“Come on, Hercules! Hurry up!” Iolaus called over his shoulder as he strode swiftly across the wide sand verge along the north shore of the Bay of Corinth. “We’re gonna miss the boat!”
“Don’t worry,” the demigod replied laconically, a hint of laughter in his voice. “The boat will wait for us.”
“Are you kidding?” the warrior exclaimed, whirling to face his friend, but continuing to walk backward. “This is the ferry to Corinth. It leaves on time, every time. It does not wait for anybody.”
“We’re not taking the ferry,” Hercules told him, and then grinned. “We’re sailing with Nebula.”
Iolaus stopped walking and gaped in surprise. “Okay. Okay,” he finally managed, nodding slightly and looking away, a frown playing over his brow as if unsure how to take the news. “That’s … that’s okay.” Turning back to walk more slowly toward the dock, he scratched his cheek and his brows arched as he contemplated the change in their mode of transport, and then a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth.
Catching up with him, Hercules draped an arm around his shoulders and leaned down to tease, “I’m sure she’ll be glad to see you too, Iolaus. You two can, uh, pick up where you left off.”
“Excuse me?!” Iolaus protested. “The ferry stops at every town. With Nebula, it’ll be a straight trip. Unless, of course, she and her crew wanna stop and plunder something. I mean, dealing with pirates.” He waved his hands and shrugged as if no one could ever predict what pirates might do.
“Not a problem,” Hercules assured him with smug complacency. “We’re the crew.”
Once again, Iolaus gaped at his partner, his eyes narrowing with the realization that Hercules was ragging on him, but really not sure how to respond - in part, because he wasn’t at all sure what to think about the transport arrangements. His feelings for Nebula were conflicted, and he wasn’t sure, really, how he felt about her. Sure, she was definitely attractive, but she was … he wasn’t sure. He just knew he felt off-balance with her, and that left him feeling uncomfortable. Vulnerable. And he hated feeling vulnerable. Shaking off his muddled thoughts, realizing that Hercules was studying him with an annoyingly amused expression, he simply replied, “Ah, good,” and turned his face toward the sea.
As if sensing the change in his mood, Hercules’ arm dropped away and he offered a change of subject. “It’ll be good to see Ajax again.”
“Yeah,” Iolaus agreed heartily. “You know, when I think of all the battles we fought side by side, the friendships we made … funny how war can do that.”
Hercules nodded pensively and they walked in companionable silence … until they heard someone groan in evident distress.
Startled, the heroes looked around hastily, and spotted a stranger stumbling toward them, his hands reaching toward them in supplication, but he tripped and fell. Breaking into a lope, they hurried to help the evidently badly beaten man who continued to scrabble awkwardly toward them - as if afraid and desperate for protection.
“Hey, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa,” Hercules crooned gently as he caught the man and supported him, calming his frenzied anxiety. “What happened?” he asked once the stranger had stopped panting with effort.
“Robbers .. four of ‘em,” the unfortunate gasped. He was thin and pallid, his face bruised, his torn clothing revealing contusions on his body. “Worked me over pretty good,” he added, looking away. A faint blush of embarrassment flared on his cheeks as he admitted, “I can’t stand.”
“All right,” the demigod soothed as he explored the extent of the man’s wounds, “just let me see.” Hercules delicately touched the back of the stranger’s skull, and his hand came away stained with blood.
“There was a temple to Aesclepius back there,” Iolaus recalled, with a frown of concern mingled with compassion for the victim, as he gestured back the way they’d come.
“That’s right,” Hercules agreed solemnly. “We’ll get help for him there.” He lifted the stranger to his feet, and supported him with a strong arm. “We’ll take it slow, and you can lean on me,” he murmured reassuringly. Turning to Iolaus, he tilted his head toward the distant dock. “Ajax is expecting us,” he said. “You go on to Corinth.”
“Well ….” The warrior hesitated.
“It’s okay,” Hercules insisted, pulling the stranger’s arm around his neck and holding the man’s wrist securely, while he bore more of the stricken fellow’s weight when the stranger moaned and sagged against him. He frowned with unconscious impatience, taut with the urgency of the need to get the guy to help. “I’ll meet you there.”
“Okay,” Iolaus agreed unhappily, knowing that it didn’t take both of them to get the injured man to the temple. His lips thinned as he watched Hercules lift the stranger into his arms and move off swiftly. Shrugging, he raked his fingers through his wild curls and then resumed his journey toward the boat that would take him to Corinth. The boat … and Nebula.
Sighing, he rubbed his mouth and thought about what it was about her that got under his skin. It wasn’t that he didn’t like her. He did - got a real kick out of her unapologetic brazenness. She made him laugh. And he respected her. Shaking his head as he kept walking toward the dock, still some distance away, he had to admit she had guts, and she was a damned good warrior. Decent leader, too, the way she could pull a crew together. He’d never known another woman who could … and then his thoughts stalled. He had known another woman like her; oh, not so much fun, far more intense, but brave, a natural leader and an awesome warrior. Xena. There were things about Nebula that definitely pinged on his memories and … and lingering if unadmitted bitterness about Xena. Grimacing, he looked out over the rolling sea to the horizon. He’d really loved Xena, and had been profoundly betrayed by her in so very many ways.
Was he afraid that he might fall in love with Nebula? Afraid that, if he allowed it, she could be a whole lot more than fun and games? Were the old memories about betrayal what had him feeling so vulnerable for no good reason? There wasn’t much, after all, that left him feeling that way; hollow inside with an ache in his chest and a sense of impending, deadly danger that he was helpless to defend against. The gods knew, he - and again his thoughts stalled. The gods.
As understanding finally washed over him, leaving him chilled, he stumbled to a halt and lifted a hand to cover his eyes as he bowed his head. It had been so long since he’d found someone he could truly love again that he’d forgotten or, at least, he’d buried it so deep he never let himself think about it. Because it hurt so damned much to think about it, to remember. Hera’s curse. The curse that had killed sweet, innocent Anya and his priceless children. Love for him could only mean inevitable pain and guilt, for in loving, he condemned his beloved to death. He bit his lip and swallowed hard, forced himself to take deep breaths to calm down, and clenched his fists to still the slight tremble in his hands. He could not love again. He dare not, ever, love again.
Wiping a hand over his face, he laughed bitterly at what a fool he was being, worrying about all this when there was no reason. Nebula was just kidding around, pushing his buttons because it amused her. She was one tough lady, and he didn’t delude himself that love - a lifetime of love - was anything that would interest her at all. She was … too independent to give herself to any one man. Smiling wryly as he resumed walking, he realized her determinedly free spirit was part of her attraction, at least for him. Ah well, there was nothing to say they couldn’t enjoy one another’s company, couldn’t maybe even become friends of a sort. Not like they were ever likely to spend much time around one another.
Shaking off his sense of confusion, glad to know he’d figured out what it was that was bothering him, and to have decided there was no reason to worry, that love just wasn’t in the cards for them, he quickened his pace. He could enjoy being alone with her on the ship without it being anything more than it was. They’d tease one another and, since he was the only member of the crew, she’d probably work him into the ground and there’d be no time for anything more, even if they were both so inclined. Straightening his shoulders, lifting his jaw, he told himself it was just a boat ride. That’s all. Just a ride.
Nebula’s ship was tied up at the dock when he arrived, and he spotted her sitting at the top of the gang plank. When she saw him approaching, she stood with languid grace and waited with her hands on her hips. Her eyes slowly traveled the length of his body and back to his eyes, her lips curved in the taunting smile that he’d come to expect from her: sardonic, sassy and very, very sexy. One elegant brow lifted and she called out, “About time you showed up, Monkey Boy. Where’s your shadow?”
He rolled his eyes and shook his head, and slowly smiled with appreciation as his eyes did their own tour and, when he met her gaze again, he could see that she was brimming with good-natured amusement. He chuckled to himself thinking, yeah, he could play this game and have a good time with no expectation - or hope - of anything more. Marching up the gangplank, he stopped only when he was face to face with her - or at least face to ample assets. Looked up cockily, he drawled, “Hercules will find his own way to Corinth. So it’s just you and me.”
“Is that right?” she teased with heavy innuendo. “You think you’re man enough to manage on your own?”
“Yeah,” he breathed huskily, meeting the challenge in her eyes with a steady gaze that dared her to do her worst. “I’m more than man enough.”
Laughing, she backed away and swept an arm toward the lines tying her ship to the dock. “We’ll see,” she replied tartly. “Move that cute little butt of yours - I want to catch the tide.”
Suddenly all business, she whirled away haughtily, and he blew out a long, slow breath … and then he hastened to loosen the ropes before loping back aboard to haul in the gangplank and then unfurl the sails.
In minutes, the ship had eased away from the dock and was turning toward Corinth. Keeping the sails trimmed kept Iolaus hopping during the three hour sail across the Bay, and he frequently had to climb the rigging, while she stood tall and proud at the wheel and took great delight in calling out orders to her one-man crew.
“Annoying, that’s what she is,” Iolaus muttered irritably to himself. “Very annoying.”
Iolaus sighed with contentment when they were firmly tied to the dock in Corinth, glad that his period of servitude was over. “Ah, it’s good to be back,” he asserted with a smile. Stepping onto the gangplank, he added, “Thanks for the lift, Nebula.”
“Glad to have you,” she replied with warm geniality. “A barnacle who knows fore from aft is always welcome.” Following him down the plank, she looked over the busy yard, noting the numerous tough, war-scarred men in the crowd. “You soldiered with this bunch, huh?”
“Well, not all of them,” Iolaus returned as he paused to scan the men loitering in the area. Smiling reminiscently, he added softly, “… but a lot of ‘em.”
“Pretty scurvy-looking crew,” Nebula observed with caustic skepticism, a slight furrow between her brows as she noted the signs of tension in the crowd, the wary looks the citizens gave the warriors, and the anger that seemed to simmer in the ex-soldiers’ eyes and bearing.
Hearing censure in her voice, Iolaus was quick to retort defensively, “War can do that to you.”
She cocked a brow, but then focused her attention on Iolaus and smiled warmly. “What’s the occasion?” she asked, curious to know why he’d been in such a hurry to get to Corinth.
Continuing on down the gangway, he explained, “They’re dedicating a statue to those that didn’t come back. It was Ajax’s idea.” Looking around, he chuckled and shook his head with easy good humour. “Looks like every ex-soldier in Greece is turning up.”
“Well, maybe I’ll sign up a new crew,” Nebula mused. “Anyone who survived a ten-year war in Troy should make a good sailor.”
Casting a sardonic look over his shoulder at her, he retorted sarcastically, “You mean ‘pirate.’”
Taking no offense, she shrugged and grinned. “Whatever. By the look of them, it’d be a step up.”
Pausing on the dock, Iolaus surveyed the crowd. “I haven’t seen this many heroes in one place since the Argonauts’ reunion.” He slapped her on the back, an unconsciously comradely gesture, and offered, “Come on. I’ll introduce you to Ajax.”
She tilted her head and smiled bemusedly as she followed him through the crowd.
In the town square, a massive stone statue still lay on its back, but ropes were secured around it. More than two dozen men took their place along the lines and began to heave, gradually pulling the monolith upright. “All right, put some muscle into it!” someone called when the forward momentum slowed and the statue began to shimmy. “Hey! Hey! Steady it,” he commanded urgently. “Hold it! Hold it!”
Ajax, a strong, bearded man garbed in worn black leather studded with steel, crossed his arms and surveyed the action with profound satisfaction. Leaning toward the man beside him, he said with hoarse emotion, “Phidias, every man who ever took up arms for our country, owes you a debt of gratitude.”
Phidias smiled at his Commander, but shook his head. The older of the two, his grizzled hair was bound by a worn rag, and his homespun clothing was dusty. “No, sir,” he countered, “the debt’s mine. Not a day passes, I don’t think of the guys who died out there.”
The heavy stone statue again began to shimmy, and the men on the ropes reacted immediately to steady it, pulling back sharply … and accidentally banging into one of the market stalls. The vendor reacted with sharp irritation as his leather goods tumbled from their perches on the thin walls and fell from a table that had been jostled. “Hey! Watch it!” he shouted angrily, pushing the former soldiers away roughly. “You guys roll into town like you own the place and everybody in it!” he yelled, attracting the attention of other villagers.
Embarrassed, angered, still doing their best to keep the statue from falling, to raise it successfully, the warriors growled and shoved back. More voices were raised in contempt and protest against the presence of so many warriors in their town, more shoving ensued - and fisticuffs broke out on the fringes of the crowd.
But most of the ex-warriors remained focused on raising the monument crafted in their honour, and in respect for the men who had died in defence of their nation. The massive, twenty-foot high stone soldier rose higher and, finally, was upright, if trembling unsteadily. A rope snapped and the soldiers on that line fell back, staggering to maintain their balance, bumping into more villagers who jostled back. Angry now and freed of their duty to raise the monolith, more ex-soldiers entered the fray.
Another voice shouted above the growing melee, as Kazon, the King’s man, strode in with a squad of guards. “All right, break it up! There’s no permit for this statue,” he declaimed, with harsh tones of authority. “There’s no permit for a demonstration. Now, move on! And don’t make me say it twice. Move, or you’ll be moved. This is your last warning.”
When the small skirmishes did not immediately abate, he waved his men into the melee and the ex-soldiers, disgruntled and furious with the lack of respect shown them, were soon battling in earnest with the King’s men. Ajax pushed his way forward, calling out, “Hold on, sergeant. You can’t do this.”
“I speak for the King,” Kazon snapped. “He can. Now move on.”
Phidias’ lip curled with contempt and he growled with livid antipathy, “The King, huh? Hasn’t he the guts to come and speak for himself?!”
Kazon’s expression hardened. “Arrest that man,” he ordered abruptly, waving two of his men toward the sculptor. “Take him away!”
“Come on, you old-timer!” a guardsman sneered as he gripped Phidias’ arm to drag him out of the square.
“Hey! Let me go!” the old warrior protested vehemently, struggling to free himself.
“He didn’t do anything!” Ajax protested in outrage, his face flushing with fury and frustration.
But Kazon was careless of their protests, contemptuous of them. “What part of ‘Move on’ don’t you understand?” he demanded, and raised his voice to shout, “Clear the area. Clear the area!”
Tempers flared higher and the ex-soldiers - unwilling to be pushed aside, to be treated with such evident contempt - resented being ordered about and refused to back off. The townsmen, their bravery strengthened by the presence of the King’s guards, became more aggressive, shoving, shouting. Like a match to tinder, the warriors reacted - unleashing their rage and full scale battle broke out. Weapons were drawn, swords flashed and slashed, seeking blood and some kind of retribution for the indignities, and the guardsmen reacted in kind. Angry men shoved and jostled around the base of the unstable statue, heedless of the threat it posed.
Iolaus, Nebula on his heels, loped into the square and gaped at the battle, scarcely able to believe what he was seeing. But the teetering statue drew his attention and he saw it begin to fall. Aghast, he broke through the raging crowd, pushing past men engaged in beating one another into the ground, and hastily grabbed two opponents, dragging them unceremoniously back, shouting, “OK, guys! Let’s take it over here!”
The statue crashed down with a resounding thud - and the two men who would have been crushed had Iolaus not drawn them to safety stared at it, stunned for a moment by how nearly they’d been killed. But their distraction was momentary, the relief of still being alive brief, their pent-up anger too hot to be so easily cooled, and they were soon once again battling one another with righteous fury.
Looking around, shaking her head, Nebula muttered, “Love a good convention, but this one’s getting out of hand.”
“Yeah,” Iolaus agreed wholeheartedly as he scanned the crowd and spotted the man he sought. “Ajax,” he shouted urgently, “call ‘em off!”
The hero only gave him a wolfish grin as he called back, “Iolaus! Welcome to the party!”
But Iolaus saw no humour in the situation, no cause for amusement or celebration - and he didn’t like the light of satisfaction in Ajax’s eyes as he watched his men beating the stuffing out of the less experienced guardsmen. “These guys don’t stand a chance against your men!” Iolaus protested, but was distracted by brawling men around him. “Hey! Hey, hey!” he called, trying to inject calm, trying to separate them, and keep them from killing one another.
Watching, Ajax’s eyes narrowed, and his face flushed with anger. “They’ve been riding us, treating us like scum!” he cried, his voice hoarse with emotion. “We’ve got rights, same as them! In fact, we fought for their rights! And many good men lost their lives! You know that!”
Pushing the fighting men near him apart, Iolaus shouted, “I know.” Drawing closer to Ajax, he gestured urgently around the square at the battling men, “But look, you’ve made your point. Call a halt, before somebody gets killed.”
A soldier tossed a guardsmen through the air, and Nebula had to duck quickly to get out of the way of the flying body. “Like me!” she asserted, no longer finding any amusement in the situation, and her own eyes sparked with the threat of retribution.
“Okay,” Ajax allowed, seeming to realize it had gone far enough. “Back off!” he bellowed to his followers. “That’s an order!”
“You’ll pay for this!” Kazon grated, icy with the rage of seeing his men bested.
“No! You’ll pay for this when King Iphicles hears about it!” Iolaus asserted loudly in the sudden silence of the uneasy peace, thrusting his way through the crowd to the Sergeant. “He would never condone you harassing these men!”
“He was following my orders!”
Shocked by the sudden angry words and the familiar voice, disbelief written on his face, Iolaus turned to stare at Iphicles, who rode into the square on a magnificent white stallion. “Iphicles,” he gasped, dismay in his voice and eyes.
“You know the King?” Nebula exclaimed in surprise, and then added sardonically, “Nothing like friends in high places.”
Obviously disturbed by the rigid anger he read on Iphicles’ face, gravely unsettled by the tangible hostility between the King and Ajax, he turned to Nebula and replied meaningfully, “He’s more than a friend. He’s Hercules’ brother.” Turning back to Iphicles, he asked with evident emotion, “Iphicles, how can you condone this? These men fought for Corinth. They fought for all of Greece.”
His features rigid, his tone cold, the King replied, “It’s none of your business, Iolaus. Don’t get involved.”
“I fought alongside these men,” Iolaus protested, unwilling to step aside or ignore the injustice. “So did Hercules. I am involved.”
“But you’re not,” Iphicles retorted swiftly, sternly, though there were tones of weariness edging into his voice. “You’ve got no idea what’s going on here. You’ve been away with my brother for far too long.”
Pushed into anger, unwilling to engage in debate in front of the avidly listening crowd, Iphicles snapped, “I am not going argue the matter with you!” Wheeling his horse around, he shouted to his man, “Kazon, see to your men. Report back to me.” He kicked his horse into motion, yelling, “Yah!” and rode out through the gate, back to the palace.
“Some friend,” Nebula observed dryly, and Iolaus grimaced as he shook his head in frustration.
“Iphicles refuses to hear us, Iolaus,” Ajax said sharply. Waving around the square, he continued angrily, “Now, he sends in his goons. You know Phidias.”
“Yeah,” Iolaus agreed. He knew the warrior sculptor well, and admired him.
“They hauled him off!” Ajax exclaimed, scarcely able to contain his ire - or his fear for his old friend. “For no reason!”
“Nobody cares,” a tall, weathered ex-soldier explained with weary regret, hurt in his eyes, as he joined the discussion. “We come home after all these years, and to what?”
Listening nearby, Kazon interjected, “You guys have been fighting for so long, you’re nothing but a bunch of thugs! You all deserve what Phidias got!”
Stung, Ajax whirled to face him. “You can haul every last one of us out there,” he grated with a gesture toward the coast, “but that sorry rock won’t hold us forever!”
“Are you talking about Golgoth?” Iolaus demanded, astonishment and disbelief warring in his voice at this last bit of distressing news.
“You bet I am,” Ajax assured him, his tone harsh. “The worst prison in Greece. Once you’re out there, you may as well be dead: out of sight, out of mind, out of luck.”
Iolaus’ lips parted as he studied Ajax, confusion clouding his features, and he frowned as he looked away, out through the gate. “I’m going to talk to Iphicles when he’s cooled off … find out what’s behind all this.”
“Well, maybe he’ll talk to you,” Ajax sighed, doubt in his voice as he shook his head. “He certainly won’t listen to me.”
Iolaus and Iphicles sat by the fire in the comfortable chamber he used for an office and for private reflection. Gazing at his friend, reading the signs of strain around the King’s eyes and mouth, Iolaus’ expression softened with sorrow and compassion filled his eyes. “Iphicles, Hercules and I were … we were sorry to hear about the loss of your second child,” he said softly. “We were in Cestos, and we only heard the news of Rena’s miscarriage a few days ago.”
“Thanks, Iolaus, I appreciate that,” Iph replied sadly. “It was sudden, unexpected … over so quickly. Rena is … well, she’s withdrawn into herself, grieving.” He swallowed and stared into the fire. “She was alone and remained alone until I got back. Oh, yes, there were servants around her, the healer, but that’s not … not really a comfort, is it? Mother wanted to come, sent a message, but she’s been ill and hadn’t the strength for the journey - and was afraid, if she did come, she might only bring the sickness here.” Sighing wearily, he pushed his heavy hair back from his face and shifted in the chair. “Rena is afraid she might not be able to have more children. And she’s very angry, I think. Angry to have lost the child … our first son - the crown prince. Angry with me, because I wasn’t here when she needed me. And I can’t blame her for that. I … I should have been here.” He paused and then continued bitterly, “But I was away, dealing with a situation, uh, just like the one today, but it turned into a riot. Returning soldiers, who just could not leave the fighting behind.”
“Ah, Iph, I hope you don’t hold Ajax and the others responsible.”
Looking up, meeting Iolaus’ steady gaze, Iphicles replied flatly, “But I do. If it hadn’t been for them, I would have been here with Rena, when she needed me - more, I think, than she’s ever needed me before.”
“I understand,” Iolaus returned gently. “But I also understand these veterans.” Sighing, he looked away from the anger and pain in his friend’s eyes, having no way to assuage it. But he couldn’t let it go, could not allow the situation to continue to fester and worsen until there was no hope of reconciliation. “Maybe, they went about it the wrong way,” he said slowly. “But these men are not civilians. They don’t think like civilians.” Setting down his goblet on the table beside his chair, he stood to pace before the fire. Turning to Iphicles, he appealed, “We need to find a way to help them. They fought hard for Greece.”
“I know that,” the King agreed with a grimace, well understanding the debt he owed the returning soldiers. “The trouble is … the killing, the fighting - it’s all they know. My people are terrified of them!”
“But sending them out to Golgoth is not the answer,” Iolaus argued, though he kept his tone low and reasonable. “These men, they’re … they’re heroes. They’re not criminals. We’re supposed to be helping them fit in, not just chain them and lock them away.”
His jaw tightening, unhappy with the criticism, Iphicles replied stiffly, “When a situation like today comes up, I will deal with it. Just because these men fought in a war, does not entitle them to special privileges. They are not above the law!”
“Stop!” the King commanded, feeling cornered, having no other solution at hand for what had become an intractable problem and a threat to order in his land. This wasn’t just about what the returning soldiers were owed, but also about the safety and security of all the rest of his people. “Iolaus, you are my friend. But I’ve got a country to run”.
Iolaus studied him, and knew he’d get nowhere by pushing any harder, or by arguing further. But nor could he let it go, walk away, give up. “Then as a friend,” he asked, “will you do one thing for me?”
The King’s features softened and he nodded. “You know I will,” he agreed with solid emphasis. Whatever happened, however the issue of the returning warriors ended, he valued Iolaus and did not want this matter to become a wedge between them.
“Talk to Ajax,” Iolaus implored. “Listen to what he has to say.”
Sighing, Iphicles looked away; his jaw tightened but, finally, he allowed, “Very well. Bring him to me.”
A soft smile flitted over Iolaus’ lips. He moved to Iphicles’ side and gripped his friend’s shoulder. He could feel the tension and knew that none of this was easy for the King, that he had many interests to balance, and his own griefs as a man and husband to bear. “We’ll find a way, Iph,” he murmured reassuringly. “You’re a good King and an even better man. You’ll find a way to make this right. And you know I’ll do all I can to help you - and so will Hercules.”
“I know,” Iphicles replied, his eyes downcast. Straightening, he squared his shoulders and looked up at his friend. “Bring him, Iolaus. Let’s see if we can find some accommodation between us.”
“So, Iphicles is prepared to listen,” Iolaus reported, his tone upbeat and encouraging, “which is a step.”
“It’s talk!” a soldier growled disparagingly and others rumbled their agreement. Men of action, they’d long ago learned to be wary of false and empty promises, to prefer action over words.
“He will come around,” Iolaus assured them with the confidence of his utter, unshakeable belief in Hercules’ brother. “I know the man. You just have to be patient.”
“How much longer are we supposed to wait?” another soldier called out in frustration, and Iolaus could feel the anger around him. He looked to Ajax with a mute appeal for support.
Grimacing, the Commander said grudgingly, “Remember, it took us ten years to win at Troy. Perhaps we should listen to Iolaus.”
“And too many good men lost their lives because of it!” one of his men called out. They had paid with blood and sweat, with grief and pain - they had more than earned the respect that was due them and the gratitude they deserved from those they’d fought to safeguard.
But, instead, they’d been treated as unwanted interlopers, shunned and despised. They felt betrayed by the very people they’d gone to war to protect - people who, years ago, had been friends, neighbours, even family, but who looked at them now like strangers who weren’t wanted - were even hated. It was wrong, all of it, and they felt that in their hearts and in their guts. They should have been welcomed, celebrated, thanked - not warned off or worse. Their anger and hurt showed in their faces, in the discouraged set of their shoulders and in the flash of their eyes. They weren’t prepared to take much more abuse from those who should have cherished them.
“Yes, too many good men did die,” Iolaus agreed with no hesitation, for he was a warrior, too. He’d been there. He understood their pain and anger and, frankly, he shared it. But anger wasn’t the answer. Fighting would accomplish nothing but more grief. Firmly, he stated, “But, more than fighting won that war. There was a strategy, a plan.” When they looked away, he knew he had to give them more, give them something they could believe in and cling to with hope. “And Hercules is coming back, soon,” he assured them. “Iphicles will listen to him. You know he will!”
However, even the invocation of Hercules’ respected name wasn’t enough to salve their wounded spirits. “Men are rotting out there on Golgoth,” Ajax rasped and, surly with ill-feeling, they nodded around him. “I don’t know how much longer I can keep the lid on this.”
“Time and trust, Ajax,” Iolaus insisted, not giving way though he stood alone in a room of angry men. “You know that’s the answer.”
They held one another’s gazes for a long moment of silent challenge, but then the old warrior gave way and nodded. His jaw tightened and he stood to look around at his men. “Wipe those looks off your faces. Griping and groaning never helped anybody. Coming home …hasn’t been what any of us expected.” They grumbled, frustration clear on their faces, their dissatisfaction with more waiting plain. His voice rising, he sought to rally their spirits. “We’ve been insulted, ridiculed. Men who didn’t have the guts to fight beside us now have the nerve to spit on us! Well that’s not right - none of this!” His voice strengthened and he told them with conviction, “Just remember one thing. You watch each others’ backs. Stick together. United, nobody can beat us … not even the King of Corinth!”
The soldiers cheered, buoyed by the confidence he continued to show in them. One way or another, eventually, they would prevail and be accorded what was right, what they had earned and paid for in blood.
Outside, spying on them, Kazon smiled. Ajax might have meant only to lift their spirits - but it sounded a lot like treason to him.
They gathered in the sheltered but open air meeting area outside the palace throne-room. Iolaus hoped the relative informality of the setting would ease the way, but he sighed at the intransigent expressions on the faces of his principals. Iphicles sat rigidly on a wooden throne, and he looked deeply angry - which surprised the warrior, because he’d expected more willingness to negotiate on the King’s part. Ajax was both proud and sullen as he stood stiffly before the King, his shoulders back and his chin high, his manner conveying his determination to obtain what was owed to him and his men. Rolling his eyes, Iolaus wished Hercules was there. The demigod was far better at difficult negotiations and was far more patient by nature. Taking a deep breath, doing his best to appear both calm and reasonable, he began the discussion. “King Iphicles, you have a problem,” he stated firmly, and then turned to the hero to continue with equal intensity, “Ajax, your vets have a problem.” Looking from one to the other, seeing the rigidity of their expressions, his voice rose and impatience crept into his tone as he insisted, “You have to realize, it’s the same problem!”
“I disagree,” the King countered coldly. “What I have is a solution, and it’s out there on the bay.”
Affronted, Ajax protested, “Highness, you can’t believe that sending men out to the rock for imaginary offenses is a solution to anything!”
“Imaginary offenses?!” Iphicles exclaimed furiously, rising abruptly to his feet. “Is that what it was for you to encourage rebellion against this crown?!” At the confused expression on Ajax’s face, he quoted with low menace, “‘Not even the King of Corinth can beat us.’ Isn’t that what you said!”
Iolaus paled and closed his eyes, sick to think they’d been overheard the night before and the comments twisted and distorted now. No wonder Iph was so angry; glancing around, Iolaus saw the satisfied smirk on Kazon’s face and he wanted to slug the man. But, still trying for some kind of reconciliation, Ajax was protesting, trying to explain, “It wasn’t meant that way. It was meant to rally hope, because that’s all these men have left, hope … and each other.”
Desperate to ameliorate the explosive situation, Iolaus hastened to add, “It was quoted out of context.”
Iphicles turned hard, cold eyes upon him. “Context is unimportant,” he stated flatly, leaving no room for explanation or understanding.
Holding out a hand in an unconsciously beseeching gesture, Ajax rasped, “If I spoke inappropriately, punish me, not my men.”
Iphicles held himself very still as he studied the hero. His jaw clenched and unclenched, as if he were forcing himself to be calm, and then he approached Ajax, leaning in to say hoarsely, “You may leave Corinth, if you go now - all of you. Anyone who stays goes to Golgoth.”
Ajax hesitated, emotion roiling in his eyes, his expression tense and pale. “If we leave, what happens to the men already out there,” he asked with quiet force.
“They stay where they are,” the King retorted mercilessly, turning away. Iolaus opened his mouth, about to intervene, to cajole, bargain, even beg for more than this, but Ajax spoke first, his voice ringing with anger, “Very well. Now!”
Men came over the walls and burst through the archway, weapons drawn, catching the Kazon and the guards by surprise. Ajax reached out to grab the King, pulling him back hard against his body - and he laid the edge of his blade against Iphicles’ throat.
“Ajax,” Iolaus shouted, appalled, “don’t do this.”
“You heard what I heard,” the hero replied, his tone dull, resigned. “I can’t not do this.”
“It’s a mistake,” Iolaus insisted with a glance at Iphicles that noted the shock and fear in the King’s eyes. “Let me try and talk to him.”
“No. It was a mistake to think that this would work,” Ajax replied starkly. “You were right. We needed a plan. Well, I have one. Sorry about this, Iolaus.”
“All of Greece won’t be big enough to hide you,” Iphicles warned, his voice harsh with his efforts to hide his fear of being assassinated and his effort to remain strong.
“As long as I’ve got you, I don’t need all of Greece,” Ajax snarled.
“Ajax, you can’t do this!” Iolaus protested frantically. “It makes a mockery of all you stand for - turns you and your men from heroes into criminals!”
“Stay out of this, Iolaus,” the warrior growled as he drew Iphicles toward the archway. “Don’t make me hurt you, too.”
Iolaus blinked and shook his head. He looked around at the ex-soldiers and he could see that many appeared uncertain, unsettled. “This is wrong, and you all know it,” he insisted.
But they followed Ajax out and away from the palace; he’d been their leader too long to stop trusting him, and they didn’t know what else to do to win the respect owed them by the King and people of Corinth. Iolaus trailed them to the coast but didn’t wait to see them drag Iphicles aboard the vessel they’d commandeered. It was all too clear where they planned to go.
Which meant he had to get out to the prison island as quickly as possible.
“Nebula,” Iolaus called as he raced along the deck toward her ship. He’d been afraid she might have already sailed away. “Nebula?” he shouted again urgently, racing up the gangplank. “Nebula, I need you!”
“Love the direct approach,” she smirked.
He looked around wildly, until he spotted her standing naked under a make-shift shower and gulped, turning away swiftly in embarrassment for having intruded. “Oh, sorry,” he stammered, “I, uh … Ajax has taken the King prisoner, and it’s my fault.”
“Easy!” she drawled. “Before you take all the credit, how do you figure that?”
“You see, I persuaded them that … that they could solve their problem if they got together and talked it over. But it blew up,” he explained, his voice unsteady as he blurted out the words. He raked a shaking hand through his hair. Gods, how had he let it get so out of hand? “I know Ajax. I should’ve seen it coming.”
She frowned and her lips thinned as she considered the situation. “Do you need me to help you get away?”
“No,” he protested emphatically, shocked by her suggestion. “I …I don’t want to get away! I -” He broke off when she chuckled and grimaced at her evident amusement at his predicament. Swallowing, he took a breath and tried to continue more calmly, “Uh, I want to go and rescue Iphicles … before Ajax does something really foolish.”
“Foolish. Like -” she probed as she rinsed her long hair.
“Well, first thing he’ll do is go to the prison and rescue his men. And then it could go any number of ways - none of them good.”
“Rescue the King,” she mused and then smiled slowly. “You think Iphicles can spell, ‘reward’?” Laughing in her throat, she went on, “I bet he can. Towel?”
“Huh?” Iolaus muttered and then spotted one nearby. Carefully keeping his eyes averted, he handed back over his shoulder. “Here.”
“Thank you,” she acknowledged and wrapped it around her hair. Thinking she had used it for a wrap, Iolaus turned and gaped as she walked casually past him. Evidently pleased at his reaction, grinning at his discomfiture, she suggested blithely, “What do you say we get this bucket under way, hmm?”
He swallowed hard and then hastened to ready the ship for sailing.
Malnourished prisoners clad in rags slaved under the grim eyes of their watchful guards while the warden oriented the new shipment of men to the realities of their existence on the prison island. They were gathered in the forecourt, having been marched along the stone walkway built over the sands that surrounded the fortress. His tone callous with self satisfaction and power, the well-fed, bearded official lectured them loudly. “Welcome to Golgoth,” he greeted them sarcastically. “This place is mine. All of you belong to me. The gods of Olympus don’t exist here. My name is Gagnon. If you pray, pray only to me. You’ll follow the rules and keep your mouths shut, or damnation in Tartarus will be like Elysium, compared to the time you do here.” As he spoke, he strode back and forth in front of the new prisoners who stood in irregular lines, some slumping with hopelessness, others showing inherent resistance in their rigid postures and disgusted expressions. One such was Phidias, who stood tall with his arms crossed over his barrel chest, and he stared with contempt for the brute who now claimed dominion over him. Gagnon paused and sneered at him, “You smell like regular army to me.”
“I was,” the ex-warrior replied austerely, though pride resonated in his voice.
“I hate regular army,” Gagnon informed him with a growl, leaning close to intimidate him.
Phidias eyed him and seemed unimpressed - and certainly uncowed by the blustering manner. “Hmm,” he murmured with an arched brow. “Do I look as though I care?”
The attack when it came was swift and brutal. A guard behind him clubbed him, and Gagnon grabbed his left arm, twisting it high into his back, so that he was doubled over and grunting from the pain, biting back a scream as the limb was nearly pulled from its socket. He was clubbed again, and Gagnon released his arm but beat him with a truncheon, until he collapsed to the ground, moaning.
Standing over him, Gagnon rasped, “Oh, you’ll learn to care.” And then he trod on Phidias’ hand, grinding the bones against the paving stone, until the sculptor cried out in protest, for the destruction of his hands meant the end of his art as well as the end of life as a warrior.
But Gagnon knew no pity, and crushed the hand beneath his hobnailed boot, smiling as he did so. And when he was done, he set about kicking Phidias until the old man lost consciousness, and tormenting him was no longer amusing.
Soldiers dragged Iphicles from the boat they’d rowed to the island and grounded on the sandy shore near the dock, and roughly shoved him onto the low stone path that wound up to the prison. “Move!” one ordered him, shoving him again, while another encouraged with sarcastic delight, “Just a little further.”
Ajax turned on them and bellowed, “Show some respect! He may be a disgrace, but he’s still a King.”
“Is this your idea of respect, Ajax?” Iphicles snapped furiously. “You get used to this rock,” he grated, daring to threaten his captor, “You are not leaving it.” But the warrior only sneered at him as he once again drew his blade.
Above them on the walls, a guard called out, “Who goes there? Identify yourselves!”
Shifting to lay the edge of his knife against Iphicles’ throat, Ajax called back, “Put down your weapons! We have your King!” When the guard gulped in consternation and then ran off to give the alert, the hero grunted to his men as he shoved Iphicles along, “Let’s go.”
Not far behind them, Iolaus and Nebula swiftly rowed to shore and then hastened across the strip of sand to the stone walk. “So, what do you know about this place, Golgoth?” he asked her as they strode quickly in the wake of the rebellious shoulders.
“It’s no paradise,” she observed with a shrug, “but I’ve seen worse.”
“You’ve been there?” he challenged, surprised. Those condemned to the prison did not usually get away again ... but he’d never heard of a woman being sentenced to Golgath and he couldn’t repress a sick twist in his chest at the thought of her being confined there. A spirit so wild and free was never meant to be locked and chained in a pitiless cell.
“The rock it’s built on is riddled with natural tunnels,” she told him matter-of-factly. “Perfect hiding place, if you can only get past the creatures that live in the sand.”
Iolaus paused and turned to look at her, a sinking feeling in his gut as he scanned the sand to either side. “What kind of creatures?”
“Ah,” he simply said, but shuddered with revulsion as he continued up the low wall.
“The island’s infested with them,” she called after him, having noted his grimace of distaste. When he didn’t respond, she taunted, “Do you think being a pirate was easy?”
He blew out a breath, refusing to be drawn into the familiar banter. “Listen,” he replied over his shoulder, “if this thing works out, we’re going to have to evacuate a lot of men off that island. Would you …?”
“Sure,” she agreed readily, then grinned avariciously. “But you’ll owe me.”
Snorting, he shook his head, and then looked back at her. “What are you going to do?” he demanded sardonically. “Place me into servitude? Hold me in bondage for … how long?”
Chuckling, she told him, “We’ll negotiate.” When he grinned and rolled his eyes, she added seductively, “But don’t sweat it. Bondage gets a bad rap.”
Laughing, he turned away. But he was grateful for her humour - for the release of the terrible tension he felt, if only momentarily, and of the fear that rode him, that he’d created a situation that might end in Iphicles’ death. Gods, what would they do then? How could there ever be a way back from such lawlessness?
And how would he ever be able to explain to Hercules that he was responsible for his brother’s death? How would he ever be able to face Alcmene? Tension again cramped in his gut and he picked up his pace until he was running up the steep walkway toward the prison fortress.
At Gagnon’s direction, a guard splashed a bucket of water over Phidias, waking him to terrible pain. He moaned, and Gagnon grinned - and then the warden kicked him. The abused man was unable to suppress a groan, and Phidias kicked him again … and again. Blood spurted from Phidias’ mouth, a clear sign of serious internal damage.
Dropping to one knee, Gagnon leered at him as he sneered, “Looks like a man who’s learned his lesson.”
Phidias gasped for breath, marshalling his fleeting strength for a last gesture of defiance - and he spit in the warden’s face. Disgusted, Gagnon reared back, kicking him again and again, mercilessly - until he was distracted by a shout from the wall, and he saw invaders surging in behind the guard who’d cried a warning.
“Behind you!” Gagnon bellowed furiously. “Sound the alarm!”
Soldiers streamed into the yard, the guards no match for their ferocious fighting skills. Gagnon ordered his men up to the walls to battle them back, but it was too late. Seconds later, men were fighting one another, and the guards were quickly overcome. Soldiers broke into the prison proper, to take on the warders inside, and ragged, emaciated prisoners, who had not seen the light of day for the gods knew how long, soon stumbled out, shielding their eyes against the brightness of the day.
Iphicles, his face pale and drawn, was held to one side by Ajax. He stared at the clearly abused prisoners and swallowed hard, and then his burning gaze found Gagnon. His jaw tightened and then his gaze fell away in disgust. Listening to the war cries, the shouts and grunts, the screams of the wounded and pitiful thin cheers of the prisoners - the soldiers amongst them doing their weakened best to help overcome their overlords - he closed his eyes and gave a short, unconscious shake of his head. How had it come to this? Taking a deep breath, he lifted his head and straightened his shoulders, grimly determined to show no fear, to meet his fate with dignity.
“Look at them, Iphicles,” Ajax commanded him, his voice rough with angry pity. “These men did nothing to deserve this treatment.”
Refusing to give ground, Iphicles replied tightly, “I don’t know what kind of trouble they caused once they got here, and neither do you.”
The battle was short, but sharp, and the brutal guards were soon overpowered, many of them severely wounded, some dead.
Beside the King, Ajax gave a low exclamation of distress. Startled, Iphicles looked around, wondering what in the evident victory could have caused the seasoned warrior pain. He was roughly hauled through the throng of freed prisoners, captured guards and triumphant soldiers - and then he saw Phidias lying on the ground, blood on his lips and his face a grimace of pain.
“Get those chains off of him,” Ajax shouted, and then he was kneeling by his old friend, lifting his head and shoulders with a tender gentleness that belied his hardened demeanor. “Phidias,” he rasped hoarsely, his grief clear as he dabbed away the blood dribbling from the older man’s lips and cradled the sculptor in his arms. “Lie still!” he urged, his expression bleak.
Phidias looked up at him and his gaze cleared for a moment. He looked as if he was about to speak, but his breath escaped in a slow sigh and he slumped heavily in Ajax’s arms. The light left his eyes, and he was gone. Ajax bent his head, his eyes pressed closed against the tears that burned in his eyes, his throat and chest tight. Swallowing hard, he grated, his voice low and raw, “They’ll … they’ll pay for this!”
Iphicles watched mutely and then lifted his gaze to the sky. Too much death. All of it futile. A waste, terrible waste … and tragedy. Despair settled in his gut as he accepted that he wasn’t going to get out of this alive.
“The tunnels are that way!” Nebula told him, pointing off to the base of low cliff upon which the prison was built.
Aware that the sounds of battle were dying away, hearing the cheers of the freed prisoners, Iolaus shook his head and kept racing up the stone pathway. “No time!”
“You’re right,” she agreed, running swiftly close behind him. “Once the King serves his purpose in freeing the prisoners, he’s a dead man.”
“Ajax is not a cold-blooded killer,” Iolaus protested, denying the fear curdling in his belly. Insistently, he pushed away his doubts about the man he knew to be a hero. “He’s a patriot.”
“Holding the king hostage …” Nebula challenged snidely, too cynical to esteem anyone, “that sound patriotic to you?”
“Who did this to him?” Ajax demanded harshly, his gaze raking the newly freed prisoners. There was a wild light in his eyes … and, seeing madness lurking in their depths, Iphicles shivered.
“Gagnon, the bastard who runs this place,” one of the soldiers who’d seen his esteemed colleague brutalized shouted, anger and helplessness at having been unable to stop the obscenity ringing in his voice. Just then, another soldier drew close, shoving Gagnon before him. The warden’s wrists were already bound and a bruise darkened his cheek. “Look who I found,” the warrior reported grimly, with a pained glance at Phidias’ body. “Gagnon - the bastard responsible for this atrocity.”
Ajax carefully released his hold on Phidias, and laid him on the ground. Rising, his face flushed with rage, he snarled, “Kill him. Kill him!”
“Ajax, you can’t!” Iphicles protested. “He’s your prisoner!”
Turning on the King, the hero shouted furiously, “This is war! I’m not taking any prisoners!”
Terrified, Gagnon turned to Iphicles for salvation. “I was doing your work. Do something!”
“I never told you to treat them like animals!” the King retorted, condemnation and contempt in his voice.
“This is a prison! What do you think went on here?!” Gagnon shouted. Panicking now, he turned to the hero and begged, “Ajax! Blame him! Not me!”
With a curl of his lip, Ajax regarded him with loathing. His gaze shifted to the soldiers who gripped Gagnon’s arms firmly, and then he looked meaningfully toward the low wall and the narrow wooden suspension bridge over the sand that led from the yard up to the entrance of the prison. Mutely, with a jerk of his head, he gave the order.
“No, no, please no,” Gagnon pleaded as he struggled in futile resistance against the men who dragged him to bridge.
Though bound and alone amongst the enemy, Iphicles could not stand idly by and watch while yet another crime was committed, another death chalked up to the conflict between him and Ajax. Gagnon was scum, and deserved to be tried for his abuses, but summary execution just wasn’t right. He broke away from the man who gripped his arm lightly, and charged through the cluster of warriors, using his shoulders to knock them aside. “Stop!” he commanded as he ran.
But the angry, grieving, merciless soldiers ignored him and ruthlessly shoved Gagnon over the side. The man screamed in horror as he dropped the short distance to the sand below. Ajax yelled out an order to stop the King, and Iphicles struggled against the men who now attempted to restrain him. The bridge swayed beneath their feet, throwing them all off-balance … and the King fell back, over the flimsy rope rail, falling awkwardly, to land heavily on the hard sand. “Ahhhhh!” he grunted and twisted, his bound hands cradling his thigh just above his knee. “Uhh! Uhh,” he moaned softly, unable to hold the low cries back, and he gasped, “My leg!” One hapless soldier had fallen with him, and he jumped to his feet, stark fear on his face.
There was a low rushing sound and a hump of sand moved swiftly toward them. Gagnon watched it, eyes wide with horror and, panicked, he ran to get away, desperate to find some refuge - but the sand shark erupted from the ground in a spray of grit, its gaping maw wide to clamp around his thick body. He shrieked and was dragged screaming down into the sand.
Iolaus, Nebula behind him, had arrived on the parapet above just moments before, just in time to see Hercules’ brother fall and Gagnon’s death. Horrified, he raced through the crowd who were watching the action on the bridge and the sand below, and he leapt over the low wall, landing lightly and rolling to absorb the impact. Hastily, he scrambled to Iphicles’ side. Gripping the King’s shoulder firmly, he urged almost breathlessly as his eyes raked the sand plain around them, “Keep still! Don’t move!” But the terrified soldier shifted restlessly, unable to contain his atavistic fear of the deadly creatures or of the horror of being eaten alive. “Don’t move! Keep still!” Iolaus commanded sharply, flicking him an anxious look over his shoulder. “Keep still!”
But the frightened man was beyond reason. His feet shifted nervously, his panic growing, and when he saw another hump of sand racing their way, he backed away from Iolaus and the King, a low keening in his throat. The sand erupted as the vicious creature soared into the air. Iolaus pushed Iphicles down and crouched over him protectively, shuddering as the sand shark flew low over their heads to grab the terrified man behind them. The poor fool barely had time for a short, sharp scream before he was born under the sand, his terror forever silenced. Iolaus clasped Iphicles tightly, lending strength and holding them both absolutely still.
Above them on the bridge and stone-paved yard, shocked men stood stiffly, held in thrall by the horror of swift, gruesome death, undone by how quickly everything seemed to have spun out of control. Up on the parapet, a soldier cried, “Help! Someone help them!”
Nebula pushed her way through the stunned, gaping crowd, drew her sword and slashed at the rope rail of the foot-bridge. She pulled a long, thin skein of rope loose and hastily secured one end to the wooden post at one end, and then tossed the coil toward the sand. “Grab it!” she called urgently.
Seemingly from out of nowhere, Hercules burst upon the scene. Running flat out across the yard, he yelled, “Hold on, Iolaus!” and then, without pause, he leapt over the low wall onto the sand. He rolled smoothly and came up fast, taking a position in front of his friend and brother in order to defend them from any attack. “Iolaus,” he called low, urgently, over his shoulder, “get him to the rope.”
The blond warrior nodded tightly, his expression grim. Keeping a close eye on the sand surrounding them, he helped Iphicles to his feet and steadied him. When he gave the King a quick look of assessment, Iphicles nodded, signaling he was ready. “Come on,” Iolaus rasped, supporting the taller man with a strong arm around his waist, while Iphicles gripped his shoulders and hopped awkwardly and as fast as he could, toward the wall and the waiting rope. Behind them, Hercules grabbed up a length of discarded wood, and held the twisted rough branch like a club. Tensely, with worried glances that monitored Iolaus and Iphicles progress across the sand, he stamped the ground hard and repeatedly, hoping to draw the attention of the hunting sand sharks away from them.
Another hump lifted in the sand now more than thirty feet away and shot toward him. Grimly, he lifted the makeshift weapon, stamped the ground again and again, drawing the attack and, when the ugly horror broke from the sand, he swung the club with all his strength, thwacking it solidly and sending it flying far across the sand. He shuddered with revulsion and muttered, “Wouldn’t you feel more comfortable in water?” Swallowing, he ruefully examined the shattered stump of wood in his hand and turned to check on Iolaus’ progress in getting his brother to safety.
Iphicles grunted against the raging pain in his knee as he struggled up the rope, Iolaus half-pushing him, half-supporting his weight as he climbed higher. Nebula reached out toward him, straining to reach him, and Ajax shouted, “Grab him!” Only then did soldiers move in close to lend a hand in drawing the King from danger. As soon as he was within reach, they clutched his arm and bodily hauled him out of danger. Below him, Iolaus looked back at Hercules and hesitated, but the demigod waved at him to get out of the death pit.
Above him, he heard Ajax snarl, “Lock him up!” Torn, reluctant to leave Hercules to face the sand sharks alone, he nevertheless began to climb with the hope of helping Iphicles. But when he came up over the edge, Nebula lending him a hand, the soldiers held him back from going to the King’s aid. Panting, he watched men he’d considered friends, even heroes, hustle Iphicles into the prison. He turned to Ajax, about to protest, and found the older man giving him a hard look. Holding Iolaus’ gaze, Ajax called loudly, “Anybody tries anything, kill him!”
The thrum of another sand shark plowing through the sand caught all of their attention and, desperate to lend whatever assistance he could to Hercules, Iolaus struggled to break free of the men who held him. Below, the sand shark broke into the air, diving toward the demigod. Hercules jammed the short length of wood he had in his fist deep into the monster’s mouth. “Uhh!” the demigod grunted, but when the stick held, preventing the massive jaws from closing, he jerked his hand back with no little relief. “Great,” he muttered. “Yeah, chew on that for a while, pal.” With an eerie, high shriek, the sand shark broke off the attack, flipping away, its maw agape, to dive back into the sand. Repulsed, Hercules’ lip curled and he grated, “I hate these guys.”
Ajax leapt from the wall, and landed close to the demigod.
“What do you think you’re doing?!” Hercules exclaimed
Ajax chuckled. “What are friends for?” he asked with a grin.
Hercules gaped at him in consternation and then, chagrined, he shook his head. “Okay, okay,” he allowed, acknowledging their firm friendship despite the madness of the King’s kidnapping. “Ah ... remember that decoy we used in Troy?”
Ajax nodded briskly and replied, “Number two.”
“Two!” they shouted simultaneously, and rushed in opposite directions while the soldiers, Iolaus and Nebula watched tensely from above.
“Hey!” Hercules shouted as he stomped the ground. “Over here! Come on!” Across the sand, Ajax was doing his own tap dance and shouting taunts at the unseen sand sharks. Suddenly, two humps appeared on the sand and raced toward them. Playing a dangerous, deadly game, they kept shouting and stamping, drawing the creatures closer and closer.
“On two!” Ajax shouted. Again, their voices rising together, they called, “Two!” and lunged toward one another, their boots kicking up sand as they ran. Hercules launched himself into the air and caught Ajax, pulling him down and rolling them both to the side just as the killers sprang out of the sand, diving for the kill, and collided, their fangs ripping one another apart, spraying them with hot chunks of raw meat and green gore.
“Thanks,” Ajax acknowledged when the demigod lent him a hand to rise.
“Well done, Hercules,” a soldier shouted while the others cheered.
The demigod gave them all a rueful look, and motioned toward the ropes when his gaze returned to Ajax. “I think it’d be a good idea if we -get to the ropes. Come on.” Ajax nodded vigorously and then they both tore toward the ropes that were dangling from the platform above.
When they’d scrambled over the edge, aided by men who bent to lend a hand, Ajax laughed as he straightened and clapped Hercules on the shoulder. “Just like old times, hey?”
“No, this is different,” Hercules replied soberly, “and you know it.” Exasperated, he gestured toward the prison where his brother was being held, and demanded, “What did you think, Ajax? I’d let you take my brother and not follow you?”
Disgruntled, the older warrior looked away. “My fight’s with him, not with you,” he grated defensively.
“Uh uh, no. Any fight with my brother is a fight with me,” Hercules asserted grimly. “I want Iphicles.”
His anger reasserting itself, Ajax gestured sharply toward the body of his old friend. “You see Phidias?” he charged furiously. “That’s your brother’s work. He caused this.”
“You are not without blame, here,” the demigod retorted.
Snorting, Ajax shook his head. “When there’s trouble, politicians need guys like us, and after it’s over, they expect us to go crawl in a hole,” he stated sharply. “Well, this has gone too far … and Iphicles must pay.”
“I want Iphicles,” Hercules growled. “Now.”
“I can’t stop you,” Ajax replied, his voice tight, his gaze hard. “We both know that. But he’ll be dead before you can get to him.”
Hercules held his old friend’s gaze for a long, tense moment … and then he sighed, his tense posture loosening as he held up a hand for peace between them. “I give you my word. You let me see him, make sure he’s okay and …” he hesitated, hating to leave Iph in danger, but needing to buy time to figure out a way to end the confrontation, “and he can stay where he is for now - but only until this thing is resolved.”
Ajax’s stance relaxed and he nodded briskly. “I’ll take your word. You can see him - then we’ll talk about what comes next.”
“Hold it,” a soldier cautioned when Iolaus approached with a grim expression and an aggressive stance.
“Let him come,” Ajax ordered, and then returned his attention to tending to a wound on his arm. “You talk to Hercules?” he asked with a glance up at Iolaus when the warrior stopped in front of him.
“He’s still with his brother,” Iolaus replied, and then gave Ajax an anxious look. “Iph is still in one piece, isn’t he?”
“Yes, for now, but I will do what I have to,” the older warrior drawled, focused upon layering herbs over the wound and then reaching for the knife he’d laid in a fire-pot on the table.
“So will I,” Iolaus retorted hollowly, unable to condone Ajax’s actions however much he understood and shared the man’s frustration, “… and so will Hercules.”
Ajax grimaced and shook his head. “What’s happened, Iolaus? I used to be a champion of the people, and now they treat me like an enemy.” There was sadness in his eyes before he looked away. His lips tightened and then he seared the wound just below his elbow. The stench of burned flesh permeated the air around them.
“You just made a mistake, that’s all. And so did Iphicles,” Iolaus sighed. “You two can get through this.” Gesturing toward the cauterized wound, he asked, “You want a hand with that?”
The older man shook his head. “No, thanks. A soldier learns to ignore pain.”
Exasperated, Iolaus threw up his hands and grated, “You’re not a soldier, anymore!”
“They won’t let us be anything else,” Ajax growled angrily in return.
Closing his eyes, Iolaus shook his head. There had to be a way to resolve the crisis. These men deserved so much more than the contempt of the citizenry they’d fought to protect. And the King needed to be restored to his palace, safe and sound. His tone more temperate, hopeful, Iolaus said, “I’m sure there’s a place for you, somewhere, but violence won’t get it. Let it go.”
“You were one of us, Iolaus - you and Hercules, both. You should be with us, not against us,” Ajax urged, a lost note of entreaty resonating low in his voice, as if he wasn’t sure where he was, or quite how he’d gotten there.
“We are with you,” Iolaus assured him, his chest aching with the pathos of it all. Chagrined, anxious affection in his eyes, he went on, “We’re just against the way you’re going about things.” He hesitated a moment and then leaned forward, lowering his voice so that only Ajax could hear him. “You know this is wrong. You and those who follow you are men of honour - don’t walk away from all the years of the good that you did. Stop this madness before it’s too late.”
“It’s already too late,” the aging warrior hissed, anger again flashing in his eyes. “We didn’t start this controversy, Iolaus, but I’ll be damned if we’ll skulk away like cowards.”
“Sometimes,” Iolaus retorted, “it takes more courage not to fight.”
Ajax studied him for a long moment and then nodded slightly, as if resigned, before he looked away.
As he neared the cell, through the bars, Hercules could see his brother hunched over on a iron cot, clutching his injured leg. And he could see the grimace of pain etched deeply into Iph’s face while he waited for a soldier to unlock the door. The anger that he struggled to contain flared into rage as he stepped into the noisome enclosure. Mutely, badly needing some outlet for his fury, he grabbed a rickety wooden stool and slammed it viciously into the bars, shattering it. Squatting, bowing his head to study the results of his outburst, he bowed his head and used the seconds to marshal his emotions and school his features into a calm he didn’t feel. Choosing two broken sticks, each about a foot long, he rose and went to kneel in front of his brother.
“Is it broken?” he asked quietly.
Shaking his head, his expression and voice strained, Iphicles replied, “I don’t know. Maybe. Feels like it.”
The demigod carefully hid his outrage as he braced the sticks on either side of his brother’s leg and accepted a scarf Iph pulled from his neck. Patiently, he began to bind the sticks to the leg to keep it stable and prevent further injury until he could get Iph to a healer. His brother grunted and clenched his teeth against the pain, and his hands fisted as he fought giving way to a groan.
“This should do for now. Just, uh, stay off of it,” Hercules reassured him calmly, and then looked up, a teasing light in his eyes and the corners of his mouth quirking as he added, “and no more teasing the sand sharks, okay?”
The King chuckled dryly and nodded weary agreement. “It’s good to see you, Hercules.” But his humour faded when he looked around the cell. “I can’t wait to get out of here.”
Standing, Hercules sighed. “Well, you’re going to stay for a while.” When Iphicles frowned unhappily, he hastened to add, “It was the price for us getting to talk. So, what happened? None of this is like you.”
Defensively, Iphicles told him almost aggressively, “There were so many returning home at once -- it became a question of public safety. I had to do something.”
“Sending them here was not the answer,” he replied steadily, not wanting to lecture his older brother, but needing to make his point. “These men fought for your kingdom. They deserve better. It’s up to you to make a place for them. They’ve earned it.”
“I know that,” Iphicles replied heatedly. But he turned his face away and bowed his head. “It’s just … it got … got to be personal,” he admitted softly, grief and regret in his low tones.
Sighing, Hercules sat down beside him and clasped his shoulder supportively. “The baby,” he said sadly.
Iphicles nodded slowly. “Yeah.”
“You wanted someone to blame,” Hercules soothed, “and I understand that. But I think your anger was a little misdirected. They weren’t responsible for you losing your child.” When his brother nodded again, and the defensive tension of his body eased, Hercules clapped him gently on the back and then stood. “All right. I’ll get you out of here. Guard!” he called. He stepped to the door but then paused to turn back. “It’s not too late to make this right.”
Iphicles frowned at him thoughtfully, but didn’t reply.
Ajax was waiting when Hercules strode out of the dark horror of the prison into the bright sunlight. “Satisfied? We didn’t hurt him.”
“That’s good for both of you,” the tall demigod replied mildly, but there was an edge underlying his tone and his eyes gave warning that his brother had better remain safe.
Ajax turned away from the unspoken censure, unwilling and unable to contend with it. However much he did not want to alienate his old friends, things had gone too far and there was nothing either Hercules or Iolaus could do to change what had already transpired. He’d assaulted and kidnapped his King, had thrown him into a cell. Iphicles would never forgive that. Nor could he find it in his heart to forgive Iphicles for the unconscionable way he and his men had been treated upon their return home from the ten years of their lives they’d spent in battle. They’d come back exhausted, grieving for those they had lost, good friends and staunch comrades who had given their lives courageously - and for what? People who had forgotten all about them? People who no longer wanted them in their community? Gods, their old friends, their families were now afraid of them. They’d come back weary and worn, but hopeful that, once home, they’d find themselves again, find peace and, maybe, even love … only to find there was no peace, no love - no home. Well, he’d be damned if they’d go with nothing, penniless paupers cast upon the land.
“Go back to Corinth,” he grated. “Empty the treasury and bring it to me. It won’t erase what’s already happened, but it will buy some of these men a fresh start. Do that … and I’ll spare Iphicles.”
“You can’t mean that,” Iolaus protested, moving forward from the crowd of soldiers to stand beside Hercules. “That corrupts everything you’ve ever stood for.”
Shaking his head, Ajax retorted bitterly, “I’m not sure that what I stood for is worth a pinch of salt. Take her boat,” he went on to Hercules, with a wave at Nebula who was standing to the side, watching warily, “and go.”
“I’ll do it,” Hercules agreed flatly, but went on with more force, “but Iolaus stays here with my brother.” Ajax gave him a hard look before moving away. The demigod turned to Iolaus and gripped his shoulder. “Tell Iphicles I’ll be back - for both of you.”
Iolaus grimaced but nodded. Mutely, he slapped his friend’s upper arm encouragingly and then turned to go back inside the prison. Hercules watched him disappear into the darkness, and then gestured to Nebula to follow him back to the beach.
The soldiers talked quietly amongst themselves, some of them caring for comrades who’d been abused in the days or weeks they’d spent as prisoners on the rock. Many cast sidelong looks at Ajax, their expressions troubled, uncertain.
Finally, one broke away from a group and approached their commander. Tall, strong, he respected Ajax beyond all men, trusted him … and had followed him unhesitatingly into more battles than he could remember. But now his eyes were clouded with anxious concern. When he spoke, his reluctance to challenge his great leader was clear in his voice, but so was his ambivalence, his doubt, about what was occurring. “Commander … about the ransom. The men are afraid it sends the wrong message, that we’re nothing but common criminals.”
Ajax regarded the sturdy man, one he knew well and valued highly. He could wish he’d had a son so fine. He chewed on his lip reflectively and then nodded. His expression hardening, he replied starkly, “Whether or not Hercules brings the money, no matter - you’re right. But we do need to send a message, and we do need to avenge Phidias.” He swallowed and then his jaw tightened. He lifted his chin and his shoulders squared, grimly assuming the burden of responsibility for what he planned to do. “And to do that, Iphicles must die.”
“A king’s ransom, huh?” Nebula observed wryly as they reached the end of the stone path to the sea. “Gotta hand it to Ajax. He’s got vision.”
“This isn’t about ransom,” Hercules responded tightly, seeming distracted as his gaze raked the shore, the rocky outcrop and the prison. “He doesn’t intend to free Iphicles,” he went in, his tones hollow. “I’m going back in there, but some other way.”
“He thinks you’re gone … he drops his guard,” she reflected, admiration colouring her voice. “It’s a good idea.” Eager to assist, she approached him, “Let’s go. I can’t wait to see the look on Iolaus’ face when, uh, he sees me rescue him … again.” Nebula chuckled in her throat, relishing that image. But Hercules snapped his head around, his gaze flat, unamused, and she knew he was thinking about how she’d been so quick to write Iolaus off when Ariachne had carried him away. No, she deserved no credit for his rescue from that monster. Chagrined, she nevertheless tilted her chin defiantly. That was old news, and she’d learned that Iolaus wasn’t like other men who panicked or gave up with scarcely a fight, who hadn’t the will to fight the odds and win; it was never a smart idea to simply write him off. Not a palatable one, either.
“This isn’t your fight,” the demigod told her firmly, dismissing her as he turned to again scan the terrain for an alternative route back into the prison. “You’re staying here.”
“Oh, is that right?” she challenged, her hands fisted on her fist and her expression taunting.
She snorted. “So, you want to fight those sand sharks all by yourself?” she challenged. When he grimaced and rolled his shoulders, but didn’t give way, she lightened her tone. “I know the other way in,” she offered then, bargaining, finding common ground. “Besides, having the son of Zeus owe me a favor might come in handy someday.” She grinned impudently at him, then set off at a lope across the sand, angling toward the rocky headland. “Come on. Come on, Herc,” she called over her shoulder, urging him along. “Come on.”
He gave her an exasperated look, not wanting to involve her further - not wanting to deal with her at all. He didn’t like her flippant manner, her seeming attitude that all life was a game of barter for riches - he didn’t trust her. But he glanced up at the prison walls, and he knew he didn’t have a lot of time to get his brother out of there - or Iolaus, either, for that matter. Ajax might not want to hurt Iolaus, but if he went after Iphicles, Hercules knew his friend would plant himself firmly between Iph and any threat. Deciding that Nebula offered the only game in town, he hastened after her, his long legs eating up the distance between them.
“You must despise me,” Iphicles sighed. “The way I treated those men…”
Iolaus looked away and rubbed his face. “Well, I must admit, I lost faith back there,” he admitted, “when you categorically refused to make any deal, and then used that trumped-up charge of treason as a lever to threaten them all with prison.” Shaking his head, he sighed. Returning his gaze to Iphicles, he went on more confidently, “But Hercules hasn’t given up.” Cajolingly, he added, “C’mon, Iph. There must be some accommodation you can make to end this confrontation.”
The King looked away, and any response he might have made was lost when Ajax and a score of him men tromped along the dark corridor and the jailer hastened to open the cell’s door. At the hard look on Ajax’s face, Iolaus stiffened warily and positioned himself in front of Alcmene’s son. But Ajax looked through him, as if he weren’t there, to address the King.
“Good men gave their lives for you,” he charged icily. “And those that survived, you betrayed. No, worse than that - you sent them here!”
“Ajax … this isn’t a good idea,” Iolaus began, striving to remain calm, to defuse what he could feel was an explosive situation. “Give Hercules time to get back and we’ll all talk more then.”
The Commander didn’t even spare him a glance, simply flicked his hand and the soldiers who had crowded in behind him surged forward. There was no room to fight in the claustrophobic cell, no space to maneuver so, though Iolaus yelled in outrage and struggled mightily, he was swiftly overpowered and moved aside, while others unceremoniously hauled Iphicles to his feet. Ajax took a step forward, and his face was grim, frozen with determined outrage. He shoved Iphicles roughly against the stone wall, pinning him there, and pressed the edge of his dagger against the King’s throat. His voice was raw with emotion as he said, “On their behalf, I sentence you to die.”
“Ajax! You can’t mean that!” Iolaus shouted, appalled. Fear curdled in his gut as he looked at the hard faces that surrounded him and found no shred of reason or mercy. They were going to do this, kill the King - and there too many to fight on his own. “Don’t, Ajax. I beg you. Do not do this!”
But a low, angry voice yelled from the throng of soldiers, “Do it!”
Iphicles stiffened as Iolaus struggled to go to his aid. The Commander hesitated, and Iolaus again cried out desperately, “Ajax!”
“I was wrong. I made mistakes,” Iphicles grated, holding the grizzled warrior’s gaze with his own. “B-but do this and you’re no better than you accuse me of being.”
“At least give him a fighting chance,” Iolaus shouted furiously, his own rage boiling over. “What kind of a soldier are you?!”
“All right!” Ajax snapped angrily; his blade fell away and Iphicles closed his eyes in relief. But the warrior grabbed him and hauled him roughly from the cell. Iolaus was shoved in their wake, his arms still pinioned by two massive warriors, his former comrades in battle, who knew his tricks and gave him no chance to break free. Outside, Ajax drew the King to the edge of the forecourt and growled, “I’ll give you the same chance to get off this rock that you gave the men you sent here.” Pointing to the sand below and the seacoast in the distance, he added bitterly, “There’s freedom, Iphicles. Fight your way out, and you’ve earned it.”
The King swallowed heavily and took a breath, knowing it would be one of his last, for there was no way he’d live long enough to reach the shore. Pale, he stood stiffly, refusing to beg for mercy. But, beside him, drawing his surprised gaze, Iolaus pleaded on his behalf, “He doesn’t stand a chance with that leg. Let me go in his place.”
Before Iphicles could protest the gallant offer, Ajax replied tightly, “No. My fight’s not with you, Iolaus. He must pay.”
Flushing with fury at Ajax and his intransigence, Iolaus raged, “You’re not the man I knew and respected anymore, Ajax. And, I think a lot of your men feel the same.” Behind him, all around them, Ajax’s men shifted uncomfortably, and some nodded unconsciously, betraying their wish that this hideous farce could end before it went any further.
But Ajax ignored them as he wearily shook his head. “I’m sorry you feel that way.” Before Iolaus could argue further, the Commander shoved Iphicles over the edge, and he fell hard, groaning at the flash of agony from his injured leg.
The men holding Iolaus trembled with surprise that their leader had gone through with his threat - had pushed the King to certain death. Iolaus took advantage of their distraction, shaking off their grip and diving onto the sand beside Hercules’ brother. “Try to keep still,” he urged, bracing Iph’s body with his own as he grasped the King with reassuring strength.
Hercules raced through endless tunnels on Nebula’s heels. “How much further?” he called anxiously.
“Should be just ahead.”
Iolaus crouched tensely behind Iphicles and watched the sand warily. “If we can get to the ropes,” he whispered hoarsely, “we’ll make it.” When the King nodded, Iolaus hauled the bigger man to his feet and slipped a strong arm around his waist to support him. “Go! Come on! Come on!”
Iph gritted his teeth against the scream of agony rising in his throat and struggled to hop as quickly as he could, but his ankle turned on the uneven ground and he pitched forward, dragging Iolaus down with him.
“Come on!” Iolaus urged, pulling him up.
“Don’t leave me!” Iph grated, hating himself for his fear.
But Iolaus had picked up the tell-tale low thrum of sand, and he looked over his shoulder, his throat dry as he searched the sand. “I have to draw them off,” he rasped. “Stay perfectly still until they come for me, and then move your royal butt and get to the ropes!”
“Wha…?” Iphicles gasped, but Iolaus had already raced to another spot, far from the ropes to safety, and was yelling and stamping the sand, his gaze locked on the fins now surging toward him.
Nebula pulled up short in surprise, and stared at a wall of dressed rock, the blocks massive. “I don’t understand. This wasn’t here before.”
His jaw tight, the demigod pushed past her and drew back his fist. One powerful punch was enough to dislodge the blocks, opening a gap large enough for them to pass through into the prison. “Something like this?”
“No,” she grinned as she slid past him, “bigger.”
Rolling his eyes as he followed her inside, he muttered, “They always want bigger.”
She raced through the empty prison and up the uneven stone steps, out into the light. “Uh-oh, looks like feeding time,” she groaned at the sight of the men far below on the sand.
Pushing past her, Hercules yelled, “Hold on, Iolaus. I’ll be right there.” But Ajax whirled at the sound of his shout and charged at him, leaping to bring Hercules down before he reached the edge of the platform. The two men hit the stone pavement, both of them rolling to absorb the shock of the fall. Hercules scrambled to his feet, yelling, “Ajax, what are you doing? Just get out of my way!”
The Commander pulled his blade and hunched into a defensive posture between Hercules and the end of the wall. “I can’t let you do this!” he growled. “Good men - my men - died because of your brother’s pride and arrogance. He has to pay for that, Hercules. His life for the lives lost on this gods-forsaken rock!”
The demigod’s face stiffened with anger as his gaze flickered past Ajax to Iolaus below them, and the hump of sand fast approaching him. Fear for his friend clutched at his heart. When his gaze returned to Ajax, his eyes were hard, cold, like flat blue chips of ice. Baring his teeth, he suddenly whirled, kicking out and dashing the blade from Ajax’s fist. But the Commander recovered quickly and charged at the Son of Zeus, catching him off-balance. Again, they plowed into the ground, rolling and wrestling …
Nebula spotted an archer trying to get a clear shot at Hercules. Her eyes narrowing with naked hostility, she drew out her dagger and threw it in one, smooth motion. The blade sliced through the bow’s rope, burying itself in the crossbow and startling the archer. “Play fair,” she growled, loping closer.
Below them, Iolaus continued to draw the vicious sand creature toward him, jumping on the sand and yelling, “Whooaaa! Whoo-hoo!”
“Iolaus!” Iphicles cried out, “To your left!”
Just as the sand shark broke free in front of him, its maw gaping wide in anticipation of a meal, Iolaus dove to the left and the monster flew past him, diving back into the sand to circle around for another attack.
“Boy, that’s guts,” a soldier gasped admiringly, others nodding in mute at awe at the display of unselfish courage being carried out on the sand. Nebula snorted and curled her lip, disgusted by the men around her who could do no more than watch in stunned awe, too afraid to help the men below. She ran past Hercules and Ajax and leapt over the edge. Rolling to her feet on the sand, she gave Iolaus a cocky look and drawled seductively, “Don’t be greedy.”
He eyed her appreciatively and laughed low in his throat. The woman was fearless and he didn’t know quite how to take her, but every time he saw her, he liked her more. He felt the sexual tension between them like a hot blaze of fire but he looked away. This was neither the time nor the place, and he wasn’t yet sure he wanted to risk that with her. She was … so much like Xena. Nothing stopped her. Nothing and no one got in her way. She was as tough as any man he’d ever known, and as good a warrior, but she was also stunningly beautiful and there was no doubt that she was giving him an open invitation to play. No matter what, he couldn’t risk loving her.
“Guys! Come on!” Iphicles gritted, the pain lancing from his leg leaving him breathless and dizzy. He wasn’t sure how much longer he could stand so still.
Iolaus studied the King, noting his gray pallor and the sweat on his brow. He could see that Iph was going into shock and needed help before he collapsed. “Okay,” he called low, laying out their strategy. “Nebula, move as lightly, as quietly, as you can to Iphicles … and help him to the ropes. I’ll try to keep the sand sharks busy while you get him to safety.” When she nodded, he moved still further from the ropes and safety, stomping heavily on the sand and yelling nonsense sounds at the top of his lungs. With half an eye on them, he kept watch on the sand, continuing to yell and stomp to cover whatever sounds the others made as they moved along the surface of the sand.
They were close to the wall when he saw the tell-tale fin and the fast-moving hump of ground carving a serpentine pattern in the sand. Redoubling his efforts, he stamped like a madman in a frenzied, palsied dance, shouting at the top of his lungs - and his efforts were rewarded as the beast zeroed in on him. At the wall, Iphicles began climbing, Nebula supporting the King from below. Above him, Hercules and Ajax rolled on the ground until Hercules violently pushed the older man away, so that Ajax went flying through the air.
“Come on, Herc!” Iolaus called, not sure how much longer he could successfully fend off the sand sharks alone. “Hurry up!”
Hercules started toward the edge, but Ajax once again dashed in front. “Finish me off, so I die with honor on a battlefield!”
“This isn’t a battlefield, and I’m not your enemy!” the demigod grated, out of patience as he shoved Ajax out of his way. “It’s over.” Seeing that some of the soldiers had grasped his brother’s arms and were hauling him to safety, he called, “Nebula! Get out of there!” Even as she began to climb, he encircled the thick, tall whipping post with his arms and broke it loose from the ground. Lugging it to the edge of the pit, he called, “Iolaus! Get ready!”
The warrior measured the distance to the wall, and he didn’t much like the odds of making it there before one of the sharks got him. One was approaching quickly now and another had joined it, both of them racing toward him from opposite directions. He knew Iph was now safe and, out of the corner of his eye, he could see Nebula climbing the rope, so she was in the clear, too. Edgily, he began to shift his position, closer to the wall, and the sand sharks continued to track toward him.
“Iolaus!” Hercules called urgently from above, as he shifted his grip on the large pole.
“Huh?” the warrior grunted, his attention distracted by the rapidly approaching creatures.
“Wait there!” the demigod directed firmly, and then he heaved the massive pole high into the air. Higher and higher it flew until gravity caught it and, then, it tumbled end over end as it fell swiftly toward the sand.
“Wait?” Iolaus gasped, wanting so badly to simply dive for the ropes, his gaze flicking between the approaching sharks and the plummeting, monolithic timber that was still falling end over end, like a caber at the Olympic games - he wasn’t sure which would kill him first, the sharks or the pole as all three were headed straight toward him.
The men above were caught in the drama playing out before their eyes, frozen into immobility, scarcely breathing. None gave Iolaus much of a chance for survival against two sand sharks - if he moved, they’d follow him and catch him before he could get close to the wall - yet they all desperately hoped he’d somehow get out alive. They knew him, all of them and he was a hero in their eyes. Whatever they’d hoped to accomplish by dragging the King to this wretched island, it wasn’t this. Not a man there wanted to see Iolaus die, and certainly not because of their pride and stubbornness.
“Hold it,” Hercules urged, his heart in his throat as he also tracked the falling pole and the approach of the sand sharks. “Now!”
Iolaus dove to his right, toward the wall, just as the two sand sharks surged out of the sand, diving toward the place he’d been standing a split second before. The pole drove down, slamming into both of them, crushing them with a spray of bone and sinew. But, even as it died, one of the monsters strove mindlessly for the sought-after meal, its great maw straining forward - and the upper jaw closed down over Iolaus’ leg, the razor-sharp teeth slicing through leather and scraping skin. He cried out, and yanked away - and then, belatedly, noticed that the upright pole was now falling down toward him. He rolled, trying to avoid being crushed just like the sand sharks - above him, he heard men gasp and Nebula squeak, “Ooh, yikes,” as the pole crashed down -- but the far end of it caught the edge of the ramparts above, so that he was safe in the narrow angle between it and the sand, lying flat on his stomach, his eyes pressed together, wincing in anticipation of looming death. At the collective sigh of relief, and the rising cheers from above, he tentatively opened his eyes and looked over his shoulder. Tension eased from his body as he gustily let out the breath he’d been holding, thinking it was his last.
But he wasn’t in the clear yet. Another tail fin protruded from the sand some distance away and began cruising toward him. For a moment, he held himself perfectly still, getting his bearings; blood was seeping from the shallow gouges on his leg, not much but more than enough to attract the cruising sand shark. However, all he had to do was climb onto the pole without stirring up the sand too much, without causing much commotion, and he could evade detection and be home free.
“C’mon, Iolaus!” Hercules yelled from above.
Deciding his friend was right and there was no time to lose loitering on the sand, he carefully reached up to grip the pole and then, in a single, lithe move, he swung himself up and onto it.
“Iolaus!” Hercules shouted with concern when he saw the blood seeping through the ragged tears in his pantleg and was about to leap onto the log to hasten along its length to lend assistance.
But Iolaus waved him back. “It’s just a scratch,” he called as he scrambled up the pole. The demigod held out a hand to grip his arm, assisting him the last few feet and steadying him onto the landing.
“You’re sure you’re okay?” Herc questioned with a frown as he studied the injured leg.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” the warrior assured him, but he sent a scathing glance around the assembled soldiers to glare at Ajax in mute condemnation for having precipitated the crisis with his stubborn decision to imperil Iphicles’ life.
Grimly, Hercules nodded and turned to lend support to his brother. With an arm solidly around Iphicles’ back and the King’s arm around his shoulders, wordlessly, they made their way slowly through the silent crowd of soldiers. Iolaus looked at Nebula and cocked his head, and she moved to his side to follow the demigod and the King from the prison. When Iolaus saw Ajax stiffen, about to order his followers to stop them all, he snapped, “Get real, Ajax. It’s over. We’re done here - haven’t you figured that out yet?” His gaze softened with sorrow, sorry to see his old friend, a hero, so diminished by circumstance and pride. “It’s over,” he said again more quietly, and then turned, one hand lightly on Nebula’s shoulder as, limping a little, he guided her through the crowd.
Ajax bristled, but then his shoulders sagged. Iolaus was right. It was over, at least for now. He’d gotten what he wanted. His men were freed from the horror of Golgoth. Briefly, he looked out at the sand that stretched away from the prison, and he considered leaping onto it, hoping he’d be carried away by a sand shark, all his battles ended. He was so damned tired, down to the bone. But he owed his men better than that. To jump and court death was the coward’s way - and he’d never been a coward. Whatever came, he’d face his fate like the soldier he was: stoically, with dignity. But - though Iphicles could exact whatever penance the King wanted from him - he had to see to his men’s futures. And he still needed to exact retribution for Phidias’ unnecessary and brutal death. Lifting his eyes, his jaw tight and his expression grim, he jerked his head to signal that they should follow behind Hercules, Nebula, and the King. It was time to return to Corinth and resume the confrontation on their home ground.
Nebula heard the scuffle of feet behind her as soldiers mutely fell in to follow down to the beach - and let out the breath she’d been holding, wondering if it would, after all, be that easy to simply walk away. But it seemed the fighting was over for the moment. Whether the uneasy truce would hold was anybody’s guess. Grimly, her gaze on Hercules’ broad back and the unsteady painful shuffle of the King, she didn’t give a damn if they all killed each other - all she cared about was that they were leaving this cursed island. But her throat tightened as she recalled the last moments of Iolaus’ stand on the sand, the flying sand sharks and the falling pole and her near certainty that there was no way he’d escape intact. She couldn’t remember ever feeling such stark fear for another’s life. Feeling the warmth of his hand on her shoulder, she took a breath to steady her roiling emotions; gritting her teeth, she fought the urge to gut both the King and Ajax for their stupid, stubborn, foolish pride. If either of them had listened to Iolaus, he wouldn’t have been in such mortal peril. But she couldn’t think about it, couldn’t let her reactive, inexplicable rage consume her, or linger on her earlier stark fear. The gods knew, he was a feisty bastard - he was there, beside her, hardly the worse for wear for his latest adventure. A reluctant smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. Yeah, he was a feisty bastard … and damned cute, too.
A sturdy soldier moved up to loop an arm around the King’s waist and lend his support to assisting Iphicles down the long, winding path. Others brushed past, hurrying to catch up with Hercules. When the demigod reached the beach, they hastened forward to push the small craft into the surf, holding it steady for Hercules to lift his brother inside before climbing in beside him, and then they pushed off, leaping in themselves to paddle with furious speed toward Nebula’s ship. Moments later, Nebula and Iolaus were on their way across the short span of water, other craft bobbing beside them as all of the soldiers and the comrades they’d freed from the prison made their way to transport back to Corinth. Behind them, other prisoners, men guilty of heinous crimes - who had been freed in the initial assault on the prison - howled their frustration at being left with no way off the rock of Golgoth.
While Nebula eased her ship against the dock, arriving with scarcely a ‘thump’, the others saw the full force of the King’s Guard gathered, fully armed and armored, and in the process of mounting a rescue mission. Iphicles frowned, realizing for the first time how little time had actually passed since he’d been taken hostage - so much had happened that it seemed like days had passed, and not mere hours. Around him, the ex-soldiers stiffened and fingered their weapons, nervously preparing to fight their way onto shore - or perhaps simply to fend off attack while they ‘persuaded’ Nebula to sail them to another landing. He glanced at Hercules and Iolaus, and his expression tightened. The warriors would pay for what they’d done that day, but now was not the time for more battle. Painfully, he hopped to the top of the gangway, showing himself, and bellowed at his men. “Stand down!” he ordered, spotting one of the Captains. He paused and then added tersely, “Festus, get me transport. I’ve banged up my leg.”
“I want to go with you to the palace,” Ajax grated beside him. “We … we need to settle this.”
Iphicles nodded grimly, his expression taut, anger burning in his eyes. “And I want you where I can see you. If there’s any more trouble … it will be on your head.”
Ajax leveled a hard look, giving no quarter. “As Phidias’ death is on yours.”
The King’s jaw tightened as he ground his teeth against the urge to argue, and he looked away, unwilling to pursue their differences there and then, and risk open, armed conflict at the port. There’d be time enough to deal with Ajax and his treachery later.
The gangplank was set in place and Hercules silently assisted Iphicles down its length. Disgusted with them both, furious that their infantile conflict had spiraled so out of control - and nearly cost so dearly - he was still too angry to speak to either of them.
Rena was waiting when Iphicles, supported Hercules, hobbled into the palace. Tears streaking her face, she swept into his arms, holding him fiercely, sobbing, “Husband, I was so afraid I’d lost you!”
He held her tenderly, her very presence calming him. “It’s alright, beloved. Everything will be alright,” he whispered into her hair. Sighing, he pulled back from her and caressed her cheek with his fingertips, wiping away the tracks of tears.
When he shifted his position, reaching again for Hercules’ support, he couldn’t quite stifle a moan of sharp pain, and she gripped his arm. “You’re hurt, Iphicles!”
“Just my leg,” he rasped, fighting off the flare of pain. “Nothing that won’t heal.” He looped one arm around her shoulders, though he was careful to let Hercules take his weight as they slowly made their way through the marble halls to his chambers where he could be tended by his healer in privacy and comfort.
“I’m sorry,” she murmured and looked up at him. “Sorry I’ve shut myself away, punishing you for what wasn’t your fault.”
He shook his head and his grip around her tightened with possessive reassurance. “Shh,” he murmured lovingly. “You were suffering, I understand that. I’m just so sorry …”
But she lifted slim fingers to press upon his mouth, cutting off his words. “You’re a King. You have great responsibilities. I was wrong to be angry with you and there is nothing for you to be sorry about.” Tears again glimmered in her eyes and a smile trembled on her. “When I heard they had taken you - feared I had lost you forever … I … I realized I’d been a fool. I wish our son had been born strong and had lived, but we will have others. So long as we’re together, nothing else matters.”
Loosening his grip around Hercules’ shoulders, Iphicles wrapped his wife in his arms and held her close as he kissed her brow. “I love you, Rena, more than life,” he rasped, his voice cracking with emotion.
“And I love you,” she replied, her breath warm against his throat.
Beside them, Hercules nodded slightly to himself. At least the fiasco with Ajax had accomplished this much - they would be alright and though they’d always mourn the still birth of their first son, their relationship would remain intact.
The cavernous royal bedchamber was lit by myriad candles and oil lamps that flickered in brass sconces on the walls and on the surface of tables and bureaus. Hercules helped the healer remove Iphicles’ trousers and he lay on the bed, pale with shock, pain, and exhaustion. Rena sat beside him, holding his hand. Hovering close, Hercules kept a reassuring grip on his shoulder and wished Iphicles would slip into unconsciousness to escape the agony so obviously coursing through him. Behind him, in the shadows, Iolaus and Nebula leaned silently against the wall, watching, waiting, arms crossed and faces devoid of expression. Beside him, the healer, Granius, worked silently, gently examining the King’s leg. Iphicles squinted up at him, his eyes clouded with pain. “What’s the verdict?” he rasped, his voice thin with strain.
“Oh, it’s broken, Sire,” Granius replied gravely, with a quick glance at Rena before he focused again on the King’s face. “And some muscles are torn. But the break is clean. I’ll splint and bind it tightly and, if you keep off it, it will heal. Setting the break is going to worsen your pain, but I have juice from the poppy that I will give you, and that will, hopefully, render you insensible.”
Iphicles shook his head, and started to protest, but the healer cut him off imperiously. “I’ve no time for discussion, Highness,” he stated firmly. “Matters of state can wait for a few hours, until I’ve finished and you’ve rested.”
“Listen to him, brother,” Hercules urged and, reluctantly, Iphicles nodded.
“Don’t like to be out of it,” he muttered, aggrieved.
“I know,” the demigod murmured soothingly as he squeezed his brother’s shoulder. “It’s just for a few hours. You’re too tired right now to think straight anyway. You’ll be in better shape to deal with Ajax in the morning. He isn’t going anywhere.”
Granius prepared the small libation, mixing the poppy juice with wine, and Hercules supported Iphicles’ head and shoulders while the healer fed the thick liquid into his mouth. The King coughed at the bitter taste and grimaced miserably, but swallowed dutifully. Setting the small pewter cup aside, Granius waited a bit to let the potion take hold, and then briskly set the leg, drawing a muffled groan from the sedated but still conscious King. Swiftly, the healer splinted and bound the leg. Looking up at Rena, he said, “Keep him warm and give him clear, cool water to ease his thirst. I’ll have broth sent up later from the kitchen - it’s important that he drink it all to keep up his strength.”
And then Granius turned to Iolaus, noting the blood drying on his scored leather pants and the way he leaned his weight on his other leg. “Ah, I see I’ve another casualty of war to see to - shall we adjourn to your chamber?”
Startled, Iolaus protested, “It’s nothing, just a few scratches.”
The healer smiled indulgently. “Still, the wounds should be cleaned and bandaged.” He gestured toward the door and, grumbling at the fuss, Iolaus limped out, Nebula and Hercules following behind the healer.
Rena took her husband’s hand and then stroked his brow. “Rest now, beloved,” she murmured and he allowed sleep to take him.
Iolaus winced as the healer cleaned the sand from his wounds and poured wine over the scratches to ensure no infection took hold. After he’d bandaged the leg and took his leave, servants brought pitchers of water for them to bathe the grit from their bodies, and food and wine. Gratefully, they washed the dust from their faces and arms and then relaxed around a table in the corner by a broad window. While they ate, Iolaus and Nebula brought Hercules up to date on the conflict and how it had escalated so quickly. They were just finishing the wine, about two hours later, when the door to the hallway opened with a soft click and Ajax entered the chamber. Nebula gave him a hard look before turning her back on him, and Hercules’ eyes swept over him with the chill of a winter wind before flicking away, dismissing him. Iolaus studied the wine in the bottom of his goblet. The Commander’s jaw tightened but he refused to be cowed or ignored. Straightening his shoulders, he approached the table. “How is he?” he asked, his voice rough in the silence.
“Still alive,” Hercules replied flatly. “No thanks to you.” Iolaus snorted at the dramatics and rolled his eyes but didn’t intervene, only too glad to leave the problem of the conflict between the King and Ajax in Hercules’ capable hands. He’d had more than enough of both of them.
Ajax stiffened at the rebuke, and protested, “I never meant you or Iolaus harm. My argument is with Iphicles.”
“And that’s supposed to make what you did right? Iphicles and Iolaus could have been killed by those sand sharks - and that’s exactly what you wanted, isn’t it? My brother dead,” the demigod challenged heatedly. “We had a deal, Ajax. You agreed to wait until I returned with the treasure.”
“No need to be so high and mighty, Hercules. You didn’t live up to the deal, either,” he charged.
“No, because I didn’t trust you,” the demigod retorted coldly. “And it’s a good thing I didn’t, or two of the three people I love best in the world would be dead.”
The Commander winced and looked away.
“You used to be an honorable man, Ajax,” Hercules observed distantly. “When did that change?”
“It’s your brother’s fault,” he growled, flushing with anger. “If he’d treated us decently, with the honor we earned through ten long years of war -”
But the demigod’s snort of disgust cut him off. “Don’t give me that. Honor isn’t dependent upon another’s behaviour,” he lectured heatedly. “A man chooses to either act honorably or not. You chose to disregard the law, to threaten the life of your King. Nobody made those choices for you.”
“Phidias is dead because of Iphicles!” Ajax snapped.
“So what are you saying? That that makes what you did right? A life for a life?” Hercules seethed. “You led your men in rebellion and tried to murder your King, Ajax. Nothing makes that right and you know it. Nothing.”
“Your brother -”
“Made mistakes,” Hercules again intervened harshly. “Yeah, I know. But his mistakes don’t erase yours.”
A muffled thumping in the hall interrupted their heated words and heralded Iphicles’ arrival. He entered the chamber looking wan and he was leaning heavily upon a crutch. His expression upon seeing Ajax was tight with barely constrained anger. “What are you doing here?” he demanded brusquely.
“I came to see how Iolaus was faring,” Ajax replied haughtily. “He’s an old, valued friend and I wanted to be assured that his wounds weren’t serious.”
“With friends like you,” Iph began, but Iolaus cut in scathingly, “Enough! Would the two of you get over yourselves! If you have to keep fighting one another, fine, but not over me, okay? Take it somewhere else, or better yet, give it a rest. Iphicles, you shouldn’t be up and around yet, anyway.”
“He’s right,” Hercules weighed in heavily, livid with anger. “The only person who acted with honor throughout this entire sorry mess is Iolaus. If either of you had listened to him, had discussed the situation rationally instead of standing on your pride, men wouldn’t have died out on that rock today - and … and neither you nor Iolaus would have been in that pit.” He paused and then grated, “I saw a statue of a soldier lying fallen in the dust of the market square; a fit memorial for warriors who fought for ten long years for their community, only to come home to be reviled and to turn into the worst form of traitors because they didn’t immediately get the welcome they thought they’d earned.” Shaking his head in disgust, swallowing hard, he rasped, “Either of you could have ended this confrontation between you - but you both chose to be stubborn, to insist that you and only you were right. You’re both responsible for this travesty.” He looked at each of them with virulent contempt that deeply shocked them. “You,” he challenged pointing at Ajax, “want to blame Iphicles for Phidias’ death. But the truth is, he died because neither of you could come to terms; and, you, Ajax, are just as guilty of that as is my brother. His death and the deaths of other good men out on that rock today are on both your heads.”
“Hercules, you know I’m sorry I let it get so out of hand,” Iphicles sighed wearily, looking away.
“Are you?” he asked distantly. Looking up, he taunted, “Prove it. Make Phidias’ death count for something. Find a solution, a compromise. If you won’t do it for yourselves, do it to honor him.”
Silence filled the room. Ajax and Iphicles stared at the demigod, and their regret for their part in the tragedy that had ensued on Golgoth filled their faces. Silently, they both nodded and, without another word, they left the chamber.
“Pompous jerks,” Nebula muttered, shoving the door closed behind them.
“Yeah,” Hercules agreed somberly. “Too much power, too used to everyone bowing to their every whim.”
“Shouldn’t’ve been so hard on them,” Iolaus observed dryly. “Neither of them ever meant for it to go so far.”
“Good intentions only go so far, Iolaus,” Hercules replied tightly. “They’re leaders; they have to accept responsibility for their actions. Neither one of them has anything to be proud of in terms of the last few days.”
The warrior nodded slowly, and then lifted his goblet. “Well, I hope they’ll listen to you, because I sure couldn’t get through to either of them.”
Hercules smiled slowly and reached to grip his friend’s shoulder. “Not for want of trying, buddy,” he consoled. “I meant what I said. If they’d listened to you, none of this would have gone so far.”
Nebula pressed her lips together and looked away, unable to help remembering how excited Iolaus had been about the prospect of running into old friends and comrades. ‘Heroes’, he’d called them. She shook her head with bitter irony; some heroes they’d turned out to be - she’d led pirates who had had more honor. And some friend Iphicles had turned out to be. Men, they were all scurvy scum. But then she looked back at Iolaus. Well, maybe not all men. Iolaus’ gaze rose to meet hers, and she smiled and drawled, “He’s right, Monkey Boy.”
Iolaus snorted and laughed, his eyes sparkling as he drained his cup of wine.
The next morning, they found Iphicles and Ajax already at the table when the three of them arrived in the dining chamber for breakfast. Hercules stiffened at the sight of them, wondering if they were still at odds and if he’d have to bang their heads together before they’d see reason, but Iolaus greeted them both with a mixture of warmth and wariness as they took their seats. “You guys work things out yet?” he asked. “Or does Hercules need to shake some sense into those thick skulls of yours?”
The two men smiled sheepishly and exchanged glances. “You’re the King,” Ajax drawled. “It’s up to you to make official proclamations.”
“Alright,” Iphicles agreed. Looking soberly from Hercules to Iolaus, he said, “You’re the first to know what we’ve agreed upon. Ajax’s men will be granted tracks of royal land outside the city to farm in peace, in gratitude for their loyal service to Corinth.” Glancing at Hercules, he went on, “And the statue in the square will be raised in tribute to these men and those who died in battle. Phineas will be accorded a hero’s funeral, as he’d well earned.”
Iolaus nodded, but a frown furrowed his brow. Ajax had been amongst the most valiant of warriors during the long siege of Troy, but he’d also led the assault on the King and had condemned Iphicles to death. It couldn’t be an accident that Iph hadn’t mentioned that he, too, would be granted a track of land upon which to build a peaceful future. Swallowing, preparing to argue for leniency if need be, he asked, “And Ajax?”
The King’s features grew firm and the Commander’s gaze dropped to the table, his eyes hooded and his expression giving nothing away. Iolaus wondered if he’d bargained mercy for his men by offering himself as a sacrifice to serve for them all. “Ajax dragged me out to Golgoth, to show me how … hideous conditions had become there. Though his tactics were, uh, abrupt - to say the least - his point was well made. A prison isn’t meant to be a gentle experience, but neither should it be merciless. For his sins, Ajax will be sent back to Golgoth to serve for a period of at least ten years - as the new warden. It’ll be his job to clean the place up, to make it a place of discipline and confinement, but not a Tartarus on earth.”
For a moment, silence filled the chamber and then Iolaus ventured, “Seems fair.”
“More than fair,” Hercules intoned, allowing that there was balance in their accord. Giving up the land would lessen Iphicles’ personal wealth by a considerable measure, and being the new warden was better than being confined out on that rock for life on a charge of treason.
Nebula crossed her arms and rolled her eyes. “And I suppose the first thing you’ll do is close off those tunnels, to ensure nobody else breaks in the back door?” she muttered, aggrieved.
“You’ve got that right, missy,” Ajax rumbled, sounding fierce, but there was a smile in his eyes.
Shaking her head, she grimaced. “There goes a perfectly good hiding place for contraband,” she sighed dejectedly … and they all laughed at her theatrics, lightening the mood in the room.
Iphicles sought Iolaus’ gaze, his expression diffident. “Iolaus … I owe you a debt of gratitude,” he said with abject sincerity. “You saved my life - twice - out on that rock. I’ll find a way to repay you, I swear it. But for now, simply know that if, when, I have a son, he’ll be named for you. The crown prince should bear the name of his father’s hero.”
At a loss for words, Iolaus gaped and flushed with pleased embarrassment.
“And we both owe you an apology, and ask your forgiveness,” Ajax added, rising to stand by the King’s shoulder. “For being two stubborn thick-headed fools who should have listened to you in the first place. Iphicles is right. There’d be no agreement but for you.” Shaking his head, he sighed. “If not for you, I’d be guilty of treason and regicide, and my men would never know peace in this life. There is no way to repay you for the future you won for us by saving Iphicles and … and showing us that men can argue without forgetting they are friends, or losing track of the fact that a solution is always possible if … if we act with patience and respect.”
Iolaus crossed his arms and bowed his head, scratched his cheek in embarrassment. But he looked up, one brow arched cockily. “There is a way you can thank me, you know,” he offered and, at Ajax’s intrigued look, he went on, “While you’re out on Golgoth, figure out a way to get rid of those sand sharks.” Shuddering, he intoned melodramatically, “I really, really hate those things.”
Hercules snorted and slapped him on the shoulder, while Ajax stepped forward to hold out his arm, one warrior to another. When Iolaus clasped his arm firmly, he nodded. “You have my word,” he vowed.
“That’s always been good enough for me,” the hero replied with a warm smile. Ajax ducked his head and swallowed hard, deeply moved by the easy forgiveness. As he stepped away, Iolaus grinned at Iphicles and then pretended to preen. “Prince Iolaus. Has a nice ring to it, doncha think?” he asked, looking from Hercules to Nebula.
“Oh, yeah,” Hercules agreed, smiling broadly at the banter.
Nebula lifted her chin and arched a brow. “Maybe,” she allowed with a slow, seductive drawl. “But he’ll always be Prince Monkey Boy to me,” she quipped irreverently, and then grinned.
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