Okaleia dies … Iolaus feels responsible when he’s not … and I have to make it right. Question is …” she paused, hands on hips and asked reflectively, “ … what to do?”

Hercules jumped in immediately and abruptly. “The answer is - nothing! You - do nothing!”

Fortune turned to look at Hercules, stung and peevish. “You think I’m gonna screw it up! That’s it, isn’t it? You don’t think I can do it!”

Hercules regarded her silently with a slight, pointed smile and his arms folded, as if to point out her amazing grasp of the obvious.

Fortune went on lamely, put out but befuddled. “Whatever it is.”

Hercules leaned forward and stated emphatically, “Fortune. Leave. It. Alone. Iolaus will be fine.”

“Okay!” Fortune threw her hands up, totally offended. “G-r-reat! I know when my input’s not needed!”

And she walked off to disappear in a shower of sparks.

Hercules looked around anxiously, and sighed. “I hope I can count on that!” he said prayerfully.

At that same moment, on the road to Nemea …

Iolaus sat on a stone, also beside a lonely fire. He missed Hercules dreadfully, but knew he had done the only thing he could do. The events of the afternoon continued to scroll through his mind, over and over, and all he could see was his vision of failure. Tears jeweled his sapphire eyes unheeded, as all he could see was the face of Okaleia as she fell.

Suddenly, a disembodied voice spoke nearby. “You should listen to Hercules!”

Iolaus looked up, and stared around the circle lit by the fire’s glow. “Who’s there?”

The glittering shower of sparkling, chiming coins flowed suddenly by the fire. It would have been an impressive entrance, but Fortune had materialized with her back to Iolaus. And worse, she didn’t realize it until she had begun her speech. “I’m Fortu - ”

“Who are you?” Iolaus asked, bewildered.

She whirled to face him, face reddening, and began again. “I’m Fortune, goddess of luck,” she replied grandly, but as she noticed his downcast face and tear-smeared eyes, Fortune forsook her high tone, and trotted over to lay a gentle hand on Iolaus’ shoulder.

“You know, Iolaus,” she said, quietly, “Hercules believes your friendship can see you through this doubt.”

Iolaus voice broke. “I love Hercules,” he choked out. “He’s like a brother to me.”

The blond hunter wasn’t sure why he could tell this busy little goddess something he had never quite been able to articulate to Hercules himself.

“I’d do anything for him.” Iolaus looked away, and his voice caught. Fiercely, he spoke on, hoarsely, heedlessly. “But now - I wish I’d never met him!”

Fortune’s face fell, watching this handsome young mortal’s suffering.

“If I hadn’t met him, I wouldn’t’ve been at that bridge. He’d have saved that woman, and she’d be alive now!”

Fortune felt her own heart break. “Oh, my dear!” she sighed, wondering how she could make her mistake right with this mortal.

Suddenly her face brightened. “Okay - okay - this is not exactly my department, but go with me on this. What I’ll do is … I’ll blank out your memory of what happened - just to set your mind at ease.”

Iolaus looked at her with an arrested stare, hope just beginning to kindle in his tear-bright eyes. “You can do that?”

Fortune startled at the question. “What - you don’t think I can?” She paced away, wringing her hands. Iolaus watched her in puzzled shock, wondering if he was awake or dreaming,

“What if I can’t?” she pondered aloud. “But - I am in charge of winning and losing, you know. You want to lose this memory,” she brightened, “I can do that.”

The next second her forehead wrinkled anxiously. “I think.”

Iolaus, sick at heart and made careless by suffering, heard the first part of the statement, and not the last. He sat up, wiped his face on his gauntlets, and replied, hopefully, “Okay. Yes, please!”

When Fortune saw him looking at her with such expectation and desperate eagerness, she pushed aside her doubts. “Yeah? So - you ready?”

Iolaus nodded quickly, and Fortune took out one of her special dinar. She flipped it quickly with a snap of her thumb, expertly caught it and slapped it onto her wrist. All at once, Iolaus recoiled. He felt as though some vital part of him had been abruptly sucked away. He felt lighter and looser, but somehow empty deep inside.

Fortune bent over the hunter as he shook his blond mane, and studied him anxiously. “Okay, now … remember earlier today? You were helping a couple at a bridge, you and Hercules?”

Iolaus listened with a perplexed glance, and Fortune’s hopes soared. Those hopes were dashed with his very next words.

“Wait - who’s Hercules?”

Fortune gasped, but the worst was yet to come. Iolaus turned those confused blue eyes on her, a few tears still jewelling his long thick lashes.

He asked in bewilderment, “For that matter - who are you?”

Fortune was aghast. If Hercules discovered this additional screw-up and complained to his father, Zeus, she might very well end up as the goddess whose name was Mud.

She caught her breath, terrified. “Someone who’s in big trouble! Uh - guess you got your wish! It’s as if you never met Hercules!”

She vanished abruptly in a spray of sparkles. Iolaus was left looking around, now totally mystified as to where he was and how he had gotten there. So much that was vital of his past life had suddenly just drained away, and it left him, rootless, anchorless, and floating on the winds of chance …

The next morning, in Nemea …

…And then, I walk out of the golden morning haze of the countryside into the most squalid side of Nemea. I don’t seem to remember any better this morning where I had been lately or what I had been doing, but somehow, I don’t seem to care much either. It’s kinda like everything that might have ever meant a lot to me has just been … scooped away.

Or maybe it’s just been hidden somewhere. I do remember I’ve always pretty good at hiding the deepest and most important feelings behind a cocky grin, a jest, and a song.

But anyway, it’s a bright morning, even here, the sun is shining, and the day is full of possibility. All I know is now and I’m ready for it.

I can even easily put up with the woman almost hitting me as she throws her slops out, and the drunk that tries to beg a dinar I don’t even have. Nothing seems to bother me this morning, and that’s a cool kind of freedom.

“So, this is Nemea,” I observe wryly, studying the cramped and dirty street. I only know the name because some farmer on the outskirts told me.

I’m not too impressed, but it does seem like anything goes here …

…especially when the dinar lands at my feet. A young woman who looks like she may be too street wise for her years comes out of the shadow, her eyes spearing mine as she smiles. She bends down to pick up the coin with one shapely leg extended, much of its impossible length showing in the tantalizing slit of her skirt.

She comes up with the coin slowly, giving me plenty of time to look. I grin, knowing what she’s offering, and she knows I know. She seems to like what she sees and watches me with her own sultry smile as she puts the coin to her lips suggestively.

“Hi,” I say, but she hears and sees everything else I’m saying.

“Hi, yourself, stranger,” she replies in a husky warm alto. “Welcome to Nemea.” She drops the coin into her cleavage, and I watch it fall, like she wants me to. I look up and meet her eyes, and laugh.

I don’t know where I’ve been, or what’s been happening lately, but somehow this feels free and easy and right here, and I think it’s been a while since I felt like this, and I laugh again because it’s good.

Her voice seems to drop a few pitches as she sways closer. “Why don’t you step into my office?”

I glance into the dark alley that she’d exited. I feel my smile grow with expectation. I step right up against her and catch her waist, letting her feel my strength. I’m not surprised and she doesn’t seem to care that she’s several inches taller, especially with her heeled sandals.

My gaze goes from her green eyes and cascading dark red curls to her painted, pouting lips. “Don’t ya wanna see the color of my money?” I ask her in my own laughing, deepened tone.

Now her gaze rakes downward from my eyes, to my mouth, and her hands stroke the muscles of my shoulders and arms. As she looks back up, she replies in a voice rich with appreciation and anticipation, “Honey, for you, I’ll run a tab!”

We laugh together, and I let her pull me through the alley invitingly. We emerge from the dimness into a deserted courtyard. I glance around reflexively and see the four guys waiting for me with clubs and knives.

I push her away, but spare her one quick disappointed glance. My instincts had been up as soon as we went in that alley, but I’d hoped for better, and she knows it.

“Sorry, honey,” she says, and she glances around at the men with the first trace of fear I’ve seen in her. Looks like she’s at least regretting having to make this bargain.

I shrug and turn all my attention back to my ambushers, trying to scope them out just like they’re doing me. All in all they’re cocky and over-confident. Probably done this a bunch of times - but they’ve never met me before.

I’m up on my toes, beginning to dance a bit, keeping a roving eye on each bruiser. I don’t question this absolute physical certainty in my gut that I can take these guys, cause I’ve fought the best. I do remember Yu Lin and my days in the monastery in Chin. Something else seems just out of reach, but now I close the door on thinking cause it hasn’t helped me figure out why I’m here, and now’s not the time.

All I know is that calm certainty fills me and frees me. Time slows, and I flow like water.

I feel as much as see over my right shoulder as the big guy with a club abruptly begins a rush towards me, club held high. I hold till he’s just there and then I drop right in front of him.

I feel the wind of his club as it misses my head by a foot, and then he stumbles over me unable to stop and he tumbles head over ass and lands hard on an old, empty barrel. It splinters with a crack like thunder and the big dumbass groans.

I’m already whirling to face the next attack. One of the knife men wearing a dark headband streaks toward me, shouting, with his dirk ready to strike. Chi, deep-seated and powerful, wells up from my dan tien and I breathe just so, and exhale. I channel my energy to absorb and reflect his as my arm soars upward to block his blow.

The force of it stuns the guy. He stumbles. I grab his arm, and use his own momentum as I spin and throw him over my shoulder. The knife man flies into a table, strikes it with his back and his breath whooshes out like a bellows. He drops to the floor like a stone, out.

That move did not come from Chin. The calm observer in me notes it, but moves on without concern. I also am vaguely aware of the redhead watching with awe and real respect, but there’s no time for her now.

I whirl as the next attacker flies at me with a staff. As he swings it and brings it down, I spring into the air in a scissor kick that soars easily above the staff and connects with a satisfactory crunch with the man’s jaw. As I land and turn, I hear him scream with pain and then strike the stone wall behind him with a force that breaks the other jaw hinge.

I don’t think he’ll be coming back for more.

The fourth robber has a wicked long Illyrian dagger, and he’s waving it like someone with just enough training to be dangerous to himself. I catch his descending dagger arm with one hand and his flailing left arm with the other.

I jerk him forward as I bend my neck, and headbutt him smash in the delicate bridge of his nose, and feel it splinter. He screams and staggers back with the exquisite jolt of pain firing directly into his brain. I keep hold of one arm, pull him towards me, and thrust kick him in the belly.

That move wasn’t from Chin either. My body seems to know it well, but isn’t telling.

Dagger-dude falls to his hands and knees on the paving stones. Blood gushes from his shattered nose, and breath from his gulping mouth, and I kick him again in the side. He collapses completely this time.

Clubman and Knifeboy-with-headband finally buy a clue that I’m no easy mark and both try to attack together. I leap above their clumsy grabs and do a handspring off their shoulders onto an old heavy table that sits by one wall.

I land, whirling to face them. Their togetherness strategy is short-lived as Clubman growls and charges, jumping to catch me at the knees and knock me off the table. I leap fluidly as he soars under me, scouring his belly and other parts on the rough table.

As I land, I watch him strike the wall on the other side with the blinding force of his own leap. Consciousness flees and his limp body slithers down into the gap between wall and table as a basket of rotten fruit falls on him.

But I’m already swiveling to face Knifeboy - the last man of them standing, He staggers forward, thrusting at my legs with his blade, but I dance away into a spin. His thrust misses and I kick out as I spin, striking him in the face.

He flies backward, screaming, arms akimbo, and lands with a crash on the hard paving stones. The scream abruptly cuts off, and he’s out.

I survey my victorious field of battle from my high perch briefly. Then I leap from the table to land lightly. I bend in one swift movement to catch up the fallen dagger and then use it to cut the purse strings holding the former Dagger-dude’s money pouch on his belt. It’s fat and substantial with the ill-gotten gains of this crew, and I have no remorse in taking it as my spoil.

That sixth sense of mine sounds off and I turn to see the redhead trying to slip behind me into the dark alley that’s the only exit from this once-perfect ambush. I turn and pin her with a look from narrowed eyes. She sees I’m between her and the way out.

“Hey - where ya going?” I ask her.

She smiles then laughs, but it’s breathless and fearful, and some part of me wonders what she’s gone through to be in this spot.

“They - they made me do it, I swear!”

I laugh and shake my head, and she knows I know it’s not true, but I don’t care. We survive however we can when we grow up on the streets.

“C’mon - no hard feelings!” I cajole her, and gesture at the unconscious robber closest to her. “Make yourself useful!”

She laughs with breathless relief, and bends to relieve the thief of his belt pouch. We check the other two, and lighten their loads, yielding me another dagger that’s a good match to the Illyrian blade. Then she steps over an unconscious man and meets me at the alley.

I pull her close with a feral grin. She responds with a gasp of delight that is not practiced and artificial.

“You wanna get outta here?” I growl, but still grinning, jacked from the adrenaline of successful combat.

The redhead smiles, but her eyes smolder with fey excitement, and she nods vigorously. We run from the courtyard like children, and I feel as careless and thoughtless as I never really could as a child.

And it feels fine … for right now.

Outside of the palace in Mysia …

Hercules walked in the palace courtyard beside King Trancas of Mysia, the torchlight throwing dancing shadows around them. He was getting a crash course in the politics of this peninsula, and it was complicated. He was learning that the balance of power between the city-states of the region was precarious, and that the king needed his help to maintain it in a secret mission.

“Trancas,” Hercules asked, “Why don’t you send an armed escort with this shipment of aid to Nemea?”

“Because we can’t risk the secrecy of the mission, and an armed escort would announce it to all the countryside. Besides, you and Iolaus are better than a battalion of regular troops.” Trancas looked around suddenly. “By the way - where is Iolaus?”

“Uh,” Hercules stammered, glancing away, “Iolaus was … tied up. A - a personal matter.”

Trancas frowned in concern. “Is he okay?”

Hercules smiled briefly, pushing away his own stab of anxiety. “Ah - yeah, yeah. He’ll be fine.” I hope! “Tell me something - sending this money to the people of Nemea is a good thing. So why all the secrecy?”

Trancas sighed. “The government of Nemea is on the verge of collapse. I have other allies - other kings who would like to see that happen. It would be an easy conquest for them, but the whole region could be destabilized, and the resulting warfare could hurt my kingdom. I don’t want that, but I also want to keep these other kings as allies instead of enemies. So - we can’t let them know that Mysia is sending this aid. But this money may be the last hope the Nemeans have to save their independence.”

As they had been talking, Trancas had led Hercules toward the wagon that was being loaded with caskets of gold coins. The driver, a small, wiry man, was strapping the heavy chests into the back to the wagon with quick, expert motions. As he jumped down from the back of the wagon, Trancas waved a hand toward him in introduction.

“This is Spiro.” As Hercules repeated his name and shared a warrior’s armclasp, Trancas went on. “Spiro is the head teamster for my army. He’s the best there is.”

The three men walked on to the front of the wagon as the king continued. “Spiro, any problems on the road to Nemea, you talk to Hercules.”

Spiro nodded good-naturedly, his fists on his hips. “He’s the boss, sir,” the teamster replied, waving at Hercules with a grin, “till you say different.”

Hercules and Trancas clasped arms in farewell. “Good luck, Hercules!” Trancas said, fervently.

Hercules nodded, then climbed on board the seat of the tall cart. After Spiro climbed up, he leaned forward and told the king, “We’ll be fine, Trancas.”

And the cart rumbled off into the moonlit evening.

Back in Nemea at that moment …

It’s good to be with someone, holding, kissing, warm together skin-to-skin. These movements are familiar and practiced, but I know this familiarity never breeds contempt. Being lost in this moment only feels exciting, satisfying, right. I’m lost in her and the emptiness fades.

When we first got to her place, I learned her name is Lydia, and told her my name, but that was all the talking we wanted to do. Right now, the brandy-toned glow from the fire and candles in her room colors her skin a rich ivory. All that she wears now is a thin, gauzy gown that leaves little to the imagination, and she’s beautiful and willing and here.

We’re both sweaty and out of breath, basking in a glow that isn’t from the flames. She rolls me over with a little growl and ends up astride me. She seems to enjoy looking at me, and letting me look at her. My hands sweep up her smooth thighs and onto her hips, ready to again urge more than looking.

But then she leans down and caresses my face, studying me with a sort of wondering gaze.

“You’re not like any man I’ve ever known,” she breathes into my ear, then pulls back and studies me again. “Where did you come from?”

Suddenly, realization slams back into me, and that emptiness yawns in the center of my chest. My breath catches as I face it. “I don’t know.”

And then I have to get up, get some clarity. I push her away gently enough and sit up, swinging my bare legs over the side of the narrow bed away from her. I gather the thin coverlet around my hips as my thoughts whirl.

“That’s the truth - I don’t know,” I say, hoarsely, because the emptiness rises in my throat and chokes me. I reach out and grab the wine flask on the table and flood my parched throat so I can go on.

“I remember isolated pieces of a lot of things I’ve done. I remember bits and pieces of living on the street … learning to be a warrior … working in a forge … running with bandits … fighting bandits and monsters … traveling around a lot.” I shake my head as I chase the pieces in my mind.

“But it’s like … like all my memories were woven in some kind of tapestry and somebody ripped it into pieces, and pulled out the thread that bound them all together and made everything make sense. Now it’s all … jumbled.”

Lydia leans in behind me, pressing her body against my bare back. She ruffles my hair and wraps her arms around my neck. “Well, wherever you’ve been, whatever you’ve done,” she whispers, nuzzling my neck and ear, “you’ve sure found out what a girl likes.”

I pull away and stand, taking a moment to wrap the flimsy cloth around my hips. I don’t know if I want her again or not, don’t know if it’s fair to her, because she doesn’t seem to be able to make that hollow empty feeling go away.

I turn and paste a teasing smile on my face. “When are you gonna show you around the place - entertain me?”

Lydia rises to her knees on the bed, so that we’re eye level, and drops that filmy gown. Her eyes are sultry and inviting as she pulls me closer. “I thought I was entertaining you, honey, but obviously we need another act. Showing you around can wait.”

I laugh and surrender, letting her pull me down, because at least she make me forget that hollow emptiness for a little while …

Somewhere on the road to Nemea from Mysia …

It was still in the dark of very early morning that Hercules and Spiro pulled out of Mysia. Despite the brilliant moonlight and the easy trackway, Spiro needed to concentrate driving the team in the silvered darkness, so little was said.

Hercules was glad, because he needed the peace to reflect on the situation with Iolaus. He tried to think of anything else he could have said to sway his friend’s thinking and lessen his guilt, but nothing came to mind.

He wondered briefly why this loss seemed to affect Iolaus so deeply. In all their years of helping people, Hercules knew that he and Iolaus had been successful, mostly. But there had been battles and rescues that had not gone well before. It hadn’t been easy, those times, but they had stuck with it and had gotten through it. Why was this time so different for Iolaus?

As Hercules pondered this question, something Iolaus had said rose in his memory: I dropped her … I felt her hand slip from mine … I saw her face as she fell …

It had been so immediate and personal for Iolaus, the blow of watching the woman fall such a profound trauma - perhaps it was more than anything Iolaus had experienced before. Staring someone in the face as death took her was a shock that left no one unchanged, especially if you were the one trying to save her from that fate.

And Iolaus had already felt - however unjustly - that he had not done his best in the battle the day before. He had been blaming himself for supposedly almost allowing his best friend to be injured.

Hercules shook his head, and sighed. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Spiro give him a curious glance, but the smaller man clucked to his team and said nothing.

He remembered long ago that Iolaus had once told him, “Sometimes it’s hard to be your friend.” And he was right, then and now. In any company, Iolaus was a brilliant warrior, stronger, faster, fleeter of foot, and smarter than other mortals. But he had the unfortunate fate of always being compared with his best friend, the demigod. He did so himself, punishingly.

Hercules thoughts revolved with bitter irony. People call me the strongest man in the world, but who is it really? The one with the physical strength, or the one who keeps him whole and sane? Doesn’t Iolaus know that?

The moon smiled down at him, but was silent in the face of his plea.

Chapter 3

Wake me up inside
Wake me up inside
Call my name and save me from the dark.
Bid my blood to run
Before I come undone
Save me from this nothing I’ve become.
Bring me to life.
-- Evanescence, “Bring Me to Life”

In Nemea, at the sign of Zeno’s tavern …

Now, this place has a familiar feel to it.

My disjointed memories bring me scattered images of many taverns like this one, many nights of toasts, jests, and songs. In the lamplight, laughter, and clinking of coins there’s an everyday comfort that fills the emptiness - a little.

And, of course, women are generally a part of those memories, just like Lydia, sitting here on the arm of my chair. Besides being beautiful and -- shall I say, multitalented? - she’s also a quick study. I gave her a quick overview of how I needed her help in this card game, and she’s exceeding expectations.

Just like now. She leans over me, reaching across the table for the wine jug. It’s a slow, sensuous movement that lets most of the marks here get a good glimpse of her … ah … assets, but not so obvious as to cause suspicion.

“Excuse me,” she says, politely, but that voice is like warm honey to these guys.

While she has ’em drooling, I deftly palm two of my cards as I pretend to scratch my chest and exchange them for two much better ones in my vest lining. By the time she sits back out of my way, I’ve got one hand on the cards and one on the table, easily visible.

The guy across from me has been getting more and more frustrated with me winning most of the hands. The blood returns to his brain after Lydia’s little show and he shakes his head. Now he’s jubilant as he calls the hand with the chink of his last dinars.

He shouts, “Ha!” and slams down his hand, laughing at the groans from the other players. Now he sees that I’m the only competition left, and if he’s capable of counting above three, he probably figures he’s got me beat.

Which of course he did. At first. Thank you, Lord Hermes.

But I wait for his little victory dance to draw out the fun. And now he’s starting to rake in the mound of dinars, grinning at me.

“Your luck’s over - this is mine!” he gloats.

I lean forward, matching his grin. “Ah - ah - ah! Not so fast, friend.”

I present my hand with a flourish, and eyes widen around the table. The poor sap across from me can’t believe it, and it dimly begins to dawn that he’s been tricked.

“Hey - wait a minute! No one wins this much without -”

Before he can finish, I’ve whipped my new daggers out in a blur of motion and stabbed down with quick reflex and instinct. He tries to shrink back, but it’s only then that he realizes I haven’t cut him, but I’ve pinned his tunic sleeves to the table before he could think about moving.

I check the other players out of the corner of my eyes, and they’re sliding back away from us, unwilling to press the issue. Both men rise slowly and slink into the crowd, leaving the mark and me alone.

He’s still frowning, but I think he … ah … got the point. He tries to move his arms a bit, and finds both blades came down close enough to his arms to make it impossible, but not close enough to cut him.

He looks back up at me and I see the fear beginning to thread through his eyes. I rise and lean toward him, still grinning.

“What do they call you?” I ask.

He regards me with wary bewilderment, as though it’s a trick question. I backhand him across the face, just hard enough to get his attention.

“What. Do. They. Call. You?” I ask again patiently.

“Uh … Dingus,” he stutters.

I can’t help but laugh at how the name fits. “Dingus, huh?” I say, still laughing. “Well, Dingus, you almost deserve that.”

“But you know I think you’re named wrong.” I slap him again and each time I repeat, “Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.”

Dingus is smarting and cowering a bit now, and I feel the vide of the room alter ever so slightly as I do my badass act to show all of them why they don’t wanna mess with me.

I reach out and grab the front of Dingus’ tunic and jerk him closer. “They should be calling you” and here I drive my finger into his forehead, “ ‘Loser’” Stab. “‘Loser’.” Stab. “’Loser’.”

I draw out the last word and screw my finger into his forehead painfully. Then I pull my hand back as though I’m going to strike him again, and he cringes. I laugh and pat his stubbly face gently.

Then I stand up, still laughing and pull the daggers out of the table, releasing poor Dingus’ hands. But I keep eye contact with him and hold the daggers balanced point-down on the table.

“We had a good game, didn’t we, Dingus?” I ask.

Dingus answers like a whipped dog, “Yeah, yeah. Yeah, we did.”

I glance around with a grin and the vibe in the room eases. “Mead for everybody - on me!”

As the motley crowd cheers, I sit and rake my winnings in. Poor Dingus is still sitting regarding me with just the beginning of wary relief, so I let him know for sure that he’s off the hook. I toss a five-dinar piece to him to bolster his meager winnings. He grabs the coins up and with another wary look at me slinks off into the throng.

Poor schmuck. Cheating or not, I’d have beat him. I just didn’t want him thinking that because he’s a bit bigger than me he could hang around outside in some dark alley and come after me for the rest of the money. He was a handy example for any interested onlookers.

Lydia helps rake the gold and silver into my money pouch. I can tell she’s impressed as hell. My scrambled memories remind me that as a smaller guy on the streets I’ve had to find lots of ways to look bigger and meaner.

Some of ’em I feel better about than others.

But the big fish in this pond maybe see now that I dangerous enough not to mess with, and the little fish like me because I’m generous. Not a bad night’s work.

I grab Lydia and she melts into me as I kiss her. I just wish I knew if it’s because she might care a little, or if she’s just impressed by a powerful protector.

Abruptly I hear the people nearest us quiet, and a bit of a chill seems to surround us. As I let go of Lydia and she looks up, I see someone drive a stiletto into the battered tabletop.

I follow the hand on the dagger up to the man holding it. He’s a tall, skinny guy in black who looks like a vulture, with a bird neck, a beak of a nose, and greasy black hair. The neck notwithstanding, he does give off a bit of a menacing vibe, or at least the customers seem to think so.

I lift my eyebrows at him without getting up, but the hand he can’t see goes to the hilt of one of the daggers in my belt.

Vulture-face snarls a bit, but it appears he’s just a message boy. “My boss wants to see you.”

“Your boss, huh? And who’s that?”

He sneers. “ I’d watch my mouth if I were you, Blondie. My boss is the owner of this place and a lot more of Nemea. He’s Zeno.”

Lydia stiffens in my arms and jumps up, looking ready to bolt. I stand and catch her arm. “What’s the matter?” I ask, startled.

Her eyes cut to the vulture guy, and then back to me. “This guy - he’s Thanatos,” she breathes, her eyes wide and her face pale.

I glance at the black leather-clad form, and then turn back to her. “I admit he’s got this whole dark vibe going, but he’s not nearly scary enough to be Death.”

She’s pulling at my arm and hisses back, “No, not that Thanatos.”

She manages to pull away a bit. I catch her with my other arm around her waist. “Hey, babe, what’s with you?.”

The redhead looks at me like I’m crazy. “He works for Zeno. I want no part!”

She’s pushing at me with all her might, and my smile fades. Not because she’s afraid, but because I thought she might think I was worth going out on a limb for.

“Come on, Lydia - I thought we had a good thing starting here,” I cajole her, pulling her close to remind her of our afternoon together. “Partners, maybe?”

She shakes her head and pushes hard enough. I let her go, feeling that emptiness inside grow bigger and colder.

She must see something of it in my eyes, because I almost catch a glimpse of sadness in her eyes. It’s quickly chased away by resignation, and then a brittle laughter.

“Sorry, honey,” she says, softly. “You’re real pretty and … different, but I believe in cuttin’ my losses, ya know? ’Bye, Iolaus.”

She turns to walk away, but I grab her arm. “Ah - ah - ah!” I caution, and reach down to pull loose the strings of the money pouch - my hard-won money pouch that seems unaccountably to have attached itself to her belt.

Clever girl, our Lydia. Almost clever enough.

I open it and toss a generous handful of coins on the table for her. Her face flames, but she bends and scoops them up. Then she turns and flounces off without a backward look.

I take a moment to secure the heavy pouch to my belt. I guess I knew she wasn’t what I seemed to be missing so badly - whatever it was that filled that deep, hollow place inside.

But that little ache near my heart tells me I was hoping she might.

Hell - spilt milk - water under the bridge. I look up at Thanatos and say with a shrug, “Lead the way, chief.”

The Birdman leads me back toward a darker corner of the large, well furnished room. There’s a crackling fire and rich hangings behind a richly carved table that seems to serve as a desk. The guy knows a bit about intimidation too, because it’s not till I get a lot closer that I can see his face, while I’ve been in the firelight all the way.

“Welcome to my place,” he says with a rusty, polite voice. He waves at a chair in front the desk, and at the plates of delicacies that are laid out there. “Sit. Eat.”

Okay - in for a penny, in for ten dinars. I sit and grab a handful of big olives and fresh, crusty bread. I sit back in the chair and put my feet up on a stool conveniently located. I start to eat and observe the big boss.

He’s a good-sized guy, not as big as some I’ve known (have I?). His iron-grey hair is pulled back into a small tail. He has keen, deep-set dark eyes and aquiline features. His expensive brocade tunic covers broad shoulders, but his middle shows he lives better now than when he built those shoulder muscles.

He smiles slightly at my scrutiny, but doesn’t seem bothered by it. He must have been watching me a while because he goes straight to the punch without any footwork.

“I’m Zeno, as you may have been told,” he tells me, baldly, without any bluster. I can sense that he doesn’t need or care to boast. “I think I have a place for you in my business.”

I take a moment to consider as I reach out and snag a bronze goblet and the ewer of wine. I’m being as cheeky as possible to feel him out. As I pour, I ask, nonchalantly, “What kind of business?”

Zeno smiles a bit wider and gives a tiny approving nod. “Oh, a little of this, a little of that. I thought you might fit in well in my … security operation.”

I sip the wine and thrill to its rich bite. Nothing mediocre for Zeno.

“Security, huh?” I repeat, gazing questioningly over the rim of the cup at Zeno.

He nods. “I provide … protection to various shopkeepers in Nemea … for a certain percentage of their profits.”

I nod - a protection racket like I thought. I’d seen that go on in … in … well, somewhere.

Zeno went on. “You’ll go out with Thanatos tomorrow and … call on a client.”

I grin at the guarded approval I sense in the older guy’s dark eyes. Ol’ Buzzard-beak Thanatos doesn’t seem to be too happy, but that doesn’t worry me. I lean back and stretch my legs out, one over the other on the cushioned stool. Sipping the wine, I hold it up in a little toast and nod my agreement.

“Nice place you got here, Zeno,” I say, and bite into the warm bread.

He just smiles as I chew. I don’t know if it’s the bread or the sense of kinship I see in his eyes, but I feel that dark emptiness go down, just a little.

And that feels pretty good.

Along the coast road to Nemea …

Aurora had brought the dawn in brilliantly fair with her rose-tinted wings. Spiro and Hercules were now driving on a high spur paralleling the coastline, and the view was magnificent. Brilliantly azure skies met the equally blue waters of the Aegean in the distance. High light clouds still glowed pink as the sun cleared the horizon over the sea. A cool breeze fresh with the tang of salt water brushed back the long hair of both travelers. The early golden-green of the trees and grasses was dotted here and there with blossoms of ivory, gold and scarlet.

Hercules gazed around appreciatively, and found that the renewed Spring beauty eased his heart a little, and gave him a bit of hope. Silently, he gave his cousin Persephone a word of thanks.

He glanced at Spiro, a small smile fleeting over his lips. The quick, wiry little fellow was a good companion, ready with a joke or a conversation, but also appearing to respect his temporary leader’s odd silences. Hercules felt he should try to be a bit more companionable.

“You handle a team well, Spiro,” he observed, warmly.

Spiro grinned. “My wife tell me I think like a horse - what do you think she means by that, eh?”

Hercules joined his infectious laughter. “Horses are wonderful creatures - surely it’s a compliment?”

“Yeah, I can dream,” Spiro answered. “So, Hercules, what’s the story? I thought you traveled with a partner?”

The little bit of peace Hercules had garnered seemed to ebb. He glanced off toward the jeweled azure of the sea with eyes that matched, but his smile faded.

“Not this time.”

The pause and the changed tone were subtle, but Spiro noticed, and decided cheering up was in order. “Hey, I’m pretty handy, Maybe before it’s over we’ll get to kick some Nemean butt!”

Hercules smiled a bit perfunctorily, but looked back at the smaller man thoughtfully. “You don’t like Nemeans?”

“They lie, cheat, and steal. Aside from that, no problems.”

“Oh - all of them?” he asked.

“Everyone of ’em I’ve ever known!”

“And how many is that?”

“Er … six, no - eight,” Spiro replied seriously. He glanced at Hercules and saw the questioning smile on the demigod’s face, and realized his shortcoming.

“Well, it might be closer to ten,” he sputtered. “Anyway - enough! Ask anyone - they’ll tell you.”

“I’ll be sure to do that.”

Hercules smothered a grin as a bit of miffed silence fell. He turned back to his study of the countryside. He was still enjoying the view, but he was also doing the job he’d come to do. Their journey had been unremarkable so far - the coast road to Nemea almost deserted - but Hercules intuition had been pricked here and there.

And then, a flash of light caught his eye from high above a wooded ridge. A fully human guard might have not even noticed it, but Hercules’ vision was much better than mortal. He followed the reflection back, and could just glimpse the figure of a horseman standing still on that high point.

The son of Zeus watched for a moment, and then it seemed the horseman melted back into the dark firs behind him. Hercules glanced around casually, but keenly noting the hills on the landward side of their passage. He couldn’t find any other targets, but decided they needed to get away from the hills and the ambush possibilities that they provided.

“There’s a fork in the trail about two leagues up ahead,” he instructed the teamster. “Go south.”

“That trail’s pretty rough,” Spiro said, after a brief consideration.

“Too rough?”

Spiro smiled and shrugged. “Not if it’s the way you want to go. My team and me will get us through.”

Hercules smiled back. “No doubts about that. It’s just that … in case of trouble I know the south way better, and we’ll get down from the hills a bit faster that way.”

Spiro shot him a quick glance, then glanced around. “Trouble? Nemeans?”

“You never know.”

“Hey, hey, hey!” Spiro answered jauntily, snapping the reins to quicken the team’s pace a bit.

Hercules shook his head and hoped he could be as sanguine about ambush.

Really wish you were here now, buddy, he thought wistfully, wondering where Iolaus was at the moment.

In the marketplace in Nemea …

I’m standing back watching that spooky Thanatos do his thing with this shopkeeper. I have to admit he’s not bad at intimidation, but the guy’s a few columns short of a temple, you know? His stairway doesn’t quite go all the way up. Blockheaded, but good with knives. Not a relaxing combination.

He says, silkily, “Zeno wants his fifty dinars!”

The shopkeeper, a fussy, quick little man, has a bit too much mouth for his health with this guy. “Oh, just listen to Mr. Death! Fifty dinars? Why not one hundred?”

And the guy’s sarcasm flies right over clueless Thanatos. He replies, graciously, “That will be fine.”

The shopkeeper rolls his eyes. “No - I didn’t mean to puzzle you with subtlety - I’m trying to make a point. I don’t have fifty dinars!”

“That’s real bad,” Thanatos answers, but his black eyes sparkle as he slides his thin, filleting blade out of his sleeve sheath. “Real bad - but more fun for me.”

He advances on the shopkeeper whose sarcasm suddenly dries up as he shrinks back. “Now - take it easy - no need to bring out the knives!”

But Thanatos keeps advancing. He doesn’t care - he’s ready to enjoy himself with the pain and fear of the little merchant.

It’s not just bad tactics - this feels wrong to me, in a way that some of my memories don’t seem to support. I know I have worked the streets before, robbed, and shoplifted, and conned marks. But something revolts in me … something from that deep, aching place … and I know I can’t watch this happen.

I glance around quickly, and notice what’s handy. I have a bamboo stick I brought with me that makes a good weapon if you want to inflict a lesson but not too much injury. I’ve got to do something to startle old Weasel out of his game plan.

Inspiration dawns and I smash the stick into a shelf of delicate pottery beside me. Both of the other occupants of the shop whirl to face me.

I look at Vulture-face, point to the shopkeeper with my stick, and say, calmly, “Dead, he pays us nothing.”

The shopkeeper takes this opportunity to put some distance between himself and Thanatos. He scurries behind the counter, and watches us both nervously.

“Look, friend,” he appeals to me since I appear more approachable … and smarter, but of course, that’s not difficult. “You - you can’t get blood out of a turnip.”

“Interesting analogy, friend,” I reply, sauntering over to the counter, and leaning on it, while Thanatos watches me in - well, confusion … but it is a menacing confusion. “Because you see,” I jerk a thumb over my shoulder at the Buzzard, “he can get blood out of you. And he will, if you don’t pay up.”

I glance back at Thanatos, who seems to be laboring to keep up with the conversation, but he’s still holding his stiletto in sight. i>Sigh. Zeno couldn’t have been collecting much if this bad-haired satyr-brain was in charge.

I turn back to the merchant and say, entreatingly, “You know, I can only hold him back so long.”

The shopkeeper gulps. “Well, I can maybe come up with twenty-five.”

I answer approvingly, “I think you better get it.”

While the little storeowner fumbles with the lock to his strong box, I turn and glance over my shoulder at Thanatos. I grin briefly and wink at him. He raises an eyebrow and nods, trying to look at though he understands what I’m doing. Hasn’t this guy figured out this racket works better if you keep the marks alive and in business so you can keep collecting?

Father Hermes, give me patience.

The merchant nervously counts out most of his disposable petty cash and drops it into a pouch. He thrusts it at me with a hopeful smile.

“I’ll have the other twenty five tomorrow, I promise!”

I laugh, making it good for the watching Vulture. “Oh, no,” I answer the merchant, and watch his face fall. “Tomorrow you still owe Zeno fifty dinars.”

I pass the pouch over my shoulder to Thanatos, who steps up to collect it, keeping the shopkeeper’s gaze locked with mine.

“You see, this just gets you through today in one piece,” I finish, still smiling. The little merchant pales, and I know it’s enough - for both of us.

I turn and make my way out of the shop, only half noticing that Thanatos pauses and makes some gesture to the merchant. I’m trying to figure out how I can keep from scalping this guy tomorrow - physically and financially.

I try to push down the vague sense of nausea, and the emptiness widens again.

Further along the Nemean road …

Spiro tightened the new lynch pin in its place and gave the wagon wheel an experimental shake to see if it was secure. He rose and gave a brief nod to Hercules, who was standing nearby holding up the rear of the cart effortlessly with one hand.

“This cart ‘s just not built for this rough terrain,” he said, with a sigh. “But I think this’ll work. Let it down.”

Hercules obeyed, setting the cart down on the wheel and studying it. “Looks like it’s okay - seems to be holding okay with the weight of the chests.”

Spiro nodded, and rocked the wheel back and forth a bit to be sure the pin was seated. “Good thing we’re almost out of the hills. The flat land near the beach should be easier going.”

Hercules nodded, but before he could speak, the attention of both men was drawn to a young woman walking slowly up the track behind them. She was out of breath from the brief climb because she was heavily pregnant.

“Hello,” she called to them, with a smile. “Could I ride with you for a way?” she asked, breathlessly. “I’ve been traveling a while and I’m real tired.”

The demigod was already walking toward her. He caught her hand and helped her toward the wagon. “Of course you can.” He glanced around and then at the girl again, wondering briefly if she could be a distraction for an ambush. He could tell that Spiro was wondering the same thing from his frowning looks.

Hercules gave Spiro a brief shake of his head, then looked to the young woman and asked,” What’s your name? Are you traveling alone out here?”

The girl nodded, a sudden sadness flitting over her face. “My name is Ara. I’m traveling back home to Nemea.”

Hercules glanced up as Spiro moved restlessly, and from the dark look he gave the girl, the demigod knew the teamster’s suspicions were confirmed. But he remained silent, and Hercules looked back at Ara as she continued.

“My husband died of fever and I’m trying to get to my parents’ house before it’s time for the baby, “ she concluded quietly. “I was concerned about the journey, but I didn’t have another way to travel.”

“Well, then, sounds like we should hurry up,” Hercules replied with a smile. Introductions and explanations for Spiro could wait, he decided. The girl needed to rest and they needed to move on.

Hercules glanced around the open land around them once more, and hoped his erratic, demigodly sixth sense was right about the girl.

As he ushered the young woman to the rear of the cart, he noted with a fleeting grin the teamster’s stiff back turned to them.

If I’m not, Spiro will never forgive me.

In Nemea, at Zeno’s tavern …

“This guy had that nitwit so scared of me, I thought he’d die of fright,” Thanatos tells Zeno as he points toward me, both of us across the desk from Zeno. I’m laid back in a chair; the Vulture is standing. I get the idea he doesn’t relax well.

Thanatos laughs and I join him, but mainly because I’m thinking, Nitwit? Pot, meet kettle!

Zeno sorts the coins he’s dumped from the bag the merchant gave us. “Twenty dinars? Not bad.”

I frown, and then glance up at Thanatos. He’s smirking at me, and I realize why he paused as we left that shop. He’s skimming from the boss.

No wonder Zeno thinks he needs more hired help.

Zeno must notice something because he asks mildly, but with a keen stare, “What do you think of the haul, Iolaus?”

I look at Zeno, lean back in my chair, and fold my arms. This could be fun.

“What do I think? I think the guy gave us twenty-five dinars,” I reply, turning to look at Thanatos very deliberately.

Zeno’s eyes grow cold as he snaps his gaze to Thanatos. I watch old Vulture-boy begin to fume as I go on. “This guy’s stealing from you, Zeno - skimming his take off the top and then taking your pay, too.”

Thanatos snaps his knife from his wrist sheath into his hand as he advances toward me. “I’m going to cut you three ways - ”

I’m out of my chair even before he begins talking and now I finish for him. “I know - deep, wide, and frequent,” I reply, my tone dripping disrespect.

You don’t cheat your mates. My memories may be scattered, but everything I know I must have learned has taught me that lesson.

I turn to Zeno and wave a hand at Thanatos. “Hey, but first, we’ve got to be straight about the rules!”

Zeno rises, but he says nothing - ready for me to show I can handle it, I guess.

Thanatos has stopped in his tracks, sputtering, “Rules - what --?”

What a dolt. I whirl with my right elbow raised high and smash him in the face, while my left arm slams up into his knife hand. The knife flies into the air as I use my momentum to bring my right fist plowing into his solar plexus. His breath rushed out in an audible whoosh.

Thanatos falls like a tree, and I catch the knife as it falls.

Zeno laughs and steps around the desk to face me. I watch the Vulture out of the corner of my eye, but he’s on his hands and knees coughing and trying to start breathing again.

“I was right about you, my friend,” he says. “From now on out, you’re my number-one man.”

I grin as I heft the stiletto. Thanatos levers himself up from the floor, and stands nursing his bruised jaw. “This isn’t right, Zeno!” he snarls. Zeno steps past me, but I turn to stand at his shoulder.

“I always knew you were skimming here and there, but to take so much and do it so openly is a sign of disrespect. This I cannot ignore, Thanatos. Go on - you’re through.”

Thanatos measures us both with his eyes, but like most bullies he’s not nearly as ready for action without a gang behind him.

“This isn’t right!” he shouts, but then whirls and slams out the door.

Zeno folds his arms, and his gaze rests on the door where he’d watched the Weasel’s exit. But he speaks quietly, and I’m not sure if he’s thinking out loud or talking to me.

“Loyalty - it’s almost a thing of the past - at least around here. Nobody I know seems to care.”

I glance down and see my knuckles whiten as my grip hardens around the knife’s handle. Something about his words makes that dark void inside me flare with … what? Loss? I don’t know, but it hurts.

That’s why, when he speaks again, the words feel like a warm invitation. “Can I trust you, Iolaus?” he asks.

I find a grin, as that warmth starts to fill the cold emptiness. “As long as you pay me,” I say. The deepest feelings are always the hardest to say, I remember.

Zeno laughs, and it seems his face lightens from that guarded calculation. “At last, an honest man,” he replies. “Old Diogenes would be pleased.”

His smile fades just a bit as he regards me seriously. “But I sense there’s more to the man than just … the need of a payday.”

My grin fades to a look of bedrock certainty. “You can count on me, Zeno,” I tell him, meeting his eyes straight on.

Zeno holds out his arm, and I clasp it. “I believe I can.”

Belief … that’s the best thing I’ve found in Nemea yet. So - why shouldn’t that hollow place inside me be gone?

On the coast road nearing Nemea …

The travelers had stopped to rest the horses as they broke their morning fast. Afterwards, Spiro checked the horses and the wagon as Hercules walked over to the edge of the ridge where he could see a portion of the last switchback leading down to the stretch of broad beach - the last stage of their journey to Nemea.

Ara was leaning against a pack placed against a fallen log, and watched the demigod curiously. He was not at all as she had imagined, and was grateful for his gentle concern.

She wondered a bit, however, at the slight air of distraction she had noticed about him. As she watched him now that sense of distraction and tension appeared to be stronger than she had noticed at first.

Awkwardly, she levered herself up with the help of a low tree limb and walked over to stand beside him.

“You look concerned,” she noted, greeting him with a nod.

Hercules sighed and smiled, letting go of his folded arms to place his hands on his hips. “It’s just that I would like to scout farther ahead, but I can’t leave … everyone unprotected.” Neither he nor Spiro had mentioned the reason for their trip to Nemea, nor had Ara asked.

Now she just nodded, accepting him at his word. “You can’t be in two places at once.”

“Usually that’s not a problem.” At Ara’s questioning look, he explained, “I have a friend … a partner. Iolaus. We back each other up. It feels … odd not to have him here.”

Ara regarded him gravely. “That’s what has had you looking so worried,” she observed thoughtfully.

Hercules’ smile faded and he looked down briefly. “Yes, mostly.” He looked back up and took her arm to turn her back to the wagon. “But don’t be concerned. Everything will be fine.”

“I think it will for us,” she replied with a wave that took in the wagon, Spiro, herself, possibly their journey. “I hope it will be for you, too.”

Hercules nodded again, impressed at her keen insight. “I hope so, too, Ara.”

He escorted her to the back of the cart where it appeared that Spiro had been working diligently to create a more cushioned pallet of skins and soft canvas. Hercules shot the driver an amused glance, but he was studiously not looking at the demigod.

“Well, that looks comfortable,” Hercules said with a grin, as the two men helped Ara into the wagon.

“Oh, it is,” Ara beamed. “Thank you, Spiro.”

The wiry teamster nodded wordlessly to her as he shut the rear gate with Hercules’ help. As the two men walked to the front of the wagon, he seemed to feel that he had to answer Hercules’ glances of laughing inquiry.

“Wagon’s not made for soft riding,” he said gruffly, rubbing his hands together.

“You surprise me, Spiro - you know she’s a Nemean.”

Spiro glanced up at the demigod’s wickedly smirking blue eyes. “Well, I don’t know about you, but I’ve got no desire to play midwife - partner.”

“Guess not.”

Hercules waited as the carter climbed up to his seat, gazing around them. Spiro’s last word led him back to his main distraction.

I don’t want to be a midwife or a teamster. I want my real partner back.

He sighed and climbed onto the wagon.

Somewhere in the worst part of Nemea …

“I’ve always been a good soldier,” Thanatos complained, pacing in the middle of a ring of very seedy characters. “Always did everything Zeno wanted. So I took my cut twice! What’s Zeno got to moan about? He got the lion’s share!”

He looked around the circle of his shifty mates. “And this is how I’m rewarded. It’s just ‘You’re out, Thanatos!’ And you know if I’m out --” here his dark-eyed gaze swept the shady bunch - “you guys miss out on all the jobs I’ve sent you on.”

The men growled and grumbled their displeasure at the possibility as Thanatos strode past them, nodding with an evil grin.

“So - you’re with me? Zeno’s out?” he asked sharply, and the gang shouted their agreement. The tall, thin assassin grinned. “Then we’re taking over - Zeno’s rackets, his club - all his business?”

The men shouted, nodded, and raised their fists in approbation. Thanatos went on. “And as for Zeno, there’s a cold spot in the swamp for him - and for his new number one man, this - this Iolaus!

Thanatos smiled, flushed with the thought of revenge as the men continued their cheers. “And I know just the right time for us to strike.”

Chapter Four

Heroes take journeys, confront dragons, and discover the treasure of their true selves.
-- Carol Pearson

“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: it is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”
-- Antoine De Saint-Exupery

Back at Zeno’s …

Zeno leads the way into the empty gaming room, to the curtained off corner that’s his office. I followed and began to pour myself a cup of wine at Zeno’s wordless gesture of invitation.

“Hermes must be smiling on me, Iolaus, with the timing of your coming here,” Zeno says waving me to a chair near the desk. “There’s a big opportunity that’s almost at our doorstep, and I knew I couldn’t trust Thanatos to handle it.”

I try not to show how much his gratitude means to me. “Sounds interesting.”

“Much more than that my friend. It’s a wagon full of dinars straight from the coffers of King Trancas of Mysia.” Zeno plucked a grape from the bowl on his desk and held it up. “Like a fruit ripe for the picking.”

I sip my wine and regard my new boss with a small grin. “Definitely a fruitful goal. So - what’s the plan?”

“I’ve had a scout keeping track of the wagon the whole way from Mysia. I’ve hired muscle for the job, but what I haven’t had till now was someone to lead them - someone I could trust.” He watches for my reaction.

“I won’t let you down, Zeno.” And that’s a vow. “So - what’re we up against? How many guards?”

“One guard.”

My jaw drops a bit and I stare at Zeno in amazement. “One guard? What’s the catch?”

Zeno folds his arms and sighs. “The one guard is … Hercules.”

“One guy?” I shake my head, trying to figure it out. “What’s one guy?”

Zeno laughs, and claps his hands softly. “Such audacity!”

I bow just a bit, then snag some pieces of cheese and bread, and toss them onto a plate. With the brimming goblet placed at hand, I sit down, prop my feet up, and begin to eat and drink nonchalantly. I never heard of the guy before in all my jumbled recollections. How dangerous can he be?

Zeno’s smile fades a bit. “Don’t underestimate Hercules. The son of Zeus is the equal to ten, twenty - perhaps fifty ordinary men. But then again,” he goes on thoughtfully, “You’re not quite ordinary yourself, are you, Iolaus?”

Am I? Piecing together all those images still isn’t working, so I can’t be sure of who or what I am. But I’m sure I’ve never heard of the Hercules guy, and I’m confident enough about what I know I can do.

I raise my goblet to Zeno with a careless smile. “The wagon and the money are ours.”

A little later, in an alleyway near Zeno’s …

Thanatos stepped quietly to the alcove near the front of the alley where he had posted his sentry. The man stepped from the shadowed nook to meet him, and together they stood looking just down the street at the front of Zeno’s tavern, still sheltered by crates of oil-filled amphoras.

“So, anything interesting?” he asked the shorter man.

“Yeah, some hired muscle has been filtering in off and on over the last couple of hours. I’ve seen that Iolaus guy comin’ in and out, too. Looks like they’re plannin’ something.”

Thanatos nodded and smiled, a dark fire of vengeful glee lighting his black eyes. “Good. Just the opportunity we’re looking for. If something big is going down, most of his guys will be out of the way and Zeno will be vulnerable. If that blond bastard and a good number of the men leave, let me know!”

Thanatos started to leave, but the sentry caught his arm. “Wait - shouldn’t somebody follow them - see what’s up? If it’s that big, we want it.”

The dark, vulture-like man shook his head. “Why bother? We take over Zeno’s business, we get everything, including whatever haul that rat Iolaus brings in - if he can - and we don’t have to take the risk. Let me know the moment anything changes.”

The sentry nodded, and turned to study the tavern front with renewed anticipation.

On the beach, near the outskirts of Nemea …

Zeno’s scouts are good, I gotta say. Everything they told us about the movements of this strange little party was spot-on. We were able to get into position on the rocky outcrop right on the beach well before the wagon came anywhere near. And there’s plenty of places for me and these ten other guys to be completely hidden, but to directly overlook the narrowest spot of this whole beach.

Piece of cake.

I’ve watched the wagon rolling slowly this way for some time now. I’m especially interested in studying this Hercules character that everybody seems to be so afraid of, and so far I don’t know what this excitement’s about. Sure he’s pretty big and cut enough, but not the biggest or brawniest I’ve ever seen or beaten.

And the only others with the wagon are a little wiry driver and, of all things, a pregnant girl. What gives? After we take care of the two men, I’m gonna have to pull some fancy footwork to keep some of these lowlife mercenaries from messing with her - but that can wait.

The big guy is walking beside the wagon - makes me wonder if there’s problems with the wagon or the horses. If that’s the case, it’s another advantage for us.

Must be the excitement of this … this pushover situation, but the closer they get, the stranger I feel. I can’t get over feeling baffled by this one guard. Why just him? And why does that deep, hollow place inside me seem sharper than ever?

Battle-fever, I guess. It’s not gonna stop me though. This is my real chance to prove myself to Zeno. Still -

The wagon’s almost on us. I raise my fist in the pre-arranged signal for “Be ready.” The men closest to me rise just to a tense crouch behind the shielding rocks. I inhale slowly as the slowly moving cart approaches.

“Come on,” I breathe in a voice the guy next to me can’t even hear.

At that moment, that Hercules guy stops and seems to stiffen. His head comes up and he gazes around keenly, even as he keeps walking.

As the big man scours the higher ground, I check the hiding places of the men, and notice no telltale signs that he should be able to see or hear. We’re even downwind from him. From what Zeno told me, this supposed demigod doesn’t have any special powers except for strength - what in Hades has caught his attention?

A few more paces, and I barely whisper to the men nearest me, “The big guy is Hercules. When I give the signal, take him first!”

The words are just out of my mouth when the big man seems to look right at my position and gestures for the wagon to stop. They’re not quite in the perfect spot, but now’s the moment - before he’s spooked enough to mount a defense.

I check to see that all eyes are on me, and thrust my fist forward in the signal to charge. The men leap from hiding with fierce yells and race down the hill to surround the wagon.

The big guy swings around in a defensive crouch and watches the men ease in on him, his back to the side of the wagon. The driver looks panicked for a moment, but then reaches under his seat for a knobby-ended club. I expect the pregnant girl to start screaming, but she surprises me.

One of the men on the seaward side of the wagon reaches up to grab her - against my express orders. But instead of screaming, she grabs the driver’s club. Without even pulling it from his hands, she drives the club into the mercenary’s face and knocks him off the wagon. He falls to the sand like a stone, out cold.

I can’t help but smile, even though I’m down a man. Serves him right.

The big guy hasn’t taken his eyes from the men around him through any of that bit. I hear him ask my men playfully, “You guys in town for the convention?”

Lucky for my guys the driver takes this moment to jump down from the wagon, because I think Hercules was about to use their brief confusion at his words to spring into action. As it is, I hear the driver say, “No worries, Hercules - I’ve got your back!”

I ignore a quick sense of annoyance that rises in me, in my concern that the teamster might prove a threat. But no sooner than he looks up at Hercules, one of my men seizes the moment and whacks him on the back of the neck with a club. The driver drops like a pole-axed steer.

“How comforting,” Hercules replies, and whirls into action.

He rams an elbow into one guy’s face and rips the club out of his hand as the guy falls. He takes that club to the next guy with a speed and force that few warriors could match.

I’ve never seen anything like it. Well, I know I haven’t, but somehow my body seems to feel every move he makes just as he makes it. He takes down every one of the men within three minutes, and doesn’t even seem to be breathing hard.

He turns to check the pregnant girl, and I take that moment to slip down from my high perch. He may be good, but he’s only had the appetizer for this meal of whumping.

I step out from the rocks closest to his position as he’s focused on her. I step toward them so quietly it takes a moment for even the girl facing me to notice.

But even before she does, Hercules is whirling, turning to face me in a fighter’s crouch. I step toward him on the balls of my feet, my arms folded nonchalantly, but with my sword held tight and ready.

I open my mouth for a quick taunt, but it dries up as Hercules relaxes his posture. A puzzled but genuine smile lights his features as he calls out, “Iolaus?”

Speech and nonchalance forgotten, I stare at him. “You know my name?’

“Know your name?” he laughs. “What’s the joke? Of course I know your name.” He looked around in some bewilderment. “Where have you been?”

He’s tryin’ to put me off, like he did with the other guys. I gather my wits, wondering why he feels so different from any of the other challengers I’ve faced in the last few days.

“So, you’re Hercules,” I say, summoning my nonchalance, that sense of not caring that has served me well lately. “Should I be impressed?”

I end the last word with a shout and leap forward, slicing the sword down toward his shoulder in a flashing arc.

For a split second I think it’s easy, I’ve already got him because he stands staring at me in some kind of shock. Abruptly he flings himself aside, the blade misses him. I use my momentum to whirl to face him again.

He’s frowning now, and he’s staring at me in some sort of shock. Maybe he’s heard of me.

“What on terra are you doing?” he exclaims.

Kinda slow, this guy. “What does it look like?” I ask, dancing, ready, watching for a weakness. “We came for what’s in the wagon.”

I briefly point my sword toward the cart, thinking his gaze will follow. Suddenly, I drive forward, slashing my sword with fierce forward and back cuts. He barely leaps back with each one, and the last scrapes the front of his doeskin shirt close enough to slice off one of the beaded tassels.

He glances down and sees that, but looks up again so fast I can’t take advantage. His face sets somehow, resolving from bewilderment to a grim façade.

Good. Taking me seriously at last.

“Iolaus -- I’m not gonna fight you!” he shouts, and that grimness fills his voice.

“Ah, c’mon!” I shoot back. “Are you afraid of me?”

And I race two steps and into a leap. I bring the sword around in a glittering arc that ends with it pointed straight at his heart. He’s off-balance or off-guard again and just throws himself to the side so that I miss, but I bet he felt the blade cut the air just at his back.

I land already whirling and expect to see him rushing me, but again he seems to be slow or careless. He stays back, watching me with this grim bewilderment that almost looks like pain.

As backs away before my sword, I wonder if I’ve nicked him, but I don’t see any blood. At the same time, that thought suddenly makes my heart clench.

Huh?

He’s shaking his head. “Iolaus - what has happened to you?” he asks, hoarsely.

How the hell does he know my name? Especially since I don’t know him?

“Don’t you know who you are?” What - is he reading my thoughts now? Why does that empty place inside me ache?

“Don’t you know me?” and there’s a hint of pleading in that stern voice.

This confusion is infuriating and terrifying. “I know enough to make you bleed!” And I lunge forward, stabbing for his gut. He leaps back - and slams up against the cart.

Gotchya!

He looks around briefly measuring his chances, with my sword tip circling eight inches from his chest. He straightens and holds out his hands to the side.

This supposed legend - surrendering? I pull the sword back at shoulder height, ready to strike,

“You might not know who you are - but I do,” he states - quiet, certain.

Naïve jerk. I push down the tearing pain inside my chest and thrust forward, screaming.

There’s a ripping thunk and I step back, breathing like a bellows.

He’s actually closed his eyes, and after a millisecond’s pause opens them. He looks at me with totally dumbfounded surprise, then looks down.

My sword is stuck, quivering in … the wooden side of the cart, just under his outstretched arm.

He looks up at me, and seems to sag a little, and the harsh lines leave his face sad, puzzled, and vulnerable. Something in his eyes holds my gaze, and I can’t let go, even though I’m backing away, slowly.

“I knew you wouldn’t hurt me,” he states, again with that bedrock certainty, though his voice is hoarse.

What the hell is wrong with me? My heart is racing, my breath is heaving, my muscles feel heavy and unwilling - and I’ve barely broken a sweat in this fight. That aching place inside me yawns like an abyss.

“I have no idea why I didn’t,” I gasp.

Hercules reaches out ever so gingerly with just his hands, but a get a sense of supplication. “It’s because - because you’re my best friend, even if you don’t remember. You have been since we were kids.”

What the - what’s he trying to pull? Me - best friends with a son of Zeus, a friend to kings?

“Nothing wrong with my memory!” Okay it’s jumbled, but it’s there - and he’s not in it. “And I’ve never laid eyes on you in my life!”

I can’t stand this any longer! Looking at this guy, it feels like I’m being torn in two. I turn and flee into the rocks, scrabbling around and over them in panicked flight.

After I get back to my original perch, I turn to look back, to see if he’s following. And I realize I’m terrified that he is, but even more terrified that he’s not.

He isn’t. Of course - why would he leave the treasure wagon and follow me?

But I see him down on the beach. He grabs up one of the groaning muscle boys - so hard he makes the guy’s feet leave the ground - and then shakes him fiercely.

I can hear him easily as he growls, “I want some answers - and I want them now!”

I turn and run back towards Nemea. I don’t know what I’m running from, because I have very few memories of anything I’ve backed down from. But all I know is that the agony that almost tore me apart is easing into a sullen ache, and I’d rather face Zeno than go back.

What the hell is going on? Who is this Hercules?

Back at Zeno’s tavern …

Thanatos preened as he watched his men tying Zeno’s hands. Their timing had been perfect. Zeno had been left with only three bodyguards whom his men had easily tricked and overpowered. They had it all wrapped up.

Thanatos leered at Zeno. “Your place, your business - all mine now!”

Zeno gazed at his former lieutenant, and wondered how he had ever put up with him. Unimpressed by the man’s threats, Zeno replied, calmly, “You’ll find that being the boss is less than you expect, Thanatos. You’ll fear each stranger, looking for the one that’s as treacherous as you, then one day, he’ll be there and it’ll be your time to go.”

Thanatos shook his head and slid his knife back into his sleeve sheath. He walked over to Zeno’s high-backed chair and sat, reveling in its comfort. “I’ll be smarter, and my time will be a long time in coming. Now -”

He rose and gestured to the door. “Come on, old man. We’ve got work to do.”

Zeno kept his eyes on the turncoat as he was pushed to the door. Thanatos’ gaze slid away first.

It was a bit of a moral victory, the older man thought.

Not much more left to me but that.

In a better part of Nemea …

Hercules helped Ara down from the wagon as Spiro returned from watching the Nemean guards take the gold into the king’s vault.

“So, your home is not far?” Hercules asked her.

Ara pointed to a street that entered another side of the square. “My parent’s house is just down that street - an easy walk.” She looked up at Hercules. “Thank you - from me and my child. I can’t wait till he’s old enough to hear about my adventure with Hercules.”

Hercules smiled. “’He’? You’re sure it’s a boy?”

The girl nodded. “The Oracle said it would be, and I hope it is! I’ll name him for his father.”

He held out his hand, and Ara took it, then stood on tiptoe to kiss his cheek. She released his hand and was about to step away when Hercules held out a hand and stopped her.

“Wait! Ara - you know this town,” he said quickly. “Have you heard of a man named Zeno?”

Ara frowned. “Everyone in Nemea knows of Zeno. Some good - mostly bad things. But you’ll find him in the big tavern on the east of town.”

Spiro walked up as she spoke, and Ara’s gaze fell on him. She smiled at the wiry Mysian. “Thank you for taking such good care of me, Spiro. Good -bye to you both.”

Spiro waved wordlessly and as she walked away, he nodded. “Nice lady,” he commented as she walked away.

Hercules kept his eyes on the retreating figure of the girl and replied, casually, “Yeah, she’s all right - for a Nemean.”

“Okay - okay! I get your point!” Spiro looked up at the grinning demi-god. “I was wrong.” He rapped the back of the empty wagon with a victorious smile. “All the money’s been safely bestowed - King Trancas will be pleased.”

The slender teamster held out his arm to Hercules. “Take care, Hercules.”

Hercules caught the man’s arm and smiled. “It’s been a pleasure. Travel safe, Spiro.”

Hercules watched the wagon pull away, but then turned and sped away toward the east side of Nemea.

Somewhere on the east side of Nemea …

I arrive back at Zeno’s to find one of his bodyguards dead and the other wounded. As I get the wounded guy to a healer, he tells me about Thanatos’ treachery in return. He also tells me where they were taking Zeno. As I race back through town toward the swamp, I see that Hercules character threading his way through the dark streets of the eastside of Nemea. Since he’s going my way, I follow him.

It’s not long before I realize he’s angling toward Zeno’s tavern.

I’ve got that torn feeling again. Even though I know time is short for Zeno, I’m pulled to follow Hercules to the tavern. I slip stealthily to the door and hear the big guy call out, “Is anyone here? Zeno?”

I step into the doorway and answer, tersely, “He’s not here.” Hercules whirls, and his blue eyes pin me with the intensity of his gaze.

“Actually, I was looking for you,” he replies. His voice is tight, too, as though he’s fighting to get it out just like I am. “I’m going to help you, and you’re going to let me.”

I just don’t get it. He says that and it pulls at something in me, but I don’t know the guy from Ares. “I tried to rob you!” The words burst out of my confusion.

He takes a step forward, gingerly, his hand just raised in a calming motion. “You didn’t know what you were doing.”

I feel ready to bolt, but instead I take a step into the room, my fists knotted in bewildered frustration. “I knew exactly what I was doing.”

“Okay, yeah, I know you did, but then again in a way you didn’t,” the big guy says. He seems to know immediately how baffling that statement is, and stammers a bit as he finally goes on. “Look, I know that doesn’t help much, but it will if you’ll let me explain.”

“Well …” Wait - what am I thinking? Zeno! I shake my head, both to clear it of the painful puzzlement I feel around this guy and to remind myself of what’s first. “That’s got to wait. I’ve got to get to Zeno before they kill him.”

Before I can turn, Hercules asks, “Who’s got him?”

“The guy I replaced. He’s taking him to the swamp where they hide their mistakes.”

He appears a bit stunned for some reason. I whirl and make it to the door before Hercules stops me with one word.

“Iolaus!”

He asks hesitantly, “Why are you helping him? He’s a criminal!”

I nod. “He’s a criminal … but he’s my friend. He gave me a place to belong.”

Hercules nods, and something about this he gets. How can he get it when I don’t?

That’s when I do turn and bolt, and I’m not sure if I’m running to Zeno or from this strange unknown connection with Hercules …

… but I hear his footsteps not far behind me all the way to the swamp …

In the swamp on the inland side of Nemea …

Hercules was on Iolaus’ heels as they dashed toward the clearing. The smell of the fetid swamp water was evident, and Hercules had been hearing voices ahead of them for some time. As they burst into the clearing, both runners heard Thanatos say. “Be sure to save some room down there for your pal Iolaus - he’ll be along soon!”

But the tall, vulture-like form whirled with a snarl as Iolaus, with Hercules on his heels, dashed from the trees.

“I’m here already, Thanatos,” Iolaus called. “Can’t say I cared for your invitation!”

“Thanatos?!” Hercules glanced down at Iolaus. “He had a name that means ‘Death’?”

Hercules watched Iolaus shrug. His steely gaze raked the man that held Zeno, bound and weighted with stones. “Yeah, I thought it was a bit ambitious for him, too.”

Thanatos growled. “I’ll show you ambitious!” And he pushed Zeno from the high bank to splash heavily into the deep murky water.

He spun back to face his challengers with a cry of triumph. “With me!” he shouted to his men, and they charged the two newcomers.

Hercules reacted without thought. He sank into a fighter’s crouch, arms extended and ready, pivoting so that his back was to Iolaus. He knew a faint thread of surprise when he felt and glimpsed Iolaus doing the same thing, and felt his friend’s back briefly touching his own.

Just before the oncoming fighters recalled his attention, Hercules thought, His mind may not remember, but the rest of him does …

Thanatos charges me and slashes with his blade. I duck easily because he’s predictable and telegraphs every move seconds ahead. His stance is off - he can’t regain his balance for another strike soon enough.

I whirl into a leaping scissor-kick. My leg kicks out high just as his head is moving in the opposite direction. I both hear and feel the crack of his jaw breaking.

Glass-jawed Mr. Death goes down hard. That’s for Zeno!

As I stop my spin to face the next fighter, I rake my eyes swiftly toward the dark pool. Zeno’s managing to stay afloat, thank Hermes.

My attention snaps forward as two guys race toward me and the big guy with clubs. I realize suddenly that our moves are like mirror images of each other. He kicks while I punch, then I kick while he punches and we finish off the clubmen simultaneously.

We’ve turned automatically to face opposite directions as two more opponents run at us. Out of the corner of my eye I notice Herc’s man reach him a bit quicker. Herc punches him just as I see my new enemy getting closer.

Suddenly, Hercules shouts, “Iolaus! Actium!” and flings his dazed opponent at me. I gasp in surprise, but some deep instinct takes over. I fall into a crouch as the guy sails toward me. I lunge upwards at just the right moment and send the poor sod to crash into my on-coming attacker. Both knuckleheads go down with a bang.

I glance at Hercules and see him grinning at me with the fierce exultation of battle. I can’t help but grin back.

We turn to face the next attackers …

Hercules turned from Iolaus’ hesitant grin and bewildered eyes to meet his next opponent with moves that unconsciously complemented those of Iolaus. The son of Zeus side-stepped the attackers right cross and caught the man’s arm in the crook of his own. He used both his own and the man’s momentum to propel himself over the man’s back. As he did so, Hercules felt the man’s shoulder dislocate with a ripping pop.

The attacker doubled over with a shriek of pain. Hercules released his arm and knocked him into blessed unconsciousness with a powerful uppercut.

Peripherally he was aware of Iolaus performing a similar move, but instead of flipping over his attacker’s back, Iolaus trapped his arm in the crook of his elbow and brought his leg up in several swift kicks to his opponent’s belly, pulling him forward into the kick each time.

Hercules just turned from his fallen attacker as Iolaus shouted, “Hey!” and flung his gasping enemy at the son of Zeus. Hercules glimpsed another fighter heading his way from another direction at the same moment. He ducked the flailing attacker but shoved upwards just as the man came over his back, sending him flipping head over heels so that the two fighters’ heads met with a resounding crack. Both fell to earth out cold.

Hercules and Iolaus spun in opposite directions to meet two more opponents, and both used their momentum to backhand the men so that they flew backwards. One landed with a giant splash in the murky water well away from where Zeno still struggled, while another landed and bounced twice on the rocky ground. He didn’t stir.

I’m just turning from watching this goon hit the ground in a double bounce when I hear Hercules shouting at me.

“Iolaus! Thermopylae!”

I’m totally clueless as to what that means, but as Hercules strides toward me, hands reaching out, somehow automatically I’m holding my hands out with my wrists crossed. We join hands, and suddenly he spins till we’re back-to-back with our arms above our heads.

With incredible power, Hercules bends and flings me over his head, and my body knows instinctively what to do. I push off forcefully, tuck my body briefly as I fly over his bent back, and then kick out with all the might I can muster. I wipe out one oncoming goon with that kick. He flies backwards into the next guy, and both go down.

I land lightly as the big guy releases me, and I wheel to look at him in total shock, because - where did that come from and how the hell did I know what to do?

No time to ask though, because two more of Thanatos’ men race at us with swords. As I leap a low sweep of my opponent’s sword, I’m aware that Hercules blocks a high sweep. As my attacker comes back with a high slash of his weapon, I block it and punch while Hercules leaps a low cut of his enemy’s sword. Gods, this is too weird.

And then both the big guy and I exchange side glances because we hear running footsteps behind us. Without any signal but that glance, I know what to do, and as one we drop to the ground and the two goons rushing us sail over our heads and land with breath-stealing thumps.

As I rise, I swivel to see Zeno’s head going under and not coming back up. Time to end this little party!

I stride to meet the next two attackers and realize Hercules is right at my side without even a glance this time. I watch the next goon’s attack and meet him with a standing sweep kick - and Hercules makes the same move, just with his left leg. The next guy gets a backhand across the jaw - and Hercules mirrors that move with his left instead of his right.

And then the two of us stand alone in the middle of a pile of barely groaning foes. Two of the guys who attacked us first seem to be trying to rise, one near Herc and one near me. We each knock ‘em back with a swift kick. They go down and nobody else is moving.

I feel the big guy’s eyes on me. I turn to meet his gaze with a thousand questions that I can’t figure out how to ask. All I know is we were one amazing fighting unit, and it felt right, and that’s all I have time to say.

“Cool!” I tell him.

Hercules met Iolaus’ gaze of puzzled excitement, and nodded at his brief word of approval. But then Iolaus suddenly swiveled to look at the still, dark water of the pond. Zeno had not come up again, and the son of Zeus watched as his erstwhile best friend dashed away to save his mentor.

Hercules felt as though he had been kicked.

He shook his head and ran after Iolaus. The blond hunter had found a coil of rope in one of the packs of the defeated gang. As Hercules reached him, Iolaus stood on the high bank, studying the water and playing out the rope with controlled haste.

Iolaus thrust one end of the rope to Hercules with unconscious trust. The demigod took the rope without question or protest. Neither of them paid much attention to the one ambitious gang member with a club who was trying to approach with dazed stealth.

“Wait for my signal,” Iolaus instructed, tying the other end around his waist.

Hercules nodded. Without looking away from Iolaus, he snatched the attacker’s hand with the club lightning fast, and began pummeling the attacker with it.

“One pull,” Hercules replied, his eyes still on Iolaus intently even as he continued to whack the mercenary with his own club. “Two pulls, I’m coming in after you!”

Hercules nonchalantly tossed the dazed and bleeding attacker into the pond well away from where Zeno went down.

Iolaus nodded. He turned and stepped to the edge of the bank.

“Zeno!” And Iolaus leaped into the water, swam powerfully to where Zeno went under, and dove like a dolphin into the murky depths.

Hercules watched anxiously, the rope clutched tightly in his hands. Zeus alone knows what’s in that dark water!

The moments ticked by relentlessly and there was no sign of either man’s return. Hercules shifted his stance on the bank with restless movements. He pulled in a bit of the slack and knotted his hands in the rope, his eyes glued to the still water.

A few bubbles rose from where Iolaus gone under. Hercules’ muscles tightened in readiness, but still no signal came, no sign of life.

“Iolaus?” he called, hesitantly. “Iolaus!”

Still nothing. Hercules’ muscles tightened with growing fear, and his breathing caught and held.

One more minute and I’m pulling him up, even if he -

Suddenly - there it was - a powerful tug on the rope.

Hercules’ breath swooshed out in a gust of relief even as he began pulling in the rope with strong, sure, overhand motions. “Be okay!” he whispered.

And then Iolaus bobbed to the surface, holding Zeno around the chest. Hercules’ sigh of relief was a bit shaky but his strong pulls of the rope never faltered. Iolaus aided him with strong strokes of his free arm and soon both he and the dazed Zeno were struggling up the bank.

As he helped Zeno and Iolaus from the water, Hercules considered their next steps with impatient concern.

Now to get these goons to a magistrate as quick as we can, so we can find that damned busybody Fortune and get Iolaus fixed!

Hercules refused to consider what might happen if that wasn’t possible …

Chapter Five

One and one is always two,
Each alone - here’s me - there’s you.
The mathematics of the heart
Adds together what’s apart.
The sum of being friends is done
To prove that one and one makes one.
-- Jay Williams, from “The Hero from Otherwhere”

I’m standing in the square before the forum, watching the Nemean magistrate’s men march Thanatos and his gang into the judgment rooms. Good riddance to them …

…but it haunts me that Zeno’s trussed up just like them and on his way in, too. I fold my arms and turn my back on Hercules. I’m torn and conflicted with him on a lot of levels I don’t even understand, but mostly because Zeno’s in with those low-lifes. But I’m still aware of the big guy back of me as if he was magnetic, and I’m no closer to understanding why.

I keep going over the scene just after we rescued Zeno. I gathered wood for a fire to help dry us out and warm us up in the cool late afternoon air after our unintended dip. Hercules was busy getting Vulture-Boy and his gang of merry misfits tied up and ready to be herded back to Nemea. Zeno sat on a log near the fire trying to warm up and cough the water from his lungs. Hercules came over to me and stated flatly, “I’m taking them back to the magistrate in Nemea.” He paused then added, “Zeno, too.”

“Do whatever you want with the *those* morons,” I answered him, “but Zeno? I don’t think so!” I was weirded out by him anyway, and this was not making it better. “I don’t remember asking for your help, and I as sure as hell didn’t save him for you to stick him in jail for Zeus knows how long.”

Hercules just stared at me with this dumbfounded mixture of surprise and dismay that was really unsettling. It just added more fuel to the fire of pain and confusion I’d been feeling since I came to Nemea, especially since he had met up with Hercules. Finally the big guy seemed to shake himself and find an answer for me. “Iolaus, you said it yourself -- he’s a criminal,” Hercules said. “He has to answer for what he’s done. You know that.”

I shifted my weight to the balls of my feet, and clenched my hands into fists. “He’s not like the rest of these louts. What I know is he took me in, and gave me a place when I was lost. He became my friend when I didn’t have one. I owe him for that. I can’t let you take him in.”

Hercules nodded, then looked away abruptly. The pain I glimpsed briefly in his face startled me. “Yeah, I understand why you’d feel like that. I have good reason to. As long as you’re breathing you could never be disloyal. But --”

“Now how in Tartarus would you know that?” I interrupted him angrily. “You gonna try and tell me again that we’re best buddies, and known each other all our lives? When I can’t remember one damn thing about you?”

Now Herc’s fists clenched. “There’s not much point in me trying to tell you what you’re not going to hear.” I could see his jaw muscles bunching.

Then he pinned me with that intense blue gaze again that was as much entreaty as anger. “So answer me this, Iolaus. If you have absolutely no memory of ever having seen me before, why was it that you fought beside me like a mirror image? How could your reflexes fit my fighting style like ... like a hand to a glove?”

Open a wound and twist the knife, huh? He put it all out there - all the crazy questions that had been racing round and round in my head ever since the adrenalin of our fight wore off.

Why had we fought together like a well-oiled machine? Why I had responded to phrases, signals, and - I don’t know - telepathy, I guess, as though I knew exactly what they meant and what Hercules would do? And why had I not been able to skewer Hercules on the point of my sword this morning and capture a fortune in gold?

Hercules said it was because we’d been best friends, all our lives. Yeah, right! Me the former street kid and thief best friends with a son of Zeus.

Yeah, if you believe that I’ve got this Trojan Horse I’d like to sell ya!

Sure my memories were scrambled, but nowhere in them was there anything about that kind of friendship, that kind of belonging. All I could think was that it was some kind of con, and that I understood.

I pushed away the doubts and questions as best I could and went on the offensive. “I fought like that because I’m just that good! So, quit trying to change the subject, Mr. Demigod. I’m not letting you take him in, and that’s final.”

Hercules tried to tell me about Zeno getting a fair trial and extenuating circumstances and more Minotaur droppings like that, but I’d had my limit.

I launched myself at Hercules and we tussled pretty fiercely for a bit. Somehow I knew he was pulling his punches, but one of his kicks knocked me backwards about ten feet.

I rolled handily and came up on my feet, and pulled my belt knife. Hercules knelt where he had landed after the kick, panting from a blow to the belly I’d given him.

He just glared at me - no game, no ruse - and growled, “ So you think you can use that knife on me this time, Iolaus?” he challenged, his voice shaking. “Try it, then, damn it!”

I gulped, and stepped forward slowly, poised in a knife fighter’s crouch. Hercules didn’t budge. He just knelt there, waiting and watching me with his eyes burning like blue fire into mine.

I feinted, and whirled and still he didn’t move. That’s when I realized that the guy wasn’t going to defend himself. I gripped the knife harder, forcing myself to step forward, and prepared to lunge.

But as I imagined my knife ripping into Hercules’ chest, and his warm blood jetting out over my hands, the same wave of sick revulsion swept over me that I had felt earlier that day on the beach. Before I knew what was happening, I dropped the knife as though it had scalded me and turned away, my breath heaving in great gasps.

“What the hell is wrong with me?” I choked out.

I heard the creak of his leather pants as Hercules rose to his feet behind me and stepped closer. He answered quietly, “Your heart remembers, even if your mind can’t. You’re my best friend, Iolaus, and I’m yours. We have been all our lives, since before either of us can really remember. Nothing can change that.”

I was shaking my head, ready to scream out my frustration when another voice addressed me.

“Listen to him, son.”

Hercules and I both looked around at Zeno, still sitting over by the fire, but now watching us thoughtfully. I started to protest. “But, Zeno -- !”

The boss shook his head, and interrupted me wearily. “No, Iolaus, hear me out. I think I know what you’ve been thinking. That it’s a con, a set-up.” He glanced back at Hercules, and I could tell he was sizing the guy up with all his street smarts. “But I can smell a con a mile away, and this isn’t it.”

I glanced at Hercules and I could tell the words surprised him. The grimness on his face lessened, and he nodded. I couldn’t believe it, but Zeno was no slouch in reading people - well … maybe except for Thanatos. I asked the big question. “If that’s true, Hercules, if you’re not connin’ me and we’ve been best friends for so long -- why can’t I remember you?”

“Because of a spell, the guilty act of a well-meaning but inept little fussbudget of a goddess.”

Iolaus turned and looked at Hercules incredulously. “You’re saying the gods did this to me? Why? Why would one of them take my memory of you away?”

A shadow crossed Hercules’ face so quickly I might have imagined it. “That doesn’t matter so much as what you *do* remember.” Hercules stepped closer to the smaller man and asked intently, “When did you first learn to use a sword?”

Before I could call him on that suspicious change of subject, the question penetrated and I began to ponder it. I started to speak, but I cut myself off as the scattered bits of this remembrance hit me. “I -- I don’t know,” I said, slowly. “I learned first from … from this guy who was -”

“ -- a Spartan arms master, right?”

My frustration and confusion soared. “How do you know that?”

“Because we did it together, and if I’m not in your memories, then they must be in bits and pieces, because we were practice partners and best friends there -- and again later at Cheiron’s academy.”

Before I could digest that revelation he went on relentlessly. “When did you learn how to swim?”

I snapped angrily, “I don’t know how to swim!”

But even as the words left my mouth, I felt my still-damp clothing, and looked over where Zeno sat watching me - Zeno, whom I had just saved by diving and swimming quite proficiently in the pond.

Hercules nodded eagerly, his eyes lightening. I just felt like I was sinking further into bewilderment and insanity.

“Iolaus - you know how to swim because I taught you, not long after Jason had tossed you in that pond on the road to Corinth. He did it to force me to go in after you because of a stupid thing I had done. It scared us both bad enough -- how close you came to drowning -- so you finally let me teach you.”

“I remember Jason throwing me in,” I said numbly, thinking this must be what shock feels like. “He thought I could swim, and it was important because ... because ...”

Hercules edged closer to me. He reached out as if it was natural for him to touch, but he stopped himself. I guess he knew there was a part of me that was ready to leap up and flee the confusion and the hope that I was terrified might not pan out.

“ … because I had been stupid enough to ask the god-fire of Hephaestus’ forge to come into me,” he replied quietly, “to try to be more like Zeus, and it was burning me up from the inside. You and Jason knew you had to get me into the water. Then Jason realized, even in that state, I could never turn away if you were in danger.”

What he described seemed to flow into that dark empty place inside me and begin to fill it. I hoped and I didn’t dare to hope. But it still didn’t answer the problem of Zeno.

Appropriately enough, it was Zeno who did that, and he took Hercules’ side. He stood suddenly and came over to me, and pulled me up.

“Iolaus, you need to listen to Hercules. What you were saying earlier about what I did for you - that’s paid now. You don’t owe me a thing - if you ever really did. Actually, I think I owe you.”

I started to protest but he cut me short. “Think about it, son. You saved my life, getting me out of this pond, but more important than that, you made me remember what friendship, and loyalty, and honesty really mean -- instead of the shallow and false substitutions I’ve gradually accepted for them over the years.”

Zeno smiled faintly, watching me. “You see, I was once a lot like you are now, Iolaus -- honest and loyal, but tough, and street smart. I came into this for the same reasons I think you did -- to belong. To have a place to do something different with what I was good at.”

“But you did do some things different,” I reminded him. “You told me you helped out some of the people in the poorer quarters with part of the money you took from those miserly merchants.”

Zeno nodded. “Yes, occasionally, but at what cost? For a while, I deluded myself into thinking that, even though I was committing crimes, I was doing it for the good of Nemea, because the government had become so rotten. Maybe along the way I helped a few people, but this kind of life corrupts you, Iolaus, regardless of your motives.”

He sighed, and then continued. “I lost that desire, and contented myself with indulgence. Lately, I was content to leave the everyday business to men like Thanatos, not considering what kind of atrocities they might be committing in my name. And because of that, I have to take responsibility for their cruelty, too.”

As I remember the look on his craggy face, I return to the present moment and realize he’s right in front of me. The rest of the goons have already filed into the building. Just like them, he’s bound to a wooden stock that hitches over his shoulders and binds his wrists at shoulder level. It seems the guard behind him is allowing him to talk to me - before they lock him up.

“I was right about you,” Zeno says with a faint smile. “You’re a stand-up man. I owe you my life.”

I shake my head. “You don’t owe me a thing - saving you was repayment for what I owed you.”

My teeth clench and I glance over my shoulder with a smoldering look at Hercules. I turn back to Zeno. Through gritted teeth I tell him, “I didn’t pull you out of that swamp for you to have to spend the rest of your life in prison!”

Zeno shakes his head. “You’ve opened my eyes to what I’ve become, Iolaus.” His eyes shift and I know they meet Hercules’ eyes over my shoulder. “Hercules is right - I see that now. I have to take responsibility for what I’ve done, and for what was done in my name. I have a debt and I have to pay it.’

“And, Hercules --” Zeno nods at the big guy “- I’m in your debt, too. Thank you for lending me your friend for awhile.”

Hercules’ reply is terse and reluctant. “Yeah.”

I’m only half listening to their exchange. I’m mulling over Zeno’s words, and I know that I had chosen to work for him because I wanted to belong, but there was a lot I hadn’t liked about the business.

I look up at him again. “It still feels to me like I owe you.”

Zeno nodded. “Well, if that’s so, you could repay me by finding another line of work. This one --” he glances over his shoulder at the looming doorway “-- it’s a dead end.”

He turns back and smiles slightly. “Besides, I think there’s more hero in you than thief.” Zeno nods a goodbye and I raise my hand in farewell. As he strides away, I turn and walk over to the well in the middle of the courtyard, feeling rootless and lost again.

“Sounds like good advice.”

I turn and see that Hercules has followed me, and is watching with a barely held anxiety.

“Another line of work? Maybe.” I glance up at him and feel that pull so strong I can’t help but talk about it. “Everything you’ve talked about - it’s true?”

Hercules nods. “Absolutely.”

“So … so … that’s why I’ve felt like … like something’s been ripped out of me? Like there’s some deep hole where something really important was, I don’t even know what it was?”

Hercules just looks at me a moment, and it looks like he’s trying to answer, but his Adam’s apple is bobbing and nothing is coming out. He takes a deep breath and looks away briefly, but not before I see that his eyes are glistening in the torchlight.

“Yeah,” he finally says. He looks back at me. “Believe me, that’s exactly how it feels.”

I nod slowly. Meeting his eyes, I ask quietly, “So - what do we do?”

“We get your life back. How does that sound?”

His face looks calm, but his voice is shaking a bit. I try for a lighter note. “I don’t know - what’s it gonna cost me?”

Hercules tosses a coin and catches it. “How about one dinar?”

“Great. My life’s worth one dinar?”

Hercules doesn’t seem to be doing light-hearted too well right now. He shakes his head. “Your life is priceless,” he states with quiet ferocity. “It’d better take just this one dinar to get it back.”

Before I can question further, Hercules tosses the coin into the air. It lands with a twist and a spin on the top of a barrel beside the well. To my surprise, the glittering spin keeps going and going far longer than is natural. I cocked his head to the side, watching in frowning puzzlement. Then I notice Hercules glancing around impatiently.

“Very clever Hercules!” comes a voice like an echo.

I look around to see glittering sparkles coalesce beside me and Hercules. They form themselves into a chubby little lady that must be a goddess. She’s the one who appeared at my fire the other night.

She waves this big ten denarii gold piece at Herc. I can see that there’s sun faces on either side, one crying and one laughing.

Hercules stares at her and the look on his face could cut diamonds.

“Who are you again?” I ask her.

“I’m Fortune …” she glances at Hercules and seems to cut herself short. “And I guess I’m your best friend - or your worst nightmare.”

I’m a bit startled to note that Hercules seems to be growling.

Fortune edges closer to me. “I’m sorry, Iolaus! Hercules said to do nothing, but I couldn’t do nothing so I had to do something. It … it just didn’t work out.”

I shake my head in frustration. “I am surrounded by people I can’t understand!”

“I wiped out all your memories of Hercules. You wanted a fresh start - you got to admit, this is the mother of all fresh starts.”

“I asked you to do that?” With that deep hole inside me, I can’t believe my ears.

“Uh … not exactly. Sorry,” she replies, meekly. “I just wanted to help. I guess I should have known better.”

I stare at her. “Duh, ya think?”

Hercules’ fists clench, and his teeth must’ve clenched together, too. I can almost hear them grinding as he rolls his eyes at the goddess. “Fortune!”

She looks up at him, irritated but wary.

“TODAY!” he utters impatiently.

Fortune huffs her annoyance. “Always in a rush - ha!” But she readies herself, glances up at us … … and flips the magic coin.

It almost seems to defy gravity, the way it seems to slowly soar upward, and them floats downward, spinning as it flies. She catches it, and slaps it on her hand, and I hear both my breath and Herc’s catch and hold.

As she lifts her hand I feel a jolt, and a sudden rush, as though a flood is filling me …

… and I’m not empty anymore.

Hercules watched as Fortune lifted her hand and revealed the happily smiling sunface. He felt his breath explode with relief, but caught it again just as fast as his eyes flew to Iolaus’ face.

His best friend looked stunned, but there seemed to be no other change. Hercules watched him with desperately held anxiety as Iolaus shook his head as though to clear it.

He couldn’t stand it. “Iolaus?” he whispered.

Iolaus looked up at him blankly for a moment … but suddenly a brilliant smile bloomed on his face.

“Hey, hey, hey, Herc!” he held out an arm to his newly recognized, oldest friend.

Hercules shouted and grabbed Iolaus arm, but used it to pull him into a fierce embrace, and swung him around. He dropped the blond hunter back to his feet, but held his shoulders tightly.

“Welcome back, buddy!”

Fortune, now wreathed in smiles, stepped close and touched Iolaus’ arm as Hercules released him. “Good luck, Iolaus.”

Iolaus grinned at her. “You promise?”

She smiled back, but didn’t hold his eyes long. “Sure.”

Her smile faded as she traded less-than-happy glances with Hercules. And then she walked off with a wave into a glittering column of sparkling, disappearing coins.

“All right!” Hercules cheered, grinning at his friend. “This is you, right?”

Iolaus looked puzzled and patted himself searchingly. “No!” he replied, but them laughed gleefully. He spied the coin Hercules had left on the barrelhead. He scooped it up, tossed it, and caught it again still laughing.

Hercules laughed joyfully, to see Iolaus - his Iolaus - back behind those blue eyes. Unfortunately the gaiety didn’t last.

A sudden pall fell over the hunter’s handsome features, and Iolaus sat down hard on the barrel as if his legs couldn’t hold him. “Hercules! I remember everything!” he gasped, turning suddenly anguished eyes to his friend. “I dropped that woman, and then I … I did so many terrible things. I can’t believe this - I acted like a common criminal! How could I have done it?”

“Hold it, Iolaus - I know you! I don’t know all of what happened, but I know you did only what you had to do to survive,” Hercules replied earnestly. “Stop and think right now - what did you do that was so terrible?”

Iolaus glanced at Hercules’ serious, concerned face and saw no judgment there. He looked away and remembered … … defending himself against the robbers who’d first tried to ambush him, and taking money that they themselves had no doubt stolen …

… befriending the young woman who had led him into the ambush, knowing she was doing the best she could to survive - and leaving her much better off financially after showing her a pretty good time …

… cheating at cards but just doing it a bit more cleverly than anyone else, and not responding to their threats of harm with real harm …

… shaking down the shopkeeper for protection money but in a way that took less from him and protected him from Thanatos’ knife …

Hercules could almost se the images race through Iolaus’ abstracted gaze. “And I saw you jump into that vile swamp water and risk your life to save Zeno out of your fierce loyalty.”

Iolaus looked back at him, a thread of hope dawning through the shame. “Well, yeah …”

“So - there’s nothing ‘common’ or ‘criminal’ about any of that, is there?”

Iolaus shrugged. “I - I guess not.”

“All right then,” Hercules said. He reached out, caught Iolaus’ hand and pulled him up to his feet. He gave his blond friend a slight shove to start him walking.

“But, Hercules -” Iolaus stopped and swung around to face the son of Zeus wretchedly. “I robbed - I stole - I even tried to - to kill you!”

“Iolaus -” Hercules caught his shoulders again and gave him a brief shake. “You weren’t yourself - you were lost and confused. You didn’t know yourself. But even lost, even confused, even having a lot of yourself ripped away - you couldn’t do real evil. I would have known that even if some of those men of Zeno’s hadn’t talked about it. And you couldn’t hurt me, even though that lost part of you tried.”

Iolaus shook his head, “No. No - I couldn’t, but -”

“Hercules! Iolaus!” Both men turned toward the voice that interrupted them.

Lexus walked toward them across the courtyard, his arm held out. He was dressed well, but with none of the rich finery that they had seen him in before. They traded armclasps and Hercules voiced his surprise.

“Lexus, what are you doing here in Nemea? Have you left your friend’s house already?”

Lexus nodded. “They were very kind, but I thought it would be better to come to my own family. I was gratified to find that my brother welcomed me. He had work I could do, and I needed to be busy. I especially glad now that we had to chance to meet - it had been bothering me for the last two days that I had not thanked you both properly.”

Hercules glanced at Iolaus’ shocked face and turned to the older man with a warm smile. “It’s not necessary, Lexus. We were only trying to help in any way we could.”

Lexus shook his head. “No, I needed to tell you how grateful I was, and I don’t think I was able to do that when you left me at my friend’s house.”

Iolaus swallowed convulsively and found his voice. “Grateful? To us both? Hercules saved you, Lexus, but how can you be grateful to me? I dropped your wife! It’s my fault she’s dead!”

“When I first came out of the initial shock, I did feel angry briefly, Iolaus,” Lexus replied, slowly. “But it did not take me long to realize that many forces led to Okeleia’s death. You might have been there on the bridge, but it’s much more my fault that we ended up there. Had I used my wealth and prosperity better, and not neglected my family, I might never have attracted Fortune’s test of luck. Had I considered Okeleia’s fear of heights more than my own convenience, we might have taken the longer route here to Nemea and avoided that bridge.”

He reached out to Iolaus again, and the blond hunter distractedly clasped arms with him again. “You did everything you could do to save my wife - I saw that with my own eyes. Had she not panicked, I’m sure you would have saved her. Please don’t blame yourself, Iolaus - I don’t!”

It seemed to Hercules that a weight dropped from Iolaus’ shoulders at those words. The shorter man smiled at the merchant with mixed pathos and relief.

“I’ll try, Lexus. Thank you.”

The demigod reached out to clasp arms with Lexus again with his own grateful smile. “Thank you for your words, Lexus. You don’t know what they mean to us right now. You’re a wise man.”

Lexus smiled sadly and shook his head. “That wisdom came at a high price. But I’m wise enough to know that you two do what you do out of the courage and heart of real heroes … but you still need thanks when you succeed and understanding when you don’t. Take care!”

And with a quick wave he was gone, striding off into the crowd.

Hercules turned to look at Iolaus. “Please tell me you feel a little better.”

Iolaus chuckled. “Yeah - who wouldn’t? Coming from him, that helped a lot.”

Hercules clapped him on the shoulder. “So, come on, then - let’s get out of here. I’ve had just about enough of Nemea.” Iolaus nodded, and started striding along with his friend, “Yeah me, too.”

They had only gone a few steps when Iolaus stopped again. “But, Herc - you know what? I can’t forget her face.”

“Of course you can’t, Iolaus,” Hercules replied, gently. “It’ll get easier, but I know you and I know you’ll always remember her. But now I hope you know you did everything humanly possible to save her, and no one blames you.”

Iolaus nodded. “I did my best.”

“And that’s ten times better that most people. And it’s all any of us can do.”

Hercules urged his friend on with a push on the shoulder he still held, but Iolaus stopped him again.

“Wait a minute - Herc?”

“Yeah, Iolaus?”

Iolaus glanced up at his friend a bit awkwardly. “Thanks for believing in me - for being there for me.”

Hercules nodded. “Always,’ he answered simply, surely.

“Now, let’s go!” Hercules went on. He threw his arm around his friend’s shoulders and began to pull him along. “I was thinking we might make it to that neat little pub on the road to Eleusis before it’s too late.”

Iolaus’ face lit up. “Deion’s place - with that great nut brown ale?”

“No, Deion is the guy with that excellent plum wine.”

“Uh-uh, Herc, he’s the one with the nut brown ale, I’m tellin’ you!”

“Is not.”

“Is too.”

“Well, you do agree that he’s not too far down the road to Eleusis, right?”

“Yep.”

“Well, let’s go and we’ll just see who’s right.”

“Betcha five dinars it’s the nut brown ale!”

“Iolaus, you don’t have five dinars!”

“I have one dinar - I’ll bet you that.”

“Iolaus - that’s my dinar.”

“Won’t be for long, ‘cause Deion’s the guy with the nut brown ale.’

“Is not.”

“Is, too.”

And the two heroes squabbled amiably all the way out of Nemea, and somewhere Fortune smiled.

I will be the answer at the end of the line.
I will be there for you while you take the time.
In the burning of uncertainty, I will be your solid ground.
I will hold the balance when you can’t look down.
If it takes my whole life, I won’t break, I won’t bend.
And it’ll all be worth it, worth it in the end.
’Cause I can only tell you what I know - that I need you in my life -
And when the stars have all burned out
You’ll still be burning so bright …
-“Answer” by Sarah McLachlan

-- The End --

Melisande, June, 2006

A.N. - Iolaus’ thoughts remembering what happened after he rescues Zeno is cannibalized from my own IWC missing scene challenge story, The Mathematics of a Hero’s Heart -- in case it seems a bit familiar to any readers. Hercules’ story of what happened before he taught Iolaus to swim is from the Young Hercules episode, “Forgery”.



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