A sequel to Once and Future King
Hercules and Iolaus sat in a tavern eating supper. It was the first meal they hadn't caught themselves in days. Iolaus was enjoying himself immensely. He was on his third ale and showed no sign of slowing down.
"This is the best boar stew I've had in ages. Of course, anything's better than your cooking." Iolaus teased.
"Oh, is that so? Well then, my friend, you can do the cooking and I'll do the hunting."
"We'd starve to death."
"Iolaus..." Hercules was perilously close to strangling his friend when a large, robust man walked in throwing the door open wide.
"Step up, one and all, I have returned with the wonders of the ages in my pockets and I'll sell them all to you at bargain prices."
He received a resounding round of groans for his trouble.
"Oh, come now, in Attica they were thrilled to look at my wares. One of the nicest places I've ever done business, but I suppose they had reason to be happier than most. It's not everyday a royal heir is born."
Iolaus sat, stunned, "What? What did he just say?"
Hercules called the man over.
"Finally, a discriminating customer. I knew there had to be a few here. I have just what you need."
"No, I'm not interested in your goods. What was that you were saying about the news from Attica?"
"Just that everyone was so happy about the new royal heir. Queen Niobi had a boy. All the people could talk about was how he was the spitting image of his father. Looks like she planned it just in time, too, what with King Orestes being dead and all. Hey, is your friend OK. He doesn't look too good."
"Thank you, we appreciate the information." Hercules hastily handed him a coin to get rid of him and turned back to Iolaus. The color had all but drained from his face.
"Herc," he whispered, "you know what this means?" He stood, "I've got to go. I'll catch up with you somewhere, later."
Hercules caught his arm, "Iolaus, not now, in the morning, it's too late to start out now. You can't travel in the dark."
"Herc, you don't understand..."
"I understand completely and I'm not letting you leave in this condition. There's nothing you can do until tomorrow. We have a room here. Let's go upstairs." Hercules grabbed their mugs of ale. He figured Iolaus would need a drink when he got over the shock.
The next morning Iolaus was talking sense again. Neither man had gotten much sleep. Hercules wanted to go with him but Iolaus refused.
"No, Hercules, I appreciate your concern, but I have to deal with this. It's my responsibility."
"I'll wait here for you."
Iolaus nodded, "I won't be long, a few days, maybe."
"Take all the time you need. I'll find something around here to keep myself occupied."
"Thanks." Iolaus left the inn. Hercules watched from the window until he was well out of sight. He was worried about his friend.
Iolaus made good time. He decided to cut through the royal forest, "that should take at least an hour off the travel time," Iolaus thought. He figured he should make it well before dark. He kept telling himself he had no real reason to rush. Whatever the situation was that awaited him, it would be the same if he got there an hour later.
He was walking through a dense part of the forest lost in his thoughts. The baby had to be his. The timing was too precise. His bout with amnesia, when he'd woken up thinking he was King Orestes, had been not quite a year ago, but what was he going to do about it, if he was the child's father? He didn't have a clue. He just needed to know, first, and he'd figure out the rest later.
He hadn't seen another soul since he'd left the road for the narrower path. He was so involved with pondering his parental situation that his keen hunter's senses didn't notice the group of bandits lying in wait for the next unsuspecting passerby.
Two men leaped out of the trees and knocked Iolaus to the ground. The three men rolled and Iolaus came out on top, sprang to his feet, only to be assaulted by two more. He blocked their blows, looking for an opening to take them out, while he tried to gauge how many more there were.
Iolaus never even saw the man with the bow in the tree until the arrow had pierced his left shoulder and sent him flying backwards into the tree. His body lay motionless against the tree trunk.
"He was a lively one, wasn't he?" one of the men asked.
The others nodded and traded grins. Grins that turned to stares of disbelieve.
"By the gods, this isn't real! It can't be!"
"We've just killed a ghost!"
"Let's get out of here!"
The terrified bandits fled into the safety of the trees away from the apparition lying motionless on the ground.
Awareness came to Iolaus slowly. His shoulder felt as though it were on fire. He tried to shift his body and cried out in pain. He opened his eyes and lay breathing deeply. He cautiously examined the arrow. Judging by the amount of shaft sticking out, he figured the arrow had passed through him and lodged in the tree.
"Great, just great, take a shortcut, so wrapped up in yourself, you didn't even notice there were fifteen guys hiding in the bushes waiting to try and kill you. Way to go, Iolaus."
Gritting his teeth against the pain, he reached his right hand over his arm and felt the back of his shoulder. There it was, the tip of the arrow had lodged in the tree. Using both hands, he broke off the shaft of the arrow. He took a couple of deep breaths knowing the worst was yet to come and wanting it over with. He pushed away from the tree, pulling his body off the broken shaft. Iolaus collapsed to the ground with a cry of agony. His eyes saw nothing but red blinding pain for a few moments. He lay on the ground, gasping.
When he'd gotten his breath back, he levered himself back up into a sitting position. Very carefully he slipped his left arm out of his vest. He tore the vest lining into strips and bandaged his shoulder as best he could with one arm.
Iolaus estimated he still had a couple of hours of light left. "Plenty of time." He slid up the tree trunk and leaned against it until the world stopped spinning. Then, he pushed off the tree and headed again toward Attica. He became a little steadier on his feet as he went.
He passed by a pond and stopped to get a drink and wash off a little of the blood. "If you're going to meet your son, you should at least be presentable." Although he doubted how presentable he looked with dried blood all over him.
He had another thought. How was he going to get into Attica without everyone recognizing him as Orestes? "Time for an old hunter's trick. Iolaus, you are brilliant."
He took a handful of mud from the pond bottom and plopped it on his head. Rubbing it in, he managed to change the color of his hair to a slightly darker shade. Then, a little more mud in just the right places and he figured he could pass for a street beggar of some sort.
"No one should be looking for their dead king under all this mess." he observed as he critiqued his work in his reflection. "Besides the mud hides some of the blood stains."
He still felt a little shaky and so had no trouble walking like a drunk beggar.
He walked right up to the guard at the main city gate. He stopped and told the guard to, "tell Hector that Iolaus is waiting for him at that tavern over there." He pointed to a low class looking establishment on a corner. If he'd had a choice, it wasn't a place he'd pick but he wasn't sure how much farther he was going to be able to make it. His shoulder was sending waves of pain down his arm.
"And what makes you think that Hector would want to see you?" The guard was obviously skeptical.
"Because I have information that could affect the security of the kingdom and Hector will WANT to see me." He winked at the guy conspiratorially. "I know I look like I don't smell too good but that's just part of the job sometimes. You know how some of these assignments are." He hoped the guy thought he was one of Hector's spies.
The guard nodded understanding the hidden meaning, "I'll see to it that he's told." The little guy did look familiar.
Iolaus nodded and waved as he passed through the city gates and staggered toward the tavern.
Once inside he ordered an ale, amazed that he still had his few measly dinars on him. What had those bandits been thinking? He sat in the darkest corner of the room. His shoulder ached terribly and the ale helped to deaden the pain a little. He risked a look under his vest and saw that he'd bled through the cloth. He was going to need stitches to stop the bleeding, that would have to wait, he needed to see Niobi first. He had to know.
Hector arrived in short order and took a seat at the table with Iolaus who nodded in greeting.
"I don't suppose you had anything to do with the report that I just got about some bandits killing Orestes' ghost in the royal forests?"
Iolaus smiled and shrugged. That's what they were thinking.
"You are a sight"
"Had to sneak into town somehow."
"So where's Hercules?"
"He's in Farsala waiting for me."
"Sooo, why are you here?" Hector asked offhandedly. He seemed very uncomfortable. It was difficult to be loyal to both Queen and friend.
&quo;tI think you know."
Hector sighed in relief and relaxed visibly. There were no secrets between them. "Let's not waste anymore time here. We'll go in the gate to the gardens, it's less visible and little used."
Iolaus downed the remainder of the ale and they exited the tavern together. As they walked Hector noticed that Iolaus was favoring his left side and in the fading sunlight he looked very pale.
"Are you all right?"
"Well enough to get some answers from your Queen." Hector nodded. He understood Iolaus' need. He slowed their pace and kept a watchful eye on Iolaus. The man was wounded, now that Hector looked more closely he could see the fresh blood seeping through his vest. The mud hid the dried blood well.
Iolaus was lightheaded by the time they arrived at the gate but he refused to allow himself to succumb until he had some answers. Hector left him a moment outside the castle to clear the halls of servants and staff. Iolaus leaned against the wall and tried to push the lightheadedness away for a little longer.
Hector led Iolaus into a nearby meeting room. Niobi arrived almost immediately. "Iolaus, I'm so glad to see you."
Iolaus didn't have time for formalities, "Is it true?"
Niobi saw the blood stain on his vest, "Iolaus, you're hurt." She went to him.
He wouldn't let her help him and stepped away, "Is it true?"
"Is what true?" she moved forward and gently lifted his vest to look beneath.
Iolaus was becoming frustrated, "That Orestes has an heir."
Niobi averted her eyes from him, "Yes, it's true." Their eyes met, "You have a son."
Iolaus swayed on his feet. His mind reeled with the final confirmation, "Why didn't you tell me? I...had...a...right...to.......know." Niobi caught him as his eyes rolled back in his head and his knees gave way.
Hector had been waiting just outside, unsure of what Iolaus' reaction might be, and ran in to find Niobi cradling the unconscious man. Hector immediately called Linus to fetch the healer. Hector gently picked up Iolaus and carried him to the royal chambers.
On the way Niobi asked Hector to send for Hercules. After his last visit she thought it might be easier on Iolaus if he had a friend nearby. Hector concurred and would send Linus at first light tomorrow.
Niobi met the healer at the door and after a quick explanation about Iolaus being Orestes' cousin, the healer was sworn to secrecy and didn't question why the man was in the royal bed. Niobi helped the healer clean Iolaus up and stitch the wound closed. The only comment the healer made was to remark on the resemblance to the king after they had washed all the mud out and restored Iolaus' hair to its golden color. If the healer realized this was the same man he treated for a head injury a few months ago, he didn't acknowledge it.
The healer was concerned about Iolaus' loss of blood. He left an herbal tea that would help ease his pain and strengthen his blood. It also left him very sleepy. Niobi stayed with Iolaus and tended him herself.
The next two days were a blur to him. Niobi woke him only long enough to take the tea and then he would sleep again. She watched him sleep and debated with herself how she was going to explain what she had done. Why she hadn't told him. She wanted to be prepared and there just weren't any easy answers. She watched the expression on his face change as he dreamed. Her passion for this man burned low now. She couldn't allow it to flame. She still cared deeply for this good man, but they could no longer be lovers, their relationship had changed too much. The flames of passion had cooled with time and now perhaps they could be simply friends, at least she hoped they could.
Iolaus woke in a bed he knew well.
"How do you feel?" Niobi asked as she sat on the edge of the bed.
She brushed a stray lock of hair out of his eyes. "The healer's kept you asleep for a couple of days. He was very worried about how much blood you'd lost. You still have a little fever."
Iolaus painfully pushed himself up to a sitting position. Niobi added a pillow behind him.
"Why didn't you tell me?"
Niobi smiled, the man had a one track mind. Quietly she replied, "And what would you have done? You can't stay here with me. We can't go with you. There is no good solution."
Iolaus looked away from her.
"I've hurt you again. I'm sorry. It's all I seem to be able to do. Iolaus, I just thought it was the most merciful thing. You can't be here but for short periods of time, only a few days. Then, you'd have to go. I didn't want to hurt you more by telling you."
"Not telling me, I have a son, won't hurt me?"
"I knew it was going to break your heart either way. Hector and Linus are the only ones who know the truth. Everyone else thinks he is Orestes' child. He has a good life here. Someday he'll be king." She reached out and took his hand, "Someday, when he's old enough to understand, we'll tell him the truth. Until then, it's dangerous for anyone else to know."
Iolaus nodded, "You're right."
Niobi couldn't stand his sad eyes. "You can visit. I want him to know you. Maybe...maybe you could be 'Uncle Iolaus' until he's ready for the truth." Iolaus snorted sarcastically.
The door opened before Niobi could reply. A woman came in carrying the baby. Niobi took the baby from her and dismissed her. She brought the baby back over to the bed and held him so Iolaus could reach him. Iolaus lifted his arm and touched the baby's fingers. The child latched on and held his finger. Iolaus looked at his golden curly hair. The baby giggled. Iolaus smiled in return, "Hi, there, little guy." He glanced up at Niobi, "What's his name?"
She looked in his eyes and saw his heart melt. He reached out and took the baby in his arm, mindful of his shoulder, "Well, you just wait till you're bigger and I'll have to come and teach you all sorts of old hunter's tricks."
Linus arrived with Hercules that evening. Niobi met them in the entrance hall.
"I'm glad you made it."
"How's Iolaus?" The worry plain in Hercules' face.
"Physically, he's healing, otherwise, it's difficult."
"It is his, then?"
"Yes. We'll arrange for him to visit but he won't be able to stay long. There would be too many questions. Too many things we can't explain."
Hercules nodded, understanding the difficulties of life at court. He did have a brother in the business. "Why send for me, if Iolaus is going to be OK?"
"I thought he could use a friend. I've gone and broken his heart again, you see."
Hercules could see how hard it was for her to talk about it, he also saw that she needed to talk. He allowed her to get it out in the open as they walked through the castle corridors.
"I don't regret what we had and I cherish the miracle that came of it. Iolaus is a good man, he deserves to share in his son's life but, I'm afraid that the circumstances don't and won't permit it. It's going to be hard for him."
"For you both, raising a child alone is no picnic either."
Niobi nodded as they turned a corner, "I'll take you to Iolaus."
Hercules was surprised when they stopped outside the royal chambers.
Niobi explained, "It's the only place in the whole castle that no one just barges into. We've been able to keep his presence here very quiet. The fewer people who know, the better."
Hercules nodded as she led him into the room. Iolaus was asleep. Niobi felt his forehead, "His fever's down, that's good." Hercules could see both the love and the loss in her eyes when she looked at him.
"I'll leave you here. Hector's reduced the staff to a minimum. Those who are left have been told there is a royal relative staying in here. So, if you need anything just open the door and yell," she smiled.
"Thanks," he returned her smile and pulled a chair over to the bed.
Iolaus woke to find Hercules reading a scroll by the open window, "Herc?"
"Hello, sleepyhead, about time you woke up. It's almost dinner time."
Iolaus was confused, "Why are you here?"
Hercules returned to the chair by the bed, "Niobi sent for me. She thought you might need some moral support."
Iolaus smiled, "It has been a rough week."
Hercules nodded, "So, I've heard. Are you OK?"
Iolaus thought a moment before replying, "My shoulder's throbbing. My head aches. I have a beautiful son that I can't watch grow up. Am I OK? I don't know. I'll let you know when I figure it out."
Iolaus' strength returned rapidly once the fever had broke. He spent a couple of days in bed at the healer's insistence. He spent the time napping between long visits with the "little guy". For the first time he could remember, Iolaus found himself not wanting to get well faster. He knew he'd have to move on as soon as he was able. His presence was putting a crimp in the castle style. If he stayed too long, the citizens would start wondering what was going on with the no visitors policy and half the staff being suddenly told to take a vacation.
But every time he saw that baby, he felt like his heart were going to burst. He spent hours playing with the baby on the bed. He kissed his toes and sang songs to him and told him stories. The two of them laughed and giggled and made faces until they were both exhausted. Then, they'd curl up together on the huge bed and take a nap. The first time Niobi found them like that, she just stood watching them. She cursed whatever god it was that decided the situation had to be like this, that such a wonderful father couldn't stay with his child.
Niobi was sleeping in her old bed in what was now the nursery. Iolaus didn't mind that, he too, felt their passion had cooled somewhat. He did love to watch her feed the baby and play with the baby. She was a terrific mother. He could sit just watching them play forever.
Hercules stayed out of the way when Niobi or the baby were around, giving Iolaus all the time he could with his new family and still he was close enough to lend support if Iolaus needed it. Iolaus appreciated it on both counts.
Iolaus had been up and around in the confines of the royal chambers off and on for a couple of days when the healer declared him more or less fixed. His arm was still held immobile in a sling and his shoulder would still be tender for another week or so, but he had been declared fit for travel. So he and Hercules were slipping out just before dawn. He knew he should be resting but he couldn't sleep. He'd gotten up a couple of times already to just watch his son sleep.
He lay in the bed and starred at the underside of the canopy. He heard the baby start fussing and was up immediately. He picked him up, "Shhhhh, there, there. I've got you, It's OK."
Niobi sat up in her bed, "It's OK, I've got him. You go back to sleep." He smiled at her as he took the baby into the next room cooing softly to him.
Iolaus sat in the open window overlooking the gardens he loved so much and took comfort in the fact that his son would grow up playing there. He laughed as he quietly tickled his son's toes watching his little feet wiggle in response. He tried to engrave every expression, every moment, in his memory.
Niobi got up a short while before dawn. She stood behind Iolaus a moment and watched him watching their son sleep in his lap. She put a hand on his arm, "I wish it could be different."
"Me, too, but it isn't," he sighed, "I've been thinking a lot about this. This is just part of the price that I have to pay to keep doing what I do. There are people out there that would like to hurt me anyway they can and that's not counting the gods who'd like to take me out. He's safer here with you. I couldn't bare it if anything happened to him." He carried the child back to his crib and kissed him gently on the forehead before lowering him to the bed. He whispered, "I love you."
He returned to Niobi and discretely changed into his leather pants. Niobi changed the dressing over the rapidly healing wound one more time and helped him into his repaired and cleaned vest and gauntlets.
"So, when will we see you again?"
He smiled, "Soon, I promise. Hector and I have worked out a signal system. I just have to give the code message to the guard at the castle gate and I get right in."
"If we know you're coming, we can meet you at the hunting lodge. We don't have to hide you so closely there."
Iolaus nodded, "Sounds like a plan."
They walked to the door. The moment had finally come and both were finding it awkward. Iolaus finally shrugged, smiling sheepishly, and pulled Niobi to him in a warm hug and then kissed her lightly before pulling open the door.
"See ya soon."
She nodded, the tears glistening in her eyes matched those of Iolaus'.
Iolaus proceeded quickly down the hall to Hercules' room. He knocked lightly and Hector opened the door.
"If you are?" Hercules replied.
Iolaus nodded and turned to Hector, "Let's go."
Hector had again cleared the halls and grounds. He'd also arranged for an old gate to be unsealed that led into the royal forest behind the castle.
Iolaus paused at the gate and turned to Hector, "You'll look after them." It wasn't a question.
"With my life."
"Thank you," Iolaus grasped Hector's arm.
"My pleasure, if you need anything, let me know."
Iolaus nodded, "Will do, if you do the same?"
"If we need you, I'll send a message to Hercules' mother."
Hector smiled, "Don't worry, They're in good hands," and closed the gate behind them.
Hercules and Iolaus set out through the forest. Iolaus noticed that Hercules had a satchel slung over his shoulder.
"Hey, Herc, what's in the bag?"
"Some stuff Hector thought we could use. Fresh bandages, enough fruit for a couple of days, stuff like that."
"That Hector thinks of everything. Fruit, huh? I didn't have breakfast, you know."
"Well, you must be adjusting all right to all of this, if you can still eat," Hercules tossed him an apple.
Iolaus caught it deftly with his good hand and smiled at his friend, "As long as you didn't cook it," he paused and then continued, "Yeah, I'm OK, I'm really OK and that baby...did you see that smile?" Hercules could see the intense pride behind the glistening eyes.
"Yes, I did along with a head full of unruly curly hair."
Iolaus grinned at him, "I think he's going to make a fine king."
"I'm sure he will, in spite of you."
Iolaus punched him on the arm.
Hercules got serious a moment, "You could have stayed, you know?"
"No, Niobi and I, well, there's too much water under the bridge between us." He shook his head, "Besides being king permanently is too good for the likes of me. I wouldn't know what to do with myself."
Hercules smiled. He knew it was a lie. Iolaus had worn the crown well. He had the heart of a good king, "But it's not too good for your son?" he teased.
"No way! He's gonna be great!"
Written by Ceryndip November 1997.
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