A Light in the Darkness

by Thalya

Just a brief note. A million thanks and hugs to my beta readers, Sadi, Athena, FaithAyn, and Sha'oori for all of their encouragement, comments and corrections, and especially to Locita for the above and giving me the inspiration and courage to write this. This is my first fan fic story :) Comments are craved! Disclaimer: This story is not intended to violate any copyrights held by MCA, Universal Studios, Renaissance Pictures or any other entity involved in the making of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys.

It was a very pleasant day for traveling and Hercules and Iolaus were happy to be on their way to their favorite fishing spot. Well, actually, it was Iolaus' favorite fishing spot. His new favorite fishing spot.

Hercules had another place in mind, but lost the argument about it to his best friend. He had been a good loser but made Iolaus promise that the next time they went fishing, they would go to Herc's favorite spot.

Iolaus had discovered this place on one of the rare occasions the two men weren't traveling together. Herc had been called away to help with some long, boring treaty negotiations between two grumpy old kings. Iolaus decided he'd rather go fishing.

"How's that foot, Iolaus?" asked Herc for the tenth time on this leg of the journey.

"Doing a lot better," replied the golden-haired warrior. "See, I'm hardly limping at all, now"

Hercules had held his tongue since the *accident* but he couldn't resist any longer. Especially considering that Iolaus did look like he was favoring it a lot less than before.

"Iolaus, you know, a good rule of thumb to remember while you're walking . . . is to watch where you're going," the demigod teased.

"Ha, ha. Very funny, Herc," Iolaus' reply dripped with sarcasm.

Hercules laughed.

"Hey, I was . . . uh . . . distracted," Iolaus said in explanation.

"Yeah, I know," replied Herc. "She was very pretty."

"It's not my fault someone put a pile of rocks in the middle of the street," Iolaus said defensively.

The big man rolled his eyes. "They weren't in the middle of the street. And neither were you," he corrected him, grinning. "If you had been, you wouldn't have stubbed your toe."

"Alright, alright," said Iolaus, uncharacteristically giving up. "Point taken."

Hercules looked quickly over at his friend. It was not like Iolaus to give up that easily. He must be tired or hurting, Herc thought. Or both.

Iolaus noticed the look of concern from his friend. He added quickly with a radiant smile, "Hey, I'll be dancing again in no time."

"Gotta find a partner first," Hercules said jokingly and with a wink, somewhat relieved. He considered suggesting that they stop and rest for a while.

"Well, we will be passing through that village again on the way back . . . " Iolaus said with a wink of his own.

Hercules chuckled and lightly slapped the blond man on the back. "Iolaus, my friend . . ." he said with a sigh. "I'm sure you'll sweep her off her feet."

"Um . . . let's not mention feet again for a while, okay, Herc?" suggested Iolaus, who winced slightly.

"Agreed," replied Hercules with a grin. Then his expression turned serious. "Are you sure you're okay?"

"I told you, I'm fine. Hardly notice it at all." Iolaus hoped he sounded convincing.

Hercules started to suggest that they stop, when he noticed Iolaus looking intently ahead down the trail. He looked to see what had caught his friend's attention. There was a village just up ahead. Then Iolaus offered a suggestion of his own.

"Um . . . Herc, it's a couple of more hours travel to the best place for fishing in all of Greece," said Iolaus with a sly grin. "Let's stop here for lunch, I'm starved."

"You're hungry again? Iolaus, where do you put it all?" asked Herc teasingly. Relieved now that his friend would be able to get a rest.

"Hey, I use up a lot of energy . . ." Iolaus explained.

"Yeah, with your babbling," laughed Herc.

"Hey! " Iolaus said with a hurt look on his face.

"I'm just kidding, Iolaus," the big man said. "I'm a little hungry myself. Lunch sounds great." And you can get off that foot for a while, my friend, Hercules thought to himself.

"Great! Let's eat!" chimed Iolaus, excitedly rubbing his hands together.

As they made their way through the village, they both got an uneasy feeling when they noticed how deserted it seemed. The two comrades exchanged a knowing glance and went immediately into the familiar 'watch each other's back' mode. They silently continued on to the inn, senses keenly alert for any sign of trouble.

The inn, like the village itself, was small and they were the only customers in the place when they entered. They approached the somewhat rotund and smiling innkeeper.

"Welcome," said the man.

"Slow day?" asked Iolaus, looking around the room.

"We don't get many travelers and all the villagers are in the fields. Not been much rain lately and their trying to irrigate the crops," explained the innkeeper.

The two men collectively breathed a sigh of relief and relaxed their guard.

"Sorry to hear about that," said Iolaus understandingly.

"Don't be," the innkeeper told him. "Might be the best thing that's happened to this village in a long time."

"How so?" asked Hercules.

"It brought everyone together." The innkeeper explained, "The last few years, everyone around here's been cold and indifferent to one another. Every man for himself, so to speak. Like they didn't care. The Gods only know why. No one talked to each other. Now, everyone physically able to dig is out helping to save the crops that feed this whole village. I'd be out there too, but ..." he indicated the empty sleeve of his shirt, tucked into his vest. "I can't dig too good with one arm."

Iolaus nodded. "That explains it, we thought the village was deserted," he commented.

"Looked like that before the drought," the innkeeper continued. "The children weren't even allowed to play together. Now the streets are filled with their laughter. It's just too bad it took something like this to open people's eyes."

"That's usually the way it goes," said Hercules with a heavy sigh, having seen many similar situations. "Hopefully they've learned how much they really do need each other."

"Let's hope so," sighed the innkeeper. "But, listen to me babbling on . . . What can I get for you gentlemen?"

They ordered their food and drink and sat down at a table to discuss the carefree days ahead. The two heroes rarely got a break and this one was long-awaited.

"Ah, Herc, I can't wait till we get to this place. You are gonna love it! It is so serene and beautiful and relaxing," said Iolaus, his eyes sparkling. "And the fish I've caught there are *huge*", he said with much emphasis.

"So you've told me, Iolaus. But *my* fishing spot is better," Hercules said matter-of-factly, just to rile his blond headed friend.

"Now, Herc, you agreed. And I did promise that we'd go there next time," Iolaus reminded him, playing along with the tease.

"Yes, you did. And I'm gonna hold you to it," Hercules grinned while pointing his finger at his friend. "There will be no arguing next time."

"Hey, a promise is a promise," agreed Iolaus.

Their food arrived and they looked forward to a relaxing and enjoyable meal before getting back on the road. And Iolaus was silently grateful for being able to keep the weight off his sore foot.

Just as they started to take their first bite of the delicious smelling stew, the peacefulness was interrupted by a man bursting through the door. He was panting and could barely catch his breath. He must have been running a long way.

"Help, someone please help!" cried the man through his gasps.

Hercules and Iolaus exchanged a quick glance and jumped up from their table. They were at the man's side in an instant.

"Calm down, catch your breath," offered Herc. "What's the problem?"

The man looked at the two strangers and decided they might be able to help.

"It's my son. He's trapped under our wagon, just down the road from here," he explained. "We we're trying to repair the wheel, and the wagon fell on him. I am not strong enough to lift it off him. Please, I'm sure he's hurt," the man begged.

"We'd be glad to help. Come on, show us the way," said Iolaus.

"Iolaus, there's no need for both of us to go. Stay here and finish your lunch," suggested Herc, thinking of his friend's injury. "This won't take long."

"But Herc . . . " Iolaus started to protest.

"Stay here," said Hercules. "I'm afraid you wouldn't be able to keep up with that hurt foot of yours. You won the last argument, Iolaus, let me win this one."

Iolaus started to plead again, and the big man put his hand on his friend's shoulder.

"I'll be back before you know it," Hercules said as he headed out the door with the frightened man.

Herc was right and Iolaus knew it. He would just slow him down.

"Fine, I'll just stay here and . . . eat my lunch all by myself," he said to no one in particular, since Hercules was already halfway out of the village with the panicked man leading the way.

Iolaus sat down and started working on his bowl of stew. He hoped the boy was all right. Halfway through this delectable meal, another person burst through the inn's door.

This time it was a woman, but she was in the same shape as the man had been. Like she had been running, and she was crying.

"Matheus, there has been a terrible accident! The children were in the cave playing, when it collapsed," she explained tearfully.

Iolaus jumped from his seat at the table and rushed to her. The innkeeper came from behind the counter. "By the Gods," said the innkeeper. He looked expectantly at Iolaus.

"Do you know where the cave is?" Iolaus asked the innkeeper.

"Yes, will you help us?" pleaded the man.

"Of course," Iolaus replied and then turned to the woman. "You go and round up all the people you can. Have them bring digging tools," he directed. "And torches," Iolaus added as he and the innkeeper went out through the door.

Iolaus wished he could leave word for when Hercules got back, but there wasn't time. He had to hope that Herc would find out about it from one of the villagers and join him at the cave. Iolaus knew his half-god friend could be of more help than he could. But he couldn't just sit here and wait for him to get back. He had to do something, and quick.

They raced for the cave. Iolaus was ignoring the pain in his foot as he ran. Upon approaching it, Iolaus could see the entrance was completely blocked. After a quick assessment he decided the best place to start would be at the top of the blocked entrance.

A woman was standing near what used to be the cave's entrance. "The children! The children are inside!" she cried.

"We're here to help," Iolaus told her. "And more help is on the way."

Iolaus gingerly climbed to the top of the rock pile that blocked the entrance to the cave and began tossing rocks and dirt as fast as he could. He knew he only needed a small opening to get himself inside and get the children out. He just hoped the kids were unhurt. The innkeeper joined Iolaus and started digging himself, doing the best he could with one arm. They moved rocks and dirt with their bare hands. Working with determination.

"Name's Matheus. Good thing you and your friend happened along when you did," the innkeeper said as he worked. "It'll take time to round up all the people from the fields and I couldn't have been much help for the man with the wagon."

"I'm Iolaus," the blond man replied, tossing aside another rock. "I take it this is not a typical day for your village?", he said, only half joking.

The innkeeper smirked. "I have no idea why all Tartarus has suddenly broken loose. Maybe this is some kind of punishment from the Gods," said Matheus, grunting as he worked.

Iolaus decided not to even ponder that remark. It didn't matter whether this was the work of some ticked-off God, a run of bad luck, or just coincidence. There were children trapped inside this cave and he had to do everything humanly possible to get them out. He wished Herc was here with him. He'd have had the kids out by now.

It wasn't long before they could hear the muffled cries of the children inside. They dug even faster. Soon they had a hole big enough so that he could talk to them.

"It's all right, kids," Iolaus tried to sound reassuring and calm. "Is anyone hurt?"

"We're scared, and we can't find Cassia," a boy's voice replied.

Iolaus' heart sank as he heard this, but didn't let on.

"Don't be scared. We'll find her. I'm coming in to get you. If you can, back away from the entrance, in case any of these rocks fall into the cave," Iolaus said. They continued to dig until they had a space big enough for Iolaus to crawl through. At that moment he heard adult voices behind him and he turned to see several people approaching. Most with shovels and hoes and some with torches.

"What can we do to help?" asked one of the men.

"I need a torch," said Iolaus.

"Here, " replied another man, as he offered it to Iolaus.

Taking the torch, Iolaus said, "Great. I should have them out in no time," trying to keep these folks calm, too. He decided not to tell them just yet of the missing child.

"You want some help in there?" one of the villagers asked Iolaus.

"Um . . . I'm not sure how stable it is in there right now," Iolaus replied, just loud enough for the man to hear. "Let me have a look around and I'll let you know, okay?"

With torch in hand, he crawled in through the opening. And made his way down to the floor of the cave. There were six children inside, their ages varying. But they were all very young. He looked them over quickly. They were dusty and dirty but all appeared to be unhurt.

"Okay, one at a time, up the rock pile and out the hole. Take your time and don't slip. Everything will be okay," Iolaus said in a gentle tone.

"What about Cassia?" a frightened, dark haired boy sobbed. He looked to be the oldest, maybe ten or eleven.

"Where was she when you last saw her?" Iolaus questioned gently.

"She was near the back of the cave," cried the boy. "It's so dark and I called for her but she didn't answer. I was supposed to watch her. She's only four," he sobbed.

"Don't worry, I'll find her," said Iolaus, trying to reassure the boy. "You stay here and make sure everyone gets out okay, then you go out, too, " Iolaus urged.

It looked as though the boy was going to protest. Iolaus put his hand gently on the boy's shoulder. "I'll find her," Iolaus said with determination. The boy nodded and turned to help the younger children crawl up the pile of rocks and out to safety.

He checked on their progress over his shoulder as headed toward the back of the cave. As he negotiated his way through the rocks and debris, Iolaus issued a silent prayer to the Gods. Please, let her be all right . . .

Hercules could not run as fast as he wanted to. He had to wait for the father. Herc suddenly thought of his friend. He probably could've come along after all, he mused. He hated having to ask Iolaus to stay behind, but this was something Herc could handle easily and there was no point in Iolaus risking further injury. And besides, though Iolaus would never admit it, Herc knew he could use the rest.

A stubbed toe was certainly nothing serious, but the two friends had been particularly busy the past few weeks, roaming over half of Greece freeing slaves, defeating warlords, and even fighting a monster here and there. That was the reason they were taking this short respite in the first place. How his mortal best friend always managed to keep up with him, Hercules didn't know. He was just grateful that he was always there.

Hercules spotted the wagon upon rounding a bend in the road and darted quickly to it. The boy's lower half was pinned under it.

He approached the wagon and took in the situation. "I'm here to help," Hercules said to the young man. "Can you move your legs at all?"

"Yeah," he replied, "if you could just lift the wagon, I can pull myself out. The weight is mostly resting on the wheel, not me."

"Good," said Herc, relieved that the boy was not seriously injured.

Hercules lifted the wagon with little effort and the boy crawled out from under it with ease.

The boy's father reached the site of the accident and checked his son for injuries.

"I'm all right, Father, I really am. Thanks to this man," said the boy, indicating Hercules.

"No problem," Herc said with a smile. "Glad I could help and I'm glad you're not hurt. Let's get that wheel repaired and get you back on the road."

"Are you sure it's not asking too much? You've already done enough," said the father. "And your friend is waiting for you back at the inn."

"Not at all, and my friend would never forgive me if I left you stranded out here," the big man replied. "Now . . . let's have a look at this thing . . ."

The torch Iolaus held cast enough light for him to see the damage this cave-in had caused. The heaviest damage seemed to be near the entrance. Thankfully. If the little girl was in the back of the cave when it happened, hopefully she'd be safe. He called out her name. And as he did, he could hear the ceiling of the cave emit the slightest rumble.

Iolaus looked up at it. Maybe not so loud, he thought to himself. As he approached the deepest part of the cave, he could hear tiny, little sobs. He made his way toward the sound.

"Cassia?" Iolaus said in a quiet voice. "Cassia, I've come to get you out of here. Don't be afraid. Where are you?"

A little, curly blond head peaked at him from behind a rock, looking absolutely terrified. She stood up slowly.

"Oh there you are!" said Iolaus with a warm, sunny smile. The little girl put a finger to her lips.

"Shhhhhh. The noises make the rocks fall down," whispered the little girl, eyeing the roof of the cave.

"Oh, okay, Cassia, then we will whisper," he told the little girl. "Are you hurt?"

She shook her head from side to side.

"That's good," he breathed a sigh of relief. "My name is Iolaus. Let's get you out of here," he told her, walking toward her. "Here, let me carry you."

The little girl raised her arms. Setting the torch down, he picked her up and rested her on one hip. "Let's go," he said to her as he retrieved the torch and hurriedly started back the way he came.

He pointed to the entrance of the cave as he walked toward it, carefully stepping over the debris that had fallen. "See that light over there?" Iolaus asked her. Cassia looked to where he indicated, and nodded. "We are gonna climb up and slip right through where that light is coming in."

She smiled at him, a little less afraid now. His medallion caught her eye. She reached for it, looking up at him as if checking to see if it was all right. She didn't wait for permission, she grabbed it in her tiny little hands.

Iolaus looked down at her and smiled. "You want to wear it?" he asked her. She nodded. "Can you hold this?" he said indicating the torch, not wanting to stop. "Way down here at the bottom, that's it. Got it?" She took the torch. "Okay, hold it tight," he instructed. He took off his medallion with his free hand and placed it around her neck. And then took the torch back from her. She rolled the medallion over in her hands, mesmerized.

Something appeared in the hole, blocking the light, then disappeared again. Iolaus realized it must have been one of the villagers, checking on his progress. Iolaus wanted to yell that he had found her, safe and sound, but didn't want to risk another cave-in.

"See, Cassia?" Iolaus whispered as he pointed. "That's how we're gonna get out."

They were more than halfway to the entrance when the ceiling gave a loud moan and immediately rocks and dirt began to fall. Oh no, Iolaus thought to himself. Cassia put her hands over her face. Iolaus could see that the rocks were practically raining between them and the cave entrance. It would be of no use to run for it.

Iolaus backtracked to the rear of the cave as quickly as he could, the debris hindering every step. He ran hunched over with Cassia clutched protectively to his chest so as to not let any of the falling rocks touch her. But even the back of the cave held no sanctuary. Iolaus worried that the whole thing might collapse at any time.

He looked desperately around until he saw a crevasse between two giant boulders on the floor of the cave. One boulder overlapped the other at the top and no rocks could fall between them. He put Cassia down and ordered her to crawl between the two large masses. It was big enough for her, but would not accommodate him.

He leaned down to talk to her. "Cassia, stay in there and don't come out. You'll be safe from the rocks if . . . " his sentence was cut short by a rock that glanced the side of his head. It was enough to knock him to his hands and knees. Little Cassia gasped.

"It's all right, Cassia. Just stay where you are. No matter what happens to me, stay where you are. Do you understand?" he pleaded as gently as he could.

Before he could even form his next thought, a boulder fell across his back and left shoulder. Pinning him on his stomach to the floor of the cave. "Umpffffff," he gasped as the wind was knocked out of him. Iolaus put his free hand, his right, over his head protectively. He drew in a painful breath. Then another. Each one was a jabbing knife stab. He didn't hear the bone in his left arm snap, because of the crashing noise around him, but he certainly felt it.

Oh Gods, he wanted to scream. To release the anguish of his pain. But he didn't want Cassia to be any more frightened than she already was. He didn't know how long he would be able to stand it. The dust in the air made him cough and that meant a whole new dimension of agony for his body. He closed his eyes tight and gritted his teeth against the pain. Cassia was crying.

"There," said Hercules as he stood up. "That should do it."

"How can we ever repay your kindness?" asked the older man, offering his hand to Hercules.

"Not necessary, I'm glad I could be of help," Herc replied as he clasped the offered hand. He looked at the young man and asked, "Now you're positive you're not hurt?"

"Only my pride," said the boy, laughing sheepishly.

"Hey, accidents happen," Hercules said soothingly as he put his hand on the boy's shoulder.

"We've kept you long enough, kind sir, you should be getting back to your friend," offered the older man.

"I think you're right," Herc replied. "He'll come looking for me if I don't get back soon," he added with a smile.

"Thank you, again, sir," the older man said as he re-hitched the horse to the wagon. "Good journey to you!"

"Good journey to you, too. Be careful!" Hercules waved as he turned to head back to the village and his best friend.

He hastened his step as a mental picture formed. He could just picture Iolaus. He would be leaning against the wall at the inn, arms crossed, tapping his foot, and the first words out of his mouth would be, "What took you so long?" or "Where have you been?" He's gonna be furious, thought Hercules. And he's probably finished off my bowl of stew, too. Hercules chuckled to himself. He couldn't wait to get back and 'face the music' from his irrepressible, worrisome friend.

When Hercules entered the inn, he found it as empty as the rest of the village. No innkeeper and no Iolaus. He walked to the table that he and Iolaus had shared earlier and found his bowl of stew untouched and Iolaus' half empty. Lying on the floor behind the chair was Iolaus' bag.

"Iolaus?" called Herc. "Hello? Is anyone here?" He went behind the counter and pulled back the blanket that separated the inn from the owner's living quarters. "Hello?"

Maybe Iolaus decided to take a nap, Herc thought, he did seem tired. But he wouldn't have left his bag here. And he would have finished the stew. At least his own. He went upstairs and checked the boarding rooms. There were only four. All were unoccupied, he discovered after knocking on each door and checking inside.

Then a thought occurred to him. He quickly dismissed it. No, he couldn't have gone to look for me. I would have passed him on the road. Unless he didn't see which way I went and took the road north out of the village . . . Nah, he wouldn't have done that.

He went back outside. "Iolaus!" Herc shouted hoping his friend was within earshot. He quickly studied his surroundings. Nothing was out of place. There was no sign of battle or struggle. "Iolaus!" he tried again.

Silence. What in Tartarus is going on?

"Cassia, it's okay . . . don't cry," Iolaus told her between breaths.

"But that rock fell on you," she sobbed, "and you got hurt."

"I know, but there are a lot . . . of people outside digging. They will be here soon . . . to get us out," said Iolaus, trying to keep her calm while wishing that this frightened little soul had not witnessed any of this. His voice was just a whisper, not only because he was mindful of another cave-in, but also because he couldn't manage anything more than that at the moment.

The torch had landed nearby and it was still burning, thankfully. Good, Iolaus thought, they should have no trouble finding us.

If only I could breath, he thought. If only the pain would stop. Then the blackness called to him. He was far too familiar with the comfort it offered. It had saved him many times, too many times from the conscious torment of pain. No, I have got to stay awake. Got to fight it. Can't leave that little one here alone.

Cassia was quietly sobbing. He could see the little tear-streaked face in the torchlight.

He had to get her to think of something pleasant. Get her mind off what was going on around her. Keep her talking. And me, too, he thought.

"Cassia, can I ask . . . you something?" Iolaus whispered.

"Uh huh," she nodded, wiping at the tears with her little hands.

"What is your . . . most favorite, favorite thing in . . . the world to do?" he asked her.

She sniffled and thought for a second, then said, "I like to swim."

"Oh," Iolaus smiled at her, "swimming . . . is so much fun." He caught his breath as another wave of pain shot through him. He turned his face away from her trying to keep Cassia from seeing how much he was hurting.

"I can swim under the water," Cassia said with pride.

He turned to face her again. "I'll bet you . . . swim just . . . like a mermaid," Iolaus told her, with one of his bright smiles.

"I know a story about a mermaid," said Cassia, sounding pleased with herself.

"Oh, I love . . . stories," Iolaus told her. "Will you . . . tell it to me?"

Cassia smiled and nodded and began her story in her little, whispering voice.

"A long time ago there was a mermaid. And she lived in the sea. One day, she was swimming under the water and she saw a great big sea monster." Cassia spread her hands as far as she could, indicating that the sea monster was really big.

"A sea monster?" Iolaus said. "Oh no!"

"Yes, and it was really, really big," she confirmed, nodding her head.

Iolaus couldn't help but chuckle at this. Oh, not good, laughing is definitely not good, he thought to himself. That definitely hurt.

"And it wanted to eat the mermaid. And she didn't like that," Cassia continued.

"Well, I wouldn't like . . . that either," said Iolaus, frowning.

"So she got all her friends together that lived in the sea. Cause all the other fishes and sea creatures were her friends except the sea monster. Cause the sea monster wanted to eat everybody," Cassia explained.

"So what did . . . they do?" he asked interestedly.

She continued on, Iolaus savoring every moment of it, grateful she didn't seemed frightened anymore.

"Well . . . they all got together and swam around under the water. And they waited till the sea monster went to sleep and then they all swam underneath him. And they pushed him up higher and higher in the water, and then they pushed really, really hard and threw him onto the land." She used her hands to demonstrate the important parts and told this with excitement. "Then he became a dragon and didn't bother the mermaid ever gain. The end," she concluded very quickly.

"That's a . . . wonderful story," Iolaus said encouragingly. "You are a . . . great story teller," he praised her.

She was beaming with pride. Then her expression turned thoughtful.

"Do you know any stories, Iolaus?" she asked hopefully.

"Oh, I know . . . lots of . . . stories," he told her. "But I like . . . hearing yours . . . better." Another wave of pain erupted and the sweet, caressing blackness called more urgently this time. Oh, how it beckoned him. The promise of escape from this torment. It was getting harder and harder to fight it. He knew that eventually it would overtake him, but he was determined not to let that happen until this sweet, little child was out of the cave and safe.

He heard Cassia ask another question, but she sounded far away. "Is swimming your favorite thing to do, too?" she was saying.

He shook his head a little, trying to clear it. "Oh, I love to . . . swim," he said. "But my . . . most fav . . .favorite thing to do . . . is to go fishing with . . . my best friend." His breaths were becoming increasingly short and rapid. No!!! his mind was screaming, can't lose consciousness. Can't . . . Then the coughing began it's attack on him again. He was losing this battle, and quickly. And he knew that he had very little time.

"Cassia, listen . . . to me," now even his own voice sounded distant. "When someone . . . comes for . . . you, . . . calls out your . . . name or . . . my name . . . you've got . . . got to answer them. Do you . . . understand?" He looked at her for a response. Was the torch going out? he wondered to himself. It was hard to make out her face now, everything had suddenly become so dim.

Cassia nodded and said, "I will."

"Good girl," Iolaus rewarded her with the best smile he could manage. "Don't be . . . afraid." He reached out for her with his right hand. If the torch should go out, at least she would still feel that someone was here with her. Not totally alone. "Cassia, would you . . . hold my hand?" She put her tiny hand in his.

The pain was subsiding now and he knew the reason why. "I . . . I have to . . . rest now, . . . Cassia. I have to . . . to go to . . . sleep for a . . . little while . . . Don't be . . . scared," his voice trailing off into a barely audible whisper before becoming silent. The blissful blackness would no longer be denied. It welcomed him with open arms.

Hercules decided to check the other buildings in the village. The innkeeper had said everyone was out in the fields, but there had to be *somebody* here. But the place was most certainly deserted. Not a sound, not a soul. "Iolaus!" Herc shouted again. "Where are you?" he said under his breath.

As Hercules was deciding if he should head out of the village in search of his friend, he heard the sound of someone approaching. It sounded like they were running.

A man appeared from around a building, running in Herc's direction. He had a shovel in his hand. The man showed no sign of slowing down as he got closer and closer. Herc didn't know if the man was attacking him or was just in a hurry.

The demigod put both his hands out, urging the runner to stop. "What's going on here?" Herc asked. "Where is everybody?"

The man was gasping. "At the cave. There's been an accident. The children!" was the man's hurried response. And he dashed around Hercules to continue running.

"Wait! Where is this cave?" Herc yelled after him.

"Follow me," the man yelled back over his shoulder.

Hercules took off like a shot after the man. And very quickly caught up with him. "Here let me carry that," Herc suggested. And the man handed over his shovel. It allowed him to run a little faster without the heavy burden. That was the desired effect. "Thanks," said the man.

Cave, accident, children. Hercules knew exactly where Iolaus was now. Be careful, my friend, he thought to himself.

The two running men arrived at the clearing near the cave. Hercules saw men, women and children all vigorously digging away at what used to be the entrance to a cave. As he ran to join them, he searched for a certain blond hunter that would be right in the thick of all this. He didn't see him.

Cassia was trying very hard not to be scared. Because Iolaus had asked her not to be. And she wasn't, really. He seemed really nice. She liked him a lot. She was glad he wasn't hurting anymore. She watched the sleeping man in front of her. He had said he needed to rest so Cassia wasn't going to try to wake him up. She still had her hand in his.

Cassia yawned. She was getting sleepy. She lay down on her stomach and rested her cheek on Iolaus' outstretched hand. It was so quiet in here. She yawned again and decided to join Iolaus in his nap. Clutching his medallion to her chest, she drifted off to sleep.

Hercules started toward the cave, then spotted the innkeeper, sitting off to the side of the entrance, under a tree. He hurried over to him.

"Um, excuse me, my friend, the man that was with me earlier at your inn," Herc asked the man, noting he was dabbing at a cut on his forehead with a cloth, "have you seen him?"

"Iolaus is inside the cave, I'm afraid," said the innkeeper apologetically. "I'm sorry."

"What happened?" Hercules asked.

Matheus quickly related the events to Hercules. "I took a look inside and saw him with the torch about a hundred paces from the entrance," he continued to explain. "I couldn't tell if he had the little girl with him or not. Then all of a sudden, boom! the cave collapsed again, like an explosion."

"Gods, I hope he and the little girl are all right. That entrance is blocked worse now than it was before," the innkeeper commented.

"Not for long . . . " Hercules stated and took off at a run. He quickly scaled the mound and asked the villagers to step aside. He started digging furiously, pulling huge boulders out and tossing them away to the side where no one was standing or digging. The villagers couldn't believe their eyes. Matheus rose and stared awestruck at the sight of this man hurling rocks and boulders through the air.

This opened a large space in a very short time. Hercules shouted over his shoulder, "I need a torch!" One was handed to him and he disappeared into the opening.

Hercules climbed down the rocks on the inside of the cave. He held the torch high, trying to see into the darkness. It was deathly quiet. "Iolaus?", he called. "Iolaus!" This time, even the roof of the cave was silent.

Rocks and boulders littered the floor of the cave. He had a hard time making his way through them. The demigod lowered the torch as he proceeded, looking under the debris. Looking for any sign.

Then something occurred to him. The innkeeper had said that Iolaus also had a torch. Hercules extinguished his own torch. He knew he could re-light it again, using his gauntlets like flints. He let his eyes get accustomed to the darkness.

He noticed the faintest glow coming from deep in the cave. Iolaus! That would be the best place to look, Hercules thought. He re-lit his own torch and hastened to the source of the glow.

"Iolaus," Herc called again, listening intensely for a reply, or any sound at all.

Cassia awoke, sleepily. She thought she had heard something. She was hoping it was Iolaus, waking up. But she could see in the now fading torchlight that he was still asleep.

She let go of Iolaus' hand long enough to rub her eyes. And then clutched it again. She wished she could give him a blanket, he felt kinda cold. Mama always gives me a blanket when I'm cold, she thought. I wish she was here . . . I wish Iolaus would wake up. She put her head back down on his hand. Just watching him.

Then she heard a man's voice calling his name. She sat up. Iolaus had told her to answer. "Over here," Cassia whispered. She thought about the rocks falling down.

The man called again. "Over here," she said a little louder. She could hear someone coming. Then she saw that the walls of the cave were getting brighter.

She looked down at Iolaus and wondered if she should wake him. As she looked up, a very, very big man came into her view. He was holding a torch.

"No! Iolaus!", Hercules gasped as he saw his friend lying very still under a large rock. He felt a knot form in his stomach. He dropped to his knees and touched Iolaus' neck, checking for a pulse. There was one, a faint one, but there was one.

"He's sleeping," came a tiny whispered voice from between two big boulders, just on the other side of Iolaus. Hercules looked up to peer between the them. He noticed two little hands curled around Iolaus'.

"Can you come out of there?" Hercules asked her. "Are you hurt?"

"I can come out. I'm not hurt," she replied. "Are you going to wake up Iolaus?"

"I will," Hercules said, his voice trembling. "But we need to get you out of here first. What's your name?"

"Cassia," she answered.

"That's a very pretty name," he told her. "Cassia, you've got to let go of his hand now, okay?" he asked her gently, trying desperately to keep his composure.

"Okay," she replied. Hercules noticed a tone of regret in the little girl's voice. He reached over and moved Iolaus' arm so she could get out without stepping on him. He had to hurry this up, he thought. He propped the torch between two rocks. She was on the other side of Iolaus and he needed to lift her up and over him.

"Come on," Herc said encouragingly, holding both arms out to pick her up.

Cassia crawled out of her shelter and stood, holding both arms up to Hercules. He noticed that she was wearing Iolaus' medallion.

"Iolaus must think you're very special," Hercules told the little girl as he picked her up. "He never lets me wear that," he said, pointing to the medallion.

She looked down at Iolaus, and then smiled to Hercules, "He likes my stories!"

He was both relieved and amazed that she didn't seem hurt or frightened at all. "You must be a wonderful story teller, Cassia," he told her as he grabbed the torch and headed for the way he came in. He hated leaving Iolaus there alone. Second time today, Herc thought tearfully.

Cassia looked over Herc's shoulder as he carried her, looking to the back of the cave. I hope he wakes up soon, she thought. I want to show him how well I can swim.

Hercules reached the bottom of rock pile at the entrance and put the torch down. "You want to go for a little ride?" he asked the little girl. She nodded.

He put her down and then turned his back to her and knelt on one knee. "Okay," he said, "jump!" She jumped on the big man's back and wrapped her arms around his neck. "Hang on tight!" he told her over his shoulder.

He stood and then climbed up the pile of rocks. It was easier being able to use both hands and much faster. As he climbed, he was thinking of how he was going to get his injured and unconscious friend up this pile of rocks.

Hercules reached the top and helped Cassia get down. He guided her through the opening. There were cheers and applause as she emerged from the cave. She turned back to Hercules, "Are you gonna go wake Iolaus up now? she asked. "I want him to watch me swim."

"I'm going back to get him now, Cassia," Hercules answered as he lowered her into waiting arms.

Hercules waited till she was out of earshot. "Iolaus is very badly hurt. I'm not sure if I even want to move him," he told Matheus, his voice faltering. "He's going to need a healer".

"The healer is on his way from the next village," Matheus assured him. "Someone sent for him soon after they heard of the cave-in. Just in case."

"Good," Hercules sighed heavily.

"Need some help in there?" asked Matheus.

Hercules shook his head. "No, I don't want anyone else to risk getting hurt. But I do need a liter to get him out of there. Can you ask for help in getting one made?"

"That won't be a problem," Matheus replied and started down the rock pile. "One liter coming up!"

Hercules hurriedly climbed back down inside the cave, picked up his torch and raced through the debris. Back to his friend's side.

He propped the torch again in the rocks. "Iolaus?" he tried again as he knelt beside him.

Hercules could take a closer examination of him now that Cassia wasn't here. He noted a patch of something dark and moist on the side of the blond head. He touched it gently. Blood. It was discolored by the dirt that had showered down on him.

Hercules stood over him and found sure hand holds on both ends on the boulder. He lifted it evenly and tossed it aside.

Hercules could now see the damage that had been rendered to his best friend's body. The tears he had held back because of the little girl now ran freely down his face. Iolaus' left arm lay at an odd angle, and it was covered in blood. And more blood was trickling from beneath the left shoulder of his vest, down his upper arm, to drip into a puddle on the floor.

Hercules checked for a pulse again. Still the same. Holding his breath, he very slowly and very carefully turned Iolaus on to his back. He realized with a shock that this was the first time he actually noticed that the blond man was breathing. Or at least making an attempt to breathe. Hercules cringed.

"Hang on, buddy!" he said as he tenderly gathered his friend in his arms and stood. He was able to bend his knees and pick up the torch. Then he turned and headed for the entrance.

Hercules was trying to be very careful about not jarring his injured friend as he made his way through all the debris. He reached the bottom of the rock pile. "Hello?" Hercules called urgently up to the opening.

A head popped in and he recognized the innkeeper. "How is he?" Matheus asked quietly.

"Not good," replied Herc, looking down at the still figure in his arms. "How's that liter coming?"

"Got it right here," was the reply. "I'll lower it down to you."

"And you're gonna need some help down there," Matheus continued.

He did need another set of hands for the liter. "Thank you," Hercules said sincerely.

It was not Matheus who entered the cave. This man was lean and yet muscular. And younger than the innkeeper. "I'm Cassia's uncle, Eryx. Is he going to be all right?"

"I don't know," Herc answered, shaking his head.

The liter was lowered down and Eryx found a flat enough surface to lay it out. Hercules lowered Iolaus on to it. "Okay, nice and slow," said Hercules as he and Eryx lifted the liter and started their ascent. Eryx nodded.

They inched their way up with the liter. Making sure it stayed level and not getting caught on any rocks.

When they reached the top and guided the liter through the opening, Hercules was surprised and elated that there were so many people waiting to offer a hand in transporting his friend to the bottom of rock pile. There were no cheers this time, only silent concern.

"I'm Phylon," said a tall, graying man standing next to the innkeeper, "I'm a healer. Let's get your friend down from here so I may have a look at him."

Hercules nodded and they carefully brought Iolaus down to level ground.

"He's badly hurt," said Herc to Phylon. "He was pinned under a fallen rock. It fell across his back and left arm."

Phylon examined him, then announced, "I will need him taken to a place where I can administer to him. Can anyone offer . . . " He never finished his sentence. There were *too* many offers.

Hercules looked around him in amazement. Not a single person had left. Even though all the village children were safe and sound, they all had waited to see this stranger rescued. Now they were offering their homes to him.

Matheus had the best argument. He was centrally located and had the most room to accommodate not only Iolaus, but his friend and the healer as well.

There was a little voice in the crowd. Repeating "'scuse me" politely over and over. The voice got louder as it approached the circle of people surrounding Iolaus.

A little girl appeared, carrying something in her arms. "He needs a blanket," Cassia said as she walked up to the liter and started covering Iolaus with it.

Eryx looked up at his sister as she emerged from the crowd. "She insisted we run to the house and get a blanket for him," Cassia's mother said in explanation. She tearfully smiled at the sight of her daughter carefully tucking the blanket around the blond man who had bravely gone into the cave to find the little girl.

"We must hurry," Phylon said solemnly, looking at Hercules. A villager offered the use of his wagon.

They carefully loaded Iolaus into the wagon and made their way to Matheus' inn. It was late afternoon when they pulled up to the front door.

The injured man was carried up the stairs and then the healer ushered everyone out of the room. Phylon insisted that he be alone with Iolaus and he would call Hercules when it was time.

"Would you like something to eat or drink?" Matheus asked the big man. Herc just shook his head, his eyes on the stairs "Your friend's going to be all right, big fel . . . you know, we never have been introduced. My name's Matheus," he said offering his hand to Herc.

"Hmmm? Oh, I'm sorry. You're right. I'm Hercules," he said locking forearms with the innkeeper.

"Hercules?" Matheus said in amazement. That explains what he had witnessed earlier at the cave, he thought.

"Yeah," Herc said flatly. "I wonder what's taking so long."

"I've heard Phylon is an extraordinary healer," Matheus said, taking the hint that Hercules was in no mood to be fussed over. "He is very thorough, I'm told," Matheus commented.

"I'm glad he is in such good hands, then," Herc said. "And thank you Matheus for . . .

"No thanks necessary," Matheus interrupted. "This whole village is thankful for what you and your friend did today."

Hercules was about to reply when Phylon called him and he rushed up the stairs. The healer stopped him just outside the door.

"How is he?" Herc asked expectantly. "Can I see him?"

"In a moment. I cannot tell you much at this point," Phylon told him. "He has sustained very serious injuries that will take time to heal."

Hercules knew this much already. "He's going to be all right, isn't he?" Hercules asked hopefully. Getting only silence from the healer, Herc implored, "Tell me."

"I have treated and bandaged his wounds and dosed him with medicines. He's strong and seems otherwise healthy. His chances of surviving his injuries are good, but there may be complications . . . ," Phylon told him.

Hercules didn't like the sound of this at all. "Complications. . . ?"

"He must have inhaled a lot of the dust in the cave, his breathing is very labored," Phylon explained. "More so than the broken ribs would account for. He'll have to be watched very closely." The healer decided to wait to discuss his concern about his patient's head wound and whether he'd regain the use of his arm. It was too early to tell if either would be an issue.

"I want to see him," Herc said, his voice just a whisper.

Phylon opened the door and allowed Hercules to enter. "I'll be in the room next door if you need me," the healer said. "I will be in to check on him again shortly."

Hercules slowly walked toward the bed, which was in the middle of the room, accessible from both sides. Iolaus was lying on his stomach. He noted that most of what was not covered by blankets was covered in bandages. Even with the warm glow of the candles, and the setting sun coming in through the window, Iolaus looked so pale. So pale.

He sat in the chair next to the bed and took Iolaus' right hand in his. He saw that his other arm was heavily splinted. Iolaus didn't feel as cold as he did when he was carrying him out of the cave. Herc recalled that with a shudder.

"Iolaus . . .," he whispered as the tears flowed unabated. The sound of his injured friend's labored breathing echoed in his ears. He leaned forward, putting his forehead to Iolaus' hand and sobbed freely. Letting out every emotion he had held since he had found him in the cave.

He had been through this same scenario so many times before. It never got any easier. In fact, it was worse each time. Hercules had no doubt that Iolaus was battling fiercely and bravely for each breath. It was not his friend's spirit, his determination, or his will to live that he doubted. It was the flesh that contained them. How much more abuse could that mortal body take before it refused to be coaxed into healing itself one more time?

Another scar, or several, he thought. Hercules knew where almost every one of them were, because, more times than not, he painfully remembered, he had witnessed the wound being inflicted. And sat with him, just like this, while he healed.

And he had thought many times of putting an end to it. In fact, he tried countless times to convince Iolaus that being with him was bad for his health, to say the very least.

Iolaus wouldn't hear of it. He had told Hercules each time that, even if there was a risk, it was worth it. And it wouldn't matter anyway, Iolaus would just go on helping people in trouble on his own. Like he did with these children. His brave and courageous friend certainly didn't do it for recognition or reward. He got precious little of that. He did it because it was the right thing to do.

But, Hercules always had to admit, as much as he wanted to protect him, to keep him away from the dangers of being a target for the gods, he wanted . . . no . . . needed Iolaus at his side on his journeys, sitting across from him at a campfire, at his back during a fight. He trusted no one as readily with his life. He treasured no one's company as much as he treasured Iolaus'.

He certainly was not giving up hope. He would never give up hope. But these thoughts flowed through his mind more intensely each time he sat and watched the brother of his heart fight nobly for his life.

Hercules sat with him through the night and most of the next day, despite repeated pleas from Phylon for him to take some nourishment and get rest.

Phylon was grateful for Hercules' assistance with his patient in changing bandages and administering medicines, but the healer was concerned about the big man's health as well.

"Please, Hercules, get something to eat and then try to get some rest," Phylon gave it another try. "I will be sure to let you know if there is any change."

Hercules shook his head, his eyes still on Iolaus.

He tried a different approach. "Hercules, listen to me. I really don't want to have to attend to another patient," Phylon said sternly. "If you don't eat and sleep, I will have to tend to you, too. Your friend needs my full attention," he told him indicating Iolaus.

Hercules looked over at Phylon, then back to Iolaus. He sighed and stood. "You'll come and get me if anything, anything at all changes?" Hercules asked him.

"You know I will, Hercules," Phylon told him reassuringly.

With that, Hercules reluctantly left the room. He was tired. And a bit hungry. When was the last time he'd eaten? He remembered with a halfhearted smile. They had had breakfast in the village where Iolaus had been *distracted* enough to stub his toe. It seemed an eternity ago.

Hercules went downstairs where Matheus was busy sweeping the floor. Hearing the footsteps on the stairs, the innkeeper turned to see Hercules walk to the counter and put his face in his hands. He looked absolutely terrible, and a little lost. Matheus feared at first that Iolaus had not survived the day.

He hesitantly asked Hercules about Iolaus' condition. He was genuinely concerned.

"No change," Hercules replied softly.

"You know, Hercules, I certainly haven't known your friend for very long, but he strikes me as someone who can do anything he sets his mind to," Matheus said thoughtfully. "And he's got this entire village behind him, praying for his recovery. Everyone's been coming by asking about him on their way to and from the fields."

Hercules was warmed by Matheus' comments. His golden haired friend has left quite an impression on these people. Why am I not surprised, he thought.

"Let me fix you something to eat, Hercules. You gotta keep your strength up, too," hoping to encourage him. "And then you can lie down for a while. I fixed up the room across from Iolaus' for you."

Hercules looked up at Matheus with a warm smile. "Thank you," he said softly.

Hercules ate half of what was offered him, thanked Matheus again, and then went back upstairs. He stopped in front of Iolaus' room. He lightly tapped on the door.

"Come in," was the response. Hercules entered the room. Looking up from where he was mixing herbs at the small table in the room, Phylon asked him, "Did you get something to eat?"

"Yeah, I did," the big man responded as he walked to the bed. He knelt beside his friend and took his hand once more. "Come on, Iolaus," he begged softly to his friend, the tears returning. He gently touched his forehead to Iolaus'. "I can't lose you. I *can't* lose you." He reluctantly put down Iolaus' hand and slowly stood.

He turned to Phylon, who was still busy with his herbs at the table. The healer looked up as Hercules approached. "I will be in the room across the hall," Hercules told him. "Wake me if there is even the slightest change."

"You know I will, " the healer responded. "Try to get some rest, you look utterly exhausted."

Hercules nodded and with one last look at Iolaus, went out the door. He entered the room that Matheus had prepared for him and laid down on the comfortable bed and closed his eyes. Matheus is a good man, Hercules thought to himself, and he was right. Phylon is a skilled and knowledgeable healer. Hercules had become a good judge of healers over the years. He was glad that Iolaus was in such good hands. That thought allowed him to drift off to sleep.

Over the next two days, Iolaus' condition did not change. Phylon dosed the hunter with medicines, mixed herbs and salves, and checked and changed bandages. Phylon had Hercules help him turn Iolaus onto his back.

Hercules slept little. His heart ached as he watched his friend battle for each breath. The demigod spent the time he shared with Iolaus talking to him, reminiscing old times and pleading with him to continue the fight.

Although the healer allowed no visitors, the villagers continued to stop by and inquire about the blond man's condition. They were all disheartened by the news they received. No change.

Hercules was, of course, the most frightened by this. There should be some kind of change, some sign.

"These things take time, Hercules," Phylon was saying to him when he questioned the absence of change in Iolaus' condition. "His wounds are healing, and I am encouraged by the fact that his breathing is not getting worse, as it could be."

Hercules took little comfort in these words, even though what the healer said did make sense. And he was the expert, Herc realized. "I'm sorry," he told Phylon. "I just wish there would be some kind of sign."

The healer looked at him and replied, "I understand, Hercules. I know how you feel about him. I can see that you care for him very much."

He could never begin explain to another living soul what Iolaus' friendship meant to him. Mere words weren't enough. Iolaus understood, though. Between them, words were not even necessary.

Hercules sighed and returned to where Iolaus lay. "Wake up, Iolaus," he urged for the what must have been the thousandth time. "Please, wake up."

On the morning of the third day, there was a noticeable change. The hunter's breathing was not as raspy and labored as before. Phylon woke Hercules and told him this news.

"So he's gonna be all right?" Herc asked hopefully.

"This is very encouraging, Hercules," explained the healer. "But he still has a long fight ahead of him."

That night, Hercules was recalling yet another of their adventures, in between, urging Iolaus to awaken. Phylon was enjoying listening to the stories while preparing the herbs and medicines.

"And remember that time when we . . . " Hercules started to say when he noticed it. His heart leapt at the sight.

The healer looked up when he heard the big man stop in mid sentence. "Hercules, what is it?" Phylon asked worriedly.

Hercules sprang out of his chair. "He . . . he moved his hand! Phylon, he moved his hand!" Hercules was nearly shouting.

"Are you sure?" the healer questioned.

"Yes, I'm sure," Hercules said excitedly. "Look!"

The blond man was beginning to stir. Ever so slightly. But it was noticeable.

He took the hunter's hand in his. "Iolaus?" Herc called to him. "Iolaus."

Hercules caught his breath as the blond man's eyes began to flutter, then slowly open. "He's opening his eyes!" Hercules told Phylon over his shoulder.

The healer leaned over the bed, watching carefully. Iolaus' eyes were open, but they were unfocused. "Keep calling to him," he told Hercules.

"Iolaus? Come on, Iolaus!" Hercules encouraged him.

"Hercules?" It was a strained, hoarse whisper, but it was the sweetest music to Hercules' ears. Iolaus looked up at his friend, his vision clearing.

"Iolaus, can you hear me?" Hercules asked excitedly.

The hunter nodded slowly.

Hercules heart filled with joy. He grabbed Iolaus' shoulders. He wanted to pick him up and hug him. "Welcome back, my friend," he said, grinning ear to ear.

Iolaus returned a faint smile. "Herc . . . "

"Don't try to talk, just take it easy," Hercules told him.

"Herc . . . my shoulder . . . " Iolaus, said softly, as he turned his head to indicate his left side.

Hercules immediately let go of him. "Oh, I'm sorry, Iolaus." With a look of concern he asked quickly, "Did I hurt you?"

Iolaus shook his head. "No, Herc. It just . . . hurts already." His voice was hoarse and he talked slowly. He winced slightly.

Phylon decided this would be a good time to interrupt or else Hercules would spend the rest of the night apologizing. "Can you tell me how you feel?"

Suddenly, Iolaus' gaze seemed to fix on something far away. Then he turned his head back to Hercules. "Cassia, the little girl!" He looked as though he was going to try to sit up. "Is she . . .?"

"She's all right, Iolaus," Herc assured him, moving to hold Iolaus down, mindful of the injured shoulder. "She's fine. Didn't get a scratch, thanks to you."

Iolaus sighed and closed his eyes. Thank the Gods, he thought.

"And she's been wanting to see you. As a matter of fact," Hercules told him with a smile, "it's been all we could do to keep the whole village out of this room. You've made quite an impression on them."

Iolaus wasn't quite sure how to take this. He only did what anyone else would do.

Phylon cleared his throat. Hercules looked over at him and said apologetically, "I'm sorry. I'm keeping you from your job. Iolaus," Herc said to the hunter, "this is Phylon, he's the healer that's been taking care of you."

Phylon ignored Hercules' awkwardness and spoke to his patient. "Nice to be able to finally talk to you, Iolaus. How do you feel?"

"Um . . . weak, tired," the hunter replied.

"How's the pain?"

"Um . . . it's there," Iolaus confirmed.

"I'll get you something for that," Phylon said as he rose and went to the small table in the room.

"Is it bad, Iolaus?" Herc asked him, concern etching his features.

"No, Herc, it's not bad," Iolaus said, noticing the worried look on his friend's face.

Phylon returned with a cup in his hand. "Here, drink this, it'll help. It tastes terrible," the healer warned, "but it is effective."

Hercules raised Iolaus' head so he could drink. The blond man made a face as he downed the contents of the cup. It made him cough and he grimaced from the pain. "You're right," Iolaus concluded, "it does taste terrible."

"Iolaus, is there anything I can do?" Hercules asked, seemingly near panic.

Iolaus looked up at his friend's concerned face. "Herc, I'm okay, I just need to rest," he said almost dreamily.

Either the pain medicine was working quickly, or the hunter was just going to pass out on his own. Hercules could feel Iolaus relaxing. He could barely keep his eyes open. Then he smiled up at his friend. "You worry too much," Iolaus told him as he slipped into unconsciousness.

Smiling at the admonishment he just received, Hercules gently lowered Iolaus' head back down on the pillow. He watched the steady and strong rise and fall of the bandaged chest. He turned to Phylon.

"He *is* going to be all right, isn't he?" Herc asked expectantly.

Phylon looked over at the hunter and then back to Hercules. "He should recover fully. His wounds are healing satisfactorily, there is no infection, but," he paused here to emphasize, "it will take time. The thing he needs most right now is rest."

Hercules sighed in relief and nodded. That last part is going to be tough, he thought. He's not gonna want to lie still for very long.

During the next few days Iolaus slipped in and out of consciousness. Sometimes from the pain medicine and sometimes not. He stayed awake long enough to partake of some of Matheus' cooking.

Phylon commented that Iolaus was growing stronger by the day. Hercules joyously celebrated every step of Iolaus' progress. Even the slightest ones.

Iolaus didn't feel he was making progress quickly enough, but did not, for the most part, allow these feelings to show for Hercules' sake. His half-god friend seemed to take delight in waiting on him so Iolaus didn't want to spoil his fun. And there were still too many things he couldn't do on his own.

The villagers were elated when they heard the news of Iolaus' continued recovery, although the healer would still not allow visitors. With the exception of one. Phylon did consent to this one only because Iolaus continually harassed him about it. He gave in to his hardheaded patient to save his own sanity.

Cassia was coming to visit! He couldn't wait to see her again. He wished that he was feeling stronger (Phylon would not even allow him to sit up in bed yet) and not covered with so many bandages. The healer made it clear that she could stay for only a short time. It was the only way he would agree to let her come.

When the door to his room opened, he fully expected her to come charging in, but she just stood in the doorway. His smile faded a little and he was afraid that maybe she didn't want to see him as much as he wanted to see her. "Hi, Cassia," he said somewhat hesitantly. "I'm so glad to see you."

She walked into the room, but kept her distance, constantly turning and looking behind her. "Hi, Iolaus!" she chimed in her little voice, smiling. "I'm glad to see you, too!"

"Cassia, you can come closer, I won't bite you," he said as he noticed that she was wearing his medallion. What is she afraid of? he wondered.

She moved a little closer, looked behind her and stopped. Iolaus couldn't take this any longer. He finally asked her, "Cassia, what's the matter?"

"That man," she said as she pointed to Phylon, "said I shouldn't get too close cause you are still not all the way better and I might hurt you," she told Iolaus.

He shot a quick frown at Phylon and then beamed at Cassia. "Get over here!" he said to her, patting the space next to him on the bed with his hand.

She ran and jumped on the bed next to him. Then flung herself on top of him, giving him a great big hug. Iolaus hugged her back with his right arm. Phylon started to say something, but Hercules stopped him. "We'll leave you two alone," Herc said to Iolaus, who smiled back at his friend.

"But, he's not . . . he shouldn't be . . . " Phylon sputtered, then gave up. He threw his hands up in resignation, mumbling as he stalked off. Hercules flashed another smile at Iolaus and shut the door.

Iolaus suppressed a gasp as best he could. The joy he was feeling in his heart far outweighed the pain he was experiencing.

Cassia released her hold from around his neck and sat up on the bed next to him. She looked at all the bandages and asked, "Are you still hurting, Iolaus?"

He was hoping she hadn't noticed. "Only a little, Cassia," he said as he stroked her blond curls. "But everyone is taking very good care of me and I'll be better in no time at all," he told her reassuringly.

"I'm glad, Iolaus," she beamed. She looked thoughtful for a moment then asked, "Would you like to hear a story?"

"I'd love to, Cassia. I love the way you tell stories," he said encouragingly.

She told him another story about a mermaid, her bright blue eyes sparkling as she pictured the scenes she described. When she had finished, he told her, "Cassia, that story was beautiful. You like mermaids a lot, don't you?"

She nodded enthusiastically. "Cause I like to swim." Then she added excitedly, "I got to swim yesterday!"

"You did?" he asked her. "I'm glad cause I know that's your most favorite thing to do."

"But not in my favorite place," she pouted a little. "I wish you could watch me swim," she said sadly.

"I will, Cassia. As soon as I'm better, I promise." He started feeling sleepy, but didn't want this time with her to end. It turned out not to be his decision.

While Cassia and Iolaus were visiting, Eryx and Cassia's mother, Lorina talked with Hercules. They thanked both he and Iolaus for what they both risked to save the little girl. They wished they could thank Iolaus in person, but Phylon would not allow it. All in good time, the healer had said.

She said that Cassia had been waiting anxiously to visit Iolaus. She had been asking every day if she could come and see him.

Lorina explained that she was amazed at the change in her daughter since the "accident". She was so shy and quiet before it happened. That was probably why she wasn't with the other kids when they were in the cave.

"Now she talks all the time and plays more with the other kids," Lorina went on. "I don't know what your friend did to accomplish this, but it is one more thing to be grateful to him for."

"Well, Iolaus does seem to have a way with kids," Hercules mused.

"Does he have any of his own?" Eryx asked.

"No, he doesn't," Herc informed them.

"Ahem," Phylon interrupted. "I'm sorry, but I must strongly insist that Iolaus get some rest now. He still has a long way to go toward his recovery."

"I'll get Cassia," Hercules volunteered and went upstairs.

There was a light rap on the door and Hercules peeked in. The two blond, curly heads turned in his direction. "Iolaus . . . " he wasn't sure how he should break this up. But Phylon was adamant about Iolaus getting his rest, and Hercules was worried that his friend might overdo it.

Iolaus nodded to Hercules and then turned to the little girl. "Cassia, I am getting very sleepy and I need lots and lots of sleep to get better." He was prepared to explain further, but she understood.

"Okay," she said. She motioned to give him another hug, but she hesitated.

"Come here," he said and pulled her to him. She returned the hug, but not so tight this time. And this time, it didn't hurt at all.

They both reluctantly let go and Cassia was about to jump down from the bed. "Oh, I forgot," she said turning back to him. She started to take his medallion from around her neck.

Iolaus stopped her. "No, you keep it for a while. You wear that every time you come to see me, okay?"

"Okay, I will," she said as she nodded. "I'll wear it everyday until you're all better." She jumped off the bed and turned to him. "Good-bye, Iolaus!"

He rewarded her with a glorious smile. "Good-bye, Cassia. Thank you for coming to see me."

"You're welcome," she said brightly and headed for the door. She stopped in front of Hercules who was still standing there. "He's going to go to sleep now so he can get better," she informed the very, very tall man and then continued out the door.

Hercules watched her leave then turned back to Iolaus. "Are you okay?" he asked his obviously tired friend.

"I am now," he answered contentedly. "Herc? Would you thank Phylon for me, for letting me see her? And ask him if she can come back tomorrow?" he added with a hopeful expression.

"Sure, Iolaus, I will," Hercules agreed and watched his friend close his eyes. He knew he was asleep before he even closed the door.

As the demigod came down the stairs he heard Cassia asking her mother if she could come back tomorrow.

"Oh, honey," Lorina told her, "Iolaus does need his rest. You do want him to get better, don't you?"

"Yeah, but I won't hurt him and I won't keep him awake when he wants to sleep," she begged.

Hercules took the healer aside. "Can she come back tomorrow? It would mean a lot to Iolaus," he persuaded. "Oh, and he asked me to thank you for letting her visit today."

Phylon reluctantly agreed that Cassia could come to visit every day. It is bad enough that I've got a patient that is testing my patience, he thought, now he's got everyone else ganging up on me.

Each time she came to visit, they shared stories. Iolaus was feeling strong enough to tell her some stories of his own. But he preferred listening to her musical little voice. She even sang songs to him. They were, like most of her stories, about mermaids. He cherished every moment they shared together. Hercules was invited to join them, too, and he was enamored with the little girl.

Phylon even commented to Hercules that the little girl's visits seemed to be speeding Iolaus' recovery. The healer allowed her to stay longer and longer each day.

After a week and a half, Iolaus felt strong enough to attempt something he'd been wanting to do for days. Phylon still had him confined to bed, but had been allowing him to sit up.

"Herc, would you get some things for me?" Iolaus asked of his friend.

"Sure, Iolaus, what do you need?" Herc replied.

"My knife, a sharpening stone, and a piece of wood about this long," he indicated the length with his hands, " . . . damn!"

"What? What is it?" Herc looked confused, and a little concerned. "What's the matter?"

"This," he said as he indicated his left arm, which was now in a cast and a sling. "I don't think I can do it with this thing on my arm."

"Do what? Iolaus, what are you talking about?" Herc was bewildered.

"I . . . um ...I wanted to make something for Cassia to surprise her," Iolaus explained. "I wanted to have it ready for when she comes tomorrow."

"Oh . . . ," Hercules mentally went over the list of items. "You want to carve something for her?"

"Yeah," he said disappointedly, sighing.

"Maybe I can help. Would it be okay if I assisted you with this surprise?" Herc asked.

"Sure! Would you?" Iolaus asked expectantly.

"Of course, Iolaus. I'd be glad to," Hercules assured him. "You know you don't even have to ask."

"Thanks, buddy," Iolaus smiled warmly at him.

Hercules returned with the requested items and laid them on the bed next to Iolaus. He started to work immediately and intensely. Hercules watched him with joy. This was another step.

They worked together on the gift for Cassia. Iolaus tried to do as much of it as he could by himself. He was able to hold the wood firmly in his left hand, but only for a short periods of time. Hercules would take over and Iolaus watched him carefully, instructing him as to how he wanted it to look. Iolaus was pleased with the result and he couldn't wait to see Cassia's face when he gave it to her.

The next day, Iolaus was ready to burst, waiting for Cassia to come so he could give her the surprise they had made for her.

Just after breakfast, Hercules entered Iolaus' room. "Iolaus?" he said hesitantly.

"Is she here?" Iolaus asked hopefully.

"No . . . Iolaus . . . ," Herc tried to begin.

"You know, Herc, I wish I had something to paint this with," Iolaus said wistfully as he looked down at Cassia's gift in his hands. The hunter looked up when Hercules didn't comment.

He saw the big man had a look of sadness and uncertainty in his eyes.

"Herc, what's the matter?" Iolaus asked him, worriedly. "What's happened?"

How am I going to tell him? Herc thought. He didn't want to tell him at all, knowing how upset he'd be. But if he didn't tell him now, he'd be doubly upset that it was kept from him.

"He won't let her come. Phylon changed his mind, didn't he?" Iolaus asked, unable to hide his disappointment.

"Ah . . . no, that's not it, Iolaus." He started to pace, looking down at his hands. "Phylon was called away on an emergency".

"Then what is it, Hercules," he asked, confused. "Tell me."

"Iolaus . . . " Herc began, "it's Cassia, she's . . . very sick. She became very ill right after she got home yesterday. Phylon left to attend to her."

His heart sank. "No!" he said disbelievingly. "She's gonna be all right, right?" Iolaus asked hopefully.

Hercules hung his head, remembering the news that Eryx had brought him this morning, when he had come to town to pick up some items for the healer. "She . . . just . . . collapsed," Herc said, not believing it himself. "They haven't been able to wake her. I'm sorry."

Hercules could see that Iolaus was having a hard time handling this news.

"I'm sure Phylon is taking very good care of her, Iolaus," the demigod said, trying to find a way to comfort his visibly upset friend.

Iolaus picked up the gift he and Herc had made for her. He turned it over in his hands, tears flowing down his cheeks. Hercules felt helpless. He knew how much his friend loved being with that little girl.

Iolaus wiped the tears from his face, then stated, "I want to see her." He looked up at Hercules.

"I know how you feel about her," Herc said softly.

"Take me to her," Iolaus said in a low even voice.

"Iolaus, you are in no condition to . . ." Herc tried to reason with him.

Iolaus cut him off. "Get a wagon, find me a crutch, or carry me," he said pleadingly through his tears. "I swear, I will crawl there if I have to."

"Calm down, Iolaus." Herc knew that tone well. There was no stopping him when he was this determined. He could knock him out and tie him to the bed, but he'd only hurt himself trying to get free when he woke up. And he'd eventually get free.

Matheus volunteered to drive the borrowed wagon. Herc made it as comfortable as he could. Iolaus just wanted them to hurry. Herc had helped him walk shakily to the wagon. But he did walk.

The road that led to Eryx's farm was well traveled and in good condition. Hercules was thankful for that. Iolaus was silent for most of the trip. He stared at the carved piece in his hands.

They arrived at the farm and Eryx, hearing the wagon approach, came out to see who was coming to visit. He gave them a smile and waved. "Hello, Matheus. Hercules? Shouldn't you be . . ." he stopped when he was near enough to see the blond head in the back of the wagon. "Iolaus? You shouldn't be out of bed."

"How's Cassia, is she any better?" Iolaus asked hopefully.

Eryx's expression darkened. He looked down at the ground. "No change, I'm afraid," he said sadly. He was warmed by the sight of this man, that he would risk his recovery in concern for his niece. "Please, come inside."

Phylon's mouth dropped open when Hercules assisted Iolaus through the door of the farmhouse. "What do you think you're doing?" he admonished Iolaus.

Iolaus grinned at him. "You're a great healer, Phylon. See . . . I can walk again!"

Phylon was not amused by this attempt at humor. "You are the most stubborn man I have ever had the misfortune of . . . " he gave up. He threw his hands in the air. He glanced at Hercules, who just shrugged. I know what you mean, Phylon, I know what you mean, Herc thought.

Becoming instantly serious, Iolaus asked the healer, "What's wrong with Cassia? You can heal her, right?"

The healer sighed. "That's just it, I don't know what's wrong with her. I have dosed her with medicines that should break her fever, but she is not responding to them. She seems to be getting weaker by the moment."

Hercules, who still had his arm around his friend's waist for support, felt Iolaus' body sag. "Do you want to sit down?" Herc asked him.

"Yeah, that might be a good idea," Iolaus responded.

Phylon was going to say 'I told you so', but decided against it. What's the use?

Hercules helped Iolaus to a chair and lowered him into it.

Eryx approached the obviously still weak hunter. "I'll go tell her mother that you're here."

"Thank you, " Iolaus replied gratefully.

The blond man looked up at Phylon. "It is okay if I see her, isn't it?" Iolaus asked sincerely.

Phylon sighed again. "Yes, of course. But I must insist that it be a short visit. I mean it," he said sternly. "For both of your sakes."

"All right," agreed Iolaus. "I just want to see her."

Eryx returned and told him, "Iolaus, you can come in now."

Iolaus quickly rose to follow him. Bad idea. He put his hand on the table to steady himself. Hercules moved to put his arm around his waist for support. "Oops . . . forgot, no sudden moves," Iolaus said while waiting for the room to stop spinning. "Thanks, Herc," he told his friend.

Eryx led them to Cassia's room. He tapped lightly on the door. "Come in," said a woman's voice softly.

Eryx opened the door wide. The smile Iolaus had ready for the little girl vanished. Hercules still held him by his waist. He could feel the sudden breath Iolaus took when he gasped.

The woman rose from her chair. Her face was tear-streaked and drawn. "I'm Cassia's mother, Lorina. It's so nice to finally meet you, Iolaus," she said, walking toward him. "Cassia talks about you all the time." She kissed him on the cheek. "Thank you," she said softly.

"Thank you for letting her come and see me," Iolaus replied.

Noting the blond man's condition, she decided she would properly thank him later for saving her daughter's life. "You look as though you could use a chair, here, sit," she suggested.

Hercules led him to the chair beside Cassia's bed. Iolaus' gaze was fixed on the little face. When Herc eased his hold on him, Iolaus sank heavily into the chair.

Lorina put her hand on Iolaus' shoulder. He turned to her, "I'll leave you two alone," she said.

Iolaus nodded. "Thank you."

She guided Eryx with one arm, and Herc with the other, out the door.

Iolaus stared at Cassia for a long time. She seemed so small, taking up so little room on the bed. She was pale and that only accentuated the dark circles under her eyes. Each breath was nothing more than a short gasp. Iolaus felt as though his heart was shattering. This was worse than he imagined. It had only been yesterday when he had seen her last. She was a little bundle of energy, a beam of pure sunshine and so full of life. How could she have gotten so sick so quickly?

He reached over and brushed the damp, blond curls from her forehead. She was so hot. He moved his hand down to cup her little face in his hand. "Cassia," he called softly. "Cassia, it's me, Iolaus. You've got to wake up," he pleaded, his tears flowing freely.

She did not stir. He took her tiny hand in his. "Cassia, I've got a thousand more stories and I want to tell them all to you. And I want to hear every one of yours." He hung his head and put her hand to his cheek.

He looked up and noticed the sweat beading on her forehead. He looked around the room for a cloth. His gaze stopped on an object hanging from her bedpost. His medallion.

He closed his eyes and remembered the first time she had come to visit, when she had tried to return it. She wore it every time she came to see him.

He wiped his tears with the back of his hand and opened his eyes. He looked down at the little face, then continued his search for a cloth. He found some neatly folded on the table behind him. He took one and gently dabbed at her forehead. "Cassia, I have a surprise for you," Iolaus told her, his voice trembling. He had envisioned giving it to her when he could see the look on her face.

A shudder ran through him as the possibility of never seeing those bright, sparkling eyes open again crept into his thoughts. No! She has to get well, she has to.

He pulled the carved piece from out of his sling, where he had kept it. "Cassia, this is for you. Hercules helped me make it." He took her hand and placed the carving in her palm, closing her fingers around it. "I hope you like it," he closed his hand around hers, his tears flowing heavily. He leaned forward in the chair and put his head beside the silent little form. He wept unabashedly. Praying to any god that would listen that he could take her place.

Unnoticed by the two occupants of the room, two figures appeared out of nothingness at the foot of the bed. They regarded the two sleeping forms with a warm smile. They exchanged a glance, and then concentrated their gaze to where the two joined hands around an object.

Nice work, my hunter, one of them thought. The object began to glow. Soon, it became so bright, that it shot out rays in all directions through the spaces between their fingers. Intensely colorful rays. It was as if a prism had been kissed by the sun. The rays danced over the two sleeping figures. But neither stirred. That should do it. "Sleep sweet," the one said softly aloud as they disappeared into nothingness.

"I think it's time we let them both get some rest now," Phylon was saying, looking toward Cassia's room.

Hercules didn't want to separate them, but he was worried that all of this had to be taking it's toll on Iolaus. Both physically and mentally. He was still weak and they still had the wagon ride back to Matheus' inn. And he was also concerned about the little girl.

"I'll get him," Eryx volunteered.

"Are you sure?" Herc asked.

"Yeah, I want to talk to him," Eryx replied before he turned toward Cassia's room. He knocked lightly on the door, and getting no response, he opened the door quickly. Despite his concern for his little niece, he had to smile at what he saw.

He motioned for Hercules to join him. Herc hurried to stand next to him. Looking into the room, a smile formed on his face, too. That *can't* be comfortable, he thought to himself.

Iolaus was still sitting in the chair, but with his head and chest on the bed, next to Cassia. His right arm was under his head and his hand was curled around Cassia's. His left arm, still in the sling, was resting on his left knee.

Hercules walked in and gently separated Iolaus' hand from Cassia's. He noticed the carving in her hand and he felt his heart sink. Please let her make it through this, he was thinking of both of them. He put his hands on Iolaus' shoulders and shook him gently. "Iolaus?" He tried again, "Iolaus."

By this time, everyone in the house was standing at the door.

Hercules felt Iolaus' body jerk slightly. "Hmmm . . .?" his friend moaned. "Is she awake?" Iolaus asked sleepily. Herc helped him sit upright.

"No, Iolaus, not yet," Herc told him softly.

Phylon came in and checked on both his patients. Cassia's fever had not broken. Her condition remained unchanged. He frowned, then turned to Iolaus.

"Look at you, you're exhausted," the healer scolded him. "Get some sleep before you have a relapse."

"But . . . I was asleep," Iolaus said his defense. "How is she?"

"The same, I'm afraid" Phylon sighed. "Now get out of here and let me do my work," he said sternly.

"I don't think he likes me anymore, Herc," Iolaus said looking up at his friend.

Seeing the look of exasperation on Phylon's face, Herc leaned over his friend. "Time to say good night, Iolaus."

Iolaus stood, with Herc's help, and he leaned over and kissed Cassia lightly on the cheek. "Good night, little mermaid," he whispered. "Sleep sweet," he added, wondering where that came from.

He put his hand on Phylon's arm. "Take good care of her," Iolaus told him. The healer nodded. Hercules led his weary friend to the door.

Cassia coughed. Everyone froze at the sound. She coughed again. Lorina ran to her daughter's side. Phylon was looking incredulously at the little girl. Hercules and Iolaus exchanged a glance and turned around.

Cassia's eyes fluttered and then opened. She turned her head to look blearily at the crowd surrounding her and sat up in bed. She blinked a few times. "Mommy?" she sounded confused.

Hercules was still holding onto Iolaus. He felt the weight of him lighten as Iolaus ceased to slump against him. He looked down at his friend, who was grinning from ear to ear, with tears flowing down his cheeks. Herc noticed that he himself was crying, too.

Lorina picked up her daughter and hugged her. "Oh, my baby," she said tearfully. Eryx joined his sister in the hug. She sat Cassia back on the bed. "How? . . . What? . . . "

Everyone simultaneously turned to look questioningly at Iolaus. It was then that Cassia spotted him. "Iolaus!" she said excitedly and jumped off the bed. She ran to him, arms outstretched. Iolaus fell to his knees and held out his right arm. "Cassia!" he breathed it. She put her arms around his neck and he hugged her tightly. He reached around and took his other arm out of the sling and hugged her with both arms, closing his eyes tight.

The whole room was crying tears of joy. Still not understanding what was happening.

Cassia released her grip on Iolaus and he reluctantly did the same. She opened her hand that still held the carving he had given her. "Oh, Iolaus, I love it! You even made her hair the same color as mine!" she said excitedly. Iolaus looked closely at the carving. He had not had anything to paint it with. It was just a simple wooden carving. But now it was completely painted in great detail. Right down to the scales on the mermaid's magnificent tail. "Thank you!" she said as she hugged him again and he returned it. He didn't know exactly who was responsible for this miracle, but he looked up and whispered, "Thank you!"

She let him go and ran back to her mother and uncle. "Look what Iolaus made for me!" she said excitedly, showing them her gift. "And Hercules helped!" she added.

Iolaus stared at her. How could she know that? She must have heard every word I said when she was unconscious, he thought. This was all happening way too fast.

Don't question any of it, he told himself. Not right now. Just enjoy it. Hercules knelt beside him and put his arm around his shoulder. The hunter looked up at him. "Iolaus," he said looking into his friend's eyes, "I'm not sure what just happened here, but good work!"

Iolaus smiled back at him, somewhat confused.

"You wanna get off the floor now?" Hercules asked him with a smile of his own.

"Hmmm . . . ? Oh, yeah," Iolaus replied.

Iolaus quickly got to his feet. "Iolaus!" Herc gasped, rising to steady him, but it didn't seem necessary.

"What?" the hunter asked.

"You're not dizzy?" Herc asked incredulously.

Iolaus looked like he'd been hit with some startling revelation. And he had been. He realized he wasn't dizzy, he wasn't tired, and there was absolutely no lingering pain from his injuries. "No, not at all. As a matter of fact, I feel great!" he said wondrously.

"Then it's a double miracle!" Lorina said, who had been standing nearby, watching her daughter play with her gift. She hugged Iolaus tightly and kissed him once more on the cheek.

It's great to hear you're feeling better, Iolaus, " Eryx added as he walked up to the hunter, extending his hand. He and Iolaus exchanged the warrior greeting. "You seemed to have been the key."

"Nah," Iolaus said, releasing Eryx's arm and nodding toward Cassia, "she was the key."

Phylon had spent the last few minutes wondering what it was he had just witnessed. He had never seen anything like it. Both of his now former patients were completely cured. He knew he had little to do with either and thanked the Gods above for miracles

Iolaus walked over to the healer and extended his hand. "Thank you for all you've done, Phylon," he said sincerely. "You saved my life. I am forever in your debt."

"You're welcome, Iolaus," the healer replied. "I was just doing my job. I am pleased that both of you no longer need my services."

"Well . . . there is one more thing you can do for me," Iolaus told him. "You can get this thing off my arm," he said indicating the cast.

Phylon was more than happy to oblige. He checked on both his former patients again, just to make sure, before bidding them all farewell. He wanted to get back to his village and see his own family.

The rest of the evening was spent with everyone marveling at the recovery of the two golden haired friends. They all seemed to think that Iolaus was responsible for it. But he insisted that he was just as much in the dark about it as everybody else. And he was.

Lorina gratefully and sincerely thanked Iolaus (as she had done earlier with Hercules) for risking his life to save her daughter.

She had prepared a delicious meal big enough to feed everyone and then some.

After supper, when it was time for bed, Cassia asked Iolaus to tell her a bedtime story. He needed no encouragement. She was the most appreciative audience he had ever had. And she was one of the most enjoyable storytellers he'd heard. Her stories were told with such innocence and joy. And they all had happy endings.

Iolaus sat on Cassia's bed with her in his lap. She held the carving in her hand. He told her a story that made her gasp and giggle and clap her hands. When he had finished it, he told her, "And now, little mermaid, it is time for you to go to sleep."

"Okay. Iolaus, are you coming back tomorrow?" she asked sleepily.

"Nothing can keep me away," Iolaus assured her. "Now get under those covers, and I'll tuck you in."

"Thank you for the mermaid, Iolaus," she said.

"You are very welcome, Cassia," he said with a radiant smile, kissing her on the forehead. "Sleep sweet," he told her. She snuggled with the carving held to her chest. And he sat with her until she was asleep, just watching her. Thinking about the miracles of earlier today.

He looked at the carving again, amazed at the way it had changed. It seemed to glow for just a second. He looked at it curiously. A figure appeared at the foot of the bed.

"Hello, Iolaus," the Goddess of the Hunt greeted him. "Nice work on the carving," she commented.

Iolaus stood to face her. "Artemis!" he said, surprised. As a wave of understanding washed over him, he whispered, "thanks. . .you, too."

Her laughter was like music. "She cannot hear us," she informed him. Iolaus nodded.

"You were right, Iolaus," Artemis told him.

"Right about what?" he asked.

"She was the key," the Goddess answered, indicating the peacefully sleeping child.

He looked down at Cassia.

"But, so were you. Let me explain," the Goddess said. "This village was being taught a lesson by one of the gods for the way they had been behaving. For their uncaring selfishness and indifference."

Iolaus was going to make a comment about how most of the gods live by those two rules, but decided against it. "Ah, the recent drought?" he asked instead.

"That was only the first part of their "test". The cave was the next," Artemis told him. "And Cassia's life was going to be the price for their ignorance."

Anger welling inside him, Iolaus glared at the goddess. "What?"

"I feel your anger, Iolaus, and I share it. She was to die in the cave. When you went in to save her, they tried to stop you. You didn't know you were fighting against a god, did you?"

He remembered what the children, Cassia and he, himself, went through in that cave. "Who?" he asked coldly.

"For your own good, Iolaus, I will not tell you which god passed this sentence," Artemis stated. "Hear me out." She continued, "When the villagers stayed to wait until you were rescued, after their own children were safe, and then offered their homes for your tending, I offered that as evidence that they had indeed learned their lesson. The villagers not only cared for one another, but they also opened their hearts to a stranger."

She went on, "I thought it was over, that this would appease . . . this god. But they argued that there was a price yet to be paid. And they turned their anger on you, Iolaus, for interfering. They saw the bond you and Cassia shared and tried again to take her life, but this time, to punish you."

"You mean, this god hurt her because of me? To take revenge on me?" Iolaus was outraged. "I want to know this...coward's name!" he demanded.

"Iolaus, let me finish," Artemis tried to calm him down. "Yes, revenge on you, but when you offered to take her place, I was able to persuade them to spare you both. I pointed out that what you did, unselfishly offering yourself, risking your life for hers, was exactly the kind of lesson this god was trying to teach. That by taking either of you, this god would teach nothing but the uselessness of caring and the futility of selflessness."

Iolaus was trying to absorb all that the goddess had just told him.

Artemis continued. "Iolaus, I could not prevent what was done to you and Cassia. We gods cannot directly interfere with judgments passed on mortals by another god. All I could do was plead your case and try to get them to revoke the sentence."

"Thank you for that, Artemis," Iolaus told her sincerely.

"It was my pleasure, dear hunter," she replied with a smile. "But you have . . . this other god to thank for your and Cassia's miraculous recovery."

Iolaus looked at her questioningly. "What do you mean?"

Artemis laughed. "I must have been more convincing than I thought. They couldn't undo what was already done, so they came up with the idea to heal you both completely. It took both of us to accomplish that."

Iolaus didn't know what to say. He was filled with a mix of feelings for . . . this god. He was outraged that they had tried to take this sweet child's life in the first place, not once, but twice, but grateful that she was completely cured. Not to mention what they had done to him. And for him.

"Artemis, I . . ." he began. He couldn't find the words.

She approached him and cupped his face in her hand. "Iolaus, you will never learn the identity of . . . this god. And you will only drive yourself crazy trying to figure it out."

"But . . ." Iolaus tried again. He really did want to know who this god was.

"Take care, my beloved golden hunter," she whispered to him as she kissed him on the cheek. "Don't ever change," was the last thing she said before she disappeared.

He stood there for a moment, looking at the space just vacated by Artemis. He put his hand to the spot on his cheek where she had kissed him. He was startled out of his thoughts by a little voice calling his name.

"Iolaus?" Cassia whispered.

The blond man turned to her. "You're supposed to be asleep, little mermaid," he said softly.

"I know, but I forgot to give you something," she said sitting up.

"And what did you forget to give me?" he asked, sitting down on the bed.

"This!" She reached over to her bedpost and pulled his medallion from where it had been hanging. Cassia rose to her knees. "You're all better now," she said as she placed it around his neck.

He looked down and stared at it for a long time. When he didn't look up, Cassia reached out and placed her tiny hand under his chin and lifted his head. "Iolaus?"

He gazed into those bright, sparkling eyes and thanked the two gods from the very depths of his soul for allowing him to look into them again.

He took her into his arms and hugged her tenderly.

"Why are you crying, Iolaus?" she asked in her musical little voice.

"Because I just thought of a very sad story," he told her through his tears, "that has such a beautifully happy ending."

Matheus came in the door and announced, "The wagon's ready whenever you are."

It was getting late. Hercules volunteered, "I'll get Iolaus."

He tapped on the door, and was not surprised when he didn't get an answer. He opened it and peeked in. Here we go again, Hercules thought with a laugh. He started across the room, but Eryx, who had come in behind him, stopped him.

"Hercules, let them sleep," he whispered. "I was gonna ask if he wanted to stay the night anyway. We do have an extra room, " he explained. He led Hercules out of the room saying, "and you are welcome to use it."

Matheus couldn't be persuaded to stay. He had been quiet since celebrating with everyone when the miracle occurred. He promised he'd be back in the morning. He didn't want to miss the surprise they had all planned for Cassia and Iolaus.

The next day, after a delicious breakfast, Cassia and Iolaus were told that they were all going on a picnic. They would be taking the wagon. Cassia was excitedly helping her mother pack the food for the trip. They were leaving early in the day because it would take some time to get to their destination. Which apparently was a secret, because no one would answer Cassia's repeated questions on the subject. "It's a surprise, Cassia," was all they told her. And Iolaus didn't know either. He was just as curious as Cassia.

Matheus returned with the wagon just after breakfast. He was as excited as all the others about the surprise.

They got all the food, the people, and a couple of mysterious boxes loaded into the wagon, and left the farm behind. Iolaus and Cassia took turns telling stories, and all enjoyed them immensely. The only one who paid any attention to where they were going was Eryx, who was driving the wagon. And he even had to remind himself to keep an eye on the road. No one realized the trip had taken two hours, the time flew by so fast.

"We're here," Eryx announced happily as he pulled the horses to a stop. Cassia rose quickly to see the place that no one would tell her about. Her eyes widen and her jaw dropped. She started jumping up and down and clapping her hands. "This is my most favorite place to swim in the whole world!" she announced excitedly.

Iolaus was just enjoying Cassia's excited reaction, but he did eventually stand up to have a look around. His jaw dropped as well, as he took in the view. "By the Gods," he said slowly when he had recovered enough to speak.

"Welcome to the best place for fishing, and swimming, " Eryx emphasized for Cassia, "in all of Greece!"

"Herc! Herc!" Iolaus started shouting excitedly. "This is it! This is the place! The one I was telling you about!" Hercules thought Iolaus was going to start jumping up and down in the wagon, too.

Eryx turned to look at him, "You've been here before, Iolaus?"

"Yeah, once, a few months ago," Iolaus explained. "Hercules and I were on our way here to do a little fishing when the . . . trouble . . . happened."

Hercules looked around at everyone's excited and smiling reactions and asked, "You mean, I'm the only one who's never been here before?"

They all laughed and Eryx explained the he and Matheus used to come here all the time to fish. And, of course, bring Lorina and Cassia along so they could swim.

"Can I show Hercules the best part?" Cassia asked her uncle excitedly.

"Of course, Cassia," he smiled to her. "You can lead the way."

She clapped her hands again and let Iolaus help her down from the wagon. She took Hercules by the hand and led him along the waterline and then around a clump of huge trees. With everyone else following behind them.

The surroundings abruptly opened onto a vista that made Hercules gasp when he saw it. It was the biggest, most beautiful waterfall he had ever seen. Behind it, in the distance, were snow capped mountains. They themselves, were breathtaking enough, but the combination of all the elements in this view was music for the eyes.

Hercules knelt down beside the little girl who was still holding his hand. "This is the most magnificent place I've ever seen, Cassia."

She beamed at him and said, "I know!" Hercules laughed and gave her a hug.

"Isn't it great?" Iolaus said, looking down at his best friend. "I told you this place was fantastic!"

"That you did, my friend. That you did," Hercules had to agree. "Now, about the size of those fish . . . "

"Herc . . . before we get to that, there's something very important I want to do first," he said as he leaned down to Cassia.

Everyone sat back on the bank and watched Cassia show off her swimming skills. She really does swim like a mermaid, Iolaus thought.

Cassia invited them all to join her. Hercules and Iolaus exchanged a sly glance.

"Last one in is a slimy sea serpent!" Iolaus challenged his friend as he hurriedly took off his boots.

"Just don't get any of that slime on me when you finally make it into the water!" Hercules answered as he did the same.

But his blond friend was already racing toward the water, shedding his vest as he ran. Hercules was having a little trouble getting out of his shirt, but he did finally manage to get it off, just as he saw Iolaus splash into the lake.

The grown-ups changed into the swimming clothes that had been brought in one of the mysterious boxes. Soon they were all acting like kids, splashing each other and wrestling in the water. Having swimming races. None could remember when they last had this much utterly enjoyable fun.

When they wore themselves out playing in the water, the men broke out the fishing gear (the contents of the other box) and lazily sat in the shade, throwing out their lines. Matheus caught the most fish and the biggest. Much to the other men's chagrin. The bait is a family secret, he told them. Hercules couldn't believe the size of the fish everyone was catching.

Cassia thought fishing was yucky. Iolaus volunteered to do something with her instead, but she said she wanted him to do his favorite thing now. Besides, she wanted to pick flowers with her mother to have as a centerpiece for the picnic.

They filled themselves with the fish the men had caught and the bread and cheese Lorina had brought with them. After a few more rounds of storytelling, they all got back in the water one more time and played some more.

No one wanted to leave this paradise, but it was getting late in the day. Matheus seemed the most eager to get going. He drove the wagon on the way back. The return trip was again filled with stories, even after Cassia had fallen asleep in Iolaus's arms. The grown ups urged the hunter to continue.

When Matheus passed up the road to Eryx's farm, it was a while before anyone noticed. Good, Matheus thought. It was Eryx who spoke up. "Hey, Matheus, you missed the turn to my farm."

"Yeah, I . . . uh . . . promised the owner of this wagon I'd have it back to him." He tried to sound convincing. "He said he needed it returned by this evening and I'm already late. It's a short walk back to your farm and it's a lovely night for a stroll."

"Oh, okay. Then we can thank him in person, for the use of the wagon" said Eryx.

As they drove into the village, Hercules pointed out that it seemed as deserted as the first day he and Iolaus had arrived.

"Probably still out in the fields," Matheus commented.

They stopped in front of the inn and Matheus ordered everyone out of the wagon. "I told the wagon owner to meet me here," he said as he climbed down. "Let's all go inside."

He led them through the door and as he did, there was a thunderous chorus of "Surprise!" The entire village was there in the inn. They all cheered and hooted as the guests of honor stood looking on in astonishment.

Matheus made his way through the crowd to climb up on the counter. He called for the villagers' silence. The innkeeper gave a speech, telling of the two strangers' bravery and courage, and when he had finished he called for the heroes to say a few words. "My friends," he began, "I give you the heroes of our village . . . Hercules and Iolaus!"

The cheers went up again as the two comrades grinned, looking more embarrassed by all the attention than flattered. They both politely refused, but had to give in when the crowd wouldn't give up.

Hercules spoke first. "Iolaus and I are deeply grateful to you for all you've done for us. You opened your homes and your hearts to two complete strangers. I know I speak for my friend here, when I say, it is we who are indebted to you." Hercules looked down at the innkeeper. "But Matheus, I must disagree with you on one point. You used the word heroes. I can think of a better, more fitting word . . . " Hercules turned to look meaningfully at the golden-haired brother of his heart, " . . . hero."

Iolaus met his friend's eyes and a lump formed in his throat. He didn't hear the cheers that erupted on his behalf. He didn't see the waving arms as the villagers celebrated their hero. He just stared through the tears that were welling in his eyes at his smiling friend. Stared at the one person in the entire world that could truly honor him with that word.

Hercules put both arms around his friend and hugged him fiercely. Iolaus locked his arms around his big friend, just as fiercely, if not more.

Hercules let go of him and realized the crowd was chanting for Iolaus to give a speech of his own. The hunter looked a little lost. "Iolaus, are you okay?" he asked him softly.

"Yeah . . . yeah," he said, nodding and wiping his eyes. He cleared his throat. "I'm okay." It was then that Iolaus realized the villagers were united in chanting his name.

When he turned to the crowd, they all fell silent. He nervously cleared his throat one more time. "I'm not good at giving speeches," Iolaus hesitantly began, "but I have a lot I want to say to you. And I'm not sure I know how to say it. Hercules said it better than I ever could, we truly owe you a great deal of thanks." He scanned the room of upturned faces, all appreciatively listening to him.

"You think of Hercules and I as heroes of your village, and we are deeply honored by that." He smiled over at his friend. "But you are all heroes, too. As for myself, I feel I did nothing more than any of you would have done. I just got there first, is all," he said with a shrug.

He tried to find a way to relate what he was feeling in his heart. "The way I see it, being a hero is not about courage or bravery, it's just about caring." The villagers remained silent as he searched for the words. "To me, being a hero just means caring enough about someone else to help them out when they're in trouble." He looked gratefully at his friend.

"Hercules told me about how you all waited outside the cave till I was . . . rescued and how everyone offered their homes for my tending when I was hurt." He felt the tears in his eyes again. "And about how you all asked about my condition every day while I was healing."

"So to me, you are all heroes. Each and every one of you. And I thank you all from the bottom of my heart for being *my* hero." As he finished, he hoped it came out right, that they understood what he was trying to say to them.

The villagers all stared silently up at him. Iolaus turned to Hercules as if asking for help. Then the room swelled with the sound of applause. Hercules noticed that most of the upturned faces were wet with tears.

Hercules approached his blond friend and put his arm around his shoulder. "Well said, my friend." He squeezed him in a sideways hug. "Have I told you lately how proud I am of you?" he asked the now trembling hunter.

Iolaus locked eyes with his friend once more and hugged him even more tightly than before. Then they both turned back to face the crowd and gave them a little wave as they jumped down from the counter.

As they made their way through the room, there was more hugging than slaps on the back for the two men who had just spoken to them. The parents of the children who were rescued from the cave approached Iolaus to express their thanks individually.

Iolaus got the majority of the hugs and Hercules looked on with pride and wondered why his hero didn't receive this kind of outpouring of appreciation in all the other villages that they both had helped.

Iolaus couldn't help but notice that the mood of the room had turned somewhat somber and serious. He appreciated the attention he was getting, but it was making him feel nervous and uneasy. He thought a change was in order.

He made his way back to the counter and climbed up on it once more. "Excuse me . . . could I have everyone's attention, please?" Iolaus shouted, calling for quiet. They immediately obliged. "We're all here to celebrate tonight," he told them and then flashed his sunny smile, "so let's party!"

He got a very rousing and enthusiastic response. He grinned as he jumped from the counter and found Hercules who was with Matheus. The innkeeper made an addendum to Iolaus' suggestion. "Food and drink are on me! All you can eat fish dinners for everyone!" This got another enthusiastic response.

Iolaus looked slyly at the innkeeper. "You're sneaky, my friend, very sneaky. You planned all this, didn't you?"

"Nope, I merely suggested it," he admitted. "They said they'd take care of the rest," indicating the crowd in the room.

The party lasted well into the night. The conversations covered everything from the fateful day the two strangers came into their lives, to the miraculous recovery of Cassia and Iolaus, the improved condition of the irrigated fields, and the size of the fish that was served for dinner.

Iolaus played games with the children, with him being the most rambunctious of all the kids. When he had worn them out, he sat on the stairs with Cassia and they took turns telling stories. Even though they were told for the benefit of the children, there were quite a few adult ears listening intently to every word.

Though no one wanted this party to end, the villagers did start to reluctantly call it a night. They had worked hard in the fields all day, successfully finishing the irrigation canals. There was indeed, much to celebrate.

Soon, the only people left at the inn were the ones who had spent the earlier part of the day together at the lake. All were helping Matheus to clean up what little mess was left from the party. He had gotten plenty of volunteers earlier and most of it was already done.

Iolaus lightly slapped Matheus on the back. "Thanks for the party, Matheus. I can't tell you how grateful I am for everything that you've done," he told the innkeeper sincerely.

"I did little, Iolaus, but it was my honor and pleasure," Matheus replied with a warm smile.

They all sat at one of the tables when they had completed their task. They talked and laughed about the day's events.

"I think someone needs to go to bed," Lorina commented, indicating her daughter, who had now climbed onto Iolaus' lap. She had been yawning and rubbing her eyes. Lorina meant the comment for both of the blond, curly headed *kids* sitting across from her, noticing Iolaus had suppressed a few yawns himself.

Cassia asked sleepily, "Iolaus, are you coming back home with us tonight?"

Matheus felt he had to interrupt. "Why don't you all stay here tonight?" he suggested. "I really did have to return the wagon and I'll not have you walking home this late."

Eryx and Lorina gratefully accepted Matheus' invitation.

"I'll get clean bedding for all the rooms," Matheus said as he rose from the table.

"Let me help you with that," suggested Hercules, who had been exchanging fish stories with Eryx.

"Iolaus?" Cassia asked as she looked up at him. "Can I sleep with you tonight?"

Iolaus looked up at Lorina, who nodded that it would be all right. "Sure, Cassia, sure you can," he told her, hugging her close to him. He wondered how he was ever going to say good-bye to this little light he was holding.

Lorina seemed to know what he was thinking. She rose and walked around the table, putting a hand on Iolaus' shoulder, and squeezed gently. "It'll be all right, Iolaus."

"Now, let me see what's taking so long. What do men know of making beds properly, anyway?" she said as she left to go upstairs.

"Well, I guess there won't be any bedtime stories tonight," Eryx commented, seeing that Cassia had fallen asleep in Iolaus' arms.

"Hmmm? Oh . . . no, I guess not," he replied. Iolaus had been staring at the angelic face, lost in his thoughts.

The hunter looked up at the little girl's uncle. "Eryx," he began, "I never wanted . . .I mean . . . " Iolaus once again found himself searching for the right words. "I never meant to take so much of her time away from . . . "

Eryx knew what he was trying to say. "Iolaus, you are the best thing that ever happened to that little girl. She has changed so much since meeting you. She's always been so shy and quiet. She has really opened up. She takes interest in everything now. You've opened the world to her with your stories."

Iolaus looked at the little face again. Shy and quiet? That was not the Cassia he knew at all. Those stories of hers just flow out of her. She wasn't too talkative when they first met in the cave, but he just chalked that up to her being frightened.

"I don't know how I'm going to be able to say good-bye, Eryx," Iolaus said softly.

"Well, there's no rush. You and Hercules did come this way for a vacation, didn't you?" Eryx offered.

"Yeah, we did," Iolaus smiled, remembering the day they walked into this village. Somehow, all the good things that happened to them since that day left the bad things behind in a hazy shadow.

Lorina appeared at the top of the stairs. "The rooms are ready," she quietly called down to them.

Eryx stood and asked Iolaus, "Want some help with her?"

"No, I got her," Iolaus replied, gently shifting Cassia in his arms to carry her upstairs. "Thanks."

Everyone said their goodnights and both Lorina and Eryx kissed the little girl. "Are you sure you don't mind? I mean, it was her idea . . . " Lorina asked Iolaus.

He looked down at the sleeping little girl in his arms. "I don't mind at all," Iolaus replied.

He entered the room in which he had spent so much time recovering from his injuries from the cave. And that he had shared so much time with Cassia, exchanging stories and songs. He tenderly laid her on the far side of the bed. And tucked the blankets around her.

Iolaus laid down on his back and looked up at the ceiling. He was tired, but he couldn't get to sleep. He rolled over to face the sleeping child and propped his head on one arm.

How am I ever gonna leave this child? he thought. He knew now that he was no longer injured that he and Herc would be moving on. He laid back down on his back and tried to think of how to resolve this dilemma.

A figure appeared at the foot of the bed. "Can't sleep, Iolaus?" the Goddess of the Hunt asked him.

Iolaus sat up quickly. "Artemis! What's wrong?" he asked worriedly, getting off the bed. "That god didn't change their mind, did they?

"No, that is not why I'm here. I know that you are troubled by the thought of leaving Cassia," she explained.

"She can't hear us, right?" Iolaus asked her.

"We may talk freely," Artemis answered.

"Artemis, I can't hurt her. I can't," Iolaus said, his heart aching at the thought.

"What about you, Iolaus?" the Goddess asked. "What about your hurt?"

"Me? It hurts just thinking about it, but it's her I'm worried about, not me," he explained. "I don't want to leave her, Artemis, but I can't stay here either," Iolaus told her.

"No, you can't. Your work's not done, Iolaus," Artemis informed him.

He didn't even want to know what that meant. At least, not right now.

"Iolaus, how have you been spending most of your time with that little girl?" the Goddess asked.

"Telling each other stories, why?" Iolaus asked, confused.

"And what have your stories been about?" she continued.

"The adventures that Herc and I have had. Artemis, what are you getting at?" he asked, feeling just a little miffed at this question and answer game.

"Iolaus, don't you think she's been paying attention? Don't you think she understands what it is that you and Hercules do?" Artemis asked him.

The hunter turned to look at the peacefully sleeping child.

"She's very bright, you know," Artemis commented.

"Yes, she is," he nodded his agreement.

"Well, then, I don't think it's going to be as hard as you imagine, Iolaus. You've changed her life," Artemis explained. "She knows there is a much bigger world out there and that you are a part of it. And you will have to return to it."

Iolaus turned back to the Goddess. "You make it sound so . . . simple," he sighed disbelievingly.

"Iolaus, she knows that you and Hercules help people. She knows that's what you do," the Goddess continued. "And you taught her that giving of one's self and caring about others is the most important thing to do."

The hunter stared at the Goddess. He had no idea he had affected her life *that* much.

Artemis stepped closer and put her hand on his shoulder. "When the time comes to say good-bye, Iolaus, don't leave with a heavy heart. You are leaving a big part of yourself with her. Something she will always remember. And who could ever forget you, my hunter?"

Iolaus looked down at the floor, a little overwhelmed by the Goddess' compliments.

Seeing his reaction, Artemis decided to lighten the mood a little. "Stay here for a while longer and enjoy that time off you had planned. Just between you and me, my dear half-brother can use it!" Artemis laughed. "I'll do my best to keep the other gods from wreaking *too* much havoc while you are enjoying yourselves," she said with a wink.

This time, it was Iolaus who kissed the Goddess on the cheek. "Thank you, Artemis, for everything you've done."

Suddenly, and much to his surprise, Artemis grabbed the front of his vest and pulled him to her. She kissed him squarely on the lips. He didn't have time to react. She took a step back and appreciatively eyed the handsome hunter from head to toe. "Mmmm...like I said before, don't ever change!" the Goddess exclaimed as she vanished.

Iolaus straightened his vest and cleared his throat. "You either!", he said, grinning to himself.

He carefully sat down on the edge of the bed and took off his boots. He laid back down on the bed beside Cassia and turned to look at the little girl. He still dreaded having to say good-bye to her, but was comforted by the Goddess' words. I hope Artemis is right, he thought, as he drifted off to sleep.

The next morning, he woke to find himself alone in the bed. He sat up quickly and looked around the room. He was reaching for his boots when he heard a knock on the door. "Come in," he said.

The door opened and Cassia walked in carrying a tray. "You're having breakfast in bed, Iolaus!" she said, bringing the tray to him. "Hercules said this is the first day of your vacation," she continued. It was then that he noticed that it was Hercules who had opened the door for her.

"That's right, Iolaus," Herc grinned at him, "so get back into bed, relax and enjoy it!"

"Okay, okay, I know when I'm outnumbered," he said, flashing a look to Hercules as if to say 'Don't even say it.' Iolaus got back into bed. "But what about you, Herc, it's your vacation, too?"

"I got up before anybody this morning, but, you and Cassia are bringing me breakfast in bed tomorrow, right, Cassia?" Herc asked her.

"Right, Hercules," she agreed, nodding.

He started eating his meal, but stopped when a thought occurred to him. "Wait, Cassia, you're coming back here in the morning to bring him breakfast in bed?" Iolaus asked, confused.

"Not exactly," Hercules said, "you'll see."

"It's a surprise!" Cassia said as she climbed up on the bed.

"Wow! Another one? I've had lots of surprises, lately," Iolaus told Cassia with a grin. "I'm gonna get spoiled." He continued eating his breakfast and Cassia just sat quietly and watched him. "Cassia, would you tell me a story?"

"Sure, Iolaus," she said excitedly, "do you want to hear it too, Hercules?"

"You bet," Herc said, taking a seat in the chair by the bed.

The surprise turned out to be a week of camping at the magical lake. Fishing and swimming, swimming and fishing. Telling stories and singing songs.

Herc's breakfast in bed, turned out to be breakfast in his bedroll by the campfire. The catch was that Iolaus had to catch breakfast first. Of course, that didn't take long. Lorina roasted the quail to perfection.

They found out why Cassia thought fishing was yucky. It wasn't the fish, it was the bait. Hercules tried to teach her how to catch fish with her bare hands. He demonstrated a few times and she thought it was really neat. But she just wasn't fast enough. She tried and tried, but just couldn't do it. Hercules told her that all she needed to do was practice.

Iolaus taught Cassia a few old hunters tricks. He showed her how to track something or someone through any terrain. How to tell the good berries, and other yummy stuff found in the woods, from the bad. How to avoid being eaten by large animals, that kind of thing.

"Look, Cassia," Iolaus whispered as he pointed, "do you see it? There, under that bush."

"A bunny!" Cassia whispered excitedly. "I always wanted to pet a bunny."

"You've never petted a bunny?" he asked unbelievingly.

Cassia shook her head.

"Well, stay right here and I'll see if I can change that." Iolaus smiled to her. "Be very quiet and don't move, okay?"

She nodded her little blond head.

Iolaus snuck around to the other side of the bush and very quickly caught the little critter with no effort. It didn't even struggle when he gently picked it up. He walked over to Cassia, holding the rabbit in his arms.

He knelt on the ground before her. "Now, be very gentle and move your hand very slowly," he told her. "Like this." He demonstrated for her.

Cassia reached her hand out slowly and gently ran her hand down the length of the rabbit. "It's so soft!" she whispered in her little voice as she turned those wide, wondrous eyes to Iolaus.

"Yes, it is, nothing much softer in the world," he agreed. "You know what they really like? To be scratched behind the ears, like this. Wanna try it?"

She nodded and copied his actions.

"He's going to sleep," she observed.

"That's because he really likes what you're doing," Iolaus told her.

"Can we keep him, Iolaus?" she asked him expectantly.

"Um . . . Cassia, even though he really likes being scratched behind the ears like that, what he really, really likes most is running around with the other rabbits. If you keep him as a pet, you'd have to put him in a cage and he wouldn't like that at all." Iolaus told her, shaking his head for emphasis. "You like running around and playing with the other kids in the village, don't you?"

"Yeah, we play hide and seek and we kick a ball and play make believe!" she said happily.

It hit him like a stone. How much time does she spend playing with the other kids? She's with me all the time, he thought. According to what Eryx told him, she just now started interacting with the other children. As much as he cherished and adored her company, he couldn't help but wonder what he was keeping her from enjoying. She's a sweet, bright, little child and she should be playing with other children. And spend as much time as possible doing it, because those days go by so quickly.

This would be the perfect time, he thought to himself. Don't wait till a call for help from another village turns your good-bye into a quick 'Gotta go, bye.' Talk to her now.

"Cassia, let's let this rabbit get back to playing with the other rabbits, okay?" he asked her softly.

"Okay," she said. "Bye, bunny." He let her pet the rabbit one last time before he put it on the ground and nudged it to run.

As they watched it scamper into the brush, Iolaus took a deep breath and let it out slowly. I hope this is not gonna be as hard on her as it is on me, he thought.

"Cassia, I need to talk to you about something very important," Iolaus said. He stood and took her by the hand and led her to a log where he could sit. He picked up the little girl and sat her on his lap.

He took another deep breath and began. "Cassia, when our vacation is over, Hercules and I are going to have to leave," Iolaus told her as tenderly as he could.

"I know," Cassia said sadly. "Mommy and Uncle Eryx told me."

"Oh . . . " Iolaus said, rather surprised, but also relieved. That's one more thing I will have to thank them for, he thought gratefully.

"They told me there was still a lot of bad guys and monsters and stuff that you and Hercules have to save people from," Cassia said resignedly.

"That's true, Cassia. I wish it wasn't, but it is," Iolaus explained. "And Herc and I have to try to help those people who are in trouble, as much as we can."

"I want to come with you and help people, too!" Cassia said excitedly.

Why didn't I see this one coming? he thought. "Oh, Cassia, sometimes it gets really, really dangerous and you could get hurt. I couldn't stand it if you got hurt," Iolaus said, hugging her close.

"But I want to be with you," she tearfully said, clinging to him tightly.

"Cassia," he said, releasing her, "I'll always be with you. Right here." He pointed to her heart. "And you'll always be with me, right here." He pointed to his own heart. "And I promise, I will come and visit you every chance I get," he told her.

"You won't forget about me?" she asked, sniffling.

"You and I are friends, right? How could I ever forget you?" he smiled and wiped away her tears. "You are a bright, beautiful, shining light. Every time I see the sun, I'll think of you."

Cassia turned her eyes to the sky. "Really, Iolaus?" she asked.

"Yes, really. And even when it's dark, I'll think of you and it won't be dark anymore." Iolaus assured her.

"Iolaus, I'm gonna think of you when I see the sun, too, and when it's dark," Cassia stated.

"See? Then we'll be thinking about each other all the time!" Iolaus told her with a smile. "That's what we'll do until I can come and visit you again."

Cassia nodded and smiled at him.

"And you know what? I'll have bunches of new stories to tell you!" Iolaus said excitedly. "And I'll bet you'll have bunches for me, too!"

Cassia looked thoughtful for a moment. "Do they all have to be about mermaids?" she asked. "Cause I can't think of any more mermaid stories."

"Of course not, they can be about anything you want," Iolaus brushed her bangs out of her face. "And I'm sure you'll come up with lots of wonderful stories, mermaids, or not."

"Iolaus, I love you," Cassia said and hugged him once more.

"I love you, too, Cassia, " he told her, holding back his tears. He didn't want her to see that he was crying, too.

The aroma of lunch cooking wafted over them. "I think we'd better get back to camp now, before they start to worry about us," Iolaus suggested.

"Okay," Cassia agreed.

They walked hand in hand back to the edge of the clearing where the rest of the group were gathered around the campfire talking and laughing.

Cassia asked Iolaus, "Can I tell them about the bunny?"

"Sure you can. I'll let you tell them the whole story!" Iolaus smiled at her in response.

Cassia let go of his hand and went running to the group shouting excitedly. "Mommy, Mommy, Iolaus let me pet a bunny!"

Hercules looked up to see Cassia running toward them, and Iolaus leaning against a tree behind her. His arms folded across his chest, watching her contentedly. Then Hercules noticed him look skyward and take a deep breath. "Excuse me a minute," Hercules said to the group and walked over to his blond friend.

"Are you okay?" Hercules asked him.

"Yeah, I'm fine," Iolaus sighed.

"Um . . . I'm not quite sure how to say this, Iolaus, but you know we're going to have to. . . " Hercules started hesitantly.

"Say good-bye?" Iolaus finished for him. "Yeah, I know. Cassia and I have just had a little talk. I think she's gonna be all right."

"What about you? Are you gonna be all right?" Hercules asked him, knowing how his friend felt about the little girl.

Iolaus looked up at him. Then he looked up at the sun, filtering through the lush, green leaves. He nodded, turning back to his friend "Yeah, Herc, I'm gonna be all right, too."

"Good," Hercules said, relieved. "Then let's eat!" The demigod put his arm around Iolaus' shoulder and escorted him back to the campfire. "Bunny, huh?" Herc asked him.

"Yeah," Iolaus replied with a little laugh.

Two more days were spent at the lake. All of them enjoying every delightful moment. Not one of them wanting to get back to the reality of day to day life. But the day came when the wagon was loaded and they headed back to the village.

The trip back was filled with more stories. As they turned onto the road to Eryx's farm, they were interrupted by a man running from the direction of the village. Eryx halted the wagon.

"I'm looking for Hercules, I was told he could be found near here," the breathless man said.

"I'm Hercules," the demigod replied as he rose to stand in the wagon. "What can I do for you?"

"I've come to ask for your help. My village is under attack. You passed through there a few weeks ago," the man explained hurriedly. "Please, you're the only one we can turn to."

"Right on cue," Iolaus said under his breath. "Well, Herc, what are we waiting for?" Then added a silent thank you to Artemis for giving them a week of rest and relaxation. And him another week with Cassia.

Hercules and Iolaus said quick good-byes and thank yous to Matheus, Eryx and Lorina. Hercules tousled Cassia's hair and said, "Keep working on catching those fish, it just takes practice." He winked at her. "Take care everyone, we'll be back to visit as often as we can."

Hercules jumped down from the wagon to get the details from the man who had asked for help. He told him to catch his breath for the run back, giving Iolaus time to say his good-bye to the little girl.

"Cassia, I have to go now," Iolaus told her. He picked her up and hugged her tightly, wanting the feeling to last until he could come back and see her again.

"I know," Cassia hugged him and let him go. "Some people are in trouble."

"Yeah, it sounds like it. I'll be back as soon as I can, I promise," Iolaus told her, looking into her sparkling eyes.

"I'll miss you," Cassia said.

"I'll miss you, too, Cassia," he told her. Then he smiled and said, "But remember where we can find each other till I get back." They pointed at their own hearts. He hugged her again, kissed her on the cheek and set her down. Then he jumped down from the wagon.

"Bye," Iolaus said as he, Hercules and the man started down the road. Iolaus turned to wave and smile at the occupants of the wagon.

It will be easy to think of him every time I see the sun, Cassia thought as she waved back. That's what his smile looks like.

THE END
3/99



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