by Randi DuMois
Iolaus put his back against the rock, studying the clouds
intently. Mist rose up from the river below the rocky outcrop,
hanging over the boulders and cloaking the deep green of the pines
in a wet haze. Though it was only late afternoon, the rain clouds
had darkened the sky nearly to the point of twilight.
From the rocks below he heard Hercules mutter, "I hate flying
"Tell me about it." Iolaus nocked an arrow, not taking his eyes
off the low gray sky. The slashes across his side stung in the
cold air. He was worried about Hercules. His partner had already
been smashed against the rocks twice; even a demigod could only
take so much of that.
"Hear that?" Hercules said suddenly.
"No. Wait." Iolaus listened hard, then grimaced. Somewhere
above them he heard a faint whoosh-thump, like coals shifting in a
red-hot forge. It was a wing beat. A big wing beat. "It's in
the clouds again, I can't tell the direction." He shifted his
footing cautiously. "Did you find my sword?" The second time
Hercules had been flung down, he had lost his grip on the weapon
and it had gone clanging down the rocks toward the bottom of the
"No." Pebbles skittered below as Hercules moved around, hunting
for a better position. "We're going to have to do this the hard
Iolaus snorted. "You mean it hasn't been the hard way so far?"
Hercules' chuckle was grim. "I was being optimist--"
The griffin dropped out of the sky like a lightning bolt. Iolaus,
already lifting and drawing the bow, had a confused impression of
huge claws, dirty white feathers and a giant hooked beak. He let
the arrow fly and the griffin gave an ear-piercing shriek.
Feathers slammed down on him and he ducked, flinging up an arm to
shield his face; he heard Hercules yell in alarm, just as the wing
smashed Iolaus off the rock.
He hit hard-packed dirt, stunned, the breath knocked out of his
lungs. Gritting his teeth, Iolaus shoved himself up and twisted
His bow lay a few paces away, the quiver of arrows scattered. The
ground was littered with large dingy feathers, and the griffin's
rank odor hung heavy in the damp air. He couldn't see Hercules
Iolaus cursed, pushing himself to his feet. He peered up at the
sky, sick with apprehension. "Come on," he muttered, "Come on,
Herc. Don't-- Yes!" He spotted the tumbling shape of the
griffin, stark white and black against the gray clouds.
He flung himself down the rocks, sliding and staggering as he
tried to keep the spinning, rapidly-enlarging shape in sight. He
could tell now the griffin was writhing in mid-air, twisting its
huge head around, snapping its beak as it tried to dislodge
something from its back.
Iolaus dodged through a scatter of pines and came out on the rocky
flat below the bluff just as the griffin gave one final screech of
rage and pain. He slid to an abrupt halt as it bounced off the
bluff, dislodging a shower of rock; he dodged back as it struck
the ground barely three paces away. "Herc!" he shouted
desperately. He could see his last arrow had struck it square in
the chest, blood streaking the dirty white feathers.
The griffin's body heaved in a death convulsion and Iolaus caught
a glimpse of brown and yellow among all the feathers and claws.
He dived in, grabbed an arm, and hauled.
Hercules, half-smothered by the griffin's weight and the foul-
smelling feathers, managed to reach back and grip Iolaus' forearm.
With his one free leg the demigod shoved at the creature's body
and abruptly the weight pinning him lifted. Iolaus, pulling with
all his strength, fell backward and together they scrambled away
from the dying griffin, fetching up against the tumbled boulders
just out of the creature's reach.
Breathing hard, sprawled on the gravel, Hercules watched the beast
give one more convulsion, the one intact wing spasming. Then it
collapsed, shuddering into stillness.
Crouched next to him, Iolaus took a deep relieved breath and
slumped back against the rocks. "Well, that's over."
Hercules thought that was about the best thing you could say about
this whole episode, that it was over. He wiped sweat and dirt off
his forehead and winced. "That was not one of my better fights."
"You okay?" Iolaus demanded, sitting up.
Still distractedly watching the griffin, Hercules said, "Uh huh."
Then he grimaced and added, "Except for my leg. I landed on it."
"Let me see." With Iolaus' help, Hercules managed to straighten
out the injured leg. The tough leather of his pants had torn down
the thigh, revealing scraped and bloody skin, but there were no
bones poking out and Hercules could still bend his knee, though
not without pain. Iolaus decided it wasn't that bad, as far as
Hercules' injuries usually went; he would probably be fine by
morning, if a little stiff and cranky. If a mortal had taken that
fall, there would be nothing left but pieces. "We're not getting
down off this mountain tonight."
Hercules had taken the opportunity to lift Iolaus' vest and
examine the slashes in his side. They weren't bleeding much. He
pressed his lips together, knowing how close a call that had been.
If the griffin had managed to dig in and catch him, Iolaus would
have been torn apart.
"Hey, quit that." Iolaus elbowed him in annoyance. "You're the
one who's hurt."
"You need to clean that up before it festers." Hercules draped an
arm over Iolaus' shoulders as they both braced to heave him to his
feet. "And we need to find your sword."
Iolaus snorted with impatience. "Later." He falls a couple of
hundred feet and gets smashed by a griffin and all he can worry
about are details. "Now come on, up."
Nameless, voiceless, she had watched the battle with the guardian,
scarcely daring to believe the creature would finally be slain.
And slain not for her sake, but for the sake of the mortals who
had come to live at the mountain's foot, that the guardian had fed
on. The irony of that burned. She had been imprisoned here so
long that her divine jailers had forgotten her, or been slain
themselves. Her deliverance was an accident, an afterthought by
Fate. But she was free.
And she had nowhere to go.
With nothing else to do but satisfy her curiosity, she considered
the two beings who were her unintentional rescuers. She couldn't
tell what manner of creature they were. They smelled of both the
corruption of the mortal and the implacability of the immortal, of
death and life.
The light mist had turned to sprinkling rain by the time Hercules
and Iolaus reached the fissure in the rock where they had cached
their supplies. It was an awkward climb in the gathering dark,
but the rain would make the bottom of the ravine a muddy mess, if
it didn't flood it entirely.
The narrow crevice stretched back into the stone, widening into a
small chamber. A few cracks let in a little of the gray storm
light and rain, and the place smelled of damp and moss. Hercules
eased himself down to the floor of leaf mold and dirt with another
grimace of pain. He knew he would heal well enough by morning; he
just wasn't looking forward to the process.
Iolaus found the pack with their small store of healing herbs and
their waterskin, dropped both beside him, then scrambled outside
again to collect wood before it got too wet.
Hercules used a little of the water to clean the dirt off his
scrapes and carefully rubbed in some comfrey, identifying the
oilskin packet of the greasy ointment in the pack by scent. By
the time he had finished, Iolaus had made two trips back with
fallen branches and crouched dripping in the center of the small
space, breaking up kindling to build the fire. The damp air began
to take on the familiar odors of wet leather and hair.
Preoccupied, Iolaus glanced up. "I just realized-- You know what
day this is?"
Hercules thought for a moment, counting back the days. They had
been tracking the griffin up this pass for so long, he felt like
they had been doing it all their lives. But the damn creature had
been coming out of the mountains every winter to take villagers in
the valleys below, and they had had to kill it. Then he glanced
up, smiling wryly, "It's Solstice. We've missed the festival in
Iolaus shrugged, leaning down to blow on the tinder, coaxing the
sparks into flame. "We'll make it next year."
He got the fire going well, and warm light filled the little
chamber. Iolaus rubbed his hands together briskly, feeling the
chill in the air dissipate. He turned to the pack with their
supplies, but Hercules said, "Hey, come over here so I can clean
"I'm starving. It'll wait."
"It won't wait. Come on," Hercules urged him. Since Iolaus'
wounds weren't actually bleeding at the moment, he knew his
partner would put off tending it all night.
"All right, all right." Grudgingly, Iolaus gave in, knowing
Hercules was right and knowing that further resistance would just
mean the semi-divine power of nagging would come into play.
Watching them, silent and invisible, she was puzzled. One had
divine blood and the other was mortal, but in the mortal she could
detect a curious tinge of...not immortality, but something from
beyond the mortal realm. But the way they dealt with each other
confused her more.
She had been imprisoned when Titans and gods slew each other for
sport. She had seen fathers devour their sons, sisters betray
brothers, every variety of rape and murder. Mortals had been
denied fire, and lived as little better than ants to be crushed
underfoot. She knew a long time had passed since then, but the
accord between these two was baffling.
With his usual impatience, Iolaus sat through having the slashes
on his side cleaned and smeared with smelly ointment. Now he
rooted through their supply bag in increasing dissatisfaction,
finally pulling out a single melon. He squeezed it, finding it
unpleasantly squishy. "I think this is it." After the long hard
day of near-death experiences, he didn't particularly like the
idea of going hungry until the rain stopped and he could hunt. He
frowned at the supply bag, considering turning it inside out to
hunt for pine nuts trapped in the seams.
"Huh." Hercules studied the melon without much enthusiasm.
"Maybe it would help if we boiled it."
Iolaus set the melon aside on a handy rock. "Then we'd have
melon-flavored hot water. Which would be better than plain hot
water, I guess." The obvious solution occurred to him and he
added thoughtfully, "Or...."
Hercules frowned, wary. He really had no idea where Iolaus was
going with this one. "Or what?"
Iolaus jerked his head toward the cave entrance. "I could go out
and cut a hunk off the griffin."
Hercules lifted his brows. He said pointedly, "The griffin ate
"So? We won't eat the stomach."
"Iolaus, it's not just the stomach, it's all through its--" He
gestured helplessly. "If you don't get that, I can't explain it
"Oh, come on," Iolaus said persuasively. His stomach was growling
and at this point he didn't care how foul the thing tasted. "We
eat other animals that eat people."
I knew he was going to say that. Iolaus didn't hesitate.
Hercules glared at him in annoyance. "When is the last time you
ate a lion?"
"I can't remember. Look, it's Solstice--"
"It's Solstice, so let's commit cannibalism by proxy?"
Iolaus glared back. "It's Solstice and I haven't eaten all day
and if I commit cannibalism tonight, it's not going to be by
Hercules gestured, obviously washing his hands of the whole
affair. "Oh, fine."
"Fine!" Iolaus ducked out the narrow entrance into the rain and
reappeared a few moments later, dripping wet again, carrying a
slab of meat still studded with smelly griffin feathers. Hercules
shook his head and rolled his eyes. He figured when cooking the
foul meat stunk up the place, Iolaus would give up on it.
Accurately reading the thought behind that eye roll, Iolaus told
him, "Yeah, yeah. You just wait and see."
Iolaus busied himself plucking feathers, cutting up the meat and
skewering it on sticks. The meat was dark like wild fowl and
didn't smell bad once he had gotten rid of the feathers and the
skin. His clothes would probably be damp all night but they had
shelter, fire and food, and as miserable Solstices went, this
probably wasn't even going to be in the top ten. "What did you do
last Solstice?" he asked Hercules, setting the last skewer in the
Hercules shifted around, trying to find a comfortable resting
position for his leg. "I don't remember."
"You were in Corinth? Or traveling?"
Hercules frowned absently, trying to recall. Had Solstice been
before or after he had been going to throw himself in the volcano?
He thought it was before. "I don't think I was in Corinth. I
must have been on the way somewhere." The fire popped as the
juices dripped out of the meat, and Hercules grudgingly admitted
that the smell was appetizing. His stomach grumbled and he
suspected he was going to have to give up his position of moral
authority on this one. Fortunately Iolaus would probably only
laugh at him about it for a few days. His partner started to lift
one of the skewers out of the coals and Hercules objected, "Hey,
at least let it cook through the middle."
Iolaus poked at the meat, apparently in the belief that that would
make it cook faster. "You really can't remember what you did last
"No, I can't." Hercules gave in, admitting, "I was probably
drunk." It had been so many months since Iolaus had come back to
life, and so much had happened since then, that Hercules could
almost forget it had ever happened at all. Almost. He wondered
if Iolaus ever forgot. From the dreams he knew Iolaus still had,
he didn't think so. But they had both learned to live with it
all, and that was the important thing.
He noticed Iolaus staring at him, jaw dropped. Iolaus said, "You
Hercules snorted. "Oh, please. It's not like you've never seen
me drunk before. There was the time in Egypt, and that Festival
of Dionysus in Meliad when--"
Iolaus shook his head. Granted, Hercules was an "I love you, man"
drunk and tended to fall asleep quickly; as drunken binges went,
the demigod's weren't that exciting to watch. But it was still
pretty rare to see him do it. "Yeah, but...."
Hercules took a deep breath. It had been a long day, and he was
reluctant to put this into words. If Iolaus did ever manage to
forget what had happened in Sumeria and its consequences, even for
a few moments, Hercules didn't want to be the one to remind him of
it. But Iolaus was still staring at him, waiting for an answer.
Finally, he said, "But it was the first Solstice after I buried
Iolaus met his gaze for a long moment. Then he answered quietly,
"And this is the first Solstice after you brought me back."
She didn't understand much of their conversation, she didn't
understand how they could fight and not fight, and then share the
food they had argued about, but she was charmed by it. For all
the long uncounted years of her imprisonment, she had seen and
heard nothing but the guardian and the occasional mortal travelers
who had helplessly fallen victim to it, unable to hear the
warnings she sang into the wind. She had thought the world was
still as cruel a place as when she had been mired here. Perhaps
it still was, but some things had certainly changed. When she had
been imprisoned, immortals used and killed mortals, and there was
nothing else. She hadn't thought it was possible for a mortal and
one of divine blood to treat with each other as these two did.
When they came together, it charmed her even more.
"See?" Iolaus said, tossing the skewers into the fire and wiping
his mouth on his arm. "I told--"
"You so," Hercules finished for him. He sighed and added his
skewer to the pile. Iolaus had been right, the griffin meat
hadn't tasted foul, and not at all like people, and Hercules had
conceded that it wasn't cannibalism. Technically, anyway. Then
he remembered where he had been last Solstice.
Jason had gone into Corinth to stand with Iphicles for the
festival. It had also been the first Solstice since Alcmene's
death and Jason had wanted what was left of her family to be
together. Hercules had known Jason wanted him there too, but he
hadn't been able to make himself do it. He had waited until Jason
had left, and spent the night at the farmhouse. It had been a
long cold night.
And Iolaus was here now, to argue and say "I told you so" and the
contrast between that night and this made his heart hurt.
Iolaus, wiping his hands on his pants, started to stand, but
Hercules slid an arm around his waist and tugged him back against
Iolaus smiled slowly, feeling warm breath as Hercules nuzzled his
neck. "I thought you were hurt."
"I'm not that hurt."
It was awkward, as they were both sore and wounded from the long
fight with the guardian. Even as the demigod shifted to his back
and the mortal straddled him, the mortal took his knife from the
sheath and stabbed it into the dirt within easy reach; it reminded
her these were warriors. Despite their injuries, their coupling
was almost feral, slow and intense one moment, playful and rough
the next. And they laughed at each other, finding their own
awkwardness funny. It was nothing like the solemn exchanges that
the muses sang of.
By the time they had settled on the blankets again she had made
her decision. The world might be as terrible a place as she
remembered, but she wouldn't let her prison become a home. She
would go down out of the mountain and see for herself.
Gradually, she let herself take on the physical form she had left
behind ages ago, when the Titans had slain her sisters and
imprisoned her here. Solid again, she stopped for one last look.
The demigod's skin glowed perfect in the firelight, the mortal was
all bronze and gold but scarred from old battles. She smiled, and
stepped out of the cave.
Distracted at first by the pain in his leg and the cannibalism
issue, then by Iolaus, Hercules hadn't been paying much attention
to their surroundings. Besides, the griffin's presence had kept
any other living thing out of this pass and the woods and the
stone seemed to echo with silence; it would take some time for
birds and animals to reoccupy the place, let alone people. And if
there were no people and no temples or treasure to protect, that
usually meant no gods. And if there had ever been any other
monsters here, the griffin had probably eaten them.
Now, lying mostly comfortably on their tumbled blankets and using
his pack as a pillow, a warm and drowsy Iolaus curled against him,
Hercules relaxed, drifting on the edge of sleep. And he heard a
whisper of movement, like silk brushing stone, as if someone had
just stepped out of the narrow crevice.
Instantly awake, Hercules shoved himself up, gripping the rough
stone to steady himself. "Something was in here."
Half-asleep, Iolaus reflexively rolled up into a half-crouch,
grabbing for his hunting knife on the way. "Huh?"
Gritting his teeth, Hercules took two limping steps to the
opening, looking out into the rain. The light was dim but he
could see no movement, human or otherwise, against the gray stone
or the dark band of trees above the rim of the ravine. He took a
deep breath, and there it was, lingering in the damp air, a hint
of flower scent.
"Gladiolus oil," Iolaus identified, squeezing in next to him.
"What was it?"
"I couldn't tell. I don't think it was hostile." Vengeful gods or
monsters didn't usually wear flower perfume. He pushed away from
wall, grimacing as his leg throbbed, and limped back to the
Iolaus came back to the fire, looking around for his pants. He
lifted his brows at Hercules. "You think it was in here when we
"Um...." Hercules hadn't considered that. "Oh, great." He eased
himself down to the blankets, wincing again.
Iolaus grimaced and sat on his heels to build up the fire. "Maybe
it was Aphrodite."
Hercules looked grim at the prospect. "She promised me she
wouldn't ever...watch...me. Or you. Or anybody else we know."
"And you think she'd stick to that?" Iolaus found he would rather
believe it had been 'Dite than some strange god or creature.
Aphrodite was incapable of being embarrassed and it wasn't like
anything they could do could possibly surprise her. But as her
half-brother he knew Hercules didn't see it that way.
Hercules reluctantly considered it, but then shook his head. "I
would have known she was here right away. She's not subtle." He
tried to remember exactly what he had sensed and heard. There had
been something definitely female about it, besides the sound of
silk skirts and the scent of perfume oil. Whatever it was, it
reminded him of the nymphs in Artemis' glades. "It might have
been an Orestiad," he said finally.
Iolaus glanced up, surprised. "A mountain nymph? I thought they
were extinct. Didn't the Titans kill them all?"
"Cheiron said he always thought a few must have escaped."
Hercules settled back down into the blankets. He shifted, hunting
for a comfortable position, then gave up. He decided to put the
whole thing out of his mind. Nymphs spying on you occasionally
were a hazard of the hero business; you just had to learn to
ignore it. "It probably saw our fire and was just curious. Take
"Yeah. You first." Hercules was battered enough that he didn't
argue, just settled back down on the pack. Smiling to himself,
Iolaus said, "I'm just glad I got my Solstice present before she
Hercules chuckled. Iolaus added, "You'll just have to wait to get
yours in the morning."
Author's Note: "Haloa" was an ancient Greek fertility
festival in honor of Dionysus and Demeter, held on the 26th day of
the month of Poseideon, which is roughly equivalent to December on
the Attic calendar.
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