The Loss

by Ceryndip

Note: This story takes place between "Maze of the Minotaur" and "The Wrong Path." It comes sometime after my story, "And A Child Shall Lead Him Home."

This one's for Jane because she asked for it.

"Can I see another's woe,
And not be in sorrow too?
Can I see another's grief,
And not seek for kind relief?"

--William Blake 'On Another's Sorrow'

Iolaus rolled over and moaned, "Not again." The sound of a baby crying filled the room. Iolaus shuffled over to the cradle in the dark and picked up the bundle, tangled blanket and all.

"Hey, what's the matter? It's ok. Do we need changing? Nooooo. Hmmmmm, can't be hungry we just ate a little while ago."

The baby felt warm in his arms, "Maybe we're teething again, huh?" Iolaus ran a finger over the child's gums. "Don't feel anything, no, I don't." His voice was soothing and playful. The baby calmed. He'd ran a fever when the last tooth came in. Iolaus had been expecting another anytime. Probably that's all it was. Iolaus alternated walking and rocking and eventually lulled both the child and himself back to sleep.

The bright sun shown on the rolling hills as Iolaus hurried up the path with his son snugly held in a carry sling across his shoulders. Iolaus arrived at Hercules' home while the family was still eating breakfast. Deianeira fixed Iolaus a plate while he set down the bag of supplies. She tweaked the baby's nose playfully as she sat the plate on the table.

"Daddy's got you all bundled up warm this morning, doesn't he?" she asked.

"He's running a little fever," Iolaus smiled wearily. "We didn't have a very good night."

"Are you up to today's project?" Hercules asked.

Iolaus nodded and unconsciously rocked the baby a little while he ate.

Hercules and Iolaus had agreed to reroof an older couple's cottage in the village. Hercules usually preferred to do this sort of thing out of the goodness of his heart, but the couple had advertised that they were willing to pay for the labor. He and Iolaus could both use the extra dinars.

As they prepared to leave, Iolaus removed the fabric sling he carried the little guy around in and handed him to Deianeira.

"I'm sorry, he's so fussy."

She cradled the bundle in her arms, "Aunty Deianeria can handle fussy babies. Nothing she hasn't seen before." She smiled at Iolaus, "We'll be fine."

"OK, you be good, today," he took the baby's hand a moment and then, kissed Deianeira's cheek, "Thanks."

"Anytime."

Hercules and Iolaus made quick work removing the old thatch. They were ready to start laying the new when they broke for lunch. They walked over to the tavern and took seats at the bar. Hercules ordered a couple of bowls of stew and looked around. The tavern was unusually quiet for this time of day.

"Slow day?" he asked the barman.

"Everyone's staying away for fear of catching the fever. That or they already have it."

"Fever?" Iolaus asked exchanging glances with Hercules.

The man nodded, "Starts off slow, finishes with a high fever. It's hit the elderly and the little ones hard. Some haven't made it."

"Thanks."

Iolaus didn't finish his stew. Hercules knew he was worried.

"I don't know if I'll ever get the hang of this mothering thing. I thought he was teething," Iolaus said.

"He might be, let's see how he's doing after we finish part of this roof. Huh?"

"Oh, yeah."

It was a beautiful day. Iolaus threw himself into the work to keep from worrying too much. They almost had the job finished by late afternoon. Hercules could tell Iolaus was distracted and not without good reason.

"There's not much left to do here. We can finish in the morning. I'll stay and clean up, you go on."

"You sure?"

"Go on."

Iolaus nodded, "Thanks." He practically ran out of town in his haste to know how his son was.

Iolaus could hear the baby fussing as neared the door. He found Deianeira walking with the baby on her shoulder.

"How's he doing?" Iolaus asked as he took the baby.

"Not so good. Fever's going up. I don't think it's his teeth."

Iolaus quickly related what they had learned in the tavern. "I think I'll take him to the healer."

Deianeira nodded her agreement and wrapped an extra blanket around the baby and Iolaus. "Keep him warm," she warned, "that's one sick baby."

The door was answered by the wife of the healer. She smiled wearily at Iolaus and led him back to a room where the old healer stored his herbs and things.

"Oh, you just caught me, I was about to head out again. Too many sick people and not enough of me to go around. The baby?"

Iolaus nodded, "The fever started last night."

"Let's see."

The healer held the baby in his arms and examined him. Iolaus watched anxiously. Finally, the man rewrapped the baby and looked at him.

"You know what is happening in Thebes?"

Iolaus nodded.

"Then, you know this isn't good. I'll give you something for the fever." He handed Iolaus a small bag, "Mix this with cool water, soak a cloth in it and let him chew on it. It'll help. You remember what I told you to do for fever?"

"Keep him warm, cool baths."

"Right. That's all we can do. Wait for it to run it's course and hope for the best. If you believe the Gods can help, a little prayer wouldn't hurt either."

Iolaus nodded solemnly, "Thank you."

"Get that baby home. I'll check on you tomorrow. See how you're doing."

It was another bad night. Iolaus walked most of the night. Every time he tried to lay the baby down, he started crying again. He made faces and tickled toes. Not even singing songs could soothe the normally happy, laughing baby.

Sometime in the dark night Iolaus poured a glass of water and discovered that his own throat hurt when he swallowed.

"Maybe, I'm having sympathy pains again." He smiled remembering the very real pain, he'd felt while Ania was in labor. Hercules and Deianeira had arrived with the midwife. Hercules had to take him outside. Iolaus just couldn't see Ania in such pain without feeling it himself. Ania had thought the whole thing terribly funny. He could still hear her sweet giggles in his mind. Hercules had done his best to distract him but what was happening in the house was just too exciting. It seemed to take forever before they heard the baby cry. Then, the old midwife had called him in to see his son and to hold his wife as she died. It had all gone so wrong. So terribly wrong. Iolaus swallowed and the burning in his throat brought him back to reality.

As dawn peeked over the hills, Iolaus had finally coaxed the little one to sleep. He couldn't take him out. Hercules would have to finish the roof by himself. There wasn't much left to do. Hercules would understand when he didn't show up for breakfast.

It was late afternoon as Hercules made his way up the path to Iolaus' cottage. He heard the cow in the barn and when he looked in, discovered that she hadn't been fed. The feed bucket was empty. Hercules dumped in some grain and headed to the house.

He knocked quietly in case the baby was asleep. When he didn't receive an answer, he slowly opened the door. Iolaus was asleep at the table with his head lying on his arms. He was pale and even in sleep there were dark circles under his eyes.

Hercules tiptoed over to check on the baby. He was restless. Hercules patted his back and felt the heat of the fever emanating from his small body. Hercules pulled up the blanket.

The fire was burning low in the hearth, He went to throw in another log and discovered the bin was empty.

Iolaus woke as Hercules brought in more wood. He smiled blearily at him, "Hi."

Hercules sat across from him at the table, "I guess I don't have to ask how your day has been."

"It hasn't been good."

"You don't look too well, yourself."

Iolaus swallowed with effort, "Yeah, I've got it, too. I've had a sore throat since last night. At least now I know why he won't stop crying. This is miserable."

"Let me take you both home with me until we can get you back on your feet."

"No, your kids aren't sick. I don't want to spread this any farther. We'll be fine, just two guys with real bad colds." Iolaus tried to smile reassuringly.

"OK, if you're sure? I'll be back to check on you. Do you need anything?"

Iolaus shook his head, "We're ok."

Hercules looked doubtful but rose to leave, "Take it easy."

Iolaus nodded.

Hercules headed down the path but when he got to the crossroads he turned back toward town. He was worried. This wasn't a cold. This sickness was killing the weak in Thebes. Hercules stopped at his mother's house. He knew she'd been helping Iolaus out a lot in the last year. He didn't seem to be as obstinate around her. She always did have a knack for managing Iolaus.

After telling Alcmene what was going on, she readily agreed to look in on them first thing in the morning.

Iolaus couldn't get the baby to eat anything. He could barely get him to take a sip of water. When he did, it just came right back up. He fussed and cried constantly. Iolaus gave him a cool bath and that helped. He gave him the cloth soaked in the herbal solution to chew on and that helped a little as well. Finally, he fell into an uneasy sleep.

Iolaus collapsed on his bed but he only managed a couple of hours exhausted sleep before the crying started all over again. Iolaus felt terrible. He sat in the rocking chair, "I know, I know. Daddy feels bad, too." He managed to doze lightly while holding the baby in the rocker.

Alcmene arrived with the healer early the following morning to find Iolaus still walking the baby. He was having trouble keeping his eyes open but Iolaus saw Alcmene and the healer exchange knowing glances.

The healer took the baby, "Here, let me give you a break while I have a look."

Iolaus moved to follow them to the cradle. Alcmene caught his arm, "Let's sit over here." She led him to the bed. Iolaus sank down with a sigh and rubbed his red, watery eyes.

Alcmene sat beside him and felt his forehead with her hand.

"I know, I've got it, too."

She nodded, "Why don't you lie down."

"No, I have to take care of the baby."

"I'll stay and look after things for awhile. Come on, lie down."

He didn't resist when she pushed him back onto the pillows. He didn't even remember her pulling off his boots or tucking the blankets in around him.

Alcmene joined the healer by the baby. He shook his head solemnly.

"It's not good. He's loosing ground fast. It's gone into his lungs, becoming harder to breath. I'll do what I can but it's not in our hands. I don't think it ever was. So many little ones, gone already."

She nodded, a mother's worst fears clutching her heart as she looked down at the tiny helpless child in the crib.

"I'll stay with them," she said quietly.

"I was hoping you'd say that," he squeezed her arm and turned to Iolaus. "I was afraid of this when I was here yesterday morning. He didn't say anything. Stubborn." He shook his head as he quickly examined Iolaus. The healer left Alcmene with more herbs for the two of them and instructions to keep Iolaus in bed as much as possible.

Iolaus slept lightly. He stirred every time the baby made a sound. Alcmene remembered being the same way when her boys were small. A couple of times during the day she'd turned to find Iolaus lying there watching her rocking or walking the baby. He'd smile and close his eyes again.

Alcmene grew more worried as the day wore on. She bathed the baby again trying to cool the fever. His breath was becoming shallower and more raspy by the hour. Sometime in the early afternoon he stopped fussing. He was too quiet, too still.

Finally, she carried him over and laid him in Iolaus' arms. Iolaus was awake in an instant. He took in Alcmene's tears and without a word knew what was happening. They laid there with Alcmene beside them for a long time. Iolaus held his son tenderly as he breathed his last and the tiny fingers released their grip on his fingers. The tears spilled from his eyes, "No."

Early the next morning Hercules had the tiny grave prepared next to Ania's. Alcmene and Deianeira stayed close to Iolaus. Hercules' children had been left at home for fear of exposing them. The fever still burned within Iolaus. He shouldn't have been out of bed but no one had dared even suggest that he not be present.

Hercules said a few appropriate words. Iolaus didn't hear them. He couldn't speak. He only knew that his last link to Ania was gone, that the most wonderful thing that had ever happened to him was over and he was alone. Terribly alone.

He didn't know what to do. Didn't know how he could go on. He felt so lost. He didn't want to think anymore. He couldn't.

Iolaus' knees gave way. Alcmene and Deianeira caught him as he fell to the ground. He surrendered himself into Alcmene's gentle hands. She'd know what to do. She always knew.

The next few days were a blur to Iolaus. He had the vague impression that he wasn't in his own bed. Where ever he was, he felt warm and secure.

Alcmene was always near with cold water to sip and cool cloths for his forehead. The rest was a dream, sometimes evil and frightening, sometimes warm and loving. There was always Alcmene's voice, soothing and calming him, telling him it would be all right. He wanted it to be true.

Iolaus opened his eyes and recognized the room. This was Hercules' old room in Alcmene's house, now, the formal guest room. No wonder it felt safe. He'd taken refuge from his father and family here more than once growing up.

Alcmene was dozing in a chair by the bed. Iolaus watched her sleep for a time. He slowly realized that his throat was dry and that it didn't hurt anymore. There was a glass by the bed. He reached for it but his fingers lacked the strength to hold it and it clattered to the floor.

"Iolaus, what are you doing?" Alcmene asked.

"Trying to get a drink without waking you but my fingers don't seem to work right. Now, I've made a mess."

"Don't worry about it. This floor's seen worse." She picked up the glass and refilled it from the pitcher. She handed it to Iolaus and kept a steadying hand on the glass to support it as he drank.

Thirst quenched, Iolaus laid down. Alcmene felt his forehead, "Are you feeling better?"

Iolaus nodded, "I think so. Why did you bring me here?"

"I thought it might be easier for you, if you were away from the house awhile."

"Oh," Iolaus paused, "How long since.."

"Four days."

"You haven't been taking care of me for four days?"

She smiled shyly, "No, Hercules has been here off and on. He persuaded me to take a break once in awhile."

Iolaus reached out his hand to her, "Thank you."

She took the offered hand, "Hercules wanted to take you home with him, but I needed to take care of you. I'm not sure what I'm going to do with all my afternoons."

Iolaus squeezed her hand weakly, "I don't know what I'm going to do either. Want to try to figure it out together?"

She nodded, "Please."

The void inside him didn't feel quite so empty anymore. He wasn't completely alone in his grief.

"Um, Hercules wondered what he should do with all the baby things. He thought, it might be easier for you if they weren't in plain sight."

Iolaus thought, "I don't think I'm ready to get rid of them, yet. Maybe he should put them in the loft? Silly of me, huh? What do I need with all that stuff? I should give it to someone who can use it."

"No, you should keep it. It was a beautiful cradle you made. You'll need it again someday."

"Think so?"

"I know so. There will be another pretty girl that you'll want to settle down with one of these days."

Iolaus smiled, about to reply, when the door opened.

"Is that a smile I see?"

"Herc, come save me from your mother and her matchmaking."

"Matchmaking? Mother, he's not even out of his sick bed, yet."

Alcmene let go of Iolaus' hand, "I am not going to dignify this conversation with a reply." Yet, she knew full well the healing power of the gentle teasing between these two. "Hercules, if you'll be here awhile. I'm going to take a bath and freshen up."

"Go ahead." Hercules sat on the end of the bed next to Iolaus' feet and leaned against the footboard.

"So, you're finally on the mend?"

"Feel kinda shaky, but yeah, I'll survive."

"Good," Hercules paused, then continued quietly, "I spoke with Hades. He promised me, he'd look after them."

The two friends' eyes met. "Thanks, it helps to know that."

"He said Ania was very excited."

"She only got to hold him a moment before...I bet she was excited." Iolaus smiled at the thought.

"Hey," Hercules tapped Iolaus' leg bringing him back to the present, "Are you going to be alright?"

"I don't know. I'm glad to be here," he glanced around the room.

"Mother felt very strongly about bringing you here."

"Yeah, I think I needed her, too." Iolaus took a deep breath and his eyes began to close.

"I think you need some more sleep. I'll be around if you need anything."

Iolaus dreamed of Ania. She danced circles in a field of wildflowers with their son in her arms. Iolaus slept peacefully with their smiles in his mind's eye and woke with the sound of their laughter still ringing in his ears.

Iolaus stayed another two days with Alcmene, regaining his strength under her tender ministrations. The third morning they walked together in the warm sun back to Iolaus' cottage. He stopped at the end of the path.

"I'd better take it from here."

"Are you sure?" she asked.

"Yes," he nodded and took a deep breath, "I need to do this."

"You know where I am, if you need anything."

He nodded, "Thank you for everything."

They hugged, "Take it easy, you're still weak."

"I will," he assured her.

She headed back down the road, "I'll bring you some more soup tomorrow"

Iolaus waved at her and watched until she disappeared around the bend. He stood a long time at the edge of the property. He saw the year old grave on the hill with the smaller fresh one along side. It occurred to Iolaus that he should plant some flowers there in the spring. Alcmene would probably like to help with that. He made a mental note to ask her.

Iolaus went to the barn where he greeted and fed the cow and horse. There was a routine here and Iolaus took comfort in it. While everything else in his life was changing, this had stayed the same.

Slowly, Iolaus made his way to the house and took a deep breath before opening the door. He didn't know what he expected to find. Everything was the same as before except that the baby things were gone. Safely stowed out of sight in the barn.

Visually there was little to remind him of his loss but the smell of the baby was still in the place. The sweet memories were there and always would be. Life would go on with the help of friends to lean on, no, not friends, family. He would survive but somehow he knew, he'd never be quite the same again.

End

Written in December 1997.

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