With the exception of original characters created by the author, all characters belong to Pacific Renaissance Productions, Universal Studios, MCA, or Studios USA. Yes, I'm using them without permission, but I'm writing this for love, not for money, so I trust no one will get uptight about it.
This is a sequel to Family and Closest to Your Heart, and is the third part of the The Euphonius Scrolls series.
You can check out more work by Euphonius at Kerry's Korner
Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
The Next Monster
After the dust had settled from the debacle in which I had been so shamefully involved as a worshipper of Dahak, I found myself poorer by a goodly number of dinars, among other things. I set out to remedy that situation with a vengeance. (The "other things" would be a lot more difficult to remedy. I've got a feeling they'll haunt me for the rest of my life. But more about that later. First things first.)
No sooner had I regained my health, and most of my sanity, than I set out on a purchasing expedition, hoping to make some good buys on the jewelry and other precious antiquities in which I deal, in order that I might replenish my severely-depleted finances. By that time, Ysabel, my housekeeper, was glad to have me off and out from underfoot. She had gotten pretty tired of taking care of me, not to mention listening to my various rantings and ravings over what had happened. (I might mention that she was aware of the state of my finances also, having known just how much I had donated to the cause of the so-called God of Light.)
So it was that I found myself following a seldom-frequented road along a river, hoping to cut short the distance to Epidaurus so I'd arrive in time for the Mid-summer festival being held there. Wherever people gather to buy and sell things, I can often pick up something at a good price. You can pretty much count on there being some folks who simply don't know the true value of what they have to sell. That's where I come in.
At any rate, the road, being unused and poorly maintained, had turned out to be harder travelling for my horse than I had reckoned on. As dusk approached, we were both tired and thirsty, not to mention pretty damn dusty. I could see the glint of water between the trees, so I dismounted and led my mare through the thick underbrush, planning to let her drink while I washed up a little.
As I cleared the last of the trees and bushes, I stepped out rather unexpectedly onto a muddy strip of open ground sloping down to the river. Losing my footing, I slid ungracefully down the bank and stumbled right smack into someone standing there with a fishing pole in his hands. Much to my dismay, we both lost our balance, slipped, and ended up facedown in the shallow muck.
Muttering a few well-chosen obscenities, I struggled to my feet, grabbing the man I had bumped into and trying to help him up also. As we both wiped off the worst of the mud, I got a good look at his face.
"Great fucking Zeus!" I exclaimed in horror, as I jumped back several feet, slipped, and ended up sitting in the mud again. "What are you doing here?!"
He regarded my performance curiously.
"Uh - fishing?" he suggested, hastily retrieving his pole and taking a few steps away from the obviously crazy person confronting him. At least he managed his retreat with a little more grace and style than I had.
I scuttled backwards even further and found myself actually in the water. I didn't care about that. The last time I had seen this man, I had ended up in some really deep shit, so I wasn't inclined to get anywhere near him.
"What's the matter?" he asked hesitantly. "Can I help you get up?"
"No! Keep away from me! You can't fool me again, Dahak! I want nothing more to do with you!"
"Dahak? I think you've got me mixed up with someone else, friend."
That's when I noticed that he seemed about as leery of me as I was of him. That just didn't make sense, considering who and what I thought he was. I examined him a little closer. Despite the mud-splatters, his clothing was pretty fancy for someone out in the woods. The fitted top looked more like something you'd wear at court, not to mention the shiny orange-gold tights. Combined with the fact that he had no shoes on, probably due to the layer of mud he'd been standing in, and the added fact that he badly needed a shave, he presented a most incongruous appearance, to say the least.
By this time, I had managed to flounder my way into the deeper water and had gotten to my feet. My clothes were totally soaked and my boots were getting heavier every time I tried to take a step. I'm not a particularly strong swimmer and I could feel the current tugging at my thighs.
"Are you sure you don't need some help?" the strangely-clad creature suggested deceitfully, extending the tip of his fishing pole in my direction, as if he thought I might grab onto it for support.
He looked innocent enough, but I couldn't bring myself to trust him. Not by a long shot.
"Not from you. Go away! Leave me alone!"
I was still backing up as fast as I could, never mind the river behind me. My foot caught on a rock and I went under.
Next thing I knew, he was next to me, pulling me up. Although he wasn't any taller than I am, he must have been a little better at keeping his footing. Or perhaps it was just that, being barefoot, he wasn't hampered by soggy riding boots. Either way, we were now in no immediate danger of being swept away.
Maybe I'd figured him wrong? Would Dahak really be floundering around in the mud with a fishing pole, or pulling me out of the water?
"Look," he said reasonably, guiding me towards the riverbank, "I think I know what the problem is. I've run into it a couple of times before, but mostly I get confused with Hercules' friend, the other Iolaus, not with Dahak."
"Uh-uh. You can't fool me that easily. The last I saw of Iolaus, he was -" I hesitated, not sure exactly how to describe what I had seen, or how to convince anyone else it had been real and not some kind of hallucination. He'd been standing in a really bright light, holding up one hand in a gesture of farewell just before he dissolved into sparkles. "He was - well - he was dead," I concluded lamely.
The other man just nodded. "Yeah. He is dead. I'm --" This time he was the one at a loss for words. He shook his head slowly. "Well, my name's Iolaus, but I'm not the Iolaus you knew. Or Dahak either, for that matter." He shrugged. "It's a long story."
"I think I'd like to hear it," I replied, my fear dissolving rapidly into curiosity. "But not now. We need to get the rest of this mud cleaned off of us before it dries, then get out of the water. Uh - by the way, I'm sorry about all this mess."
"No problem. I've been in far worse places," he assured me, as we rinsed off and then picked our way up onto the less soggy ground.
I caught the reins of my mare on the way. She had simply stood in the water, drinking her fill and watching all our antics with an admirable calm.
"I'm camped not far away," the man who had called himself Iolaus said. "Care to join me? I caught a few fish earlier on and the wood's ready for a fire. It's going to get a bit chilly pretty soon, when the sun goes down."
"I've got some food in my saddlebags," I offered. "And I still want to hear that long story you mentioned."
"Sure," he said, picking up a couple of good-sized river trout that had been lying lined up neatly under a bush. He held them up, smiling. "Not bad, huh? I knew that bug thing I tied to my hook would work." He showed me the arrangement of feathers and string at the end of his fishing line as we made our way to his campsite. It did look kind of like a bug.
"You caught all those fish with that? No bait?"
"Uh-huh. Think it might catch on?"
"Well, perhaps. But you'll have to come up with something better to call it. 'Bug thing' doesn't sound too classy. It'll never fly."
"You think so?" he asked.
"I know so. I'm a salesman of sorts, and I know all about marketing strategies."
"Okay. I'll see if I can come up with a better name for it."
"By the way, speaking of names, mine's Euphonius," I added as we got to his campsite, realizing I'd never properly introduced myself.
I was in for another surprise when he squatted next to his pile of wood and started digging through his backpack. He came up with some kind of a small metal jug with a wheel on it and proceeded to start the fire with it. The darn thing worked. I just shook my head in amazement as I took the saddle off my horse and tied her to a nearby tree.
Once the fire was going good, we got out of our wet clothes and wrapped up in our blankets. I unpacked some onions and carrots and black bread from my saddlebags as my contribution to supper, but he insisted on cooking the fish himself. Fish isn't my favorite food and I wasn't all that hungry, but I had already determined to be polite and eat at least a little of it.
While he fiddled with the food, I wrung out our clothes and hung them up on some bushes. (By the way, I was right about that outfit he'd been wearing. The fabric was expensive stuff, not like what you'd find in the local marketplaces.) Dumping the water out of my boots, I dried them as well as I could with the end of my blanket, not forgetting to also clean off the small knife I always keep in a sheath inside the right boot. I'm no great fighter, but it's come in handy a couple of times. Besides, I liked the feel of the blade in my hand, and the look of the graceful dragon carved into the jade handle. I stowed it inside one of my saddlebags, to keep it safe and dry.
As we were doing all this busywork, he started telling me about that other world he'd come from, where people were mostly very different from what they are here. I found myself wondering what I might be like in that world. Interesting thought, that.
So entranced was I by his tale that I didn't notice until the fish was almost ready to eat and he had come to the end of the story that I was sitting here pretty damn near to being stark naked, with someone who was the spitting image of the Iolaus I had once lusted after to the point of near catastrophe. Not that this would do me any good, of course. The gorgeous little fellow chattering on so unconcernedly might inhabit a very familiar body, but he was nevertheless a total stranger to me.
"Something wrong?" he asked, apparently sensing the sudden change that came over me at that thought.
"Uh - no. Nothing at all. Just thinking."
He slid a portion of fish out of the pan and onto a plate, then handed it to me. The vegetables I'd given him were sliced up and mixed with small chunks of trout, all covered with some kind of sauce.
As he scooped some onto his own plate and began eating, I asked with as casual an air as possible, "So, if you came to this world with Hercules, how come you two aren't together?"
"We - uh - we figured it would be better to go our separate ways for a while. It was kind of disturbing, for both of us. You know, with each of us looking so much like someone the other had known, and yet being so different?"
"Yeah, I guess that would be hard to handle." To say the least! I added to myself. It's hard enough for me, right now.
I took an experimental nibble at the food he had served me. It was actually pretty good, considering. I didn't find so much as a single bone in the pieces of fish, and those nasty little bones are one of the chief reasons I dislike the stuff in the first place. Before I quite realized it, I had eaten the whole portion.
"Want some more?" he inquired.
I nodded. When I'd finished, I reached into my saddlebag and pulled out a couple of apples, offering one to him.
"Thanks," he said, taking the fruit from my hand. As he sliced it carefully into neat sections, his expression changed a little, and I knew something had occurred to him. Something that bothered him.
"What?" I asked.
He looked away, then said hesitantly, "Did you know that other Iolaus very well?"
So how do I answer that?
"Too well - and not well enough," was all I could think of. He kept looking at me, waiting for more. "Okay. Probably better than I should have, especially after he got involved with Dahak. But then, that wasn't really him, just his body."
The mention of Dahak brought back to my mind the oath I had sworn to take vengeance on that loathsome demon back then, when I'd stood looking at what was left of Iolaus' mutilated body lying on the altar. Oh, it had sounded good at the time, but as yet I hadn't figured out any way to get revenge on an entity such as Dahak.
This line of conversation was making me distinctly uncomfortable for other reasons also. I couldn't pretend to myself any longer: I felt a definite attraction to this pretty little man sitting next to me by the fire. He was one strange dude, but I found myself wanting him even more the better I got to know him. Question was, did he want me? Was he even interested in men, for that matter? Just because he seemed somewhat on the neat and prissy side, not to mention the fact that he was clearly an expert in the culinary arts, that didn't make him any more likely to share my desire for the same sex than anyone else. In fact, I've known a good number of men who would make this cute little fellow look positively macho in comparison, yet they were strictly interested in women. Come to think of it, I've known some men who do share my preferences who would make Hercules look like a wimp. Appearances can be deceiving.
Meanwhile, the subject of my speculations sat looking down at the flames, but I could see that he was watching me out of the corner of his eye, his forehead creased into a slight frown. "You and the other Iolaus were lovers, weren't you?" he said at last.
He was pretty quick on the uptake, if he'd guessed that from the little I'd said.
"That kind of depends on what, or maybe who, you mean. With Dahak,
yes. I suppose you might call it that, although love had very little
to do with it, I'm afraid. With Iolaus himself - well, he was more
of a one-night stand. Not that I wouldn't have wanted it to become
more, but he was already involved with - someone else." Don't ask
me why I didn't tell him the someone else was Hercules. I just didn't.
Let Hercules tell him that, if he wanted to and hadn't already.
Iolaus looked almost as uncomfortable as I did. Something about this was disturbing him, and I didn't think it was exactly lust for my body. I mean, I'm not real hard to look at, and I'm in reasonably good shape for a man who'll be approaching fifty not too many years from now, but a gorgeous hunk I wasn't, and I had never fooled myself in that regard.
"I know what happened with Dahak," Iolaus said. "Hercules told me about it. It must have been pretty awful."
"That's putting it mildly." I realized I was still holding an untouched apple in my hand, so I took a bite and swallowed it before going on. "You know how life is: sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and sometimes you screw up completely." I shrugged. "Well, that whole business with Dahak belongs in that last category, as far as I'm concerned."
"Yeah," he agreed, nodding. "I'll lay odds that you're not the only one who feels that way either."
But Dahak wasn't what was bothering him, not really. All of a sudden I knew where I had seen that particular look on someone's face before, and I wasn't happy with the connections it made in my brain. You see, sometimes love can be very unloving. There are people who enjoy hurting other people, and I don't mean hurting someone who wants to be hurt, since I know full well there are some folks who do enjoy that. I'm talking about true sadists, not the ones who play consensual games with willing partners. I'd once known a girl who had gotten involved with someone like that. She was my favorite cousin. Much of the time, this sort of thing happens between husbands and wives, but it can happen with men too, especially if there's a serious power differential between them.
Remembering the scars I had seen on his back when he'd taken his clothes off, I took an educated guess about Iolaus' past. "You and the Sovereign - you were lovers, weren't you?"
His short and very bitter laugh didn't surprise me as much as it should have. "I don't know if you could call it that. As you said, love had very little to do with it."
"Yeah. But I was referring to lust as the other factor. I don't think that's what you mean."
"It's not." The creases in his forehead deepened and his lips compressed tightly into a straight line.
"You don't like men?" I asked, deliberately misunderstanding him in an effort to draw him out.
"No, it's not that. It's what he did, and the way he did it that I didn't like."
"I take it you didn't exactly want to be his bed partner?"
"As you said, that's putting it mildly. I hated it. Even when he - made me enjoy it, I still hated it." He turned away. Clenching his fist, he smashed it down against his thigh hard enough to hurt. "And I didn't have the guts to try to get away from him."
"It wasn't your fault."
"If I'd been a real man, instead of a wimp -"
I put one hand tentatively on his shoulder, interrupting him before he could finish. "Don't even go there. It's a dead end and a trap. The only shame lies with the one who forces someone else against their will, not with the one who has no choice."
"There's always a choice," he said grimly.
"Yeah. Refuse and die. That's not what I meant by choice."
"I was a coward," he insisted, his voice shaking around the word. "I'm still a coward. I wish I had the courage to be a hero, like that other Iolaus you knew."
My hand was still on his shoulder. I could feel the tension in the bunched muscles. "I've heard it said that heroes are only made when all retreat is cut off," I said, in an effort to lighten things up a little. I started massaging his neck. (Okay, I had my own agenda here. But the guy gave a whole new meaning to being tense.)
"Hercules says courage doesn't mean not being afraid," he replied, pretty much ignoring my efforts to loosen him up. "It means doing what you have to do, despite your fear. Trouble is, I don't think I could even do that."
"What would Hercules know about it? With Zeus as a father and all the strength and power any man could want, how could he have any idea what it's like to be afraid?"
Iolaus sighed and relaxed back against me a fraction. Good, I was getting somewhere. "You're wrong about that," he objected. "Herc's afraid of things."
"How do you know?"
"I asked him. He said something to the effect that when the sun's out, he feels as if he'll live forever, but at night, when he can't sleep and the worries start creeping in -- Well, the next monster is going to get him for sure."
Hmm. I'd never really liked the demi-god much, perhaps mostly because he had Iolaus and I didn't, but this shed a new light on the man. Possibly I'd misjudged him. Maybe he was a little more human than I thought.
"But mostly," Iolaus went on, letting his head loll forward on his chest, "I think he's afraid the people he cares for will be hurt or killed. He's lost most of the ones he loved, you know."
"Yeah. I know. I listen to the stories the bards tell." Of course, I listen mostly to hear about Iolaus' part in the tales. But I didn't think it would help any to tell that to my new friend, especially since he seemed to be getting very comfortable with what I was doing.
"Herc even lost me," he went on. "Well, not me, the --"
"I know who you mean," I said softly, cutting off his explanation.
He sighed, then flexed his neck around experimentally. "That feels good," he said, sounding almost surprised.
I moved my hands to his shoulders and arms, pushing the blanket down as I did so and kneading the tight muscles. (And the man had muscles, make no mistake about that. I couldn't help wondering if it had been his own idea to keep himself in good physical condition, or the Sovereign's.)
"That feels good too," he said after a while.
Pulling him closer, I slid my hands around to the front of his chest and said into his ear, "I can make it feel even better, if you want me to."
I could tell he knew what I was suggesting, since he tensed up again, but he didn't move away. I could see him press his lips together, almost as if he were steeling himself against something he knew would be unpleasant.
"Hey, relax," I said softly, brushing the side of his face with my lips. "It won't hurt. But if you want me to back off, just say so. It's your choice."
Tears came to my eyes as I was overcome by a vivid memory of that other Iolaus saying the same words to me once, under somewhat similar circumstances but with a slightly different meaning.
"Your choice," I affirmed, fighting to keep my voice steady. "I will never do anything to hurt you."
He was looking straight ahead, as if he saw something off in the distance, something he didn't like. "You really mean that?"
Gods, this dude needed a lot of reassurance, didn't he?
"I mean it. In fact, I swear it, on my father's grave."
He turned his head to look at me, not quite smiling. Letting out a deep breath, he replied, "I want it."
"Good. So do I."
As I leaned in to kiss him, his smile became a little more definite.
I'm not one for explicit descriptions of what I do in bed (or, in this case, perhaps I should say beside the campfire), but I will tell you there was absolutely nothing I needed to teach him in the way of technique. He seemed a bit at a loss as to how to proceed when there was no one telling him what to do, but he got over that fairly quickly.
I was pretty sure there were moments when what we did called up some unpleasant memories from his experiences with the Sovereign, but I had a few bad moments of my own to deal with also. After all, he not only looked, and quite often responded, just as the original Iolaus had, but, except for the blue of his eyes, he also looked exactly like the demon-possessed version of Iolaus, and there was nothing that two men could do to each other that I hadn't already done with that particular incarnation of Dahak.
Do I really need to tell you it was incredibly wonderful, despite the numerous ghosts that shared our bedroll with us? By the time we finally fell asleep, the night was well advanced and dawn was only a few hours away.
However, we never made it through to dawn. I was dragged unwillingly out of a sound sleep, not to mention out of Iolaus' arms, by the sound of a horse's shrill neighing. The fire had burned low, but still had some life in it, so I knew not too much time had passed.
I sat up, searching the surrounding darkness for any possible danger. I had tied my mare to a tree at the edge of the small clearing, on the side closest to the river. She was screaming with fear, plunging up and down as if she were alternatively trying to pull loose from something or stomping on it.
Iolaus sat up next to me, rubbing his eyes and looking around. "What is it? What's wrong?" he whispered.
"Dunno," I replied, still trying to make out what was going on.
All of a sudden, his eyes went wide and his face froze into an expression of absolute terror, mouth gaping open. He tried to say something, but no words came out. He just pointed at the shifting shadows near my struggling horse.
His night vision must be better than mine. It took me several more seconds before I could see anything, and then I almost wished I hadn't.
A net of ghastly white things I could only describe as very thin tentacles undulated on the ground near my horse, several having already attached themselves to the terrified animal despite her efforts to free herself. Even as I watched, another one slid around her rear foot, the tip anchoring itself in her flesh.
It took a moment before either of us reacted, and in that moment, I felt something touch my bare ankle, feeling rather like the bite of one of those stinging ants that attack so furiously when you step on one of their hills. I swatted at it automatically, and found my hand gripping something that reminded me of strong fishing line more than anything else.
Throwing off the blanket, I saw one of those awful tentacles wrapping itself around my ankle. The stinging sensation had already faded, leaving a numb spot where the tip had embedded itself. Panic flashed through my mind. I tugged frantically on the tentacle, trying to tear it loose. It ripped out fairly easily, but by then there were three more around my other leg.
Iolaus hadn't moved from where he sat next to me, staring transfixed at my legs as I tried to yank myself free. So far, none of the tentacles had reached him yet.
"Run!" I shouted, shoving him away from me.
As another tentacle grabbed one of my wrists, he finally reacted, gathering his legs underneath him and getting to his knees. But instead of running, he reached into his backpack and took out that thing he'd used to start our campfire. Flicking it into life, he held the flame under the things that had attacked me. They blackened and withered, finally burning through. I jerked my leg loose, but felt more stings on the other leg.
There were more of the tentacles slithering towards us now. Despite Iolaus' efforts, it was clear we'd soon be overwhelmed. I saw one of them catch his arm, even as I became aware of a light but definite pull on the leg that was most firmly entwined. Whatever this was, it wanted to drag me towards the river. Not good.
"Iolaus, run, please," I said more calmly now. "Get out of here while you still can."
He shook his head, still burning away tentacles as quickly as he could. One of the things raised up behind him, then twined into his long hair. This was a battle we wouldn't win, despite his efforts. As the pressure on my leg increased, I thought with grim irony that the barbed ends of the tentacles were rather like fishhooks. Only trouble was, I was the fish, not the fisherman. I pulled back against the pressure and was able to hold my ground. But for how long?
Iolaus was having trouble wielding his flame by now, since he was steadily being drawn into the net himself. As I scrabbled for a firm grip on something, my hand caught my saddlebag, which we had been using as a pillow. I reached inside and pulled out my knife, sawing desperately at the tentacles that held me. They were tough, but I managed to cut through most of them, albeit far too slowly.
Iolaus was now able to concentrate his efforts on freeing himself. Between the two of us, we were barely holding the weaving nest of tentacles at bay. There was no central thing to fight, just these deadly filaments, no single one of which could hold us by itself. It was the sheer multitude of them that was the threat, plus the deadening poison I could feel spreading from each little sting. I didn't even want to think about why this creature, whatever it was, wanted us in the river.
Something had to be controlling the tentacles. They placed themselves too accurately to be operating blindly. But what was it? And where was it?
I had almost fought myself free. With a little more effort, I might actually get clear of this mess. With renewed hope, I slashed harder at the filaments still binding me.
That's when I realized that Iolaus wasn't having as much luck as I was. The things were getting better at evading his makeshift torch. I might get away, but he was now tangled much more tightly and being pulled inexorably towards the bushes, despite his best struggles. And there were even more tentacles slithering into view, as the monster sensed victory over at least one of its victims.
I could have run. I was no hero, and I wasn't about to be made into one by virtue of my retreat being cut off, as I had so cynically said earlier. But could I run away and leave Iolaus to his fate, after he'd given up his own chance to escape by trying to help me?
Still slashing at the tentacles that threatened me, I pulled back a little, frantically searching for something definite to fight. These things were just too intelligent. There had to be something controlling them. It had to be there somewhere. Didn't it?
It was, hovering on a thick stalk just poking itself through the surrounding bushes. The stalk bulged at the top, and something that looked very like an eye with a horizontal pupil regarded the scene with a cold stare.
Iolaus saw it at about the same time, but by then it was virtually looming over him as he was being dragged along the ground. He had dropped his firemaker, probably due to the effects of the poison. I was having trouble feeling my feet as it was, and the thing had evidently concentrated its attack on his hands.
I looked at the all-too-small knife I held. No way could I reach the eyestalk by slashing through all those tentacles. If I had any sense, I'd run while I still could, as a bunch of them seemed to be massing for another try at me.
I had an idea, but if I followed through on it, it could just as easily fail and land me in deep shit also.
Iolaus' eyes met mine and I knew he had assessed his situation pretty much as I had. "Euphonius, run," he gasped, still struggling but not so strongly as before.
Aw, shit! I thought. If I don't try, I won't be able to live with myself.
I got to my knees, gauging the distance between myself and that malevolent eye. Couldn't be much more than twenty feet. Chancy, but doable.
I tossed my knife at the eyestalk, watching it flip end for end several times as it flew through the air. Everything seemed to slow down, as it has a way of doing in moments of great peril. If I missed, or miscalculated as to which end of the knife would be aimed toward my target when it hit, I'd be at the mercy of the net of tentacles that were rapidly weaving their way in my direction.
I hadn't miscalculated. My blade buried itself to the hilt in the center of that awful pupil.
The eyestalk whipped around wildly. The knife came loose and damn near skewered me before it hit the ground. I scooped it up, taking advantage of that small piece of luck. Green gunk spewed from the eye as it continued its futile contortions. The tentacles went into spasms, thrashing as crazily as the eyestalk was now doing. I heard Iolaus scream as the ones that had been holding him whipped around, either tearing completely out of him or ripping themselves apart if they couldn't. The ones that had latched onto my legs did the same thing, with enough violence to toss me flat on my back, knocking the air out of my lungs as I hit.
When I could breathe again, I crawled weakly over to Iolaus. There was no sign of the monster that had attacked us. I figured it was too much to hope for that it was dead, but at least it had gone away. For now.
He was conscious, but rather bruised from having been flipped against a tree when the tentacles went crazy. I propped him up against the treetrunk, checking for worse injuries.
"I'm okay, I think," he managed to say, smiling a little. "You throw knives?"
I made a face, still feeling for broken bones. "Only as a last resort. Miss your target, and you're without a weapon and worse off than before."
"I mean, you know how to throw knives?"
"Yeah. All it takes is practice. It's kind of a hobby of mine, and it's come in handy a few times."
He glanced in the direction of the river. "Yeah. I guess so."
Much to my relief, I hadn't found any real damage. We both had a lot of sore spots where the "fishhooks" had torn loose, and a few of the nasty little barbs were still embedded in various parts of our bodies. We'd have to get them out pretty quickly, just in case they continued to ooze poison. Considering the deadening effect of the poison, that wouldn't hurt too much. Not until later on, anyway.
I smiled. "Hey, you didn't do too bad with that spark jug thingie of yours either."
He laughed at that, a strange, upscale giggle. "Guess we're a couple of dangerous dudes, huh?"
That notion seemed so ridiculous to both of us that we started laughing for real. And then we found we couldn't stop, finally sliding to the ground and guffawing helplessly. If anyone had happened by just then, they'd have taken us for a couple of idiots, lying there naked, streaked with dirt and covered with sores, and doing nothing but laughing about it.
Eventually, we sobered up, wiping the tears from our eyes and struggling to our feet.
"We better get out of here," Iolaus suggested, grimacing as he jerked a particularly deeply-embedded barb out of his shoulder.
"Yeah," I agreed readily. "And the sooner the better. That thing might come back."
"What was it?"
"How should I know?"
"Well, this is your world, not mine. Are monsters like that pretty common around here?"
"I wouldn't call them common, but they're around."
"Yeah. Same in my world. I was hoping it would be different here."
We had been getting gingerly into our still-damp clothes as we talked.
"By the way," he said, "thanks for saving me."
"Are you kidding? You saved me first."
He thought about that for a minute, pulling on some really funny-looking shoes with absurdly pointed toes. "You mean I actually did something brave?"
"Yeah," I concluded with a smile. "You sure did."
And so did I, I thought in surprise.
"Wow," he said slowly, a pleased look gradually coming over his face. "I can't wait to tell Hercules about this."
Can't say I was exactly enthusiastic about that response, but I certainly couldn't blame him for it.
I went over to check on my mare. She was in about the same shape as we were, but fortunately no worse. Carefully, I put the blanket and saddle on her back, not sure she would be willing to tolerate it. The poison must have deadened her sores as effectively as it had ours. She stood there patiently as I hoisted my saddlebags into place also.
I mounted as gently as I could. Reaching down a hand to Iolaus, who had gathered his things into his backpack and now stood next to me, I said, "Come on. Let's go."
"I don't know how to ride."
"You don't have to. Just hop up behind me and hold on."
He looked rather doubtfully at the distance between his rear and the back of my horse. I freed my boot from the stirrup. "Put one foot in here and then push yourself up with the other one."
He lifted one leg dubiously. "I don't think my shoe will fit in there."
"Take the damn things off! They look silly anyway."
He looked down at his feet, then smiled. "Yeah, they do, don't they?"
"Yes. Now get them off and get up here."
Without further comment, he did as he was told.
Once we had put some distance between ourselves and the monster, we both relaxed a little. Unfortunately, the effects of the poison were beginning to wear off. I can't speak for my travelling companion, but I wasn't feeling too great by the time my ill-chosen "shortcut" rejoined the main road.
"Okay, where to now?" I asked Iolaus.
"Well, I was headed for Argos."
"Oh, that's not too far from here. In fact, it's on my way to Epidaurus. I'll drop you there."
Actually, it was a little out of my way, but I didn't want to leave him yet, especially out in the middle of nowhere. He'd been stung worse than I had, so he had to be hurting worse than I was and I'd far rather see him in some sort of a safe place before we split up.
"Thanks. I'd appreciate that." I thought I heard relief in his voice. Guess the thought of hiking down the road didn't exactly appeal to him either.
We rode in silence for a while, his arms still loosely around my waist
and his head occasionally dropping forward to rest against my shoulder.
Truth to tell, I was having a bit of trouble staying awake myself and probably
drifted off now and then also. Fortunately, my long-suffering mare
kept plodding along, even without my guidance and encouragement.
"Euphonius?" Iolaus said later on, when we stopped to rest and eat a bit of food.
"You said you lived in that same town as my - I mean, Iolaus' mother?"
"Do you think she'd mind if I stopped by to visit her someday? Or would that be a bad idea?"
I thought it over for a while. Erytheia and I were friends. Over the last few months, I had gotten to know her pretty well. She and my housekeeper, Ysabel, had hit it off also. Erytheia had helped Ysabel put me back together again after I'd returned from Corinth and my misadventures with Dahak. She had asked me to tell her about what happened to her son. I did, but it was a severely-edited version I gave her, in an effort to spare her feelings as much as possible. (Okay, and to spare myself as much shame as possible also. But everything I told her was the truth, even if it had been tailored a bit.)
However, I still owed Iolaus an answer to his question, and he was sitting there looking at me with the fear of rejection written all over his expressive face.
"Yes, I think she'd like to see you," I assured him. "I think she could handle it."
I discovered he could smile just as blindingly as the other Iolaus, if he had reason to do so.
"Maybe I'll come to Lydicea someday."
"Fine with me," I said. "I'd be more than happy to see you again."
He glanced away, taking a couple of bites of the piece of bread in his hand and not saying anything.
"What's the matter?" I finally asked, fearing the worst. Maybe he never wanted to see me again. I had thought he'd enjoyed last evening's activities, but I could be wrong. It may have just brought back too many memories.
"Would Hercules - I mean, do you think he'd - well, enjoy the kind of thing we did last night?"
Oh, shit! This wasn't what I had been hoping to hear either.
"I'm afraid that's something you'll have to ask him yourself," I replied, in as neutral a tone as I could manage.
"I know that." He still wasn't looking at me. "I only meant is he interested in men, not is he interested in me. I mean, I know he was married and all, but so was the Sovereign, at one time in his life."
"Oh. Um - yeah, I think it would be safe to assume Hercules swings that way too. In fact, I'm pretty sure of it."
Iolaus looked at me then, and I could tell what he was thinking. I smiled at the idea. Me and the big guy? I don't think so.
"No," I hastened to assure him. "I don't mean I know it from personal experience. I just have it on - shall we say? - good authority. That's all."
Yeah, like the other Iolaus told me. That's all.
I was still determined not to tell him about the relationship between the demi-god and that other version of himself. After all, you could hardly expect me to be an enthusiastic matchmaker here, could you?
My answer seemed to satisfy him, since he nodded his head. Wiping the breadcrumbs off his lap, he stood up, almost able not to wince at the aches and pains that had to be tormenting him. "Let's get going, huh? I'm dying for a hot bath."
"Yeah, me too. Argos isn't much further now."
It was late afternoon when we got to the city. Iolaus didn't have much in the way of money, so I paid for the room and the hot bath, not to mention some decent salve from the local healer for our various sores and bruises.
After all that had happened, I'm afraid we were both far too worn out to do anything more strenuous that night than sleep.
Morning came, and Iolaus was already awake and eating something when I finally opened my eyes. He held up the plate and announced cheerfully, "I went and got us some fruit. You want some?"
Oh, great, I thought to myself. Just what I need: a morning person.
"Later," I said, covering my head with the pillow. "When I wake up."
"But you are awake," he persisted, oblivious to the full extent of my pathetic and bleary-eyed condition. "And the sun's been up for ages. See?"
Next thing I knew, he had lifted the pillow off my face. He stood there grinning at me, his smile so bright that it dazzled my eyes almost as painfully as did the bright light streaming through the window.
"Iolaus," I growled, only half in jest, "either take off your clothes and get in bed with me, or put that pillow back and leave me alone. Those are your only two options, if you want to keep living."
He was still thinking over my threat when it finally got through to my brain that he was right: the morning was obviously pretty far along. I groaned dramatically. "Cancel what I just said. If I don't get up and get out of here very soon, I'll miss the Festival in Epidaurus. And I can't afford to do that."
Did I imagine the slightly crestfallen look on his face? I hope not, since he could hardly have been disappointed if the option he had chosen would have been to put the pillow back down over my face.
With as much grace as I could muster, I dragged myself out of bed and got dressed, eating a little of his fruit as I was doing so.
I watched him out of the corner of my eye as I shaved. He was just sitting there, staring at me strangely.
"You're awfully quiet," he remarked, as I finished what I was doing and rinsed off my face. "Is something wrong?"
"Whatever gave you that idea? I'm always like this in the morning."
But that wasn't the whole truth, and I think he knew it. I was contemplating the imminent necessity of saying good-bye to him. And I didn't want to do it.
"There's something you're not telling me, isn't there?" he went on.
Oh yeah, I thought to myself, looking in the mirror to comb my hair and seeing his reflection in the background at the same time. Lots of things. Like how much I love you. Like how much I want you. Like how much I've missed you. I know full well that you aren't the same as that other Iolaus I knew, but part of his spirit lives on inside you, even if you don't realize that yet. And I'm not going to tell you any of this. Not here, not now. You have to find yourself first. Not only that, but you also have to find out what, if anything, you and Hercules mean to each other first.
I shook my head at his question. In the mirror, I saw his face take on a very troubled look. Uh-oh.
"You don't like me," he said, sounding totally defeated as he stood and picked up his backpack. "That's okay. I'll leave now. Thanks for everything, huh?"
I reached the door before he did, blocking his way. "That's not true, so don't ever think it, you hear me?"
"But --" He sounded puzzled and didn't look as if he quite believed me.
"No buts. I like you just fine. I'm very glad we met, and the other night was terrific."
His face lit up again. "Even if it was almost the last thing we ever did on earth?" he suggested archly.
"It would have been worth it, even so," I said, just a little too seriously. "Look, I've got to go. And you have - a lot to learn about this world."
He nodded, lips compressed into an expression of what I hope was mild disappointment over my insistence at leaving.
I gathered up my saddlebags, put my arm around his shoulders, and guided him out of the room and down to the stables. It didn't take the stable boy long to saddle up my mare and bring her out, once he saw the dinar I took from my belt pouch.
"I - hope I'll see you again," Iolaus said softly as I put my foot into the stirrup and mounted up.
I reached down and held out my hand. He clasped it firmly.
"You'll see me again, if you want to," I told him, as I let go. "You know where I live, don't you?"
"Yeah," he said softly, as I turned my horse's head to the street.
I kicked my usually placid mare into a gallop, not daring to look back, for fear I wouldn't be able to ride away if I once turned around and saw him standing there. I wanted nothing more than to go back and beg him to come along with me, but that wouldn't have been fair. Not to him, and, ultimately, not to me. He had to discover what his path would be in this world, free from the Sovereign's influence. He'd already realized that when he'd parted with Hercules.
Maybe I'd see him again, or maybe I wouldn't. In the final analysis, any future encounter between us would probably depend on what Iolaus found out about himself, not to mention whatever he found out about Hercules' feelings for him. Or - who could tell? - maybe he'd discover that what he truly wanted was a woman.
Of course, even if he and Hercules became an item, it still wasn't hopeless. The other Iolaus had once told me that he and his half-god lover weren't committed to a monogamous relationship, regardless of the bond between them. Maybe things would work out that way with this Iolaus? Or perhaps he'd marry a woman, but decide he still liked to fool around with men on the side, a fairly common practice in this enlightened day and age. That still left things open to certain, shall we say, possibilities? Maybe every so often, if our paths should cross --?
I smiled as I slowed my horse to a canter.
Continue on to the sequel As Much a Part