With the exception of original characters created by the author, all characters belong to Universal Studios, MCA, Studios USA or Pacific Renaissance Productions. 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 story contains explicit descriptions of male/male and male/female sexual relations, and some mild bdsm.
This is a sequel to Family, Closest to Your Heart, The Next Monster, As Much a Part, Dead Bugs in Amber, Harder Every Time, Anyone for a Swim?, Resolutions and is the ninth part of the The Euphonius Scrolls series.
You can check out more work by Euphonius at Kerry's Korner
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Remembered a Hero
With thanks to JJ, whose astute comments and suggestions improved the story immensely.
"You fought hard for your country, and you fought brave. You will always be remembered a hero."
~ Hercules, in "War Wounds"
It all started when my housekeeper's young daughter came running into my room in tears, sobbing loudly.
"Dari, what is it? What's wrong?" I asked, wondering what could possibly have brought her to such a state. At all of thirteen years old, Dari was no crybaby. In fact, she was usually quite stoic and reserved, for a girl.
She threw herself into my arms, weeping against my shirt. "Oh, Uncle Euphonius! It's Xena and Gabrielle! They're dead!"
"Dead? How do you know? The last I heard, they were fine, and Xena had a baby."
"I was on my way home from school when I stopped to listen to a travelling bard. It must be true. He got the story from Joxer."
Half from curiosity, and half in an attempt to distract the child from her crying, I asked what had happened. Between sobs, she told me about how Xena and Gabrielle had been pursued by the remaining gods. (Zeus and Hera had supposedly disappeared somehow, if you can believe that. I don't.) Finally, the two women had been driven over a cliff in a wagon, along with the baby girl. Gabrielle died in the fall, the infant when the wagon burned, and Xena, seeing what had happened, took poison and died in Ares' arms, despite the War God's efforts to stop her.
Assuming the tale to be true, Xena's death was a great loss to the world. She had always been a hero, fighting against injustice and cruelty, and inspiring hope in the common folk wherever she went. Pretty much like Hercules, in fact. But still, Dari's hysterics were a bit much, considering that Xena was a complete stranger.
"Why are you so upset, honey?" I soothed. "It's awful that such good people died, but you don't even know them."
Dari took a long and shaky breath, clearly trying to get her tears under control. "Xena's my hero. I want to be a warrior and fight monsters and bad guys, just like she did."
I'll be the first one to admit that I hadn't paid too much attention to my housekeeper's little girl over the years that she'd been with me, so I didn't know the child on much more than a superficial level. Not surprising, since I don't spend a lot of my time at home, given my profession as a travelling jewelry merchant. Now, however, what Dari said was beginning to worry me. She was a nice enough little kid, and I always figured she'd turn into a nice enough young woman, and then, someday, a wife and mother. Becoming a warrior just wasn't in the picture.
"I've fought a few bad guys and monsters myself, dear," I told her. "Believe me, it isn't all it's cracked up to be. It's pretty scary, not to mention just plain old hard work."
She pulled herself out of my arms and glared at me stubbornly. "I don't care. That's what I want to do."
I couldn't see letting her carry on with this absurd notion any longer.
"And what does your mother think of all this?" I asked reasonably.
She shrugged, as if Ysabel's opinion mattered little to her. "Mommy wants me to grow up to be like her, and learn to do all the things she does."
"So don't you think you'd be much better off doing as she says?"
"But, Uncle Euphonius, I thought at least that you might understand."
"I'm sorry, but I don't. Being a warrior isn't for girls."
"Xena did it, and she's a girl."
She had me there. "Let's just say that Xena was a very special girl. Most girls don't grow up to be like her."
"I doubt it. Someday you'll find a nice young man and --"
" and clean his house, cook his meals, and have his children, the way Mommy does for you." She stopped for a moment, considering. "Well, not having children maybe, but all the rest of it. I don't want to do that. It's boring."
What could I say? It did sound awfully boring, the way she described it. Not exactly what I'd want for my own life, but then, I'm a man.
"Your mother doesn't seem to mind," I replied lamely.
"I'm not my mother and I'm not gonna do it!" she retorted, hands on hips.
I fell back on that tired old cliché, which also just happens to be true. "You'll feel different about it when you grow up."
"No, I won't," she informed me emphatically. "Oh, you just don't understand!"
With that, Dari burst into tears once again and ran out of the room, much to my relief. I figured if I gave her a few days, she'd get over this silly notion.
I thought I had handled everything just fine, and was congratulating myself on being so good with a child who, after all, wasn't even my own, when she came up to me later that day while I was gathering things together for my travelling pack, looked me square in the eye, and asked, "Uncle Euphonius, you're going off again soon, aren't you?"
I nodded, wondering why she cared. Holding up my sea-green cotton tunic, I tried to decide between that and a heavier dark blue one.
"Where are you going?"
Definitely the cotton. Summer was coming and the days would only be getting hotter. "I've got to pick up a shipment of rubies, for a very special piece of jewelry I'm having made."
"Is that for the necklace you promised Aphrodite, after she helped you make that big sale?"
"Yep." I picked up the blue tunic and went over to hang it back in the closet.
"Why do you have to go get them yourself?"
"I want to make sure they're exactly right," I explained from inside the closet. "Pink rubies are difficult to find, but Lucama claims to have just what I want. He's an old man, not at all willing to make the trip here to Lydicea, so I'm going to him. If I like what I see, I'll deliver the jewels to the artisan on my way back."
"Will you be going near Corinth?"
As I came back into the main part of my room, I was sure she was driving at something with this persistent line of questioning, but I didn't know what it was. "Yes. That's where the craftswoman lives who'll be making the necklace."
"Will you take me along with you? I need to go to Corinth."
Ah! Now we were getting somewhere!
"I want to make a sacrifice in Ares' temple."
"A sacrifice? Whatever for?"
"Ares is the god of warriors."
Oh, shit, not that again!
"No, dear," I corrected sharply. "Ares is the God of War. It's not the same."
"What's the difference? In the stories the bards tell, most of the warriors serve Ares, therefore he must be the right god for me." She crossed her arms and stared at me sternly, certain of her logic.
"Warriors aren't necessarily the same as soldiers, Dari." I sat down on the bed, all thought of packing gone from my mind.
"They both know how to fight, and they both have lots of courage," she replied firmly. "That's what I want to be. And I need Ares to help me."
"Uh you don't want to have anything to do with Ares. Trust me. I met him once, and it wasn't a real good experience."
Her eyes went wide. "You did? Wow! What did he do?"
I'd gotten her attention now, but I didn't particularly want it. Or, at least, not over this. "I can't tell you all the details, but it was pretty nasty."
"Uncle Euphonius!" she exclaimed in annoyance. "You can tell me. I'm a big girl now, not a baby."
"Yes, I know. But still --" I sighed, knowing I'd have to explain something about what had happened. "Remember Iolaus, from the other world, not the one in this world?"
"The cute little guy who gave my mother that fire-starting thingie, and later became a merman?" I nodded. "Yeah, I remember. I liked him."
"Well, Ares kidnapped him and uh hurt him."
"Really? How do you know?"
"I was with Iolaus at the time, and just sort of got kidnapped with him by accident."
Dari looked at me skeptically, then made up her mind. "If Ares hurt Iolaus, he must have had a good reason. The gods know what they're doing, right?"
Now how could I answer that one truthfully, without destroying her faith in the gods? And if I did that, her mother would be pissed off for sure. A pissed off housekeeper I did not need.
"Well, mostly they do," I temporized.
She nodded as if that decided the argument. "Then I want to go to Ares' temple in Corinth and ask him to help me."
I decided to try a different tack, since this one wasn't working. "Why do you need help from the God of War to be a warrior?"
Looking exasperated, she replied shortly, "Because I can't do it by myself."
"How am I going to learn the fighting skills I need around here, in this silly little village? There's no one to teach me."
"You go to school in the village, Dari. That's what you should be studying, not how to hurt and kill people."
"I want to learn both." She crossed her arms and glared at me, the very picture of stubborn determination. "If you won't help me, I'm gonna run away."
Oops, this could be serious! I didn't want to have to scour the countryside looking for a lost child, especially when I was about to take off on an important trip. Besides, maybe taking her along would be a good idea. She was certainly old enough to start learning about the jewelry business. Possibly travelling with me would get her interested in it. She seemed dead set against marriage, so it wouldn't hurt if she acquired some firsthand knowledge of the outside world, since she might one day have to make her own way in it.
"Tell you what: if your mother agrees, you can come along, all right?"
"Great! And we can stop at Ares' temple on the way back?"
"Well, we'll see about that when the time comes. But no more talk of running away. Deal?"
She nodded and stuck out her hand. "Deal," she agreed as we solemnly shook on it.
By the following day, everything was almost ready for us to leave. A message had been sent off to Lucama, advising him that I would soon be on my way. The blacksmith was putting fresh shoes on my horse. I had the supplies all packed, and the dinars I'd be carrying to make the payment if the deal went through were all carefully hidden in various places.
I was taking a well-earned nap when Dari knocked on the door to my room and announced, "You have a visitor."
Still groggy and half-asleep, I ran my fingers through my hair to smooth it into place, brushed the wrinkles out of my clothing, and stumbled out to see who it was that had disturbed my rest. As you may well imagine, I wasn't in the best of moods. Not until I caught sight of the man standing at the door, anyway.
"Iolaus! What a pleasant surprise!" I exclaimed. "What are you doing here?"
He gave me his usual blinding smile and shrugged. "Visiting my mother for a few days. Thought I'd look you up while I was here."
Erytheia lived in Lydicea, the village just over the hill from my estate. In fact, I had first met Iolaus when he had stopped by to see his mother, many years ago.
I glanced around outside the door, expecting to find Hercules somewhere nearby. "Where's the big guy?" I asked with a smile.
"Oh, Herc promised Iphicles that he'd help him with some important negotiations that are going on over a peace treaty or something. Totally boring, and they don't need me. It'll probably take a couple of weeks, so I said I'd go off on my own for a bit, then meet him back in Corinth later on."
His voice was sunny and cheerful, so I don't know exactly what made me think there was more to it than he had so casually explained.
"Well, let's go to the tavern and have a bite to eat, shall we? I'd offer you something here, but my housekeeper had to go off to help one of the neighbor women, and I have no idea when she'll be back." I shrugged apologetically. "Ysabel's kind of taken over as the town midwife lately, since the last one died."
"The tavern's fine. Let's go."
"Wait a minute. I need to put on some nicer clothes. I just woke up and --"
He took my arm and dragged me out the door. "Don't worry, you look fine. Or at least no worse than I usually do. Come on. It's been a long time since lunch and I'm starving."
Several helpings of a spicy lamb stew and a few drinks later, we sat talking over old times at my favorite corner table at the small inn. Try as he might to sound cheerful, Iolaus had something bothering him. Underneath the bright smile, sorrow seemed to be lurking.
Eventually, he brought it up. "You heard about Xena and Gabrielle, didn't you?"
"Yeah. Real shame. My housekeeper's little girl is quite upset about it."
I shrugged carelessly. "You know how kids are. Xena was one of her heroes."
He thought that over for a minute. "You ever meet Xena or Gabrielle?"
"No, I'm afraid not."
"I did, many times."
"I know. I've heard the bards' tales."
He pressed his lips together. "Don't believe everything you hear. Sometimes the stories are grossly exaggerated. And sometimes, they miss things altogether."
"Care to let me know what they've missed this time? Or maybe what they've exaggerated? I've heard tell that you and Xena had a bit of a problem once."
"Yeah. But I forgave her for all that. Or at least, I tried to. It wasn't easy, watching her with Hercules, after what she'd done to me. But she had changed, and we did our best to get past that." He paused for a moment, and a vague smile came to his face, as if he were thinking wistfully of the past. "Gabrielle, now. There was someone I think I almost could have loved, if she hadn't been with Xena, and I hadn't been with Herc." He smiled up at me, securely back in the present. "It would have fit so well. You know, the two sidekicks of the two famous heroes, and all that? But Gabrielle was a sweet young woman, when I first met her. Life with Xena matured her, and made her different." He shrugged, trying to pass it off lightly. "Well, times change, and people change. It probably wouldn't have worked out, even if we'd both been free and interested enough in each other to have tried."
"So what's the problem?"
"The one that's had you so down in the mouth ever since you arrived."
"I'm not I mean --" He scrubbed his hand over his face, then looked up at me. "Yeah, okay, I guess I haven't been my usual self, have I?"
"Not even close," I said. "Whatever it is, you can tell me about it."
He smiled slightly. "The news of Xena's death really got to Herc, even though they'd only been good friends for a long time now. I tried to console him, but it seemed like every time he looked at me, he remembered what had happened between Xena and me all those years ago. He never said anything, but I could see it on his face. That's why I was almost glad when Iphicles asked that Herc come and help him. I figured he'd get over it faster with something new to occupy his mind for a while."
"And maybe without you around to remind him of the past?"
"Yeah. That too."
"I see." I downed another draught of my ale, then went on heartily, "Well, Herc's loss is my gain. I'm sure glad to see you again. How long will you be staying?"
"Oh, just a couple of days. There are a few odd jobs my mother would like me to take care of. Pandion's a nice guy and a great poet, but he's not much of a handyman, I'm afraid. After that, I was going to go hunting for a bit and then sell the pelts. Herc may not worry about money too much, but I like for us to have a bit of cash when we're travelling." He nodded towards our savaged lamb stew and grinned. "Dinners are more reliable when you've got some dinars with you."
"I can well understand that." An idea struck me just then. "Maybe you'd like to come along with me on a business trip?" I suggested. "I've got to pick up some pink rubies, and would be very happy to have an escort on the way. I could pay you more than the worth of a few animal skins. Above and beyond your charming company --" I flashed him my best smile "I'd like to have you along for safety's sake. After that last little encounter I had with bandits, I'm being a bit more cautious than I used to be. If you and Hercules hadn't come along at just the right time, I'd've been dead."
"Yeah, I remember that." He changed the subject abruptly by asking, "So what are you going to do with pink rubies?"
I got the feeling he was stalling for time, while he tried to make up his mind about my offer of employment, so I gave him the time he wanted. I told him about the rubies, and then had to recite the tale of my adventure with the other Iolaus and Nautica, and how they were happily living together in the ocean and already had a baby daughter.
"And that's how I came to owe a special gift to Aphrodite," I concluded. "Believe me, after the deal I struck with the ladies on Lesbos, I can well afford to have that necklace made up for her. The only problem has been finding enough pink rubies. I finally located a merchant who has what I need, but he lives in Gargatha --"
"Gargatha?" Iolaus interrupted me. "That seaport town a little ways beyond Epidaurus?"
"Yeah. You know the place?"
"Sure do. Got some old friends there, in fact."
"So come along with me, and you can visit them," I invited cheerfully.
"I don't know --" he replied, clearly hesitant to agree to what had seemed to me such an excellent offer on my part.
By now I thought I had figured out why. Things had gotten a little hot and heavy in the sex department, the last time I had been with him and Hercules. Maybe he was afraid I had designs on him, designs that he might not be particularly willing to draw. After all, inviting him to accompany me on a long trip, where we'd be alone together
Well, if that was the problem, I could fix it easily enough.
"Oh, did I forget to mention that my housekeeper's little girl will be going also? I'd really like to be sure she's safe."
Yeah, I was using Dari to try to convince him, but it was only the truth, after all. Iolaus and I wouldn't be alone together, since there would be a child with us.
Whether or not I had guessed right, this consideration seemed to make a difference. Brightening up a bit, he asked, "How soon are you leaving?"
I revised my departure date quickly. "Three, four days from now. Will that give you enough time to finish what you need to do for your mother?"
"Yeah. Okay, count me in."
I raised my mug as if making a toast. He lifted his own, tapping mine and then drinking the rest of his ale. I did the same, and the sudden warmth in my heart wasn't only caused by the alcohol I had so quickly imbibed.
Four days hence, we were on the road. I had arranged for a horse for Iolaus also, so we were making good time. Dari rode behind me on my horse, her eyes wide with excitement as she started on her big adventure, but her mouth mostly closed by shyness in front of a strange man she barely knew, who nevertheless looked so much the same as the other Iolaus she had met and liked a couple of years ago.
Dari's presence, combined with her unusual quiet, made the first day of travel somewhat strained and awkward, but she soon warmed up to Iolaus, who seemed to genuinely like children and did his best to draw her out, with a certain amount of success.
I found it a bit unsettling to watch the two of them together. It was clearly apparent to me that Dari was broadening her hero worship of Xena to include Iolaus also. This could be good or it could be bad.
By the second day, Dari had stopped doing such an excellent imitation of a clam. Now she was full of questions for her newfound friend. Wearying of her constant chatter, I let her ride behind Iolaus on his horse, instead of with me. At least that way one of us would get some peace.
When we made camp for the night, Iolaus went off to hunt game while I started the fire. Dari collected dry wood for me, then sat off by herself fiddling with something I couldn't quite see.
No sooner had Iolaus stepped out of the bushes carrying three fat rabbits than Dari leapt to her feet, holding a dagger in her upraised hand. With a playful grin on her face, she swung the knife at our returning hunter before I could stop her.
I don't believe he even recognized who it was, but simply reacted to something coming at him, dodging aside and grabbing Dari's arm. In fact, if he hadn't gotten a good look at her right then, he very likely would have gone on to break her arm. As it was, he merely took the dagger from her hand and released her.
"I was only kidding around," she said, staring up at the scowl on Iolaus' face.
"Shame on you, Dari. That's not how a true warrior acts," I chided her.
Raising her head haughtily, she said to me, with a bit too much arrogance in her voice, "How would you know, Uncle Euphonius? You're not a warrior."
What could I say? It was true. I had fought no wars and won no victories or at least not the kind of victories she had in mind.
"Your uncle's right," Iolaus put in sternly, backing me up. "A real warrior doesn't launch a surprise attack unless she's prepared to follow through on it."
I gave Dari a "There! You see?" look as I asked her, "Where'd you get that dagger, young lady?"
"It's mine. Momma pays me to help her sometimes, especially when she has to go to a birthing." She looked at me warily, obviously afraid I was going to take it away from her. Clutching the knife tighter in her hand, she went on, "It took me a long time to get enough dinars, Uncle Euphonius. I worked hard for this."
My frown darkened. Iolaus laughed. "Hey, don't worry. There's nothing wrong with the kid carrying a dagger. Never know when it might come in handy, these days."
Even so, I debated confiscating the knife, then decided against it. Dari was a truthful child. If she said she had bought it honestly, then she had. It was not my right to take away something that belonged to her.
"Well, all right," I finally said resentfully.
For his part, Iolaus asked the girl, "Know how to butcher a rabbit?"
When she nodded, he pointed to the three rabbits he had killed and said, "Okay then, get busy. Let's see if you can handle that knife of yours."
Dari's smile lit up almost as brightly as Iolaus'. I don't think I've ever seen anyone skin and slice up rabbits with quite as much care and attention as she gave to the task that night, cheerfully demonstrating her skill with the sharp blade and beaming at any word of praise that came from her new hero's mouth.
When she was finished, she slid the dagger into a worn leather sheath and strapped it around her waist, glancing surreptitiously at me as she did so. I pretended not to notice.
Later on that evening, Iolaus and I sat around the fire together after Dari had reluctantly rolled up in her blanket and gone to sleep.
"Your niece is quite something," he remarked.
"She's not really my niece, you know. Just my housekeeper's daughter."
"Oh yeah. It's hard to remember that, when she keeps calling you uncle."
I shrugged. "She's done that for years. I never saw any reason to stop her."
"Oh no. No reason." He shook his head. "Feisty little kid, isn't she?"
"She's gotten it into her head that she wants to be a soldier. Xena's her hero." I glanced at him, and I suppose I looked as displeased as I felt. "If you haven't displaced Xena in her affections, that is."
"Nothing wrong with a kid having a hero," he replied with a disarming grin.
However, I was not ready to be disarmed just then. "Maybe not. But I don't want her growing up to be a warrior."
"Why not? That's what I am," my companion pointed out. Whether or not he was insulted, I couldn't tell.
"No. You're a hero, and you travel around with Hercules."
"I don't see a whole lot of difference there, buddy," he replied.
"Well, I do."
Wrapping my blanket around me, I lay down and closed my eyes, effectively ending the conversation.
It turned out not to be that easy to keep the conversation closed, however. Over the next few days, Dari took to spending all the time she possibly could with Iolaus, asking him about his adventures and hanging on his every word. Very quickly, it began to annoy me, but Iolaus didn't seem to mind. In fact, he appeared to be enjoying her admiration and attention.
Then it occurred to me that perhaps this was truly not hero-worship, but just a young girl's first crush on an attractive man. That notion made me a bit more satisfied, because it allowed me to dismiss the seriousness of this whole warrior business. However, it also filled me with a strange disquiet, and I couldn't quite put my finger on the reason. For me to be jealous of a child was patently ridiculous. If I wanted to be jealous, Hercules made a far better target.
The happy thought that Dari was really attracted to Iolaus and not to the idea of being a warrior didn't last very long. That very evening, we had barely dismounted when I caught the two of them apparently rough-housing together. My first impression was that Dari just enjoyed it because he was grabbing her and touching her, but then I saw them stop, and he began showing her how to do some of the moves. She listened with a sort of concentration I had rarely seen in a child, but her attention was clearly on the moves, rather than on the man.
"Dari!" I snapped. "Stop fooling around! There's a stream just through those trees over there. Go get washed. You're all dusty."
"But Uncle Euphonius, I'm busy now."
"Do as you're told, young lady."
With an exasperated glance in Iolaus' direction, she obeyed, heading for the trees as she stripped off her outer tunic.
Iolaus came over to me and started taking the saddles off our horses. "Something wrong?" he asked. "You're not usually so hard on the kid."
Considering how I feel about Iolaus, I never thought that he could get me angry with him over anything. And yet, angry I was.
"You're encouraging her, damn it!" I replied. "You know I don't want her to be a warrior, but you're always egging her on."
"Since you met her, for the gods' sakes! Telling her all those stories of yours. Filling her head with ideas unsuitable for a little girl. Making her think she could do that kind of thing. And now even showing her how to do it."
"Hey, take it easy. Yeah, I've been talking about me and Herc, but have you heard all that I've been saying?"
"No," I was forced to admit. "She's always wanting to ride with you."
"Uh-huh. And you've been riding ahead or behind, so you didn't have to listen to all the chatter, right?"
"Well, for your information, I haven't just been telling her about the heroic and fun things. I've been giving her an accurate description of the downside of a warrior's life also: the danger, the fear, the pain, and the regret over some of the things you've done."
"Can't you just refuse to talk about all that? Try to discourage her completely?"
"Euphonius, my friend, you don't discourage something by refusing to discuss it. You know better than that," he replied gently.
"Yeah, I guess I do. I'm just so worried about her, and I don't know what to do."
"I've got an idea. How about if she meets some of my friends in Gargatha? Soldiers who fought in the Trojan War?"
"We won the Trojan War. Why let her meet the victors? I'd rather we show her some of the victims instead." I shook my head, having second thoughts. "But I guess that wouldn't work, would it? Troy is a long way away, and by now it's been rebuilt and everything. Oh well, so much for that idea."
"You're right about Troy, but you're wrong about Dari."
"Oh? In what way?"
"Showing her the killing and destruction probably wouldn't discourage her, anymore than my telling her about the disadvantages of a warrior's life. It would be far more effective to let her meet some of the victors instead."
"What good will that do?" I objected.
"Don't show her the losers. Show her the winners. Let her see what it is that she wants to be."
"Oh sure. So she can have even more heroes. I fail to see how that would help the situation."
Iolaus snorted and shook his head, as if he were amazed at my obtuseness. Then he asked, "You know anything much about where we're going?"
"Gargatha? What's that got to do with what we were talking about?"
"You don't know, then?"
"No, not really. Just that it's a small seaport town that's been growing quite rapidly in recent years. What else is there to know?"
"Ever hear of the infamous island prison that used to be not far from Corinth called Golgoth?"
"Well, Gargatha was deliberately given a similar name, so the events that took place at that prison wouldn't be forgotten."
Iolaus looked up to the sky and gave an exaggeratedly long-suffering glance before he replied. "Remember all the trouble King Iphicles had with some of the disgruntled veterans of the Trojan War, and how he finally decided to set aside land on his northern borders for them to make a new start?"
"Oh yeah, that nasty incident at the prison. But that was quite a few years ago."
"Uh-huh. Well, some of those vets didn't want to farm, but they did like the idea of a new life on the outskirts of civilization, so they set off for the southern peninsula instead, looking for a good spot to settle down near the sea. Just an out-of-the-way place where they could fish and maybe do a little trading along the coast, since some of them had had experience on ships during the war. Along that coast, there's always problems with pirates raiding the towns, but with this group of organized warriors there, Gargatha quickly gained a reputation as a good place to be left alone."
"You're telling me we're heading to a town full of belligerent ex-soldiers and marauding pirates?!" I exclaimed.
"Not exactly." He put a hand on my arm, trying to calm me down. "The pirates haven't been a problem for years. And once the vets got the town going, other people also decided to settle there, precisely because it was so safe."
"If I'd known all this, I'm not sure I'd have brought Dari along," I replied, uncomforted by his assurances.
"But this is an excellent chance for us to try to change her mind. Like I said, I know a lot of these ex-soldiers."
"Great! I should introduce her to exactly the folks that I don't want her to imitate. We've been over this already. I don't see the point."
Another long-suffering look from my companion. "This would show her what war does to people who seek it out, even when they win."
I was still thinking about that when he went on to ask the question I had managed to keep out of my mind until then. "Euphonius, are you really just upset over my encouraging Dari, or is there something else behind it?"
"Something else?" I asked, stalling for time to think. "What did you have in mind?"
"Oh, jealousy, for one thing."
"I am not jealous of a little girl," I replied stiffly.
He grinned and punched me lightly on the arm. "Yeah, you are. Come on, admit it. You'd rather that I be paying attention to you, not her."
"That's not true. I don't --"
"Sure you do," he interrupted.
And the worst part of it was that he was right. Yeah, there had been that night with him and Hercules, but that might have been just a fluke. I was scared to death that I'd never have him in my arms again.
"Okay, okay. I want you," I admitted. "I've wanted you from the moment I first saw you. So what? I know you're with Hercules. I know you don't love me, and never will. Again, so what? This is old news."
He stopped my impassioned outburst by putting his hand over mine. "I know. And I will be your friend, regardless of whatever else happens, or doesn't happen, between us."
As always, he smiled and my heart melted. And my cock stiffened. The world turned into that timeless moment when you each stare into the others' eyes longingly, then lean forward for a passionate kiss
Iolaus drew back, shaking his head. "No, not now. I just I just don't feel like it."
I wasn't willing to give up quite that easily. "What's wrong? Is it because of Hercules? You know I'll never try to take you away from him. Sure, I care a lot for you, but I'm not the happily-ever-after, forever-and-ever type. You should know that by now."
Despite my sincere protestations, he looked doubtful. "It isn't always easy to hold someone so loosely. I know. I've tried it at various times. If you really want something badly, you tend to hold onto it as tightly as you can."
"I'm not like that."
"You may think you're not, and you may say you're not, but when it comes right down to it --" He made a palms-up gesture, then fixed me with a somewhat sheepish smile. "Well, things aren't always the way we think they're going to be, that's all. I don't want to end up hurting you."
He was right, and I knew it. And yet I truly was willing to hold him just that loosely, as long as I knew I could hold him at all. I'd seen him and Hercules together, and I knew I couldn't break into that partnership. The gods knew, I'd even helped get them back together not all that long ago, when guilt and misunderstanding had threatened to end their relationship.
"If it came to a choice," I reassured him, "I'd rather have your friendship and respect than your gorgeous body." I said that last bit with a smile and a joking tone, so he wouldn't feel I was getting too heavy. "But I'd far rather have both, if possible. I can handle it. What you and Hercules have is special. I'd never want to come between you two, don't worry. You and I, we could never have that sort of relationship. I know that. Our lifestyles are too different. I'd never expect you to --"
He silenced me by holding up one hand. "It isn't just that. I just can't. Can you understand that?"
"Yeah," I admitted helplessly. Gesturing towards the river, I added, "Besides, Dari will be back any minute. This is bad timing right now anyway. But maybe some other time?"
"Maybe. I don't know." He sounded genuinely confused. "I don't want to promise --"
This time I was the one to stop him with a wave of the hand. "No promises. I'm not looking for promises. Only possibilities."
In silence, he nodded. And I had to be content with that.
Later that night, I tossed sleeplessly beneath my blanket. The ground seemed to get harder and more uncomfortable no matter which way I turned, so eventually I sat up and huddled a little closer to the glowing embers of our fire, moving as noiselessly as possible so as not to wake my companions. Iolaus lay facing away from me, distinguishable only by his light hair in the faint moonlight that filtered through the trees.
Did I love him? Yes. There was no question of that. Did I want him in my bed? Yes, just as often as he wished to be there. But did I want him as a permanent fixture in my life? No, not really. As I had tried to tell him, that isn't my style of love, and never has been. That's why I live essentially alone, and like it that way.
But that didn't prevent me from burning with desire every time I laid eyes on him. Nor did it stop the wistfully lusty thoughts that haunted me whenever he wasn't around. Nor, for that matter, did it stop the hard-on I had now, just from looking at him asleep over there.
But I'm not a young stud anymore, and these days my head is more likely to overrule my cock, rather than the other way around.
So why had he turned me down? He and Herc had never promised, nor practiced, exclusive monogamy. As I understood it, they were both free to have sex with others, male or female. Maybe he really just wasn't in the mood? Maybe our little disagreement about his friends in Gargatha had upset him? No, that would be just too trivial. He had to be worried that I'd become too possessive.
So how do you convince someone that you love him so much, you'll even let him go?
I curled up again and tried to fall asleep, mulling over that question in my mind.
The following day, I rode in front, but allowed my horse to slow down every so often in order to bring me closer to Dari and Iolaus, not trying to be too obvious, but wanting to know just exactly what he was telling her.
"I remember that other Iolaus," came her voice from behind me, "the one from the nasty universe. When I first met him, he wasn't much of a fighter, but he had courage. The bards say he became a hero, even before he became a merman, because Hercules helped him. If a little wimp like that can do it, I can too."
As far as I could tell, Iolaus didn't turn a hair at the reference to his alter ego as a little wimp. He just said, "You may think this is strange, but Aphrodite taught that other Iolaus more about fighting than Hercules did."
"Really?" When she answered him, she sounded very suspicious. "How do you know?"
"Herc told me."
"Aphrodite? That silly goddess?"
Iolaus laughed. "You'd better not let her hear you call her silly, my young friend. She can be pretty serious, in her own inimitable way."
"I don't care. I don't like her."
"Because my mother always wants me to go to her temple and make an offering. She thinks I need help from Aphrodite. You know, in the romance department?"
"Plenty of time for that when you grow up."
"Nah, not me. I'm not interested."
"You will be, one of these days. Trust me."
Satisfied that they were at least not talking about martial matters, I kicked my horse into a slightly faster walk as Dari staunchly defended her stand against love to an amused Iolaus.
That night, it was Dari who sought me out, while Iolaus was off hunting us dinner again. She came over to where I was working on the fire, looking strangely hesitant and nervous.
"Uncle Euphonius, can I ask you something?"
"Sure. What is it?"
"Were Xena and Gabrielle lovers?"
"Uh I'm not really certain. Some bards say they were and some say they were just friends." I hit on an idea that would get me out of this possibly awkward situation. "Why don't you ask Iolaus? He knew them pretty well."
"I wasn't sure that was something I could ask him. I mean, I know about him and Xena and all." She looked up at me, meeting my eyes directly. "I also know about him and Hercules. And you."
"He told me. Oh, Uncle Euphonius, don't look so surprised. I've known about your preference for men for years. You know that. This isn't any different."
Gah! Now a child is more blasé about my sex life than I am! That was a new one!
"All right," I said slowly and calmly. Suddenly the little girl sitting next to me looked less like a child and more like a young woman. "If you want my opinion and that's all it is, an opinion then yes, Gabrielle and Xena were lovers."
She nodded in what appeared to be satisfaction, before saying very solemnly, "That's what I think also." Then her eyes turned tender and she touched my hand. "Thanks for being honest with me, Uncle Euphonius, and also for not treating me like a baby."
The fall of her light tunic in the firelight revealed the slight curves of a young girl's breasts. Funny how I had never noticed that before.
"You're certainly not a baby, my dear," I told her. "But you're not a grown woman yet either. Don't forget that."
"I won't," she promised. Then she kissed my cheek quickly and stood back, placing one hand on the hilt of the dagger at her waist. "But I'll get there soon, you know." With a short laugh, she ran off.
I shook my head, wondering what on earth had brought on that conversation. At any rate, it was an improvement over her usual subject. At least she was thinking of something else.
We arrived in Gargatha at mid-day. While I asked directions to Lucama's shop, Iolaus took the horses to the stables and went off to try to find his friends. Dari had wanted to go with him, but I made her stay with me instead, figuring she'd do better to learn a bit about buying merchandise than by hanging around Iolaus. She made a face, but obeyed without objection. Good. She was learning.
Besides, she had doubtless overheard me tell Iolaus to invite his buddies to a feast that night at the Victory, the best tavern in town, so she knew she'd get to meet them later.
I held the rubies up to the light and examined each one carefully. Two were fairly small, meant for earrings, while the other twelve were of a larger size, destined for Aphrodite's necklace. Although they all appeared to be of good quality, I shook my head and said to Lucama, "Well, I just don't know. They aren't quite the shade of pink that I had in mind."
"Hey, what do you expect?" he objected, picking up one of the larger ones and waving it in my face. "Most rubies are deep red. I had to scour the earth for some that looked even a little bit pink. You should be glad I have any at all."
"All right, all right," I replied grudgingly. "How much do you want for these inferior gems?"
"Inferior?! You dare insult my merchandise?" He held the ruby up to the window. "Just look at the quality of the cut, the brilliance of the stone!" Clapping a hand on Dari's shoulder, he pulled her over to the proper angle to see the light coming through. "Here, girl, look at this. You just tell me if this isn't a lovely shade of pink."
She squinted her eyes and made a show of studying the stone from several angles. "Well, I guess it's pink enough. But it's supposed to be a gift to Aphrodite." She looked up at Lucama, all innocence. "Wouldn't she like more of a rose color?"
"The Goddess of Love?" the merchant replied, his thick eyebrows lifting upwards in surprise. "These are for her?"
Dari nodded, copying his wide-eyed expression, as if herself awed at the concept.
I had to stifle a grin at how well she was handling things.
"Well now," Lucama said, stroking his beard thoughtfully. "Since these rubies are meant for a goddess, I might just have to give you a better deal."
When he quoted me a price, it was far more reasonable than I had expected. However, I couldn't let him know that.
"By Zeus' magnificent ,"I started to swear, then stopped short, noticing Dari's presence and quickly changing the body part I had intended to mention, "Uh beard! Do you call that a proper price for these stones? You're insulting my intelligence, if you think I'll pay such an exorbitant amount."
Of course, we went on from there, until we finally ended up with a price we could both agree on. It was mostly bluff and blunder, as is usually the way in business transactions. Nevertheless, I was entirely satisfied, especially since Dari's remarks had helped quite a bit. At last she had shown an aptitude for doing something useful. I even bought a nice ruby ring for myself, with the money I had saved on the other rubies.
As I counted out the dinars for Lucama, Dari asked softly, "Uncle Euphonius, may I go find Iolaus now?"
"All right. But don't forget about dinner at the tavern later on. And don't get in any trouble."
"Thanks, Uncle Euphonius! I'll behave," she said over her shoulder as she darted out the door.
Not too much later, the deal had been concluded and I had safely stowed the gems away with my things. I had strolled around the town, checking the place out, glancing into some of the shops and even making a few good buys here and there. Every so often, I happened to glance at my new ring, admiring it cheerfully. Like any good merchant, I love a bargain. And I do so much love shiny things.
It was just beginning to get dark as I headed for the Victory Tavern, and the meal I was hosting for Iolaus and his friends. By now, I was having some serious misgivings about the wisdom of introducing Dari to what sounded like some pretty disreputable characters, but it was far too late to cancel the banquet.
When I saw Dari coming up the street towards the tavern with Iolaus next to her, I was somewhat relieved until a tall stranger holding a sword jumped out of an alley in front of them with a decidedly unfriendly shout.
Iolaus swung around, his sword rising to meet his opponent's. At the same time, he pushed Dari behind him, out of harm's way. The two men traded a few fierce blows, while I hurried forward, intent on getting Dari away from the fracas.
Iolaus tripped as he took a step backward, landing hard in the dirt. The stranger was on him immediately, the tip of his blade at my friend's throat.
I stopped abruptly, drawing out the throwing knife I keep in my boot. My arm was already back and in another heartbeat I'd have tossed the blade. Fortunately, I was now close enough to see them both clearly and to hear what they were saying.
The attacker had this funny sort of a smile on his face. His lips spread in a grimace so wide as to be almost a caricature of mirth, displaying clenched teeth. But the smile never reached his eyes, which stared with a kind of maniac glee, giving a definite impression of insanity.
Iolaus casually pushed aside the point of the sword. "Siann, don't smile like that, huh?"
"This smile is the last thing some people have seen," the madman replied calmly.
A shiver ran down my spine at the words, but the stranger broke the spell immediately by lowering the sword, pulling Iolaus to his feet, and hugging him tightly. As I watched the laughing and mutual back-pounding, I realized they had to be old friends, and the fierce swordplay had been play only.
Somewhat embarrassed at what I'd almost done, I slid my knife back into its accustomed hiding place and walked over to put a protective arm around Dari.
"You might have hurt the child with all that fooling around," I chided the two of them, eyeing the stranger coldly. He was taller than I am, which isn't saying a whole lot, and appeared to be about Iolaus' age. Short dark hair fell forward over a surprisingly delicate face. A somewhat stocky body, but not fat by any means. Not bad-looking, I decided, but nothing to cheer about.
The stranger favored me with a slight smile. He was clearly scrutinizing me also, as his eyes traveled up and down my torso, then landed on my face. "Don't be such a spoilsport," he said, in a voice far too high for his years. "We wouldn't have harmed the girl." Then he turned to Iolaus, draping one arm around his shoulders and clearly dismissing me from his thoughts. "C'mon, buddy. Let's go inside and have a drink. You did say you were holding a feast, didn't you?"
"Not me," Iolaus hastened to point out. "My friend Euphonius is paying."
"Just as long as it's free, I don't care. C'mon."
Iolaus didn't budge. "Um Siann, I think I'd better introduce you to our host." He glanced significantly at me. "Euphonius, I'd like you to meet Siann. She and I fought together in the war."
I did a mental double take. She? By the gods, this was a woman! I kept a totally neutral expression on my face, not wanting her to realize I had ever thought otherwise. If this was one of Iolaus' so-called friends, I was not impressed. Quite the opposite, in fact.
"Glad to meet you, Euphronius," Siann said, seeming not the least bit embarrassed by her faux pas.
"Euphonius, not Euphronius," I corrected automatically. I hate it when people mess up my name.
"Oh, sorry." She tried again, with almost sarcastic precision, "Eu-phon-I-us. What kind of a dumb name is that, anyway?"
Have you ever met someone and taken an immediate dislike to them, whether or not later events proved you to be correct? If you have, then you'll know how I reacted to Siann.
"My parents thought it sounded nice," I replied frostily. I wasn't sure if she even got the pun, but that's my standard answer to a question about my name.
"Let's go inside," Iolaus suggested, seeing us staring at each other in a less than friendly manner.
Once inside the Victory Tavern, I made sure that Dari was safely seated between Iolaus and myself, still having serious doubts about the wisdom of hosting this little dinner party. If all of Iolaus' buddies were as uncouth as Siann, perhaps I shouldn't even have brought the child into this situation. But it was too late now. She clearly loved every minute of it, staring around wide-eyed at all of her "heroes".
Heroes indeed! I reflected, glancing around the crowded tavern. This ragtag bunch of scruffy, aging ex-soldiers didn't impress me in the least. However, I had no choice but to smile and act the part of the gracious host as Iolaus introduced a succession of his friends. There was much exuberant greeting and backslapping going on. One huge man caught Iolaus up in a fierce bear hug, actually lifting him clear off the floor. This was an even more remarkable feat when you considered that the man had only one arm. His other sleeve was folded up and pinned at the shoulder. Not only that, but he walked with a distinct limp.
Somewhat sheepishly, Iolaus introduced the one-armed giant as Vachon.
Once Dari had eaten her fill, she ran off and left me to sit and drink with the others. I saw her moving about the room, fetching food and ale for the various war heroes and listening raptly to their words. This wasn't working well at all. No, indeed. I should never have brought her here.
Siann had seated herself across the table from me. Woman she might be, but I noticed sourly that she had a man's appetite. She polished off the ale like a man also. Five empty tankards stood neatly in a line before her, and she was working diligently on draining the sixth.
"Hey, Euphorbia," she finally said, seeing me watching her. "How'd you get to be friends with Iolaus anyway?"
"Euphonius," I corrected sourly. The faintly mocking smile on her face told me clearly enough that she had deliberately screwed up my name, but I chose to pretend otherwise. "Euphorbia is a tropical plant."
"Oh, is it really?" she remarked innocently.
"Yes. And in answer to your question, I met Iolaus a number of years ago, when he came to my village to visit his mother."
Getting up from her place, she came around the table and sat down next to me. One arm draped around my shoulders, she played with a bit of my hair as she said, "So, Eponymous, you're kinda cute, I think. Whaddya say we get to know each other a little better?"
Surprised, I wasn't entirely sure if she was actually making a pass at me, or simply making fun of me.
"Siann --" Iolaus began warningly.
I waved him to silence, replying disdainfully, "Eponymous is an adjective relating to the person for whom something is named." I slipped out from under her arm. "And I think I know you well enough already."
"Oh, that's right. Your kind doesn't fancy women, do they?" She shrugged elaborately, then ran her fingers down the front of my tunic in what could have been a seductive gesture. "Too bad. Judging by the fancy clothes and that shiny red ring, you're pretty rich."
"Not by a long shot," I retorted, brushing away her hand. "Well-off, maybe. But I work hard for my dinars."
"Oh, I'll just bet you do, Sweetie."
Everyone within hearing distance laughed at the interchange, but I was getting madder by the minute. I found "Sweetie" even more obnoxious than the ways she had purposely mispronounced my name.
"Didn't your mother ever tell you it's not polite to insult the person who's paying for your food and drink?" I replied icily.
"Insult you? I try to pick you up and you get all huffy about it? Ha, Euphorius, old boy, get a life!"
Damn her, she'd done it again! "Euphonius," I corrected patiently, as if to the village idiot. I was not going to let her know that she had gotten my goat.
She just laughed and reached out toward me again.
Iolaus caught her hand. "Siann, enough already. Leave him alone."
Their eyes met, and I saw the flash of something beyond just friendship. Unwanted jealousy flared in my heart. Siann and Iolaus? No, surely not!
But she backed off, whether in response to his words or just because she had had enough of teasing me, I didn't know. "Okay, buddy, okay," she told him lightly. "Eucalyptus here is just such fun to tease, that's all."
As I bit my tongue so as not to respond to yet another deliberate insult to my name, Siann returned to her original place across the table, blew me an elaborate kiss, then flagged down the serving wench for another tankard of ale.
At least I was rid of her harassment for the present. My anger began to subside. As I took a few slow swallows of my own ale, I caught a bit of conversation from a couple of men sitting not far away, easily recognizing the speaker as the big man who had lifted Iolaus off his feet earlier on.
"Trojan War. Humph!" he was saying. "A waste of life. All those men dead, and for what? Because one king's wife ran off with another king. Never should have fought a war over that."
After all these years, they were still re-hashing the politics of the war? I stifled a yawn. How dreadfully boring! Iolaus didn't seem to be saying much. I had expected that he'd be more garrulous in the company of his old friends. Now that I thought about it, he had been rather guarded and withdrawn during the entire meal. Definitely not like him.
"Vachon, we were just soldiers," another man objected loudly, drawing my attention back to the discussion. "That wasn't up to us to decide."
"Then who is it up to, Myka? We fought, we died, and what happened? We came home, and no one wanted us around. They all just wanted to forget it ever happened." He held up his empty sleeve. "Well, how about me? Am I supposed to just forget this? By the gods, I wish I could!" With his good arm, he pounded a fist down on the table. "Remember what Ajax said about the ones who didn't have the guts to fight beside us, but now had the nerve to spit on us? Well, he was right! Even here, the damn civilians in this town would be happy if we'd all just die of old age."
"That's not true," the other man objected. Myka had medium-dark skin, and long hair knotted behind his neck. He was tall, and impressive. I had the feeling that he had been extremely handsome in his youth, since he was still very attractive now. He looked maybe 35 years old, so he must have been quite young when he had fought at Troy. "The townspeople know that it's only fear of us that keeps Tellis' pirate gang away."
Pirates? Had I heard him mention pirates? And in the present tense? Alarmed, I kept a sharper ear on the conversation.
"Yeah, well," Vachon replied. "But I still remember how the Corinthians told us we'd been fighting for so long that we were nothing but a bunch of thugs, and that we couldn't leave the fighting behind."
Siann stopped her steady drinking to join in the dispute. "Well, isn't that true, to some extent? We're not civilians, and we don't think like civilians." She grinned. "After all, who'd want to think like them? Bunch of cowards and wimps!"
I thought I caught her looking at me out of the corners of her eyes as she said that. But I kept silent, telling myself I had too much dignity to respond to the insult of a drunken ruffian.
When Vachon griped again about the attitude of some of the folks of Gargatha, the talk turned toward the past, and the way the townspeople had once given them respect and honor for keeping pirates and bandits away. Eventually, they likened the present situation to what had happened in Corinth some years ago, when King Iphicles had given them trouble, throwing some of them into the prison of Golgoth. I knew the basics of the story, of course, so I found it pretty dull. I was listening for more mention of pirates. Hearing nothing, I finally grew impatient. I leaned over towards Iolaus and asked him in a low voice, "You know anything about Tellis the pirate?"
Unfortunately, I hadn't spoken softly enough, since Siann took it upon herself to answer my question.
"You're interested in Tellis, eh? Yeah, he's a pirate all right, and a nasty one. You'd better hope he doesn't decide to attack us while you're here, Euph. I don't think you'd like that at all."
I winced at being called by a shortened form of my name, but didn't bother to object. I was far too concerned about what she'd said. I turned once more to Iolaus. "You didn't tell me about this when you recommended we come here."
"How could I? I didn't know about it. I thought it was all in the past." He shifted his glance away from me, as if he really wasn't too happy about the situation. I'd have bet that his friends had told him already, but he had kept quiet, not wanting to worry me over something that was, after all, only an unlikely possibility.
"Don't worry," Myka said, scowling at Siann. "Nothing's going to happen. Tellis has enough sense to keep away from Gargatha. There are more than enough other towns for him to raid."
"Not too many as prosperous as we are, though," Siann put in, with a leering wink at me. "But don't worry, pal. Me and my buddies will protect you."
"Thank you," I told her coldly, before I addressed the others heartily, and possibly slightly sarcastically. "With such an illustrious gathering of heroes and warriors, I'm sure I have nothing to fear."
A laughing chorus of assurances greeted my remark. Vachon raised his ale and proposed a toast to their host, which I graciously accepted.
Although the grin on Siann's face was less than respectful, she joined in with the cheers, then drained her tankard and waved for another one. And yet, she truly didn't act drunk. The annoying woman seemed able to down an incredible amount of alcohol without showing any obvious effects. Had I drunk that much ale, I'd have been passed out under the table.
Iolaus surprised me by reaching across to touch Siann's hand and saying, "Don't you think you've had enough?"
"I can never have enough," was the cold sober and very bitter reply.
"Why do you do it?" He waved at the empty tankards lined up neatly in front of her.
She shrugged and added one more to the lineup. "It's the only thing that keeps the nightmares away."
"I fought in the same war you did, and I don't have nightmares." He hesitated. "Well, not very often, anyway."
She fixed her eyes on his. "No two people ever fight the same war, Iolaus. You should know that. What I did, what you did, what Myka did, isn't the same at all."
"There are no buts. You're free to come to terms with it however you can, pal, but let me do the same." She took more ale from the serving wench's tray and lifted it high. "This is what works for me."
Iolaus persisted. "Ajax once said that a good soldier never surrenders, but he always recognizes the enemy when he sees him, and sometimes, that enemy is within." He eyed the ale significantly.
Siann didn't like that insinuation at all. "Give it a rest, buddy. I'm warning you." Then her tone changed, as she looked closer at the sincere concern in Iolaus' eyes, where she might have expected to see blame. She smiled a bit, to erase her threat. "No, sorry. But I am asking you. Leave it alone."
He gave up the argument. Siann drained the entire tankard, then got to her feet and walked out the back door of the tavern, almost certainly to visit the outhouse after all that ale.
As I frowned at her departing back, Iolaus asked me softly, "You don't like her, do you?"
I laughed. "Now, whatever gave you that idea?"
"Siann's not bad, when you get to know her," he hazarded.
"That's what you say. To me, she's a rude, obnoxious bitch, and I want nothing more to do with her."
"If you knew what happened to her in the war, you might be more understanding."
I was having none of it. "Hmph! She's not the only one who can cry about her war wounds. Look at Vachon over there. He's not nasty, and he looks to have been hurt far more badly than Siann was."
"Euphonius, you really don't know what you're talking about."
He dropped his voice even lower. "It isn't what was done to her that bothers Siann. What haunts her is what she did to others."
Well, that did throw a bit of a different light on her behavior, but it still wasn't a very bright light. "What did she do?" I asked, more out of curiosity than true caring.
Iolaus looked distinctly uncomfortable. "She never talks about it. Only a few of us know, and I don't think I have the right to say anything more than I have already."
"All right, granted that Siann did some horrible stuff. It was a war, and that happens. Other people learn to forget about it and move on. Why can't she?"
"Maybe because she cares too much," he replied unhappily.
That didn't make a lot of sense to me, so I changed the subject. When Siann returned, she spent the rest of the evening avoiding me, much to my relief.
By the time the feasting and drinking were over, Dari was curled up alongside me on the bench, asleep with her head in Iolaus' lap. He had to carry her up to our rooms.
When I awoke next morning, Dari wasn't lying beside me on the bed the way she was supposed to be. However, it being fairly late, I assumed she had gotten up earlier and gone off somewhere.
Despite a fine breakfast at the inn, I was not in the best of moods and a bad headache from last night's drinking was doing absolutely nothing to help the situation. I ventured outside, wincing as the bright sunlight assaulted my poor eyes. I figured Dari had gone to the big field on the far edge of town that I had noticed as we rode in being used as a practice ground by our illustrious band of warriors. I dragged my unwilling feet in that direction, trudging past the shops and homes and up the rise.
Yep, there they were, people exercising in groups or alone, or whacking at each other with staves or swords. I thought I saw Dari's small figure in the crowd that was watching Siann beat the shit out of her hapless opponent with a heavy staff. The noise of the wood cracking together reverberated through the relentless pounding in my head. I took a deep breath, willing the pain to ease off before I had to go stop the girl from making a nuisance of herself.
Iolaus sat leaning against a tree, munching on some brown bread and sipping now and then from a bottle he held in his left hand. I walked over and plopped down alongside him. From his half-hearted smile, I guessed that his head wasn't doing too much better this morning than mine was. He broke off a chunk of bread and held it out to me.
"No, thanks. I ate already."
He offered the bottle instead. "Here, try a bit of this then. You look pretty green around the gills."
"What is it? About the last thing I need is more alcohol."
"It's a herbal potion Siann mixed up for me. Cures hangovers, but it does take a little time to act, so be patient."
Without too much hope of a miracle cure, I took a swig from the bottle, then made a face. "Tastes awful."
"That's not the point. It works. Trust me."
"Iolaus, my dear man, considering all we've been through together, how could I possibly not trust you?" Perhaps the potion truly was working, since my thoughts had shifted from my own misery to the pleasure of being here with him.
"That's the spirit. Lean back and enjoy the fresh morning air."
"Umm." The fresh air wasn't what I was enjoying. Sitting here with him, now that I could enjoy. In fact, I had to be careful not to let myself enjoy it too much or risk embarrassing myself. Then the clash of wood on wood brought me back to the present situation with Dari.
"Well, your idea didn't work very well, did it?" I began.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that Dari hasn't decided not to be a warrior, despite seeing all these people. Just look at her." I waved my hand in their direction. "She's over there staring at Siann."
Iolaus glanced in the direction I had indicated. "There's something wrong with that?" he remarked at last.
"You know full well that there is!" I said, more sharply than I had intended. "This isn't the lesson she was supposed to learn!"
"Ever consider that we may have been trying to teach her the wrong lesson?" he said diffidently.
I sat up straighter, all thought of relaxation gone. "What are you talking about?"
"You're not gonna like this, but there's always the chance that she does have what it takes to be a warrior."
"Rubbish! She's a child."
"And how old do you think I was when I started training?"
I fell back on my last line of defense. "She's a girl."
"Say that one more time, my friend, and I'll hit you upside the head," he said with a grin. "Besides, Xena was a girl."
"Now you're starting to sound like Dari!" I exclaimed in exasperation.
"No, no, no! Absolutely not! I won't let my little girl grow up like that."
"She's not your little girl," he replied gently. "She's Ysabel's daughter. In fact, in a few more years, she won't even be a child anymore. She'll be a woman, and she'll be making her own decisions."
"She's the closest thing to a daughter that I'll ever have." No sooner were the words out of my mouth than I realized they were true. I had always been distantly fond of the child, but these last few days in her company had brought us closer together, despite our clash of opinions. "I don't want her to get hurt, that's all," I concluded lamely.
"I know. But you can't choose her life for her. She's the only one who's entitled to do that."
I sighed wearily and closed my eyes, knowing I was getting the worst of this discussion. "So what do you suggest?"
"Ever hear of Cheiron's Academy?"
"Cheiron the Centaur?"
"Yeah, but he's dead. Jason runs it now."
"So I've heard. But that's not a proper school. It's a training ground for mercenaries."
"Well, not exactly. Herc and I went there when we were young, you know."
"No," I replied absolutely, already sure I knew where the conversation was leading. "That's not for Dari."
"I said no!"
Furious, I got to my feet and stomped off, but I didn't get far before I had to glance back over my shoulder to see what effect, if any, my leaving had had on Iolaus. All he did was take another swig of his herbal hangover remedy.
Shit! I wanted him so badly, but sometimes I just hated his guts. And maybe the second feeling was nothing more than a reaction to the first. Euphonius, you monumental asshole!
Well, at least we'd be leaving Gargatha tomorrow. If things were no better with Dari than they'd been before, they were also no worse. And besides, my headache actually was beginning to subside, just as Iolaus had promised it would.
I strode around the practice field for a while, letting my anger fade away along with the pain in my head. When I had calmed down a bit, I went to gather up Dari, intending to take her with me as I went in search of good buys in the marketplace. She had done so well with Lucama that I was anxious to teach her more of the fine points of bargaining, and maybe a bit about judging the quality of gemstones.
I wasn't pleased to find her engaged in a serious conversation with Siann. As I drew closer, I could hear what they were saying and my displeasure increased dramatically.
"Please, Siann! Teach me how to fight," Dari pleaded.
"You're just a baby, child. Go home. Find yourself a different life."
"No, I want to be a warrior. Like you."
Siann shook her head. "You're too young to know what you want."
"I'm not. I can do it. I know I can."
By that time, I had gotten up next to them. "Take the lady's advice, Dari. She knows what she's talking about."
I had come up behind Siann's back, so she turned when she heard my voice and gave me a look. I took Dari's hand. "Come on with me and we'll go to the marketplace."
"No, I want to stay here." She pulled away from me.
I'm not too proud to stoop to a little bribery now and then. "Come with me and I'll buy you something nice."
"Will you buy me a staff?" Dari asked hopefully.
"Certainly not! I had in mind something nicer, like a ring or a necklace."
"Then I want to stay here."
Siann laughed. "Looks like you can't buy her off so easily, little merchant." Putting one hand on Dari's shoulder, she went on, "All right, girl, if you're so determined, I'll show you a few moves."
I got the distinct impression that the obnoxious woman had only offered to do it in order to spite me.
"Very well," I replied shortly. Then I turned and stalked off by myself to the marketplace, muttering angry curses under my breath. This whole thing just wasn't working out as planned.
"Please, Uncle Euphonius! Just a few more days. Please?" Dari wheedled, as we sat eating a late dinner at the inn that evening.
"No. It's time we headed home. We've been here long enough."
"But I'm learning so much. I don't want to go yet. Just two more days?"
I glanced at Iolaus, hoping for some backup. He shrugged. "I wouldn't mind staying a little longer. There's plenty of time before I'm supposed to meet Herc."
"What about those pirates everyone was talking about?" I objected. "We don't want to be here if they decide to attack the town."
He just shrugged. "Tellis has more sense than that. The town's waterfront is pretty well fortified against attack. We're perfectly safe."
I threw up my hands in surrender, but the truth was I really didn't mind staying, even if it meant that Dari got to play warrior for a little longer. It also meant I could spend just that much more time in Iolaus' company.
Next day, as I once again walked through the village that had been named for a prison, I wandered curiously away from the main thoroughfare and through the back streets. I saw a man without both legs, dragging himself around on a little wheeled platform. A woman passed me in the street, half her face twisted and destroyed by a burn scar. From a dismal little hut with a barred door, I heard someone screaming in the unmistakably accents of insanity. Outside the town, I stumbled upon an old graveyard and read the memorial stones, set up to honor comrades long dead. There were a lot of them, and the dates were from the time period of the Trojan War.
Looking at the names on the stones, and the occasional statue or face carved into the marker, I got a very clear feeling that I was walking through a country I could never understand in anything except an intellectual way. I had not been a part of the War. I had in fact never been a soldier of any kind. Oh yes, I had had a few adventures in my life and the face of death wasn't entirely unfamiliar to me. But I had never seen killing on a large scale, and never had to contemplate the blood on my own hands, only to wonder if it had been justified or not. Despite my expertise with a throwing knife and a certain amount of skill with a rapier, I had never been trained to use the weapons of a professional soldier.
I had never seen the face of my enemy up close, and realized, just before I killed him, that he was only a man like me.
I had never laid my sword on Ares' altar and prayed for success in battle.
I had never had to.
All these things, and more, had simply never been a part of my life. Perhaps I had been lucky in this regard. But it also made me a perpetual outsider in that world I now saw around me, reflected in the eyes of the men and women who had once stood before the walls of Troy and experienced, for ten long and endless years, the death and destruction of an ultimately useless war.
The only thing I could do was attempt to imagine it, while for them it lived on in their memories, and in their nightmares. I knew that now, from the conversations I had heard since I'd been in town.
Peace can be very slow in coming, even after the battles are long over.
So all right, maybe these men and women deserved more sympathy and understanding than I had been willing to give them. Maybe they even deserved a bit of respect for what they had been through. But it was still nothing for a young girl to aspire to be, was it?
I was still thinking these melancholy and sobering thoughts when I passed the practice field and saw Dari out there sparring with Siann, with several other people gathered around to watch. I sighed and shook my head, and would have continued on towards the inn except that I saw Iolaus with the watchers. Just as I joined the group, Dari took a wild swing and missed her target completely, only to have her opponent whack her smartly across the back with her staff. Dari stumbled forward and fell facedown on the ground from the force of the blow she had taken.
That was too much for me. Stepping in front of the fallen girl, I faced Siann and ordered angrily, "Stop it! You'll hurt the child."
Siann looked daggers at me. For a moment, I thought she was going to hit me with her staff also, but then she set one end down on the ground and leaned on it. "Don't worry, I won't do your precious little niece any real harm," she said with a slight sneer. "But I might hurt her a little, now and then."
"Well, that makes me feel just a whole lot better," I retorted sarcastically, holding my ground.
"You don't understand," Iolaus broke in, coming over to me. "Getting hurt is part of what happens. If Dari can't deal with that, she'll back out right now. If she can, then she'll learn what to expect."
"I know, I know: she's just a little girl, right?"
Grabbing my arm, he turned me around to face Dari. "Look closer, buddy. Do you see a little girl?"
I looked. With blood oozing from her nose, she had stood up, retrieved her staff, and was once more in an on-guard stance, determined to continue the uneven fight.
"No, I do not see a little girl," I admitted unhappily to Iolaus as I wilted. "I see a warrior in training, and that doesn't please me at all."
While Dari smiled grimly, Siann raised her staff once more. With a glance at me, she asked scornfully, "What's the matter, Sweetie? Are you threatened by the idea of your little niece becoming more of a man than you are?"
I took a deep breath, stood as tall as I could, and tried to ignore her calling me "Sweetie" as I replied tightly, "You don't have to be a warrior to be a man."
"No?" She lifted one eyebrow. "Is that how you truly feel, or do you just have to say that to save your pride?"
I fixed her with a level look. "I'm not trying to protect my pride. I don't have to. I know who and what I am, and I'm not ashamed of it. Can you say the same?"
I had expected to nail her with that last comment, but I hadn't expected to succeed quite so well. A wildfire ignited behind her eyes and her lips twisted into that sick smile as she tossed her staff away. I never even saw her fist until it connected with my gut. As I doubled over, struggling to breathe, she hit me again in the jaw, rocking my head back and sending me sprawling on the ground.
As I tried to pull my wits together, I heard her shouting at me. "You despicable coward! How dare you say that to me?! Let me go! I'll kill that little misbegotten son of a sea whore!"
(So all right, maybe her actual words were a lot more descriptive than that, but I'm giving you the gist of what she said as politely as I can.)
As I finally managed to suck in some air, I saw that Iolaus was holding her back, along with two or three of the others. Dari knelt next to me, pleading for some assurance that I was okay. I took her hand and gave it a squeeze, which was about all I could manage at the time.
I glared at the furious bitch as Dari helped me sit up. Siann continued raving about what a wretch I was, while I continued trying to breathe. As soon as I could, I said in between gasps, "Oh sure, beat the shit out of me. That really shows how big and brave you are, doesn't it?" I was playing to Dari now. "Show everyone just what a brute and ruffian you truly are. Rage and violence. That's typical of your type, isn't it?"
Siann stopped struggling and went abruptly white in the face. When they let her go, she turned her back.
That freed Iolaus to rush over to me. "You okay?"
"I -- think so."
His fingers probed my midsection, looking for broken ribs. Then he turned my face up to him and gently explored the growing bruise on the right side of my chin, running his fingers along my jaw. "I don't think anything is broken," he concluded.
"No thanks to Siann, if it's not."
His eyes slid sideways for a moment in Siann's direction. "If she had wanted to kill you, buddy, you'd be dead," he said softly. "Do you think you can stand up? I'd like to get you back to your room so I can put a cold compress on your jaw before it swells up."
"Sure. I can stand. Just give me a hand."
He did. No sooner had I gotten to my feet than the world started turning black around the edges and I got that ringing in my ears that meant I was going to faint. My knees sagged, but I found myself gathered up into strong arms and held like a baby. Somewhere in the distance, a voice said, "It's okay, I'll carry him."
As my head cleared a little, I realized with dismay that it was Siann who held me. I would have protested, but I felt too dizzy.
I heard Iolaus say, "Dari, go and practice with Vachon for a while, okay?"
"But Vachon only has one arm," Dari replied uncertainly. "What can he do?"
"More than most of us can do with both arms. Go on now and do as I say."
The girl looked to me for confirmation. I could do little more than nod.
Reluctantly, she obeyed.
"Come on," Siann said. "Let's get him back to the tavern."
Jogged around as I was, the trip seemed to take forever, but I was at last in my room, mercifully at peace and lying on the bed. Siann had taken out a small leather pouch and was sorting through it, as Iolaus held a cold cloth against my jaw.
When Siann approached the bed, I frowned and drew back. "No. Go away. You've done enough damage."
"Euphonius, she's trying to help."
"Don't care. Make her go away."
"I won't hurt you," Siann replied, with uncharacteristic tenderness. "If you put these leaves under your tongue, you'll feel better."
I glared at her suspiciously.
"I know what I'm doing." She looked away. "I'm sorry I hurt you. I over-reacted."
Still wary, I nodded and opened my mouth, wincing at the pain that shot through the side of my face. The leaves tasted terrible, but after a little while I really did start to feel better.
Siann disappeared briefly, then came back in the door with a cup in one hand and a bulging wineskin in the other. She held out the cup in my direction. "Here. It's nice cold water, laced with a bit of wine. It'll restore your spirits."
"My spirits were just fine, until you attacked me." I grabbed the cup and sipped a little. I was starting to feel like my old self again, but I was still pretty angry.
"Look, I said I was sorry."
I took another sip. "Sorry? And you think that makes it all well? Life doesn't work that way, lady."
I'd have sworn she winced at that. In fact, as I looked over the edge of the cup at her face, I saw a dreadfully bleak expression come into her eyes.
"I know," she said softly, turning away.
Iolaus glanced at me and shook his head briefly. Then he surprised me by going over to the woman and putting his arms around her, drawing her into a comradely hug. She overtopped him by half a head, which seemed rather amusing to me at the time.
"It's all right, Siann," I heard him murmur. "It's just that he doesn't understand, that's all."
Surprised, I thought I saw the glitter of a tear in her eye as she allowed herself to lean against him and rest her cheek on his shining hair. I was beginning to feel guilty about harassing her, until I saw her bend down a little and kiss him full on the lips.
When the kiss went on far longer than it decently should have, I decided I was not feeling quite as guilty as I had before. Once again, I wondered if they had ever screwed around together.
I debated the merits of just ignoring them as opposed to interrupting them. Interrupting won, hands down.
I cleared my throat loudly. "All right, you two. Enough of that."
Despite my pleasure at making them break off the clinch, I saw a dangerous gleam in Siann's eye.
"You mean you don't like to watch?" she asked archly.
"Uh no. Not particularly." This whole thing was making me distinctly uncomfortable.
Still looking at me, she slid a hand under Iolaus' vest and ran her fingers mockingly down his bare chest to his beltbuckle. "I think you'd just love to watch us. In fact, I think you'd love to do just about anything that involves my pretty blond buddy here, wouldn't you?"
She had read my feelings all too well. "Him, yes," I retorted. "You, no."
"Sure you won't change your mind about that, Sweetie?" Her hand strayed lower, reaching for the leather of his codpiece.
Iolaus had finally had enough. He grabbed her hand and moved it firmly away. Or at least that's what I think he was trying to do. Siann let him move her hand all right, but she kept ahold of his hand and pressed it squarely onto one of her breasts. I saw his eyes widen and he drew in his breath.
"Siann " he started to protest.
With a wicked smile at me, she stopped his protest by kissing him again.
When Iolaus finally broke loose and came up for air, I was burning with anger. Or was it jealousy? Or, then again, maybe it was just lust? There was virtually nothing Iolaus could do in the way of sex that wouldn't turn me on, Siann notwithstanding.
"Wanna put this bed to better use than nursing a barely-injured man?" she asked him mockingly.
Damn the woman, she was watching me over his shoulder and grinning!
Iolaus pushed her away and held her at arm's length. "Cut it out. This isn't funny."
"Maybe it's not supposed to be funny," she replied. "Maybe it's supposed to be an invitation." She flashed me an even more wicked grin. "How about it, Sweetie? Maybe you'd like to lie there and watch us? Or maybe you're up for a little action yourself?"
By now I was indeed up for something, despite my bruised ribs and aching jaw, but I had no clue as to how to interpret her words. A mocking challenge, or a genuine offer? I decided to play into it. "Watching or acting, either one is fine with me," I replied, matching her arch tone.
The woman laughed, but Iolaus just shook his head. "Siann, do you mean this for real? Or are you just playing games?"
"Darling boy, have I ever passed up a chance to make love to you?" she answered sweetly.
"Well, no, but --"
Once again, she turned to me. "I'll leave it up to our rich little friend then. What do you say, Sweetie? Are we serious?"
"Oh yeah." I was more than willing to admit to my desire for Iolaus, but I tried to keep it at that level. No way did I want this vicious bitch to realize just how much he really meant to me. If she did, I knew full well she'd find a way to turn my feelings into a mockery.
Iolaus, on the other hand, knew how much I cared for him. I just prayed he wouldn't let her know, if anything came of this outrageous flirting. It was almost with relief that I heard him say, "Siann, I'm really not in the mood for all this right now."
"No?" Boldly, she placed her hand on his codpiece again. A startled look came over her face and she removed her hand. "You aren't kidding, are you?"
"No. I'm not."
"I don't know."
"Yes, you do. What is it?"
"These last few days, being here, remembering so many things . . ." He let his voice trail off. "I just haven't felt very " He grinned a little. "amorous."
Siann glanced over at me, almost conspiratorially. Then she sat down on the side of the bed. "I rather think we could fix that if we tried, don't you?"
Not sure what she was up to, I replied, "Uh perhaps."
"No perhaps about it, Sweetie."
I didn't bother to react to the name this time. I had more important things to think about. Was she actually trying to maneuver us all into bed together, or was I imagining things?
"What if we bury our differences and work together on this? How about it? Want to kiss and make up?"
"I'd sooner kiss a raw fish," I growled.
She looked at me disgustedly. "Ha! You think I want to get it on with you? You probably don't even know where to put it, with a real woman."
I couldn't let her get away with that. "You'd be surprised what I know about women," I replied haughtily.
"I suppose you think you could get me off? Come on now."
I gave her a narrow-eyed glare. "If I wanted to, I'll bet I could. But if you think I want to, you've got another thing coming."
She drew herself up and sneered. "The man doesn't live that I can't handle, and make him like it, too."
The tension between us fairly sparkled, as we faced off against each other. Siann glared at me, and I glared right back at her and growled, "Oh, you think so, do you?"
Iolaus laughed. "You know, you two are actually rather funny," he said.
We both deflated visibly at this comment. Siann was at a loss for words, but I managed to say, "Funny?!"
"Yep." He sat down on the bed. "Okay, since you both seem to be determined to make this into a contest, how about we set up some rules, huh?"
As we continued to stare at him, he explained further. "Euphonius, you don't like Siann very much and you don't usually screw women. Right?"
I nodded my head.
"And Siann, you enjoy teasing Euphonius, and don't particularly like him either. Yes?"
"But you both think you're pretty good in bed?"
He looked at us. We both nodded vigorously, not to be outdone by the other.
"Okay then," he concluded, "you each get a chance to make the other come. Whoever is successful gets the prize."
"What's the prize?" I asked, almost sure I knew the answer.
He grinned. "Me."
By now, I had pretty much forgotten my bruises. This could just possibly turn into something good. However, remembering Iolaus' earlier reluctance, I asked, "You sure you want to do this?"
"Yeah, I think so." He shrugged and his grin turned rather sheepish. "Maybe I'm not quite so disinterested as I thought I was."
"I'm game if you are, then."
"Who goes first?" Siann asked warily.
"Flip a dinar?" Iolaus suggested.
We did. I won the toss. I wasn't sure if that was good or bad.
"Okay now, play fair," Iolaus admonished, moving over to perch cross-legged at the head of the bed. "And may the best man and/or woman win."
I heaved an exaggerated sigh and moved closer to Siann. "All right. Let's get this over with."
All she gave me in reply was a disdainful snort, as she crossed her legs and folded her arms across her chest. I could tell this was going to be a challenge of the first order, but if this was what I had to do in order to have sex with Iolaus, then so be it.
Deliberately keeping my body from touching hers in any way, I knelt behind her on the bed and began to gently massage her neck and shoulders. Now and then, I allowed a finger to stray toward her ear, or up into her hair, or around to the side of her face, always gentle and teasing. The woman had muscles that would make a man proud, but by the time I was finished, those muscles had lost a good bit of their tension. My hands grew bolder, moving further down her back and around to the front of her body, but only to her taut abdomen and never underneath her clothes. Softly, my lips brushed her neck. I cautiously nibbled an earlobe, checking to see if I could do so without hurting my bruised jaw. Yep. No problem there. Guess I wasn't hurt all that badly after all. I went on to kiss her cheek and the edge of her eyelid. I never kissed her full on the mouth, but I covered just about everything I could reach from my position behind her on the bed.
It was all coming back to me now. All the little tricks and touches I had learned long ago in my youth, during the time I had spent with the Widow Twanky. All the many things she had taught me about making love to a woman, and the ways to read a woman's desire. There was nothing hard about any of this, nothing any man couldn't do, if he was willing to be patient and ignore the urgings of his cock. In my case, there were no urgings to ignore, which worked entirely to my benefit.
I could tell I was achieving the desired results when she sighed and let her head fall forward, allowing me better access to her neck. That was when I allowed my hand to touch her breasts, moving from one to the other, holding, squeezing, rubbing the stiffening nipples through the rough fabric of her tunic, as she began to make little squirming motions, pushing her chest into my stroking hand.
Smiling secretly to myself, I simultaneously drew Siann back down onto the bed and deftly untied the drawstring on her trousers. She made no protest as I stripped her of her pants, leaving her tunic to cover most of her body, but exposing her crotch. I slid down to the floor, kneeling beside her legs, which still hung over the edge of the bed. At first, she kept her legs crossed, still trying to squelch her desire, but after my talented mouth had licked and sucked her thighs for a time, and my seeking fingers had probed as far as they could into her groin, she opened herself to me, eyes closed, head thrown back, lost in her own sensations.
I moved between her outspread legs, parting the folds of heated flesh and licking at her eager clitoris with light, teasing flicks of my tongue. As she thrust herself up into my face, I got more fully into it, sucking and licking more strongly, but still carefully. An occasional twinge of pain shot along the side of my face from my jaw, but I ignored it, too intent on winning the contest.
Oh yes, I know how to do this. I've always found it shall I say? distasteful, but so are a lot of other things in life. Telling myself sternly that sometimes one must do what one doesn't particularly like to do, I bent all my efforts to bringing Siann to a climax, using my hands on her straining breasts as skillfully as I was plying my tongue on her nether regions.
It didn't take very long to produce the desired effect. She moaned, gasped, squirmed, and cursed at me, but she came, and she came hard.
I sat up, grinning at Iolaus. There was a hair wrapped around my tongue and I considered spitting, but decided that would be just too rude. Instead, I discreetly removed it by wiping my sleeve across my mouth.
Iolaus, meanwhile, kept a solemn and serious look on his face as he held up a finger and announced, "Score one for Euphonius. Your turn, Siann."
She was still catching her breath, but she gave me that mocking false smile and said, "I never thought you had it in you, Sweetie."
I fixed her with a smug glare as I got up off my knees. "Never assume that a man is incapable of doing something, just because he usually chooses not to do it."
Her hand snaked out to my crotch, where she couldn't help but notice my limp cock. She shook her head. "Not even turned on, huh? Well, we'll have to do something about that."
Now it was my turn to cross my arms. I was pretty damn confident that no woman alive could make me hard, if I didn't want it to happen. "Go ahead. If you think you can."
But instead of trying to caress my sagging manhood into stiffness, she gave me a crafty look and moved up alongside Iolaus, who now sat tailor-style on top of the pillows at the head of the bed. She took hold of his vest and began sliding it slowly down off his shoulders.
"Hey!" I protested. "No fair! You're not allowed to touch him unless you win the contest."
"Look closer, Sweetie. I'm not touching him. I'm touching his clothes."
I glanced indignantly to Iolaus to render a verdict. He smiled and shrugged. Okay, so it was legal.
With a triumphant grin, Siann went on to remove his boots, at the same time tugging him down onto the bed so he was lying beside her. Very careful not to actually touch his skin, she unhooked his belt and began working his leather pants down over his hips.
I closed my eyes, determined that her ruse wouldn't work. Unfortunately, my imagination supplied the details, even if my eyes couldn't. This wasn't helping. I gave up, opened my eyes, and relented far enough as to sit down on the edge of the bed, partly to hide my growing erection.
I realized that Siann had stopped right where she was when she had seen me refuse to look, and was now taking up where she had left off. Still making an elaborate show of not quite touching Iolaus, she continued to pull his leather pants down over his hips. The little traitor even helped out by lifting his body up far enough to make things easier for her! I'd have been angry at him, if I hadn't been so entranced by the amused expression on his face, not to mention the tufts of blond hair already showing at his groin.
He gave a long sigh as the edge of his trousers cleared his erect cock. Or maybe I was the one who sighed. I'm not entirely sure. The only thing I was sure of was that my cock was by now just as hard as his. Score one for the scheming wench who stopped her efforts to undress Iolaus and smiled at me gloatingly.
"Come on, Sweetie. Lie down and get comfortable. You can take off your clothes yourself, or you can let me do it."
Bowing to the inevitable, I stripped quickly and laid down next to her, determined not to react to anything she might do. I willed my cock to stop being so eager, but, with Iolaus still lying half-naked on the far side of the bed, that was a losing battle right from the start.
For a long moment, Siann just sat there, raking my body with her eyes. "Not bad, for an old dude," she finally concluded.
"Hmph! I doubt I'm that much older than you are," I retorted.
"Perhaps not." The vicious creature continued to look at me, as I firmly squelched the impulse to squirm.
"Could use more muscle," she remarked at last.
I didn't even dignify that with an answer.
"Now, how do you like it, Sweetie?" she persisted. "Do you prefer to lead, or follow?"
Not wanting to make things any easier for her, I didn't answer that either.
"Cat got your tongue? Okay, guess I'll have to find out for myself."
With that, she swung her leg over me so she was sitting on my thighs, then grabbed my hands and pinned them down at my sides. As soon as I got over my surprise, I tried to pull loose, but I'm ashamed to have to admit that she was not only taller than I am, but also stronger. Of course, it doesn't take a whole lot to be stronger than me, but still
She leaned forward, and for a moment I thought she was going to kiss me. But she didn't. Instead, she did as I had done to her, licking and kissing at the unbruised side of my neck and shoulders. My cock was pressed between our bodies, and seemed to be enjoying its position, much as I insisted that it not do so.
When she latched onto one of my nipples, I couldn't suppress a moan. And when she discovered that I enjoyed having her bite and suck hard on my chest and shoulders, she went at it even more enthusiastically. Her tongue became a small darting flame, scorching everything it touched as she moved here and there, first licking and then attacking viciously.
My eyes were closed and my head thrown back against the pillow. I was still trying to will my cock to stop its eager straining when she raised herself up and sat down on top of it in one swoop.
All right, so I was fucking a woman, even if she was the one doing most of the work.
My mind still insisted that I would not come, but the rest of my body disagreed strongly. In the end, as you might have guessed, my body won the argument, especially since I was so very conscious of Iolaus' presence, and the knowledge that he was watching us. The best I could do was to refrain from making any sounds that might indicate enjoyment, even as I emptied myself into Siann.
Satisfied, she got off of me as if she were dismounting from a horse, grabbing for a towel that hung near the bed and wiping herself off quickly and efficiently. After that, she tossed the towel at me so I could do likewise.
Doubtless as a result of post-orgasmic mellowness, I almost admired her deliberately nonchalant attitude towards the whole thing. Now that I thought about it, I realize it was only Siann's sexual pushiness that had landed us all in bed together in the first place. I'd never have come on to Iolaus so flagrantly myself.
"It's a tie," Iolaus declared cheerily. "Looks as if you both get the prize."
Siann and I looked at each other for a moment. Then, making common cause, we both pounced on Iolaus, dragging off his boots and removing his trousers completely. At that point, I must confess to being rather uncertain what to do next. I simply was not used to having a woman as part of the action.
Siann, however, seemed to have some ideas. "So we both win?" she asked sweetly, as she moved up alongside Iolaus, kissed him hard on the mouth and simultaneously slid him down further towards the foot of the bed. Breaking off the kiss, she let her eyes wander down the length of his body thoughtfully. There was a strange tone to her voice as she said, "Now, how can we share a treat like you?"
"How about I just lay back and let you two have your way with me?" Iolaus answered cheekily, looking from one of us to the other.
I was staring hungrily at his still-hard cock, not entirely happy with the situation.
"Go on," Siann encouraged me. "I like to watch sometimes, too."
Well, performing for a woman wasn't my usual style, but it was far from the most outrageous thing I had ever done in my life. I moved between Iolaus' legs and ran my hand up and down his shaft. He closed his eyes and settled himself more comfortably on the bed. Slowly, while trying to ignore Siann, I tried to take his straining cock in my mouth, only to find that I couldn't open my mouth that wide without pain. With an apologetic smile, I went back to using my hand, along with my tongue.
"Oh, Euphonius, that is so good," Iolaus sighed, thrusting lightly with his hips. Siann leaned over, so he could take one of her breasts in his mouth. I was almost jealous as I watched him bite and tease the nipple. Siann made a happy noise, and leaned completely over him, taking hold of his wrists and raising his arms above his head.
As I worked harder on his cock, using my favorite twist and slide up over the head and back again, I was rewarded with a groan and another thrust of his hips.
"Do you like that, buddy?" Siann purred. "Both of us together?"
She only got a groan in response as I weighed his' balls in my other hand, gently squeezing the sensitive testes within. I was getting into it, almost able to believe that Siann wasn't there, until I felt Iolaus jerk against me and go completely tense.
"Siann, let me go," Iolaus demanded.
I heard her laugh, and looked up somewhat awkwardly. She had maneuvered him so far down on the bed that she could kneel above him, her hands locked hard over his wrists as she held his arms pinned down. For his part, Iolaus struggled against that inexorable grip, trying to free his hands. As he did so, the muscles in his arms and chest showed tautly under the skin. It was a rather nice view, from my position between his legs.
"Siann --" Iolaus warned.
I left off my rhythmic stroking, wondering if he was really angry, or just pretending to be. My uncertainty must have shown in my face, because Siann said, "Don't worry, he enjoys it this way." She pointed with her chin to his cock, which was as hard as it had been before. Then she leaned over and bit his nipple, drawing a hiss and a groan from his lips. "There, you see?" she assured me. "Five minutes, Euph. If he's soft or still complaining, then I'll let him go. Deal?"
I looked at Iolaus, who was watching us but no longer struggling. I had to admit, seeing him held like that with his cock standing hard was a temptation that would be difficult to resist. I licked his cock and then ran my tongue around the head. He groaned and twisted, but the thing that gave him away was how he spread his legs when I did it.
I grinned at him. "You do like it, don't you?"
"Sure he does," Siann answered for him, as she moved to his other nipple.
That was when the real competition between Siann and I began. We both started seeing who could draw the greatest number of moans, groans, hisses or pleas from our helpless captive. It didn't take long before he was begging us to stop teasing and get on with it.
"Enough, you two! Please! I am not your private playtoy."
"No, you're not," Siann agreed in a silky sweet voice as she pushed his head over and chewed on his neck until he moaned again. "You're the prize. So just lie back and enjoy the ride. Euph and I are gonna drive you nuts."
"Euphonius!" I corrected automatically. She just looked at me and grinned.
"He's gonna do you now," she whispered to Iolaus, and I watched his cock jump just at her words. That was clearly my cue. I got up off the bed and retrieved the small vial of scented oil that I always carry with my travel supplies. Still a little unsure of myself, I held it up for Iolaus to see clearly. "You okay with this?"
"Oh, fuck," Iolaus panted, but his squirming gave me my answer. No doubt about it, he was enjoying himself.
Coming back to the bed and leaning down, I kissed him, forcing my tongue deep into his mouth. I had never been this aggressive with Iolaus before. In fact, thinking back on the first time we'd met, he had usually been the one taking the initiative. There was something exciting about having him held down and displayed before me this way, and it was something that awakened uncomfortable feelings in the back of my mind.
But I had no time to care about that now. I wanted him badly. I laid down on top of him. He squirmed again, clearly trying to rub his swollen cock against my groin. "Hold still," I ordered, and was almost surprised when he promptly obeyed.
For just this one brief moment, Iolaus was mine. He might never be so again, for who could know what life might bring? But for now, he was mine, and I kissed the supple skin of his chest, feeling hard muscle underneath. That's what I love about men: the hardness, the sharp edges, the power and strength. Not the mushy softness of a woman's curves and crevasses. Although I had to admit that there was precious little softness about Siann. Ah well, I reminded myself, she was the exception, not the rule.
When I was possessed by another man, I loved his power, his hunger, his need. And when I was the one doing the possessing, his strength was mine, his courage mine, his body mine. There would be no squalling infant nine months later, no tearful recriminations, no protestations of everlasting love. No, just a meeting of two equals, for pleasure, for lust, and maybe to strengthen the bonds between us, so we would be more than simply friends, but nothing less than fellow men.
"You are being cruel, Euphonius," I heard him gasp.
Siann laughed darkly, and I found myself enjoying the game. I settled myself back between Iolaus' legs and pressed a finger against him. He relaxed, and as I entered him, Siann leaned forward to bite sharply at one of his nipples. Iolaus came off the bed, and nearly pulled completely away from me.
"Darling, he ain't in the mood for wine and roses. Let's get this going," Siann stated crudely.
I almost balked, but then I went with it, and purposely pressed my finger on that spot deep inside a man that can cause such pleasure, as Iolaus writhed and twisted against my probing hand.
After several moments of this, Iolaus opened his eyes and for a moment I froze. I saw an anger there I hadn't seen since -- Dahak.
"Fuck me," he ordered hoarsely.
"Do it," Siann said. I numbly lifted his legs over my shoulders. Quickly slathering oil on my cock, I pushed myself into him without further ado. He cried out, which only served to encourage me further. His ass was hot and tight and I could feel him squeezing me.
It didn't take long for Iolaus to scream and spasm around my cock. And yet, the memories of Dahak continued to haunt me, even as I drove myself rhythmically into the willing body before me, struggling to reach my own release. That was then. This is now. This is Iolaus, not some monstrous embodiment of evil. This is Iolaus, who I respect and admire with all my heart. This is Iolaus, for whom I would give my very life, if necessary. This is Iolaus, and he has offered himself to me.
I cried out quietly as white lightning spread outwards from my cock.
When I came to myself, I was sitting back on my knees, while Siann leaned on her arms over Iolaus.
"You two are cruel and inhuman," he gasped and then started laughing. Siann and I joined him, as she finally released his arms.
As soon as we were off guard, Iolaus pounced. Grabbing Siann roughly, he flipped her over onto her back and rolled on top of her. "All right, woman," he growled menacingly, "From here on, you're going to do what I say. I know this was all your idea, so Euphonius can just sit there and watch you get what you deserve."
I thought sure she was going to toss him across the room, since she outweighed him considerably and had the strength to do it. In fact, I was prepared for just about any reaction from Siann except what she did. She relaxed in his grip and replied meekly, "As you wish."
"Hands above your head and keep them there," he said, then proceeded to arouse her with varying amounts of gentleness and pretended cruelty, until they were both going at it full force, with him on top for a change.
I made a point of keeping any least hint of jealousy or resentment out of my face as I watched the two of them getting it on. I wanted to appear relaxed, maybe even happy, at seeing their mutual pleasure. The fact that I actually did find myself happy at observing their enjoyment took me by surprise. I really wasn't jealous. Could that be possible?
There were a couple of times that what they were doing almost but not quite bothered me, because it was just too close to things I'd seen Dahak do to other people while he'd worn Iolaus' body. I had to remind myself that Dahak had seldom had their full cooperation and consent, while this well, this was a game, as anyone with half an eye could clearly see. Nevertheless, it had turned me on then, and it turned me on now. I was soon avidly jerking myself off in time to their rhythm, and we all came again, pretty close to simultaneously.
Finally we collapsed limply together on the bed, catching our collective breath. It was only then that a terrible thought occurred to me.
"Uh Siann --" I began. "Is there any chance you could get I mean, we've both uh --"
She caught my drift and laughed. "Don't worry, I'm too old for babies, if that's what you're trying to say. Isn't that just like a man?" she asked the universe in general, shaking her head. "When it's all over, that's when they ask. As if there's anything they could do about it by then."
Iolaus and I tried our best to look sheepish and contrite.
She rolled off the bed. "I would like to clean up just a little, though. Where's the washbasin? Oh, never mind. I see it over there."
Fitting her actions to her words, Siann strolled across the room. She grabbed a towel, dipped it in the tepid water, and turned away from us in order to gain what little privacy she could, under the circumstances.
I slid closer to Iolaus and kissed him gently on the lips, then broke off the kiss, content to just smile blearily into his eyes. This would have been the time to say, "I love you", had it been something I wanted to say. It would also have been the time for him to say it to me, had it been what he felt.
He blinked, and the blue eyes loosed themselves from mine. "Uh Euphonius --" he began softly, uncomfortably, a shadow crossing his face.
Deliberately, I put a finger on his mouth before he could say more. There were no "I love you's" here, and I knew it.
"No promises," I replied, more a matter of my lips forming the words than my voice actually saying them. None of this was anything I wanted Siann to hear. "But if you ever do need someone, I'll be there," I finished.
His lips tightened into that determined look he has. He nodded his head a fraction to show that he understood, just as Siann plopped down onto the bed again.
The sleepy daze of happy satiety fell over us then like a fleecy blanket, as we lay there entangled. Iolaus was the first to succumb and doze off, his head on Siann's shoulder while I was snuggled against his other side. The sore muscles where I'd been punched had begun to stiffen a little, now that I was in a condition to notice them again. I sighed.
Siann raised her head so she could see my face and said softly, "This isn't just screwing around, is it? You really care about him."
"Whatever gave you that idea?" I asked, still unwilling to make myself vulnerable to this woman.
"Oh, little things. Like the look in your eyes sometimes, or the way you touched him. Or the words that you seem to want to say, but don't."
"Okay, yes, I care. But he belongs to Hercules. I know that."
"So do I," she said, very seriously. "Too bad for the rest of us, eh?"
I sighed softly as I admitted, "Yeah. Too bad."
There was a thin film of sadness in her eyes as she said, "Maybe we do have something in common after all, huh?"
"Could be," I admitted. Then I couldn't resist adding impulsively, "Maybe more than you think. Look, I know I'm not a warrior like you are. But I've fought my own battles. I know pain, and I know what it's like to try to protect something, only to have it slip away no matter what I do." Dahak, my conscience whispered to me. Unwillingly, I added, "And I know what it's like to have to live with things I'm sorry that I've done."
She closed her eyes in what might have been a wince of pain, and nodded a fraction, then surprised me by reaching over and drawing a hand down my cheek in a gentle caress. "Go to sleep," she murmured.
I snuggled closer against Iolaus, enjoying the lazy, comfortable feeling that usually comes after sex. Even as I lay there, I couldn't help thinking just how very rare and precious this was. How often did I have his body close against mine, or feel the slight motion of his chest as he breathed, peacefully asleep and safe by my side? In that brief moment, I had all I ever wanted. But moments like that don't last, except in memory, and this one was no exception.
I was almost asleep when the urgent sound of a gong invaded my drowsy musings, repeated over and over. I tried to ignore it, but Siann's voice cried out, "Iolaus, get up! That's the alarm! There's trouble!"
Alarm? Trouble? Had I heard that right?
I sat bolt upright in the bed, no longer even the least bit tired. On either side, my companions were hastily pulling on their clothes and boots.
"What's going on?" I asked, searching belatedly for my own trousers.
Siann gave me her trademark mocking grin. "Why knows? Maybe it's those nasty pirates you were so worried about."
"Pirates?" I repeated stupidly.
"Yeah." She strapped her sword around her waist. "You know, those awful people who attack and raid nice little towns like ours?"
I turned to Iolaus, my eyes pleading for reassurance.
"Don't worry," he said. "It's probably nothing. You stay here while we check it out."
Then they were both gone, in a clatter of steel and boots going down the stairs.
As I got dressed, I thought about what Iolaus had said. But I didn't stay there, since I didn't know where Dari was, or what was going on. I splashed water into my face from the bowl on the nightstand, trying to force my muzzy brain to think faster.
The entire interlude had surely not lasted long. Outside the window, it was still light. Early afternoon, at the latest. Where would Dari be? That was easy: still hanging out with her heroes on the practice field. But they'd have gone to answer the alarm. Certainly, they'd have told her not to follow them, but would she have obeyed? I wanted to think so, but knowing Dari
I set out to find the girl. People were running around the streets in a panic, women screaming for their children, and men and boys rushing this way and that, grabbing up makeshift weapons.
"What's going on?" I asked a boy, snagging him by the arm as he ran past.
"Pirates!" he gasped. "Tellis and his gang anchored their ship somewhere and are attacking us from the hills!"
He jerked his arm away and I let him go.
Cursing equally my own ill luck and my own stupidity in coming here, I fought my way along the street towards the place where I hoped to find Dari. I suppose I should have noticed that most of the townspeople were now running in the other direction, but I was too intent on my goal to pay attention.
The practice field was deserted as I stumbled up the rise, gasping for breath from the run. "Dari!" I yelled, in between trying to catch my breath.
A soft voice came from behind a nearby bush. "Over here, Uncle Euphonius. Quick!"
I discovered her squatting behind the bush, her staff across her knees and her eyes trained on the far end of the field, where I could hear shouting and the general commotion of a skirmish.
"What are you doing here?" I demanded.
"Shh," she hissed, not even glancing at me. "Vachon told me to hide and keep watch on their rear, then run to warn the town if things looked bad. Get down and out of sight."
Instead of taking her eminently sensible advice, I pulled her to her feet and started back towards the town. "We've got to get out of here."
But Dari dug in her heels. "Uncle Euphonius --"
"Come on! I don't want anything to happen to you."
"I can't just run away."
"Of course you can," I replied angrily, pulling even harder on her arm. "You're a child."
"No. I'm a warrior."
I stopped when I saw a stranger appear from the side of the field, running toward us with a heavy club raised above his head.
Without thinking, I whipped the knife out of my boot and threw it at him.
And missed. Oh yeah, I hit him, but only in the arm, not in the chest, as I had intended. An arm wound won't stop someone.
I was so surprised at my poor aim that I stood there staring at him for too long a moment before I turned to Dari, shoving her toward the town and telling her fiercely, "Run. No arguments. Go!"
I started to turn back to face our attacker, but something heavy and hard came down across my back, and I fell. As I rolled myself into a ball, the club smashed into the arm I had covering my head, then fell again and again. I could do nothing, under the fierce rain of blows. When it stopped, I fully expected to feel a sword thrust through my body.
Without warning, the pain was gone, and I seemed to be floating, looking down at myself, with an armored man standing over me, sword drawn. I wondered quizzically if I was dead yet, or just about to be. Then I saw Dari running at my attacker, shrieking like a banshee, her little dagger in her hand, held low in a proper fighting stance. "No!" I tried to say, but no sound came from my mouth. "Run! Run! You can't win!"
I struggled to move, but could only float motionless. Then it all began to spin around, faster and faster, and I found myself falling down a long, dark tunnel, panic-stricken. There was a faint light somewhere up ahead. I was moving toward it. With an effort, I fought down the panic and concentrated on the growing light. Images flashed through my mind, images from my life. They went so fast that I could hardly take it all in, but the most important moments seared themselves into my mind as they flew fast. Some part of me decided this was my life flashing before my eyes, and I was being asked to make a judgement of it.
You'd be surprised at the things that turned out to be on the positive side of the ledger. And also some of the negative things. Not always what I had thought, if you'd asked me about it before all this happened.
I hit solid ground, rolled a bit, then came to a stop.
Cautiously, I climbed to my feet. I was in a dimly lit cavern of stone, with a dark river flowing sluggishly through it. I took a few steps forward, marveling at the stalactites hanging from the shadowy ceiling high above and the massive stalagmites jutting up from the ground. When nothing awful happened, I moved on towards the river. Hearing a strange noise from the direction of the water, I squinted out into the mist hanging just above the surface and caught sight of a weird boat approaching the shore, with an even weirder person pushing it along with a pole.
I stood frozen in amazement as he brought his boat alongside the bank and stepped ashore. He was even odder up close, with a greenish face, large hooked nose, black lips and broken teeth. A ragged black cloak and hood covered most of his body and head, but his hands were gnarled and claw-like.
Noticing me, he frowned then gestured toward his boat, and said grumpily, "Well, don't just stand there wasting my time. Get in. And you'd better have a coin for me. I don't do this for the fun of it, ya know."
I still stood there staring, unable to make sense of his instructions.
When I didn't comply immediately, he shook his head in disgust and muttered to himself, "It ain't fair. It just ain't fair. I'm expected to work my fingers to the bone, and half these mortals don't even have the foresight to bring one little coin along with them, to repay poor old Charon for his trouble. I gotta talk to Hades about putting me on salary, then I wouldn't have to put up with all these passengers thinkin' I'll take them for free, just out of the goodness of my heart."
The truth was beginning to penetrate my unwilling mind. This was Charon, ferryman of the dead.
"I I don't have a coin," I said uncertainly. Recalling the ruby ring I had bought, I slid it off my finger and held it out to him. "Would you consider this instead?"
He turned his baleful gaze onto my hand and retorted, "A ring with a shiny pink stone? What, do I look like Aphrodite or somethin'?
"Uh no. Not really."
"Then what would I want with your fancy jewelry?"
"Well, it's worth quite a bit --"
"It is?" He leaned in closer, then drew back. "Wait a minute." Much to my dismay, he took hold of my arm, squeezing it in his clawlike fingers. Then he sniffed at me experimentally. "Why are you wantin' to cross the Styx anyway? You ain't dead yet."
"I ain't? Uh I mean, I'm not?"
He took another sniff, then shook his head. "Definitely not. Don't smell dead. I can tell."
"You're sure I'm not dead?" I replied, more in surprise than relief. After all, my last glimpse at my body hadn't boded well for my survival. I wouldn't have been the least bit surprised if Dari turned up here soon also, judging by what had been going on.
Shaking his head impatiently, Charon retorted, "Nah. Close maybe, but not dead."
"Then how come I'm here?" I waved my hand at the rocky cavern surrounding us. Maybe I should delay a while, in case Dari did appear.
"Dunno." He glowered at me, perplexed. Then he thrust his awful face close to mine. "OK, buddy. What are you trying to pull? What's a live mortal doing at my ferry landing? Is this some kind of surprise inspection the boss is pulling on me? Checking up on old Charon? What's the story, eh? 'Fess up."
I backed away. "I don't know. I'm as puzzled as you are. Really."
"You ain't working for Hades?"
"Oh, my goodness no! Never met the fellow." And don't particularly want to, although the God of the Underworld is said to be quite attractive.
Charon seemed stuck on that piece of information. Then he made a decision. "All right then, if you're not dead, you're wastin' my time. Go on now," he said, making a shooing motion with his hands, "get outta here!"
"Where am I supposed to go?"
"Back where you came from. Shoo! Away with you!"
He turned his back on me and started for his boat.
Frustrated and irritated, I grabbed his dingy black cloak and tugged on it insistently.
"Wait a minute. I don't know how to get back."
As he swung around to face me, strange visions danced through my head. Images of blood and battlefields that I had never known personally. The memory of being beaten, just before I found myself here. Faces of old warriors, blinded, mutilated, limbs missing, bodies twisted in constant pain. And the certain knowledge that there were fates worse than death, like living with your mind already dead, raving in a locked room, or just staring out at an empty world from an empty soul.
Maybe it would be wiser to quit while I'm ahead, now that I know there truly is some sort of existence after death. There was always the possibility that I had a good chance at the Elysian Fields right now, but who knows what could happen later in my life? If I went back, I might screw things up entirely, even if it turned out that I recovered fully from whatever wounds I had taken.
I shook off these unencouraging thoughts and added, to Charon, "I'm not sure I want to go back, even if I could."
"Huh? Why not, buddy?" Shaking his head, he muttered to himself, "Most mortals cry and carry on when they find themselves here, and this one doesn't want to leave." He tapped his head with a knowing gesture. "Crazy."
If I were to get any sort of help from the old man, I would have to explain my hesitation.
"I was in the process of being beaten pretty badly when I found myself here. How do I know I won't go back and just have to suffer all kinds of pain and stuff, then just die again in a few days? Or worse, live as a demented cripple?" I shuddered at the thought of such a thing. "Maybe I'm better off out of it all, at this point."
"Yeah, sure. And you'll love it in Tartarus, I suppose?"
"I was rather hoping for the Elysian Fields," I replied diffidently.
"Ha! They're all hoping for that, pal. But they don't all make it."
"Really? That seems rather unfair."
"Hey, I don't make the rules. I'm just the ferryman." Nevertheless, he seemed taken aback by my question. The twisted, blackened face contorted into an even more macabre expression that could have indicated a hidden pain. "You really want to know the truth about that?" he asked me, with what seemed an attempt at confidentiality.
"There really ain't very many people in Tartarus. You haveta be pretty evil to earn that kinda punishment."
"But what about all those stories --?"
"Yeah, yeah, I know all that. You mortals just love to exaggerate, don't you? Even so, didya ever actually count up how many people they're about?"
"Not very many, I can tell ya that for sure." He glanced around, as if afraid of being overheard. "Don't tell no one, but Hades ain't a bad guy, for a god. He can be pretty merciful, if you ask him nice and don't piss him off."
"Thanks. I'll uh keep that in mind." I held my hand in front of me, ostentatiously examining the ruby ring I still held. If he liked coins and valuables, maybe a little bribery would get me even more information. "You don't happen to know who goes where, do you?" I asked casually.
"Me? 'Course not! Like I said, I'm in charge of transportation, not judgement."
"Oh." Clenching my fist around the ring, I stood there hesitantly. The Elysian Fields were supposed to be very nice, but still, could I be sure I wouldn't end up in Tartarus, even after what the old man had said about it being rather sparsely populated?
Much to my alarm, Charon put a hand on my shoulder, drawing me to the riverside to face his boat. "All right, make up your mind, pal. I don't have all the time in the world, ya know."
"But, but, but!" He threw up his arms in exasperation. "Trouble with your kind is you think too much. It's very simple: you wanna stay here or you wanna go back? Which is it?"
The bloody images ran through my mind again, coupled with a vision of myself terribly mutilated, living out the rest of a short and wretchedly painful life. Or worse, living on for years with no real mind left, cared for only until my wealth ran out, then cast into the street to die a miserable death.
I shrugged and tried very hard to keep any hint of self-pity out of my voice. "Maybe I should just stay, now that I'm here. There's really nothing to go back to. It's not like I have a family or anything. Nobody would miss me all that much."
Charon studied me, his eyes narrowed.
With a gesture of one twisted hand, a scene flared into being next to us. Dari stood at my bedside, tears running down her face even as she attempted to put on a brave front. On the other side of the bed, Iolaus knelt next to my bandaged head, whispering in my ear, "Come on, buddy. Don't give up. You can make it." Were there tears shining in those blue eyes?
I heard Charon's voice, sounding almost kind now. "Nobody, huh?"
The pathetic picture dissolved, and I was standing once more on the shore of the River Styx.
Charon leaped down into his boat, waving up to me. "OK, sure, there's nothing for you to go back to. So you just hop on down here and we'll be off. I've wasted enough time on this one fare already. Got lots more work to do."
"Come on, then," he repeated. "Don't stand there goggling at me! Give me that fancy little ring of yours and we'll be off."
I thought again of Dari's tear-stained face, and Iolaus' words. If that had been a true vision, at least they were both still alive and well.
Could it be possible that Iolaus really did care a lot about me, even if it was nothing like what he felt towards Hercules? In my mind, I saw again his taut body, stretched out on the bed between me and Siann. He'd enjoyed the sex, no doubt about that. But was there anything beyond that? Yes, of course there was. There always had been, even if it couldn't be called love.
And Dari. Wouldn't it be great to watch her grow up, see what kind of a woman she was going to turn into? Well, but I could see that from the Elysian Fields, couldn't I? Yeah, but I couldn't help her along, couldn't be really there to advise her or provide for her or anything.
But if I were to go back to my life, and be nothing but a mindless vegetable? Did I really want Iolaus to remember me that way? And would I be any use at all to Dari? Was it worth the risk?
Charon cleared his throat impatiently and I knew I had to choose, one way or another. "No," I said, stepping back away from the waiting boat. "I I think I'll stay."
The ferryman shrugged elaborately, then pointed at the far end of the cavern. "Up to you, pal. Just head on back that way, and you'll get there."
As I turned and started walking, the world began to fade to black around me. The last thing I heard was that irascible voice behind me saying, "I lose more fares that way." A gruff chuckle. "Oh well, less work for old Charon. I can use the rest."
Then I saw before my eyes the bedside scene that Charon had showed me, and it felt as if I were being pushed back into my bruised and beaten body, being forced once more into a cramped and uncomfortable place.
The sudden pain in my head and in my right arm forced a groan from my lips. It took all my energy just to open my eyes, but when I did, I was rewarded by one of Iolaus' bright smiles and a sharp exclamation of joy from Dari. She fell on me, hugging me as best she could, while Iolaus' smile grew wider.
"Hi, buddy," he said.
I winced at the enthusiasm of Dari's hug on my bruised body, as things came into focus. My right arm was tightly bandaged and bound across my chest. If I had to make a guess, I'd say it was broken. I seemed to hurt all over. My head throbbed, and I could feel a bandage wrapped around it. But my thoughts seemed to be in good order, and all my fingers and toes moved when I tried to wiggle them. Relief washed through me like a flood.
"Hi, yourself," I replied weakly, as Dari's tears ran down onto my shoulder. I tried my best to smile.
Iolaus held a cup to my lips. "Here. Drink some of this. Siann left it for you, in case you came around. It'll help clear your head."
I sipped dutifully, but my mind was on other things. "You'll never guess what happened to me. I was at the River Styx and I talked to Charon! I thought sure I was dead. I --"
I started to describe what had gone on, words tumbling chaotically over each other.
"Euphonius?" Iolaus interrupted, before I had fairly launched into my tale.
"You're babbling," he said with the smile that could light up even Hades' dark domain.
"I am? No, you don't understand. It really happened that way."
"Sure, it did," he said in the same tone used to humor a madman.
"But but you've been there, haven't you? You've seen --"
The expression on his face warned me to drop it even before his voice told me, "Yeah, I have. But experiences in the Underworld are best kept to oneself. What happens there is for you alone to know, not anyone else."
Siann walked into the room, in the middle of my thoughtful silence. She placed one hand on Dari's shoulder, as she took in the fact that I was clearly back with them and in fairly decent condition.
"Dari saved your life, you know," Siann said. "She stabbed the guy who attacked you, then kept him occupied with her staff until Iolaus and I could get there."
"Are you serious? Dari beat that big lug who almost killed me? You have got to be kidding!"
"But how could she --"
"She knew what she was doing; he didn't. No mystery there. Besides, he made the mistake of not taking a child seriously as an opponent."
"But she's so much smaller."
"Yeah," Iolaus broke in, smiling as always. "In case you haven't noticed, so am I."
He had me there.
"If you'd taken away that dagger, back when we found out she had it," he went on, "I doubt Dari would have been able to defend you with only her staff. You'd have been dead, buddy. You realize that, don't you?"
"Yeah," I was forced to conclude reluctantly. I looked at the girl with more appreciation.
She beamed proudly at all the praise she'd heard, then laid her hand on the hilt of the knife at her belt. "This is going to be my offering for Ares, when we get to Corinth."
At that, Siann laughed loudly. "Ares? You'd give your only weapon to that son-of-a-bitch?"
Dari stared in surprise, but Iolaus just nodded sagely and suggested to me, "Speaking of gods, as soon as you're up to it, I think we ought to make an offering to Athena, for our success against the pirates."
"Athena?" Dari exclaimed incredulously, then went on to ask the question that was on my lips also. "Why her? What's wrong with Ares?"
Siann gave another harsh laugh. "He's not the god of real warriors."
"But isn't he the God of War?" I pointed out.
"War and being a warrior don't always go together." Dari still looked puzzled, so Siann went on, "A warrior is someone who's trained and prepared to use force to defend what he or she thinks is right. That doesn't mean you can't be wrong, of course. It only means you have the training and physical power to do something. How you use that power is up to you." She gave the girl a questioning glance. "You with me so far?"
"Yeah," Dari responded, sounding rather disappointed.
"Trust me on this, kid. You're much better off to be following Athena than Ares, if you want to make the right decisions about how to use your skills. Ares is supposed to represent victory and defeat, valor and cowardice, but if you look at it closer, Athena embodies the idea of wisdom, which springs from power and deep experience, and is produced in love and fear and pain. She endures violent confrontation only as a means to peace, or in defense of the innocent." Siann smiled and shrugged apologetically, as if she realized the lecturing tone that had come into her voice. "Besides, under his façade of bravery, Ares is a coward and a kiss-ass. Remember the way he betrayed the other gods to Dahak?"
Iolaus' lips thinned at the mention of Dahak, but he nodded. "Yeah. The big, bad God of War was willing to sell out everybody else in order to save his own hide. Real brave, huh? You want to be like that?"
"I guess not," Dari admitted unhappily. Then her face brightened and she smiled. "But I want to be like you. And like you, Siann. So if you both say we should make an offering to Athena, then Athena it is. I'll give her my dagger."
Siann clapped her on the back. "Good girl! We have a temple right here in town. It's not much, compared to the ones in the big cities, but it will do."
I almost objected, but then I thought better of it. If Dari truly was determined to follow this path in her life, I'd much rather see her emulating Athena than Ares. I knew too well what Ares was like.
"All right," I said with a long-suffering sigh. "As soon as I'm up and about, we'll go to Athena's temple."
"That's the spirit, Euphonius," the woman agreed.
"Euphonius? You actually called me by my proper name? Sure you didn't make a mistake there?"
"No mistake. Dari told me how you faced up to that guy who beat the shit out of you, trying to give her a chance to run away," she said grudgingly. "Guess you're not entirely a wimp at that."
"Gee, thanks," I replied, keeping a light tone. I had a fair idea of how very much such an admission cost a person like Siann, and I didn't want to rub it in. Turning away, she busied herself with one of her little pouches of herbs, then handed me some of that pain-killing leafy stuff.
"Hey," I said, trying to talk as I placed the crumpled leaves under my tongue, "what happened with the pirates, anyway? We obviously won, but how?"
Siann, Iolaus, and Dari all tried to tell me the tale at once. From the chaos of enthusiastic descriptions of heroic exploits and military maneuvers, I gathered that the man who attacked me had been an advance scout for a flanking movement, which failed when he didn't return to warn the rest of the pirates that Iolaus and Siann were there, ready and waiting for them, having been drawn by Dari's screams and the commotion of her battle. In the ensuing confusion, the pirates were soundly defeated, their ship captured and burned.
By the time a day had passed, I was feeling much better. I was still in bed, but probably could have gotten up, had I wanted to. As it was, I enjoyed Iolaus' frequent visits, and his solicitude. There can be definite advantages to being hurt and bed-ridden, so long as one isn't too badly hurt to enjoy them.
That evening, he brought me a bowl of stew and a bottle of wine.
"Oh, but that looks delicious!" I exclaimed cheerfully. When I made a show of struggling into a sitting position, he came over and helped me up, which I didn't mind at all. Gave me an excuse to have his arms around me, if only briefly. Before I let him go, I added, "It would be nice if these pillows were plumped up a bit higher behind me."
Iolaus promptly took hold of one of the pillows and swatted me with it, very gently.
"What did you do that for?" I asked.
By now, he was laughing. "Because I think you're milking this for all it's worth."
"Oh, you think so, do you?"
"Well," I began indignantly, reaching for the bowl of stew somewhat clumsily with my left hand, "it just so happens --" I changed my tone abruptly and finished with a grin " that you're right."
He took a swig from the wine bottle as he sat on the side of the bed, suddenly serious. "You need to talk to Dari."
"Why? What's wrong?" My attention was mostly on balancing the bowl between my legs and feeding myself with my only good hand. No easy matter, I assure you.
"The man she stabbed with her dagger just died. She's been going by to see how he was doing ever since you started to recover, and she's taking it pretty hard."
I was so surprised that I dropped a chunk of meat into my lap. "I didn't know --"
"We didn't want to tell you, since you were in no very great shape yourself at first. But it was a nasty gut wound and his death was slow and painful. Dari saw some of that. I didn't discourage her, because I know how much you want her to realize the downside of being a warrior, so --"
I held up my hand. "Don't worry, you did right."
"Yeah, well, anyway, now she's pretty upset, but she won't talk to me or Siann about it. I think she's trying to show us how brave she is, or something. I thought maybe you'd have better luck."
I set my empty bowl aside and took a sip of wine. "I'm not sure she'll talk to me either, but I'll give it a try."
He stood. "I'll go find her and send her up."
I nodded, worried.
It wasn't long before the girl appeared, carrying a plate with some sliced fruit.
"Hi, Uncle Euphonius," she said, more subdued than usual. She set the plate on the bed beside me. "Iolaus told me to bring this to you."
"Thank you, my dear. Here, why don't you sit down and have some yourself?"
"I'm not hungry."
"Well then, sit down and keep me company while I eat." I took a fig and popped it into my mouth, as she obediently perched on the edge of the bed.
After a few abortive attempts to start a conversation that had been met with a morose syllable or two, I reached over and snagged my money pouch from the chair beside the bed. Bringing out a shiny coin, I held it out to Dari and said invitingly, "A dinar for your thoughts."
"My thoughts aren't worth a dinar."
"They are to me. Here. Take it."
She did, then licked her lips hesitantly before she spoke. "I'm thinking that death isn't really a very nice thing," she said, with a bitterness in her voice that I had never heard there before.
"No, it's not." I thought back to my experience with Charon. If that truly had been a visit to the Underworld and life continued on after death, that provided a certain amount of consolation. Even so, dying isn't a whole lot of fun, no matter how you look at it.
"But you know that already, Dari," I went on. "You stood by my father's funeral pyre with me. And you've known other people who have died."
"Yeah." Her voice grew softer, barely audible. "But I wasn't the one who killed them."
"Ah! That makes a difference, doesn't it?"
She nodded. One hand strayed down to the dagger at her side and she ran her fingers over the hilt. "I I think I understand a little of how Siann and some of the others feel."
"Your quick actions saved my life," I pointed out.
"I know. And I wouldn't do anything differently if I had to do it again. But he was still a human being, just like you. Or Iolaus. Or me."
"Everyone you kill will be just another human being. And if you follow the path you're on now, you will have to kill again, sooner or later."
She nodded again, fingers still playing with the knife that had taken a man's life. "But, Uncle Euphonius, if I hadn't learned how to fight, you would be dead. And without Siann and the others, the whole town would have been taken over by pirates and lots of other people would be dead."
"Uh-huh. But is that what you want your life to be like? Do you really want to be the one who does the fighting? And the killing? And maybe the dying?"
"I think so. At least, I thought I did. I'm not sure." She turned anguished eyes on me. "Oh, Uncle Euphonius, I just feel so awful!"
I reached out and hugged her against me with my good arm. "There, there, my dear. If you didn't feel guilty, there would be something wrong with you."
She held tightly to me, but, much to my surprise, there were no tears. "I love you," she said at last.
"I love you too." Strange, but my father and I had said the same thing to each other, just before he died. Only now, I was the one making the reply. I smoothed her hair and kissed the top of her head. She held me for a second longer, then sat back.
Taking the wine bottle from the table by the bed, I held it out to her and said, just as I would have to another adult, "Here. You look as if you could use a drink."
She brightened at this grown-up treatment, then took a generous couple of swallows.
I looked at her, very straightforward and adult. "We'll be leaving for home in another day or so. Think about all of this carefully. You don't have to decide the course of your entire life just yet, you know. There's plenty of time."
"All right, Uncle Euphonius. I'll do that." A hint of a smile crossed her face. "May I have one of those figs now?"
I passed her the plate, entirely satisfied with the results of our little discussion.
The next morning, we went to Athena's temple, as planned. It turned out that we were not alone, since a good many of the other townsfolk were there, also intent on honoring the goddess for their recent deliverance from the pirates. Iolaus had told me that the warriors who had actually fought in the battle had gotten their share of honors from the civilians as well, in the form of many feasts, celebrations, and individual monetary awards for valor.
As we stood amongst the crowd waiting to make offerings, Dari fidgetted nervously beside me, staring back and forth from the dagger at her waist to the statue of Athena behind the altar. I was pretty sure she didn't really want to give it up, whether to Ares or Athena. It had cost her a lot of hard work. It occurred to me that I could use that fact to my advantage. Offering a weapon to any god whose jurisdiction covered warfare was usually considered to be more of a commitment than other types of sacrifices, but I didn't think Dari realized that.
Awkwardly, because of my broken right arm, which was still strapped across my chest, I reached into my belt pouch and pulled out a gold coin. "Here," I whispered, slipping the coin into her hand. "Give this to Athena instead. It's worth a lot more than the dagger anyway."
She looked around from side to side to see if anyone had seen me give her the coin, then smiled and whispered back, "Thanks, Uncle Euphonius."
As the line of worshippers moved slowly towards the altar, I congratulated myself on my success. Besides, I had also scored a point by showing myself to be sympathetic to her feelings. Maybe now she'd be more willing to listen to my advice in other matters. Maybe our little talk last night had eroded her desire to be a warrior.
I said nothing more about it while we waited. Sometimes silence is the best policy. Let her convince herself that I was right after all. It could still happen. She could just make an offering to thank the goddess for our safety, like everyone else was doing. It didn't have to mean anything more than that.
Iolaus and Siann were just in front of us in line, talking quietly to each other. I glanced around the crowd, seeing a few familiar faces. One-armed Vachon was easy to spot, towering above the others as he did. Myka stood next to him.
Personally, I was rather bored. Athena isn't one of the goddesses I usually deal with. Truth to be told, I try not to attract the attention of any of the Immortals most of the time. Much safer that way.
By the time we finally drew near to the altar, my injured arm was throbbing unpleasantly and I felt just a bit unsteady on my feet. Too late, I realized I should have asked Siann for some more of those pain-killing herbs. However, not only was I determined to be here with Dari, but I also didn't want to show any weakness in front of Siann or Iolaus, so I said nothing about it except to wish that things would move along faster.
I couldn't hear Siann's prayer to Athena, but I saw her lay several gold coins on the altar. Iolaus, on the other hand, spoke loudly enough that I could make out several references to Xena and Gabrielle as he set down his offering. There were tears on his face as he turned away from the over-laden altar and joined Siann and me, where we waited beside Dari.
Our turn came next, much to my relief.
Without a moment of hesitation, Dari walked up and added her gold coin to the piles of other valuables already there. I expected her to move back quickly, so we could get out of there and I could go rest, but she stood for a moment, looking up at the statue of the goddess behind the altar. The statue stared down at her sternly. Just life-size, it was a fairly realistic attempt to portray Athena, to my way of thinking. While beautiful, the oval face gave the impression of great dignity, not mere prettiness. She was depicted wearing a short skirt, with a tightly laced bodice above it, her hair done up neatly on her head. In her left hand, she held an ornate shield, while the other hand reached forward towards her supplicants.
Much to my dismay, Dari placed her little dagger on the altar next to the coin.
Something changed in the atmosphere inside the temple. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end, as if in response to some strange sort of energy. The statue shimmered with silver light, then seemed to come to life.
With a collective gasp of amazement, the crowd pulled back, leaving Dari staring open-mouthed at the Goddess of Wisdom herself.
Out of all the riches piled before her, Athena took up the little dagger. Then her piercing gray eyes fixed on Dari, as she said, "Child, this dagger has tasted human blood. How has it been used? Have you dared to take a life at your age?"
The girl just stood there, too awed and scared out of her wits to answer.
"Forgive me, Lady," Siann said firmly, stepping forward to place herself next to the astonished child. "Dari has indeed killed, but only because she was forced to defend an unarmed man in danger of death, at the risk of her own life. Had Iolaus and I not arrived in time, the attacker might have killed them both."
"I see," the goddess said slowly. Much to my relief, her face broke into a gentle smile as she turned her attention again to Dari.
"Then you have acted properly, and with courage," she proclaimed. "Such a deed deserves a reward."
Suddenly, the plain dagger in Athena's hand turned into something else: something longer and made of finer metal, with an ornate design on the handle. Next to it lay an embossed leather sheath, with a matching belt attached.
Athena slid the knife into its sheath and held it out to Dari. "Wear this, child, as a symbol of your dedication to me."
Her face glowing, Dari took the offered gift, strapping it around her waist. "Thank you, Lady," she replied solemnly. "May I use it always in a manner acceptable to you." She glanced at Iolaus and Siann. "And may I never kill again, except in dire need."
I saw the conflicted look on Siann's face, as she heard Dari's words, and I thought I knew what she was thinking. Quickly, impulsively, I slid my ruby ring off my finger, stepped up to the altar, and laid it beside Siann's offering.
"Merciful Goddess," I said, "in your great wisdom, be mindful of another of your followers here and accept this in support of the battle she fights within her heart."
Athena apparently knew who I meant. Bending a stern and sorrowful gaze upon Siann, she leaned forward and addressed her so quietly that few others could hear. "My daughter, you know that there's no way to truly atone for the past. The dead cannot be brought back to life, the suffering cannot be undone, and the blood can never be truly washed from your hands."
"Yes, Lady. I know that," was the sad reply.
"The only thing that can be done is to do good in the present, as best you can, in memory of the wrongs you have done in the past. Therein lies as much forgiveness as it is possible for a mortal to find."
A single tear ran down Siann's face. She nodded, but did not lower her eyes.
Athena's severe expression softened. She placed one hand on the woman's shoulder and said, so softly I had to strain my ears to make out the words, "You have done everything that could possibly be expected of you, Siann. Go in peace."
As the Goddess' form wavered, then solidified back into the statue, Siann looked up at me and smiled, a bright and genuine smile this time, not that mocking grimace she usually used.
I smiled back. Dari and Iolaus rushed over to hug her, but I stood aside, watching and thinking. No, the warrior life never had been, and never would be, mine. But did I have the right to so easily dismiss what the men and women of Gargatha had experienced, disdaining them as ruffians and trouble-makers, just because they reminded me of things I did not wish to know? Could I condemn their bitterness, their insanity, their violence, and their arrogance, when I had lived an easy and comfortable life while they were out there fighting to conquer Troy?
And if the war itself had turned out to be pretty useless, and the battles only dubious triumphs, did that detract from the courage they had shown and the hurts they had taken?
For what, after all, is a hero, if not someone who puts their life on the line in the service of something beyond merely himself, or herself, alone?
As we walked out of the temple together, I was turning something over in my mind as I listened to the talk going on around me. With the excitement over, I also found myself distracted by the renewed pain in my broken arm. I hugged it tighter against my chest with my good arm, wishing it would stop bothering me so that I could think clearly. I wanted nothing more than to return to my room at the tavern and rest, preferably with some of Siann's herbal medications to help me out.
Meanwhile, the conversation went on around me.
"Does Athena usually appear like that?" Dari asked, her voice still reflecting awe.
"Not usually, no. But now and then," Siann replied.
"But I'm just a little girl. Why would she bother with me?"
"Perhaps it's exactly because you are a little girl that she appeared," Iolaus suggested. "The rest of us well, we chose our lives a long time ago. Athena knows us, but you're new to all this." Taking her by the shoulders, he turned her to face him square on. "Also, you're at a decision point. You've killed a man, Dari. You've had enough time to realize what that means. Do you truly wish to continue on the path you've started? Or would you rather go back and choose another life for yourself?"
This brought my attention firmly back to the present and away from my personal hurt. I held my breath as Dari bowed her head, then said softly with closed eyes and a catch in her voice, "I'll go on."
Not the answer I had hoped for. My hopes wilted. As Iolaus drew her into a hug, I sighed and gave in gracefully to the inevitable. "Iolaus, about that academy you mentioned a few days ago? The one Jason's running?"
Releasing the girl, he looked at me, a puzzled frown etching vertical lines between his eyes. "Yeah?"
"What would it take to get Dari into it?"
I saw Dari's eyes fly from the lovely new dagger at her waist up to my face.
"First of all, money for the tuition," Iolaus said guardedly.
"Not a problem."
His frown turned to surprise. "If you're serious, I'll be glad to give her my recommendation. I'm sure Siann would also."
"I'd appreciate that," I replied wearily.
"You mean it, Uncle Euphonius?!" Dari exclaimed. "Really?"
"Yes. As long as your mother agrees to it."
"Oh, she will! I know I can convince her." She threw herself at me, wrapping her arms around my waist and doing her best to squeeze the life out of my body, but still being mindful of my broken arm. "Thank you, Uncle Euphonius! Thank you, thank you, thank you!"
"Don't thank me, my dear. Thank Athena. After all, who am I to disagree with a goddess?"
Siann and Iolaus stood there, beaming at us and at each other. I think my face must have gone paler than usual, since Iolaus put his arm around my waist and said, "Come on. Let's get you back to the inn."
A couple of days later, as we prepared to leave, there were three horses awaiting our departure, rather than the original two. It seems that Siann and her friends had all chipped in to get Dari a mount of her own, now that it looked as if she'd need it to travel to and from the Academy. The new one was a gentle-looking grey mare, with a used but passable saddle.
Dari was beside herself with joy when she saw her gift. I really thought I'd never get her calmed down enough for us to be on our way. She just kept hugging everyone and saying how she'd never forget them, ever. Now and then, though, a different look would come into her eyes, a look that reminded me uncomfortably of the haunted expression I'd catch sometimes in Siann's eyes. My little Dari was an innocent child no longer.
No, I still wasn't overly pleased about the way things had turned out. But Dari was young. She might well change her mind ten times over about her future. And if she didn't?
Well, if not, it was her life, not mine, wasn't it?
I sighed. If it was this hard for me to let go, how much harder must it be for the actual parents of a child? And yet, the child must be set free at some point, if it is ever to find its own true path.
Our plans were to stop at the Academy on our way to Corinth, since it wasn't far from the city. To that end, Siann had made up a scroll recommending Dari, while Iolaus would be with us to talk to Jason himself. If she were to be accepted, she would then go home and try to sell her mother on the idea. Dari was quite confident that she'd prevail, and I rather expected she might be right, especially with the evidence of a goddess-given dagger and a new mare to back her up.
Iolaus swung up onto his horse, waving and whooping exuberantly at all his friends, who cheered back.
I was about to mount up myself, hoping Dari would take the hint, when Siann strode over to me.
She measured me with her eyes for a moment, then slapped me heartily on the back, nearly hard enough to knock me down. "Hey, Euphonius!" she exclaimed. "Come back and see us sometime. Maybe I'll let you buy me another drink."
As I recovered my balance, I replied merrily, "Not a chance, you old battle-ax!"
"And since when is it an insult to be a battle-ax?" came the quick rejoinder. "It's a perfectly respectable weapon, you know."
We both laughed, then I looked doubtfully at my horse, wondering how I was going to get up into the saddle using just one hand. Realizing my problem, Siann laced her hands together, offering me a leg up. She didn't even make a remark about wimpy little merchants when she did it, but she damn near tossed me entirely over my horse in her effort to help.
Dari was still running about, hugging people and saying her good-byes. Iolaus caught Siann's eye, then jerked his chin towards the girl.
"I'll take care of it, buddy," Siann replied. I saw her trot over to Vachon and whisper in his ear, then he spoke to Myka. Before I realized what was happening, Dari had been lifted in the air and was being passed over the heads of the assembled crowd. With much hollering and cheering, they finally set her on top of her new mount.
With a mischievous glance at Iolaus, Dari kicked her horse into a gallop and headed down the road. Accepting the challenge, Iolaus took off after her, while I followed at a more sedate pace.
As I watched them both disappear around a curve, it struck me that I wasn't hurting over Iolaus anymore. I still desired him with all my heart, but now I knew I hadn't lost him, not really.
I had to assume that he now believed I wouldn't hang onto him, or allow myself to be hurt by the fact that I wasn't the chief love of his life. After all, hadn't he freely chosen to have sex with Siann and me? Unlike several of our other encounters, it couldn't be written off as the result of drunkenness or desperation, since we had been neither. That meant it could well happen again, somewhere down the road.
Sure, there were no promises. But there are always possibilities.
Iolaus might well be with Hercules for the rest of his life, but even so, a part of him belonged to me, and always would.
I could be happy with that.