As Fortune Would Have It

by MaryE

“Assuming we do get out of here, what are we going to do?" the heavily bearded man whispered through the wiry hairs of his dust-encrusted mustache.

“We’re going to kill that traitorous rat Iolaus. That’s what we’re going to do. Nice and slow so he can watch the joy on my face at his demise,” replied the tall, thin man who swung his pick ax for emphasis and sunk its spike up to the shaft in the powdery white wall in front of him. Then, dropping down to rest on his haunches next to the lunch pot, he scooped a ladle-full of the greasy stew into his wooden bowl and grabbed a piece of stale bread out of the hands of the man who was chained to his right leg.

He placed the bowl to his lips and greedily drank the lukewarm swill. The stew was poor but it served to wash some of the mine’s dust down his parched throat. Poking the bread into the faces of the dirty and hungry men who had joined him around the stew pot he looked closely into their eyes. With one sweep, he quickly assessed the resolve of the nine men, all that were left of his once fine band of cutthroats and thieves.

“Listen closely, you pack of lazy dogs. We’re going to get only one chance at this. We either escape the first time or they’ll kill us all. Any of you caught lagging behind when the time comes can stay here and rot. Don’t expect any of us to come back here to save your worthless skins,” the thin man, who was obviously the leader of this group, hissed around the wad of fatty meat he chewed on.

“We’ll wait until dinner time. The guards will unlock Hysom from the end of our gang to go get the stew pots as usual. When they open the lock again to put him back on the line we’ll tackle them as one, overwhelm them,” the thin man said.

When the large man at the end of the chain gang nodded his understanding and acceptance, the thin man continued. “Hysom can use the stew pot as a weapon. He’s built like a great ox, he’ll break their faces.” The other men grinned and nodded their heads at the truth behind their leader’s statement. They had all, at one time or another, seen “the great ox” in action.

“Now, I know you’re thinking you could get injured, or killed on a dangerous venture like this. You’re right. It will be dangerous. That’s why I need you all with me. You’re all going to be my protectors…to insure that I get out of here alive.”

“And your miserable skin is so much more important than our own? You’re a thief just like we are,” a heavily scarred, one-eyed bandit growled.

“It is, ratbag! It is. Because I’m the only one who knows that our old boss had a pile of loot and tens of thousands of dinars that’s been hidden over the years and it’s never been found. There were only a few places he stashed it and I know all the places. He didn’t have time to move it before we got caught. So you make it your business to get me out of here alive and you’ll all be rich men. And if you die in the trying, I’ll make sure your next of kin gets your share,” the thin man informed the now wide-eyed thieves.

“That’s great!” exclaimed one of the bandits. Then a look of enlightenment passed over his face. “Hey, wait… None of us have any next of kin!”

“Oh well, then I’ll just have to be your next of kin,” the thin man said with a nasty grin.

Being as quiet as they could, and making an effort not to draw attention to themselves, the band of convicted thieves made their plans to kill Iolaus, head for home and find this hidden stash of loot that was just sitting there for the taking. Then they would split up for a while. The leader said that he would call them all together again in a few months time when things cooled off for them.

During their afternoon work hours he regaled them with his vision for their collective future which entailed their regrouping near Thessaly and taking over the action in several towns there in order to stay rich.

“Tell us again. How much is the old man’s stash?” one of the bandits asked.

“Enough to make each of you very rich men,” the leader assured them.

The rest of their afternoon was spent talking of what they would do with their share of the loot.

“What would you do with your share boss?” said the one-eyed man after they’d all had a chance to share their fantasies of the good life.

The dark, thin man rested his pick against the wall of the mine. He bent over to retrieve the water jug and took a long swallow. Lowering the jug, he rubbed his chin with his other hand and appeared for the moment to be deep in thought.

“First I’d take a long, long bath and pay for the most lovely of ladies to wash my back, then I’d get a couple of good nights sleep on a soft mattress with silk sheets. Some new clothes…” the leader replied. And then, to everyone’s surprise, he added, “Then I’m headed right back here.”

“Back here? Are you crazy boss?” the one-eyed crook exclaimed with a disbelieving shake of his head.

With a resounding slap, the thin man backhanded the thief, knocking him into the wall of the mine.

“I am not crazy!!! Don’t ever use that word again in my hearing,” the thin man growled, his dark eyes blazing with anger.

“I’m sorry boss…figure of speech…didn’t mean anything…it’s just…well…why would you want to come back to this death hole?” asked the cringing thief.

“Because I’ll have enough money to pay off all the guards here. I want them to turn their heads so I can slip back in and slit that old bastard’s throat with my own two hands,” he said while gesturing towards an older man who was chained to a work crew at the entrance of the mine. “I owe him. And the next one of you who looks at me like I’m nuts will suffer the same fate.”

“Okay Thanatos…okay. You’re right. Zeno deserves to die.”

Hysom, the big bear of a man, was unlocked from the end of Thanatos’ chain gang and sent to retrieve the dinner stew pots for all the chain gangs who shared the work in their mine shaft.

He made a silent vow to himself that he would go along with this breakout but that he would find a way to stop Thanatos from fulfilling his dream of coming back to this place to kill Zeno. Taking his money was one thing, but taking his life was another story all together. The older man had saved him from a very young death at the hands of his sadistic older brother. He owed Zeno too; owed him his life, and he would forever remain loyal in that way to his former boss.

He brought the dinner stew pots back and distributed them to the hungry gangs along with the bowls and bread. As he passed out the bread to Zeno’s group, he informed the older man of the plot to escape.

Zeno’s shocked and frustrated reply brought pain to the larger man’s heart. “Go with them Hysom please, and try to warn Iolaus. I owe that man my life. You all do. The magistrate would have hung us all immediately if his friend Hercules hadn’t defended us for Iolaus’ sake. Hysom, you’re a good man. Don’t fail me in this.”

The big man silently signaled his agreement to Zeno then he made his way back to his own gang.

The guard unlocked the chain to slip Hysom back on the end. The eight thieves shoved together on cue and knocked the guard to the ground. Thanatos sunk his hand up to the wrist in the soft sandy soil near his feet and he pulled out a small pick that the thieves buried in a shallow pit they’d dug after lunch.

Before the guard could pull his sword, Thanatos hit him in the head with the pick, killing him instantly. The two remaining guards were no match for the team of cutthroats who called on some of their old death-dealing skills to ease the escape.

Thanatos paused at the adit to the mine and stared down at Zeno who stared back at him defiantly. He brought up his booted foot and planted it firmly in the older man’s face breaking Zeno’s nose and knocking him over onto his back. Thanatos gave a sadistically satisfied laugh at the sight of blood that ran down Zeno’s chin. Then he ran out into the darkness to join his band of thieves.

Later that night Zeno heard several of the guards bragging about how they had killed one of the big prisoners who escaped from the mine. He worried that it was Hysom and that there would be no one who could warn Iolaus. Feeling powerless for one of the first times in his life, and not knowing what else to do, Zeno prayed.

“I haven’t done this…not since I was a child. Who would listen to me, a thief and master criminal? Not even Hermes would look at me now in my failure. Iolaus travels with Hercules and it’s well known that Hera hates Hercules and I’ve heard Ares hates him too. Which of the gods would go against those two. Arghhhhhh. What’s left to me? Pick a god…any god?”

Then with a disdainful little laugh at his own powerlessness Zeno began to chant, “Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Rho…Catch a goddess by her stoa…”

In a flash of gold and blue a strange figure that Zeno didn’t recognize appeared.

“Oh good…you called me,” the strange-looking female said.

“I didn’t call anybody. Well not anyone in particular. Who are you?” Zeno whispered.

“Well, I wouldn’t have been able to hear you and answer if you hadn’t called me…and this is really all my fault anyway, in a round about sort of way,” the apparition answered him.

“Your fault…but who are you?” Zeno asked again.

“Why I’m Fortune, of course. And you most certainly did call me…well, not by name but you used one of my games of chance,” she replied. And when Zeno continued to stare at her blankly she added, “you know, Alpha, Beta, Gamma… That’s just as good as a direct call as far as I’m concerned. Now, what do you want… and please, be as exact as you can because this has been known to backfire on occasion…not often, mind you…just enough to make things really…uh…interesting.”

This spirit in front of him wasn’t any goddess he recognized although she did “feel” familiar to him and she was, after all, a supernatural spirit of some kind because everyone else in the mine was carrying on business as usual and it was obvious they didn’t see the apparition. So, unless the ingredients in the food he had for dinner were causing him to hallucinate he’d have to go with what was being offered to him.

“I need help. I’ve got to do something to save the life of the man who saved mine. He’s going to be murdered,” Zeno whispered.

“So, you need to save someone’s life, someone important to you. Would he happen to be Iolaus, hero and friend of Hercules?” Fortune asked.

“Yes,” Zeno replied.

“Okay then, if you’re going to save his life we’ve got to get you out of here. Let’s see if that is going to be your fortune.” That said, Fortune pulled an odd looking golden coin out of her bodice. She flipped it in the air and waited with her palm outstretched.

To Zeno, the coin seemed to hang in the air for an eternity. He was holding his breath and didn’t even realize it.

Just as the coin hit Fortune’s open palm, the night guard grabbed a piece of meat out of the long forgotten stew pot at Zeno’s feet. He chewed a couple of times then choked and fell to the ground gasping for breath. Zeno grabbed the keys from the guard’s belt and unlocked his fetters. He grabbed the fallen guard’s sword, cloak and helmet then ran out of the mine, disappearing into the night.

On the road leading south out of Thrace…

“First I want to see my mom and Leandra,” Iolaus said before he took a bite of the juicy apple his partner threw him.

“I don’t get it Iolaus, why did we walk all the way to Thrace just to stay overnight and leave the next morning?”

“There’s nothing to ‘get’ Herc. I wanted to go to Trace because I can…just because I can buddy. It’s there and I can go there anytime I want. Isn’t it great!” His partner’s infectious joyful laughter and a pat on the back had Hercules laughing too. They strolled slowly along the road savoring the day and just being together again.

“Okay, we’ll stop off for a day or two to see King Trancas of Nemea because I promised to help him sort out a problem he’s had with a giant boar that’s tearing up the area. Then visit Erythia and Pandion. I can’t wait for them to see you and to share our good fortune with them now that you’re back home, alive and…Ha ha ha ha…buddy! You’re back!” Hercules again laughed joyously and grabbed his best friend up into a celebratory bear hug.

Iolaus was beginning to get used to these unusual shows of joyful affection from his partner. He heartily shared the sentiments behind the gesture. They’d defeated the Four Horsemen almost a week before and they were both still living in a state of euphoria at having been returned to the land of the living.

When Iolaus’ feet finally touched the ground again, Hercules turned away from him for a brief moment to wipe some moisture from the corner of his eye.

“Sounds like a plan Herc,” Iolaus replied trying to keep things light and hide his own emotions from his partner by fidgeting with the sack of supplies that they’d picked up in Thrace. Iolaus rubbed his nose with the back of his hand and continued. “But after we see mom and Pandion maybe our plans will change, remember, we’re free to go anywhere in the world…do anything we want.”

“Anywhere and anything Iolaus…it’ll be up to you,” Hercules echoed his best friend. Then resting his hand on Iolaus’ shoulder, they continued their leisurely journey towards Nemea.

Thanatos wasted no time in determining the whereabouts of Hercules and his much-hated partner. He had his crew making inquiries in the marketplaces of villages that lined their escape route back towards Nemea.

They discovered that Hercules and Iolaus had recently been in Thrace but that it appeared they were currently on the road heading north.

The band of escaped prisoners took their evening meal in the dark of the forest, unwilling to light a campfire and risk drawing attention to themselves. The conversation soon turned to Thanatos’ favorite subject.

“Well,” he said, “they’ll no doubt have to pass through Nemea if they’re following the usual route. Let’s go there and wait for them to come to us then we can kill two birds with one stone. We can find the hidden stash of loot while we plan how to get Iolaus away from Hercules so I can kill him.”

Since none of the thieves would dare suggest anything different, afraid of Thanatos’ wrath and his skills with the knife, they all agreed to his plan.

Iolaus and Hercules however were taking their sweet time making their way along the road to Nemea. They were having too much fun renewing their partnership and hunting and fishing to hurry themselves. The three days it would normally have taken them to reach Nemea turned into a week.

Thanatos, not the calmest of human beings, began to get more nervous with each passing day. He wanted his revenge so badly he could almost taste it.

On the sixth day he could contain himself no longer. He sent out scouts in an attempt to pinpoint the heroes’ location.

Hysom was grateful that he was picked to be one of the scouts. He was trying to think of a way to get away from Thanatos for a while to look for Iolaus on his own. This bit of good fortune played straight into his own plans. He ran as fast as his feet would carry him away from the other thieves. He needed just a little time to pull his thoughts together. He knew he wasn’t as clever as the other fellows but he also knew he wasn’t as slow and lazy as they were. He would have to use every advantage he had to stay true to his promise to Zeno. When he was far enough away from Nemea he found a fallen tree trunk on which to sit and ponder his next move. He tried to recall all he had heard of Hercules. He dismissed the bits and pieces about fighting monsters and performing labors and concentrated on the everyday stories of the itinerant heroes Hercules and Iolaus and their prowess at hunting and fishing.

Hysom knew all of the best hunting and fishing locations for miles and miles around Nemea. Feeling a lot more confident than he had when he left Thanatos presence, he took off to find the two heroes.

The noonday sun filtered through the broad leaves of the trees lighting the faint path before him as Hysom passed through the thickest part of the forest that ringed Chrystea Lake. The purest of mountain waters and its location so far off the beaten track were the double blessing that allowed this lake to be bountifully stocked with the largest of fresh water fish for miles and miles around. Certain that he would find the heroes at this lake, Hysom allowed himself to take a short meal break before continuing with his quest. As he munched on a sliver of creamy white feta enfolded in a soft round of flatbread he heard a sound that was not of the forest, causing him to freeze in mid bite. Keeping himself very still, he tuned his ears into the natural rhythms and tones of his surroundings until he heard it again…a cough. It was definitely the short, barking cough of a human.

Hysom crammed the unfinished sandwich into his leather pouch and with a stealth that was almost impossible for one of his size he crept towards the thicket from which the sound had emanated. Assuring himself that the traveler was alone and not in any condition to confront him, Hysom announced himself and entered the clearing to investigate further.

A dying campfire separated him from a quivering lump of blanket. When he again greeted the inhabitant of the blanket he was answered by a hacking cough followed by a pain-filled moan.

“Hysom…is that you?” a weak voice whispered to him from underneath the blanket.

Hysom crossed the clearing in two large strides and knelt next to the shivering figure. “Zeno! You’re free…how?”

“Water…please…” begged the sick man.

Hysom swung his water skin off of his shoulder and held it to Zeno’s cracked lips, letting the older man take his fill of the cool liquid.

Taking a breath that was just a little too deep, hurting his chest in the process, he replied, “I escaped too, that same night you did. One of your group died. I was afraid it was you.”

“Nah, boss. It was Tyric. He got it in the back on his way out the gate,” Hysom replied.

Zeno took in the information and nodded. “I’m glad it wasn’t you. Have you found Iolaus yet?” he asked before being wracked with another coughing spasm.

“No boss, but that’s why I’m here. I’m sure he’s got to be at this lake with Hercules. It’s the only place they’d be that I can think of,” Hysom replied.

“I was afraid I would die before I could get a warning to Iolaus. Now I can rest a bit easier. Thank you for that Hysom. Go now. Warn him,” Zeno painfully whispered before he collapsed back onto the cold ground.

“I’m not going to leave you here Zeno. It’s only another mile or two to the lake. There are some warm caves there and I can get a good fire going and work on that fever of yours. There are some herbs around here that’ll help,” Hysom told the sick man. Then he kicked dirt on the dying campfire, picked up the mildly protesting older man and prepared to carry him the rest of the way to the lake.

The laughing voices of the two heroes could be heard long before Hysom took the final few steps out of the forest and onto the sandy patch of dirt that led down to the lake.

“Hercules…please help…” Hysom gasped then sank to his knees before he could make it to where the demigod and his partner sat tending their fishing lines. The mines had aged Zeno considerably and he was much thinner that when they’d first begun their imprisonment, but Hysom believed that the old man’s bones must have been made of iron because he felt as if he weighed a ton.

Hercules jumped up and ran to the exhausted man who still protectively clutched the body of another in his strong arms. Iolaus followed immediately behind his friend, a look of dawning recognition on his face, as he got closer to the intruders.

“He’s one of Zeno’s men,” Iolaus told his partner in a low voice as they made their approach.

“How’s that possible?” Hercules wondered.

“Thank the gods I’ve found you,” Hysom cried out as Hercules relieved him of his burden.

Iolaus looked down into the face of the unconscious man in his partner’s arms and he gasped “Zeno!”

Zeno stirred in Hercules’ arms. “Iolaus…danger…” he whispered through fever-cracked lips. Then clutching at the blond’s vest with powerless fingers he kept repeating the word ‘danger.’

“Hysom…what’s this all about?” Iolaus asked turning his attention to the larger man who remained on his knees in the sand. Seeing that the big man was too parched to respond, Iolaus helped him take his fill from the water skin that was slung across his broad shoulders.

“Thanatos…it’s Thanatos. He’s escaped and he’s sworn to kill you,” Hysom said.

Hercules head shot up and he searched the tree line for any imminent signs of danger.

“Not now,” Hysom assured them. “Thanatos is hiding out in the forest right outside Nemea, about a good five hour walk from here. He sent out scouts to try to find you. I’m one of them, but I’ve come to warn you instead. Zeno wanted me to warn you…” he looked directly at Iolaus as he said those last words.

Iolaus returned to Hercules’ side and Zeno again grabbed for him. “They’ve escaped. I had to get warning to you…owed you,” the older man whispered. “Don’t let them get the money…they’ll be too difficult to stop with the money…Thessaly…danger…”

Uttering the word ‘danger’ one last time, Zeno fell back into unconsciousness.

“Iolaus, he’s burning up,” Hercules advised his best friend.

“And he’s been coughing up a storm. Might be he’s got the lung fever that killed a bunch of men down in the mines,” Hysom advised. “I was going to bring him to one of the caves, warm it up for him and give him some herbs that grow around here.”

“We’re here to help you Hysom. Show us where the caves are and I’ll help you get a fire started. Iolaus…”

“Way ahead of you, Herc. I’ll catch us something to make a strong broth with. Leave some kind of a trail so I can find my way to the caves, will ya?” and saying that, Iolaus made his way towards the forest to rustle up some meat.

While Hercules built the fire and Iolaus skinned and prepared the rabbits for cooking, Hysom told his story. He recounted for the heroes and Zeno the tale of their escape from the mines, Thanatos’ plan for finding Zeno’s hidden loot, and for killing Iolaus. The former crook told them of his loyalty to Zeno and how surprised he had been when he came to find the older man in the forest, unaware that he had also escaped the mines.

“They say that being forewarned is being fore armed. Thank you. I realize that you’ve put yourself in danger by warning us of Thanatos’ plans,” Hercules told Hysom.

“I’d do anything for Zeno. He saved my life once,” Hysom said.

“And Iolaus saved mine twice. Once in the swamp when I was drowning and again from swinging on the gallows, which is where we all would have been headed if it weren’t for your good words on our behalf, Iolaus…Hercules…” Zeno added. “It’s our turn to do something for you.”

“Stay with us Hysom, share our dinner and then I’m going to ask you to do us one more favor. If you don’t want to though, we will all understand,” Hercules said.

“I’ll help you. You can all count on me,” the large man replied.

“Good…then after you’ve eaten I want you to return to your camp near Nemea. You’ll have a full moon tonight. It’ll be perfect for traveling. Tell Thanatos that you found us here at the lake and that you heard us arguing about the route to take back to Thebes. Tell him that I said we’d take the long forest route so we could get a handle on the whereabouts of the giant boar that’s terrorizing the people of the town. Tell him that I plan to be in Nemea two evenings from now. That way Thanatos and his pals will be off guard when we show up tomorrow afternoon while they’re digging for Zeno’s treasure in the swamp. Can you do that for us Hysom?” Hercules asked.

“Of course, Hercules,” Hysom replied.

“Great. Then when we show up you can step out of the way and let us take care of Thanatos’ and his little band. You did say he had seven others with him?”

“Yes Hercules, there are seven guys but I can’t leave you to handle them on your own. That Thanatos is deadly with the knives and you’ll have to be extra careful. I’ll help you take a few guys down from behind. I’m good at that. Isn’t that right Zeno?” Hysom asked.

“You’re very good at that Hysom…very good…” Zeno began. But his reply was cut short by a bout of heavy coughing.

Iolaus wiped his hands on a rag and went to the older man’s side to offer him a drink of cool water. “Hysom, when we first arrive at the swamp it would help if you could take out one or two of the men, if you can do it without putting yourself in danger. But then I want you to make your way around the fighting and circle behind Herc and me. We’ll be leaving Zeno at Pelopides place. Do you know the old healer’s hut just outside the walls of the town?”

“Sure do, Iolaus. He’s patched me up a time or two,” replied the large man.

“Great, Hysom. Zeno will be there and you must protect him in case Thanatos gets past us. Can you do that?” Iolaus asked.

Hysom readily agreed and kept himself busy while waiting for dinner by wiping down Zeno’s fevered brow, trying to keep the fever at bay.

The men ate and then with some final instructions Hysom left the cave. The demigod and Iolaus worked to make Zeno as comfortable as possible, settling him down on their bedroll and wrapping him in both of their thin blankets to help him sweat out the fever.

“Iolaus…I don’t think it’s such a good idea to move Zeno tomorrow…” Hercules started to say.

“Please Herc. Zeno is too sick to leave here on his own. He needs the healer and it’ll only take us out of our way by an hour or so,” Iolaus persuasively pointed out.

“Thank you both, but you don’t have to try to save me. I’m dying,” Zeno said with a pleading look at Hercules first then his eyes came to rest on Iolaus face.

“I won’t let you die. I didn’t before and I won’t now,” Iolaus assured his older friend.

“I’m afraid you have no say in this my young friend,” Zeno grabbed Iolaus’ arm to catch his full attention. “It’s up to the Fates now. Last week all of the men in the mine got sick…guards too. We had no food for two days. Many died. By rights I should have been one of them.” Then Zeno’s eyes came to rest on Iolaus’ face and he smiled. “I’m glad though. Now I may be able to rest in peace when my time is up. With this mission accomplished Hades might even look on me with a little kindness. What do you think Hercules? He’s your uncle, isn’t he? Is he a fair sort?”

“I don’t want to hear another word about you dying…” Iolaus interrupted before his partner could reply to Zeno’s question.

“But…don’t you see? I’ll be free. What does this life hold for me now? They’ll hunt me down and execute me for being an escaped prisoner. I’d be on the run for the rest of my life. Even if you put in another good word for me, I’d only wind up getting thrown back in the mines. There is freedom in death for me Iolaus. Even an eternity in Tartarus would be a blessing,” Zeno pleaded with the blond hero.

“Yeah…well I’ve been dead. Just came back last week from the most recent death and I can tell you that this…no matter how bad it seems now…this is freedom!” Iolaus declared almost angrily.

“Maybe to you my friend. Look at your life. You’re a hero; you’ve got friends, a purpose. Me…”

“Hercules, please talk to him. You’re better at explaining,” Iolaus implored his best friend.

Iolaus settled the older man down again and Hercules sat by the fire and spoke to Zeno. He began by telling the story of how Iolaus had managed to become Zeno’s friend in the first place because the older man had never had the benefit of an explanation of how Iolaus’ amnesia came about. Then Hercules explained a bit about Iolaus’ death in Sumeria and how they’d gotten his life back.

“So you see, Zeno, death for me was a prison of sorts,” Iolaus explained when Hercules stopped talking. “Maybe when I’m older it’ll be different, maybe not…I…uh… Don’t give up so easily. Fight for your life. When this is over we’ll talk to the king. We’ll tell him what you’ve done to stop Thanatos.”

The older man was very quiet for a while after Hercules’ story. “That explains it…” Zeno said in a voice that bordered on reverence.

“Explains what?” Iolaus wondered.

“Fortune…Fortune was the goddess who answered my prayers in the mine. It explains why she was so anxious to help me escape the mines and get a warning to you in time. She must still be feeling guilty…like she owes you one or two favors. It’s not just to make up for erasing your memory that time in Nemea; it’s for saving her existence and that of the other gods from those Horsemen. It makes sense now.”

“Then I’ll have to apologize for being less than kind to Fortune,” Hercules said. “For once it looks like her interference is working to your good fortune Iolaus. We’d better let you get some sleep Zeno. Tomorrow’s journey won’t be an easy one.”

Zeno settled himself into the blankets and drifted off into a fitful sleep. The two heroes stayed by the fire for a while longer to make their plans for the next day’s confrontation with Thanatos.

“You think we got through to him Herc?” Iolaus asked as he gestured towards the sleeping man.

“I hope so, Iolaus. Maybe when he’s feeling better he’ll be able to think more clearly about his situation,” Hercules replied. Then the demigod took a deep breath and decided to broach another subject with his partner. You’ve been speaking a lot these past few days about freedom, my friend,” Hercules said as he laid his hand across Iolaus’ shoulder. “But your return to life hasn’t given you total freedom. You’re having nightmares. Something must still be bothering you.”

“And you think now is a good time to bring them up?” Iolaus asked with a weak smile. “Besides, I’ve heard you thrashing about a time or two this past week. While we’re sharing true confessions…what’s up with that?”

“I guess it’s nightmares for both of us then,” Hercules said with a self-deprecating chuckle. “I didn’t think you’d noticed. I should have known better. Yes, they’ve gotten much better this past week. I used to have them almost every night. First it was about Sumeria then about Dahak...I couldn’t stop him…I couldn’t reach you…couldn’t help...”

Iolaus could see how difficult it was for his best friend to talk about his dreams so he took up his own nightmares. “For me it’s seeing evil inhabiting my body. Seeing my body cause pain to others. I re-live Dahak’s cold touch…” he said with a shiver. “My dreams are about being helpless to stop the bad stuff, too.” Then giving his best friend a warm squeeze on the shoulder, he added, “but that’s all over now. I’m here with you and both of our nightmares will fade soon. You’ll see.”

“Right,” Hercules replied with a smile. “Now let’s get some sleep. Tomorrow we’ve got to deal with some pestilence in a swamp.”

The heroes left for Nemea with Zeno just before dawn the next day. The older man tired before they had made it half way to the city walls and Hercules fashioned a stretcher out of their blankets and some fallen tree branches so they could carry him the rest of the way. They dropped the older man off with Pelopides, the healer, and headed out almost immediately for the swamp and their confrontation with Thanatos.

They crept through the dense foliage being careful of their footing in the thick mud. “Herc?” Iolaus whispered urgently to catch his partner’s attention. “Do you smell that?”

“Yeah, it looks like Thanatos isn’t the only danger we’ve got to look out for today,” Hercules answered as they both took a wide sidestep to avoid stepping in a huge pile of boar dung. They silently made their way about another eighth of a mile and they could hear the unmistakable voice of Thanatos as he urged his cronies to dig faster.

A few more meters would bring them into the tight clearing with the band of thieves. Iolaus crawled on hands and knees until he could see into the clearing and gage how the men were positioned. He signaled to Hercules that they were in a good position to make their entrance then he stood and waited for his partner to join him. With one last look at each other they bound into the clearing, startling the mud-encrusted crew.

“Hello boys,” Hercules crooned while Iolaus stood next to him with a big grin bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet ready for action.

“Arghhhhhhhh!!!!” Thanatos screamed when he saw the two heroes and realized Hysom’s betrayal.

Hysom for his own part followed the plan to perfection. He swiftly and quietly took out three of the filthy crew with the stout handle of his shovel then as rapidly as his large frame would carry him he made his way around the fighting, snuck off into the swamp and headed for Pelopides hut.

The heroes didn’t let the element of surprise get away from them; the four crooks who remained standing were quickly scrambling out of the shallow pit they’d been digging. Thanatos, in a lightning fast move reached for the knife he kept sheathed in his belts. Hercules was faster landing a roundhouse punch to Thanatos’ shoulder, knocking him backwards into the pit.

Iolaus ducked and wove his way between two of the crooks who were wielding their picks and shovels as weapons. When he got them into a perfect position, Hercules shouted “Now!” The crooks swung their weapons at Iolaus’ head but when Iolaus heard his partner’s warning he threw himself to the ground and rolled away letting the momentum carry the crooks across the empty space where he had been standing and they knocked each other out.

Two more of the enemy were left and they ganged up on Hercules in order to give Thanatos a chance to reach his weapons.

With one last quick look over his shoulder to make certain the two crooks were staying down for the count, Iolaus ran to his partner’s back and engaged one of the thieves as Herc took care of the other, all the while continuing to keep Thanatos down in the pit with some well placed kicks.

The thief that Hercules was fighting was like a wildcat. Smaller than the others and very athletic, he managed to leap onto the demigod’s back and put a sleeper-hold around his head and neck. Hercules felt the pressure on his pulse points and windpipe. He tried to shake the thief off but it wasn’t working. He used his hands to pry the crook off his neck then swung his arm around to send the small thief flying into the trees at the edge of the clearing.

The loud snort and grunt of a disturbed animal came from behind those trees. But the action in the clearing was still going on too quickly for the fighters to take much notice.

While the crook on his back had distracted Hercules, Thanatos was able to clear his throbbing head enough to unsheathe his favorite knife and crawl out of the muddy pit.

Iolaus disarmed the thief he was fighting then spun around to check on Herc’s position. That was when he saw his partner toss the crook into the trees leaving himself open to Thanatos’ attack. He ran to intercept the downward thrust of the knife as it made it’s way towards his partner’s back. With a flying leap, he arrived in time to kick the knife and send it backwards through Thanatos’ fist. The thief cried out as the razor sharp blade cut a bloody path across his palm.

The two remaining thieves regrouped beside Thanatos and readied themselves for another go at the two heroes. But just then a very angry, snorting and grunting giant of a wild boar shot out of the trees, coming to a stop in the middle of the clearing. It sniffed the air, hooves prying divots out of the soft ground as it circled the clearing, deciding who to attack first.

Time seemed to freeze for a moment then with one last loud snort the boar charged at the two thieves who stood behind Thanatos, chasing them into the trees and further into the swamp.

Iolaus bent to retrieve one of the pick axes that the crooks had been using in their treasure hunt and he ran off behind the boar certain that his partner would be following immediately behind him.

With Hercules and Iolaus’ momentarily distracted by the boar chase, Thanatos quietly escaped into the bushes and trees. He was not willing to risk his neck around that wild beast. He’d never seen one so big in his entire life. It’s shoulder stood as high as a horse’s, and he knew that even his longest and sharpest knives would have little effect on the animal. He was hurt; losing blood from the deep cut across his palm. He would bide his time until things quieted down then come back to investigate the damage. Then he would dig up the treasure by himself if he had to and he wouldn’t have to share it with any one.

Iolaus came to a skidding halt deep in the swamp as he saw the smaller crook standing thigh-deep in a bed of quicksand struggling to free himself.

“Stop moving!” Iolaus shouted to the thief. “If you move you’ll sink faster. We’ll get you out.”

Iolaus searched the ground for branches or reeds long enough to reach the thief but found nothing to hand. Then they heard the crashing of pounding feet and hooves coming in their direction again. The one-eyed thief ran straight for the quicksand followed by the boar, only inches separating them both. One mean swing of his horned snout and the boar gored the one-eyed crook through the soft of his back. With the screaming crook draped backwards over its face, the boar became enraged and disoriented. Iolaus raised the axe and sent it flying end over end until it buried itself deeply in the soft underbelly of the boar. But his action was too late to save the crook. With a pain-filled squeal the boar, still carrying the now limp body of the one-eyed crook across it’s face, crashed into the quicksand, twisting it’s large body over and over in it’s own death throes. This created another desperate situation. The commotion in the quicksand was causing the smaller crook to get sucked down towards the thrashing rear limbs of the boar.

Hercules skidded up behind Iolaus and evaluated the entire scene in less that a second. He tried to reach his hand out to the sinking crook but the man was too far away from safe land to reach the demigod’s grip. The heroes searched the clearing once more. Iolaus spotted them overhead and directed Hercules, who was able to reach some hanging vines that his partner pointed to. He pulled them down and threw them to the crook who was too far-gone in sheer panic to take the help that was being offered.

Iolaus picked up the end of the vine, threaded it through his belt then pulled the end down and tied it to his ankles. Taking a quick look back at his partner, he threw himself out over the quicksand and did a belly flop onto its surface only inches away from the thrashing crook.

Iolaus reached out both of his hands. His right hand grasped the crook by the wrist and his left hand grabbed a handful of the man’s thick long hair.

“Pull!” Iolaus shouted and in less than a heartbeat he felt himself being ‘reeled-in’ to solid land by the demigod, dragging the panicked crook behind him.

Iolaus brushed himself off as best he could but the rest of the cleanup would have to wait until they’d finished what they’d come to the swamp for in the first place. They had to make it back to the clearing before the other crooks woke up and vanished.

They dragged the rescued thief back to the clearing and set him down next to the pit. The two thieves that Iolaus took down were just beginning to stir. The three that Hysom knocked out were still unconscious.

Hercules searched the thieves’ handcart, which was piled high with digging tools, and he found coils of rope. He tied the six thieves together and got them ready to transport to the Nemean magistrate.

As his partner tied the thieves, Iolaus searched the clearing for signs of Thanatos. He caught sight of a trail of blood leading towards the deepest part of the swamp.

“Come on, Herc! Leave these guys tied up here. We can get Thanatos and bring them all in at once,” Iolaus urged.

“Later, Iolaus. He’s probably long gone and you need to get back and check on Zeno. Pelopides is okay but he needs someone to push him. Hysom won’t know the care that’s needed. Okay buddy?” Hercules replied. “I’ll be quick then I’ll meet you at Pelopides and we’ll track Thanatos together.”

“I don’t know, Herc…” Iolaus began.

“What do you want to bet we’ll find him right back here? I don’t think he’ll be willing to leave the area without trying to get at least some of the treasure to disappear with,” Hercules assured his partner.

“You’re probably right, Herc. I’ll see you in a little while,” Iolaus replied. Then he watched Hercules lead the crooks towards Nemea before he turned and made his way back to the healer’s hut.

Hercules shoved the last of the thieves into the cell and watched the prison guard turn the key in the sturdy lock. He followed the Magistrate back to his office to sign off on the paperwork and was surprised by the appearance of King Trancas and his palace guard.

“Hercules, the guards at the city gate came to me right away with the news that you’d entered the city. I sent for you to take care of the problem with the boar and you’ve managed to prevent an even bigger problem from happening to my kingdom. I would hate to think of what revenge Thanatos and his thugs could have taken on my people and myself for their imprisonment,” King Trancas said as he shook the demigod’s hand.

“Well, you can thank Zeno and one of his men named Hysom for catching these escaped prisoners. They came straight to warn us. I couldn’t have brought them in without their help,” Hercules told the King.

“Zeno! I thought he was the leader of these thieves. How can that be, Hercules?” the King asked.

“Not any more. He’s one of the good guys now. Trust me. And he’s very sick at the moment. I wanted to ask if I could bring him here to the palace healer? He’s with Pelopides right now but I think we need someone more highly skilled to treat a fever and cough he caught down in the mines,” the demigod asked.

“Of course, Hercules. Anything you want. My court is at your complete disposal,” The King replied. “Oh, and don’t worry about the giant boar, you can take care of that problem another time.”

“The boar’s already been taken care of. Iolaus killed it. You won’t be troubled by it any more,” Hercules said with a smile.

“Iolaus? But I thought…well we’d heard he was dead,” the king said in surprise.

“He was, but he’s back now and he’s using his new found freedom to continue in the hero business,” Hercules happily told the King.

“That’s wonderful news, Hercules! We’ll have to have a celebration. Thanatos and his gang of escaped prisoners are caught, the giant boar is dead and most wonderfully, Iolaus is here with us to celebrate it all!” the King enthused.

“Well, hold that thought King Trancas. You’ve got it right except for Thanatos. We haven’t gotten him yet, just his men. Iolaus and I will be on his trail as soon as I settle Zeno in with your healer. When we’ve got him locked up in your prison then we’ll be in a position to celebrate,” Hercules said.

“Fine then, Hercules. You do what has to be done and I’ll get a royal celebration in the works and…I just had a thought. You know I can’t let Zeno go free until he’s fulfilled his sentence. But I think I may have a unique substitute for his punishment instead of sending him back to the mines.”

“Unique, huh? I’m listening,” the demigod said.

“I could send my soldiers to dig up the hidden loot then use it to set up shelters and trade schools for street kids so they won’t feel the need to turn to crime and I think Zeno’s just the person to set things up and run it all. What do you think, Hercules?” the King explained, looking to Hercules for his reaction.

“I think you’re a good King, Trancas,” Hercules replied gratefully

Then shaking the demigod’s hand once more, the good King let Hercules go retrieve Zeno from Pelopides.

“Oh thank the gods!” Zeno whispered as he saw Iolaus step into the healer’s hut.

“Where’s Hercules?” Hysom asked.

“He’s taking Thanatos’ crew to the magistrate for re-sentencing. He’ll be here soon,” Iolaus replied.

“Did you get them all?” Zeno asked.

“Except for the guy with the eye patch. The wild boar got him. I guess Fortune wasn’t smiling in his direction today,” Iolaus answered with a tight smile. “How are you, my friend?” he asked Zeno as he approached the cot. Hysom gave up his seat on the stool beside the cot and let Iolaus take his place.

Zeno grabbed the hero’s hand and urgently asked, “Did you get Thanatos?”

The thought to lie to ease the older man’s fears crossed Iolaus’ mind just briefly before he replied truthfully. “Nah…not yet. But as soon as Herc gets back we’re going out hunting for him. His hand is hurt and he’s leaving a pretty unmistakable trail of blood. It should be a piece of cake. Now let us take care of you until Herc arrives.”

“Don’t worry about me. Catching Thanatos is most important. He’s crazy and he won’t stop coming for you Iolaus. He won’t let it go.”

“Hysom, where is Pelopides? Did he leave any medicine for Zeno’s fever?” Iolaus asked the big man.

“He left the hut a while ago to collect herbs for the cough and the fever. He should be back soon. In the meantime he told me to keep bathing Zeno down with cool water. I’m starting to run low,” Hysom said as he sloshed the little bit of water around in the bottom of the pail to show Iolaus.

“I’m here now Hysom, why don’t you get some water and I’ll keep Zeno company?” Iolaus asked.

“I’ll be back with more water in a flash, Boss,” Hysom said to Zeno. Then he picked up the bucket and left the hut.

“Iolaus, I have to ask you something,” Zeno rasped through his dry, fever-cracked lips. “Did they find the loot in the swamp?”

“It looked like they were just getting to it when Herc and I arrived. We know exactly where it is though and we’ll go back for it later,” Iolaus told the older man.

“Good…there’s more. Right here in Pelopides back yard. We paid him off to allow us to bury something there. He must have thought it was a body or two and didn’t ask any questions. Otherwise he would have dug it up himself and been out of here long ago,” Zeno said.

“Why are you telling me this Zeno?” Iolaus asked. “I don’t want your money.”

“I’m telling you because I want you and Hercules to do something good with the money…you know, clean it up. It was got from years of crooked operations. Maybe it can be used to straighten out some of the problems I caused over the years,” Zeno replied.

“Okay Zeno. We’ll talk about this later. Just rest until Herc gets here,” Iolaus said and he watched the older man drift off into a fevered sleep.

Thanatos was hurt. He had run into the deepest part of the swamp to get away from the fighting and the boar. When he couldn’t hear the shouting any longer he paused to rest against a fallen tree trunk and check on his wound. One of the blades that he stole on their first day out of the mines, the one that he had attentively sharpened for eventual use on Iolaus, cut his hand so deeply that he was going to need the help of a healer to sew him up before he could return to the swamp to dig up the treasure. Killing Iolaus would just have to wait a little longer and Thanatos could kill equally as well with either hand so he wasn’t in the least concerned that this injury would slow him down in achieving that goal.

A faint rustling noise reached his ears and he ducked down behind the tree trunk. Pulling a hunting knife out of his boot with his good hand, he waited.

A great halo of unkempt steel-gray hair poked out of the old robes that covered the man who was crawling about this dank patch of swamp on all fours. Thanatos laughed out loud startling the old man who almost fell face first into the damp earth at the shock of finding another human being this deep in the swamp.

Thanatos picked himself up, dusted himself off and sheathed the hunting knife as he watched the healer struggle to his feet. “Pelopides, you old dog. Fortune must be smiling on me this day after all. You’re just the man I need,” he said.

“I’m old but I’m not blind. I can see that. You’re bleeding pretty badly. Here…let me get a closer look,” the old healer said as he approached the thief.

Pelopides hummed and snorted a bit as he looked at the damage to Thanatos palm. He tore off some of his robe to make a bandage for the thief. “You’ll have to come back to my place. I’ve got to stitch that up. Your friends can keep you company while I’m working on you.”

“What do you mean? I don’t have any friends.” Thanatos spat out. The bandage helped to stem the flow of blood but it also made the throbbing in his hand worse.

“Well I’ve got Hysom and Zeno back at my hut waiting for these herbs.” The healer said as he waved his pouch in front of Thanatos' face.

Zeno…and Hysom. ‘Those traitors’ the thief thought. Then he added out loud, “Oh…those old friends. It’ll be good to see them again. I told you Fortune was smiling on me today.”

Tightening the wrapping on his hand as best he could, he headed straight for Pelopides place with the healer.

When they arrived at the hut, Thanatos pulled his knife on Pelopides and shoved him into the hut before him.

Iolaus looked up at Pelopides entrance, happy to see the healer. “Good, you’re back. Did you find the herbs for his fever? He’s burning up.”

Before the healer could answer, he was roughly shoved to the floor in the corner of the small hut allowing Thanatos to fill the doorway.

“What was that I said about Fortune? She must be smiling on me today. Didn’t I just say that Pelopides? Well, well, well…would you look at this? Two for the price of one,” Thanatos drawled as he flicked the knife around in his hand pointing it at Iolaus first then at Zeno.

“I don’t think so, pal she doesn’t smile on the likes of you…at least not for very long.” Iolaus said tauntingly, trying to draw all of Thanatos’ attention to himself and away from Zeno and Pelopides.

Thanatos fully entered the hut and began to terrorize Iolaus and Zeno with his knives. He crazily delighted in telling them exactly what his blades were going to do to them. Painting them vivid pictures of the fate he had in store for them.

As the thief was going on about how he planned to dissect Iolaus, Hysom returned with the bucket of water. He paused outside the hut when he heard Thanatos’ voice. Remembering how deadly the man was with a knife, he quietly placed the bucket on the ground and ran off to find Hercules. He was certain that the Demigod was the only person who could stop the insanity Thanatos had planned.

Hysom didn’t have to travel very far. Hercules was already on his way back to get Iolaus when the large man met him and told him about Thanatos at the healer’s hut. Hercules took off in a flash, faster than anyone he’d ever seen before. Hysom couldn’t keep up.

Thanatos heard the noises of something crashing through the trees, getting close to the hut. “The monster boar!” he whispered, not knowing that it had been killed in the swamp.

Iolaus heard the noises too and whispered “Hercules!”

Either way, Thanatos had to act fast before he lost his window of opportunity and his intense desire for revenge had to be put off again. He turned and, with deadly aim, threw the knife at Iolaus’ chest.

The scene quickly became unreal to Iolaus. In almost slow motion he could see the knife being released from Thanatos’ hand heading straight for him.

Zeno had known Thanatos for much longer than anyone and knew exactly what to expect from the crazed thief. So even before the blade left Thanatos’ hand the older man was ready to act. Zeno gauged the exact second the blade was released and he rolled up off the bed and into Iolaus arms blocking his young friend’s chest with his own body. With a dull thud, the knife entered Zeno’s back, passed through the ribs of his thin body and only the last inch or so that protruded from Zeno’s chest entered Iolaus chest.

Hercules grabbed Thanatos as he ran out of the hut and dragged him back in by the scruff of his neck.

The demigod spotted Iolaus kneeling on the floor next to the cot with Zeno draped across his knees. Iolaus held the bloody knife in one of his hands, his blond head bowed, with a stunned look on his face, staring down at his chest. Bright crimson blood flowed down from the open wound soaking into the waist of his pants and his belts.

It seemed as if the world held it’s breath and the only sound that could be heard was the scuffling of Thanatos’ feet on the dirt floor of the healer’s hut. The demigod held him almost completely off the floor in a strong grip by the back of his neck.

Thanatos’ hands shot up trying to pry himself free of Hercules’ crushing fingers. The blood from the wound on his palm flowed faster and drenched his neck and the demigod’s hand, making Hercules’ grip slippery. One quick twist and the thief slid out of Hercules’ grip and ran out of the door towards the woods.

“Iolaus!” Hercules yelled out in a half frightened exclamation. His color changed to fiery red bronze as his blood pressure rose out of control. He spun on his heel and arrowed out the door right behind Thanatos.

Hysom stepped out of the trees and tripped the thief who went flying face first into a rough patch of ground at the gnarled roots of a giant elm.

Hercules was right behind him, this time picking Thanatos up by his throat and slowly squeezing.

Hercules had his own flashbacks of that black day that he’d last lost his partner to a knife. He was becoming so lost in his memories that he found it hard to concentrate on the matter at hand -- killing Thanatos and exacting his revenge for what he’d just done to Iolaus. He’d just gotten his partner back…this couldn’t be happening.

Thanatos struggled and Hercules tightened his grip. The thief knew that his only chance was to distract Hercules so he began to goad him in a rasping voice that was barely more than a whisper.

“You won’t let me die, Hercules. Even though I killed your best friend…your goody goody partner…you can’t do it, can you? You’re the great Hercules. I’ll be alive and I’ll escape again. They’ll never take me back to those mines…never.”

Hercules was sorely and coldly tempted to squeeze the life out of Thanatos. He fought an internal battle with his own conscience until Iolaus ran up behind them shouting to get Hercules attention. Iolaus could readily see how far gone the demigod was in his rage.

“I’m okay, Herc. I’m okay! It was Zeno…Zeno saved me!” Iolaus loudly assured his partner. He finally caught Hercules attention and removed his hand from his chest. He looked at the shallow wound and at the blood that trickled out of it and he watched as Hercules eyes followed his own. The demigod was not responding so Iolaus grabbed his bicep and tugged downward.

“Look at me, Herc! Look at me! I’m okay. Let Thanatos down.”

Hercules focused on his partner for a long minute then he dropped Thanatos to the ground. Hysom pounced on the thief so he wouldn’t be able to reach for any more of the knives he kept hidden in his boots.

Iolaus stayed by Hercules side seeing from his partner’s eyes that he was still trapped in a waking nightmare. He gently took hold of the demigod’s hand and placed it firmly over his heart and kept it pressed there with his own hand.

“Feel it, Herc. It’s strong and alive. This…” he said gesturing to the cut on his chest. “This is nothing….a stitch or two. Herc, feel it. Everything’s okay here.”

Hercules felt the beat and the warmth or his partner’s skin under his palm and although the smell of blood was strong, he forced his himself to return from the dark place his mind had wandered to.

Hercules raised his other hand and examined the wound in Iolaus’ chest reassuring himself that it was in no way fatal. He turned his hand in Iolaus’ and they shared a strong, reassuring grip that spoke volumes without another word having to be uttered by either.

“Zeno?” Hercules asked when he found his voice.

“Not good,” Iolaus replied with a grim shake of his head, fully expecting to find the older man dead when they returned to the hut.

“Let’s go check,” Hercules said.

Hysom forced the disarmed thief to his feet and shoved him in the direction of the two heroes. As Thanatos passed Iolaus he grinned and said, “Next time I won’t miss.”

“Oh, shut up!” Hercules replied and with a well placed cathartic punch the demigod knocked him out. Thanatos sagged to the ground at Hysom’s feet. “Keep an eye on him, please Hysom. We’ve got to check on Zeno.” Iolaus said and he turned with the demigod to re-enter the hut.

After Iolaus ran out of the hut to follow Hercules, Pelopides rose from the floor and moved beside the cot. He carefully rolled the older man onto his side and stemmed the bleeding from Zeno’s wounds as best he could, then he sent up several prayers to whomever was listening because knife wounds of this sort were far beyond his limited skills.

He kept pressure applied to the wounds when he thought his old healer’s hands were too weary to continue.

He’d witnessed Zeno’s heroics and vowed that he wouldn’t let this man die on his watch if he could help it. He’d let his skills run down over the years but now he fervently wished he hadn’t. After what seemed like a small eternity to the him, the heroes returned followed after a while by Hysom who was shoving a groggy and reluctant Thanatos before him, his hands tied firmly behind his back with his own belts.

Pelopides helped the two heroes prepare Zeno for transport to the palace healer and Hysom took charge of Thanatos.

It was less than a ten minute walk to the city gates and, since they’d been expected, there was an extra contingent of King Trancas’ guards waiting there to take them to the palace healer.

Once inside the healer’s suite, Hercules placed Zeno on the bed. Iolaus climbed onto the bed and held the older man up in his arms while Hercules helped the King’s healer unwrap the temporary bandages Pelopides had applied.

Zeno stirred in the hunter’s arms and opened his eyes, meeting those of his blond friend. “Iolaus, I owed you. We’re even now,” he whispered.

“No! Not yet we’re not. You’ve got to fight Zeno. You’re a hero…my hero. You’ve got friends…lots of them and the King has promised Hercules you’ll have something good to live for. You can keep on helping people…making a difference. You’ve got to want it. Fight Zeno, fight for your freedom.” Iolaus said with urgency as he looked up at Hercules, begging the demigod with his eyes to come and help him with the older man.

“He’s right, Zeno. There’s something wonderful you need to live for. The kids of Nemea need you. Fight for your life. You owe Iolaus that too.”

Zeno gave a stiff nod of agreement. “But it will be as Fortune would have it,” he managed to whisper before he coughed weakly and collapsed in Iolaus’ arms.

The healer brought in his assistants and shoo-ed the heroes out of the suite. Hysom and Thanatos remained in the hallway surrounded by the palace guard.

Hercules instructed the guards to escort Thanatos to the jail and to set up an around the clock vigil on him until he could be brought to trial for killing the prison guard during his escape from the mines. Then taking Hysom with them, Hercules and Iolaus went to seek an audience with King Trancas.

Trancas was waiting for them with platters of warm food and goblets of cool wine to refresh them after the day’s ordeal. Hysom was introduced to the King and he marveled at the warm and hearty handshake he received in greeting from Trancas. Never, in his wildest dreams had the large man ever thought to be welcomed at the same table as royalty. He guessed nothing was impossible where the gods were involved…or in this case where a demigod was involved.

“Hercules, I must thank you once more today. Capturing Thanatos was a stroke of good fortune for my kingdom. Thank you all,” Trancas said.

“But it may have cost us Zeno’s life. Your healer is working on him right now. We’ll have to wait and see if your plans for him will still be necessary,” Hercules replied.

“I have declared a day of celebration for my kingdom three days hence. You and Iolaus will be the guests of honor, of course. And at the festivities I’ll announce the establishment of the good works planned for the homeless and orphaned children. In the meantime, if there is anything I can do for either of you please let me know. Every resource of my kingdom is at your disposal, my friends,” Trancas advised the heroes.

“Thank you, Trancas. There is something we need and I’d like to get started on it right away before rumors begin circulating and we have crowds of townsfolk to deal with,” Hercules told the King.

“Whatever you need, Hercules,” Trancas said.

“We need a couple of your strongest workmen, a wagon and digging tools. I want to get Zeno’s loot out of the swamp before sundown. We’ll hit the other hiding place tonight too.”

With a nod to his chamberlain, Trancas set the wheels in motion and within minutes Hercules had everything they needed for the excavations waiting for him just outside the city gates.

They took Hysom with them and dug up the treasure in the swamp quickly first before sundown made the task impossible. The heroes and the work crew them made their way to Pelopides back yard where they located and dug up the remainder of the loot by light of the full moon and a blazing bonfire.

The exhausted men returned to the palace near midnight, the wagon heavily laden with gold, dinars and other valuables. Hercules turned the loot over to the King who stayed up waiting for them.

Trancas gratefully accepted the returned riches and offered the heroes the hospitality of his palace; advising them that a suite of rooms with warm baths and meals was ready and waiting for them. Iolaus excused himself, wanting to check on Zeno before he could think of indulging his own need for comfort and rest.

Hercules also asked to be excused and, taking Hysom, he followed Iolaus to the healer’s suite.

“Wait…wait…wait,” Iolaus excitedly said to the healer as he saw Hercules and Hysom enter the suite. “Please say that again so Hercules can hear what you’re telling me, because it’s too amazing.”

“I was saying that your friend Zeno must be the luckiest man on the face of the earth. When I was a young man, I had the good fortune to study medicine in Mesopotamia. I learned the language and the cuneiform writing so I could reading their extensive collection of medical tablets. One of the surgical procedures described in those tablets called for cutting into the chest of the patient in order to drain pus from the pleura which is the protective sack around the lungs. It is the only known procedure known to man for saving someone with this type of infection - the type of infection your friend has.”

“This knife wound that your friend sustained effectively worked as if someone had performed that surgery on him. We studied the bandages that you carried him in here with and they show evidence of heavy drainage of the poisons that were killing him - strangling the air out of his lungs He’s not out of the woods yet however. Zeno is still very weak with the fever and his age is working against him.”

“He saved my life today. Please tell me if there is anything I can do to help?” Iolaus asked the healer.

“We must keep Zeno’s bandages soaked with sesame oil to kill any poisons still inside the wound. My assistants have been working at this since you got here and they’ll be good until morning. If you want to come back after breakfast so I can give them a rest period, I would be most grateful.”

“You can count on us. Thanks,” said a very relieved Iolaus. He was sure Zeno would do his part and fight through this illness. He was, after all, a man of his word.

The heroes sat with Zeno day and night for the next two days, taking care of his needs, helping the healer and his assistants, giving them needed breaks when they tired from helping Zeno fight the fever. And their efforts were rewarded. On the evening of the second day, his fever broke and he took the right turn onto the road to recovery.

From early in the morning of the third day following the show down with Thanatos, courtiers, ladies, bards and other well-wishers surrounded the two heroes. Overwhelmed by the press of people and by the heat and stuffiness of the palace they both began to feel antsy and eager to move on.

Shortly before sunset and their formal dinner with the king and his court, Hercules found Iolaus looking longingly out of the window towards the open road to the beach. He rested his hand on his partner’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze, not saying a word, just enjoying the moment of quiet with his buddy.

“They’ve got these festive activities planned for us for the next couple of days. I’m honored Herc, I really am, but I just want to be back on the road. It’s beginning to get a bit claustrophobic, if you know what I mean,” Iolaus stated forlornly when the clamor in the dining room became too loud for them to ignore.

“I know Iolaus.” And he really did. For his friend, who had just returned from the captivity of death, and a narrow escape from another, needed his freedom right now more than anything else.

‘I’ll think of something. Don’t worry, I’ll have us out of here in no time,” Hercules reassured him.

“Okay, Herc. Thanks. Um…assuming we do get out of here, what are we going to do?” Iolaus asked.

“Anything and everything you want buddy! Because we’re free to go anywhere in the world…do anything we want.” Then side-by-side they wandered into the dining hall to be honored for another heroic deed well done.

The End

Disclaimer: No actual animals were harmed in this writing of this episode. However, the computer-animated boar was damaged considerably and sent back to WETA Workshop, Ltd. for reformatting.

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