Iolaus rolled to his side seeking the warmth of the fire, only to find his friend awake, sitting against the tree they had camped under. The hunter could still smell the earthy aroma of rain. The light of impending dawn glowed in the east reflected off the dying storm clouds. Hercules idly stirred the remaining coals deep in contemplation. Something must be bothering his big friend. Iolaus pushed himself up.
"Dinar for your thoughts?"
Hercules looked up, "Morning, Iolaus, I was just thinking."
"About?" Iolaus fished.
"Come on, Herc. I want to help."
The demigod sighed, "Mornings like this, I miss Iolaus."
Iolaus thought about that a moment, "The merguy?"
Hercules smiled and nodded, "He always got up early and made breakfast."
"Are you saying I don't measure up?" The hunter tried to hold in his teasing smile. It was an old, light-hearted debate between them. Iolaus knew well how much help his other world counterpart had been to his friend and vice versa. They had needed each other. Iolaus knew it wasn't a popularity contest but it didn't stop him from ribbing his friend about it.
Hercules remained serious, "No, he spoiled me. Sometimes I miss being spoiled." Again, Hercules sighed.
"Ok, I can make breakfast for you, Herc."
"Nah, I really wanted waffles."
Iolaus looked at him dismayed and mouthed, 'waffles?', "Ok, I can do that. Uh, Herc? How do I catch one?"
The demigod laughed, "You don't catch them, you make them." Hercules mimed the motions, "You make a batter and then fry it."
Iolaus stared at him in disbelief, "Herc, I'm a hunter."
Hercules smiled and clapped his friend on the shoulder, "I know. Come on, let's go into the village and find some breakfast. You can buy."
They kicked dirt to further smother the already cooling coals as a shrill scream pierced the air.
The two heroes traded looks.
"It's too early in the morning for this."
The older woman was ranting and clinging to the green clad arm. He pulled in vein but she wouldn't release him. How had she felt him lifting the gem from her neck. "I must be getting old," he thought. "She should never have noticed."
"No you don't that ruby is mine, mine! What?" She turned as the two heroes burst from the underbrush into the clearing.
Seeing his chance, Autolycus broke free and firing his grappling hook, swung into the trees with a friendly yodel.
"I'm on him!" Iolaus yelled as he bolted after the thief.
Hercules paused long enough to ensure that the woman was unharmed and that Autolycus had stolen the prize family jewels, then, he too, was pounding through the forest in Iolaus' wake.
Iolaus kept the King of Thieves in sight but was slowly losing him. As Autolycus swung to the right in the distance, the hunter found himself crossing a path he recognized. Iolaus bolted down the path aiming to cut off the thief on the other side of the forest. He ran for all he was worth dodging trees all the way. The small man leaped over a huge fern and dove for Autolycus' boot. Iolaus latched on and wrapped himself around it as the pair swung through the air.
"Hey! Get off! No one invited you along for the ride," Autolycus kicked his leg.
"Give it up Autolycus! I've got you now."
"No, you have my boot." Autolycus slipped his foot out of the boot and swung the other direction.
Iolaus felt suddenly weightless a moment before he found out just how hard the ground was beneath him.
Hercules leapt over the fallen hunter, "Come on! This way!"
Iolaus staggered to his feet, "Ok, ok, I'm coming."
The chase continued, eventually Autolycus ran out of trees and had to take to his feet with Hercules and Iolaus in hot pursuit.
"What's wrong with him?" Hercules asked noting the way the thief was loping ahead of them.
Iolaus waved the boot he had tucked under his arm, "I have acquired half of his footwear."
A young woman ran down an intersecting lane toward them, "Help me, please. My little boy's fallen down a well."
Hercules looked at his partner. Iolaus rolled his eyes, "Go."
They separated at the crossroads with Iolaus continuing after the elusive thief in green.
"It's too early for this. I haven't even had my breakfast!" Iolaus sped on.
The hunter was finally gaining on his prey. So intent was he on catching up to the green clad thief that Iolaus failed to notice the shower of golden sparkles erupt beside the road ahead of him. Aphrodite wiped her eyes and opened her mouth to speak as the hunter flashed past the Goddess of Love with barely a glance.
"Hey, that's not very nice," Aphrodite dissolved only to reappear directly in Iolaus' path. The hunter plowed into the goddess full tilt sending them both rolling.
"'Dite! What are you doing?" Iolaus pulled himself up and dusted himself off.
"I am trying to talk to you. Can't you see I'm having a crisis? I'm a total mess." she raised her hands indicating her eyes and mussed up hair. "I need advice and you totally ignored me!"
Iolaus gave her a hand up, noting the red-rimmed eyes now that they had been pointed out to him. "What's the matter?"
"I'm having a little problem with Hephie and since you..."
Iolaus rolled his eyes, "'Dite, I don't have time, I've got to catch a thief. Go find Hercules. He's back that way some where." Iolaus pointed the direction that he'd come.
'Dite watched him run off, "He didn't even apologize for knocking me down." She vanished in a puff of golden glitter.
Autolycus had vanished. Iolaus knew he had to be around here somewhere. Iolaus slowed his pace, hunter's instincts on full alert. There were too many footprints on the road to distinguish one track from another. His keen gaze swept the sides of the narrow lane checking for broken twigs or crushed grass that might tell where the King of Thieves had disappeared to.
Iolaus didn't have far to look. There, on the left side of the road, faint but visible, was an unmistakable sign, a boot print followed by a bare foot. The tracks continued into the woods.
Iolaus turned to wave at Hercules as the demigod caught up to him.
"What did you mean by sending 'Aphrodite back to talk to me?"
"Well, I was a little busy, Herc. Besides, you're supposed to be the sensitive one, remember? You get 'your' sister taken care of?"
"Yeah, she had an argument with Hephaestus. They'll get it worked out. You loose Auto?"
"Only because your sister distracted me."
Hercules nodded and let his partner's superior tracking skills take the lead.
They continued in silence, Iolaus pointing out the various signs of the thief's passage. A loud rumbling sounded from the vicinity of Iolaus' stomach. Hercules' answered with a grumble of it's own. The demigod chuckled. "We did miss breakfast didn't we?"
Iolaus sighed the sigh of the long suffering, "Forget breakfast, Herc. We missed lunch some time ago if you haven't noticed. This way, we're getting closer. I can feel it."
Hercules nodded silently. Iolaus pointed to a large bush that was twitching a short distance away. The demigod motioned for his partner to go one way around and he the other. They both sprang simultaneously around the bush to find the King of Thieves with his pants down around his knees.
"Gee Whiz! Do you two mind? Can't a guy get a little privacy to answer the call of nature?"
"Sorry." Hercules and Iolaus ducked back around the bush while Autolycus hauled up his trousers.
"Have a little consideration. There are rules to this game. Of course those don't apply to the King of Thieves!"
A second too late, Iolaus heard the twang of the grappling hook being released and again the chase was on.
Autolycus swung along the edge of the treeline with the demigod and the hunter right on his heels.
"So much for fair play," Iolaus commented.
Autolycus kept one swing ahead of them. He didn't dare to look back, he could hear just how close his pursuers were. He just hoped the trees would hold out, he didn't stand a chance on his feet.
Hercules slowed and sniffed the air glancing around, "Smoke, Iolaus, a fire!" He pointed to a house in the distance, flames shooting out of the roof. For the second time that day, Iolaus rolled his eyes and bid his friend to go while he continued the pursuit alone.
Autolycus shot off into the woods, Iolaus ducked between two trees and followed an intersecting course.
The thief knew he had to make time. He tossed his hook and in his haste misjudged the distance. He made a grab barely catching a limb with his hand while he retracted his hook and threw it again. Behind him, he heard the obvious sounds of surprise from his nemesis who must have gotten caught in the backlash from the tree.
"That'll give me a few more seconds and seconds are all the King of Thieves needs." He laughed but there was only silence behind him. Autolycus stopped and turned cautiously around. No one was crashing through the woods behind him. Quietly, he crept back along his path. Peering from behind the trunk of a large tree he could see Iolaus lying motionless at the base of a nearby tree. His arms and legs in a tangled heap where he fell.
Autolycus listened and looked around, "Now, where's your big friend gotten off to?" The thief crept from his hiding place, a large stick raised against unseen pursuers. He walked toward Iolaus stopping just out of reach. He studied the unmoving hunter. "That can't be comfortable," he reached out with his stick and prodded the still form. "Iolaus, if this is a trick, it's a really dirty one."
Autolycus dropped his stick and taking one last look around to make sure they were really alone he moved to the unconscious hunter's side and began straightening limbs and checking for injuries, frowning his displeasure the entire time.
"Well, well, well, smacked that tree pretty good didn't ya?" Autolycus sat down beside Iolaus and pulled out his waterskin and a cloth. After quenching his thirst, he dampened the cloth and laid it on the harpy's egg that was rising on Iolaus' forehead. Before settling back to wait. "Just so you know, this isn't because I like you. Hercules will have my head if he thinks I left you here and you were really hurt. I'm just doing this to save my own skin."
The thief took another swig from the waterskin, "Oh look, I think this belongs to me. Thank you very much." Autolycus yanked his boot from beneath the hunter and pulled it back on as Iolaus stirred.
"Good, still alive, I see. Well, if you're alright, I'll just be off."
A hand shot out and grabbed his boot.
"Not again, what is it with you and the boot?"
The blue eyes opened, "Just tell me why?"
"Why did you come back?" Iolaus pushed himself to a sitting position, holding his head.
"Because the King of Thieves is an honorable thief. There are rules to playing cat and mouse, you know. But since you're not endanger of being eaten by wild beasts, I'll just be on my way." Autolycus walked to the far side of the small clearing.
With some obvious effort, Iolaus pulled himself up using the tree as support and suddenly cried out in pain, grabbing his head as he sank back to the ground and lay moaning against the tree.
Alarmed, Autolycus stepped back to his side without thinking. When he felt The thief's hand on his shoulder, the hunter became a blur of movement knocking Autolycus' feet out from under him. The next thing the King of Thieves knew, he was face down in the dirt with Iolaus sitting on top of him pulling his hands behind his back and tying them securely.
"Oh, this is so not fair! I was coming back to help you. That was a dirty trick."
"Yeah, a dirty trick worthy of the King of Thieves, no doubt. Takes one to know one, friend. Now hand it over." Iolaus pulled him to his feet and held out his hand waiting.
"What?" Autolycus asked.
"Hand it over, can't have you swallowing it.
Autolycus frowned, "Oh, alright." He fished out the rather large ruby and dropped it in the hunter's hand.
"Nice to see you've learned your lesson," Iolaus gave Autolycus a gentle shove back toward the village.
They met Hercules at the cross roads. "You got him," the demigod fell in beside them.
"Yeah, I got him," Iolaus sniffed the air and wrinkled his nose, "You stink, Herc."
"Fighting fires will do that."
"A hero's work is never done. I just wish it'd slow up enough to eat."
The demigod spared his partner a glance, "You ok?"
Iolaus grimaced, "Yeah, no thanks to the King of Thieves here."
"Hey, I just let go of the branch, you didn't have to walk into it."
"I've had enough of you today."
Hercules intervened before any bodily harm could be done, "Easy, Iolaus. We've got him now. We'll turn him into the magistrate and then we can find some food and maybe some ice for your head."
"My head's fine," Iolaus insisted.
"Before we get back to town," Autolycus piped in, "I really need to visit Mr. Bush."
"You already did."
"I wasn't finished before you two so rudely interrupted me."
Iolaus sighed, "Ok, fine, there's a bush," he pointed.
Autolycus waved his arms behind his back, "Do you mind?"
"Yes, I mind. Do you think we're going to trust you after last time?"
"Iolaus," Hercules interrupted and moved to untie Autolycus' hands, "He can't take care of business without his hands."
The hunter stood in disbelief, "You want him to escape? I've spent all day chasing him, I'm hungry, I'm tired and my head hurts." Iolaus threw up his arms in exasperation, "Ok, it's your responsibility. If he escapes, you chase him and I'll run off and be the hero."
Autolycus slipped behind the bush and checked his hooks before letting one sail. "Sorry guys but like Iolaus says, it takes one to know one. You should have listened to your partner, Herc."
"Yeah, yeah, the story of my life."
The woods were thin forcing Autolycus to foot travel, "Come on feet, we gotta go." He hurried across the road and into the clearing on the other side.
Hercules and Iolaus weren't far behind. The two had to wait for a wagon to pass before they could cross the road. A sickening sound of old wood splintering met their ears as they crossed. The heroes turned to see a frail old man climbing off the wagon looking in dismay at the broken wagon wheel.
"I cannot believe this!" Iolaus exclaimed, "I can't lift that." He sighed, "You stay, I'll get Autolycus." with that Iolaus headed across the clearing at a run as Autolycus vanished into the treeline again.
At least they weren't far from the village. In fact, Iolaus noted, Autolycus seemed to be heading that general direction, "Now why would he do that?" Iolaus mused not seeing the branch until it was too late. This time Iolaus rolled with it but Autolycus had the seconds lead he needed to make it back to the village.
Iolaus ran into the town square from one direction and Hercules from the other. Autolycus was standing calmly next to the old woman by the village well.
"Now I've got you," Iolaus grabbed Autolycus' arm and started pulling it behind him.
"Stop that young man!" The older woman smacked the hunter's arm with her walking stick. "What do you think you're doing?"
Iolaus' mouth fell open in shock, "Arresting a thief."
"Thief? Nonsense. This delightful young man just returned my jewel to me. For which I've given him a sizable reward. Now would a thief do that?"
Autolycus smiled smugly, "Yeah, Smarty, would a thief do that?"
Iolaus let go of Autolycus' arms and patted himself , discovering he no longer had the gem in question. Autolycus had stolen it back from him, "But ma'am, he's the thief, just this morning he...and you..." But Iolaus realized he had no proof to back up his words.
"The thief looked nothing like this fellow and he certainly wasn't this charming. Come along Autolycus, let me make you a home cooked meal." With that she led the grinning thief off to receive his further reward.
"Better close your mouth before a fly flies in," Hercules suggested.
"Can you believe that? Spend all day chasing him, get smacked by a tree not once but twice, kid in a well, fire, wheel and he gives it back?"
"Where Autolycus is concerned," Hercules nodded, "Yep, I'd buy it."
"But why'd he do it?"
The demigod shrugged, "He's the King of Thieves and it was there?"
"Come on, Herc," Iolaus headed straight toward the inn, "I'm having dinner and you're buying."
Hercules jogged to catch up to him, "I thought you were buying."
"That was breakfast."
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