Once and Future King

by Ceryndip

A sequel to "Long Live the King"

Niobe sat alone in her carriage. She stared out at the forest. It had been a wet spring. The muddy road forced them to travel slowly.

Since her husband's passing, she had handled the mantle of leadership well. The neighboring kingdoms had balked at the League for awhile, but they calmed down. Especially after they saw that Niobe was going to be a fair and good monarch for Attica and dedicated to peace in the League. It had still taken some talking and coercing, but a year after its inception things were moving smoothly.

It had been a long and lonely year. She hadn't been able to give Orestes her passion. She couldn't give what she didn't feel, but she did miss his company terribly. She hadn't realized how much she had come to depend on him as a sounding board, a confidant, and a friend. She missed the hours of debating and discussing issues. Now, she had only Hector. She couldn't have asked for a better aide. Hector was a good man, but he tended to see the world in black and white, not the grey tones of reality.

Suddenly, the carriage lurched to a halt. She looked through the window and saw a gathering of her guards at the head of the caravan.

"What's happening?" she called to her driver.

"There's a man lying in the middle of the road, Your Highness. Probably a drunk. Nothing to be concerned about."

Hector rode up to the carriage window, "I'll see what's going on."

There seemed to be quite a stir going on at the front of the caravan. Niobe decided to see for herself. As she daintily hopped around the mud puddles in the road, she saw Hector dispel the guards and kneel by the man. As Niobe got closer, the man on the ground began to look familiar. She practically ran the remaining steps to look over Hector's shoulder.

"Iolaus?"

Hector nodded.

"Is he hurt badly?" She stepped over Iolaus' legs to kneel on the opposite side of his unconscious body. There was a gash in his forehead that was still oozing blood. His clothes were torn and dirty.

"Nothing seems to be broken. He's had a nasty knock on the head, though. Scrapes, bruises, looks like he's been through quite an ordeal". Hector leaned forward and whispered, "How are we going to handle this? The guards think they've just found their dead King lying in the middle of the road." He glanced over his shoulder. "Word is already spreading within the caravan."

"Later, we'll deal with it later." She impatiently called three guards forward, "Put him in my carriage and fetch me some water, a clean cloth and some bandages."

"Niobe, I really think..."

"Hector, later." She followed the two guards carrying Iolaus between them.

The caravan began moving slowly forward again. Niobe couldn't think of anything but that Iolaus was with her again. She was so angry with him for lying to her before. The anger had passed quickly into regret once he was gone.

Niobe removed Iolaus' boots and torn vest. She covered his legs with a blanket and dampened a cloth. She gently washed the mud and blood from his face and chest before she began to clean the gash in his forehead. He stirred as she was tying the bandage around his head.

His eyes fluttered open and she caught his hand before it reached his head and held it.

"Shhhhh. you're safe now."

"Where am I?" he asked quietly.

"Royal carriage. We're on our way back to Attica. We found you in the middle of the road. What happened?"

He thought long and hard for a moment, "I don't know.".

"Well, what's the last thing you do remember? Maybe we can take it from there."

Again, silence as he considered, "I don't know that either."

She smiled, "Do you even know your own name?" She joked, but realized by the alarm in his eyes that it was no laughing matter. "You don't know?"

"No...I...I don't know who I am. Do you know me? Do you know my name?" Iolaus' alarm was rapidly turning to panic.

"Of course, I know you. Your name is..." she paused. She knew she shouldn't but the loneliness of the past year and a suddenly intense desire to keep this man near her and not let go welled up inside her and she couldn't stop herself. "You're my husband, silly. King Orestes."

"Orestes? King?" Iolaus' bewildered eyes searched her face.

She nodded, "King of Attica."

"Attica. I don't remember." He tried to sit up but a wave of dizziness pushed him back onto the cushions. "My head hurts."

"Then don't think about it. Rest now. We'll deal with your memory later when you're feeling better."

Iolaus nodded and closed his eyes. "King Orestes of Attica," he murmured. In some strange way that felt right.

Niobe watched until she saw his breathing become deep and regular, then, she turned to the window.

"How long have you been there, Hector?"

"Long enough to know what you're doing is wrong."

"I didn't ask for your approval nor do I require it. Shouldn't you be checking on the guards or something instead of eavesdropping at my window?"

Hector frowned, "We're not finished with this conversation, Your Highness," and rode toward the front of the caravan.

Iolaus woke in the King's chambers. A dull throbbing still sounded in his head but it was nothing compared to the searing pain of the night before. He sat up in bed and looked around. Maybe he could see something in this room he knew.

His eyes scanned the objects on the tables and dressers. Nothing. He nearly jumped out of his skin, when he saw Niobe sleeping on the other side of the huge bed. He hadn't known she was there. He chuckled to himself, "How could a guy ever catch his wife in a bed this big?"

He leaned back on the pillows and turned on his side. He studied Niobe's face as she slept. Somehow, this all seemed so familiar, yet so unfamiliar. He felt like he'd been here before. He just couldn't seem to remember anything specific that happened here. "If I have been in the King's chambers before with this woman, then I couldn't be anyone but the King. What do you know, wake up one day and suddenly you're a King." He laughed quietly.

"What are you grinning about?" He looked over to find Niobe smiling at him. He shrugged his shoulders and smiled bashfully,

"I'm the King."

Niobe's smile broadened.

"But I'm a king with a problem," he continued, "I don't remember being king. I'm thinking it probably wouldn't be a good idea to tell people I don't remember. We don't want the people losing faith and all. I think you're going to have to help me. There's so much I don't know, like, everything. Do you always sleep clear over there?"

She slid across the bed and nuzzled his shoulder, "No, sometimes I sleep all the way over here."

Niobe emerged from a late breakfast in the King's chambers to find a very concerned Hector waiting for her. She steeled herself for the onslaught she knew he was bringing.

"Have you thought about this, Your Highness? Are you mad?"

She considered. She hadn't really thought about it. She didn't want to think about it. If she thought about it, she might not be able to go through with it.

"Maybe I am crazy. Hector, you've been a good friend to me this last year. I couldn't have made it without you, but you know how hard it's been. How lonely I've been."

"This is not Iolaus' life. He is not a King."

"What if his memories never return? What if he never remembers his other life? He could be happy here. He passed for Orestes before. He even fooled the palace staff and the guards. If he believes he is Orestes, there is no reason to think anyone will suspect."

"Can he fool Hercules? Sooner or later he will come looking for his friend."

"Right now he doesn't even remember Hercules."

Niobe considered. Hector was right, Hercules would come looking. She had to make sure they were prepared for him, that the new Orestes knew his part well.

"How will you explain this to the people. They buried their King with a great deal of pomp and circumstance not quite a year ago. Do you think they will just forget that?"

"No, of course not, we'll just have to tell them that it was for show, for his protection or something for the good of Attica. I don't know. I'll come up with something plausible. Until then, Hector, I need your promise that you won't interfere. I know you disapprove. I only ask that you do your job. You don't have to help me, just don't do anything to stop me. Please, Hector, let me try to find a little happiness for as long as it lasts."

Hector heard the pleading in her voice and despite his better judgment he nodded his agreement. "For now. I won't promise for tomorrow, but for now."

Hercules rose from the lumpy mattress gratefully as the first rays of sun shown through the shutters. He wouldn't have slept well even if the mattress hadn't been lumpy. He was worried about Iolaus. They were to have met here two days ago and there was still no sign of him. If Iolaus wasn't going to make a meeting on time, he was usually good about sending word.

Hercules dressed quickly and headed down to breakfast. He hoped to see Iolaus leaning on the bar when he got there. He was disappointed. Something must have happened. Hercules decided it was time to go looking. He ate a quick breakfast and settled with the inn keeper on the room. He, also, left a message for Iolaus, just in case they missed each other in passing.

Hercules set out on the road toward Cillabos. He had left Iolaus at his grandmother's house. He consulted a map. Cillabos was a considerable journey. He noticed the road to Cillabos would take him very near to Attica, that was where Iolaus' cousin was king before he was killed. Maybe Iolaus stopped off there, but he doubted it. He knew what it had cost his friend to leave Niobe the last time. It wasn't a place Iolaus was likely to just visit. Hercules quickened his steps.

Niobe found herself with a few moments to herself in the middle of the afternoon, an unusual occurrence for a monarch trying to hold a kingdom together. She decided to check on 'her King'. His chambers were empty. She noticed the open door to the gardens immediately. Wandering out into the warm afternoon sun, she found him sitting quietly on a bench. His nightshirt visible in the gap of his unfastened blue robe.

"You should be resting. You have a head injury."

He turned at the sound of her voice, "I feel fine." He smiled, "As long as I don't move too quickly. I'm a little sore. Come. Join me." He patted the bench beside him.

She walked around the bench and for a time they sat in silence. Niobe finally broke it, What are you doing out here?

"Sitting; breathing. It's so beautiful here. So peaceful."

She looked around the garden, seeing it for the first time in a long time. Her eyes settled on a rosebush covered in blooms. "The roses have outdone themselves this year, haven't they?"

He nodded and slipped his arm around her shoulders. "No more beautiful than you, my Queen," he whispered in her ear.

Niobe melted into his embrace. As their lips touched, all Niobe could smell was roses.

Hercules heard his stomach rumble, protesting the fact that he hadn't taken the time to eat since breakfast. It was nearly evening and after a full day's travel there was still no sign of Iolaus.

He stopped by a bush full of ripe, red berries. They were Iolaus' favorites. He couldn't pass by a bush of these sweet berries without stopping. Hercules began picking a few to help quiet his stomach. As he ate he noticed the remains of a campsite just off the road. If he hadn't stopped for the berries, he'd never have seen it.

Hercules, hunger forgotten, moved to examine the campsite. The fire was a couple of days old at least. It appeared to have burned itself out. It wasn't doused. He glanced around and found sword slashes in a couple of trees. There were footprints indicating several people that left as a group. Then, off to one side, Hercules found a single set of bootprints that disappeared off the side of a steep hill. Judging from the broken branches and still somewhat flattened grass, the individual must've fallen and rolled to the bottom of the hill.

Hercules started carefully picking his way down the side. About halfway down he found something that caused his heart to stop. Swinging gently from a bush, hung a black medallion that could only belong to Iolaus. Hercules tucked the medallion into his belt pouch and continued to the rocky bottom of the hill. He found the depression in the bank where Iolaus' body had stopped half in the small steam.

The sun was setting, Hercules wouldn't be able to track much further. He found Iolaus' bootprints on the opposite side of the stream. There appeared to be a fairly clear path leading farther into the countryside.

Iolaus had been attacked and had fallen down the hill. Hercules camped beside the stream feeling very frustrated and worried. Iolaus might be hurt out there somewhere and in the moonless night, he could pass right by him without seeing him.

Hercules leaned up against a tree and knew he would not sleep this night. He merely waited for the coming dawn.

"Are you sure you're up to this?" Niobe asked surprised.

"Yes, I feel fine. You said I've been gone for nearly a year. The people need to know their King has returned and everything's alright." He motioned away the servants and dressed himself in the blue and silver robes they brought.

"By the way, what have I been doing the last year?"

Niobe didn't answer, she ignored his question and shook her head in dismay, "A tour? Alright, a tour of the city it is, if you say so."

He beamed. "Of course, I say so. I am the King."

Niobe smiled, "Yes, yes you are. I'll go tell Hector to arrange an escort."

Word of the King's return had been spreading like wildfire. Niobe could feel the electricity in the air already as the escort cleared the castle gates. Both she and Hector rode a pace behind and on either side of 'Orestes'. She was beginning to find it easier to think of him as Orestes. Much easier. After all, Iolaus was the man she always wanted Orestes to be.

The citizens were turning out in droves to see the King. He smiled, waved and nodded to them in greeting. He was having a wonderful time and his citizens returned his enthusiasm.

Niobe leaned over to speak quietly with Hector. "Rumors are spreading everywhere. There is no need for an official explanation. The people are making up their own heroic stories of where Orestes has been. You see how quickly the people forget?"

He nodded, "And how quickly will he remember?"

Niobe didn't want to think of that. This morning her heart was light. It felt as if a great weight had been lifted from her shoulders. If she hadn't known better, she would've thought she was flying. For the first time in a long time she felt genuinely happy.

Hercules had been up with the first hint of light in the east. Tracking Iolaus was not difficult even with his trail a couple of days cold. The ground was soft and his tracks had been undisturbed. What worried Hercules the most was the wandering of Iolaus' steps. They didn't follow a straight line, but veered frequently to the right and left as though Iolaus was having trouble keeping his balance.

Hercules tracked Iolaus to a road where he seemed to have disappeared. Hercules searched the area on the opposite side of the road and found nothing to suggest Iolaus had been there. The road was riddled with the ruts of passing wagons. Someone must have picked him up.

The road in question led directly to the capital city of Attica. Niobe was there. If Iolaus were hurt, maybe he was trying to reach Attica for help. Hercules hoped that was the case.

It had taken all morning to ride through the city. As the word spread, more and more people came into the streets to greet their King. Until the pace had been reduced to nearly a standstill as the lead escort riders gently nudged the citizens out of the way.

When they finally returned to the castle, it was mid-afternoon. They had a light meal and Niobe sent her husband off to rest. The day had obviously taken it's toll. His headache had returned but he assured her that it was nothing serious.

Niobe used the time to perform the mundane tasks of running a kingdom. She did stop to look in on him. On both occasions she found him sleeping peacefully.

That evening they shared a quiet meal in the dinning room. There were musicians playing softly to one side.

"I think this morning went very well."

Niobe smiled. He'd said that at least a dozen times already today, and again she agreed, "Yes, it did."

"I still don't remember for sure how to be king, but I guess from the crowd's response I must be a pretty good king. They wouldn't come out like that if they didn't like me."

Niobe chuckled, "No, I suppose they wouldn't."

"So what now? What should the King do tomorrow?"

Niobe considered, "Well, you could start hearing complaints and pleas again."

"OK, the King solves the problems of the people. I like it." He finished his meal and pushed the plate away.

He reached over a took her hand in his. He winked at her and called out to the musicians, "Hey, you guys know anything a man could dance with his wife to?"

Niobe's mouth fell open, "We've never danced except at court functions."

"Really? I'll just have to change that. I'm the King. It's within my power to fix that kind of thing, you know." He smiled as he gently led her to an open space on the floor.

The musicians obliged his mood with a quick stepping number that left the couple gasping for air and giggling uncontrollably at the same time. The musicians waited uncertainly for further instructions. They weren't sure what to do. King Orestes had never done anything like this before.

"That was great, but do you think we could try something a little slower. I don't think I'm up to too many more like that last one." He grinned.

His grin turned to a beautiful smile as the music began and he took Niobe into his arms. Orestes was a good man but he was not a romantic, not like this. Niobe tried to ignore the pangs of guilt as she rested her head on his shoulder and for the third time in her life she lost her heart completely to this man. But her heart knew it was a lie. She couldn't go through with it. She looked up at him and saw his beautiful smile and got lost in his eyes.

"What is it?"

Her heart didn't care and refused to let her speak the words, "Nothing, it's nothing."

"We've never danced like this before?" he asked quietly.

She shook her head.

"Well, we should have."

When the song ended, he scooped her up in his arms and carried her off to bed.

It was late in the day by the time Hercules entered the city gates. He stopped at the first inn he came to. His knees felt weak from lack of food and sleep. He ordered a bowl of stew and slid gratefully onto a stool at the bar.

There were several men animatedly discussing something by the fire. Hercules turned to listen.

"I tell you it was the King. It was Orestes. I saw Queen Niobe and Hector with him. It was the King."

The innkeeper set the bowl in front of Hercules.

"Tell me," Hercules asked him as he blew on a spoonful of stew to cool it, "I thought King Orestes was dead."

"So did we all. We've been hearing rumors of his return for a couple of days and this very morning he was seen by hundreds in the streets. I've lived here my whole life, son, I know my King and this was him. I guess he was just away somewhere."

"And he was OK? I mean, he appeared to be healthy? He wasn't injured in any way?" Hercules asked.

We"ll, now that you mention it. There was a small bandage around his head. The crown hid it well. Other than that, he appeared to be fine. Why do you ask?"

"Oh, no reason. Tell me. If I wanted to see the King for myself, how would I go about doing that?"

The plump little innkeeper considered, "Well, in the past Orestes always heard complaints from the citizens the first of each week. His father only did it monthly, you know. It should be tomorrow. I assume you could just go and sign up in the morning."

"Thank you."

The innkeeper nodded and moved off to tend to other customers. Hercules pondered the situation. He knew Orestes was dead. Iolaus had been there when it happened. Therefore, this must be Iolaus coming to Attica's aid, by again pretending to be the King. Iolaus was hurt, but not severely. Hercules knew how hard that head was. So, if Iolaus was not in immediate danger, there was no reason to go off storming the castle tonight. It could wait till morning.

Hercules flagged down the innkeeper and rented a room for the night. Knowing Iolaus was safe, and finally having a hot meal in his belly, Hercules was asleep before his head hit the pillow.

Iolaus woke in the night from the strangest dream. He'd dreamed he was in someone else's body and he was watching himself. He was drinking too much and he couldn't keep his hands off the women. Iolaus sat up in the bed and wrapped his arms around his knees. He sighed and pondered what this dream meant. "Hmmmm, maybe I was a self-centered idiot in another life? In my younger days?" he chuckled to himself, "Nah." He dismissed the strange dream and rolled over to go back to sleep.

Hercules was up just after dawn. He declined the inn keeper's offer of breakfast and headed for the castle. At the gate there was an older, official looking man sitting at a table.

Hercules walked up and politely inquired about seeing the King.

"Don't you think it's a little early for visitors, young man?"

"I really need to see the King," Hercules insisted.

"Is this a matter of national security?" the older man inquired.

"No, not as such."

"Well then, King Orestes will be hearing pleas and complaints later this morning. I suggest that you sign this list and go find yourself some breakfast and come back when it's a decent hour."

Hercules surrendered to the protocol of court politics and he signed the parchment. He had waited this long to find Iolaus. He could wait a couple more hours.

The official read his name, "Hercules." He looked up. "A pleasure sir. I'm sure the King will be happy to see you."

"I'm sure he will," Hercules replied and set off to find the marketplace.

Niobe walked down to the castle gate to see how long the list of petitioners was. She didn't want her husband wearing himself out settling every dispute in town today. He woke up so excited about hearing pleas, she was afraid he might.

"Your Highness," the man at the table rose and bowed, "Good morning."

"Good morning, Bailiff. Is this the list of petitioners?"

He nodded. She scanned down the list of names and her blood ran cold when she reached, 'Hercules'.

"No, not now," she whispered.

"Beg your pardon?" He asked.

"Nothing. Don't add anyone else to the list. The King won't be hearing pleas and complaints today. Something's come up. Tell everyone to come back another day."

She took the list of names and stalked back to the castle. She went to her office and burned the list. Hercules was here. She knew she couldn't keep him away forever. Iolaus had fooled everyone into believing he was Orestes twice before. This time he believed it himself. Maybe it would be enough to fool Hercules as well...

First she had to convince him not to see anyone today.

Niobe went looking for Iolaus. She found him in his office reading some papers. He smiled as she entered.

"There's a lot to this being King isn't there?" he said indicating the pile of parchment papers.

She nodded, "Sometimes there is, yes."

"So what brings my beautiful Queen to interrupt my royal duties this morning."

Niobe slowly walked around the table and leaned against it. She ran her fingers through his hair, "I was thinking about another royal duty we should probably pursue."

He wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her into his lap, "And what might that be?"

"Attica doesn't have an heir yet."

He chuckled, surprised, "Niobe, it's the middle of the morning. I'm about to go hear complaints."

"You can do that tomorrow," she brushed her fingertips across the silk shirt covering his chest.

"Do we often do this in the middle of the morning?"

"Not usually, but I am the Queen. Don't I have the power to change things like that?"

He grinned wickedly, "If you didn't, you do now."

He lifted her up and set her on the table with a wink, "Stay here. I'll be right back."

Niobe watched as her King opened the door and called to one of the servants, "Tell whoever that we're not hearing pleas today. Tell everybody to come back tomorrow." Then, he closed the door, took Niobe's hand and led her out the back way toward the royal chambers.

Hercules didn't like to be a name dropper, even if it was his own name he was dropping.

"But I'm Hercules," he informed the guard, again.

"I'm aware of that, sir, but I was told no visitors today."

"Could you just take a message to the King and tell him I'm here? I'm sure he'll want to see me."

The guard sighed, exasperated, "Alright, I'll ask."

Hercules waited by the gate. He leaned against the wall and slid down to sit in the small shade it cast in the early afternoon sun. "It should not be this hard."

The guard returned. The news wasn't good. "I'm sorry, no visitors today. You'll have to come back tomorrow."

Hercules nodded. Somehow he wasn't surprised. "OK, I give up." He rose and headed down the street.

Hercules wandered around the city. It was attractive and clean with many modern conveniences. The people were more than hospitable. Eventually, he found himself outside the castle wall again. It wasn't an exceptionally tall wall, at least not at this point. He looked up and down the street to make sure he wouldn't be caught. Then, he jumped up and pulled himself to the top, rolling over it to land quietly on the other side.

Hercules found himself in a large garden with many flowers, bushes and shade trees. He couldn't detect anyone else around. So he found the path and began discretely following it toward the castle.

He slowed his pace as he neared the castle, itself. He didn't want to explain his presence here until he had to. He came around a bush into a small clearing and there sitting on a bench in the center was a familiar blond form. Maybe his luck was improving.

Hercules quietly walked over and called, "Iolaus!"

The figure on the bench jumped, startled, and turned, "Who?"

Iolaus' face showed no sign of recognition. There was something very wrong here.

"Iolaus, it's me Hercules."

"Hercules?" Iolaus offered his hand, Hercules hesitatingly accepted it. His concern growing.

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Hercules. Attica is honored by your visit. Why didn't I know you were coming?"

"Iolaus, don't you know me?"

"Who is Iolaus? Have we met? I'm sorry, I don't recall." He smiled sheepishly, "It's been happening to me a lot lately. Come, sit with me a moment."

A confused and worried Hercules joined him. Iolaus gazed out at the garden.

"It's beautiful here isn't it? So quiet. I've been spending quite a bit of time here. I think if I could just live here in this garden, I wouldn't have a care in the world".

"Yes, it is a nice spot. I've been admiring the gardens for awhile."

Iolaus searched Hercules' face, "I don't know you but somehow you seem familiar. Have you been to Attica before?"

"No, I haven't, but we have met. What's happened to you that caused you to lose your memory?"

"Well, it's not common knowledge, even among the palace staff, but for some reason," he shook his head, "I know I can trust you. I'm feeling a little insecure about all this as it is. Maybe it would do me good to talk about it. I was injured a few days ago. We don't know how. The Queen's caravan found me unconscious in the road. I don't remember anything before I woke in her arms."

Hercules was beginning to put the pieces together, "And she told you, you were Orestes?"

Iolaus nodded and both men were startled by a voice from behind them.

"My King, why didn't you tell me we had a visitor?"

Iolaus turned, "Yes, I'm sorry. I should have called you. Niobe this is my old friend, Hercules. Hercules this is Queen, Niobe."

Hercules and Niobe nodded wary greetings to each other.

"We should have a room prepared for you. How long will you be staying with us in Attica?" Iolaus stood and put a hand to his head.

"My King, are you alright?" Niobe was at his side instantly.

"Yes, just another little headache. I probably stood up too quickly. If you'll excuse me, I think I'll go and lie down. Niobe, would you show our honored guest to his room and see to his needs? I'm sure he'd like to clean up before dinner."

"Of course."

Hercules and Niobe watched Iolaus leave the garden. Niobe called a servant to show him to his room before Hercules had a chance to question her.

Dinner was uncomfortable for Hercules. Niobe had continued to be brusque toward him and extremely attentive to Iolaus, who was enjoying every moment of it. Hercules couldn't blame him, she was a beautiful woman and he did believe she was his wife, that much was evident from their behavior. The conversation was exceedingly polite.

After dinner Niobe tried to get Iolaus to drink some tea. He obviously didn't want to. Hercules was amused by her trying to coax it down him. The face he made when she finally succeeded in convincing him to drink it left no doubt in Hercules' mind that this was his friend. Only his Iolaus could make a face so terrible at the taste of a little tea.

Hercules excused himself early after dinner, saying he was tired from his journey. It wasn't a total lie and he wanted some time to think about what he should do. How he could jog Iolaus' memory. He removed his boots, gauntlets, and shirt. He laid on the soft bed, but it was a long time before he went to sleep.

That night, Iolaus dreamed again. He tossed and turned and finally woke leaping from the bed with a scream. Niobe rose and went over to him. He was breathing hard and his face was pale.

"What's the matter?"

"Nothing," he glanced around remembering where he was, "It was just a dream."

"Must've been some dream." she led him back to the bed and they sat down together. "Tell me about it."

"There was a monster. It had three heads and it breathed fire. I was trying to cut off it's heads with a sword. It was a terrible beast."

"It's over now. You're safe here. I'll protect you from monsters in the dark." She pushed him back into the pillows and he placed his arm around her shoulders as she nestled in beside him.

He breathed in the fragrance from her hair and murmured, "What would I do without you to take care of me?"

Hercules found himself alone for breakfast. It seemed the King and Queen decided to have breakfast privately in their chambers. Niobe was not going to make this easy for him.

Niobe made it impossible to have a conversation with Iolaus without her being there. She didn't leave his side until the throne room was full of petitioners. Hercules found a quiet corner to watch from.

He always knew Iolaus had a lot of common sense, he just didn't always choose to use it. Hercules was impressed by the way Iolaus handled the problems presented to him.

He mediated disputes by listening to both sides and forcing the two sides to listen to each other. He rarely had to make a decision. The disputes settled themselves. After both sides were done listening, the solutions were obvious.

When the builder presented his plans for a new marketplace, Iolaus chose the design that would benefit the most people, businessman and customers alike.

Hercules admired his finesse. So convincing was he that for awhile Hercules believed he was the legitimate King, too.

After all the pleas had been heard and the complaints settled, only Hercules, Iolaus and a guard remained in the hall. Iolaus stretched and slid down to lounge on the steps that led to the throne. He beckoned Hercules to join him.

"Tell me, Hercules, what brings you to Attica? We have no monsters here for you to vanquish."

"I'm looking for a friend. He lost this and I wanted to return it." Hercules reached into his belt pouch and pulled out the medallion.

Iolaus' eyes were locked on it the moment Hercules dangled it before him. Iolaus reached out and hesitated a moment before touching it.

"Your Highness?"

Iolaus realized where he was. "I'm sorry," He let go of the medallion, "It seems familiar somehow. I must've seen one somewhere before." Suddenly, he moaned softly and held his head in his hands.

Hercules put a hand on his shoulder. Iolaus opened his eyes, "No, I'm alright. Strange, like a flash of memory went through my mind. Too fast to see what it was. It's gone now. It's nothing." He smiled reasuringly, "Don't look so worried."

He stood and Hercules had to help steady him.

"Thank you."

Hercules didn't want to let go but had little choice as Iolaus extracted himself from his grasp.

"Good luck, finding your friend. I'll see you at dinner. I think I'll go rest awhile. Maybe take a walk in the gardens."

Hercules wandered about the castle. He came across Niobe in the kitchen. She was preparing more of the tea. Hercules stepped into the room where she could see him.

"If you put a little honey in it, he'll be more willing to drink it."

"Orestes has never taken honey in his tea."

"He's not Orestes, is he?"

She stopped and sighed.

"What does it matter? He's happy here. Why don't you just leave us alone!" She took the tray and left the room in tears.

Hercules sighed. Iolaus did seem to be happy here. He had confessed to Hercules his love for Niobe after their first meeting. Then, he remembered what Iolaus had told him of the last time he'd been here. They'd taken a swim to clean up after finally excavating the stump by the lakeside. Alcmene wouldn't let them in the house dripping. The whole painful story had spilled from Iolaus as they sat together in Alcmene's garden sunning themselves dry. Hercules still felt his friends agony at leaving this woman a second time. He and Iolaus had been dealt more than their share of family tragedy in life. Maybe Niobe was right. Why not let Iolaus have a little happiness? He deserved it and he did make an impressive King.

Hercules arrived for dinner to find Niobe trying to cajole Iolaus into drinking the tea. Reluctantly she handed him the honey jar. Hercules smiled and chuckled softly to himself as Iolaus dumped a healthy dose into the cup. Niobe frowned at him. After taking a sip of the tea, Iolaus reached over and pulled Niobe to him. He kissed her frown away. Hercules discretely watched the couple all through the meal. He saw them glance meaningfully at each other in the way that only lovers do. He recognized the happy glow in Iolaus' eyes. Maybe he should just leave. Maybe that would be the merciful thing to do.

Hercules went to bed early again. He felt depressed. He was of two minds on the situation. Iolaus was a good man with a past worth remembering. On the other hand, he was making a life for himself here. If Iolaus knew he was Iolaus and not Orestes, it wouldn't bother him so much. If this was what Iolaus truly wanted, Hercules would gladly go but it was the deception that disturbed him. Hercules didn't know what to do anymore. Eventually he fell into a worried and not very restful sleep.

Again, Iolaus woke with his heart racing and his breathing ragged. This time Niobe remained asleep. He rolled to the edge of the bed and tried to catch his breath. This dream was different from the others. In this dream he had died. It disturbed him deeply. He needed to speak with someone about it to share the terror that gripped his heart. He couldn't get the image of Hercules' face out of his mind. He clearly saw the tears in his friend's eyes as the world went dark. Hercules was most definitely a friend, and maybe he could explain this dream.

Iolaus rose from the bed slowly, so as not to disturb Niobe, and quietly left the room. He padded quickly down the hall in his bare feet not wanting anyone else to know he was about. He knocked on the door to Hercules' room as loudly as he dared. There was no answer. He opened the door and slipped inside.

He stood beside the bed looking at the sleeping Hercules in the moonlight. He could not get over the feeling that he knew this man from the dream, he knew he must. Iolaus reached out and shook his shoulder.

Hercules woke, "Huh? Iolaus, I mean Orestes?"

"Yes, I need to talk with you," he whispered, "Get dressed and meet me in the garden."

Hercules dressed quickly and found Iolaus on the bench where he had first seen him. Hercules sat next to him. Neither man said anything for a long moment. It was a warm night. The sky shown full of stars.

Iolaus glanced at him and began obviously unsure of his words. "I've been having dreams, terrible nightmares really. There are the most awful monsters. Niobe says they're just dreams, figments of my imagination. The result of my injury, but they don't feel like dreams. They feel too real to be dreams. Tonight, you were in my dream."

Hercules' heart leaped. Was Iolaus finally remembering something?

Iolaus continued, "When you arrived and again just now, you called me by a different name. Iolaus?"

"Yes".

"Tell me about him. He's the friend you're looking for?"

Hercules nodded. How much should he tell? "Iolaus and I sorta grew up together. He's my best friend. We've never had any secrets. We've always looked out for each other..."

Niobe noticed when Iolaus returned to the bed. It was nearly dawn. She didn't know when he had left but she knew he had been gone for awhile. His side of the bed was cold. She ordered the servants to let him sleep.

Hercules was also conspicuous by his absence at breakfast. Niobe had the terrible feeling that her life was coming unraveled and there was nothing she could do about it.

After she finished breakfast, Niobe looked in on Iolaus. He was sleeping fitfully. Tossing his head on the pillow. Another dream, deep down she knew it was merely another memory. A memory that would soon take him from her again.

Hercules slept soundly through the morning and into the afternoon. Iolaus wasn't completely convinced he and 'Iolaus' were one and the same but Hercules had gone to bed feeling better about the situation. If Iolaus was having Hydra dreams, it was just a matter of time until he remembered the rest.

Hercules took his time bathing and dressing. He decided to take a walk outside before dinner.

Iolaus rolled over and stretched. He opened his eyes to find the afternoon sun streaming through the window. He hadn't slept well. The dreams disturbed him as did most of what Hercules had told him. He didn't know who to believe. He thought, at least it felt like he'd known Niobe before. He seemed to know this castle. He hadn't had to hunt for things, he had instinctively known where things were. But what Hercules said had a ring of truth to it as well. What if things were as Hercules told? He knew this castle because he had switched places with his cousin before. It would explain everything he had felt familiar about, including Niobe. He had no doubts that Hercules was more than an acquaintance. He was a good friend, but when he looked at Niobe he was filled with such intense desire. Iolaus sighed, he had to stop thinking about all this, it made his head throb.

Iolaus' stomach rumbled ominously.

"Well, my head may not be on straight but my appetite's fully functional." He rose and dressed intending to go to the kitchen for a preview of dinner. Maybe he'd snatch an apple. After all, who would deny the King?

He left the room and preceded down the empty hall. His thoughts wandered back to his latest unexplained dream. He had been speaking with a lovely blond woman. He'd been showing her the medallion that Hercules carried. She told him it had belonged to her husband and that her son was playing with it when he disappeared.

Suddenly, a piercing pain sliced through Iolaus' mind. He leaned on the table for support. His knees buckled as a wave of memories washed over him. So many images all at once, jumbled together incoherently. He sat on the floor gasping for breath a moment before crawling across the passage to the door of the dining hall. He used the handle to pull himself up. He staggered through and collapsed into his chair at the table. He felt the searing pain begin anew. He closed his eyes and braced for the onslaught.

Hercules arrived early for dinner. He came into the dinning hall to find Iolaus already there. Hercules took his usual place and looked over at Iolaus intending to comment on his apparent hunger at being so early for dinner. Iolaus was sitting with his eyes held tightly shut. He didn't look too steady. Hercules slid down the table to sit beside him.

"Iolaus?" he ventured.

Iolaus' eyes opened. "Do you have that medallion?" he asked quietly.

Hercules nodded and set it on the table. Iolaus' hand closed around it.

"This was my father's, my grandfather's." he whispered.

He stared at Hercules for a long moment.

"Herc?" there was a flicker of recognition in his eyes.

Again, Hercules' heart leaped. Iolaus hadn't called him 'Herc' since his arrival.

"Yes."

"Get me out of here. Take me to the garden, anywhere. It doesn't matter. I just need a quiet place. I need some air."

Hercules helped him up and led him outside. They sat together on the bench in front of the roses.

"What's the matter?" Hercules asked.

"Voices in my head. Won't stop, started after I woke up. Feels like a flood gate's opened up in my memory. It's coming too fast. My head feels like it's going to explode."

Iolaus leaned over and rested his head on Hercules' shoulder. Hercules reached around and took Iolaus by the shoulders and gently lowered him to the bench. Hercules sat on the ground beside him and put a hand on his arm.

"Do you remember Iolaus?"

"I think so," he paused his eyes still closed. "I remember this guy kidnapping your mother. You were hurt."

"I couldn't have saved her without you."

"Aphrodite and an apple?"

Hercules smiled, "Yes, we stopped a war from breaking out there".

"Herc?"

"Yes?"

"Why was I purple?"

They sat like that well into the night talking though the memories of a lifetime.

Silently, Niobe watched from the balcony and knew she had lost him. In a way it was a relief. She'd known it was inevitable. If it hadn't come from Hercules, it would have had to come from her. Iolaus didn't belong here. The guilt had been growing within her since the night they danced. She couldn't ask him to continue living a lie but telling him the truth would mean losing him. She didn't know if she could stand that either. All she could do, was cry.

Iolaus returned to the King's chambers to find Niobe lying on the bed crying. She had obviously been crying for awhile.

"Iolaus, I'm sorry. Please, don't hate me."

"No, never," he shook his head, "I could never hate you."

"It was just so lonely, I...I shouldn't have." The tears came fresh. Iolaus slid onto the bed and took her in his arms. He rocked her gently until the sobbing subsided.

"You could stay. The people love you."

"No, it wouldn't be right. I can't live a lie. I can't rule a people that I've deceived. I wouldn't be happy tied to a throne anyway. It's just not me. I've gotta be outside. It's what I know."

"I could come with you."

He dreaded hearing those words. They broke the pieces of his already broken heart.

"No, you belong here. Your people need you to care for them. Attica needs you here. The League needs you to help hold it together," he sighed. "It's what Orestes died for. You have to make sure it survives."

She nodded still crying, "Please, just hold me awhile longer?"

He wrapped his arms more tightly around her and rested his chin on her head.

As the first rays of the sun peeked over the window sill, Iolaus released Niobe and shifted around to face her.

"Iolaus, I want to explain," Niobe began.

"I know we need to talk, but it'll have to be later. We have another problem."

Her tear stained eyes looked at him blearily.

"The people think Orestes has returned. I can't just disappear and leave you with no explanation."

She nodded slowly, the Queen reasserted herself in the woman. "Of course, I don't know where my mind has been."

"In love," he kissed her forehead, "wash your pretty face and get dressed. I'm going to go get Hector and Linus. Oh, and dress for traveling."

"Hector and Linus? Traveling?"

Iolaus paused at the door and nodded somberly, "We have to plan the death of a king."

The carriage rolled slowly through the fog and drizzle. They had driven into rain a couple of hours out of Attica. They traveled toward a meeting of the League of Kingdoms. The two occupants of the royal carriage had been silent most of the trip. Both of them dreading what was yet to come.

Niobe broke the uncomfortable silence, "The weather's getting worse."

"Good. It'll make things easier to cover."

"How soon?"

"Soon. Hercules should have the ambush set up by now. He left early this morning, just before I came to you. I just hope his pretend bandits put on a good enough show to convince your guards." He shifted in the seat. "I hope they hurry. This bag of lamb's blood Linus tied around me is impossible to be comfortable in."

She nodded and went back to staring out the window.

He sighed, "I won't be able to come back to Attica."

"I know."

"I will always love you."

"I love you, too," she didn't turn to look at him. The tears fresh in her eyes.

The fog and mist continued to thicken until there was only a few feet of visibility. Hector pulled the escort in closer to the carriage.

Suddenly, shouts were heard as a dozen men in raggedy clothes leaped from the trees. The guards were pulled from their horses.

"Ambush!" yelled Hector as he rode off into the fog.

Iolaus watched from the carriage window. It was hard to see what was happening. Indistinct shapes moved in the mist. The sound of swords clashing could be heard all around them.

A tall bandit fought his way toward the carriage being extra careful not to throw anybody too far or act in any way beyond mortal.

"This is it." Iolaus slipped the crown over his head and burst out the door to meet his attacker. Niobe stepped from the carriage and remained at her king's back.

It was said later that King Orestes fought valiantly to defend his Queen.

Hercules blocked a chest-high thrust and held it pulling Iolaus close.

"Ready?" he whispered.

Iolaus nodded slightly and broke away. He swung his sword high leaving his left side open. Hercules deftly sliced though his shirt and pierced the bag with the point of his sword. Blood quickly spread. Iolaus looked down at his chest and buckled his knees falling back into Niobe's arms.

A woman's anguished scream filled the air, "My King!"

Hercules raised his sword over Niobe and was struck from behind by Hector who appeared from the mist moments too late to save his King. Hercules fell face forward. A similar blood stain covered his back.

The remainder of the bandits fled into the woods. The guards gave chase but just a few feet beyond the trees the bandits just seemed to disappear. They simply faded into the mist as though they were never there. The men returned to the caravan to find no injuries among them and only two casualties. The men stood in shock at the scene before them. The only sound apart from the rain softly dropping though the leaves was Niobe's quiet sobbing.

The bodies were carried to a wagon. One was moved with great care. The other was chucked into the wagon with considerable wrath. Hercules had difficulty staying silent when he landed. A tarp was thrown over them.

The caravan regrouped and proceeded under Hector's guidance.

Under the tarp Hercules and Iolaus lay quietly, not daring to move and hardly to breath in case someone should see.

"Iolaus?" Hercules' voice was barely a whisper.

"Yeah?"

"You OK?"

"Yeah, you?"

"I'll survive, if I don't have to assassinate any more kings." He risked shifting a tiny bit. "Someone kicked me in the ribs. They're not nice to murderers around here. So, I did my part. You're dead. What happens next?"

"Hector's taking the caravan to the royal hunting lodge. It's not far."

"Why there?"

"He thinks it'll be easier for us to sneak off before dawn tomorrow."

"Dawn? Don't we want the cover of darkness to get as far away as possible?"

"Yeah. Look it's not like anyone will be chasing a couple of dead bodies. I, well, I sorta still have some stuff to work out with Niobe."

Hercules was quiet a moment. He slid his hand very slowly over to squeeze Iolaus' arm, "Take all the time you need. I could use a good night's sleep anyway." "Wish I could sleep..."

Iolaus sat in a high-backed chair and fidgeted uncomfortably. It was near sunset, he could tell even through the pulled curtains. He had dozed some and slept little. He waited for Niobe to come. He needed some answers before he left and she was the only one who could give them.

Niobe came in quietly looking tired and worn-down. She sat on the end of the bed and stared at the floor.

Iolaus sighed and began very softly, "Niobe, there's something I need to know."

She glanced up at him and averted her eyes to another part of the floor.

Iolaus continued in the same soft voice, "If Hercules hadn't come, how long would you have let this go on?"

A large tear rolled down one cheek, "Not long. I couldn't keep it up. I just didn't know how to stop it. I don't know why I did it in the first place. I just didn't want you to leave again. I didn't want to be alone anymore. Then, I thought if I could make you happy, you wouldn't want to leave. I was afraid you'd hate me when you found out the truth. It was selfish. It was wrong. I've just made a terrible mess out of everything."

Iolaus sat on the bed next to her, "Niobe, look at me." When she didn't move, he reached over and tipped her chin toward him. "Would you have told me the truth or would you have let me live a lie? I need to know why."

"I should have told you the truth from the beginning. When you asked me to dance, I knew it couldn't go on like that. My heart over ruled my head. I just couldn't speak the words. It all went too far, too fast and I couldn't stop it. I was taught to be a leader, but I never realized how hard it was going to be. It's not just a matter of showing force to keep the peace. It's also knowing when not to show force. I always thought Orestes was naive and maybe he was, but he knew how to make these decisions. I keep second-guessing myself now. wondering if this is right. Not having Orestes to argue with, I don't know the answers anymore. And there you were, all noble and bleeding. Asking me who you were. What your name was. I didn't think. If you can't forgive me, I understand."

"I know how hard this job can be, I've done it, a little." He reached out and took her hand. He felt her body shudder at his touch. "I do forgive you. I just can't live with you. We can't live with each other."

She sadly nodded agreement, "I know that now. You lied to me about dying and I lied to you now. The passion is there but the rest is lacking."

"Yeah, It wasn't a lie in the carriage. I do still love you and if you ever need me, I'll be here."

She nodded, "Even after all that I've done, you can still say that?"

"Even after."

"Thank you. I know you have to go but would you stay with me, hold my hand, until I go to sleep? I don't want to know when you leave."

"I can do that for a friend."

She smiled through the tears, "Thank you for that, too."

The predawn barely gave enough light to see by when Iolaus took one last longing look at the woman asleep in the bed and the life he was about to leave. It was better this way. Saying goodbye would be too hard on both of them. If the truth were told, Iolaus wasn't sure he could leave if she were awake. He left a single rose he'd brought from the palace garden in Attica on her pillow and quickly left the room before the tears escaped his eyes.

Hercules was waiting for him in the woods, a satchel slung over one shoulder. Iolaus started down the path without even acknowledging Hercules' presence. Hercules understood and kept a silent vigil beside his friend until they were well on their way.

Finally, Hercules decided they had put enough distance behind them.

"Iolaus?"

"Yeah."

"Nothing, I was just checking to see if you'd still answer to that name".

Iolaus smiled. It was a sad smile but it was a start.

"Are you alright?"

"No," Iolaus sighed, "I'm not sure I'll ever be alright again, but I'll live."

"And Niobe?"

"I still love her. Part of me always will. I've never been so passionate about anyone. So passionate and so certain that I couldn't live with her the rest of my life. It takes more than love. You've got to have trust. I don't know. We just don't have what it takes."

Hercules put a comforting hand on his friend's shoulder, "Oh, I think this belongs to you." Hercules handed Iolaus his medallion.

Iolaus took it and slipped the cord over his head, "Yeah, that feels more like it."

They continued on in silence for awhile. The sun shown brightly as it rose into the sky. The birds sang in the trees. The day grew warm and they stopped by a stream for lunch. Linus had provided Hercules with a bag of provisions. Iolaus ate little. Instead he took off his boots and stuck his feet in the water.

"Wanna go fishing?"

Hercules smiled, yes, Iolaus would survive, "Sure, love to."

Iolaus had a thoughtful expression on his face as he splashed his feet gently in the water.

"I made a damn good king, didn't I?"

"You are definitely a better king, than you ever were a farmer, my friend."

Some few days later Hector found Niobe in the King's chambers.

"Hector, come in. What can I do for you?"

"I just came to report that our little plan seems to have been a success."

"Seems to?"

"Well, there's a nasty rumor circulating, that both the body of Orestes and his assassin disappeared under mysterious circumstances. They seem to think that the assassin was in on it and that Orestes is out wandering the countryside for some unknown reason. I believe a royal mystery has been born."

"That's not the only thing."

"Pardon?"

She shook her head, "Nothing. I was just thinking, maybe I should move in here."

"But these are the King's chambers."

"Yes, I know, but the Queen's chamber adjoins this one and we'll need that for the nursery soon."

Hector was silent for a moment as her meaning soaked in, "You mean?"

"Yes"

Hector was dumbstruck, "Should I..should I send for Iolaus?"

"No."

"But this is what you wanted. He'll stay now."

"Maybe, but all of you were right. This isn't his place. He belongs out there in the countryside battling monsters, helping people. It's complicated. Iolaus and I we're not....right. We'd end up enemies. He's not my king. Hector, it has to be this way. I don't want Iolaus staying with me because he feels it's his duty."

"A royal heir isn't something you're going to be able to keep secret. He'll eventually hear about it."

Niobe nodded, "And eventually we'll have to deal with that but not right now."

"Well, at least the heir will appear to be legitimate. There's at least something good come out of all this."

She nodded to him and rested her hand lightly on her stomach and smiled as she gazed at the horizon out the window. "For now, I still have this small part of him." She found a new strength within herself and realized, she wasn't so lonely anymore.

The end for now.
Written by Ceryndip July 1997.

The sequel to this story is Born to Be King

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