Credits Due: Part of the concept for this story, that of the Ice Nymph and the effects of her curse, were suggested by Selene with her request for a story for her birthday (Happy Birthday!), and part came from a short AU (Ancient Roma) ficlet from the Sentinel fandom, SA List, but I sincerely regret that I cannot remember the author's name, though she gave me permission to build on her concept. And last, but certainly not least, I want to thank my friend Lunita, who first told me about the 'Watchers'…
Dedication: To Dreamcatcher, who has been nagging me for some time to write an HTLJ/Sentinel crossover. J
Explanatory Notes: For those unfamiliar with either series…Hercules, The Legendary Journeys is about the mythical time of heroes and gods in Ancient Greece, and the partnership between the Son of Zeus and his lifelong best friend, Iolaus of Thebes, heroes who battled monsters, warlords, arbitrary gods and evil wherever they found it to protect the innocent. The Sentinel is a modern day series from the late '90s, about a police detective, Jim Ellison, a man with five enhanced senses (sight, sound, taste, touch and smell), and the grad student in Anthropology, Blair Sandburg, who helps him learn how to manage his senses and becomes his unofficial partner, as they fight major crime and corruption in the fictitious city of Cascade, Washington. Since their names don't work in the ancient world, they will be known as Justus Justinius Aurelius and Benjamin bar Judah of the House of David.
Suspend your disbelief, and worry not about historical accuracies or realistic concurrences in the span of time…there are none….
The wind whistled, an eerie low howl that echoed against granite peaks crested and thickly encrusted with snow. Millions of diamond chips could not have sparkled so brightly, or created such a glare of light, as the ice crystals reflecting the brilliance of the sun in the cloudless sky. The day was waning, the setting sun casting a rosy hue over the snowscape and splashing vermilion over the horizon, until the colours faded, edging to indigo high above. It was cold in the heights, brittle, and silent but for the keening wind.
Vast emptiness, barren of life, of warmth, cruel in its eternal beauty.
A flash of light, more blinding than that reflected by the dying sun, heralded the appearance of Hera, Queen of the Gods. She stood a moment, surveying the vast emptiness, a cold smile playing about her generous lips. Beautiful, as the gods and goddesses are beautiful, and yet…there was an aura of ugliness about her, as if the malice of her heart bled through and corrupted her eternally classic features. Surely, the ice crystals could be no colder than those eyes that glittered with icy hate, implacable and everlasting.
She raised her arms and called loudly, "Come forth!"
The wind gusted, a low throaty moan, and stirred up the pure, pristine snow until it was a furious cloud of spinning ice crystals, glittering in the dying light of the sun, stained red by its glow as if spattered by blood. The crystals whirled and danced, coalescing into an indistinct form, and then into a woman. Her skin was as alabaster white as the snow that had formed her, her eyes the blue of ice. A mane of long curls wafted across her face, starkly platinum against the indigo sky above her. She glittered, a creature of ice and snow, an unnatural being of the cold, vast, emptiness-void of warmth or any human conception of compassion. Her robe was a white sheath, molded to her body, slit high on both thighs to permit her powerful, shapely legs ease of movement. Her arms were bare but for a bracelet of blue ice. Over her shoulder, she wore a quiver of arrows and carried a long bow in her hand. A nymph of ice and snow, she was a cold, hard cousin to the ethereal, mystical maidens that dabbled in lakes or played in the spray of waterfalls in the milder climes down in the valleys and forests.
Impassive, moving stiffly, she bowed her head to the goddess. "Hera," she intoned, her voice low, an echo of the wind. "What is your will?"
"In the mountain pass below, you will find Hercules, the bastard son of Zeus, and his comrade, Iolaus of Thebes. I want you to shoot Iolaus, but do not kill him," Hera ordered, her voice spare and harsh, husky with excitement.
"As you wish, my Goddess," the Archer of Ice murmured with another incline of her head…and then the wind moaned again, whirling around her, blowing her skirts and her hair into wild disarray until she was but a cloud of ice crystals gusting down the long mountain reaches to the pass below.
Hera's smile broadened and then she laughed. "He'll get you killed, Hercules, if he doesn't kill you himself. Your good and loyal friend will be the end of you!"
And then she flashed away, her work done, leaving only wind and the snow, and the blood red stain of the setting sun.
His heavy iron-shod, military issue sandals echoed in the marble halls with every solid step as the Centurion, Justus Justinius Aurelius, wearing light burnished armor and carrying his plumed helmet, moved swiftly through the richly appointed offices below the Senate in the Forum. A tall, powerfully built man of thirty years, with hair clipped short for cleanliness when in the field, he walked with an easy, cat-like grace, sinuous with an air of barely leashed strength and a soldier's deadly skill. Blue eyes missed nothing as he strode through the busy hallways, while his expression was guarded, giving nothing away. Once, he winced as the sounds of innumerable conversations and the hollow thud of footsteps on stone resonated loud in his head, but he gritted his jaw to force his features back into cold impassivity. Swinging into the office of the First Consul of Roma, he nodded briefly to the clerk and carried on into the inner solar to meet as arranged with the young Julius, the man some said would one day be Caesar.
Julius looked up from his desk of solid onyx and nodded at the proforma salute. Rising, a smile playing about his sculpted lips, he waved his old instructor to a chair and moved around to join him, creating the illusion of informality.
"Justinius, thank you for coming to see me," he said warmly, another illusion but one well honed. The man knew nothing of warmth…it was useless to him.
"Sir," Justus replied as he took his seat. "How may I serve you?"
"In a moment," Julius answered. "First, tell me, what happened to you in Gaul?"
Justus swallowed to force back the hollow disquiet he'd felt since he'd received the summons to appear before the First Consul. It seemed his concerns that his odd behaviours had, indeed, been noticed by others and had then been duly reported, were justified. Well, it was to be expected, after all, even inevitable. There was no point in wishing his aberrations had gone unremarked.
"As you know from the reports, Consul, the squad I was with was attacked by lions in the mountains as we traveled south on our return to Roma," he replied, emotion carefully schooled from his voice. "By the time the beasts were all dead, so were my men…and I was badly wounded by the gashes of their claws. I buried my men and then took refuge in a cave. It was two weeks before I was again strong enough to travel. Once I was able, I continued my journey back to Roma."
Aurelius looked away, withholding the rest of the story. Julius would think him mad, indeed, if he confessed his survival was due to a black jaguar that had fought back the lions attacking him, and then had stood guard over him in the cave until he was well enough to travel on his own. The damned cat had been a hallucination, disappearing into the morning mist…but Justus couldn't seem to make him disappear from his memory.
Nodding, Julius studied his former weapons tutor. "I have heard rumours, Justinius, that you have had severe headaches since your return, and that bytimes, you are distracted for long minutes, unresponsive to any who speak to you, until you are touched or otherwise made to pay attention."
Inclining his head, Justus admitted, "The rumours are true." He waited then, certain his commission was to be stripped from him. Julius was not known for loyalties, however long the acquaintance or trusted the former comrade at arms. Perhaps it was as well. A man teetering on the brink of insanity could scarcely lead other men in battle. He straightened his back and squared his shoulders, waiting for the words that would end his career.
"Perhaps you simply need more rest," Julius mused, surprising the Centurion. "Some backwater away from the demands of war, a place of relative quiet with responsibilities that are none too tasking, until you have fully recovered from your injuries."
Justus cut his superior a quick look, blue eyes sharp and assessing, as he tried to determine if Julius was playing with him or offering a real reprieve. The other man's face projected the sincerity of honest concern, but Justus hesitated to trust appearances. "Did you have such an assignment in mind?" he asked, his voice carefully neutral.
"Yes, as a matter of fact, I do," Julius replied as he stood to pick up a bound scroll from his desk and then turned again to face Justus. "The officer responsible for the gladiator training school in Ephessus is due to return to Roma. When he leaves, he'll bring all his personal staff with him, and the gladiator barracks will be empty. It is a two-year assignment, responsible primarily for the training of gladiators, but also for the security of the city; and one for which you are more than eminently qualified. No one trains fighters as well as you do, Justinius. I would like you to go immediately, if you are prepared to accept this commission."
Nicely phrased, Justus thought wryly, but no less an order.
The commercial heart of the Empire was a rich, busy center of art, culture, and trade; a vast, thriving city of more than half a million people on the far shores of the Aegean. It could be worse. It could be much worse-like that armpit of the known world, Palestine. Was there any more dismal or distant part of the Empire? Hot and arid, devoid of culture and chock full of restless, stiff-necked desert dwellers who resented Roma's rule. The land of the so-called 'one god'; a god so confident he apparently didn't even need his worshippers to know his name.
Yes, it could be much worse.
"It is my duty and privilege to serve where I am sent, lord," he replied. And, because it was a generous reprieve and they both knew it, he added, "Thank you."
Well pleased, Julius smiled and laid a hand on Justus' shoulder as the taller man rose, escorting the Centurion to the portal and only then holding out the scroll in his hand. "I've not finished with you, Justinius. I want you well and strong. In a couple of years, I intend to try my luck in Britannia and Eire. Be not discouraged by this, my friend. Enjoy the respite."
Justus searched his superior's eyes, and then nodded impassively. Wordlessly, he took the scroll of his commission from the Consul, eased away from Julius' light grip and saluted, before turning to stride from the luxurious offices and the cold marble of the Senate building.
He headed directly back to his barracks on the edge of the Campos of Mars. Once his kit was packed, he headed out again, to the dock on the Tiber to catch local transport to the port at Ostia. From there, he would take passage on the first available galley to Asia Minor, the distant land on the edge of the Empire.
Arriving at the docks, he found he'd been lucky and would catch a ship heading out within the hour. Stowing his gear, he moved back up onto the deck to watch the embarkation process. Men shouted and winches creaked as the sails were unwound and pulled aloft. Rowers in the hold below gently guided the hull away from the dock until they were well into the bay; and then the oars lifted in unison, straight above the rolling waves before being withdrawn in practiced unison into the belly of the ship. The sails were unfurled to catch the wind, the boom shifting as the helmsman brought her around.
The journey had begun.
Moving to the bow, Aurelius stared out over the water, lost in thought. Ephessus, rich and spoiled, even decadent, almost as bad as Roma herself. His lip curled as he dwelt on one of his principal new responsibilities, the training of gladiators for the conscienceless crowds of Roma. Disgusted, he wondered if the acquired civilian taste for blood would ever be satiated, or if it was a madness that needed to be burned out. A warrior, he despised battle for sport, most especially the mock travesties of pitting half-trained men against professionals, or against ravenous beasts. He wasn't sure whom he pitied more; the men or the animals for both were victims, having no choice but to fight to survive.
His eyes narrowed as his thoughts continued and he bit his lip unconsciously. No choice but to fight.
Shaking his head, he recalled that Ephessus was famous for having the largest slave market in the Empire, which was why one of the principal schools for the training of gladiators was there. The men chosen for that 'honour' did not stand forth to volunteer, but were taken as tribute to the Empire, as chattel, 'things' with no rights and left with little, if any, dignity. Nausea roiled in his gut. For all his years in the service of mighty Roma, he'd never grown used to fighting for conquest or the enslavement of the conquered. It seemed wrong to him, deeply wrong, an insult to humanity but one that did not stain the souls of the conquered as deeply as it did the souls of the conquerors. Romans were losing whatever sense of principles they might ever have held. They no longer marched to ensure their own security or to bring others into an enlightened way of life, but to subjugate the defeated peoples and grow rich from their labour. Privately, Aurelius believed it was an evil that would rot the Empire from the inside, but an intelligent man and a pragmatic one, he held his views to himself.
As the sunset cast a golden rose glow over the water, Justus reflected that he wasn't sorry to be on his way to the distant reaches of the Empire. In the beginning, he'd fought for what he believed were the right reasons, honour and to protect the interests of Roma. Maybe, he thought ruefully, he'd even hoped for a little glory, such was the ignorance of youth. Being a soldier was his life and he knew no other; the military the only family he had, as unsatisfactory and lonely as that too often was. But, now, he fought because it took him away from Roma, away from the dissipated dowager she had become. He was only sorry his destination was the younger, more alluring, but no less corrupt whore of Ephessus.
Turning away from the darkening water, with a last glance up at the stars emerging in the indigo skies above, he went back below. He held a commission and was a man of substance. They would serve his meal in the privacy of his cabin and for that he was grateful. He needed the peace the relative quiet of the journey would bring him, needed to steel himself to face his hateful new duties to turn slaves into fodder for the amusement of a cold-hearted, perhaps even soulless, citizenry.
The voyage would take at least two weeks, if the winds were fair.
If he was lucky, the winds would abandon them and it would take a good deal longer.
The wind moaned and keened as it whipped around them, blowing in unseasonably icy gusts as it whistled down the narrow pass, buffeting the two travelers as they hastened along the narrow path. Iolaus, a compact, mortal warrior with wild blond curls and sparkling blue eyes, was wearing an inadequate sleeveless leather vest decorated with purple yarn patches and black leather pants reinforced at the knees. Shivering miserably, he peered into the gathering gloom of early dusk, knowing they'd soon need to find shelter for the night. As was his wont, he strode a half-stride ahead of Hercules, his pack and bow over his shoulder and one hand on the butt of his sword, setting their pace and determining the trail they would follow. Not that it took much decision when there was but a single narrow route through the mountains that loomed above them, the peaks rose-hued under the setting sun.
"There's a cave not far ahead on the left," Iolaus shouted over his shoulder to his lifelong friend, Hercules.
"It'll be good to get out of this wind," the demigod called back amiably, unbothered by the weather though he was no better clothed in his sleeveless soft leather vest of tawny yellow and heavy brown, leather breeches, but he was conscious that his partner was shivering. He was a tall, handsome, powerfully built man, possessed of an unnatural strength, his heritage from his father, Zeus. Striding along with an easy, confident grace, he shook his head to get his long, honey-brown hair, caught by a sudden icy gust, out of his eyes, and reflected that Iolaus had always despised the cold, feeling its bitterness to his bones. Serene blue eyes, darkened a little now with concern for his friend, sought and found the dark low entry to the cavern a few more paces ahead and he smiled softly. Hercules was glad Iolaus would soon be warmed by a fire that would drive back the bitter chill of the lowering night.
"Yeah," Iolaus grunted, shivering again, hunched a little forward as he leaned into the wind.
They'd almost made the shelter of the cave…
There was no warning.
No sound but the eerie, keening, wind.
When, suddenly, Iolaus felt a sharp, agonizing burn in his shoulder and was blown backward off his feet by the force of the arrow that had buried itself deeply in his shoulder, scant inches above his heart.
"What the…!" Hercules exclaimed as he instinctively dropped to his knees, covering Iolaus' body from further attack with his own as his clear blue eyes narrowed to search the dark shadows of the forest. He glanced quickly down to his friend, and was relieved when Iolaus nodded, though he was grimacing with pain.
"I'm fine…check it out," Iolaus grated through gritted teeth. "Be careful!"
Hercules nodded, then moved forward in a cautious crouch. Unconsciously, he lifted his arm to protect his face from a sudden gust of snow that blew over and past him…and wondered, with a chill that had nothing to do with the cold, where it had come from as there was no snow on the ground around them. Only higher up on the snow-capped summits. Silently, with diligent care, he searched the edge of the forest by the narrow path, but could find nothing…nor was there any sound of a retreating enemy.
Shaking his head, mystified, he turned back to Iolaus, to help him through the low entrance of the cave into the dark, high-ceiled cavern within the mountain's wall.
"Let me see that," the demigod said quietly as he eased Iolaus down to sit on the ground. Blood was seeping through the fingers that Iolaus had pressed around the base of the arrow that pinned his vest to his skin. Hercules already knew the arrow hadn't gone straight through and grimaced at the idea of having to either push it through or rip it from his partner's body. Either way, it was going to hurt more than it already did and he was loath to cause his best friend more pain.
"There's something strange about this arrow, Herc," Iolaus muttered, fighting the waves of pain that radiated from his shoulder.
His attention drawn to the projectile, Hercules' face flattened in shocked surprise. "It's made of ice!" he exclaimed, and frowned, wondering where he'd heard of such a thing before. But like an itch buried deep in his mind, the memory teased him but would not come clearer.
"The good news is, it'll probably melt as soon as you get a fire going," Iolaus grated, hinting that his friend could be making himself useful, not simply crouching there beside him, staring into space.
"Huh? Yeah, right, sorry," Hercules replied, quickly heading back out of the cave to gather deadfall. Just as he turned back to Iolaus, the shaft of the arrow melted away from his partner's shoulder. Iolaus' body heat had been enough to cause it to pool water into the wound, and the shaft fell heavily to the stone floor of the cavern, shattering with a light tinkle of sound. Iolaus sat hunched with pain, one hand pressed against the wound.
"Well, this is weird," the blond warrior observed as he stared at the shards of already melting ice and then lifted his gaze up to Hercules. "What do you think? See anything or anyone out there?"
Shaking his head, Hercules quickly built a fire next to Iolaus, sparking the blaze with his gauntlets, so that warmth would soon chase back the chill of the cavern. He then swiveled to again crouch beside his seated friend, and pulled a clean rag from Iolaus' shoulder bag. "Let me see the wound," he said quietly, worried.
"It's not bad, Herc," Iolaus reassured him as he eased his hand away and Hercules lifted his vest back. "Whoever it was, was a lousy shot if they meant to kill me."
The wound looked clean, as well it might, having been caused by frozen water. Hercules pressed the rag against Iolaus' shoulder to help stem the still pulsing blood, but the hemorrhage was already slowing.
"Hold that," the demigod said as he turned to rummage for Iolaus' packets of herbs and other rags. Easing Iolaus' arms out of the vest, he then dressed the wound and padded it, wrapping long rags around Iolaus' shoulder and chest to hold the wad of linen in place. "We'll need to get a healer to take out the arrowhead when we get into Lessos tomorrow," Hercules muttered as he helped Iolaus put his vest on again and then fitted Iolaus with a sling to ease the strain on his shoulder. Again dipping into the pack, Hercules drew forth a worn but warm, woolen blanket to wrap snugly around his best friend's shoulders.
"Thanks," Iolaus said gratefully. "But as for the healer, maybe, but it should be okay," Iolaus added, wincing a little against the pain. "By then, the arrowhead will have melted away and the wound should heal just fine."
"How does it feel?" Hercules asked as he finished tucking the blanket securely under his buddy's chin, flicking a quick glance up at Iolaus, his eyes dark with concern.
"Hurts," Iolaus replied, but then gave his friend a stoic half grin as his voice warmed with reassurance. "But not too bad. More like the burn of ice, you know? Deep in my shoulder. But that won't last."
Hercules nodded as he fussed with putting away the unused bandages, avoiding his partner's eyes.
Noting the rigid jaw and the tension in the demigod's shoulders and back, his powerful muscles bunched as if aching for a fight, Iolaus murmured, "Herc? Talk to me."
"This wasn't caused by any mortal enemy," Hercules grated.
"Yeah, I kinda figured that out," Iolaus chuckled dryly with little humour. "Who do you think it was this time?"
Shrugging, Hercules finished stuffing the packets of medicinal herbs back into the pack. Rising, he turned to move to the cave's entrance, his hands on his hips as he stood staring into the night. "Hera," he finally said, his voice tight with anger. "Or Ares. Maybe Strife or Discord. Or any of my other relatives who is bored and looking for amusement at your expense. Take your pick."
"Hercules," Iolaus sighed. "This wasn't your fault."
The Son of Zeus shook his head, the tension easing from his shoulders as he crossed his arms and bowed his head. "Might as well have been," he murmured. "They come at you to get at me."
"They come at both of us," Iolaus replied, impatiently. "Your enemies are mine…and have been for a long time now."
Hercules sighed and nodded as he turned back to face his old friend. "Because you've chosen that path, Iolaus. You know I'm grateful. I just wish you didn't always end up being the one to pay the price."
The Golden Hunter shrugged unconsciously, and then winced as the motion pulled on his wound. "I'm not sorry about the decisions I've made, Hercules. You know that. So-let it go and just be glad it wasn't one of Hera's own archers. They don't miss…and their arrowheads don't melt away. As you might well remember."
The last was said pointedly, to remind Hercules that he, too, had suffered, and almost died, more than once. Standing up to errant gods and goddesses, facing down monsters and warlords, fighting for what was right in a dangerous land had left them both with scars.
Hercules nodded, taking the point and blew out a sigh. And then he gave his partner a warm, if small, smile as he accepted the message that it could also have been much worse. "Seriously, you okay?
"Yeah, I'll be fine. It's just a little sore," Iolaus waved off the concern. "You'd better go catch something for our dinner before it gets too dark to see. You want to take my bow or will a handy rock do?" he asked with a teasing glint in his eyes. Hercules could nail a pheasant on the wing, or a rabbit in mid-leap with a single hard, accurate throw.
"Oh, I think a rock will do," the demigod grinned back, finally feeling the balm of relief. If Iolaus was worried about his dinner, he couldn't be feeling too badly. "I won't be long," he called over his shoulder as he turned and jogged out into the gathering dusk.
The laughter faded from Iolaus' eyes as he wearily bowed his head to stare at the rock of the cavern floor, its rough gray surface lit by the flickering flames that created a small circle of light and warmth in the cavernous, cold darkness. He rubbed a little at his aching shoulder and winced again at the flare of icy heat that rippled in waves from his shoulder down into his chest. Thoughtful, worried, he wondered what the attack had been about.
Wondered if it was a passing 'amusement' as Hercules had said…
…or if there'd be more trouble in the days ahead.
The sun over Jerusalem was already hot, sucking the moisture from the air, though it was still early, not yet midday. Benjamin bar Judah, of the tribe aligned with the House of David, shoved a wrapped, dry cake of ink into his pack along with several well sharpened, homemade, quill pens and some scraps of old parchment he'd painstakingly scraped clean the night before. Rising from where he was kneeling by the worn pallet in the corner where he slept, he turned and smiled brightly at his mother, who was up to her elbows in flour, kneading bread for their evening meal.
She caught his glance and smiled back, radiantly, as always amazed that this beautiful young man with wide, innocent and laughing blue eyes, brilliant open smile and long, rich curls of burnished copper, could be her son. He was so amazing, already a recognized scholar in the Temple, respected for his knowledge of the history not only of his own people but also of the peoples of other places and nations. Wise beyond his years, not yet quite twenty years old, he was going to be a great rabbi one day…and she thought him the most wondrous miracle in her life.
"You're off, then?" Naomi called softly, knowing it was past time that he made his way to the Temple and his duties there.
"Uh huh," he affirmed. "I'm late, as usual," he added as he fairly bounced his way across the small room, so full of energy that could not be contained. "I won't be late," he called back over his shoulder as he pulled open the door of their two-room domicile. With a last blazing smile, he was gone into the street, leaving the door open behind him to permit some slight movement of air into the abode, with the hope of bringing some small comfort to his mother as she worked.
Ben moved swiftly along the narrow lane where their home was tightly ensconced against others, all made of bricks of clay to hold back the bitter cold of the desert nights while protecting from the burning heat of a relentless sun. The narrow, shadowed passage was crowded with others, neighbours going about their business, acquaintances passing by, and he called out greetings to them, waving as he strode along, even sparing smiles for strangers.
He loped into the market area at the end of the lane, skirting its edge, stopping only to haggle with good humour over the price of some succulent fruit to stave off the pangs of hunger that seemed always to plague him. Despite his success in the Temple, they were poor. Oh, he supposed he could take from the offerings; other priests certainly did. But it never seemed right to him, to take what the poor had given to be shared with others even poorer than themselves, honouring their God with their charity. He and Naomi were managing, not starving. There were far too many others with greater need.
He'd just left the fruit-seller's stall when he heard the clash of arms and the order shouted in Latin, "Take the young, able-bodied men…leave the rest."
Startled, suddenly alarmed, he twisted to look back over his shoulder, and saw Roman soldiers entering the market. Tall men, wearing the armor of the conqueror, their faces hard and determined to do their job. Swallowing back his fear, knowing he had to get away and quickly, Ben turned to race up a connecting alley, but there were soldiers there, too, having anticipated the efforts of the locals to try to escape.
Women screamed and pleaded, begging the wave of military that swept over and through the market to have mercy, to spare their husbands or sons, but the might of Roma surged on, driving hapless, helpless men before them as they gathered up the best of that day's harvest of humanity.
Ben found himself caught up with the flow, jostled and shoved, driven along by the points of spears and the curses of the men who'd caught him in their net. Relentlessly, they were driven to the Jappa Gate, and chained before being loaded into carts. And then the wooden boxes, perched on large iron-rimmed wheels, jerked and began rolling as the oxen leaned into their harnesses and hauled the new cargo of slaves toward the coast.
Stunned by the suddenness, helpless to resist, Ben stared down at the heavy gauntlets of rusted iron that bound his wrists, heavy chains linking the cuffs to similar restraints around his ankles. Wild-eyed, he looked up and around, scarcely able to believe what had happened in so few, shocking moments. Twisting to look back over his shoulder, he watched the city recede, its image shimmering in the heat of the sun.
"Mama?" he whispered, stricken to think of his mother left alone and of how she would grieve for him when she heard what had happened. Tears glistened as his gaze rose to the Temple Mount, light glinting from its gilded roof and towers.
"Oh, God of Israel," he prayed. "Watch over her…please…keep her safe."
When the train of carts reached the coast late that night, they were herded like cattle onto a huge galley and then shoved below deck where they were chained to the benches and to the oars. A whip cracked and a man screamed; a voice called out, a hammer began pounding out the beat that set out the rowing speed demanded of them. Stunned, terrified, already exhausted by the heat, the lack of food or water, the new slaves bent their backs to their task and the heavy galley slowly moved out from the harbour to the sea.
The next morning, Iolaus woke stiff and sore, feeling chilled and was grateful when Hercules reached to help him sit up. As the demigod placed a supportive hand under Iolaus' injured shoulder, he was alarmed to feel the icy cold of his partner's skin in the area of the wound. Frowning, he checked the injury, but it seemed fine. If anything, it appeared to be healing fast, the puncture wound already closed and the skin around it healthy in colour.
"Looks healthy enough," Hercules murmured uncertainly as he shifted his gaze up to meet Iolaus' eyes.
"Feels like I've got a lump of ice in there," Iolaus replied, but then found a grin as he continued, "maybe because I do."
"It should have melted away by now," the demigod returned, not liking anything about the assault on his friend-worried that the effects of it were so odd; wondering if they'd been too quick to defer its removal until they reached a healer who could do so skillfully, too confident that the arrowhead would likely just disappear. Perhaps, he should have cut it out immediately, despite the pain it would have caused Iolaus, and the danger of causing even more damage to his partner's shoulder. Gods, he hated to feel this helpless …this afraid that his best friend was in peril and he didn't know what to do to help him.
Shrugging his good shoulder, Iolaus said that he thought it seemed better than the night before and maybe it would just take a while for the arrowhead, which must have been a rock-solid, sharply honed ice crystal, to disappear entirely. Trying for nonchalance, Iolaus avowed he was hungry and, taking this as a good sign, Hercules made short work of sharing out the leftovers from their meal of the night before. When Iolaus insisted he was quite able to continue their necessary journey, they headed back out onto the trail, moving south.
They'd been in Kampala when the message from Iphicles, the King of Corinth and Hercules' half-brother, had arrived, urging them to head back to Corinth at best speed. It seemed that rumours were emerging from Athina that war was being contemplated with the more southerly city state, both being prime competitors in the sea trade. Iphicles hoped to nip the insipient conflict before it erupted. War was undesirable for many reasons and it certainly would do nothing to improve either state's thriving economies.
As they traveled, Hercules kept a wary eye on Iolaus, though his partner seemed fine but for his tendency to grumble about how Iphicles and everyone else in Greece seemed to believe that they only needed to crook a finger and Hercules would come running. The words weren't unusual as Iolaus often felt that the citizens of Greece took his best friend for granted, but the tone seemed more strident that morning, the sense of irritation more aggrieved.
By the time they were entering Lassos, a small but busy village at the foot of the mountains, Iolaus had worked himself into a slow-burning rage about the unfairness of it all. Weren't they entitled to a little time off to enjoy themselves? Wasn't there ever anyone else who could help? Did it always have to be Hercules, and by extension, himself? It was inconsiderate and abusive and…
"Whoa," Hercules exclaimed softly, hoping to calm his irritated friend. "What's brought this on? Is it the pain from your shoulder? Maybe we should see the local healer."
Disgusted, Iolaus shook his head. "I'm fine," he muttered. "Just hungry and thirsty. I'll feel a lot better once we get to the tavern."
"If you say so," the demigod sighed, hoping that would be true. The incessant whining grumbles had become tedious and were a far cry from his partner's usually irrepressibly cheerful demeanor.
They were striding along the boardwalk down the center of town, skirting the busy and noisy market area, when a small child, not looking where he was going, dashed into Iolaus' path, almost tripping him.
"Hey, watch it!" Iolaus snarled as he shoved the child roughly away, so strongly that the kid slammed into the wall of the building they were passing and crumpled in a stunned heap.
"IOLAUS!" Hercules exclaimed, appalled as he bent to check to ensure the child was only stunned and not more badly hurt. "What did you do that for?"
Impatient to continue to the tavern, Iolaus shot his friend a cold look of frustration before directing his venomous gaze at the child, who was standing now and edging away. "What do you care?" he demanded. "The kid's a worthless street brat. The sooner he learns to watch where he's going and stay out of the way of other people, the longer he'll live. C'mon, I'm thirsty." With that, he turned and wheeled away.
Having ascertained that the child was fine, Hercules hastened to catch up with his partner, reaching out to grab Iolaus' good arm to slow him down as soon as he was close enough. But Iolaus pulled away with a snarl, turning as if ready to strike out, stopping himself only when he realized it was Hercules who had taken hold of him.
"What is wrong with you?" Hercules demanded.
Iolaus scowled and looked as if he was going to snap back, but the deeply worried look in Hercules' eyes told him it wasn't an idle question, and the very real, even tangible concern seemed to break through the haze of irritation that had been building for hours. The scowl muted to a frown as he seriously thought about the question, realizing that his behaviour toward the child was anything but normal. Gods, he'd been a street kid himself, hungry and feeling scared most of the time. Usually, he tried to help where he could, not smash children like that out of his path. No stranger to abuse, he'd dedicated his life to safeguarding the innocent, not battering them out is his way. But, thinking about it caused a sharp stab of pain in his head and he winced as he brought his hand to his brow.
"What is it?" Hercules asked, his tone urgent with anxiety. "What's wrong?"
"Headache," Iolaus muttered, massaging his temple. Sighing, he looked up at the demigod as he said, "Sorry, this hasn't been a good day, so far, has it? I guess my shoulder is bothering me more than I wanted to admit. And I really am hungry…and thirsty."
"Okay," the demigod replied, a protective hand on his partner's back. "Let's see if a little food and a mug of ale will improve your mood."
At first, it seemed that that was all that was needed. The local establishment was noisy and crowded with good-humored men all seeking their midday meal but it didn't take long to get served and within minutes they were ensconced at a corner table. Iolaus immediately cheered up as his creature comforts were met, and dug into his bowl of boar stew with relish, after having first quaffed a good long swallow of the satisfying ale brewed on the premises. He was even teasing Hercules, making jokes, by the time they'd almost finished the meal. But, as he dipped a chunk of bread into his bowl to soak up the last of the rich gravy, someone squeezing past through the crowd jostled their table, and Iolaus' bowl went flying to crash on the earthen, straw-strewn floor.
In less than a heartbeat, he'd whirled into action, slamming the clumsy man against the wall and had the tip of his blade at the hapless, and very frightened, man's throat.
"Iolaus! STOP!" Hercules cried as he lunged to his feet and grabbed hold of his buddy's wrist, unceremoniously pulling the blade down and away. "Sorry," Hercules muttered to the wide-eyed man. "He, uh, takes his food seriously."
Gulping the stranger edged away. "Crazy, is what he is," he mumbled, hastening to put distance between them. The noise of the tavern had dropped away to uneasy silence and Hercules could feel the animosity in the air around them. Without ceremony, he wrapped an arm around Iolaus' shoulders and hauled him out of the building onto the street.
"We're going to find the healer," he growled.
Iolaus pulled away, as he protested, "No, wait!"
Whirling on him, Hercules seethed, "What in Tartarus was that all about? You looked like you were going to kill that man!"
"I-I don't know," the blond muttered, looking a little lost and confused. "All of a sudden, I was just filled with this cold rage…"
Hercules' eyes drifted to his partner's bound shoulder, a bleak look of awareness in his eyes. "It's doing something to you," he stated, his voice tight with dread.
Iolaus' hand drifted to his left shoulder, and he gazed at it as he rubbed the wound unconsciously. "It's so cold, Herc…and, well, the cold is spreading, I think," he said with a troubled voice.
Looking back up into his best friend's eyes, Iolaus said slowly, fear darkening his eyes, "I don't think a healer can help this."
Swallowing, Hercules paled, then gritted his jaw as he again looped a steadying arm around his best friend as they turned and headed out of the village. "Maybe not the healer here," he replied, "but there'll be someone in Iphicles' court who can help. C'mon. There's no time to lose."
Iolaus walked by his friend's side, glad of the support. But he didn't say anything.
What could he say?
If this was the work of the gods, the only healer who might possibly have been able to help was Aesclepius, the half mortal son of Apollo. Unfortunately, Herc's cousin had recently offended Zeus yet again, and had been cast into the heavens, his torment to exist as a constellation of stars that could peer down upon the mortals for whom he'd risked so much, but could never, ever again reach out and help.
Hercules and Iolaus had made good time as the days progressed, and the blond warrior had given up the sling the day before, claiming he no longer needed its support. The journey had been easy, even pleasant, as they cut through little used forested paths, meeting few other travelers. They had only recently started to follow a more well worn rutted lane in Attica that headed south, less than a day's journey from Athina, when a band of brigands attacked them with no warning from the forest that lined the narrow road. Though they were vastly outnumbered, that fact presented no more problem than it ever did. Their skill and training, experience and well-honed style were more than a match for the clumsy and none too bright oafs that had erroneously thought them easy pickings.
During the fight, Hercules was aware of Iolaus' brash taunting of the murderous men. Again, that wasn't unusual in that his partner often employed insults and humour to distract and enrage so that his opponents stopped thinking and only reacted. But the edge of Iolaus' voice was sharper, more brittle, his words meaner, and he was fighting with cold viciousness, doing more damage than was necessary to subdue the villains.
When Hercules tossed his last opponent high into a tree, where the man sagged limply, he turned to see how Iolaus was doing and saw his partner land a vicious kick to the ribs of one of the unconscious men…his leg pulling back as if he fully intended to do it again.
"IOLAUS!" Hercules shouted, moving quickly to drag his friend away from the helpless victim of his rage.
The blond warrior struggled, and lashed out at Hercules with his fists, as he shouted, "Leave me alone! You want me to travel with you, back you up, risk my life time and again…for what? These bastards wanted to kill us! I've had it! I'm sick of it!"
Shocked, Hercules wrapped his arms around his friend, subduing him as he called, "Calm down! It's over! We won!"
Finally, Iolaus' struggles diminished until he stilled, but the demigod could feel the cold rage radiating from his trembling body. "Let me go," Iolaus ordered, his voice tight with fury.
Swallowing, Hercules loosened his grip and stood back a pace. "Are you all right?" he asked, knowing that Iolaus very definitely wasn't 'all right', but helpless to know what to do to ease his friend's turmoil.
"No, I'm not all right," Iolaus seethed as he whirled on the demigod and shoved him hard in the chest. "Don't you EVER lay your hands on me again! I'm not your slave, not your servant. You have no right to order me around or interfere with my business. Do that again, and I promise you, I'll…"
"What?" Hercules demanded with hoarse harshness, shocked by the hatred he could see flaring in his best friend's eyes, as he waved a hand at the unconscious man, "Beat me up? Kick me when I'm down? What?"
"Don't push me, Hercules," Iolaus warned as he lifted his sword threateningly, his voice cold and his blue eyes as hard as ice. "I don't have to be here, you know, backing you up. I could be living my own life."
"Iolaus…" the demigod sighed, a breath of pain and fear, helpless in the face of such resentment, disarmed by the sudden flare of hate in eyes that had only, ever, looked at him with warm friendship and even love. "What's happening to you?"
For a moment, the blond warrior stood rigidly, his body trembling with the intensity of the cold fury that had swept through him, blinding him, making him strike out with deadly precision to punish the men who had dared to attack him. They'd had no right. Hercules had no right to drag him around Greece in an endless, fruitless pursuit of justice. They were wasting their time. He was wasting his time and the sooner he cut himself loose the better!
But then he really looked into Hercules' eyes, and saw the fear and the pain there, for him. And his gaze shifted to the sword in his hand, aimed at Hercules' breast, and he shuddered. "What am I doing?" he gasped, his hand starting to shake as his grip released and the sword fell to the dust between them.
Hercules was his best friend. Was he going crazy?
Sharp needles of pain lanced through his skull with sudden, blinding, agony, and he cried out as he fell to his knees, holding his head as he curled forward, groaning. Fingers twisting in his hair, he whimpered, "Make it stop! Gods, Herc…make it stop!"
Hercules dropped beside him, wrapping strong arms around him, holding him close. His eyes dark with frightened anxiety, the demigod murmured, "Easy, don't fight it. Easy, Iolaus…just breathe."
Gradually, the warrior's rigid body relaxed and he slumped back against the demigod, his head resting against Hercules' chest. "It hurts," he whispered helplessly. "My head…whenever I realize what I'm doing…the pain…"
"Don't talk, buddy," Hercules soothed him, gently stroking his hair. "Just relax…"
"I'm scared, Herc," Iolaus sighed, his voice low and quavering. "I feel…I feel this coldness in my chest, like my heart is freezing up, locked in ice. I…I don't know what to do. It's like I don't care anymore, about anything but myself…and when I think about it…"
He flinched and twisted again with the sharp, vicious stab of pain that ripped through his skull, and Hercules' arms tightened around him, holding him as he moaned and wretched as nausea spiked in his gut.
Hercules felt a frisson of deep and abiding fear ripple through his body at Iolaus' words and he trembled; the foundations of his world had just been profoundly shaken. Never, no matter how bad or bleak things were, no matter the dangers or the odds they'd ever faced, Iolaus had never confessed to being afraid. Iolaus didn't do 'fear'. His partner was bold by nature, optimistic, and the most courageous man Hercules had ever known. Nothing ever shook his cocky demeanor of self-assurance and utter confidence that, together, they could handle whatever came at them. If Iolaus ever did feel fear, for certainly he must-he was mortal and he very well understood the risks they faced-he never, ever, revealed it by either word or deed. It was his unshakeable conviction in their capacity to triumph over incredible obstacles and challenges that so often gave Hercules the strength and will to carry on, to persevere, even in the face of hopeless despair.
If whatever was happening scared Iolaus, left his spirit so broken and so overwhelmed with feelings of helplessness and hopelessness that he confessed his fear, then it frankly terrified the demigod. Distraught, Hercules looked up and around, as if he might see salvation nearby, desperate to find some way to help Iolaus, to stop the pain and the horrible change that was coming over him.
But there was neither help nor hope to be found.
Hercules froze, pale and stricken, fear clutching at his heart and thickening in his throat when he saw the peacock feather settling slowly to the earth-the symbol of her hand, her will, in all that was happening, revealed only now as a gloating gesture of her pleasure in the destruction of Iolaus and the demigod's complete and utter helplessness to intervene or save his best friend. Horrified, Hercules searched the sky and saw her cruel eyes leering at him and he heard her insane laughter on the wind.
"Hera!" he grated, livid with impotent fury that she had deliberately, maliciously, done this to Iolaus and that she reveled in her wickedness, in her wanton destruction of the best man Hercules knew, had ever known.
Iolaus heard him, heard the name twisted like a curse as Hercules breathed it aloud. "Ah, no," he sighed as he sagged into Hercules' embrace.
Jerked out of his fury by his awareness of Iolaus' limp weight in his arms, Hercules turned his attention back to his friend. "How're you doing?" he asked softly, his lips grazing the tousled curls, tears of grief and guilt in his eyes that Iolaus was made to suffer so because of Hera's hatred of him.
"She's using me," Iolaus murmured, sounding lost, defeated. Gods, how he hated being the instrument employed to inflict hurt upon his best friend, to have their friendship and love for one another twisted into a cruel weapon to lacerate Hercules' soul, to destroy him. "Using me against you."
"We'll beat her," Hercules insisted hoarsely, his voice rough as his arms again tightened protectively around Iolaus. "We always have."
Silent, Iolaus wondered how they could defeat something that was inside his body, like some kind of demon that was leeching away his ability to care about anything but his own petty interests and comforts. Short of reaching into his chest and ripping out his frozen heart, what could Hercules do to stop this? What good was his partner's legendary strength now? Because of Herc's endless feud with Hera, Iolaus knew he was being turned into a kind of monster, who cared nothing about anyone or anything else, who would stop at nothing to have his own way, without conscience, without regret or remorse.
Even as the thoughts occurred to him, Iolaus was by turns stricken by his cold, angry thoughts about Hercules, and then appalled and terrified by the understanding of what he was becoming. The cold burrowed into him, twisting in his chest, and he shivered with it. Needing to move, with the hope that movement would bring some measure of warmth, he pushed away from Hercules and sighed, "We'd better get these guys to the magistrate in the next village."
Swallowing, aware that Iolaus was avoiding eye contact, the demigod helped his friend to his feet. Together, in wordless silence, they gathered vines to bind the men, then roused them and herded them along the dusty lane.
They camped that night near the crossroads, Athina to the east and Corinth another almost two days' journey to the south. Iolaus lay on his back on his side of the fire, his arms crossed as he stared up at the starry night sky. He felt no sense of pride that the demigod trusted him enough to relax and sleep so deeply, no warmth of pleasure to know he warranted that trust and was worthy of it. To the contrary, he was aware of a growing resentment that Hercules seemed to have had no trouble sinking into sleep, snoring softly now, trusting Iolaus to take the first watch. And he thought the Son of Zeus a fool to trust anyone so artlessly, so completely. No one could ever be trusted not to betray you…a man needed to put himself first, last, and always, if he was going to survive in this world. If not for his overriding sense of needing to watch out for his own personal security, Iolaus might well have rolled over and gone to sleep himself.
Though the virulent resentment curled in his chest, his mind still tried to resist it, knowing the cynicism wasn't real but the mark of Hera's curse upon him. But, the headache was ever present now, and he wasn't sure how much longer he could hold onto his intellectual sense of self. Though he no longer felt any shred of compassion, and certainly no commitment to the best friend who slept at his side, Iolaus yet knew that his emotions were not real. His memories told him a different truth and it was the memories he'd been holding onto so desperately as a way to bind himself and his behaviours to the man he knew he'd been.
But it was hard. Gods, it was hard. And he was losing the battle. He knew it. In another few days, maybe less, he knew he'd be someone Hercules could no longer trust at all or rely upon to watch his back. The warrior knew he was as likely to cut and run to save his own skin, as he was to face another band of wastrels preying upon the unwary. Let alone a warlord-or a monster.
"Damn it," he muttered, rolling up to sit by the fire, his fingers massaging his temples, trying to ease the pain of thoughts that fought against the encroaching cold that filled his being. Gazing at Hercules, grasping at the memories of all they had been to one another, Iolaus wished he could weep in despair for what Hera had stolen from him.
He knew he had reason to weep, even to rage.
But he could feel no sorrow, just the pressing need to move on before it was too late. Biting his lip, he nodded, deciding that he couldn't risk staying with Hercules any longer. If he did, he could get his best friend killed-and not even care that he had. He could not summon up a shred of grief for his decision, for a parting that he knew normally would tear him apart. All he could feel was an empty satisfaction that perhaps he would be robbing Hera of her ultimate victory. If he wasn't anywhere near Hercules, he could not by his own actions, destroy the demigod. A cold, humourless smile did curl around his lips then as he again turned his eyes to the stars.
"You may have destroyed what we had, you bitch," he murmured, his voice low but hard. "You may have destroyed me. But even you, with all your hate, can't make me kill him."
Pain knifed through his skull, punishment he now knew, for fighting what she had determined was to be his fate. Fury rose until it consumed him and he used the callous, uncaring hatred she'd planted in his heart to fight back, turning it on her and driving the pain from his skull.
But he sagged by the fire, his shoulders hunched, his head bowed.
The victory, such as it was, was dreary and brought no satisfaction. For she had destroyed what he'd been, and he knew that with implacable certainty. That damned arrowhead had finally fully melted in the heat of his fury and flowed from his shoulder wound to fill his chest and gut. He held a demon within him that was fast quenching the last embers of fire within his heart, drowning his decency and compassion, and his courage. A frozen shell of the man he'd been, his soul shut away from his mind and heart by a wall of ice, he wondered in a distant way, hollow with the emptiness of spirit that he sensed within himself, if his soul could still weep.
The next morning, when Hercules roused him shortly after dawn to continue their journey to Corinth, Iolaus pushed his friend's hand away from his shoulder, snapping with irritation. "I'm not ready to get up yet. I'm tired."
"C'mon, Iolaus," Hercules sighed. "We have to keep moving…"
"Why?" the blond countered sharply.
"You know why, Iolaus," the demigod retorted. "We have to get you to Iph's healer. He trained with Aesclep…"
But the warrior cut him off, angry and sharp, as he seethed, "All the healers in Greece can't do a damn thing to help me, and we both know it. She won."
"NO!" Hercules protested, rising to stand tall and defiant as he glared down at his friend. "Damn you, don't do this…don't give up."
Wearily, Iolaus shook his head, the rage too much effort to sustain that early in the morning. Sighing, he looked up at his oldest and best friend and could clearly see that the fury of Hercules' reaction was spawned by fear, but the even the awareness of Hercules' distress no longer moved him. Studying the demigod as he chewed on his lip, Iolaus wondered how it could be possible to no longer feel any concern about what this was doing to his partner. Quirking an indifferent brow, he replied bluntly, "I haven't given up as much as been destroyed. The Iolaus you knew doesn't exist anymore, and trust me, this one is dangerous. He'll get you killed. Whatever man I was is gone."
Rolling to his knees, Iolaus began pushing his gear into his pack.
"Iolaus, I'm not willing to give up…"
"No? Well, I am," he replied, his voice tight. Standing, he hitched his pack over his shoulder, "Tell you what. For old times' sake, I'll head into Athina, wave a white flag or something, and see what I can learn about these rumours Iph is so worried about. Even now, I don't want a war-it's too much effort. You go on to Corinth, and I'll meet you there in a few days. By then, you'll know and maybe accept there is nothing either of us can do to fight this, Hercules."
"I think we should stick together," the demigod protested. Iolaus' temper was at a constant flashpoint, his judgment shot-it could only be a matter of time before he got himself into trouble. With his dwindling sense of what was right and what was wrong, he could end up stealing or killing to get what he wanted-and be killed in retribution. "I'll go into Athina with you."
Shaking his head, Iolaus held Hercules' eyes. "No, it's not safe for you to be with me and my memories tell me enough to know that I wouldn't want to be a danger to you. It's best this way-think of it as denying Hera the ultimate satisfaction," he said with a voice devoid of warmth or passion. "I know I do." Shrugging indifferently when the demigod simply stared at him with anguish in his eyes, Iolaus continued, "Besides, if the rumours are true, your presence won't help. Everyone knows Iphicles is your brother… you'd be watched and not trusted."
"You're my brother, too, Iolaus," Hercules said, his throat tight. "More my brother than Iph has ever been."
Iolaus kicked out the remaining embers of their fire. "Only in your eyes, Hercules," he said coolly. Looking up, he met the demigod's stricken gaze and repeated himself, to be certain of being understood. ">Only in your eyes."
Hercules looked away, struggling with his emotions of helplessness and fear. He'd gotten the message and his heart twisted-Iolaus no longer considered himself a brother in spirit, in everything but blood. The demigod couldn't bear to look into the flat cold emptiness of his best friend's eyes, didn't want to believe that Iolaus might well be right in his assessment of the situation. But short of dragging Iolaus by his hair to Corinth, he couldn't make his best friend travel with him.
"You will come to Corinth?" he asked, knowing he was demanding a vow, wondering if Iolaus would honour it.
"Yeah, in a few days," Iolaus replied, agreeable in a casually indifferent kind of way. "After that-well, after that, I think I'd best travel on, see the world."
Turning without another word, he strode away, traveling east toward the road into Athina.
Hercules stood and sorrowfully watched him go-watched until Iolaus had disappeared into the shadows of the forest. Lifting his eyes to the sky, the demigod grated, "I swear-I will not let you destroy him, Hera!"
The distant sound of her laughter mocked him. Sinking to his knees, pushing the fingers of both hands through his hair, he was terrified that he might fail-that the price Iolaus would pay for being his friend was a life of soulless emptiness. Shuddering with guilt and grief, Hercules fought the despair and finally forced himself back up onto his feet. There wasn't time for this, no time for his useless guilt. It was worthless to Iolaus. There had to be a way to defeat her, to save his best friend.
There had to be a way!
Hercules turned his face toward Corinth and lunged into action, racing toward a healer he hoped would have answers as to what could be done about an arrowhead of ice that carried the curse of a goddess…
Benjamin sagged over the oar, exhausted, beyond exhausted. Sweat matted his curls, fresh runnels cutting through the dried salt on his face and body, sticky and adding to the overwhelmingly sour stink of the hold. His hands were raw from gripping and slipping on the rough wood of the oar, and the skin around his wrists and ankles burned with fiery anger, blood oozing from welts rubbed by the manacles until they'd scraped open. Panting, he dragged in air as he slumped with his eyes closed, grateful for the mercy of this respite, daring to hope it might last more than a few hours. He felt dizzy and his belly cramped with hunger, the thin, foul smelling gruel they were fed insufficient to fuel bodies driven to extremity. He might have wept if he'd had the energy.
"Quite a pity-party you're having," he mumbled to himself. "Having fun?"
Wearily, he snorted at his pathetic attempt at humour and forced himself to sit back up, groaning as his back protested the movement. Sighing, he looked around, unsurprised to see everyone else looked just about as wasted as he felt. They'd been rowing for more than a week, day and night with only the briefest of breaks to fall into exhausted stupors, and only the occasional, short stops at various islands to pick up 'fresh cargo'. The new slaves had been ranged along the benches, filling empty spaces. Their initial energy helped ease the burden on the others for a while, until they, too, felt the strain of abused muscles, the exhaustion of the repetitive heavy hauling of the oars and the weariness of hopelessness.
Earlier, he'd heard a shout from the lookout above that the port of Piraeus had been sighted, and moments ago, they'd slipped along the dock. Peering out through the narrow slits that accommodated the oars, and then up to the square of light that topped the short flight of steps to the upper deck, Ben wished he could see the port and the city beyond, ranging up the sloping hills he's read about. In his mind's eye, he pictured the mighty Acropolis of Athina, the Parthenon and the Temples to the Greek Gods, and he swallowed against the dryness of his throat. He'd longed dreamed of going to Athina, and other great cities of the world, but he'd always imagined that once he'd arrived, he'd actually be able to see the places of his learning and imagination. To be so close and yet denied was almost as great a pain as that in his back and shoulders, his arms and his belly.
Well, whether he saw it or not, Athina was fast becoming one of his favourite places on earth. The city had granted him rest, a respite from the agony of ceaseless rowing. But then he shook his head, little more than a weak, twisting protest, as he bowed his neck, ashamed of his selfishness and lack of compassion. The only reason they'd stopped was to load on more luckless souls who would join them in the hopeless understanding that they were slaves, without rights or succor, without family or home, condemned to suffer the arbitrary will of others. Property. To be bought and sold, whipped and starved, abused until the end of their days.
'Poor bastards,' he thought, and then huffed out a weak giggle. 'No, I'm the bastard…they're just REALLY unlucky."
Disgusted with himself for finding himself back at his own private party, he blew out a long breath. There was no knowing what the future might hold, whether for good or ill. No understanding the will of God. Things happened for a reason, whether he might divine that reason or not. So, there must be a plan that required him to come to understand the meaning of a hell he'd never previously believed in, though he'd read of the concept in other cultures and nations.
For this, truly, must be hell. He could imagine nothing worse, no torment more bitter.
Unless, he thought until his imagination flinched away, it was his mother's anguish in wondering what had become of her only child. The anguish of all the mothers and wives, sisters and lovers, sons and daughters of the men trapped in this filthy hold with him.
His throat constricted, and he did weep then, for their pain if not his own.
Iolaus sauntered in through the gates to the city and ambled up the long stone-paved broad boulevard toward the Acropolis. No stranger to Athina, he enjoyed the bustle of the city, the bright colours of the clothing, many of the robes and costumes exotic, reflecting the foreign origins of the strangers that visited the city as tourists or on business. Before climbing the steep escarpment, he wandered into the Plaka, one of the largest marketplaces in the known world, intent upon breaking his fast at his favourite tavern. There was music in the air, courtesy of street performers who competed with jugglers and fire-eaters for the dinars tossed by the crowd. Children gawked in awed fascination, while merchants hawked their wares and the scents of meats broiling on charcoal braziers filled the air. In a city such as Athina, every day was a festival, ripe with pretty, plump maidens for the taking.
Later, replete, he made his way up the long, steep hill, following the winding path, passing priests and priestesses, supplicants and servants as his climbed to the seat of power. But he'd not simply eaten and drunk his fill as he wiled away his time. He'd listened and observed, the absence of a conscience in no way impairing his intelligence or his ability to draw conclusions. He'd seen plenty of guards, those in the colours of Athina, and others in the heavier, more intimidating, armor of Roma, but they'd seemed relaxed, and their presence, their numbers, were in no way untoward. Now, as he entered the shadowed portico of the last broad flight of stone steps, he nodded absently at the guards who recognized him from many former visits and allowed him to pass unchallenged. Yet another sign of lax, confident security. The men knew him as Hercules' comrade. If there were a war planned with Corinth, surely they would be more cautious in assessing his presence for the potential of threat. Why, they hadn't even required him to give up his sword or his bow!
His agile mind turned over the bits of conversation he'd heard, the scenes in the markets and on the streets, the behaviour of the military men. He'd seen nothing of a citizenry interested in war, let alone girding themselves for battles to come; nothing of the tension and even excited anticipation that built before war was declared. Something didn't add up and he began to speculate about who might have started the rumours, perhaps with the intention of provoking Corinth into a defensive action that would in itself precipitate the conflict. Shaking his head, he wondered who could be so blind and stupid to think anything good could come out of a conflagration between two of the mightiest states in Greece. To the contrary, war between Corinth and Athina would only weaken the whole, as it would impede the commerce of all, let alone the toll in burned crops and vineyards, olive groves and orchards that would be ruined, or lives lost, that war would cost.
Coming again into the sunlight at the top of the steps, Iolaus strode past the imposing Parthenon, with it's massive statute of Athena, and continued on past the temple boasting Caryatid pillars and around to the far side of the Acropolis to a smaller and less imposing building, where the political and administrative business of the City was conducted. Strolling casually inside, grateful for the coolness of the interior after the heat of the sun, he asked to see Pericles, the current master of Athina, having won the free vote of the last election. This was his third term in office and he had proven to be a steady, even occasionally inspired, leader the people had come to admire and trust. Iolaus remembered him as a temperate, intelligent man.
In minutes, his credentials as the partner and brother in arms to the Son of Zeus giving him precedence, he was escorted in before others who waited on Pericles' time. When Iolaus strutted arrogantly into the solar, he noted immediately that Pericles wasn't alone, but that his chief advisor, the Head Priest, Androcles, was with him. The warrior felt the small hairs on the back of his neck bristle, like a dog's hackles rising, though he wasn't sure why; nevertheless, he kept a wary eye on the priest.
Pericles, dressed in his flowing saffron robe of office rose to meet Iolaus, almost effusive in his welcome, but then, this man and his semi-divine partner had aided him in the past and he remained grateful.
"Iolaus!" he called out, coming out from behind his desk to embrace his visitor warmly, "we weren't expecting you. What brings you to Athina?" If he wondered at Iolaus' uncharacteristic mien of a brazen street fighter, and his lack of response to the embrace, Pericles gave no sign, perhaps thinking only that his visitor was tired.
Iolaus stepped away from the other man's embrace, wanting his space, as he replied with almost harsh candour, "Hercules and I heard rumours that you were planning a war with Corinth. I couldn't believe you'd be so foolish, so I came here to check it out while Hercules went ahead to calm his brother's frazzled nerves."
"War?" Pericles exclaimed, clearly appalled by the idea. "How in Zeus' name would such a stupid and dangerous rumour start?"
Iolaus shrugged carelessly. Who ever knew how these things started? Who cared? The point now was to nip it in the bud before it bloomed into a bloody garden of death. "I told Hercules I'd meet him in Corinth. Do you want me to take a formal message of reassurance to Iphicles on your behalf?"
"Yes, I'd appreciate that," the official murmured, grateful, as he turned back to his desk and grabbed up a pen and a fresh scroll of parchment.
Meanwhile, Iolaus was watching the priest out of the corner of his eye. There was nothing overt, nothing he could put his finger on, but something about the man's manner bothered him. Maybe it was the lack of eye contact, or the slight flush on his neck that might indicate temper. For a moment, Iolaus suspected the priest might well know more than he was letting on. After all, he served Athena, the Goddess of War-but she was also the Goddess of Wisdom, who went into battle only when there weren't other, more palatable, options. Unlike her brother, Ares, Athena did not crave war; indeed, she seemed to despise it, finding it almost as messy and distressing as did her bubble-headed sister, Aphrodite. No, the High Priest of Athena would not be engaged in activities to start a costly and pointless war. And her priest was likely no more that he appeared to be: an officious, self-conscious adviser to a powerful man.
By the time Iolaus had finished his musings, Pericles had dusted the fresh ink with sand to dry it, and had rolled the scroll. Iolaus reached to take it and then offered advice he'd never have considered even a week before. "You might want to consider a gift of gold to Iphicles, to underscore your good faith and regret for his anxiety."
Pericles looked at the warrior, startled by the uncharacteristic suggestion of a 'gift of gold'; typically, neither Hercules nor his partner put much stock in such materialistic gestures. But, then, he nodded. It wasn't a bad idea and the treasury could well afford it. "Androcles, accompany Iolaus and provide him with a bag of gold and fine gems to present to Iphicles on my behalf. And then accompany him out of the City, to wish him a speedy journey. The sooner these rumours are laid to rest, the better."
"As you wish," Androcles acceded, seemingly content to be ordered about like a common lackey.
"Thank you, Pericles," Iolaus said, his voice ironic, "a pleasure, as always, to do business with you."
"And you, Iolaus," Pericles replied sincerely. "I appreciate that you trusted me enough to bring this problem to me directly, that I might put an end to it."
Iolaus nodded as he took his leave, not bothering to correct the ruler of one of the world's great cities.
Trust had had nothing to do with it. He'd been pragmatic, pure and simple…and he might well expect a generous reward from Iphicles for having resolved the apparent problem of the baseless rumours, a reward to see him on his way when he took his leave of Greece.
Androcles took Iolaus by the Treasury but continued to carry the sizeable and modestly heavy bag as they departed from the heights of the Acropolis and descended the winding paths to the City's streets. They walked in silence, neither apparently having anything to say to the other. When they passed through the gates and reached the crossroads, one route leading down to the harbour and the other southwest to the isthmus, Iolaus turned to take the sack of gold and jewels.
But Androcles looked thoughtful as he gripped the bag in his hands. During his silence, he'd evidently been thinking of the urgency of getting the message and the gift to Iphicles as quickly as possible, for he said helpfully, "Iolaus, it occurs to me that it's a rather long walk to Corinth. May I suggest that I commandeer one of the City's vessels for your use? You'd make it to Corinth in a quarter of the time, and you could be spending that time in comfort. Perhaps I might even find a wench to keep you company."
The problem with being primarily concerned with his own comforts was that it could blind a man to what clearly was beginning to sound smarmy. Iolaus enjoyed the ladies, but he'd never before considered simply grabbing one up for his amusement. Nor would he have ever considered abusing his personal role as a friend to Hercules and Iphicles to enjoy the luxurious but unwarranted comforts of official transport. The need was not that great. War was merely rumoured, not imminent. Not even that, unless Iphicles reacted arbitrarily, since it was clear that Pericles wanted nothing but peace.
But, bereft of the values and principles that had once defined his being, the offer by Androcles now appealed to him and he smiled salaciously as he nodded. So they took the paved road down to the port, passing down the long narrow passage of wood that had long ago been built as a defence against the incursions of the Persians. When they reached the busy docks, Androcles pointed him in what Iolaus supposed was the right direction. There was no reason for him to suspect treachery from the man Pericles trusted above all others, and as Androcles was walking a little behind him, Iolaus didn't notice the signal that passed between the priest and a couple of thugs dressed in Roman armor lounging idly by the ramp onto a galley.
When they came at him, Iolaus dropped into a fighting stance, thinking they were about to be attacked by thugs after the gold, perhaps, despite their Roman uniforms, though how they could have known about it, he had no idea. He was completely unprepared for the sudden blow that struck him from behind, the sack of gold and jewels now a bludgeon that Androcles swung heavily against his temple, dropping him like a stone.
Sneering, the High Priest of Athena kicked him brutally in the ribs. "Dog," the man grated. "Hera told me about you, about her plans for you. And she'll reward me richly for aiding her schemes." He waved at the Romans who had long known this man was a traitor to his own people, claiming to serve the Great Goddess Juno as he whispered lies and corrupted advice into the ear of Pericles.
The Roman soldiers hauled Iolaus' limp body onto the ship and tossed him unceremoniously down the short flight of steps. He rolled and clattered with the slackness of unconsciousness, drawing the curious attention of the slaves chained in the hold. Another guard grabbed him under the arms and dragged him to the first clear place on a bench, dropping him face-first into the muck of the decking, and then roughly chained his wrists and ankles.
"For the love of God!" Benjamin cried out, scrambling off the bench and wiggling to reach the man who would be his bench companion, hurrying to turn the man before he drowned in the foul waste he'd been tossed into. The unconscious man wretched and gagged as his body fought for air.
The indifferent guard snorted at the slave's evident concern for someone who was now only so much trash, but didn't interfere as Ben rolled the man as quickly and gently as possible, hastily clearing his mouth and nostrils of the muck, and then grimacing at the filth that had gotten into the still bleeding torn and bruising skin on his temple. Appalled by the inhumanity he doubted he'd ever become accustomed to, Benjamin snapped at the guard, "Bring me clean water and rags to clean his wound."
"Let him rot," the guard snarled, beginning to move away.
"You fool!" the young Jew raged. "Apes have more sense and sensitivity."
"Watch you mouth, slave," the guard bellowed as he wheeled around, his whip flashing and coming down viciously across Benjamin's bare, vulnerable shoulders, cutting deeply.
The young man saw the blow coming and bent low over the stranger he'd determined to protect, safeguarding him from the lash that fell again, and again. Benjamin gritted his teeth, grunting with each burning slash, but when it was done, he lifted his head, undaunted.
"Look at him!" he commanded, his eyes flashing with fury. "He's a warrior, you moron! Even a blind man could see that! He's worth more in the arena that the rest of us all put together. You would waste this 'prize'? Let him die for lack of a bucket of water and some rags?"
Furious, the guard lifted his whip again, but Benjamin glared up at him, fearless in his determination to protect another who could not at that moment protect himself. Another voice rang out, the overseer, who shouted, "Enough! The slave's right. Bring him water and rags."
Iolaus was not quite as unconscious as he seemed, having been roused from his stupor by his body's urgent commands to breathe. He'd felt strong hands take hold of him and turn him, clearing the filth from his face, allowing him to gasp in needed air. The foul stench of the place, including of the sturdy man who held him, nearly made him gag again and pain streaked through his head. Cautious, wondering where he was, feeling the chains on his body, he feigned unconsciousness until he could get his bearings.
He heard his protector order what was needed, heard the whip-more, felt the flinch and the reflexive grunts of breath as the man who cradled him fought to keep from crying out. He sensed the other bending over him, protecting him like a bear did her cub, and while he was wryly grateful, he thought the man a fool to take such abuse for a stranger. But when the man did not desist in his demands, even after the whipping, curiousity won out, and Iolaus squinted to see who the madman was.
He saw a well-muscled chest covered with dark, silky hair, a strong column of throat, a jutting determined jaw, and long, straggly, filthy hair. From where he lay in the man's arms and from the look and sound of the guy, he seemed little more than a youth. But, the kid had won, Iolaus heard with some surprise as another voice called out the instructions that the water and rags be brought. Good for the kid, he thought cynically.
But when the young man turned his head to gaze down at Iolaus, the cynical warrior felt an unexpected surge of shock as he looked into astonishingly clear, wide blue eyes, like oceans of peace and innocence, candid and dark now with sincere concern for him. For a moment, Iolaus could only stare into those incredible eyes, and then, astoundingly, the young slave who had still to be in pain from the whipping smiled reassuringly at him as he soothed, his voice low and mesmerizing, "Ah, you're awake, good. Just, take it easy, okay? Until I get your head fixed up."
A shudder rippled through Iolaus, a shiver of warmth brushing over ice, and he felt something he could only describe as hunger flare inside. Hunger to bask in that warmth, to drown in the innocence of those eyes. But then he shook himself, and told himself he was being ridiculous. It was just another slave, a kid, who didn't have the sense to look out for himself but risked abuse to care for a stranger. An idiot, pure and simple.
Wordlessly, he allowed the young man to clean and bandage his head, but when he made to rise, the kid held him firmly in the cradle of his arms. "No, rest," he said with quiet gentleness. "You've suffered a bad blow. You'll have to row soon enough…sleep now, while you can."
The melodious voice soothed him, somehow slipping in past his defences and he relaxed in the other man's arms. "What's your name?" he mumbled, surprising himself by caring.
"Benjamin," the young slave replied with a soft smile as he stroked Iolaus' curls back from his brow. "Sleep," he ordered kindly.
And, feeling safe, stupidly so, he reflected blearily, and yet at peace for the first time in days, Iolaus slept.
The sails billowed with the force of the wind as the ship sailed up past the Pelopponese, angling ever to the east. Aurelius stood at the rail as he watched the endless turquoise seas unroll to the horizon. But he jerked his eyes away, having already learned that he could get lost in the brilliance of the light spangled waves, mesmerized by colours in the water that no man but him could see, until someone grabbed hold of him and called him back.
He wondered if they thought him touched by the sun or madness, or simply considered him a deep thinker, not that he much cared what they thought. These weren't people he'd be likely to see again. Still, the last thing he needed was rumours circulating about his odd behaviours in Ephessus, so he made a constant, exhausting effort to master his unruly senses, bitter with the understanding that they ruled him.
Hercules loped through Corinth's streets and on up to the palace, anxious to see his brother, and more particularly, his brother's healer. The palace guard stood back as he approached, clearing the way unchallenged into the interior court. In minutes, Hercules was bounding up the broad steps to the second floor and along the hallway to the private family quarters. Like a man driven by demons, he burst into the solar, skidding to halt in surprise as he saw his mother and her husband, Jason, as well as Iphicles.
Startled, alarmed by his haggard expression and haunted eyes, they rose to meet him, Alcmene rushing forward to grip his arm.
"Hercules, what's wrong?" she exclaimed. When he didn't immediately respond, she looked behind him and then real fear bloomed in her eyes as she asked breathlessly, "Where's Iolaus? Has something…"
But her voice cracked and failed her as her heart quailed with anxiety for the man she loved as a son.
Instinctively, Hercules moved to comfort her, wrapping strong arms around her as he stammered, "He's alive, Mother. But…"
"But what, Hercules?" Jason demanded, frowning with his own concern as he studied one old friend and worried about what had happened to another.
"Something happened on our way back from the north after we got your message, Iphicles…" the demigod began.
"Message? What message?" the King asked, mystified.
Baffled by the response, Hercules reached into his vest and pulled out the scroll that bore his brother's script and handed it to Iphicles. "You asked us to return-because of rumours of war…"
Iphicles looked at the scroll, confusion on his face. Looking up at his brother, he shook his head. "I never wrote this…I know nothing of a war with Athina."
Hercules looked away, letting the truth sink in and then he lifted his head, his eyes flashing with helpless fury. "It was a trap!" he raged with bitter understanding. "Damn Hera! She tricked us…lured us onto that mountain path…"
"Hercules! You're not making any sense!" Jason snapped. "Calm down and tell us what happened!"
"Yeah, right," the demigod muttered, shoving his fingers through his hair. "We were…we were crossing the pass above Lessos, and something or someone shot Iolaus with an arrow made of ice."
"Ice?" Alcmene gasped, her hand moving to her heart. "Was he…is he all right?"
"He's fine physically, Mother," the demigod assured her, gently gripping her arm. "But-he's changed. The arrowhead was buried in his shoulder. He said it burned it was so cold…and that the cold seemed to spread into his chest as it melted in his body." Hercules looked away from his mother's stricken gaze, first to Iphicles and then to Jason, wishing to the depth of his being that they had cut the damned thing out rather than simply let it melt away as had the shaft. Swallowing, he continued, "It seemed to destroy his capacity to feel compassion and warmth…love. When outlaws in the forest attacked us, he nearly killed the bandits when there was no need, and he kicked one who was already unconscious. He told me-he told me he was dangerous, that I couldn't trust him anymore."
Forcing away his fears for his friend because they clouded his ability to reason, Jason's eyes narrowed as he bowed his head to think about what he'd just heard. There was something on the edge of his memory… an ancient story his mother had told them as children to make them behave… what in Tartarus was it?
"Where is Iolaus now?" Iphicles asked.
"Athina," Hercules replied. "He went to meet with Pericles to learn the truth about these rumours." His jaw tight, he snarled bitterly, "The truth! The truth is Hera deluded us so that she could get to Iolaus! Dammit!"
"What is it?" Alcmene asked. "A curse? Is there any way…"
"That's it!" Jason cried, looking up at her and then at Hercules. "I remember! It's the curse of the Archer of Ice, who steals away the conscience and leaves a person cold and empty but for selfish wants. Her ice becomes a demon that binds the soul of her victim and holds it hostage, apart from the mortal's heart or even his will. She uses arrows made of ice, rarely killing…but maiming in a hideous way."
Iphicles looked confused but Alcmene frowned, closing her eyes to better focus her memories. "I think I…yes, I remember…" she murmured, pale and trembling as she realized all that it meant.
"It's ancient, a tale to scare children, that if they don't behave the Archer will come for them and steal their souls away…" Jason murmured, explaining the myth to his stepsons, shaking his head, and feeling profoundly sick at what had been done to Iolaus, knowing as well what this would do to Hercules. Long their friend, and recently the demigod's stepfather, Jason was all too familiar with Hercules' propensity to blame himself whenever Iolaus was hurt.
"Does this curse include a cure?" Hercules demanded, frowning himself as he wracked his memories. But his mother hadn't filled his head with such horror stories as he was growing up. He'd heard other kids whispering in corners on the playground at school, disjointed fragments of nonsense to feel the vicarious thrill of fear. He'd paid them scant attention, and the few times he'd seemed inclined to listen, Iolaus had pulled him away with a succinct, 'That's crap. Ignore them-they're just being stupid.'
"I don't…" Jason shook his head, unable to remember, if he'd ever known.
"Yes," Alcmene intervened, looking up at all of them. "The victim's heart and mind must turn toward the purity and innocence of another soul, one that 'substitutes' for his own lack within his being-he must choose to stand by the other, regardless of his own depravity of being…"
"Pure? You mean like a child?" Hercules demanded, with a sinking feeling as he remembered how Iolaus had treated the child at Lessos. But, purity and innocence? Only a child's soul could be so unscarred by the realities of life. A very young child, one who had been protected and coddled from the ugliness and cruelty that life, any life, could experience.
"No," Alcmene replied, rubbing her temple as she dredged up the details of the ancient, terrible curse. "No, an adult, who has retained the untarnished soul of a child…a soul that is strong and resilient, grounded in love; able to combat the evil of the Archer."
"Gods," muttered Iphicles. "Where will we find such a one as that?"
The others turned to him in silence. They had no answers.
Only deep fear for the life of one who was very dear to each of them…
…and furious despair for the obscenity of what had been done to his valiant, noble, blameless soul…
Benjamin had been right, Iolaus thought sullenly as he hauled on the heavy oar. They'd both been casually whipped into their places two mornings ago, when the galley had finally shipped out from Athina.
"I'll take more weight, Iolaus," Ben whispered to him, but the older man shook his head. He didn't quite understand himself, but for some reason, he'd been consciously looking out for the kid. First, taking the bandage from his head and tearing it into two strips to bind Ben's raw hands, to protect them. And then, when he realized how weak Benjamin was from lack of adequate food, he'd told the kid to ease up on the oars, that he had enough strength to haul for both of them without the guards figuring out what was going on.
Benjamin had protested, saying that Iolaus still needed his rest, that his head injury had been serious. But Iolaus had shrugged. "I've taken worse blows than that. I'm fine. Suit yourself," he replied, his voice but a low murmur, growing harsh as he added, "But, if you collapse, don't think I'll nurse you the way you did me. You'll be on your own. Best you save your strength for whatever comes next."
Iolaus' jaw had tightened at that thought as he saw awareness bloom in the younger man's eyes. Ben was more than handsome. He was pretty. Beautiful, even, with long-lashed eyes and generous lips. Other men would pay a lot for a slave like him. But even as Iolaus watched, the fear faded, replaced by that serene calm that seemed ever able to overcome any fear or abuse.
"God's will be done…" Benjamin murmured, more to himself than to the man sharing the rower's bench with him.
The warrior snorted. "Like that's any consolation," he grated. "None of the gods I met in Greece ever gave a damn for mortals."
"You've met some of your gods?" Benjamin almost squeaked in excitement, curiousity lighting his eyes. "Really?"
"Yeah, really," Iolaus drawled with a short nod. "Let's see-Zeus, Hera, Ares, Discord, Strife, Hephaestus, Aphrodite, Athena, Demeter, Apollo, Hades…I can't forget, Hades, met him a couple of times-Persephone, Poseidon, and, of course, Artemis…"
The kid was gaping at him and, in spite of himself, Iolaus thought it kinda cute. This man had the heart and curiousity of a child, still awed by what he learned, always seeking to learn more, even in this pit of Tartarus.
"You're kidding?" Benjamin gasped, his eyes sparkling with delighted wonder. "You're not kidding?"
"Nope," Iolaus replied. "Why? Haven't you ever met your god?"
Shaking his head, Ben replied, "Not the way you mean…"
"Well, how else do you meet a god?" Iolaus asked. Rowing was dull work, and at least the kid was entertaining.
Shrugging, Ben bent his back to lend his own strength to Iolaus' efforts, unwilling to not do his share. "I see him everywhere in creation. In the light of the dawn and the stars in the night sky. In the delicate petals of a new flower, and the whirl of sand in a gust of wind. In the eyes of children, when they are laughing. In the voice of a mother, as she comforts her child. He's everywhere and everything…"
"You're nuts," Iolaus drawled, sarcastically. "You talk about this god of yours as if he is all of the world and the world is all of him."
"Uh huh," Benjamin agreed, unoffended-it was, after all, what he believed.
"Then-where do my gods fit in?" Iolaus argued for the hell of it, not really caring. "I mean, yours can't be everything and still leave room for them."
"Sure he can," Benjamin replied, unfazed, his tone unconsciously becoming that of a teacher and scholar. "In the teachings and ancient writings of my people, there are stories of 'Watchers' who were sent by God to care for mortals, but they grew abusive with their power, and arrogant. They mated with mortals and forgot their duties to protect and safeguard. So…they were exiled, told to leave mortals alone. I think your gods are some of these Watchers, who've grown used to being worshipped by men and so still meddle in the affairs of mortals."
Iolaus' brows crept up under his sweat-sodden curls as he thought about that. Made as much sense as anything-and sure explained the arrogance and indifference he'd come to expect most times in virtually every situation…unless the gods wanted something of him or Hercules. And then they could be pleasant enough, for a while. Though, all things said and done, some of them weren't all that bad. Hades had let him come back from the dead, after all. Twice even. And, Zeus had rolled back time so his first death would be erased…yeah, some of them were okay.
But he frowned, intrigued in spite of himself, his own natural intelligence grappling with the idea. Something didn't add up. "If they are supposed to be exiled, why does your God, if he's so all-fired powerful, allow them to still get away with meddling?" he demanded, certain he'd found the flaw in Ben's argument.
Benjamin wiped his nose with the back of his hand and shrugged. Cutting Iolaus a quick look, an equal blend of humour and teasing, he replied, "I don't know…maybe God keeps hoping they'll learn something from mortals and improve over time. Kind of an everlasting 'last chance' to obtain forgiveness."
Iolaus couldn't help it. He laughed out loud at the idea that his arrogant gods were permitted to exist only in the hope they might learn something from the mortals they treated so arbitrarily and often with contempt. The idea was ludicrous in the extreme. The guards and the overseer noticed, but since he was still pulling his weight, they overlooked his inappropriate hilarity. "You are the craziest kid I ever met," the warrior snickered, shaking his head.
But, the laughter had warmed him and the sensation was so strange that when he was again calm, he marveled at it-and wondered when he'd last laughed so unselfconsciously.
"Something's wrong," Hercules growled as he paced the inner courtyard, anxiously awaiting Iolaus' arrival from Corinth. "He should have been here by now."
Jason nodded. They'd been keeping watch since the sun had reached its zenith, and even then, they'd known Iolaus should likely have arrived the day before, unless, well, unless any number of things. He'd decided not to come. He'd run into trouble. He'd decided to dally with some woman. Who knew in his current state what might have distracted him from a pledge he'd made that would have little real meaning or value to him.
"Hercules, I've had the Argo readied to sail," he revealed then. Never having been one to leave things to chance or be caught off guard, Jason had prepared for this eventuality. "Let's tell Alcmene and Iphicles we're on our way. If he shows up, well and good. They'll find a way to keep him here until we get back."
Relieved to be able to act, Hercules nodded and they turned to enter the palace to say their 'good-byes'. Less than an hour later, the Argo set sail for Piraeus. Not long after that, Iphicles sent a squad of the palace guard into the countryside, to search the road to Athina for any word or sign of the missing hero.
Chained together, the two slaves came to know quite a bit about one another over the days and nights they spent rowing at sea, though Iolaus shared nothing really explicit about his erstwhile friendship with the Son of Zeus or the curse of Hera that had been placed upon him. Somehow, he knew the tale would darken those bright eyes with grief for him, and he didn't want to visit such evidence of evil on the kid. Nor did he really want anyone telling Hercules where he was. He'd meant to wander off and see the world. Seemed he'd gotten an earlier start than planned.
For his part, he figured out that Benjamin was something of a boy-genius, a marvel in the great Temple of Jerusalem, though the kid spoke of his achievements with unconscious humility. Benjamin confided with innocent candour and a haunting regret for what he'd lost, that he'd hoped to be a rabbi one day, to serve his people wisely and with compassion, to teach them and shelter them when they were afraid. The kid was definitely noble, Iolaus had to give him that, though he felt it was a foolish, wasted aspiration. People lived and then they died. Who cared if they were lost or hurt or scared during the intervening years? He'd almost said it aloud, but when he turned to Ben and saw those wide, sincere, serene eyes, he felt oddly ashamed and held his tongue. In his mind, he knew in a distant way, that maybe the kid had the right of it, the right sort of principles to live a worthwhile life, not that it had done him any good. He was still a slave. And would likely suffer untold torments of Tartarus before his god blessed him with death.
That thought, to his surprise, made Iolaus angry. Surely if his god was as good as Benjamin claimed, he wouldn't let a man like Ben suffer like this. Iolaus did voice that thought aloud, anger, and even fear for the kid, as stupid as that was, loosening his tongue.
Again, Ben just shrugged. "Everything has a purpose, Iolaus; there is always a reason, something to be learned, something to give or be grateful for…"
"Like, you had to be here to save me from drowning in shit? Yeah, right," Iolaus drawled, pushing the oar forward and then hauling it back.
The answer surprised him and left him gaping with incredulity.
"Uh huh," Benjamin agreed. "You might be someone who can change this world, maybe even change your gods. If that was my purpose, then I'm content that I was here to serve it." Had he stopped there, Iolaus would have shrugged cynically, and just kept rowing, but the kid went on, "Or, maybe, you are just an ordinary man, whose life isn't supposed to end yet…and I'm glad I was here to ensure it didn't."
"You're glad?" Iolaus protested, unable any longer to conceive of such selflessness. "To be in this damned foul pit, a slave, with who knows what future is in store…glad to be here to save the life of an ordinary man you don't even know?"
"Yes," Benjamin replied evenly, turning those eyes that seemed to see so clearly, on the warrior. "You have a good soul, Iolaus. Your life is worth this suffering."
Iolaus' eyes dropped away. "You're wrong, Benjamin. I'm not a good man," he muttered.
Smiling, utterly confident, the kid replied, "Sure you are." And then he went back to paying attention to his own rowing. "I trust you," he threw in for good measure.
They rowed into another harbour in late afternoon, not knowing even where they were. Just another island, another port, they thought, until the guards began moving down the rows, unlocking their shackles from the oars. "This is it," one of them called out. "We're moving you out to the slave market of Ephessus."
"Wow!" Ben murmured, clearly excited-his eyes were literally glowing with anticipation. "Ephessus!"
Iolaus shook his head, feeling suddenly old and very weary. This kid might be brilliant but he didn't have the sense his god had given a gnat. "You are about to be put on a block and sold," he hissed, hoping to force the kid to understand the dangers, the harsh realities of what they were about to face.
Ben just pushed him a little to move along the bench and follow the others up the steps. "Iolaus," he urged, "C'mon! We get to breathe fresh air, see the sky, walk through one of the most wondrous cities on earth-it's an adventure, man, and it's gotta be better than rowing. C'mon, go with it."
"Ben, some pervert might…" Iolaus began, but couldn't force the words out, didn't want to think them, let alone say them.
"I know," Ben replied, suddenly solemn. "But it might equally be some little old lady who needs a gardener. There's no point in borrowing trouble before it happens."
Iolaus saw the courage then, the same courage that had protected an unconscious stranger despite being flogged. A steadfastness and surety of being, the strength to face whatever came. Indifferent to the plight of other men, the warrior knew he shouldn't give a damn, should be more concerned about his own fate. But that innocent and yet wise courage and strength left him feeling disoriented, and humiliatingly, as if he was about to cry. Suddenly gruff, he simply grated hoarsely, "Just stay behind me. Keep your head down and your mouth closed."
Like that was a hope. This kid babbled incessantly with irrepressible enthusiasm.
Something like he'd used to do, the warrior thought with a frown. Taking himself in hand, Iolaus told himself he didn't give a damn what happened to the kid. Why should he? What was Ben to him, anyway? His heart, frozen so cruelly, wasn't about to admit that maybe it could care about another human being again. If he couldn't care about Hercules, then he certainly wasn't capable of caring about a virtual stranger. What was the point? They were slaves. They might not even see one another again once they hit the market.
Nevertheless, almost unconsciously, Iolaus kept an eye on the kid, steadying him when he would have tripped over the chains and his own two feet. For Ben's eyes were indifferent to the uneven solid marble road worn into ruts over the centuries by chariot wheels, as he gazed with wondrous awe at the beauty of the architecture and the sheer size and wealth of the city that rose on the hills around them. He was too busy studying the thronging crowds along the marble paved street that rose from the harbour, bordered just past the slave market by colourful ceramic walkways under awnings that sheltered pedestrians from the sun, to be worried about where his feet were taking him.
Iolaus shook his head. The kid was hopeless. Bitterly, his lips twisted into a parody of a smile when he saw the crude advertisement carved into the stone of the walkway: a heart, the curvaceous form of a woman's body, an arrow and a cross signifying on which side of the street to look for the whorehouse.
Ben saw the wonder and promise of the city; Iolaus saw its perverse underbelly.
Justus Justinius Aurelius stood at the bow and studied the city that rose above them as the ship slowed to enter the port. The stories that told of its almost mythical magnificence hadn't been exaggerated, he thought, catching sight of the rim of the massive theatre, the largest in the world, and glimpsed elegant Corinthian columns that sustained the gilded roofs of the official buildings, glittering in the sun. When he focused his sight, he could see the flowers hanging in pots from hooks over balconies, and climbing trellises. He could hear the raucous multilingual calls of merchants in the markets, the clatter of hooves on marble-paved streets, the light distant laughter of women and children. And, there, tilting his head to catch the sound, somewhere in the distant hills the haunting call of a wolf. Drawing back his sight and hearing before he again rendered himself insensate and mute, he studied the galley just a little ahead that was pulling into the next dock. Even from here, he could smell the stench of the hold and grimaced. It was a slave ship. No freemen were ever required to languish in their own ordure.
Heaving a sigh, he accepted that the brief respite of the cruise was at an end and his odious duties about to begin.
As they slid against the dock, and were tied off, he studied the luckless men who were being marched away in chains to the slave market in the open field up on the side of the hill. Ordering his gear to be taken to his residence, he reluctantly followed the slogging trail of weakened and abused men, wincing against the clang of their chains and the miasma of the stench that hung around them like an invisible cloud.
Grimly, he lifted his head and squared his shoulders in preparation for his first duty in this new posting. He would begin with the most difficult of tasks-he would face the men he would teach how to kill…and die, as he selected the slaves he would turn into gladiators.
It wasn't a long voyage from Corinth to Piraeus, and the Argo reached the dock just before sunset. Loathe to wait until morning, they set off to Pericles' official residence, a suite of rooms set aside in the administrative building up on the Acropolis.
Surprised to see them, Pericles yet welcomed them warmly, as he had Iolaus three days before. He was even more surprised to learn that Iolaus hadn't reached Corinth.
"But he left days ago, with a message for Iphicles and a gift of gold and valuable gems, signifying my good will," he exclaimed. "Surely, I hope he was not set upon by thieves!"
"Iolaus could handle any thief with the poor judgment of giving him a hard time," Jason remarked dryly.
"Well, he wouldn't steal the 'gift'!" Hercules protested, turning toward Jason, shaken when Jason's gaze dropped away. Who knew what motivated Iolaus now? Such wealth might well have been tempting indeed.
Pericles thought it nonsense to even consider such an idea and called for a servant to send for Androcles. "My High Priest and primary adviser," he explained. "He escorted Iolaus to the gates of the city and can at least confirm he made it that far. We'll have to send out search parties in case he's been hurt…"
Minutes later, for the distance to the Temple's residence for the priests was not far, Androcles arrived, attended by one of his young acolytes. "Pericles," he said as he entered, "You had need of me?"
Pericles explained their need of information and Androcles affected surprise to hear Iolaus had never reached Corinth, professing certain knowledge of his departure. Shaking his head, he begged leave to depart as he had guests in his own quarters. Pericles dismissed him and turned to the heroes. "We'll need to send out a search party. I am assuming you'll want to go with them."
Eschewing the need for sleep, they were on the road half an hour later.
Aurelius was puzzled by the sound of a rapidly beating drum somewhere up ahead as he climbed the marble route up from the port and through the city gates. He could see no drummer, and yet it sounded close. Shrugging it off, he followed the shuffling line of chained slaves onto the broad field that was the famous slave market of Ephessus. Roman guards, becoming aware of his unexpected presence, stiffened into attention in recognition of the insignia on his shoulder.
"Sir!" one saluted as he stepped forward, "how may we serve you?"
"Walk with me," he ordered mildly, his tone and manner disguising the wretched turmoil in his soul at what he was required by duty to do. "I'm about to select slaves for the games."
The soldiers fell in behind him as he moved down the strangling line of weakened, whipped and filthy, starving men. Swallowing, he again squared his shoulders and flattened his expression, breathing shallowly against the pathetic stench of them. Some he selected and they were moved aside; others, weaker, older, with empty, beaten eyes, he moved past. They'd not survive a day in the arena and he would not add to their misery and fear by tormenting them with challenges they could never hope to meet.
The odd drumbeat continued to distract him, growing louder as he moved down the line, a solid, oddly reassuring and supportive presence in the air. Frowning, he looked further along the row to try to understand the sound and his head tilted, one brow quirking in consternation at the sight of the young slave, his dark, curly hair scraggly with sweat and filth, his body bruised with barely healed welts on his back, streaked with sweat and dirt-and yet, he stood as if a tourist, gazing eagerly around him, his lips slightly parted in wonder as he studied the architecture of the buildings rising on the hills beyond. The young man turned, and Aurelius saw his full face for the first time, the expression alive with light and wonder, and the eyes-wide, expressive eyes the deepest blue Justus had ever seen-gazed at him…and the kid actually smiled as if he were truly happy.
Justus blinked and turned away, wondering if the young man was addled in his wits.
But he could not deny his confusion in realizing that the beating he heard so clearly was the sound of that young slave's heart.
Moving ever onward down the line, he finally reached the young man and paused, studying him. The heartbeat had sped up, and he could see the slave was made nervous by his scrutiny. A slight movement to the side drew his attention and he noticed the blond slave standing close to the youth, warily watching the Roman Centurion, as if trying to determine his intent. The two slaves were of similar height and size, and both were better looking than most others in the line, which could be a particular curse for a slave, but this one was somewhat older, more Aurelius' own age. Blue eyes as clear as the sky above looked back into his, confident and assessing. Equally filthy, this one was clearly a warrior. Justus could tell by his manner, the way he stood, as if ready for a fight, and the firm, well-honed muscle on his body.
Turning back to the dark-haired younger man, Aurelius wondered if these two had a relationship, if they'd been taken together. That could be a problem in the barracks, lead to possessiveness and jealousy, create tension amongst the other men.
"Where were you taken?" Justus demanded of the young man.
"Jerusalem," he replied, with a quick glance up into Aurelius' eyes and then away.
One of the guards snarled and raised his hand as if to strike. "You'll call the Centurion, 'sir', when you speak to him!"
The blond shifted, as if he actually intended to intervene-a foolhardy and dangerous, even deadly act for a slave. But before the blond could move or the blow land, Justus had caught the soldier's wrist. "They've been abused enough for the time being. I'm sure he understood the order." Turning back to the young man, he quirked a brow. "Didn't you?"
"Yes, sir," the kid snapped back, with another quick glance. Was that humour lurking in their depth?
Turning to the blond, he demanded, "And where were you taken?"
"Athina…sir," the other drawled, grudgingly offering what barely passed for respect, the sardonic look in his eyes mute testament to the fact that he had divined the Centurion's unwarranted suspicion.
Justus turned back to the dark-haired man and caught something out of the corner of his eye. Lifting the slave's hands in his own, he murmured, "You are a scholar."
Startled, the kid blurted, "How did you know that, uh, sir?"
"There's still a faint stain of ink on your fingers," Justus replied, as he looked up into those wide eyes, full of questions but no fear, and continued, "You lack the calluses of a warrior or farmer, you stand casually and you look around with endless curiousity."
"Yeah," the kid grinned, vibrant with energy. "This city is amazing, um, sir!"
"What languages do you read and write?" Aurelius demanded, intrigued by the young man's manner and quite evident curiousity, not to mention the lack of any, more than justified, fear.
Clearing his throat, the young scholar replied, "Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Assyrian and Egyptian with fluency, several other languages with a little extra work…sir."
"You will be my secretary," Aurelius decided impulsively. This kid had too much promise to be wasted in the arena or passed by and left to a fate that could range from being sent to the salt mines in the interior to being forced into the role of catamite. Turning to the soldiers, he ordered, "Remove his chains. He will leave with me."
Iolaus had observed the exchange and wasn't sure how he felt about it. He watched the Centurion, trying to read the man, but his expression was closed, controlled.
Aurelius picked up the blond's slightly accelerated heart rate and turned to him. Though it was clear the men had only met on the ship, this one at least seemed to have the sense to recognize the young man's worth and the instinct to know he should be safeguarded. "You are a warrior?"
Iolaus nodded, flicked a glance at the soldier behind Aurelius, and gave a spare, "Sir."
"Where were you trained?" the Roman asked.
"Chiron's Academy, sir…some years ago," Iolaus admitted, confident the Roman would recognize the most famous military academy in Greece. There was little point in hiding the information, and it might even increase his value, earning him better treatment.
Nodding, Justus considered the man, flicking a look again at his newly acquired secretary before again speaking to the blond warrior. "Tomorrow, I'll test your skills, but I doubt you need much in the way of training, unlike the rest of this lot. Perform well, and I'll move you into my household, and you will be the guard for my secretary when he travels around the city."
Iolaus' eyes rose to Justus' steady gaze. The two men understood one another, understood the threat that existed to a young and beautiful slave of either gender, and that Iolaus' role would be to keep the young man safe from predators. It was an easy, undemanding assignment and the perks of living in the official residence could be good. He nodded. "I'll look forward to the tests, sir."
As Aurelius moved along the line, the soldier behind him protested, "Sir, you have no need to put your trust in a slave. My men and I are capable of ensuring your security and that of your household."
Aurelius turned to regard the man with a cool, assessing gaze. "First, I see to my own security, though I appreciate your loyalty. Second, you were the one who was about to beat him, when he clearly simply did not understand the protocol. I would not trust you to safeguard his wellbeing; and a good, multilingual, secretary in these days of mindless bureaucracy, slave or not, is worth a cohort of ordinary men."
The soldier flushed with anger but lowered his eyes, muttering, "Sir," as he stepped back, suitably chastised.
Soon, Aurelius had finished his inspection and settled the accounts for his purchases. As the slaves destined for the arena were marched off by the soldiers, he couldn't help but notice the lost look on his new secretary's face as the blond was led away; nor the slight hesitation on the part of the warrior before he accepted the pull on his chains and moved off.
The young man watched him go, and then looked down at his now unchained hands, a frown of puzzlement on his face.
"Come," Aurelius commanded.
"Uh, yeah, hey, ah, sir," the kid called out as he scrambled along side. "I don't see any ink on my hands. Lots of dirt…but no ink. How did you…"
"I have good vision," Aurelius replied repressively.
The kid's brows rose up under the curls but he simply nodded. As they moved out of the slave market onto the street, Aurelius began to lead the way across, but his attention was caught by the mesmerizing glitter of light on the golden roof across the way and he paused, frozen, in the middle of the busy thoroughfare.
"Geez!" yelled the kid, diving forward and pushing Aurelius out of the way of a rushing chariot, driving them both to the marble roadway, barely clear of the pounding hooves. Grabbing Aurelius by the shoulders, the kid rolled further off the road, taking the Centurion with him, again narrowly missing being clipped by pounding hooves or crushed under the spinning wheels of a heavy war chariot.
Aurelius shook his head and blinked, wondering what had happened.
"Do you do that often?" the kid squeaked, his heart pounding like a runaway horse.
"What?" Justus demanded, frowning in confusion as he pushed himself up onto his feet.
"I don't know, zone like that…stare into space…nearly get yourself killed," the kid blurted, staring up at him with concern.
"More often than I'd like," the Centurion admitted dryly. If the kid was going to be working closely with him, living in his house, there was no way he could hide his condition, and saw no further point in trying. The young man was a slave. What did would it matter to anyone what he saw, or thought? Besides, the kid had just saved his life and had earned acknowledgement. "What's your name, Scout?"
"Benjamin bar Judah, of the House of David," Ben replied.
"A Jew," Justus observed, his tone mild.
"Yeah, got a problem with that?" the kid asked, vaguely challenging.
"Nope," Aurelius replied with a shrug, and then his nose wrinkled and he grimaced almost as if he was suffering pain, as he abruptly turned and moved briskly away. "By Jove, you stink. Let's get you cleaned up."
"You'd stink, too, if you'd spent the last two weeks in the hold of a galley," Ben mumbled almost silently under his breath as he sniffed at himself and grimaced with disgust.
"I heard that, Junior," Aurelius called back over his shoulder, having already moved on, clearly without any doubt that the kid would follow him.
"Really?" Benjamin blurted, his eyes flashing as he rapidly correlated information. Sees things others can't see, like invisible shadows of long faded ink on fingertips. Smells things acutely with evident distress, hears virtually inaudible whispers from a distance…zones. "Hey, uh, sir?" he called with heightened curious speculation, as he loped after the tall man striding along with easy confidence. "You wouldn't also taste more acutely than normal people, would you?
Aurelius paused and turned back to study the younger man. "Why do you ask?"
"And, I don't know how to say this, but, would you be a little extra, um, touchy-feely?" the kid asked, his brows arching up under his curls.
Aurelius' eyes darkened. "That's none of your business," he growled.
"You are, aren't you?" Benjamin exclaimed with a bright, excited smile. "Wow, five senses! I've read about people like you. You're supposed to be a legend, mortal children of the Watchers, who became the sentinels safeguarding their tribes when the Watchers were banished from the earth…"
"What are you talking about?" Aurelius demanded, not at all amused, wincing against his ever-present headache and wondering if he'd made a big mistake with this kid. Did he ever shut up?
"You, man," Ben grinned. "I think you're a sentinel…but you must know that, right?"
Shaking his head, rubbing his temple as they walked along the roadway, Aurelius muttered, "All I know is that my senses have gone nuts and I can't seem to do anything about getting them back to normal."
"Oh, hey, that's gotta be pretty uncomfortable," the young scholar observed, concern flashing in his eyes. Once again scrambling to keep up, he added thoughtfully, "Maybe I can help you with that…"
The slaves, who had been purchased for training as gladiators, had been herded to the holding cells under the stadium seats. Spartan, the cells were at least clean and each had a decent pallet. In groups of five, they were taken to the school's communal Roman-style baths where they gratefully washed off the filth of the ship's hold. Plain but decent clothing and sandals were provided to them and then they were all given substantial portions of a reasonably tasty camel stew. After they'd eaten, soldiers who had drill instructor duties began to test out their new charges to see what they could do and get an idea of where to begin the training. Most of the men had been craftsmen, or farmers, who knew little of weaponry or formal battle skills.
Iolaus had felt some of the soldiers watching him resentfully, not appreciating that he had been singled out by the new Centurion as the one to be trusted with his pretty new secretary. When it came his turn to walk onto the hot sands of the arena for assessment, he reminded them that Aurelius had said he'd do the testing personally the next morning.
"Yeah, well, we want to be sure you're ready for him, and don't waste his time," one sneered, tossing Iolaus a staff. One of the soldiers came at him, and Iolaus rolled his eyes, twirled the staff in his hands like a baton, swung in a tight circle and lashed out, knocking his opponent's weapon out of his hands, and with another swift whirl and low slash of the weapon, swept the soldier's feet out from under him. After that, two came at him at once, and then three at the same time, but he held his own, not even breathing hard when he leaned on his weapon and stared down at them laying on the sand.
"You want to try swords next?" he offered helpfully, but his eyes were hard and the dangerous aura that surrounded him was palpable. They were wary of him but far from happy about being bested by a mere Greek slave, especially one that was somewhat smaller in stature than any of them.
They climbed to their feet, not appreciating the laughter of a couple of their colleagues who had been watching the workout.
"That's enough for today," one growled, waving a hand to direct him back to his cell. But, Iolaus caught the looks between them, not really surprised at their reluctance to let the defeat go-so he was ready when they tried to take him the narrow confines of the tunnel from the arena to the cells.
When two grabbed his arms from behind so that the one ahead could turn and batter him, Iolaus used their hold as leverage to leap into a double kick that sent the man in front of him reeling backward, and then he flipped up and over the other two, breaking their hold, dropping lightly behind them before they quite knew what had happened. He knocked their heads together, rendering them unconscious, and swiftly grabbed a wicked knife from the belt of one, lifting it toward the chest of the first guy, who had recovered and was charging toward him, only to skid to a stop at the sight of the blade held at an angle to slice quickly up into his heart.
"You really want to do this?" Iolaus asked, his voice low and deadly. The chilling offer of a quick if not painless death lurked in his eyes.
Shaking his head, the guard backed off. The little guy was fast, and had skills beyond those they'd been taught. He was faster and lighter on his feet, more athletic with well-honed moves the soldiers had not seen before, which would have been no surprise to Iolaus. He'd learned them long ago in the Far East and, weaponless, he could fight armed men and win easily.
"Good," the blond warrior said agreeably, tossing the knife to the ground as he scornfully stepped over the unconscious men and past the soldier who backed away from him, to return to his cell. But, despite his swagger, he wasn't that happy with the way things had gone. Oh, sure, he'd won. After fighting gods and monsters with Hercules on a regular basis, simple soldiers didn't offer much competition-but he still didn't think he ought to risk sleeping that night.
And all because he'd made the stupid mistake of showing he cared, if only minimally, in a passing kind of way, for the kid. He knew better. There was no profit in caring about anyone but himself. Disgusted with himself, he plopped down to sit on the pallet with his back against the wall. Chewing his lip as he looked around the dim, dismal cell, he shrugged. Ah, well, at least his stupid and inexplicable concern for a kid who shouldn't mean a damned thing to him had worked out-he'd likely have much better accommodation when he moved into the centurion's residence.
Iolaus thought about the Roman then, Aurelius. The Centurion was good at keeping his thoughts out of his face, but his eyes gave him away when he wasn't paying attention-a fact to remember in the morning that might be helpful during the 'test'. Big, he was strongly muscled and moved with the confident grace of a warrior who knew without doubt that he was better than anyone he'd ever met-but that could lead to over-confidence. Still, it took discipline and rigorous training to maintain that kind of skill and competence, so the guy apparently didn't take excellence for granted. He was smart, too, picking up that the kid was a scholar like that-but Iolaus had seen those hands close up, and he didn't remember seeing any ink stains on them. The guy could see better than anyone Iolaus had ever met, that was for sure.
Biting his lip, the warrior wondered what else the Centurion could do better than the average mortal?
Though there were public baths, the Centurion was reluctant to take his new acquisition into one of them in his filthy state…the decadent citizenry of Ephessus would be scandalized. So, Aurelius led them directly to his residence, easily found as it was built into the complex of the massive stadium, just beyond the huge theatre of stone. His first order of business was to clean the kid up and get him something other than filthy rags to wear. While Ben was happily soaking in the luxury of the hot Roman bath, Justus raided the stores of equipment and clothing for the gladiatorial slaves, and returned with a long simple tunic in a deep shade of blue.
The next order of business was to get some decent food into the young slave. Though he'd only been on the slave ship for a couple of weeks, the heavy labour combined with poor nourishment had left him looking thin and wan. Fortunately, a skeleton staff had remained when the last master of the school had returned to Roma, so the kitchen was well stocked, the cook really quite good and the residence in good order.
Later they sat in his study that also served as the primary office for the school, a spacious, airy chamber open to the outside. When they'd first entered, both had stopped in surprise. This, apparently, was the one room in the residence that the staff had not touched since its former occupant had left a week or so before. Scrolls were scattered haphazardly on every surface and tumbled out of half-closed cupboards to the marble floor. There seemed no order to the clutter of supplies, though much of the slates, rolls of blank parchment, pens, ink pads and the like were piled in one corner.
"Man, what bomb went off in here?" Ben muttered, moving in slowly, picking up one scroll and then another. Sighing, he said, "This is going to take a lot of work." But the grin playing around his lips and the twinkle in his eyes suggested he looked forward to the challenge.
There was, however, something he wanted to address first. Turning back to Aurelius, he seemed suddenly shy, but then he blurted out, "I've been thinking about how you might control your senses…you know, so they aren't running wild on you."
"Oh, yeah?" Justus replied, as he moved toward the couches in one corner of the room, at the end of the chamber that was open to the gardens beyond.
"Um, make yourself comfortable, okay?" Ben suggested, waving at the furniture, blissfully unaware of the oddity of a slave asking his master to seek comfort in the master's own residence. Once Aurelius had been seated, not noticing the brief, bemused grin on the older man's face because Aurelius hid it quickly, he continued, "Uh, you do ride or know how to drive a chariot, right?"
When Justus nodded, wondering where the kid was going with this, Ben continued, gesturing with his hands to lend emphasis to his words, "I'd like you to think of your senses as horses. Five of them, one for each sense. Right now, those horses are stampeding all over the place, right? Sometimes one pulls ahead and another one stops dead for no reason, unpredictable."
Again, the Centurion nodded. It was actually a pretty good analogy. "Five horses, got it."
Licking his lips, unconsciously pushing his still damp mane of curls behind his ears, Ben said, "Okay, for this to work, you need to relax, close your eyes and picture those horses in your mind. I want you to know which horse is which sense."
Although he felt the process strange, his discomfort with his senses was such that the Centurion was prepared to try just about anything to deal with them, and this sounded simple enough. Obligingly, he closed his eyes and pictured five recognizably different horses as if they were on long reins that he held in his hands. "Got it."
"Good, you're doing good. Now, let's take touch, for example. Do you see that horse in your head?" the young slave's voice had dropped to a low, soothing tone and Aurelius felt Ben's hand lightly grip his arm. Immediately, all the images in his head became clearer, sharper somehow. Looking out over the five stallions, Justus chose the chestnut because the colour reminded him of Ben's hair. Unwittingly, he linked the sense of touch not only to the horse but also to Ben in his mind. "Got it."
In the next few minutes, he'd aligned his senses with the other horses, so that he could recognize each one instantly: black/sound…Ben's soothing voice; white/sight…the young man's wild hair, bright eyes and brilliant smile; brown/smell…the essence of the slave's natural scent, earthy and clean; and, palomino/taste…the residue of the tangy citrus-scented soap he'd used that hung in the air around him. Without any conscious awareness, Justus imprinted the young man's being as an essential part of himself.
"Alright, Justus, I want you to pull back on the reins for touch," Ben went on, not really conscious that he'd used the Centurion's name. He'd chosen touch because he'd seen the man suffering from a headache, lines of strain around his eyes. And the stiff leather of his light armor couldn't be comfortable on extra-sensitive skin. "Touch is the one that controls pain-so pull back on the reins until the pain in your head eases…so that you feel my touch on your arm, but not the pain."
In his mind's eye, Justus pulled back on the reins as indicated, drawing the chestnut horse ever closer. Gradually, the galloping animal slowed, and as it slowed, he felt the pain in his head melt away. Opening his eyes, he smiled, delight in his eyes. "It worked!"
Ben smiled back, relieved and very pleased that his admittedly crazy idea had proven to be useful.
They'd searched without respite all night and the next day. It was late in the afternoon when the searchers from Athina met up with the search party Iphicles had sent out from Corinth, halfway between the two cities, perhaps somewhat closer to Athina. Neither group had found any sign of the missing warrior.
Discouraged, weary, they all camped that night and then set back to their respective start points at dawn, Hercules and Jason returning to Athina with Pericles' men. As they straggled through the gates, Jason and Hercules were debating ideas of what to do next when a piping voice called out, "Hercules!"
Twisting around, the demigod spotted the young acolyte who had accompanied Androcles two days before to the brief meeting with Pericles.
"I've been watching for you," the boy stammered, evidently extremely nervous as he looked around as if expecting to be struck down by a lightning bolt.
"What is it?" Hercules demanded as he moved to squat before the lad, Jason at his shoulder.
For a moment the youth looked overwhelmed, but then he said in a rush, "I thought you should know… Androcles-he didn't only worship Athena. I heard him praying to Hera…"
"Hera!" Hercules exclaimed, standing in surprise.
"What do you mean 'didn't'?" Jason demanded, caught by the past tense.
"He's dead," the lad blurted out. "He didn't know I was in the next room last night, and I heard him gloating to Hera about how well he'd served her and demanding reward. I peeked in, astonished, scarcely able to believe my ears-I mean, he was High Priest to Athena! Anyway, I saw him pouring gold and jewels from a sack into a pile on the altar…and then golden coins from another bag, stamped with the symbol of Roma." The boy swallowed, again looking around nervously as he lowered his voice further, as perhaps if he whispered, the gods would not hear him. Taking a breath, the wonder and terror of it still in his voice, he continued, "Hera appeared! She laughed at him! Called him a fool!" Lowering his eyes, his small fists clenching against the horror of the memory, he murmured, "She struck him dead. Just like that. No warning. And then she said, 'There's your reward-the due reward of an inconstant liar and traitor.' And then she scooped up all the gold and gems and sneered, 'Thank you for your offering. So generous.'"
The boy looked up at them, his dark brown eyes wide as he stammered, "When he was gloating, he said-he said that she ought to be glad, and grateful, that he'd sold Iolaus into slavery as she'd commanded…"
Hercules paled and Jason cursed under his breath. So many days wasted. How many? Nearly a week since that bastard had betrayed their friend.
Swallowing, Hercules laid a firm hand on the boy's shoulder. "Thank you," he murmured. "You were brave to tell us, and we're very grateful."
"Iolaus was kind to me once," the lad replied, his eyes wide and earnest. "He saved me from some bullies that were beating on me in the market. I guess…I guess I owe him the truth. I hope you'll be able to find him."
"We'll find him," Hercules assured the young acolyte and then sent him scampering back to the Parthenon.
Jason shook his head. "The only question is where do we begin looking?"
"The docks," Hercules replied, setting out in that direction. As slavery was unlawful in Athens, it was most likely that any who had been taken would have been swiftly secreted away by sea. "Someone has to have seen something."
And, as it turned out, someone had. A stevedore remembered seeing the blond shanghaied.
So they knew Iolaus had been carried onto a Roman slave galley.
But no one seemed to have any idea of where the galley had gone once it had left the dock days before.
Jason had the Argo immediately provisioned for a long sail, and then they set off to track the slave ship. Without knowing whether it was beginning its run, and then likely heading to the markets in Roma, or ending it, and therefore most likely aiming for Ephessus, they had to sail to a variety of islands, first to see if a Roman slave ship had landed their recently, and then to piece together the times and dates of the sightings, to figure out its most likely route.
The next morning, while Ben got started sorting out the scrolls in the office and putting them into some kind of order, Aurelius went to the arena to 'test' the blond Greek slave to ensure he would be an adequate bodyguard for his secretary when the young man had to go into the city.
The guards had moved Iolaus to the arena in anticipation of the drill, and were anxious to see how their new leader would do against the blond whirlwind. Iolaus had stripped off his vest, ostensibly because it was already hot, but more to give the big Roman less to grab and hold onto. When Aurelius arrived, he, too, stripped off his light armor and linen shirt as he called for staffs, spears, swords, knives, tridents and nets, as well as bows and a quiver of arrows. It was to be a full review of weaponry skills.
Aurelius was a much bigger man, with a longer reach, but Iolaus had long worked out with a partner even bigger than the Roman, so he knew how to counter reach and strength with speed and agility. The men battled with the staffs and there was no clear winner when the Roman deemed himself satisfied; so much so, he decided to forgo the exchange of tactics with the spears, as the moves required were similar. The clash of swords was loud and fast, with much ducking and weaving, spinning and slashing, neither man able to disarm or overwhelm the other. Height and reach counted, however, with the big awkward nets, and the Roman, after a few missed throws managed to catch the smaller Greek in a wide-flung net. When it came to archery, it was soon evident that there was no contest. The slave won hands-down, his speed and accuracy astonishing.
Aurelius had left the knives until last, as they required close-quarters combat, more what would likely occur in narrow alleys or dark streets. Both men crouched and circled one another, feigning sharp, sudden jabs to draw the other out, neither succeeding. Finally, impatient, Iolaus tossed his knife into the sand.
"It's getting in the way," he stated dryly. "You want to know if I can fight, so fine. Come at me, with or without the knife, and see if you can bring me down."
Aurelius straightened and gazed thoughtfully at the cocky slave. Shrugging, he began his attack-but too fast to follow or react, he was startled when the blond slave whirled and lashed out with a kick, disarming him, the knife flying to drop in the sand some distance away. Aurelius pulled up and blinked, nodded to himself. Then, he signaled Iolaus closer, so that they closed with one another, the Roman reaching to grab the slave and pull him into a headlock. Iolaus let the grab happen, but didn't resist, using the larger man's momentum and weight to bring him forward and over Iolaus' shoulder, to land on his back in the dust. Aurelius, not to be outdone, slashed out with his long legs and swept out Iolaus' feet, bringing him down. As the Roman scrambled to grab hold, Iolaus rolled back and over, the first to come to his feet. He whirled, bringing his leg up to solidly catch Aurelius on the side of his head as he rose from his knees, sending him sprawling back onto the sand. Like lightning, as if he hadn't even felt the solid kick, the Roman was rolling and up, and then diving forward, catching Iolaus and bearing him to the ground. They grappled and wrestled, blocking one another's blows, until Iolaus managed to flip Aurelius over and plant a knee solidly in the bigger man's chest, winding him. Iolaus backed away, ready for more, though he was breathing hard.
Aurelius caught his breath as he massaged his solar plexus, coming up on one knee. Looking up at Iolaus, who was balanced and ready for more, the big man shook his head and laughed. "Okay, I'm convinced. You'll do. Wait by the exit and you'll come back to the residence with me when I'm done talking with the instructors."
Iolaus allowed a slight smile of satisfaction to dance around his lips and then he went to the wall to pick up his vest before ambling over to the exit portal. He was looking forward to living in the lap of luxury…and all because of that crazy, brilliant kid with the rare courage and compassion.
Maybe that kid was his lucky charm.
Aurelius and Iolaus headed to the baths to scrape off the sweat and dirt, and soak out the stiffness, before checking on Ben in the study. The young man had made good progress, setting up a system of scroll storage to track business and accounts. When the Roman and Greek warriors entered the room, the scholar looked up and grinned at them. Quirking his brows teasingly, he observed, "I guess you passed your test."
"Yeah," Iolaus replied, hard pressed not to grin back. What was it about this kid? He was just so…so irrepressible and…and what? Innocent, Iolaus finally decided. Being sharp or cold to him was like kicking a cute little puppy that only wanted to make friends. As cynical as he was, as uncaring, Iolaus wasn't prepared to go out of his way to make the kid miserable. Besides, he was proving to be a good meal ticket.
However, Ben's attention had moved to Aurelius, as he said, again unconsciously using the Centurion's name, "Justus, I want to show you something."
Ben turned to the cupboards that lined the back wall. He'd removed their doors, and then had divided each deep shelf to create a series of large 'pigeon holes', which he had labeled with various areas of accounts such as 'stores', 'weapons', 'arena receipts', 'household accounts', 'transfers from Roma', 'tributes/taxes', 'personnel', and so on…every element of inventory, income and expenditure that he could think of, given this office coordinated the basic logistical interface for the area with Roma, while the Governor's office was responsible for policy and political activities for that part of Asia Minor.
It didn't take a genius to see the oddity. All the divisions had scrolls piled within them except one. The box under 'Governor' was empty.
Aurelius frowned as Ben went on. "I know they'll likely keep their own records at the mansion, but there should be some flow of correspondence. And, remember how disarrayed the office was when we first saw it? I'm beginning to think someone went through everything and removed anything that pertained to the Governor."
Iolaus whistled soundlessly, while Aurelius replied quietly, "You're suggesting fraud? Misappropriation of funds? What?"
Ben shrugged. "There isn't enough to go on to suggest anything, yet. But-I thought you should know. You may need to keep an eye on him. Oh, and another thing…"
"Uh huh?" Justus encouraged.
"Well, while I was talking with the cook at breakfast, she made some comments that the guy you replaced wasn't 'any better than he needed to be' and that he was a lot wealthier when he left than when he arrived. As a local, I got the feeling that she resented Romans stealing or cheating the people who live here," Ben reported.
Justus ran his hand over his short hair as he grimaced. "Great," he sighed. Corruption was far from unknown within the Empire-it was one of the indicators that he saw of internal rot. There was precious little personal integrity left inside the system. But he really didn't need the problem of dealing with a Governor, who out-ranked him, who might be stealing from Roma as well as from the locals. What the man did locally was a matter for his own conscience, if he had one-but the Empire was jealous and Roma would not respond well to evidence that she had been cheated of her due tributes or taxes. "There's just the small matter of getting proof," he muttered.
Iolaus had been watching and was surprised by the degree of comfortable informality that already existed between the Centurion and his secretary. Ben would trust anyone, but Iolaus doubted the Roman was so gullible. But the man made quick judgments and evidently trusted his own instincts, because there was already tenuous trust in this new relationship. Iolaus rolled his eyes, figuring that it was something about the kid-he inspired people to relax around him…he was just so damned likeable.
Clearing his throat, Iolaus asked, "Do you hear as well as you see?"
Aurelius snapped his head around, "What?"
Ah, defensive about it, the blond warrior noticed. "Well, hey, it's pretty obvious that you can see what others can't. The ink you spotted on Ben's hands and today, during the archery competition. You're not an archer, not trained, that's clear in your stance…but you got closer to targets than you had a right to, so that argues that your vision gives you an edge…it's very precise at distances. So, I wondered if you could hear as well as you can see."
"And if I can?" Justus asked, not yet certain how far to trust the Greek. The man had cold, wary eyes, and for all his interest in the kid, seemed more the kind to only look out for his own interests.
Shrugging, Iolaus replied, "When I'm not shadowing Ben, I could be watching the Governor, tailing him, seeing who his contacts are and keep you posted. If anything interesting looks like it's going to go down, you could check it out. You could listen into supposedly private conversations and find out what he's up to-if you could hear better than the average man."
"Why would you be willing to take such a risk?" Aurelius demanded. "He holds the superior position in the region, and if he ordered me to sell you or whatever, I wouldn't have the right to refuse. If you were caught out, you could end up back in the arena, or worse."
Iolaus scratched his head and suggested with bold candour, "You won't likely have much need for a secretary or his bodyguard once this deal ends and you go back to Roma. Maybe, if you were happy with our services, you'd grant us our freedom before you left." Iolaus paused and swallowed, wondering what had possessed him to say 'our', including the kid in the deal. It had been instinctive and unconscious and it frankly shocked him to have maybe fouled his own chances. Who knew if the kid would be any good as a secretary? He blinked away his thoughts and focused again on the Centurion.
"Maybe," Aurelius allowed, giving little away. The fact was the suggestion only underscored his intent to find a local advocate who dealt with legal matters such as estate management and manumission, to work up papers for both Benjamin and Iolaus as soon as possible. Justus didn't believe in slavery and the idea of 'owning' another human being made him feel unclean. If they chose to leave his employ at that point, so be it. He trusted loyalty far more than ownership-and if they weren't loyal enough to stay, then he didn't really want them involved, not in such close, personal undertakings, anyway. In his view, men had to have the right to make their own choices about the risks they would take; unless by entering the military they had given their word to take the orders of their commanding officers, even when the orders would present the dangers of battle. And, even then, loyalty was worth more than the compulsion of command.
Ben, meanwhile, had been worrying the problem over in his head. "I think I might be able to precipitate matters a little if I send a demand for copies of the last year's transaction records. I could claim that we're expecting an audit by Roma."
Justus thought about it, nodded. "Do it," he said, and then turned to Iolaus. "Mornings and evenings, Ben will be working here in the residence. Any business in the city will be conducted in the afternoons. So long as you are available then to escort him when he ventures around town, the rest of the time you can be engaged in your 'surveillance' activities."
"Fine. Do you need me this afternoon?" the blond asked.
"No, not today," Justus replied. "Get yourself something to eat in the kitchen and report back later."
With a nod, Iolaus left to do as he was bid.
None of them were fools. They all knew they were embarking on a potentially dangerous enterprise, each for their own reasons.
Once Iolaus had departed, Ben turned again to Aurelius. "Uh, there's something else," he said, diffidently.
Puzzled by his manner, Justus quirked a brow in inquiry.
"I've written a note to my Mother, to let her know I'm all right, and I wondered if you'd mind if I sent it," Ben blurted out, only too conscious that he had no personal rights. Being a slave sucked.
Uncomfortable that the kid had thought he had to ask for such a simple boon, Justus looked away as he gave permission. "Certainly-have a courier take it today."
"A courier?" Ben exclaimed. "But-I don't, I can't afford…that is, I was just going to put it in the regular…"
"Your mother will be worried, will she not?" Aurelius demanded, turning to the younger man. When Ben nodded emphatically, the Roman continued, "Then you need to get word to her quickly. Put the charge on my personal account."
With that, the Roman turned and vacated the office, calling over his shoulder as he left, "Let me know when you send the note to the Governor's office."
Ben was left with his mouth a little agape at the spontaneous generosity and consideration he'd just witnessed, shaking his head at how it had seemed to embarrass Justus to be so kind.
Grateful to have received the permission and been granted the means to alleviate his mother's anxiety and grief as quickly as he could, smiling widely and scroll in hand, he went in search of one of the house staff to send for a courier.
Ben wrote out the scroll calling for the accounting by the Governor's office the next morning and advised Aurelius when it was ready to be sent.
"Fine," the Centurion replied, "I'll position myself outside, somewhere nearby, and see if I can hear the reaction when it is received."
"You can hear that far?" Ben asked, surprised.
"I think so, sometimes anyway, but I can't always control it," Justus admitted, looking chagrined at how unpredictable his senses were and how little control he had over them.
Ben frowned in thought for a moment, "I think I should go with you. If you're going to concentrate that hard then you might lose it again. You know, zone, like you did the other day."
When Aurelius hesitated, Ben pressed, "Come on…we can pretend to be out looking around, getting familiar with the city. You're only going to be listening, so there's nothing really dangerous involved."
Reluctantly, the Centurion agreed and they set off shortly behind the messenger.
The Governor's mansion was a stately home built of stone and brick, with tall Corinthian columns and porticoes, as well as frescos and elaborate stonework designs in the façade. It was surrounded by gardens, some of which were open to be enjoyed by the populace. Justus and Ben found a bench under a blooming acacia tree in the shadow of the residence on the side that contained the administrative offices.
Ben laid a light hand on Aurelius' arm as he unconsciously dropped into his guiding voice to lead the Centurion through the listening process. "Okay," he said. "You're picturing your horses, right. And you're letting the black loose to run farther ahead…you can still control him, he's just moving farther away. Got it?"
Justus nodded, and immediately he began to pick up voices inside the building. Too many voices…he winced with pain.
"Easy," Ben coached. "What's wrong?"
"Too many voices…can't make them out," Justus grunted.
"Just focus on one at a time, and if the conversation isn't relevant, set it aside, ignore it, and move to the next. You can do it," Ben encouraged.
Unconsciously, Justus tilted his head as he focused on one conversation after another, until he heard, "…what audit? We haven't been advised of any audit?" And another voice, "Well, it's not likely they've twigged to anything…they haven't been around long enough to…" The first voice cut back in, "Maybe you should pay a visit on that new secretary Aurelius bought. Use your discretion…"
A chariot rolled by on the street just then, the clop of hooves on marble and the screech of the iron-rimmed wheels as it slowed, filling Justus' head with overwhelming hurtful sound and he groaned, doubling over, his hands moving to cover his ears.
"What happened?" Ben demanded anxiously, gripping Justus' shoulder tightly. "Are you all right? Pull back the black, rein him in now…and make sure the chestnut is reined back, too."
Swallowing, focusing on pulling back on the reins of the runaway horses in his head, Justus found that the pain and the ringing in his ears diminished quickly. Taking a breath, he straightened and nodded.
"You okay?" Ben demanded, worry in his eyes.
"Yeah, I'm good, thanks," Justus, replied, reflecting that the kid had been right-he'd needed the young man with him or he'd never have heard what he had or coped so quickly with the sensory overload. "C'mon, let's head back. Seems you're going to have a visitor soon."
Later that afternoon, the secretary to the Governor, Cletius, paid a 'courtesy call' on the new Centurion's secretary. During the course of the conversation, the thickset, vaguely intimidating man in his early thirties, made reference to the scroll Ben had sent that morning.
"It would take us some time to make all the copies you're requesting," Cletius explained, his tone patronizing, as if any fool should have known that. "Perhaps it would be easier to simply refer the auditors to us when they come…when is that by the way? I don't recall receiving an advisory from Roma."
"Oh, um, well, the Centurion was advised of the coming audit when he was given his commission, " Ben obfuscated. "We're expecting them in the next month or so, to verify the old records and begin a clean slate in terms of his period of responsibility. And I really think I should have those copies. If you like, I could assist with the labour involved."
"Ah, no," Cletius replied. "The work is so detailed that I think we'll need to do it ourselves." It was hard to copy records that no longer existed. But perhaps, for the right price, this young slave would be interested in more creative work, like manufacturing receipts and invoices, as well as new tax records. "However, we often do have an overflow of work, as you can imagine. If we were to reimburse you for your time, a kind of allowance, would you be interested in helping from time to time?"
Startled, not expecting this and wondering if the offer was sincere, Ben replied, "Oh, ah, well, I'm new to this 'being a slave' business, but I think anything I make belongs to my master, Aurelius. I could ask him…"
"Oh, we wouldn't have to let him know," Cletius' suggested, a distinctly oily note in his voice as he winked at the younger man. This was it-bottom line, could the kid be compromised or not? "We'd keep it just between us and you could put a nice little nest-egg aside. Maybe enough to buy your freedom back?"
It was at that point that Ben realized he was being bribed. Should he take it, and maybe get an inside track on information, or decline. What would Justus want him to do?
"I don't know," he hesitated as if tempted, buying time. "I'd have to think about it, but it's a generous offer, and I appreciate it. Can I get back to you?"
Unhappy with the less than definitive answer, Cletius decided to accept 'maybe' as better than 'no way'. They might still get the kid in their court, which would make the swindle a lot easier.
"All right, just let me know," Cletius agreed and shortly after took his leave.
Justus strolled in a few minutes later.
Ben looked up and shook his head as he reported, "I was offered a bribe, I think, and I didn't know what to do. I mean, it would give us an inside look, maybe, but…I didn't know what you'd want."
"I know, I heard," Justus replied, surprising Ben, who still hadn't completely absorbed what his master could do with his senses. "For now, I'd rather keep you away from them. An early bribe like this, as well as the concern about the audit, could mean they are in deep and are desperate. That makes them dangerous and I don't want you going anywhere that you can't take Iolaus with you. Understood?"
"Perfectly," Ben acknowledged, relieved in spite of himself. Feeling like a wimp, he admitted softly, "Believe me, I'm no hero…"
"Don't worry about it-that's Iolaus' job, not yours," Aurelius replied, hoping the Greek was dependable enough to protect Ben if, indeed, matters got dangerous.
Life settled into a routine for the next couple of weeks. Aurelius spent his mornings in the arena, overseeing the training of the gladiators to make them as good as he could…to give them the best chance possible for survival when they graduated. It was really all he could do for them. In the afternoons, he performed other official duties, such as ensuring the security patrols of the city were organized, looking into complaints, and meeting with the Governor and other local officials on mutual business. He found the Governor to be a man who evidently enjoyed his comforts, his food and his drink, if his girth and complexion were any indicators. He wore expensive silk togas, his fingers sporting large rings of gold and various gems, and the middle-aged man was unctuous and patronizing in his manner. Time spent in his company was a definite chore.
In the evenings, Justus checked out leads that Iolaus had picked up on his own wanderings around the city. Taking Ben with him, Justus would 'listen in' to conversations, or try to identify individuals emerging as key players without having to get too close. While eavesdropping left him feeling uncomfortable, he rationalized it wasn't a great deal different from being a spy who went undercover to garner necessary information. And, besides, he consoled himself further, it was one of his responsibilities to ensure law and order was maintained in the city-he was simply checking out possible criminal undertakings-doing his job.
Iolaus spent his mornings ambling about the city, enjoying the relative freedom and good weather. He visited the docks and warehouses, ale houses and eating places, lingered outside offices, seeing who met who, who did business with whom, and listening in to conversations when he could get close enough. In the evenings, he frequented taverns that had pretty and accommodating barmaids. It had surprised him when Aurelius had, from the first day, given him a 'spending allowance' over and above the legitimate expenses he'd incurred. A generous allowance, more in the order of a wage. Wryly, he'd thought to himself that the old Iolaus would likely have pointed out that the man didn't have to pay his slave to do his bidding…but this Iolaus just pocketed the money. However, he did earn it. Even in the evenings, if he thought he had a lead on something, he'd be back lingering around the docks, warehouses or construction sites, taking note of late night deliveries or movement of goods.
There were times when he considered simply taking off, but he doubted he could arrange as comfortable and easy a set up as he had in the Centurion's residence. In the absence of any personal goals, spending his time this way was as good as any other.
Ben, for his part, spent the mornings in the office, keeping up the endless flow of forms and scrolls that the bureaucracy of a far-flung Empire required. The paper flow was in addition to the actual work of ordering food, supplies and equipment for the school, paying the healer's bills when a gladiator was injured in training and so on.
In the evenings, he was normally with Justus, either out on a surveillance mission, or working with the older man back in the residence. Each day, Ben dreamed up new ways to help his master get a better handle on understanding and controlling his senses.
Justus went along with the exercises, understanding they were for his own good, but he couldn't say he enjoyed them much. He did enjoy the kid's company, though, oddly enough. The young scholar held a wealth of knowledge under all that unruly hair, and was interesting company, funny, too, with a well-developed sense of the ridiculous. More, he was patient and inventive in coming up with ways to help Justus deal with his senses and the Centurion could not help but be grateful for that. There was something about the kid that was just plain comfortable to be around-and before he knew it, much to his chagrin and discomfort, Aurelius realized he was thinking of Ben as a friend, even as a partner in his efforts to bring the Governor to justice, more than as an employee, let alone a slave. His discomfort with that realization made him gruff at times, but Ben seemed to take it all in stride, as if he could see through the barks and know that he was in absolutely no danger of any bites.
Early the first week, Justus had been the one to suggest how Ben might want to use his spare time, as the young man had been uncertain about how much freedom of movement he was really being granted, and tended to hang around in case he was needed. And often he was, to take notes and keep records of the meetings Justus held in the afternoons. When he wasn't needed, he visited with the servants, making suggestions about how they might wash his master's clothing and linens, to ensure they were soft and non-irritating; or about the flowers they used to decorate the stately official residence, recommending those with subtle scents over those with heavy, lingering fragrances. Gradually, Aurelius' home came to accommodate his unique needs and he relaxed within it without quite understanding why it seemed to become ever more comfortable.
But after a couple of days, Justus observed, as if idly and in passing, "I heard someone mention there's a pretty good library in town."
"Pretty good?" Ben echoed, looking up from a scroll he was working on. "The Library of Ephessus ranks with the one in Alexandria as two of the best libraries in the world." Turning back to the scroll, he added wistfully, "I always dreamed of being able to visit the both of them…"
"Well, then, why don't you go and see it?" Justus asked, secretly pleased for he had thought this would pique the kid's interest and give him something he'd consider fun to do. "I can give you a chit indicating you're there on my business if they give you a hard time for being a slave-then you could ask to see anything you want. Maybe even get to bring some things home to read."
His face alight with wonder, Ben looked up as he said, "You mean it?"
"Sure, why not?" Justus replied, uncomfortable with the overflow of gratitude in the kid's face. It wasn't like he'd done anything to deserve it.
So, Iolaus in tow and somewhat less than thrilled about the idea of spending hours lounging around in the company of dusty scrolls, Ben set off for the great library. It became a daily outing, an intellectual adventure of sorts, as the kid searched for any references he could find to the 'Watchers' and their offspring. In spite of himself, Iolaus found his interest aroused when Ben babbled on about what he'd learned on any given day while they walked back to the residence. Though Ben never gave out any direct information about why he was interested in the subject, other than he found it fascinating as part of his interest in Torah and related historical studies, Iolaus had pretty much figured out that Aurelius must be a descendent of these so-called 'Watchers'.
Which was mildly interesting in and of itself.
But of more interest to Iolaus, if Ben's theories were correct, then Hercules was also a descendent of a 'Watcher' and that meant that Herc and Aurelius were cousins of sorts. As the days went by, Iolaus found himself thinking more about the demigod rather than less. And it annoyed him. That life was over, and he didn't 'feel' the lack of it particularly, but his mind nagged at him that Herc had been the foundation of his life. Went on and on about how Hercules needed him and he owed the big guy loyalty if not love. Not that 'loyalty' figured any more prominently than 'love' in Iolaus' current range of emotions. It all gave him a headache and left him feeling unsettled. As if something was missing. Something important.
At which point of reflection he would invariably snort to himself in wry disgust. 'Well, duh?' he'd think then. 'You're 'missing' just about everything about who and what you were…still figuring out who and what you are now. Get a grip and get used to it. This is the way it is now.'
But his anger burned, furious that he had to 'get used to it' at all, and his head continued to pound, a merciless counterpoint to his days and nights. His mind still struggled against what he had become, using the limited range of emotions available, sullen irritation, sharp anger, simmering rage, and occasionally even fury to express the pain of a soul that had been rendered mute. His mind remembered what he had been…and seemed unwilling to let him ever forget, so he came to loathe the creature he had become, base and self-serving, empty of compassion and the capacity to love. It was a constant struggle, to try to accept and go on while resenting with a deep, abiding, low-burning rage what had been done to him. But he was also incapable of trusting anyone, of sharing his pain, that it might be assuaged and comforted, so he suffered stoically and in silence. He endured, only too conscious that he was not fully alive.
As the days passed, they gathered bits of information that gradually began coming together, like the pieces of a puzzle when they each fit in the bits they knew. Patronage decisions to give contracts resulting in knowingly and deliberately shoddy work, in return for kickbacks. Bad enough anywhere, but in a country where earthquakes were the norm, failure to uphold the standards first developed by Daedalus, when he'd engineered the design for the legendary Palace of Knossus on Creta, could cost countless lives. Skimming off the top of collected taxes by bribing the tax collectors emerged as another favourite pastime of the Governor. All of it routine corruption. The tax skimming might interest Roma, but the rest? Not likely, Justus thought with a twinge of disgust and despair about what the system he'd pledged his allegiance to had become. But, then, they discovered darker secrets. It began to emerge that tax collectors who wouldn't play, or contractors who too loudly protested the patronage and alleged criminal negligence, ended up having untimely, unfortunate and very definitely, deadly, accidents.
"They're murdering people?" Ben exclaimed, astonished, when the patterns came clear. "For money?"
"One of the best reasons to murder someone," Iolaus retorted cynically. But at the shocked, even hurt look in Ben's eyes, as if he was somehow disappointed in Iolaus' easy acceptance of such a horror, the blond found himself mumbling, "I mean, if you're going to murder someone. Which is clearly wrong, right?"
"Right," Ben affirmed forcibly, giving Iolaus a sideways look. And the blond wondered again why he even cared what this kid thought or how he felt. It didn't matter a damn. Wasn't important. Not to Iolaus anyway.
Or so the demon inside told him, and he'd come to believe it was true.
It had taken days to track the slave galley-which stretched to weeks when the weather turned foul. Jason was far from happy with the delays, but he'd been a King and he'd long ago learned to school himself to patience, to endure what he could not change. Hercules, however, was far more used to action-and it was his partner, his best friend, who had disappeared.
Because a malicious and cruel goddess had struck at Iolaus to wound the demigod.
The sense of guilt and responsibility, the worry about what had happened to Iolaus, and just simply missing the man who had traveled with him virtually everyday for years, and had been his best friend all his life, were like sharp, serrated, knives that lacerated Hercules' heart. Beyond frustrated and restless, the demigod existed in a state of barely controlled frenzy, so acute was his need to find Iolaus and somehow, someway, save him from the torment of Hera's cruel curse. Day and night, he paced the deck of the Argo like a caged lion, able to sleep only fitfully and for short periods, awakened by nightmares, sick with worry and helplessness.
Jason watched him from his place at the helm, and shook his head. Biting his lip, he thought of the unique relationship that Hercules and Iolaus had always shared. For all his brash and cocky manner, Iolaus had the strength and confidence to stand with the demigod against threats and horrors that would have terrified other men. With his humour and compassion, and the very evident and unswerving love he felt for the demigod, Iolaus had seemed almost to ground the Son of Zeus, and in an odd but very real way, to be Hercules' protector. With or without Iolaus, Hercules always carried on, always did his best, but he seemed somehow diminished without his partner by his side. Jason could see the suffering in his good friend's eyes, could see Hercules blamed himself, tormented himself with guilt and responsibility that were not his to bear, but which haunted him always, whenever Iolaus paid a penalty for being his best friend. Jason deeply wished there was something to be done to alleviate his good friend's impatient and corrosive anxiety over the time it was taking to determine the galley's path and destination, so that he might get on with his search and find the one he needed so badly in his life.
But there wasn't. It all would simply take the time it took. To have rushed blindly to either Roma or Ephessus would have cost them many weeks of time if it turned out they had chosen the wrong destination.
They'd been to Chios and Andros, Tinos, and Naxos, and learned that a Roman slave galley had been in port over the past few weeks, but the dates were hazy in the memories of the people they questioned, and so the information was inconclusive. But the information at Thira was more useful, because the galley had put in there long enough ago that it was clear it had not yet gone to the other islands. So it had been heading toward Athina, not away-likely from Roman-held Palestine, which was a favourite source of new slaves having only recently been pulled into the Empire. The slave ship would have been close to over-flowing with its human cargo by the time it had pulled out of Athina.
At least now, finally, they knew where the galley was likely heading.
Calling to his crew to haul anchor from the caldera of Thira, and release the sails, Jason set his course for Ephessus.
As the Argo sailed north, Jason found himself again thinking about Iolaus and the trouble he was in. Even when they found him, for Jason had no doubt they would find him-going home without him wasn't an option either man was willing to face-they still had to find a way to deal with the curse. If they ever found a way to deal with it…
Watching the demigod, the tense muscles, the haunted eyes, Jason knew Hercules shared the same underlying fears that twisted in his heart. And he knew there was one fear they didn't mention and pretended didn't exist. Because the very idea was untenable.
But whether they talked about it or not, it hung there between them, adding to the tension and their increasing sense of urgency. Iolaus was an impatient man by nature. He didn't take insults well, and because he was of 'compact' stature, the insults tended to be a regular occurrence. The feisty warrior, too brave for his own good, rarely backed down from a fight, any fight…and then only, either because it would compromise whatever mission he and Hercules were on, or because the person who had drawn his ire wasn't worth his time and attention. It was a good thing he was more than capable of handling what most anyone could throw at him. But he wasn't a 'warrior' now, free to choose his own path, to fight or walk away as he chose. He was a slave. And docile slaves did better, lived longer, than aggressive ones who talked back, fought back and likely tried to escape every chance they got.
Added to his personal preferences to fight rather than run, and his current status as a slave, were the unpredictable effects of the curse upon Iolaus. His now pronounced tendency toward anger and diminished capacity for toleration made it an even more explosive mixture.
No, Jason thought, they might not talk about it.
But they both wondered if Iolaus was even still alive…
They were halfway through their third week in Ephessus when the man Justus had hired to produce the warrants of manumission finally delivered the documents to him. Thoughtfully, Aurelius tapped the documents in his hands. The investigation into the Governor's illegal activities had progressed a long way, and just that day, he had signed off on documents to Roma that would have the official recalled, perhaps even exiled after all his property was confiscated by the state. Up until now, they'd been able to keep risks to a minimum, but things were bound to heat up soon. Ben had again been approached with a bribe, and Justus was even more concerned when Iolaus admitted that he had been as well. Effectively, the warrior had been sounded out about inconveniently losing track of his charge on one of their afternoon outings.
That had been very alarming. It meant that the Governor's crowd was getting suspicious and focusing in on those who would likely know more than they should. Ben had looked alarmed to think he might actually be a target, though he'd tried to cover it. His accelerated heartbeat gave him away, but Aurelius didn't blame the kid for being scared. The men that they were after didn't hesitate to kill. Nodding to himself, he decided that the time to get these papers couldn't have been better. It was time for Benjamin bar Judah and Iolaus of Thebes to decide for themselves whether they were 'in' or 'out' as this went down to the wire.
He gave directions to Iolaus to be back for dinner that night. After giving special instructions to the cook, he checked the stock of amphora in the small cellar that had been built under the residence to store wine and foodstuffs in a cooler environment, selecting a rare and valuable vintage.
His two slaves were taken aback when they entered the formal dining room and found it prepared as if for important guests.
"We were supposed to be here tonight, right?" Ben murmured, frowning. "He doesn't have any special guests for dinner, does he?"
"You're the one who keeps his calendar," Iolaus observed, not sure what to make of the expensive glass goblets and the candles, let alone the porcelain plates and silver knives and spoons. "There're three places set…"
Justus arrived then and smiled as he waved them into the room ahead of him, telling them to sit and be comfortable on the dining couches that bracketed the table as he poured goblets of wine and served them. Dinner was brought in shortly after, succulent dishes of roasted boar and venison, duck and fish, with olives in their oil, sliced cucumber in soured cream, peasant's salad with peppers, olives, onions, tomatoes and goat cheese, dishes of tangy and sweet spicy relishes and condiments…it was a feast, pure and simple.
"What's this all about, Justus?" Ben asked, his eyes wide at the bounty laid before them. He'd never seen so much food on one table before.
"Well, it's a celebration of sorts," Justinius replied. When they both gazed at him in open confusion, both sets of blue eyes wide with questions, he had to smile. They were so different and yet so similar. Both very bright, they showed their capacities in different ways. Both strong and resilient. Both inventive. Ben could talk anyone under the table, but Iolaus was quite capable of holding his own. And, for all that Iolaus played his 'I'm a tough guy and I don't care' attitude, Justus had noticed the care the blond warrior took of the scholar and how much the scholar cared about the warrior.
"What celebration? Why?" Iolaus probed when Aurelius didn't immediately explain.
Setting his wine goblet on the table, Justus began, "You have both done exceptional work, going beyond any normal expectation in undertaking the hazardous investigation into the Governor's affairs. I know that you both felt you had little choice, because you are my slaves. I also know that neither of you are used to playing that role, nor can it have been easy for either one of you. You have both done excellent work, and, in part, this dinner is to express my appreciation. Though, there is another, no question, more important reason for this celebration."
Pausing, he looked into the distance as he continued, "It is my personal view that slavery is an abomination. I have never before owned a human being, let alone two of them." Turning back to them, he pulled two small scrolls from the inside of his slightly gaping toga and handed one to each of them. One was bound with a chestnut coloured ribbon, the other with one that was gold. As they took the scrolls, he said, "These are your manumission warrants. As of now, you are both once again free men."
Ben's mouth dropped open as he looked down at the scroll in his hand and blinked, trying to take it in, to deal with the utter unexpectedness…and the amazing gift of it. His throat tightened and his eyes burned. Justus was giving them their lives back. Giving them the right to choose. It was…staggering.
Iolaus was equally surprised, as he'd not expected to win this reward with so little effort. But, basically, he thought Justus a fool-the man needed them to bring down the Governor and his gang. This was not the time to cut them loose. Nevertheless, he welcomed the gesture with evident relief. He hated being anyone else's 'property'.
Justus looked down at his plate, feeling guilty for how very much they clearly appreciated what he had done because he did not feel he warranted gratitude. If the world functioned properly, there would be no such thing as slavery and they would not have known the suffering of the slave ship or the indignities of being his 'property' in the first place. He was simply correcting a wrong; not giving a gift, though it was apparent that both of them seemed to feel it was a gift, and an amazing one at that.
"Thank you," Ben finally managed to stammer.
"Yeah," Iolaus added, unable to feel gratitude but knowing it was warranted. "This is a surprise. You didn't need to do this."
"Yes, I did," Justus countered adamantly. "Most especially now. In the next few days, I fully expect the Governor will become aware of our actions. The report was sent to Roma in today's correspondence satchel. I have no doubt he has bribed someone along the line to examine what we receive and what we send, so we can expect retribution. He must act to discredit or remove us before any response comes back from Roma. Therefore, the risk has just increased one hundred fold and I am unwilling to compel your continued involvement. Ben, you may well wish to return to your home in Jerusalem. If so, I will pay for your voyage. Iolaus, you may wish to return to Greece or go elsewhere. Again, I will pay the costs of restoring you to your life. However, this does not mean I wish either of you to leave. Clearly, I do not. It's my hope that you will continue as you have been doing, for a wage of course. But the choice to face the risks must be yours, not mine."
Iolaus' gaze shifted away. This was his ticket out of here, fully paid. He'd be a fool to hang around for the fireworks.
But before he could respond, Ben spoke up. "I'll stay," he said, to the surprise of both men. When he saw the consternation on their faces, he hastened on, "I know I'm not the warrior either of you are, but this is important. These guys need to be nailed for what they've done and I'm proud to help do it. And, well," he cut a look at Justus, and flushed a little as he said quietly, "I think you need my help with other stuff, too. And I like giving that help…"
Iolaus quirked a brow at the last bit. "With his senses, you mean?" he clarified. When both men looked at him in surprise, he grimaced as he complained, "What? You think I don't have eyes? That I couldn't figure it out when it's right in front of me? I don't know the details, but I know you're different and that Ben figures you're some descendent of the mythical 'Watchmen'. Just 'cause neither of you trust me, doesn't mean I'm stupid."
Justus flushed and Ben looked mortified. "You're wrong, Iolaus," the young man said earnestly, words tumbling in his haste to speak them, to be understood. "I trust you with my life, every day. And…I hope you'll stay, 'cause I'll be scared if you go. But, I'd understand. I mean, it's not like I'm anyone important in your life or that it's your problem that I'm too much of wuss to know how to take care of myself like you can."
"I trust you, as well, Iolaus," Justus said quietly. "You're the only one I do trust to protect Benjamin. We've learned enough to know that the cohorts assigned to local security are rife with corruption. I didn't say anything about my senses, well, because they make me feel like some kind of freak. They embarrass me. I'm sorry that you were offended by my lack of candour."
"You and Hercules, two of a kind," Iolaus muttered, shaking his head.
"What?" Justus asked, wondering at the reference and the familiar tone used in connection with the famous demigod.
Shrugging, Iolaus finally told them something of his past. "I was Hercules' partner until recently. He's been my best friend most all my life."
"You're the Iolaus of Thebes!" Ben exclaimed, feeling stupid to not have made the connection sooner. No wonder his friend had had occasion to meet so many of the Greek gods! It just had never occurred to him that the mortal known to be Hercules' constant partner would be a slave. He could have been freed weeks ago to return to his friend's side!
"I was," Iolaus said, his voice hollow, empty.
"Well, then, you'll be wanting to get back to Greece," Justus assumed, sorry to know he'd be losing this very capable man when he was most needed.
But Iolaus surprised them again when he shook his head. Ben looked puzzled, as if he were trying to figure out something that didn't make any sense, wishing he knew what to do to help to ease the pain he saw, so often saw, deep in Iolaus' eyes. Justus narrowed his eyes as he said, "I feel like I'm missing something here."
Pushing his fingers through his unruly curls, regretting that he'd said anything at all, Iolaus sighed. "It's a long story," he explained briefly, "but, basically, Hera has put a curse on me. I'm not…I'm not the man I used to be. I don't have the capacity to care for much beyond my own selfish interests or desires. In my head, I know that's despicable…but that's what I am now. I left Hercules because I don't think I can be trusted when the going gets tough. You shouldn't trust me any more than he should."
"I don't believe that, Iolaus," Ben said softly. "I told you before, I trust you. I'll always trust you."
"Yeah, well you're a fool, kid," Iolaus grunted. But Ben only looked at him with sorrow and shook his head, unwilling to accept that judgment. He believed in Iolaus and that was just the way it was.
"So, you'll be leaving," Aurelius stated, not a question, certain the man was trying to tell them he had no interest, or even the human capacity any more, to care enough to fight the battles that were sure to come.
Iolaus' head had bowed at Ben's words, ashamed of the look in the kid's eyes when he'd snapped back. Why in Tartarus did he give a damn about what was going on here, or that the young Ben might be at risk if he left? It only made sense to leave-who needed the trouble and aggravation? His head was pounding, a sure sign that his thinking was trying to go against the curse, trying to hold onto something he wasn't any more. A hero. A man others could respect. Someone who did things that mattered because they were right.
And once again, it was the trigger of the pain, and his fury against Hera for what she'd done to him that made him rail against what his very being urged him to do… Run, stay away from trouble, and look after yourself, the demon within demanded.
But the rage said, The hell with you. I'll be damned if I'll let the bitch's curse rule all my choices. I won't be a slave to her anymore than to anyone else!
Silence had fallen at the table, uncomfortable and full of Ben's sorrow and Justus' regret and compassion, fraught with the tension that poured in waves from Iolaus as he struggled with the demon inside.
When Iolaus finally looked up, he locked eyes with Aurelius and the Centurion winced at the riot of rage and pain he saw in the blond warrior's eyes.
"No," Iolaus finally said, his voice low and tight, harsh. "I won't give Hera the satisfaction. She made of me a man who aches to run away, a coward, self-serving and useless. If I ran now, she'd crow with delight. I can't feel compassion or courage any more. But I can feel the hate I have for her. So long as my anger lasts, I'll stay; so long as my hate for her can defeat the contempt I feel for simple, decent deeds."
He cut a quick look at Ben, who was smiling gently at him as if the kid had known all along that Iolaus wouldn't let him down, however, he might rationalize his decision. And Iolaus felt compelled to warn Ben, as he'd warned Hercules, though shards of pain lanced through his head as he spoke, "I'm dangerous, Ben. Unreliable. You must not count on me. I'm not trustworthy."
Ben's smile faded at the pain he could see in his friend's eyes, but the conviction in his heart only burned stronger. "I don't think you really know who you are right now, Iolaus-and no wonder, with the terrible thing that has been done to you. But there isn't anything you can say that will ever convince me that I can't trust you."
Justus, however, wasn't so sure of that-wasn't at all sure he wanted to gamble Ben's life on it.
Iolaus could see the doubt in the older man's eyes and didn't blame him. He doubted himself. Clearing his throat, he offered, "Here's the deal. So long as you pay me well to guard the kid, and so long as I accept the pay, I'll do it. There's something in it for me then, that makes the risk worthwhile."
The Centurion studied the blond warrior, and nodded to himself. He felt a lump in his throat, as he understood the other man's struggle of trying to find a way to act honourably within the conditions he'd been given to function in life. "I accept the deal," he said soberly. Meaningfully, he added, "I think Hercules was very fortunate in his friend and partner-he must be missing you badly now. And, for what it's worth, though no doubt you'll think me as big a fool as Ben, I trust you, too."
"Well," Iolaus sighed, as he reached for his goblet, avoiding Ben's eyes, "you can't say I didn't warn you."
Hercules was at the rail as the Argo eased into the dock at Ephessus in the middle of the afternoon, and he leapt over onto the wooden wharf to help tie off the vessel. He itched to be on his way to search for some word of Iolaus, and was utterly desperate to find some trail as to where his partner might have gone from here. During the last stage of the voyage, he and Jason had agreed the place to start was the gladiatorial school. Given Iolaus' skills as a warrior, it made sense to think that he would have been bought for such a role. He'd barely looped the heavy rope and tied it off around a wooden pylon when Jason joined him on the dock to begin the next stage of their search. They got directions from one of the local dockworkers and headed out to the stadium on the edge of town, where the famous school was located.
When they got there an hour later, they were immensely relieved to discover that the guard on the gate knew exactly who they were seeking, though the man's manner was resentful, even disparaging, as he told them where to look for their friend.
"Iolaus, yeah, I know 'im," the man replied to their inquiry. "Since he didn't need no training, not like the rest of the sorry lot in that shipment, the Centurion, Justus Justinius Aurelius, Commander of the School, decided to take Iolaus to be the bodyguard for the pretty-boy Jew slave he wanted as his secretary. Aurelius bought 'em both in the same auction. Try around the far side, built onto the back of the stadium, you'll find the Centurion's residence."
Hercules and Jason jogged around the massive structure, and then, in his need to see Iolaus, to affirm that he was here and unharmed, demigod banged so hard on the door he nearly knocked it off it hinges. A servant answered and led them into the small, open-air peristale interior garden, complete with fountain that was so popular in Roman architecture as a waiting area for guests.
"Nice," murmured Jason as he studied the plants and flowers he knew his wife, Alcmene, would appreciate more than he did, and the statutes of Pan and nymphs that played eternally around the fountain. Hercules just shook his head, every muscle in his body tense, his blue eyes dark with an anxiety that would not let go.
In very few minutes, Aurelius joined them, holding out his arm to grip theirs as respected warriors as he said, "Jason, Hercules, of course I have heard of both of you. I'm very glad to welcome you. I am Justus Justinius Aurelius. I expect you're here to see Iolaus."
"A man who gets straight to the point," Jason grinned. "I think I'm going to like you."
"Where is Iolaus?" Hercules asked, his own priorities very clear.
Justus glanced at the sky and, frowned, vaguely aware of the sound of a wolf howling in the nearby hills, and closer, the snarl of a hunting cat. "They had gone to the Library, as is my secretary, Benjamin's, habit in the afternoons. Iolaus is with him. They should be home…in fact, I'd expected them earlier." For a moment, his eyes clouded and his jaw tightened. "I'm familiar with their route…let's go meet them. I'm sure Iolaus will want to know you're here, and I know Ben will want to meet both of you."
They set out at a brisk pace, but as the distance they traveled lengthened and there was still no sight of the two men, Aurelius felt anxiety grow in his gut. He'd expected some trouble…just not quite this soon. He'd thought their adversaries would need time to plan their retaliation, and that he would be their first target, or he would have either kept Ben from going out or gone with them when they'd left earlier.
"I think there may be trouble," was all he said as he broke into a run.
Iolaus was tiring and wasn't sure how much longer he'd be able to hold out. Blood streamed from the arrows that had buried themselves in his shoulder and right side. He'd broken off the shaft of one, to get it out of his way, but couldn't reach the other and still retain his grip on his sword. He'd lost a lot of blood, from those wounds and others, and his reactions were slowing.
He and Ben had been on the way home from the Library when Iolaus had spotted one of the Governor's goons and another guy he'd seen down on the docks who was a part of the 'lets get rich quick club'. The men were with a number of other armed thugs heading toward them with very evident intent to harm them… hell, they probably had murder on the agenda. Casting a look back over his shoulder, Iolaus saw that more trouble was coming up behind them, more than he could realistically handle for long on his own.
The battle with the ice demon inside of him started then as it urged him to just take off and fend for himself. That he was stupid to try to fight such hopeless odds-that the kid wasn't worth it. Nobody was worth it.
But his rage fought back.
Noticing that he and Ben were walking past the mouth of a narrow, dark alley, he thought that perhaps the fickle Fates were granting him a reprieve. The alley might well give a way out of the trap-and if it didn't, it was at least narrow enough to give him a fighting chance to hold off the men hunting them.
He turned and snapped at Ben, "Trouble! Get down there fast!" And he roughly shoved the young man ahead of him into the shadows.
But they hadn't gotten far when they came up against a dead end. A high wall, the back of the local, and actually quite famous, house of prostitution. There were no windows or doors.
They were trapped.
Again the demon within screamed, Surrender him to them! Make a deal for your own skin before it's too late!
Iolaus swallowed, as he swung around to face the men already crowding into the alley mouth, wincing against the sharp, shafts of pain in his head. There had to be a dozen at least. But the lane was so narrow, they couldn't all come at him at once.
He turned to cut Ben a quick glance, and saw the kid's eyes were wide and dark with fear as he looked at the men coming at them. Gods, he was so young. So innocent-and so unable to protect himself for all that he'd grabbed up a stick of wood from the refuse that littered the ground, prepared to stand with Iolaus and help him battle the men who'd come to murder them both.
The demon screamed at him to run, to give up, to save his own life…the hell with the kid.
But Ben turned those eyes upon him, serene now as he faced their fate and said, "I'm sorry, Iolaus. You'd have been gone by now if I hadn't urged you to stay. I'm sorry."
Something cracked then inside.
The demon was wild, frenzied with fear and rage, shrieking the command to run. But Iolaus couldn't look into those eyes that believed in him so resolutely, or listen to a kid facing certain death apologize for putting his life at risk, and simply walk away. They'd likely both die, but he just couldn't force himself to abandon the kid. What was his life anyway, but a hollow farce? What was the worth of a life that contributed nothing, that cared nothing for anyone but himself? The weariness of it assailed him, and he cast his fate to the wind.
"Stay behind me, Ben," he grated then, his voice cracking with the battle he was waging inside, with the almost blinding pain that pulsed through his head. "You'll get in my way. Just stay behind me."
And then he turned to face the dozen who had come to kill them, his sword already in his hand.
He fought well.
Cold and deliberate, flowing from one move into another with the grace and skill acquired from years of battling fiercer enemies than any single one of these attackers would ever be. Swords rang and clanged as they smashed together, men grunted and cursed, some screamed as Iolaus plunged his blade into their bodies. He whirled and kicked, thrust and stabbed, lunged and swiped with such deadly speed and accuracy that he was like death itself, swinging a scythe, cutting men down until the alley was littered with the wounded and dead. He fought so fiercely that he frankly terrified those who got close enough to look into his eyes, and see the passion that burned within them.
He fought as a hero fought. He fought even after being bloodied by deep cuts on his arm and one leg. He fought with no regard for himself but only, if the Fates allowed, that the young man behind him might live.
It was the numbers that wore him down-they just kept coming, three abreast, in waves. Each wave bringing fighters fresh to the battle, while he was tiring.
The numbers, and the unholy cunning of one who realized a different tack was needed to bring this battle to a conclusive and rapid end…
Iolaus had been doing so well, that he'd dared hope by some miracle that he might actually get Ben out of this hellacious mess. But then he heard the scholar cry out, and he cut a quick glance over his shoulder, and saw the arrow in the kid's shoulder. Iolaus felt almost sick with the relief that it was not a life threatening injury, not yet.
His eyes flicked between the men swarming in front of him and the rooftops, trying to spot the archer, knowing that it could have only been from high above that the attacker could have gotten the right angle to get to Ben without going through him.
The demon inside screamed again that this was his last chance. There was still time to surrender, time to walk away with his own skin whole!
Even as he continued to fight, slashing out at the men in front of him, doing damage, Iolaus forced himself to step back, giving himself less room to maneuver, but positioning himself directly in front of Ben to be certain that he'd cut the angle from above-that Ben could no longer be a target. It seemed appropriate to him somehow, after one archer had stolen his soul and frozen his heart, that another should finish it and take his life.
One arrow hit him in the left shoulder…
…followed shortly by the second in his right side.
While his right arm continued to swing the heavy sword, his left hand forced itself against the pain and awkwardness of the arrow in the shoulder to reach to break off the thin wooden shaft that projected from his side, getting in the way of his sword arm. He battled on, letting his rage at Hera and his grim determination to safeguard Ben lend him strength, and though he staggered and slowed, he stayed on his feet.
An arrow missed, hitting the wall over his left shoulder as he danced and whirled…and another missed as well. He smiled grimly, thinking the archer a pretty poor shot.
There were only three men left in front of him. He'd come so close…but he was weakening. Pain surged within his body and sweat stung his eyes as it dripped from his brow. His whole body glistened with exertion and blood, and his muscles were beginning to cramp. He had only minutes left, perhaps only seconds, the scant moments until another arrow caught and finished him. But he did not give up, did not waiver in his commitment to stand and defend Ben so long as breath remained in his body.
So focused was he on holding on, on keeping his feet beneath him a little longer, thrusting and blocking sword swipes one after another, that he didn't even notice when the demon's voice inside was silenced.
He'd chosen to fight, when he could have run. Chosen to put his life on the line that it might buy another's safety. So desperate was he, in fact, to save the life of the young, innocent, scholar that he didn't realize he'd won a battle with a goddess.
He could have wept with relief when he heard Aurelius' enraged shout as the Centurion tore into the mouth of the alley.
And just in time.
Another arrow thudded into Iolaus' body, driving him back to the wall, so that he stumbled over Ben who was crouching behind him, nursing his own wound, pale and afraid-but the kid hadn't cried out in fear, not once. Hadn't begged for a mercy he knew too well would never be granted. He, too, had faced the imminence of death with only the profound guilt that he couldn't do more to assist Iolaus in their defence.
Iolaus slipped to the ground, caught mid-way by Benjamin, who supported his head and shoulders with his good arm, cradling him against the younger man's chest.
"I'm sorry, Iolaus," the scholar whispered in anguish, tears on his cheeks. "Dear God, I'm sorry."
Iolaus could hear the battle raging down toward the mouth of the alley and knew Aurelius must have brought reinforcements. He sighed, at peace within himself for the first time in more than a month. Ben would survive, and that had been all he'd hoped for.
"S'okay," he gasped, panting for the breath to offer the only comfort he had left to give, as he gazed into twin oceans of blue, dark now with grief and glazed with tears of love for him. "Not much…of a life…anyway…"
Ben's throat was tight and his vision blurred as he protested with hoarse passion, "Don't say that! You could have run-left me. But you didn't. You stayed because you're a good man!"
Iolaus shook his head weakly, his vision dimming. "Just wish…" he panted, blood bubbling a little on his lips, "…wish I could have…seen Herc…once more. Ya know?"
"Hang on, Iolaus, please," Ben begged, even as he watched the awareness dim in his friend's eyes, Iolaus' heavy lids dropping as he went limp in the young scholar's arms.
Aurelius had heard the clang of swords long before they reached the alley and he knew it could only mean one thing. "Dammit!" he'd snarled, pouring on the speed. "They're in big trouble," he yelled back over his shoulder at the others.
Startled, Jason and Hercules wondered how he could know with such certainty that the panic of being too late cracked in his voice, but it spurred them on, and soon they too, could hear the metallic echoes of battle. Desperate now, knowing there was no time to lose, the three big men dodged and weaved through the busy afternoon crowd of shoppers, skidding around corners as they raced flat out.
Aurelius was in the lead by but a half step, and only that because he was the one who had known where they were going. His sharp gaze raked the alley, the melee of battle and his gut twisted as the strong, sickly sweet scent of blood assailed him. Finally, he found Ben, on the ground behind Iolaus who was still holding the vultures off…but Justus saw the arrow that had penetrated the scholar's body, and his heart leapt into his throat with fear for the young man's life. In that moment, Ben was revealed as more than a helpful and amusing friend-and Justus knew what he felt was love for a brother he'd never thought to have. Galvanized by an overwhelming need to protect the young man, to save him, to never lose him, Aurelius lunged toward the men who dared threaten Benjamin.
Hercules had been right behind him when the Centurion tore into the mouth of the alley, screaming out his rage, and he too searched the confusion for the one he sought.
And he saw Iolaus, battling alone, bloody and pale, staggering with exhaustion.
Saw the third arrow thud into his partner's body, driving Iolaus back to crash against the wall behind him…and then sag to the ground.
Consumed with the rage and horror of being too late, the demigod's eyes lifted and raked the rooftops, spotting the archer. Without thought, Hercules smashed his powerful fist into the stonewall that rimmed the alley, and wrenched a chunk of rock from the crumbling hole he'd created. His arm came back and he launched the crude missile unerringly upward, catching the archer on the side of the head, and the man tumbled from the heights. And then he turned to race toward Iolaus, oblivious of anything in his path as he rushed to his fallen partner's side, desperate with hope that his best friend might yet be saved.
Jason and Aurelius had continued into the alley, drawing the attention of the swordsmen, who turned in some confusion to meet them-a certain victory against the blond berserker and the helpless scholar shattering into defeat. The Roman Centurion and Jason of the Argonauts, former King of Corinth, and then a step behind, Hercules, Son of Zeus, came at them like a tidal wave of furious retribution.
The would-be murderers did the only thing they could. They dropped their swords and raised their hands, surrendering with alacrity.
Leaving the three terrified men under Jason's supervision, the Centurion and the demigod lunged forward, leaping over the crumpled bodies in their path to get to their partners.
Hercules dropped to his knees and tenderly took Iolaus from Ben's steady grip, and then Aurelius eased the scholar to his feet and away, to examine his wound and confirm for himself that it wasn't life-threatening.
"Iolaus?" Hercules gasped, reaching for a pulse, even as Ben urgently called out to Justus, "We've got to get him to help! Right now! He's hurt really bad!"
Justus nodded his understanding and called to Hercules, "Bring him!" Wrapping a supportive arm around Ben, Aurelius turned and led the way down the alley. Hercules lifted Iolaus into his arms, as if the wounded man were no more than a child, and followed the Centurion out of the place of carnage, and onto the street, around the corner to the house of the healer that served the needs of the gladiatorial school.
Motioning with his sword, Jason prodded his prisoners to follow.
Crowding into the bedchamber that had become an impromptu field hospital, Ben leaned into Aurelius' supportive grip as he watched Hercules place Iolaus gently upon the bed and then ease off his clothing, laying the wounds bare. Iolaus' breaths were shallow and very rapid; his lips already tinged blue, as he lay limp and deeply unconscious, oblivious to the fear in his best friend's eyes or the guilt and grief in Ben's dark gaze. Refusing to even consider having his own wound addressed until the healer had helped Iolaus, Benjamin wished with all his heart that there was something he could do to help. His breathing was rapid and shallow with fear for his friend; and he blinked back tears of helpless sorrow as he thought back to when he'd first seen this warrior, sprawled unconscious in the hold of the galley, and had moved with unthinking charity to help him-never, ever, imagining that in doing so, he was safeguarding the life that would one day save his own. Curling into Aurelius' strength, Ben bowed his head, tears staining his cheeks and his lips moved soundlessly as he prayed fervently to his God to spare Iolaus' life.
The healer had shouted to his servants to bring his instrument bag, basins of warm water and herbs as he'd led them through his mansion and was now hastily examining the warrior's wounds. Blood pulsed from the deep cut in Iolaus' thigh, oozed from the more shallow nicks and scrapes on his arms, and bubbled out of the arrow wounds. Grabbing a towel from the pile one of his servants had just carried in, he thrust it at Hercules, ordering the demigod to put pressure on the leg wound.
He called to his servant to hold up a candle, to give him better light, as he examined the wound in Iolaus' right side. It was the most urgent, potentially the one that could prove deadly, providing the less dangerous wounds in each of his shoulders and leg didn't sicken and go bad later. Nodding to himself, he turned away from his patient as the servant bearing his bag entered the room.
"I'll need bandages and lots of them," he ordered even as he rummaged in the leather depths and drew forth a slim, sharp blade. He held the metal implement into the flame of the candle for a long minute, then turned and went to extract the arrowhead from the chest wound.
"With luck," he muttered, "the arrowhead has lodged in his ribs, only nicking his lung."
Hercules closed his eyes in despair at the healer's words as he recalled the last time Fortune had intervened in Iolaus' life and fervently hoped that for once, if Fortune had indeed intervened, that she had made things better, not worse, for his partner. His whole body ached with fear for his best friend, and as he gazed at Iolaus' face, he was oblivious to everything but the sound of Iolaus' breathing and the blood, so much blood, that smeared his partner's body and was still pulsing away, taking life with it. "Hold on, Iolaus," he breathed with unconscious desperation, "don't…don't let go…"
Justus tightened his supportive grip around Ben's shoulders as he listened to the rapid, erratic tattoo of Iolaus' heart. He had to bite his lip to keep it from trembling, but his eyes misted with his awareness of how it might have so easily been Ben who'd been hurt so badly…and with his gratitude toward the wounded warrior who had stood his ground, had fought not only the mortal attackers but the curse of goddess to protect a young man who had come to mean more than life itself to Aurelius. Bowing his head, Justus prayed to whatever deities might be listening that they spare this noble warrior, that he might someday, somehow, thank Iolaus for his courage and steadfast commitment to the protection of the young man in his charge, putting his own life on the line that Ben might live.
Jason, having secured the criminals in a closet downstairs, eased into the room and stood quietly watching, his face haggard with his sorrow to see Iolaus so sorely injured, his eyes dark with the bitter grief that they may have arrived too late after all.
"He's waking up," he heard a voice murmur, as if in the distance.
And another called, "Iolaus? Can you hear me?"
A strong hand was gripping his, and he could feel the soft brush of fingers stroking his hair back from his brow.
It was Hercules. Herc was calling him.
He frowned, not really wanting to wake up, because as he became more aware, the pain burned brighter.
"C'mon, Iolaus," Hercules called again, softly, leaning in close.
"Mmphh," he mumbled in response, and then forced heavy lids open, to wince and blink against the light.
"That's it," the demigod encouraged, his voice oddly hoarse.
"Herc?" Iolaus sighed, as his eyes focused. Gritting his teeth, he bit off a groan, the echo of it a low moan in his throat.
"I'm here, buddy," the demigod assured him as he brought a thin pewter cup of cold water to Iolaus' lips. "Here, you need to drink a little."
He felt Hercules' large hand supporting his head and neck, lifting him a little and he sipped at the water, grateful for the moist coolness in his dry mouth and throat. When Hercules eased him back down, he grimaced against the pain and tried to catalogue it.
Shoulders, chest, and leg, mostly, though there were muted burns of pain on both his arms. Oddly though, the vicious headache that had become such a constant in his life was gone.
'What in Tartarus happened?' he wondered, his memory struggling to dredge up the details of how he'd ended up hurt this time. The alley came back and he stiffened, "Ben?" he asked, fear in his eyes.
"I'm right here, Iolaus," the young man called out quietly as he moved to the other side of the bed.
Iolaus' eyes tracked toward the voice, and he saw Ben was sporting a sling. "You okay?" he demanded. And was reassured by the bright smile.
"I'm fine," Benjamin assured him. "You saved my life, Iolaus. Thank you."
But the warrior shook his head weakly. "Justus…" he muttered. "Heard Justus…he saved…"
"We'll argue that when you're stronger," Ben cut in, laying a gentle hand on his arm to stop his words. "For now, you need to rest and get your strength back."
Iolaus blinked, his eyes tracking again around the room. He felt disoriented, a little like he was floating, but the pain kept him anchored to the bed, and he was vaguely astonished to find himself still alive. He wasn't surprised when he saw the Centurion by the door and realized it had been Aurelius' voice he'd first heard when he was waking up. But the warmth of the Roman's regard surprised him. Too weary to try to understand it, his gaze shifted again and then paused as he frowned in confusion, "Jase?"
"Uh huh," the former King acknowledged with a warm smile, his eyes soft with the relief of finally seeing Iolaus awake and knowing that he would, indeed, recover.
Shifting his gaze back to Hercules, remembering now that he'd left his best friend behind in Greece, he asked, "What…what are you guys doing here?"
Hercules smiled as he again stroked Iolaus' brow. "You didn't seriously think I had any intention of letting you just wander off on your own, did you?" he asked, his eyes warm with the depth of his friendship and commitment to Iolaus. "When you didn't show up in Corinth, Jason and I sailed to Athina. We found out you'd been taken by slavers-took us a while to track you down, but we never intended to go back to Corinth without you."
An ache of gratitude filled Iolaus' chest, and his lips trembled to know that he'd not been forsaken, even when he'd been so ready to give up on himself. Hercules and Jason, Ben and Aurelius, these men had all believed in the possibility of his salvation; a possibility that he couldn't see for himself, blinded as he'd been by the curse. More, even when he had given up on himself, they had continued to believe in him, to trust him. He gripped Hercules' hand and nodded, struggling for words, but couldn't seem to find the ones that expressed the magnitude of what he felt. Maybe there were no such words. He struggled for breath, to stay conscious, but the darkness was crowding in again.
"Thank you," Iolaus managed to murmur, his voice ragged with emotion, tears glazing his eyes as he drifted off to sleep.
It was another day before Iolaus was really lucid-four days from when he'd faced down more than a dozen men in a dark alley. Fortune had indeed smiled upon him-he'd been seriously weakened by loss of blood, but the wounds themselves had not been terribly serious.
Once he got over the amazement of still being alive and was able to sit up and take notice of the world around him, he was ravenously hungry. When Hercules heard that, he smiled easily for the first time since Iolaus had walked away from him, heading into Athina alone. Though Iolaus was complaining bitterly about starving to death, his tone was light, and there was laughter in his eyes-and Hercules knew he'd gotten his miracle. This was his Iolaus.
After he'd eaten, his curiousity demanded to be appeased, and the warrior wanted to know everything that had happened. So they regaled him with information, bringing him up to date, though they didn't say much about how they'd stood vigil by his bed for four long days and nights. No, they didn't describe how they had carefully moved him back to the Centurion's residence, or how they had all taken turns bathing his fevered skin, or carefully, patiently, poured cool water past his lax lips, encouraging his unconscious body to swallow, knowing he needed the fluids to survive. They didn't explain that their voices were all a little hoarse because they'd spoken to him endlessly, encouraging him to hang on and to come back to them-or that they all looked weary because they hadn't slept for any length of time, or with any peace, during the long hours that he'd lain unconscious and unresponsive. Not a word of any of that-for they'd had no choice, really, their love for him too great to have done less. Nor did they ever really reflect upon their unswerving devotion or aching fear, not now, not when they could finally relax with relief and gratitude to know he was going to be just fine.
As they described what had happened after he had fallen, he learned that Hercules and Jason had been with Aurelius when the Centurion had charged into the alley.
"You've always had great timing, Herc," Iolaus chuckled. "You, too, Jase."
They told him the three thugs had turned over on the Governor and the wealthy businessmen who had been his partners in defrauding the Empire. The man was already in shackles on his way back to Roma, while his cohorts in crime languished in the Ephessus prison.
When they finished filling in the blanks, Iolaus fully realized for the first time that he'd been laughing and teasing-that the darkness of despair that had haunted him and the hollowness he'd felt for weeks was gone. He felt an easiness of spirit, and a tentative smile danced over his lips as he absorbed what that meant.
He could feel again! Feel happiness, and warmth, friendship and love!
Astonished, he turned to Hercules and said, a note of wonder echoing in his voice, "I feel different, Herc. I feel like me again."
"I know," his best friend replied with a warm smile. "I can tell."
"But how?" Iolaus frowned, not understanding. "Was it some kind of time-limited curse that just had to, I don't know, melt out of my system?"
"No, you had to fight it off," Jason said then solemnly.
"Like a fever?" the warrior asked.
"No," the former King shook his head. "Iolaus, you were struck down by an ancient curse, one almost forgotten," he explained with sober admiration in his voice for what Iolaus had done. "The effects of the Archer of Ice can only be reversed when the victim chooses against the demon that has taken possession of him; chooses not to act selfishly, but rather to risk all for the sake of protecting a pure, innocent soul. When you chose to protect Ben, even at the cost of your own life, you defeated the demon and destroyed the curse."
"I told you I could trust you," Ben said quietly from the chair where he was sitting by the bed. The young scholar was uncomfortable with the 'pure and innocent' description, feeling unworthy of such words; he was just a man like any other, who tried to do his best. In his mind, Iolaus had saved his own soul all by himself, because he was inherently a good, decent man. Benjamin was simply grateful, and very proud, to know Iolaus was his friend.
Iolaus thought about what Jason had said, still amazed by Ben's capacity to trust where there sure hadn't been any solid basis for trust. In his heart, he believed that it was that trust that had saved him, more than anything he'd done for himself. The trust that Ben had that was so unshakeable, that Iolaus couldn't fight it, ignore, or betray it. He turned to Ben, and held the young man's gaze with his own, unable to imagine how he could ever repay such a gift. How did you thank the man who had unfrozen your heart and unlocked your soul?
Somehow, Ben seemed to understand, and just nodded his head slightly as he reached out to squeeze Iolaus' wrist, his soft smile saying that he understood and having Iolaus whole was thanks enough.
As the relief of being whole again settled, the warrior turned to his best friend, and was deeply moved by the tears he saw glistening in Hercules' eyes, as he, too, expressed a gratitude beyond words in the way the demigod was gazing at Ben. When Herc's eyes came back to his own, Iolaus murmured with an awed tone of amazement, "We beat her. You said we'd beat her, that we always did-and you were right. I should have listened to you."
The demigod returned the grin but shook his head as he ruffled his partner's curls. "You beat her. This time, my friend, you did it all on your own."
"No, not on my own," he demurred softly. But then he looked around at them all and chuckled happily, so immensely relieved that the nightmare was over, that his happiness bubbled up from his heart and lit his eyes with pure and unadulterated joy.
"The healer says you'll be able to travel in another week, Iolaus," Justus said then. "I imagine you are anxious to get back to Greece-I know your partner is anxious to take you home."
Iolaus nodded, but his gaze turned to Ben.
"What about you, kid?" he asked, "You going home?"
Ben nodded and swallowed, smiling a little as he turned to Justus.
"We're both going to Jerusalem," Aurelius informed them.
At their looks of surprise given his duties in Ephessus, he continued as he moved to stand behind Ben, a hand on the younger man's shoulder, "Iolaus, more than half of the men who attacked the two of you were Roman soldiers in the pay of the Governor." Looking away, Justus shook his head as he thought about that, his disgust and anger plain on his face. "This Empire is rotting. We have corrupt officials, and men driven by hubris and greed in positions of leadership from here to Brittania. I am, quite frankly, sick of it and no longer want to be a part of it. So, Ben and I have talked and I've decided to resign my commission and go with him to Palestine. I need his help. And, more," he paused again as he looked fondly down at the younger man, his voice strained with emotion, "I realized that day in the alley when I wasn't yet sure if he was dead or alive, that Ben has somehow become my family…and I didn't want to lose him. There's nothing for me back in Roma, but his mother is waiting in Jerusalem. And so-we will go there."
Iolaus' gaze shifted to Hercules and Jason, and then back to Justus. "You told them?"
"Yes," Justus grinned, seeming more comfortable and at ease within himself than Iolaus had ever seen him be before. "We had to talk about something while we waited for you to wake up and they kept harping on wanting to know how I knew for sure that there was a battle raging in that alley before they could hear it for themselves."
Looking down at Ben, Aurelius added fondly, "Ben's been helping me understand that these weird senses are gifts, not something to be ashamed of…or afraid of. He's taught me how to control and use them better, and I suspect he has all kinds of tests he still wants to try to help hone and refine them. I'm still a little nervous about what people will think of me-that I'm some kind of freak, an aberration of nature-but I've decided no more secrets. I won't hide what I am."
"A Sentinel," Ben stated, with confidence, and then grinned up at his friend. "A Sentinel who will help protect my 'tribe'."
"'Our' tribe now, Scout," Justus corrected, with a friendly swat to Ben's head-one the young scholar had obviously anticipated as he ducked away, snickering. He got a kick out of the nickname…as if he were showing the way, like that was anywhere close to the truth of the matter! He was just glad he could be of some help.
Iolaus remembered then what Ben had told him back on the slave ship, that everything happens for a reason, and so that meant there'd been a reason he'd been taken as a slave. Looking at the two men, the Roman who was ready to forsake an Empire to travel with perhaps the only man in the world who had known how to help him and give him peace-the same man who had inspired Iolaus to fight an inexorable demon that had taken his soul captive and frozen his heart-Iolaus began to wonder if maybe the kid really knew what he was talking about after all. He and Justus had both needed what only Benjamin could give.
And those thoughts led Iolaus to recall what else Ben had told him that day as they rowed across the Aegean, chained as slaves with an uncertain future; and he remembered how he'd laughed at the kid's crazy ideas.
"You know, Herc," Iolaus said with a wicked glint in his eyes. "Ben has a very interesting theory about these beings he calls 'Watchers'. Makes a lot of sense, when you think about it. You and Justus might turn out to be cousins, sort of…and, get this, if Ben's right, Hera isn't even a real goddess, and she knows it-kinda explains why she's always so damned pissed off, don't ya think?"
With a devilish smirk, he added, "I can't wait to tell her that now I know it, too."
Ben snickered, remembering how Iolaus had laughed at his theories not so very long ago. Justus looked askance, wondering at the wisdom of the idea but then gave a slow smile, proud and grateful to know the man who certainly had the right to face down the goddess who had tried to destroy him. Jason rolled his eyes and chuckled-his cocky and irrepressible, fearless friend was definitely back.
Hercules just shook his head with warm indulgence.
It would be a daring, even dangerous thing to do, to challenge and mock Hera. But the demigod would stand beside his partner and best friend while Iolaus did just that, and protect him as best Hercules could, with all his strength and his life if necessary, from whatever new danger her rage might spawn. If anyone had earned the right to spit in her face, it was Iolaus; and Hercules would ever defend his partner's right to stand with courage and dignity before Hera to tell her she had once again lost to the power of this single, humble mortal's capacity to do the right thing, to risk himself to protect innocence and purity from the evils that stalked out of the darkness…
…and to be the living proof that hatred and cruelty could never triumph over the light of decency, the fire of commitment and the power of unconditional and unswerving love…
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