And A Child Shall Lead Him Home

by Ceryndip

Note: This story is set between 'Maze of the Minotaur' and 'The Wrong Path'. In 'Maze of the Minotaur' there are two lines which lead the viewer to assume that Iolaus is a single father (Ania's fate is left completely unknown. Suffice it to say that she is permanently out of the picture.) and that the child is male.

The afternoon was warm, probably it was one of the last truly warm days they'd have before winter set in. Hercules and Deianeira were working outside in the garden harvesting the last of the vegetable crop before the first frost.

Ilea was playing with the dog in the yard. She was trying to teach him to fetch a stick. The two boys had been sent to Iolaus' house to help him repair the roof before it turned cold.

Deianeira put the last of the onions into the overflowing basket and brushed off her hands, "Hey, strong man!"

"Yeah?" Hercules called from somewhere deep inside the corn patch.

"Come and carry this basket into the cellar for me."

"Did you overfill it again?" Hercules asked as he appeared at the edge of the field.

"Yes, but it's the last time I promise."

"You promised that before," he grinned and picked up the basket and trudged off with it.

"But I'm out of onions, now," she called after him.

Aeson, the middle child, came running up the hill, yelling at the top of his lungs, "Mom! Dad!" He was out of breath from running.

"What's wrong?" Deianeira asked as Hercules reappeared in the cellar door.

"You're supposed to be helping Iolaus."

"I was. I am," between deep breaths, "come on, Iolaus is hurt." He grabbed his father's hand and pulled him along. Deianeira picked up Ilea and they followed Aeson back down the hill.

"Aeson, where's Klonus?" Hercules asked.

"He's OK. He stayed with Iolaus."

"Tell us what happened."

Aeson's face lit up, "We were up on the roof, Uncle Iolaus and me, and this big bird thing swooped down and grabbed me right off the roof. Iolaus grabbed my leg and pulled me back. It was like a tug-of-war and I was the rope." Aeson walked backwards and gestured wildly. "The bird thing, did I tell you it was huge? It was flapping it's wings furiously trying to fly. Iolaus grabbed the pitchfork with his other hand and stuck the bird with it. It like, exploded! Peacock feathers rained everywhere! Funny, it didn't look like a peacock."

Hercules and Deianeira exchanged concerned glances and picked up the pace.

"How did Iolaus get hurt?" Hercules asked.

"Well, when the bird blew up, I kinda fell on him and we kinda rolled off the roof. We think he broke his leg. I kinda landed on it," Aeson replied sheepishly. "He sent me to get you, right after he stopped saying words I'm not supposed to use."

Hercules nodded and broke into a run as they turned up the lane to Iolaus' cottage.

He arrived to find Iolaus propped up against the side of the house. Klonus was sitting next to him. Iolaus was holding his 5 month old son. Hercules kneeled beside him.

"You OK?"

"I'll live," Iolaus smiled but Hercules could see the pain behind his eyes.

Deianeira arrived, set Ilea down and took the baby from Iolaus. Hercules pulled off Iolaus' boot and examined his leg.

Iolaus nodded toward Aeson, "Did he tell you what happened?"

"Yeah, he's a natural storyteller, that one."

"Does he know what these mean?" Iolaus fingered a feather on the ground beside him.

"No, he doesn't.I was hoping he wouldn't have to. Do you think this was a one time incident?"

Iolaus shrugged, "I don't know. Have you talked to your father lately?"

Hercules shook his head, "Not lately. He hasn't been around much. I think it's about time we did though."

"Ow! Careful, that's broke."

"Sorry," Hercules pulled Iolaus' pants leg back down, "I don't want to try to set this here. Let's get your stuff and get you two back to my place."

"Your place?"

Hercules sighed, "Iolaus, you have a broken leg. You can't be mother and father to that child alone with a broken leg. At least not for the first couple of days."

Iolaus frowned, "Yeah, I guess you're right."

"Besides, I'm responsible. It was my kid you were saving."

"Don't even think about it. I would've done it for anybody and you're gonna have to finish the roof now."

They left Klonus with Iolaus. Deianeira handed back the baby while she went inside to gather the things they'd need. Hercules and Aeson climbed up on the roof and managed to scatter enough thatch that it shouldn't leak if it rained. They'd come back and fix it properly later.

Hercules went into the house after they finished on the roof and brought out a blanket which he spread in the wheelbarrow. Iolaus handed the baby back to Deianeira who slipped him inside the carry sling she now wore across her shoulders. With a hand up from Hercules, Iolaus stood. Hercules scooped him up in his arms.

"Herc, you are not carrying me."

"No, I'm not. I'm pushing you." and he set Iolaus down in the wheelbarrow.

By evening, Iolaus' leg had been set, splinted, wrapped and was propped up on pillows. Deianeira had made a strong comfrey tea to help knit the bones. She added valerian for the pain, Iolaus was trying to ignore and to help him sleep.

Deianeira came in and sat next to him. Iolaus was holding his sleeping son.

"Kids asleep?" he whispered.

"Finally, I never thought Aeson was going to calm down."

Iolaus smiled wearily, "Well, it's been an exciting day for him."

"Too exciting."

"Where's Hercules?"

"Outside trying to summon his father," she smiled at the sleeping baby and moved to take him, "Let's put you to bed, too."

Iolaus held onto him, "Can't he sleep here?"

Deianeira sat back down in the chair, "Iolaus, are you telling me that you're letting this baby sleep with you?"

Iolaus smiled, slightly embarrassed, "Well, since I lost Ania. I like to keep him close."

"Spoiling him rotten is what you're doing. We'll see, but for tonight, he can sleep in by me and I'll take good care of him. You need to rest tonight. OK?"

"OK."

She took the sleeping bundle.

"Deianeira?"

"Yes?"

"Thanks."

She nodded and blew out the light.

The next morning the family had a quiet breakfast but not even the baby's squealing at Aeson's faces disturbed Iolaus' sleep.

"Is Uncle Iolaus sick?" Ilea asked.

"Not really, honey, he just had a really rough day yesterday and he'll feel better if we let him sleep as long as he needs to," Deianeira replied.

Hercules and Ilea walked the boys to school. It was mid morning before Hercules came back in the house to find Iolaus at the table with his leg propped up on a chair.

"Well, I thought you were going to sleep all day,"

Iolaus stifled a yawn, "Better talk to your wife about her teas and potions first. I haven't slept that soundly since before the baby was born. What have you been up to this morning while I've been getting my beauty rest?"

"Making you a pair of crutches," he held them up. "We can't have you hanging around the house all day flirting with my wife."

Iolaus grinned, pushed his plate away and hoisted himself up on the crutches. The two men went outside.

"So, did you talk to your father?"

"No, he never showed up."

"That's a god for you."

"We'll just hope it was a singular event."

Iolaus nodded.

Over the next week, Iolaus pitched in where he could but usually ended up in a supervisory role which aroused lots of good-natured teasing and threats of what would happen after Iolaus' leg healed. At the end of the week with no further incidents, Iolaus abandoned one crutch, gathered up his son and headed back home.

A month passed without incident. Hercules and Aeson had loaded up the wagon with the extra vegetables and taken them into Thebes to sell. Deianeira was spending the unseAesonably warm afternoon cleaning the brush from the flowerbeds in front of the house. Time for the flowers was a luxury she didn't have while the garden was in bloom.

Klonus lay under a tree whittling something secret. He was the quiet one. He liked to work on small projects on his own. He was becoming quite adept at carving. Deianeira's father also was a woodworker. She was pleased to see that the skill had been passed on.

Ilea was left playing with the family dog. She was determined to teach him to fetch. He was very good at chasing the stick just not so good at bringing it back. He liked to carry it proudly around in his mouth. Then, lie down and chew on it. He infuriated Ilea. She ran up to the dog.

"You bad dog. You're supposed to bring it back to me." The dog just looked at her with his bright, shining eyes, panting. She sighed, "All right, lets try it again. I'll throw and this time you bring it back."

She threw the stick as hard as she could. It sailed into the trees. The dog barked happily at it and chased the stick both of which disappeared in the woods.

Ilea waited and called, "Puppy, puppy! Come here puppy!"

There was no movement in the trees. Finally, she muttered, "Bad dog," and followed him into the woods.

"Dog! Where are you? MAMA!!!" A terrified scream broke the silence.

Deianeira spun around and couldn't see her daughter. Klonus was also on his feet.

"Where is she?" Deianeira asked.

"She was playing over there with the dog." Klonus pointed to where the dog was now slinking out of the trees with his tail between his legs.

"Ilea!" Deianeira called, "Where did she go in?"

Klonus shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. They both entered the woods together.

"Ilea!"

Silence.

After a few unanswered calls, Deianeira turned to Klonus, "We'll need more help. Go get Iolaus, run!"

Klonus nodded and took off like a shot out of the trees and across the field.

Deianeira tried not to listen to the terrible thoughts that were running through her mind of all the horrible things that could have happened to her baby. She tried to stay calm and began calling and systematically searching for Ilea or signs that she'd been here. Holes in the ground that might have swallowed her up.

A bit of blue colored fabric on a bush caught her eye. It was a piece of Ilea's dress. Deianeira was on the right track. She moved forward and the breeze suddenly turned cold. A cloud moved over the sun leaving everything in an eerie light. Deianeira felt a sense of evil in the air. It seemed to emanate from all around her. She stopped and listened. She thought she'd heard something. Yes, there it was again, a child's voice crying and singing at the same time.

Deianeira ran toward the voice, calling, "Ilea!" The woods seemed to get darker and the wind blew harder the closer she came to the child's voice. She pulled apart the branches between two trees and there was her daughter.

"Ilea!"

"Mommy!"

Ilea was tied to a tree. Deianeira looked around. There was no sign that anyone was there or had been there for that matter. Deianeira knelt beside Ilea and her blood ran cold. The rope tying little Ilea to the tree was woven from peacock feathers. Deianeira untied the rope and pulled Ilea to her. They were both shivering in the cold wind, now blowing at gale force.

Deianeira couldn't imagine why she hadn't seen this storm blowing in. She clutched her daughter close to her and ran toward home. The woods looked and felt dark and menacing. Deianeira felt the branches pulling on her grabbing for her arms and legs. She heard her dress tear and felt the branches scratch, some of them deeply.

The wind and the dark had her turned around. She was afraid that she'd gone the wrong direction. Before she could bring herself to stop, the wind died down and became a warm breeze again. The darkness lifted and the sun shown in a blue sky above the treetops. Deianeira, hardly noticing the change, plowed straight into Iolaus nearly knocking them both down.

"Whoa! Hey! You found her."

"Just get us out of here," her voice was shaking along with the rest of her.

"OK, come on. This way," he put an arm around her and led them toward the woods edge. He didn't need the crutches anymore but was still limping on his healing leg.

"Where's Klonus?" Deianeira asked as they crossed the yard. She needed to know where her children were.

"I sent him in the house with the baby before I came after you."

Deianeira nodded visibly relieved.

The relief on Klonus' face was evident, as well, when they opened the door.

Iolaus sat Deianeira at the kitchen table and put water for tea over the fire before sitting down to bandage the worst of Deianeira's scratches. Something had shaken her badly. His frown deepened as she told her story. Ilea couldn't describe her captor beyond a vague description of being picked up by a cold wind storm and carried away.

Iolaus stayed until Hercules and Aeson got home. Furious would be an understatement for how angry Hercules became when he heard what had happened.

He marched out into the yard and bellowed at the starry sky, "Zeus! Zeus!"

"Not so loud. I'm not so old I'm deaf, you know."

"Sometimes I wonder. What is going on?"

"What do you mean, son?"

"I mean, why is Hera tying my daughter to trees in the woods and sending bird creatures to try and steal Aeson away."

Zeus was obviously taken aback, "How do you know it's Hera?"

"The rope tying Ilea was woven from peacock feathers. The bird exploded into a shower of them."

"That's her, all right."

Hercules stared at him, eyes ablaze.

Zeus continued, "Son, I don't know what's going on. I'll see what I can find out. In the meantime you'd better stick close to home."

Hercules nodded. Zeus disappeared. Hercules was not satisfied and stalked back into the house.

"Well?" Iolaus asked as Hercules threw himself into a chair in front of the fire.

"He'll look into it. Like that's going to really help," Hercules sighed. "Klonus, Aeson come here. Boys, there are some things you need to know. These peacock feathers we're finding are a sign from Hera."

"That's your stepmother," Aeson said. Hercules nodded.

"She doesn't like us much, does she?" Klonus commented.

"No, son. She hates me and she'll do anything she can to hurt me. Even go as far as hurting you. So, I need you boys to be extra careful and keep a sharp eye out for anything unusual or different and especially to keep watch over your sister. OK?"

Both boys nodded solemnly.

For the next two weeks, Hercules watched his family like a hawk. He always knew where they were. When they needed to go somewhere, they went as a family. The only time they were away from him was when he left the two boys at school until he picked them up in the afternoon.

Deianeira understood the situation but she had always been an independent woman. Finding herself under her husband's watchful eye all day and night did not suit her. Her temper and patience with him were growing ever shorter.

Hercules, Deianeira and Ilea had dropped the boys at school and gone into Thebes to do some shopping with instructions that if no one was there after class, they were to go straight home.

That afternoon, the big tree where Hercules usually waited for them was standing alone. No one was coming up the road from town. So, they began briskly walking home. The first part of the trip was uneventful but remembering what happened to Ilea, they were extra cautious approaching the wooded area. They kept their eyes alert.

Aeson was the first to see her. A beautiful vision of girlhood. She was small and had gossamer wings so that she floated. Her feet swinging just above the ground. She hovered silently at the edge of the road and beckoned for them to follow.

Aeson took a step forward and Klonus grabbed his arm.

"Are you crazy? You know what Dad said."

"She can't be from Hera, she's pretty."

"No, Aeson."

Aeson had been cooped up enough these last couple of weeks and resented his brother telling him what to do. It was time to let off some steam.

"I'm going," he announced and took a swing at Klonus who avoided it easily and tripped Aeson with his foot. The two boys rolled in the dirt fighting between themselves. The floating fairy completely forgotten.

Forgotten, until they heard a low growling. Both boys stopped and looked up. A huge monster stood where the fairy had been. It had multiple tentacles, several eyes and it drooled.

"Ooooooohh, that's ugly!" Aeson yelled and threw a handful of dirt at it. The monster grabbed Aeson's leg and started pulling him in. Aeson screamed. Klonus grabbed a couple of rocks and leaped to his feet. He hurled the rocks hitting the monster dead center in two of it's eyes.

It was the monster's turn to scream. It released Aeson who scrambled to his feet and the two boys ran all the way home, locking the front door behind themselves.

When Hercules heard what happened he marched straight to the glade to slay the monster but all he found was a scattering of peacock feathers and his father kneeling among them. He stood when he saw Hercules walking toward him.

"You should be proud. Your boys handled themselves well."

"They shouldn't have had to handle it at all."

"I'm working on it, son. She's not an easy woman to distract when she's got her mind set on something."

"Try harder."

Zeus nodded, understanding his son's frustration, "Son, you can't be everywhere. You are half mortal. You won't always be there to look after them not even a god could protect them every minute. They will have to learn to make their own way in this world. Hera's always going to be there waiting for them."

Hercules stared at the ground, "I know."

It bothered Zeus, how quickly his son had agreed with him. Unfortunately, his worries were borne out in what was to come.

Again a few weeks passed without incident. Hercules leaned against the barn wall, waiting. Iolaus should have shown up some time ago to help move some hay out of the loft. Hercules offered to share a couple of extra bales with him when he noticed that Iolaus' supply was running low. Iolaus just really wasn't much of a farmer. He wasn't always on time, either, especially since the little one, but he wasn't usually this late. Hercules was worried. He threw a couple of bales down into the wagon himself and set off looking for his friend.

Iolaus' place didn't feel right. It looked empty. There was no sign of movement anywhere. Alarm bells began ringing loudly in Hercules' ears. He ran to the house and banged on the door. No answer. He looked through the window and saw the house was a wreck. The table had been overturned, the mattress was on the floor. There were peacock feathers scattered everywhere. He gasped when he saw the motionless feet behind the table.

Hercules shoved the door. It held. The crossbar was down. Hercules shoved harder and splintered the crossbar.

He cleared a path and knelt beside Iolaus. Gently, he rolled him over,

"Iolaus?"

He moaned at Hercules' touch. His eyes opened, but it took a moment to focus them, Herc?

"Take it easy," there was a gash over his left eye. It was still bleeding a little, but it didn't look too bad. Hercules guessed it smarted though.

Iolaus closed his eyes, "Oh, my head."

"What happened?"

"Creature. I don't know what it was. Some kind of skinny harpy or something. It was just Hera at it again."

"Iolaus, I don't want to alarm you, but where's the baby?"

"With your mother. She came by and picked him up after lunch. She's been taking him once a week, so I can have a chance to get some other stuff done around here besides looking after the baby. He's fine. He wasn't here."

Hercules was relieved. He righted a chair and pulled the mattress back on the frame. He helped Iolaus up and over to the bed. Iolaus sat on the edge of the bed holding his aching head.

"What I don't understand is why didn't she finish me off? I was out cold. Easy pickings."

"I don't think she really meant to hurt you, Iolaus. I think she just wanted me to know she could have."

"She's trying to scare you?"

Hercules nodded.

"Why?"

"I don't know. Maybe just because she can," he looked at the ceiling and yelled, "She doesn't have anybody else to bother!"

Iolaus still nursing his head laid back on the bed with a groan, "Just my luck, I get my leg healed and now I've busted my head. Being Hercules best friend hurts."

Hercules picked up the table and leaned against it, "I'm sorry."

"Don't be. I'll be fine as soon as my head stops pounding."

Alcmene stuck her head through the open door, "Anybody home? My, what happened in here?"

"Hera happened," Iolaus called from the bed.

"Well, I won't comment on her housekeeping skills then," she looked at Iolaus lying crosswise on the bed, "You're hurt."

"I'm fine."

She laid the napping baby in his cradle, "Since when is bleeding fine?"

"Bleeding?" Iolaus raised up and looked at Hercules.

"Your forehead," he explained.

Iolaus sat up and touched his forehead. His fingers came away sticky, "That explains the headache."

Alcmene took a bandage out of a cupboard. Hercules handed her a small bowl of water and a cloth. She nodded her thanks and proceeded to clean the gash and bandage Iolaus' head. Hercules marveled at how cooperative Iolaus was to Alcmene's gentle ministrations. The one good thing that had come out of Iolaus' being a single parent was that he had finally learned to accept a helping hand once in awhile. Of course, Alcmene always was able to handle Iolaus.

Alcmene took the bowl back to the sink. Iolaus stood and Hercules caught his arm as he swayed and sat him back on the bed. Alcmene frowned at Iolaus.

"Hercules, you go back home. I'll stay here until Iolaus can be left safely alone. You have a family to take care of."

"Mother, you don't..."

She stopped him, "I don't have children to look after, except for the one sitting on the bed, you do. We'll be fine here."

Hercules nodded, "Thanks, mother." He kissed her on the cheek. "Iolaus, if you need anything, yell."

"OK, thanks."

"Now, you lie back down for awhile, and I'll see what I can find around here for us for supper." She sighed, "What a mess."

Hercules carried the two hay bales to the glorified shed Iolaus called a barn. He was deeply disturbed. His fathers words came back to him.

"You won't always be there to look after them not even a god could protect them every minute."

If he hadn't known before, he knew the truth of those words today. He was at Hera's mercy. If he was at home, she could strike Iolaus or his mother. While he was in Thebes or the fields she could strike at his family. There was no way he could win.

It was almost spring. The winter had been a mild one. Hercules had almost convinced himself that Zeus had been successful at distracting his wife or probably more likely that Hera had found someone else to bother.

Hercules had been in the barn all afternoon trying to repair or sharpen the farm implements in preparation for planting. His farming skills left something to be desired, he knew that. So far he was making ends meet for his family, barely, and every year he did a little better. He wished he could say the same for Iolaus. A farmer, he wasn't, but he was becoming a decent blacksmith. The forge supplemented his income enough to survive.

Hercules held up the blade of a hoe and as he was examining it, a peacock feather brushed across his face as it fell from the loft. Hercules jumped, startled and dropped the hoe. The newly sharpened blade bit into his forearm.

"Ow! Damn," he grabbed a rag and wrapped it around his arm to staunch the blood. He climbed up the ladder to the loft, but found no monsters there, just hay. He thoroughly explored the barn and found nothing except the single peacock feather.

The children squealed outside and his heart fluttered, 'the kids'. He ran outside but the three children were running and chasing joyfully. Hercules turned a slow circle and saw nothing out of the ordinary.

He made his way to the house and found Deianeira in the kitchen, "Everything OK in here?"

She nodded, "You're just in time to get cleaned up for dinner. What happened?" she asked frowning at the rag on his arm.

"Oh, nothing. I cut myself. It's nothing."

She looked into his eyes and saw something haunted there, "Are you OK?"

He smiled and took a deep breath. He could keep no secrets from this woman. "Yes, it's nothing. I found a peacock feather in the barn and it spooked me." He wrapped his arms around his wife and kissed her neck and she continued to stir the pot over the fire.

She chuckled and wrinkled her nose, "You better go get cleaned up. You smell like you've been in the barn all day,"

"I have been in the barn if you must know," he nussled her neck and placed a row of little kisses down her shoulder.

"If you don't take your hands off me, I'm going to need a bath, too."

"That could be fun."

"Not in front of our children, it wouldn't."

Hercules heard the unmistakable sound of his children's giggles behind him and detached himself, "We'll discuss it later," and he planted one last kiss on her cheek.

"Uh huh," she grinned at him as he headed off to change.

Hercules rinsed off the dirt and sweat of the afternoon's labors. He slipped on a clean pair of pants and gingerly removed the rag from around his arm. He winced as the cloth pulled at the still oozing wound. He gently washed the gash. It had almost stopped bleeding. The edges looked a little inflamed. He sat on the bed and put some salve on it before he wrapped a clean bandage around his arm.

Hercules sat on the bed a moment and closed his eyes. He stretched his neck from side to side, but the dull ache that had started in his head wouldn't go away. He slipped on a shirt and walked wearily in to dinner.

Deianeira set the food on the table and went back to hurry up the children's washing. Hercules sat and waited for his family. The food looked good and a little while ago he could swear he was starving, but now the smell turned his stomach. Suddenly, he didn't feel very well.

The children bounded to the table and rambunctiously began to fill their plates. Hercules took small portions and ate even less. His unusual behavior was not lost on his wife. She watched him push his food around his plate and frowned.

"Food not to your liking?"

"It's fine. I'm just not very hungry." he set his spoon down. Hercules felt a wave of heat wash through his body. He felt like he was burning from the inside out. Deianeira placed her cool hand on his arm. Her touch made him shiver.

"Are you all right?"

"I don't think so. I'm not feeling very well."

Deianeira felt his forehead, "You're burning up."

"I just want to lie down awhile," his head was swimming. The whole room seemed to tilt at an odd angle. Something was seriously wrong.

Deianeira pulled him up and with a supporting arm around his waist, led him to the bedroom. Hercules slumped onto the bed.

"What's the matter with me? My stomach, my head..."

Deianeira tried to smile and be reassuring despite the fear that gripped her heart. She pulled off his boots and covered him with the blanket. "Sounds like you're sick. You know, like the rest of us mere-mortals get once in awhile."

He groaned and rolled over on his side, "We're going to the festival tomorrow, I don't want to be sick."

"Who ever does? Rest, I'll be in to check on you later. Call if you need me."

Deianeira lingered and watched her husband shiver under the covers. She was worried. Hercules hadn't been truly ill a day since she'd first met him. She had attributed that to his being a demigod and not just lucky.

The children started laughing at the table and Deianeira hurried in to hush them She had to find something quiet for them to do for the evening, so they wouldn't disturb their father.

"Mommy? Is Daddy sick?"

"Yes, Ilea, he is."

"Like when I had the fever last summer?"

"Uh huh," she could see Ilea's mind working behind her eyes.

"Should I tell him a story or are you gonna do that?"

Deianeira smiled, Hercules had stayed with Ilea through the whole fever. He hardly left her side. He sat there telling her stories to make her feel better. Now, his daughter wanted to return the favor. Deianeira knelt to be at eye level with Ilea.

"I think, I'm going to take care of Daddy tonight. Maybe you could tell him a story tomorrow if he's feeling up to it. I think he'd like that, OK?"

Little Ilea nodded.

"OK, off to bed with you, I'll be in to tuck you in, in a minute."

After getting the children to bed, Deianeira mixed an herbal solution which she used to sponge Hercules' body to cool the fever. She had little effect. It was a long night. Hercules slept fitfully, tossing his head back and forth and occasionally moaning in fevered dreams.

Once he woke enough to take a few sips of water.

"What's wrong with me? I feel terrible," he asked, red rimmed eyes pleading.

"Shhhhh, you have a high fever. we just have to let it run its course. You'll feel better after it breaks."

He nodded and dropped back into sleep.

Deianeira kissed his hot cheek and brushed her lips against his ear, whispering, "I love you. I need you to be well again. I need you."

He sighed and slept, held safely in her arms.

The next morning Hercules was no better, no worse, but no better. His fever still raged. Deianeira fed the children and sent them outside to play. The school had closed in honor of the festival.

"Aww, can't we go to the festival on our own?" Aeson asked, clearly disappointed.

"No, we can't leave your father alone. Now go play and stay in the yard."

"Yes, Mommy."

Deianeira went back to her herbal compresses. She had strengthened the solution, still to no effect. She was on the verge of sending one of the boys after Alcmene when she heard Ilea come running in.

"Mommy! Uncle Iolaus is coming!"

Deianeira sighed in relief, "Iolaus, maybe he'll know what to do." She went outside to meet him coming up the path.

"Am I glad to see you."

"You aren't ready to go the festival? I waited and when you didn't come, I figured I should check?"

"I'm sorry, I completely forgot we were supposed to meet you at the crossroads."

Iolaus looked at her, seeing the dark circles under her eyes, "Hey, what's the matter?" His hand brushed her cheek.

"It's Hercules. He's sick."

"Sick?"

"Yes. You've known him longer than I have. Has he ever been sick before?"

Iolaus thought as they walked toward the house, "Not since we were kids."

"But he has been sick before?"

Iolaus nodded, "Yeah, he's really sick?"

Come on, I'll show you. I was about to send for Alcmene.

"She's already gone to the festival, passed by the house early this morning. She and some of the other ladies are selling handicrafts to benefit the poor. We won't be able to find her till later tonight, if then."

They entered the house and Iolaus slowly removed the carry sling and placed his sleeping son on Ilea's bed before following Deianeira into the other bedroom.

Hercules was still tossing in restless sleep and shaking periodically with violent chills. Deianeira had added extra blankets to the bed, but they had made no difference.

Iolaus felt his forehead, "Yeah, he's got a fever. Did he meet anybody new or do anything different?"

"He went into Thebes yesterday morning to help unload things and set up for the festival. Then, he came home and worked out in the barn most of the afternoon. He didn't eat much for dinner and when I asked, he said he wasn't feeling well."

Iolaus frowned, "There's no sickness in the village. We need to get that fever down."

"I've been trying," she indicated the bowl and damp cloth.

Iolaus nodded, all thoughts of the spring festival gone, "I'll get you some fresh water."

Klonus met Iolaus on the way to the well and walked along beside him.

"What are you loitering around for? Shouldn't you be off playing?"

"Don't feel like it."

"Oh."

"Dad's really sick isn't he?"

Iolaus nodded as he lowered the bucket into the well, "Yes, he is."

"I don't remember him ever being sick before."

"He hasn't been really sick in a long time, but I can remember a couple of times when he's been sick before. Don't worry," Iolaus tussled the boys hair, "your Dad's a strong man. He'll be up and around in no time at all. Now, go play."

Klonus smiled a half smile not completely reassured and walked slowly off to find his siblings.

Iolaus pulled the bucket back up and hoped he was right. Hercules was a strong man in body and spirit. It unnerved Iolaus to see his friend so weak and vulnerable. He returned to the house and poured a bowl of the cool water.

Deianeira pulled back the covers and wrung out her cloth. Iolaus stood trying to think of what else he could do to help. He noticed the bandage on Hercules' arm.

"What happened here?"

Deianeira looked over at the bandage and frowned, "You know, I'm not sure. He said he cut himself in the barn."

"Yesterday?"

She nodded.

Iolaus crawled up on the other side of the bed and removed the bandage to find a swollen, red, festering gash, "That doesn't look good."

Deianeira's frown deepened, "No, it doesn't." She handed Iolaus the wet cloth, "Here, you do this."

He nodded and she went to make up a poultice to draw out the infection.

"What I don't understand," she said as she rebandaged his arm, "is how it got so bad, so fast?"

Iolaus shook his head, "I don't know. I'm going to go check out the barn." He handed her the cloth back.

She nodded.

Iolaus returned with the peacock feather in his hand.

Deianeira blanched. The connection finally made, "Hera?"

Iolaus shrugged and nodded.

There was a commotion outside and the children led their grandfather into the house. He waved at Deianeira and turned to the children, "Not now, I'll play with you later. Right now, I need to talk to your mother and Iolaus." He sent the children back outside, "We need to keep it calm in here."

Zeus put an arm around Deianeira and they walked into the bedroom. Zeus grinned at Iolaus who was changing his son on the blanket in front of the fire where he'd been playing. Zeus leaned over to observe and patted Iolaus on the shoulder.

"Handsome boy."

Iolaus grinned back, "Thank you."

Zeus' grin faded to a solemn frown as he approached the foot of the bed and looked down at his own son.

Deianeira joined him, "What's wrong with him?"

"He's been poisoned."

"Poisoned, how?"

"The cut on his arm."

Iolaus returned to the chair by the bed and wrung out the cloth, "So, what's the antidote?"

"There isn't one."

Hercules found himself in a strange place. He was on a flat plane. There were jagged rocks as far as his eyes could see and the place was hotter than Tartarus.

He felt like he was in the throes of some surrealistic dream. Everything seemed strangely unreal. He reached out to touch the rough edge of a rock and his hand passed completely through it.

He stood staring at his hand in shock, "I'm a ghost?"

Laughter erupted all around him. A pair of peacock eyes opened in the rock beside him.

"You're not dead, not yet."

"What do you want, Hera? Why won't you just leave me and my family alone?"

"Because you're an obscenity before my eyes. One that I'll soon be rid of, one way or another."

"You think so?"

"Yes, I have an offer you won't refuse."

"I'm listening."

"I'll leave your family in peace if you agree to die."

"I'm supposed to just go off and kill myself?" He almost laughed.

"I've already done the work. I've poisoned your body. All you have to do is succumb to it."

"And if I refuse?"

"Your family will suffer the consequences. I've already shown you I can hurt them, anytime I want and you are powerless to stop me."

"You really think Zeus will allow that?"

"He has little choice, they are not protected by the law that has kept me from doing away with you myself. Consider your options carefully, Hercules. A live family or a dead one, your choice."

The dreadful eyes vanished from the rock. Hercules had been afraid it might come to this. He felt his own presence dissolving. He knew he'd wake in his own body again with no choices at all.

"How can that be?" Deianeira interrupted, "Gods can't kill each other."

"True, I have extended that protection to Hercules, but she hasn't given him enough poison to kill him, unless he wants it to. If he fights against it, he will survive. The choice whether to live or die is his and his alone."

Zeus sat on the bed opposite Iolaus. He took Hercules' hand and spoke quietly to him, "I can't stay, son. I wish I could. Listen, son, I don't know what she's promised you, but it's not worth it. People need you here. Just remember, she lies. Hera won't keep her promises. Be strong and fight her, son, fight her with everything you've got."

He rose and nodded to Iolaus. He hugged Deianeira, "Tell the children I'll be back when I can."

She nodded and he walked out of the room. She knew there was no point in following him. He didn't use the front door.

Deianeira walked over to Iolaus. He stood and put his arm around her shoulders.

"Poisoned."

Iolaus saw the tears in her eyes, "Here, none of that. We have to be strong for him now. You're tired. You haven't slept. Why don't you go lie down in one of the kid's beds and get some sleep?"

She looked back at her husband's fevered form, unmoving in the bed.

Iolaus continued, "You heard Zeus, it's up to Hercules. He'll come back to us. He won't let Hera win. I'll sit with him. I'll wake you if anything changes. Go on. You won't do him or the kids any good if you collapse."

She nodded and wearily made her way from the room.

Iolaus sat next to the bed and continued to try and cool the fever. He had to do something, no matter how ineffectual it might be.

The baby gurgled happily on the floor. Iolaus smiled at him. He'd be crawling soon. It sparked an idea.

Iolaus spoke quietly to his friend, "Come on, Herc, you've got to fight this thing. I need you. I need you to tell me I'm doing right by that baby over there and to smack me around when I don't. Who else is gonna show me how to be a good father. It's not like I've had great role models, you know. You're it. I can't do this on my own without you. Who's gonna be a father to your kids if something happens to you? You've gotta fight this thing. There are people here who depend on you. People who love you."

Deianeira woke that evening to find her children playing quietly with the baby and a pot of soup simmering over the fire. Everything appeared well in hand. She ladled a spoonful into a bowl and carried it into the bedroom as she ate.

She placed a hand on Iolaus' shoulder, "I think you about have this mothering thing figured out."

"Wish I felt so sure about it. If only Ania hadn't...No point in dwelling on that now. Are you feeling better?"

She nodded, "Much. How's he doing?"

"No better, maybe a little worse, it's hard to tell. I've been talking to him reminding him how much we need him but I don't know if he's hearing me."

She unwrapped the poultice on Hercules' arm and replaced it with a fresh one. Then, she relieved Iolaus at the bedside.

"I'll go put the kids to bed."

She nodded, "Thanks."

Soon, she heard giggling coming from the direction of the children's room. Whatever story Uncle Iolaus was telling, it must be a good one. The noise from the bedroom got considerably louder before the house became quiet.

Awhile later, Iolaus came back in, carrying a sleeping baby which he lay on the blanket in front of the fire. He sat on the end of the bed. Obviously, he was staying. They hadn't even discussed it. There was no need to, Iolaus was family.

"I'm good for awhile," she smiled, "I should be, I slept all afternoon. You should get some sleep, too."

He nodded, "Wake me if you get too sleepy."

"I will."

Iolaus slipped his boots off and curled up on the blanket around his son.

Deianeira sat and silently held her husband's hand for awhile. Then, very quietly, she began to speak.

Yo"u can't leave me like this. I won't let you. I knew the risks when I married you. I knew I might end up a young widow. My husband goes out fighting monsters and bandits and defending the helpless. If you die helping people, saving lives, I can live with that, but not this. Not seeing you lying here surrendering to a fever, admitting defeat. If you die, she wins. How can I live with that! I knew our time together in life might be short. It may be selfish of me but I want every moment of it, however long it may be. I will not let Hera shorten it. I won't allow her the satisfaction and don't you dare give in to her, either!" The tears flowed and she buried her face in the blankets at his side.

Iolaus woke early to find that he'd been covered with a blanket sometime during the night. He rose slowly so as not to disturb the still snoring baby.

He padded over to the bed in his bare feet. Deianeira was still using the cool compresses. Her eyes were red-rimmed. She'd been crying. What startled him the most was Hercules' appearance. He was deathly pale. His eyes and cheeks were sunken.

"His fever's even higher," Deianeira said her voice a whisper.

"I think we should send for Alcmene."

She agreed and nodded. They both knew how fast he was sinking.

Remembering how worried Klonus had been when this began, the boy didn't need to see this, "I'll send Klonus."

Again she nodded. Iolaus quietly woke the boy and sent him on his way to fetch his grandmother. Then, returned to the bedroom and slipped on his boots. He went out and brought in some more wood to keep the fire going.

"Deianeira, you need to take a break. Let me do that."

"No, I have to stay."

"I'll yell if anything changes, just take a few minutes." He pulled her to her feet and took the cloth. He nearly hugged her, he wanted to, but he was afraid she'd lose what little self-control she had left. He thought she might argue with him for a moment but then she nodded and went into the kitchen.

Iolaus glanced over to assure himself the baby was still asleep and sat in the chair. He heard the unmistakable sounds of breakfast being prepared in the kitchen. Mechanically, Iolaus wrung out the cloth and started again. He didn't want to think about what was happening. He couldn't deal with another loss this year, not this loss.

A small hand tapped his arm. Ilea stood there in her night gown, "What are you doing in here?"

"Is Daddy ready for me to tell him a story yet?"

"A story?"

She nodded and explained, "When I was sick Daddy told me stories to make me feel better. Can I tell him a story now?"

"Well, sure, I don't see why not," he pulled the tiny girl up into his lap. "What story are you going to tell?"

"The one about Daddy and Uncle Iolaus and the mean ol' hydra."

Iolaus nodded and smiled. This was one of his best stories. "Go ahead."

"Once, not long ago, there was a mean ol' hydra by the road. It was an evil monster and it's most favorite thing to do was to scare the travelers as they passed by and if it was hungry, it'd eat them all up!" She raised her hands menacingly just like when Iolaus told the story.

Deianeira stood in the doorway watching. The baby stirred and began to fuss. Deianeira quickly motioned for Iolaus to stay where was and she took the baby back into the kitchen with her.

"Then, one day Hercules, the son of Zeus, that's my grandpa, you know," Iolaus nodded, trying not to laugh. Ilea continued, "and Daddy's best, loyal friend, Uncle Iolaus, came by..."

Hercules heard voices speaking to him. He knew what was right. He knew what had to be done. He had to protect his family at any cost, but these nagging voices kept telling him that was wrong.

"People need you here, son. She lies, Hera won't keep her promises. Be strong. Fight her, son, fight her with everything you've got."

"I need you to tell me I'm doing right by that baby over there. Who else is going to show me how to be a good father? I can't do this on my own without you. there are people here who depend on you. People who love you."

"I knew the risks when I married you. If you die helping people, saving lives, I can live with that but not like this, not admitting defeat. If you die, she wins, I can't live with that. I want every moment of our time, however long it may be. Don't you dare give in to her."

But he had to save his family. Couldn't they understand, he was doing this for them.

Now there was this small voice. it wasn't telling him to get better or fight back. It seemed to be telling him a story. He strained to hear the tiny voice. It was so far away. Somehow it was very important.

It was Ilea. He remembered holding her and telling her this same story not so long ago. She'd felt so small and fragile in his arms. The stories were all that he could think to do to keep her with him.

"Uncle Iolaus threw Daddy his sword and Daddy cut the heads off one by one. And quick as Daddy could hack them off, Uncle Iolaus would run in and burn their necks with a torch so they couldn't grow even more heads. Together, working as a team, neither could have done it by themselves, you see, they killed that mean ol' hydra and kept all the travelers on that road safe."

Hercules couldn't resist the pull of her voice. He had to follow it. He couldn't leave it behind, leave her. Who would take care of her?

Iolaus watched as Ilea spoke and he thought he saw a little color coming back into Hercules' face. His cheeks didn't seem to be quite as hollow. Hercules took a deep breath and his eyes fluttered open.

"Ilea?" His voice was hoarse.

"Yes, Daddy?" Her eyes bright.

"Tell me another story."

Iolaus set Ilea on the bed where Hercules could see her and ran to the kitchen.

"Deianeira! He's awake. Come quick. His color's coming back, too."

She flew the few steps to the bedroom doorway and hugged Iolaus at the sight before her, "He's OK. He's going to be OK."

Iolaus nodded, returning her grin. They stood, listening as Ilea told the story of how Hercules defeated a giant. Then, Deianeira shooed Ilea into the other room with her brother and perched on the edge of the bed while Iolaus sat in the chair.

Deianeira felt Hercules' forehead and smiled, "How do you feel?"

"Weak, I think I'll live."

"So, what did Hera offer you in return for your life?"

Hercules blinked, "How did you know?"

"Zeus," Iolaus replied.

Hercules took Deianeira's hand in his own, "The lives of my family, trouble free. She'd leave you alone." "

Humph, if I wanted a trouble free life, I'd never have married you." She kissed his forehead, "Rest now. I'll make some soup for you later."

Hercules nodded and watched as she walked out of the room. He sighed.

"So, what is the price for refusing Hera's deal?" Iolaus asked quietly.

Their eyes met, "She said I won't have a family and I won't be able to stop her."

Iolaus was silent a long moment. "Sounds like maybe we should talk to your father."

Hercules nodded solemnly, Iolaus reached over and put a hand on Hercules' shoulder and squeezed. "Don't worry, we won't let anything happen to them."

They sat there silently sharing the burden.

Seeing Hercules' eyelids growing heavy, he stood. "I'm going to gather up my little guy and head home. You take it easy, I'll stop by tomorrow. Nice to have you back with us, Herc. You had me worried there for awhile."

"If I'm not around, who's going to keep you in line." Hercules returned Iolaus' grin and waved as his friend left the room.

Hercules closed his eyes but he didn't sleep, not for a long time.

The End

Written in December 1997.

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