"Bet you can't start a fire without using your gauntlets."
Hercules arranged the wood into a pyramid, feeling Iolaus' eyes on him. Is this about that shot he missed this afternoon? Or-? He took a deep breath. "What will you bet?"
Iolaus' eyes widened in surprise, then narrowed again. "Anything you want."
Hercules sent up a quick prayer, then stepped back. The flash blinded him. When he could see again, the tinder blazed and Iolaus was laughing.
"I can't believe it! You never ask your dad for help!"
Hercules tugged the vest off his shoulders. "I had incentive."
Reflections and Revelations
Iím going insane. I look into a well, into Falafelís stupid mirror, and instead of seeing me, I see him.
I thought I was doing okay. Not great - never great, not without Iolaus - but okay. Iíd stopped turning around every time I thought I heard his voice, stopped waiting for him to pounce on me from behind some market stall, stopped ordering two ales instead of one.
But it hasnít done me any good, apparently. He never liked being ignored.
He looks so real.
If this is madness, I think I might go with it.
They'd made an early camp, intending to leave before dawn. Iolaus had caught a brace of quail, and Hercules had picked wild apricots for stuffing.
Hercules sat with his back against a tree and watched Helios' chariot leave flaming trails across the sky, while Iolaus built a fire and plucked the quail.
Shaking the down from his hands, Iolaus cocked his head. "Were you planning on helping at all?"
"Nah." Hercules lazily stretched his arms above his head, feeling the pleasant ache from the fight earlier.
"Planning on making it up to me?" Iolaus' eyes glinted.
Hercules smiled. "Maybe."
As they walked away from Tyndareus' castle, Hercules halted in mid-stride and turned to Iolaus. "Look. If the world is supported on the backs of four giant elephants, what are they standing on?"
Iolaus raised his brows. "You mean you don't know?"
Hercules sighed. "Humor me."
"They're standing on a turtle."
There was a pause. "I think Callisto hit you a little too hard."
Iolaus swung his sheathed sword up to rest over his shoulder and scowled.
"Besides, what's the turtle standing on?"
Giving up the pretense, Iolaus grinned. "Another turtle, Herc. It's turtles all the way down."
"I hate digging," Iolaus muttered.
"I noticed." Hercules kept shoveling. "I remember, back when we were farmers, you left half your potatoes rotting in the mud."
Iolaus threw an earth clod at him. "And you planted so many cabbages that Deianeira said she'd go back to her mother rather than eat another one."
Hercules grinned. "And you fell into the manure vat-"
"And you wrenched a horn off your bull-"
"And you wouldn't slaughter your animals-"
At that point one side of the well caved in, and Iolaus collapsed in laughter.
Hercules sighed. "Oh, yeah. Demeter still hates me."
Hercules had wanted to name his third son after Iolaus, although he'd never told him that.
In retrospect, he was glad he hadn't.
Before his wedding, Iolaus had joked about naming his sons Iolaus. "All five of them!" But Iolaus' only son had been named Anacles, and he'd soon followed his mother to the Elysian Fields.
Then Hercules had discovered why Deianeira smiled whenever the subject of a name for their son came up. Ilea, they'd called her, their little blonde darling. And if Hercules heard the echo of another name in hers he kept it forever to himself.
The ravine got darker with every echoing footstep.
"Grandmother called this the hour between dog and wolf," Leukestas muttered, glancing dubiously at the scruffy-looking pair of guards he'd hired to protect the convoy. "Too dark to tell friend from enemy. And here we are, perfectly positioned for an-"
"Ambush!" yelled the smaller guard, whirling to stand back to back with his taller companion as six bandits smashed through the underbrush.
A hundred heartbeats later, Leukestas sheathed his unused sword, staring. "Who are you two?"
The smaller man - Iomus? - grinned. "Wolves?" His partner elbowed him. "Friendly ones?"
Iolaus counted stars, using the rhythm of Hercules' measured breaths. Ever since Iolaus had returned from his last death he'd had trouble falling asleep. At least he'd managed to feign sleep well enough to fool his friend.
He lost count again. The stars stared down at him, uneasy pinpricks of light in the long dark. Iolaus shivered and closed his eyes, then burrowed deeper into the blankets, seeking and finding warmth.
Hercules murmured into his hair, "You all right?"
Who did I think I was kidding? Iolaus thought, smiling, and pressed closer.
His smile faded. "I'm fine. Just cold."
Hercules rolled over on the heap of straw and sat up, surprised.
"You're back early."
Iolaus sat down beside him, looking tense and unhappy. "Melaina's in love with me, Herc."
Hercules sighed. Iolaus liked to flirt, but love was something else. Iolaus hadn't loved a woman since Nebula. He laid an arm around Iolaus' shoulders, cautiously. Iolaus leaned into him, but Hercules could feel the tension thrumming in his body.
"Do you want to-?" Hercules asked.
"Yeah." Iolaus looked away for a moment. "But not just because-"
"I know," Hercules said, before Iolaus pushed him back onto the straw.
Iolaus nearly spit out his wine when he heard the news. "The Pythia said what?"
"That I'd be killed by a man already dead," Hercules repeated patiently.
Iolaus scratched his jaw. "Like the mummy, you mean? Or Vlad?"
"How should I know? Maybe she meant Dahak."
"But Dahak's dead."
"I think that was her point."
"Ha ha. Deader. Destroyed. You know."
"Yeah, I know. So is Vlad, the mummy..."
Iolaus shook his head. "I take it you're not worried, then."
Hercules shrugged. "I don't put much faith in a woman who sits on a tripod breathing vapors all day."
That Only A Mother
"You know what? I take it back," Iolaus said, bending to pick a handful of feathery grass and handing it to Hercules.
"Take what back?"
"What I said earlier, that I missed having a family. There are some parts I don't miss at all." Iolaus wrinkled his nose as he watched the demigod wipe Obie's slime off his vest. "Like that, for example. Ugh."
"And then there's the midnight feedings, and the diapers..." Hercules shook his head. "I'm glad he's back safe in his mother's arms."
"Yeah," Iolaus added, suspiciously solemn-faced. "All six of them."
Slumped sideways against the dank dungeon wall, Iolaus tensed when he heard a familiar whirr. Rats? But then, without warning, the manacles slipped from his wrists.
"What, you want me to put 'em on again?" said a sardonic voice behind him.
"Stop yelling, Curly, or everyone will want one."
"What are you doing here?" Iolaus whispered as he followed Autolycus to the pulley rope, trying not to stumble in the dark.
"Looking for the baths," Autolycus said as they shot upwards. "Speaking of which, you could do with one. Yeugh."
Iolaus took a deep breath. "...Thanks."
Clotho spins, Lachesis weaves, Atropos cuts. It's what they do; it's who they are. Clotho spins all beginnings; she loves all her threads equally, the red and the black, the green and the purple, even the grisly pink. Lachesis weaves them into each other, creating patterns and surprises, turning them over and over on her shuttle. But in the end, Atropos is the one who gets them all.
When Atropos' shears close around the butter-yellow thread, Lachesis' shuttle drops and Clotho's spindle stills in her hands.
"Is this the third time, or the fourth?" Clotho asks softly.
Atropos shakes her head. She doesn't know, and it angers her. That little upstart Zeus has been messing with time, something to which not even the Fates are immune. And he's doing no favors to his son, either; it's time both of them learned that mortals die, and that one broken thread is no reason to unravel the entire tapestry.
Her shears snap shut; the thread falls.
A heartbeat's silence, then they are at their work again. But from the corner of her eye, Atropos sees Clotho pick up a small hank of yellow wool and hide it in her sleeve.
"Why didn't we stay in Athens?" the lutist wailed. "They appreciated us in Athens."
The flute player nodded gloomily. They huddled behind one of the few remaining market stalls, watching the two leatherclad barbarians fight off a horde of mercenaries with anything that came to hand. A discordant twang made them both wince.
"That was my best lute!" the lutist cried as the broken-necked instrument sailed away over the rooftops.
"You should've seen what they did to Marcellus' kithara," said the flute player, shaking his head mournfully.
"You mean when that blond guy tried to play it?"
Their clothes, laced together and propped up by a couple of sticks and Iolaus' sword, threw a patchy shadow on the sand. The waterskin was nearly empty, and Hercules had refused to drink before he left to search for the trade route.
Iolaus stared at the horizon, half-closing his eyes against the glare. Four hours until sunset. His leg throbbed with every heartbeat and he had stopped sweating, but what worried him were the puffs of sand he glimpsed in the distance. More sandsharks. And this time, Hercules had no one to be the bait.
Be safe, Herc.
There was just enough left of the dying fire to reveal the two people sleeping there, the light gleaming off tanned bare skin and a tangle of brown and blond hair. Nebula stood in the doorway and watched them both, the man she had loved and the man who had brought him back from the dead. Hercules lay with his head on Iolaus' shoulder, his hand loosely curved around Iolaus' hip; his face looked peaceful in sleep, the lines of grief and strain smoothed out at last. Beside him, Iolaus looked exactly the same, except for the scar. Nebula shivered.
Iolaus sat on a huge smooth boulder in the middle of the fast-moving river, his legs folded beneath him and his face tilted toward the sun. His eyes were closed.
Hercules stole several glances at him from the riverbank where he beat their clothes against the rocks, worried despite himself. Iolaus looked tranquil, at peace; but before Sumeria, he would never have been able to sit so still for so long, not even when he was meditating.
At last he could stand it no longer. "Iolaus?"
Iolaus did not open his eyes. "I'm fine, Herc. Just breathing."
There were many drawbacks to life in Norseland, but this was one Hercules had not previously considered. Three layers of furs and a down-filled throw covered them both, and still Iolaus' feet were like clumps of ice. Hercules moved away, but Iolaus immediately followed him and pressed his feet against Hercules' calves again.
Turning his head, Hercules eyed him suspiciously. "Iolaus? Are you asleep?"
Iolaus' eyelids trembled. In one well-practiced move, Hercules rolled over on top of him, putting his weight on his elbows. Iolaus blinked up at him. "What?"
"Time to warm you up," Hercules said earnestly.
The lake water is so cold it burns. He can hold his breath for ages, if he curls up and slows his heartbeat, but now his lungs shriek for air, his muscles cramping with cold as he kicks out and dives deeper. The child is a pale blur, just out of his reach and sinking fast. Then the mud fountains up and he can't see anything at all.
He gropes through the mud and hairlike weeds, his heart pounding like a war drum, and doesn't tug on the rope around his waist, trusting Hercules to count his breaths for him.
Hercules looked at the waiting sculptor and sighed. Salmoneus faced him, hands on hips. "Look, Hercules, you owe me."
"I owe you." Hercules' tone was flat.
Salmoneus sighed. Sometimes the big guy was just slow on the uptake. "Well, of course you do. Remember when I organized that painting competition? For charity? And you agreed to model and then wrecked the artwork and threw paint over everything?"
"Salmoneus, we've been over this. That wasn't me, that was the statue Atalanta made. It came alive and --"
Salmoneus waved his hands. "Yadda yadda yadda. The point is, you owe me. Now strip."
Nesmut sidled into the bedchamber, her boots silent on the marble floor.
The Greeks were fast asleep, and returning the dagger to Hercules' pack was child's play.
Iolaus looked smaller, curled up next to Hercules, and not nearly dangerous enough. But then, the demigod who had treated an unresponsive Iolaus with such desperate, tender patience looked like a camel-stealing barbarian. In all her times with Kheper, she had never met anyone more surprising.
She wondered who would wake first, and what they would say to each other. Hmm. There was that narrow ledge outside, below the shutters...Nesmut smiled.