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 sexual relations.
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? and is the eighth part of the The Euphonius Scrolls series.
You can check out more work by Euphonius at Kerry's Korner
Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
Things got pretty bad there for a while, what with drought, famine, flood, plague, and even more armed skirmishes than were usual. Quite a few folks went totally hysterical, claiming the end of the world was at hand and other such foolishness. Me, I just sat tight and waited it out, figuring there was little else to do, and my household and I would either survive or we wouldn't.
As it turned out, we made it. But the jewelry business had been hard hit by all these disasters, so I was hurting financially, if not in other ways. Just a couple of days after the world seemed to have stabilized again, I bid my housekeeper and her daughter good-bye and set out for Corinth, hoping to sell a few items at the marketplace and maybe even some of my more expensive pieces to the courtesans at King Iphicles' palace.
Unfortunately, I didn't reach the city the following day as planned. I suppose I should have realized that the recent social and economic disruptions would result in an increased number of brigands ready to prey on travelers, but I'd never had any truly serious problems of that sort before, so it wasn't in the forefront of my mind as I rode along. Besides, I always took precautions against losing my merchandise to thieves.
It was windy and rather chilly that day, so I had my brown wool cloak wrapped close around me. I'd made very poor time because some of the roads were still in bad condition, but I was eagerly looking forward to a warm bed and a hot supper at an inn in the village I knew lay only about five more kilometers further on. It was late in the afternoon and the sky had been clouding over rapidly. I was just wondering if I should kick my horse into a gallop, in hopes of making it to the village before the rain began, when I found myself suddenly confronted by a group of men standing in the road, fierce scowls on their faces. One held a bow and arrow, while the others had their swords in hand.
If I'd had any lingering doubts about their intentions, they were quickly dispelled when one of the men grabbed the reins of my horse and ordered, "Dismount. Now!"
As usual, when confronted with this sort of challenge, I complied hurriedly. This wasn't the first time such a thing had happened, so I wasn't terribly worried.
Holding my hands open to show that I was unarmed and essentially harmless, I gave them my most winning smile. "I'm afraid you'll get little of value from me, gentlemen. I'm just a simple traveler, on my way to visit friends in Corinth."
The apparent leader of the group, a disreputable-looking rogue wearing an ill-matched and filthy assortment of worn leather armor, favored me with a sneering grin as he said, "You can stop the act now. We know you're that jewelry merchant from Lydicea, Euboulos."
"No, Euboulos writes poetry," I corrected gently. "You've got the wrong man. My name's Euphonius."
He shrugged, the point of his sword never wavering from the center of my chest. "So maybe I got the name wrong, but you're still the merchant."
Being recognized wasn't good, but I continued on with my usual tactics. Feigning more fear than I actually felt, I took the pouch from my belt and held it out to him. "Here. Take this if you must, but please leave me alone. It's all I have."
The bandit emptied the contents of the pouch into his hand, barely glancing at the coins and the collection of inexpensive but gaudy rings and necklaces I always carry in plain sight. I was just hoping they wouldn't steal my horse also. I wasn't up for walking the rest of the way to the village.
By now, one of the others had taken the bedroll and saddlebags off my horse and was digging greedily through my belongings, scattering my spare clothes and other travel supplies around him as he did so. Even under such circumstances, I couldn't help but notice that he was the best-looking one of the entire bunch, comparatively speaking.
"Nothing in here, Lycus," Handsome reported to the leader with disgust. "Just clothes, food, and some herbs."
"Hey, be careful with that!" I protested, as he dumped one of the packets on the ground. "It's my favorite tea."
Actually, it was no such thing. I had just purchased the collection of medicinal herbs and without the little papers on which I had carefully written names and instructions for use, I had no idea which was for what. I simply wished to distract them.
My attention was brought quickly back to Lycus when he backhanded me across the face hard enough to split my lip. "Shut up! I want the rest of your jewelry, and I want it now."
Beginning to get just a bit worried but still determined not to lose my most valuable merchandise, I made a show of wiping my hand across my mouth and staring wide-eyed at the blood. Then I pulled a blue topaz ring off my finger, slid the heavy silver bracelet down over my hand, and took off the amethyst pendant around my neck, offering all three items to my assailant.
"Here. Take it all. Just don't hurt me," I begged abjectly.
This was usually all it took to convince the usual run of brigands that they had cleaned me out, but Lycus barely glanced at what I had given him.
"Where's the real stuff, merchant? I know gems, and I know your reputation. You've got more than this, and I want it."
Apparently, the man had a lot more upstairs than his appearance would indicate. Of course I had more; I always did. All of my really expensive items were well hidden in various places on my person or with my travel supplies. This was the first time someone had failed to be taken in by my regular ploys. It occurred to me that I could be in real trouble. Nevertheless, I wasn't about to concede defeat just yet. I still thought I could beat these thugs at their own game.
"I don't have anything else. I lost everything in the flood. If you know I'm from Lydicea, you know how bad things were there just a week ago. It was terrible! My home, my belongings, all gone. This is all I have left. Please, leave me something! I'm trying to start over again. You can't take it all. Please!"
By now I was on my knees in front of the outlaw leader, tears running down my cheeks as I babbled on about the supposed disaster that had overtaken my village. What can I say? I'm a fairly good actor, when I have to be. Yeah, it's pretty undignified, but it's also pretty undignified to lose all your merchandise to a band of thieves.
"Shut up and stand up," Lycus growled disgustedly. "Search him," he commanded his cronies.
One of the ruffians grabbed my arms and pulled them behind my back, while another pawed through my clothing and ran his filthy hands over my body, grinning with a grotesque and toothless smile. I stood there, totally unresisting.
"Nothing, boss," Toothless said at last. "Maybe he's telling the truth?"
"Yeah. And maybe he's not." Lycus stepped up closer to me, sheathing his sword. "Where is it, merchant?" His hand reached down and grabbed my genitals hard enough to make me grimace. "Tell me. Or we'll search you in places you won't like to be searched."
I still thought I could bluff this through. Looking him in the eye, I smiled sweetly. "How do you know I wouldn't like that?"
"If I do it, little man, you won't enjoy it. Trust me."
I smiled wider and thrust my hips forward against his hand, all the while measuring the distance to my horse, who had wandered down the road a short way. "Maybe I like it rough."
"And maybe we could search him a whole lot better if we took his clothes off," Toothless suggested, leering.
"Yeah," concurred the thug behind me, relaxing his grip on my arms.
Lycus stripped off my cloak and tossed it aside, reaching for the laces at the neck of my tunic. I continued to smile, but allowed a bit of fear to show in my eyes, even as I realized sickly that the fear was more than pretense at this point.
He seemed to like that. Trailing grimy fingers across the side of my face, he asked mockingly, "Not so sure after all, are you, merchant?"
"Please, no --" I began, sagging as if my knees were about to give way. I shifted, pulling my hands free with one savage jerk, and twisted, driving an elbow into his midsection. Then I took off down the road, hoping to reach my horse. I may not be much of a fighter, but I can run pretty fast for a man my age.
"Stop him!" someone yelled.
I had ahold of the saddle and was raising my foot to the stirrup when I heard the twang of a bowstring. My left leg gave out and I went sprawling in the dust.
My terrified horse galloped away. I clutched at my leg, where blood was already seeping out around the arrow sticking all the way through my calf. It hadn't started to hurt yet, but I knew I'd feel it any second now. I looked up at the angry faces glaring down at me. "Can't blame a man for trying, can you?" I said hopefully.
Lycus grabbed a handful of my hair, pulling my head back and pressing the tip of a dagger against my throat. "I'm going to search you the hard way, merchant. I'm going to slice you into very small pieces, very slowly. If you're hiding any more jewelry, I'll find it. If not, I'll enjoy hearing you scream." He glanced at the others and ordered, "Hold him down."
I cried out in pain as they pushed me forward and my weight came down on my injured leg. Then my leg collapsed and I rapidly found myself pinned facedown in the dust of the road. By now, giving up my entire stock of jewelry seemed like a good option. I should have done it long ago. I spit out the dirt that filled my mouth and was about to tell them that slicing me up wasn't necessary when I heard a voice shout, "Leave him alone!"
I knew the voice, and I knew the man it belonged to. I looked around to find Hercules standing in the road, holding one of the brigands up by the back of the neck. He tossed the man negligently into the bushes as the rest turned and charged at him.
Lycus had evidently forgotten about me as he ran after the others. I tried to drag myself away from the action, but the arrow in my leg made it rather difficult, not to mention very painful, to move.
Glancing hastily back over my shoulder, I saw Iolaus jump out of the bushes and fling himself into the melee. I'm afraid I merely stared at him for a long moment, as he and Hercules wreaked havoc among the brigands. Iolaus was long dead. I knew that. I had read all about what happened in Sumeria almost two years ago. I couldn't believe I was seeing him now. Either I had gone plumb crazy, or he was somehow alive.
But maybe he wouldn't be for long, considering the odds. He was clearly trying to get over to Hercules, but hadn't made it. Surrounded by opponents, he was still managing to hold them off despite being badly outnumbered. The most dangerous-looking of his attackers was a tall man with a patch covering his left eye. Pulling my knife from my boot, I threw it at him. As much by luck as by skill, my dagger embedded itself in Eyepatch's thigh, taking one ruffian out of the fight.
Dragging myself painfully along on hands and knees, I tried to crawl further from danger, even as I looked around quickly. Not far from me, the bowman who had downed me nocked an arrow and aimed for Iolaus, whose back was now toward us.
Coming up on my good leg, I threw myself at the bow just as the archer released the string. The arrow thunked into a treetrunk not far from Iolaus' head, even as I hit the ground and screamed in pain. But I still held the bow in one hand, preventing the archer from shooting again. He kicked at me, but I kept my grip. We struggled for possession of the bow as the archer drew his dagger.
Hercules must have seen my peril, because I heard him shout from somewhere behind me, "Iolaus, over there! Quick!"
By the time I had dodged the dagger a couple of times, my two rescuers were standing over me, back to back and fending off the rest of the bandits. Hercules' attention was focussed on his opponents, but Iolaus glanced down at me. For just a moment, he froze, surprise showing in his eyes. "Euphonius?" he said, hesitating momentarily, a strange look on his face.
Toothless took advantage of that hesitation to jab his sword into Hercules' undefended back. The big man staggered forward a few steps, then fell down on his knees, while Iolaus' eyes went wide with shock. The blue eyes narrowed and a terrible look came over his face, not very different from the rage I had sometimes seen when Dahak had been in control of his body.
Hercules pushed himself up on his hands, his eyes seeking and then looking past his partner. From my vantagepoint on the ground, I could also see Toothless drawing back his sword behind Iolaus' back.
"Iolaus, watch out!" the demigod gasped faintly.
Almost too late, the blond warrior twisted and sidestepped. The heavy blade missed its target, but the point caught him on the upper arm. Undeterred, Iolaus raised his broadsword, continuing his turn. He sliced across and down into his opponent's shoulder hard enough to almost severe the man's head from his body.
Everything got very quiet as the corpse fell to the ground, blood spurting from the gaping wound. Then the bandits surged forward, screaming their outrage. Iolaus fought like a small but manic whirlwind, despite the blood running down his arm.
I crawled over to Hercules, who had once again collapsed forward onto his face, struggling to breathe. I ripped his shirt open, fearful of what I would see. As he took a breath, the raw edges of the wound pulled in. When he breathed out, bloody froth bubbled out. I had seen such injuries before, and I knew how dangerous they could be. I could only think of one thing to do. Pressing the palm of my hand over the wound, I kept it tightly covered, preventing any more air from being sucked in.
As his breathing eased, the demigod lifted his head once again and looked around. Seeing Iolaus on his own, he tried to raise himself up, gasping, "Got to help --"
"No, don't even try. Iolaus has it under control."
I pushed him back down, the mere fact that I was able to do so testifying to how badly he was hurt. He turned his face to me and studied me, blinking his eyes. "Euphonius?" Then he got this kind of disconcerted look on his face, as if he'd just suddenly recalled what we'd done the last time we'd met. His eyes flickered down to the arrow in my leg.
The wound wasn't bleeding much, but his bringing it to the forefront of my attention only made me realize how badly it hurt. With my attention split between taking care of Hercules and keeping a cautious eye on the battle raging around us, I couldn't spend too much time watching Iolaus. However, from what little I saw, he was fighting like a berserker, single-handedly keeping all the bandits away from us. How one man could possibly hold off so many opponents at once, I had no idea. I was just grateful that he was able to do it, or Hercules and I would have been dead meat for sure.
Perhaps the earlier death of Toothless had taken some of the heart out of our assailants. When Iolaus laid open a gash on Lycus' head, the outlaw leader fell to the ground, screaming for someone to come and get him and then for them to break off the attack.
I breathed a sigh of relief as they scattered in all directions, but was chagrined to notice that one of them mounted my horse and galloped down the road.
As soon as he was certain that the bandits were truly gone, Iolaus rushed over to us and dropped to his knees beside Hercules. Blood still ran down his left arm and dripped into the dirt from a long gash that went most of the way from his shoulder to his elbow, but he seemed unaware of his own injury, in his concern for his partner.
"Herc?" he asked tentatively, the wildness of battle slowly seeping out of his eyes.
"I'm okay," the demigod managed to answer, between labored breaths.
Thus assured, Iolaus calmed down enough to assess the situation, quickly taking in my hand on the wound in the other man's back, the arrow through my leg, and the blood still running from his own arm.
With my free hand, I pulled a scarf from inside my tunic and held it out to him. "Here. You've got to stop your arm from bleeding before you can help us."
Iolaus took the offered bandage, pressing the scarf tightly against his arm, and instructing me tersely, "Keep pressure on Herc's wound when he breathes in, but lift the edge of your hand just a little when he breathes out, so some of the air will escape."
I did as I was told, suggesting, "I have some spare clothing in my bedroll. We can use it for bandages. I've also got some medicinal herbs and stuff, if the bandits didn't trash them all."
Iolaus nodded quickly, then stood up and salvaged my saddlebags, bedroll, cloak, and various other items out of the mess on the road. Using his teeth and his injured arm, he ripped up a white linen shirt into strips.
I took the fabric from his hand. "Come here. Let me help you tie that scarf around your arm, so you have both hands free."
Squatting down, we managed to secure the makeshift bandage, using one hand apiece. "This needs stitches," I told him.
"Later. We've got to see to Herc." He rummaged through the saddlebags rapidly, looking for the herbs I had mentioned.
Opening one pouch, he sniffed tentatively at it, then discarded it and sampled another. "This smells like Huang Tu Tang. Stops bleeding." He opened a ceramic jar, dipped his finger into the paste, and smelled and tasted it. "And this is Ju Muu Tsay, good for keeping wounds from going bad and for bringing down fever." His face brightened. "Pretty good stuff." Next, he pulled out a small glass vial. Before I could say anything, he had opened the stopper and sniffed. "Lavender oil?"
"Yeah. Real concentrated." I smiled apologetically. "I'm afraid that won't be much help right now. Those two other things with the strange names are all I've got in the way of healing herbs."
"That's okay. They'll do fine."
Frowning slightly, he watched Hercules' uneven efforts to breathe. Very little air was escaping now when the demigod exhaled. "We need something that will stop Oh, I know!" He ripped one of the leather knee patches off his pants, smeared some of the paste and powder on one side of it, and then moved over closer to me. "Okay, on his next exhale, lift your hand. I'll use this. We can bandage it on real tight."
By the time we had finished, the big man was sitting up and looking a bit more alert, but he was far from well. Pale and weak, at least he was conscious.
Iolaus nodded in satisfaction, then turned his attention to me. "Let's take a look at your leg now."
That's when the lowering clouds above us ran out of patience and began to rain. It was only a smattering of drops to begin with, but it promised to get worse pretty quickly. The wind picked up, stirring and swirling the dust on the road.
Iolaus glanced up at the sky and frowned, then turned his attention back to my leg.
I had been trying to ignore the arrow, telling myself that it didn't hurt all that much, if I managed not to bump it against anything.
"Turn over a little so I can see the wound," he said gently.
I did, at the same time looking fearfully back over my shoulder. He carefully tore the fabric of my pants and touched the shaft of the arrow. I sucked my lower lip between my teeth and tried to keep quiet, as he broke the feathered end off.
"Pull it out," I said, making an effort to sound brave.
He looked at me somewhat doubtfully. "This is gonna hurt."
There was really no way around this and I knew it, but I didn't have to be a wimp about it, especially in front of him. "Just do it."
"Herc, can you help me here?"
The demigod nodded. Gesturing for me to come within his reach, he took hold of my leg with both hands, one above and one below the arrow.
I closed my eyes, clenched my fists, and clamped my teeth together, determined not to scream or struggle. When Iolaus pulled the arrow through, I managed the first part, but not the second. Fortunately, you don't move much when Hercules has ahold of you.
The process of being cleaned up and bandaged was almost a relief after that. As Iolaus applied some of the salve and wrapped my leg with more strips of torn linen, I glanced at him once or twice. There was so much I wanted to say to him, but I didn't know if he even wanted to listen. His eyes looked strange, almost shadowed. Maybe he'd changed, after that encounter with Dahak. Or maybe he'd never even known what went on between me and the creature Dahak had made of him. Or maybe he was doing his best to forget about it.
Or maybe he didn't really want to see me again at all. During those first moments of recognition, it hadn't exactly been unadulterated joy that I'd seen in his expression. Of course, that didn't prove anything. We'd been in the middle of a fight, after all.
Come to think of it, how was it that he was alive at all?
I never had the chance to ask him anything, as the rain began in earnest, with a little thunder thrown in for good measure. The drops were large and cold.
Iolaus frowned once more at the uncooperative weather and studied the sky. "We've got to find shelter. It's likely to get worse before it gets better."
He was all too right. Between the cold raindrops and the aftereffects of pain and fear, I was already shivering violently. Hercules, demigod or no, didn't look real good either.
"I saw a cave a short way back," Iolaus suggested. "That's our best bet."
"I don't think I can walk."
"Sitting here in this storm isn't exactly an option. It's going to get even colder during the night." He looked at Hercules. "Can you make it, buddy?"
The big man nodded, but said nothing.
Iolaus got to his feet, his wet hair plastered to his head and straggling limply across his face. "Let me see if I can find you something to lean on," he told me.
He was back quickly with a solid tree branch, the limbs hacked off. Handing it to me, he reached out and pulled me to my feet. Pain flooded down into my leg, but I clenched my lips together and propped most of my weight onto the makeshift staff, then took a few experimental steps. I could walk, just barely. I nodded grimly. Iolaus handed me my soaking wet cloak and I wrapped it tightly around me.
Then he helped Hercules to stand. The demigod staggered and went very pale, but remained upright.
Iolaus threw the blanket from my bedroll over his partner's shoulders, then tucked the rest of my gear back into the saddlebags and put them over his own shoulders. Fitting himself under one of Hercules' arms, he guided the demigod forward, with me hobbling along by his side.
I heard him say encouragingly, "Hey, Herc, this is good. I get to carry you for a change."
The demigod didn't laugh, but he did smile faintly.
With the wind whipping around us and the rain settling into a steady downpour, we started back along the increasingly-muddy road I had traveled so hopefully just a short time ago.
I never knew just how long a "short distance" could be, until I walked it that day, the cold rain drenching me, each step sending a fresh spike of agony up my leg, and two of the people I loved and respected most in this world shuffling along painfully beside me. The road soon turned into a muddy rivulet, and lightning flashed around the skies as if Zeus himself was on a rampage. With the hood of my cloak pulled far down over my eyes and the rain blowing and tumbling in the fitful gusts of wind, I could barely see where I was going. It was a wonder none of us stumbled and fell into the muck clinging to our feet.
I must have spaced out there for a while, as I don't have a very coherent memory of our trek in the rain. I wasn't able to do any truly profound thinking, but what thoughts I did have were a strange and unsettling mixture of incredulous joy that Iolaus was really alive and well, and a stomach-wrenching dread of having to face him once again, after everything that had happened since that first, and last, time we had met, way back before he had died. There were unresolved issues between us on several levels, issues I had never thought to have to face, at least not in this mortal lifetime.
At a certain point, I heard Iolaus' voice say, "Over there," then the going seemed to get rougher. An occasional tree branch brushed against me, and my feet encountered solid ground, even though it was inclined a bit uphill.
The next thing I knew, the rain had stopped hitting me. I collapsed gratefully onto a dry bit of ground. It was so dark that I could see nothing except shadows, but one of those shadows sat down heavily next to me.
I tried to get up, but a hand groped over in my direction, coming to rest on my shoulder. From close beside me, Iolaus' voice said, "Relax. We're in the cave." He slid his hand down my arm to find my own hand, then guided it over to rest on Hercules' chest. The demigod must have been lying beside me, although I could still see nothing clearly.
"You stay here with Herc," Iolaus instructed. "I'm going to check this place out, and hopefully find some debris I can use to start a fire."
"Oh. Good," was all I could think of to say, but I was exquisitely aware of that hand that had touched me and run down my arm. A sudden image flashed through my mind of how good it would feel to have him run his hand across my shoulder, down my body --
I dismissed the disturbing thought as ridiculous, forcing my attention back to the present reality of pervading cold and dampness Just to make matters worse, my leg, which had almost settled into a numb throbbing ache while I had been walking, now started to hurt again in earnest after I had been foolish enough to jostle it in my futile effort to get up.
From somewhere deeper into the cave, I heard Iolaus moving around, a few rustling noises, something that sounded like a rock bouncing off a number of hard surfaces, and then a distant splash. More soft footsteps and rustling went on, and then a small light flared and began to grow slowly in the surrounding darkness. I could make out Iolaus' dim silhouette nearby, carefully feeding the tentative flame with a few twigs. I looked around in the gloom, finding the ceiling of the cave to be not much more than a meter above my head, while the walls were pretty close on either side of us. About the only direction in which the small enclosure seemed to extend was back into the hillside.
"You couldn't have found us a bigger cave?" I said softly.
"Hey, you and I can almost stand upright, even if Herc can't," Iolaus pointed out, still encouraging his small flame to grow. "And he's not likely to be walking around for a while yet."
In the increasing light, I could see the demigod sprawled out on the floor next to me. My hand still rested on his chest and I could feel his labored breathing, but he seemed to be either unconscious, or, hopefully, just asleep
"Will he be okay?" I asked Iolaus, trying to sound optimistic.
"I think so. Wait'll I get this fire going so I can see a little better and I'll check on him." He blew on the struggling flame, feeding it some dried lichen. "Whatever you do," he continued, gesturing behind his back with a quick jerk of his chin, "don't try to go any further into the cave than that grouping of rocks over there. It drops off into a chasm rather suddenly." He smiled. "Good place to take a piss, though, if you're careful."
I made a note of that, studying the rocks he had indicated. On first glance, that direction seemed inviting. The roof rose up slightly and the floor sloped downward, so it led one to imagine there might be a roomier cavern just a little ways ahead, where the darkness still hung like an impenetrable black veil.
While I held out my shaking hands to the welcome warmth of the fire, Iolaus worked at pulling off his boots, then took off his vest. Next, he leaned over and carefully removed Hercules' shirt, taking off the big man's boots also.
"What are you doing?"
"Taking off some of these wet clothes. You'll never get warm if you keep them on, you know. We can lay them out to dry on the rocks over there."
I had reasons for not particularly wanting to undress, but I knew he was right. At this point, I needed the warmth of the fire, not the heat-absorbing interference of wet fabric. I set aside my sodden wool cloak, then unlaced my tunic and pulled it over my head, untucking it from the brown silk sash around my waist. I might have to part with the tunic, but the sash was staying, along with the carved wooden circlet that took the place of a knot and held it in place.
As Iolaus wrung out and hung up our wet clothing, I began working on my low suede boots. I didn't want to remove the left one, and it wasn't only because I knew it would hurt to get it off, considering the arrow puncture not far above the top. Putting off the inevitable for as long as I could, I started on the other one first.
"Oh, damn!" I muttered to myself. "Euphonius, you asshole!"
As he sat down beside me, Iolaus asked, "Why do you call yourself that?"
From the look on his face, I thought I was going to get a lecture on self-esteem, so I hastened to explain the problem. "Because sometimes, I am an asshole. And this is one of those times. My boot knife is gone. I forgot to retrieve it after our fight with those bandits."
"Oh, I see."
"Here, give me a hand with this other boot. I don't think I can manage it by myself."
He did, and the entire process only increased the pain in my leg. I hunched over the struggling fire, shivering.
The close proximity of Iolaus' half-naked body wasn't doing anything to help me convince myself that I couldn't possibly want him as much as my cock seemed to think it did.
After feeding a few more sticks into the flames, he moved over to check on Hercules' wound, adjusting the wet bandages so they were tighter.
As I watched him fussing over his partner, a nasty little voice in the back of my mind kept insisting, You don't really like seeing him with Hercules, do you? You'd far rather have that gorgeous little body all to yourself, wouldn't you?
I did my best to ignore the voice, even though I knew it spoke only the truth.
To cover up my treasonous thoughts, I forced myself into showing concern over the unconscious man. "You sure he'll be all right?"
"Yeah. Herc heals real fast. Half god, you know. I've seen him hurt a lot worse. Even pulled an arrow out of his side once, and he was good as new in a few days."
I was inclined to be a bit more doubtful about the injured man's prospects, but decided not to say anything.
By now, Iolaus had my saddlebags open on his lap and was once again digging through them. "Okay if I tear up another shirt?"
"Sure. Go ahead."
He pulled out the needle and thread I carried for emergency clothing repairs, then began untying the bandage on his arm. "I hope you know how to use this, since someone needs to stitch up my arm."
"I'm not exactly a seamstress," I said shakily, taking the needle and regarding the gaping edges of the gash that ran straight down his upper arm. "It would have been easier if I'd been able to do it sooner."
"I know." Iolaus handed me the pouch of the healing powder. "Here, use some of this while you're at it."
I sprinkled it on the open wound, then clenched my teeth and pushed the needle through the raw flesh. Despite my disclaimer, I'm pretty good with my hands, but it would have been nice to have had more light. I worked rapidly, not wanting this to last any longer than it had to.
"How do you know about these herbs?" I asked, as much to distract him from the pain of as out of genuine curiosity.
"Spent some time in the East, long ago," he replied, picking up with his other hand the ceramic jar containing the what had he called it? Ju Muu Tsay? "Haven't seen this kind of thing since then, though. Where'd you get it?"
"From a herbalist I met in a tavern several weeks ago. Very nice young woman by the name of Katelin."
By now, I had almost finished my unwelcome task. As I tied off the last stitch, Iolaus opened the jar and scooped some of the paste onto his fingers, spreading it over the closed wound. When he reached back into the container to get more, he frowned in puzzlement, withdrawing a sticky lump. "What's this?"
I took the offending object from his hand. "Don't worry about it. It's mine." Rubbing the worst of the goop off on my cloak, I held up a large, exquisitely carved jet brooch, inlaid with diamonds of varying sizes and hues, which flashed brightly in the firelight. I shrugged. "Got to hide the really good stuff somewhere, don't I?"
As I wrapped the linen strips around his arm, Iolaus pointed out, "Not much of a hiding place. If the bandits had stolen your horse, they'd have gotten it anyway."
"I know, but this is too big and unwieldy to fit in my usual places." I tucked the brooch back into the paste, pushing it firmly to the bottom of the partially empty jar.
"Where's the rest of your stuff hidden?" Iolaus asked, an amused glint in his eyes.
"Trade secret," I replied with a smile.
Between the torrent still coming down outside, the damp cold, and our various injuries, we spent a wretched evening in the cave. I propped my leg up on a couple of flat rocks, hoping to ease the pain somewhat. I was terrified that the wound would turn bad, as I started alternating between chills and fever. When I could pull myself out of my own misery, I'd notice that Iolaus didn't seem to be doing much better. We both mostly just sat there listening to the pounding rain and feeling terrible. Hercules was still out cold. Maybe he was the lucky one.
There were things I wanted to say to Iolaus, but this just didn't seem to be the time. Or at least that's the excuse I made to myself. Some of those things might not be too pleasant, and we were already miserable enough as it was.
We tried making a bit of broth out of some dried meat I had, but the fire was so small that it didn't cook well, and we hadn't much more dry wood to use. Still, it was something to eat.
Later on, as the temperature fell even further, we huddled together under the damp blanket for warmth, my wool cloak the only thing between the ground and us. Iolaus insisted that I lie closest to the fire, then squeezed himself in between Hercules and me. That left the demigod on the end, but I assumed he wasn't as sensitive to cold as we were, or Iolaus wouldn't have arranged things that way.
Or maybe he just didn't want me next to his partner, if he knew what had once gone on between us. Or did he know? I really wasn't sure.
As for the close proximity of Iolaus himself, I should have been hurting far too badly for it to have felt at all exciting to have him lying up against me, and yet some part of my mind insisted on throwing up memories from the time when he had been Dahak, and that lovely little body had been very often close against mine.
I shook my head, trying to dislodge the images. Come off it, Euphonius, I told myself sternly. This is crazy. You're not that horny. You can't be. Go to sleep.
But sleep was slow in coming, despite my exhaustion. And all night long, my dreams were haunted by images from the past; images that left my cock hard and aching when I awoke in the half-light of dawn.
The fire had burned out long ago, and even the embers had turned to ash. My leg didn't hurt all that much though, and I didn't notice the feverish alternation of hot and cold that had drained my energy the previous evening.
Glancing toward the entrance to our meagre shelter, I could see that the rain had stopped falling. I turned my head slowly. Iolaus was lying there on his side, his back to Hercules, who now faced away from us both. I studied him through bleary eyes. Like most of us, he looked younger asleep, his muscles relaxed and the lines smoothed from his face by the lack of expression.
The blond stubble on his chin was thicker, and I could almost imagine what he'd look like with a real beard.
Absently, I rubbed my own chin. I guess we all needed a shave, by then. What I wouldn't give for a room at an inn, with a hot bath waiting for me. I closed my eyes, picturing that wished-for comfort. And a bed with a soft mattress -
-- and Iolaus lying beside me, in that very same bed. While I was at it, I added Hercules to the picture also.
I sighed, telling myself sternly, Stop it right now, you idiot. This is getting you nowhere that you want to go.
Dismissing the inn, the bed, and its fantasy occupants, I opened my eyes and looked once more at the little man beside me. Why did I find him so attractive, anyway? He really wasn't my type. I ran more to the tall, dark, and dangerous type. Oh really? Like maybe Ares, for instance? You've got to be kidding, Euphonius, old boy.
Nope, I'm afraid not. Well, all right, yeah, the God of War had given me a rather uh hard time not too long ago. But that was still the kind of man I generally lusted after. Certainly not this little blond, barely as tall as I was, with the awful hair.
Between the dampness and the restless night's sleep, his extravagantly curly hair was even more disheveled than usual. I frowned slightly. Of all his features, it was only that messy hair that I truly disliked. I always had the urge to comb it out and brush it neatly into place. His counterpart from that other universe had actually had nicer hair, shorter and more wavy, instead of this mess of tangled curls. In fact, even as Dahak, he'd worn his hair in a far more flattering manner.
My frown deepened at the thought of Dahak, and my eyes focussed on the talisman around Iolaus' neck. Something about it had seemed different than I recalled. I had noticed that yesterday, but hadn't really had the time to think about it. Now, it lay flat on the cloak beneath us, and I could see it more clearly. What had changed?
I thought back to my first, and only, prior experience with this man. Hercules had gone to Mount Olympus to be a god, and Iolaus, heart-broken, went home to visit his mother in the town where I just happened to live also. Almost two years had passed since then, but I summoned up his image from where it lay enshrined in my memory, not quite buried under the newer memories of the former Jester and Dahak's evil creation.
Yes, there it was. The talisman had an almost serpent-like design, with a simple curve on the side to his left, and a more detailed and complex design on the right. Now, it was lopsided, with sharp edges where the far right part had been, as if it had been sheared off.
I barely had time to wonder how that had happened when an image flashed through my mind: a strange knife with a wavy blade flying through the air toward a beautiful dark woman. Then Iolaus, flinging himself in front of it, being thrown viciously backwards against a row of steps as the knife embedded itself in his chest, splitting his talisman into two unequal pieces.
I must have gasped or something, because Iolaus woke up. Seeing the horrified expression on my face, he pushed himself up on one elbow, alert and searching for danger. "What is it? What's wrong?" he asked me urgently.
"Uh nothing, nothing," I hastened to reassure him. "Just thinking about what happened yesterday. You know, how we all could have died?"
He smiled and relaxed back down. "But we didn't."
I smiled back. "No, we didn't, did we?"
"How's your leg?"
"Not bad now, but I'm sure it will feel worse when I try to stand. How about you?"
He flexed his bandaged arm experimentally. "Not bad now," he replied, mimicking my tone of voice precisely, "but I'm sure it will feel worse when I try to swing my sword."
He laughed that infectious upscale giggle. My spirits lifted along with it.
Then he became suddenly serious, as he turned away from me and toward the big man lying behind him. "Guess I'd better take a look at Herc's wound."
"Good idea. You'll excuse me if I stay right here for a bit longer? This is the first time I've been warm and relatively comfortable for quite a while."
"Sure," came the distracted reply as he fussed over Hercules.
That's when it hit me exactly why I found the man so attractive. It really wasn't the nice body, or the blue eyes, or the pleasing features. In fact, it had nothing to do with any of those things. (Well, okay, maybe it had a little something to do with them. I'm only human, after all.) However, the main thing was the spirit that inhabited that compact body. It was his courage and energy, and sheer enthusiasm for life. It was the gentleness underneath the warrior's skills, the intelligence behind the carefree façade.
He was everything I wished I could be, but knew full well that I wasn't. In some ways, that was a rather depressing thought, but in other ways, it was encouraging. His very existence inspired me to try to be like him as much as I could.
Once Iolaus had satisfied himself that Hercules, if not much better, was at least no worse, he squirmed out from under our blankets, retrieved his boots and began pulling them on, no easy task considering that they were still rather damp.
"Going somewhere?" I asked.
He shrugged. "We've got to eat. Maybe I can catch some game, and scrounge up enough dry wood to cook it properly. If not, there should be at least some berries or roots or something."
I sat up also, resigned to the imminent necessity of facing the day.
Iolaus put a hand on my shoulder. "You stay here with Herc, okay? He may wake up. Besides, I don't think you could keep up with me too well hopping along on one leg."
He was entirely right. But as I watched him stride jauntily out into the morning sunlight, I decided it was about time I got up also.
Cautiously, I crawled over to the rocks, where our clothes had been spread to dry as best they might. It was a rather painful struggle to get my left boot on, but I managed. The rest was easy, after that. I smoothed down my tunic, running my fingers over the lumpy embroidered collar with quiet satisfaction. Then I retrieved the staff Iolaus had made me and pulled myself upright. As I figured, my wounded leg began to ache as soon as I put any weight on it. Walking any distance was not an option, but my overfull bladder was clamoring uncomfortably for some relief.
Glancing past the knee-high jumble of rocks Iolaus had warned me about, I could see the chasm beyond them in the dim light. It took a bit of careful maneuvering, but I managed to find a place where I could stand not far from the edge and piss into the darkness down below. I couldn't see the bottom, and I didn't hear anything landing anywhere. When I had finished, I tossed a small rock into the yawning pit. I heard it bounce a few times. Eventually, there came a distant splash. Quite a ways down, for sure. Even more cautiously than I had approached, I backed away from my makeshift latrine.
Returning to our campsite, I hunkered down next to Hercules to wait for Iolaus' return. The demigod seemed still to be asleep, but every now and then he stirred restlessly. His breathing was steady, but his forehead was still warm with fever when I touched it gently with my lips. All in all, he looked much better than I'd have expected, considering the severity of his wound.
Iolaus reappeared a short time later, a fat quail dangling from one hand and several large farkenberries cradled against his chest with his injured arm.
"Catch," he said with a broad grin, dumping the quail on the ground and then tossing me a piece of the fruit. "I'll be back shortly with some brush for a fire."
I peeled the skin back and devoured the soft green pulp hungrily. True to his word, Iolaus soon returned with an armful of almost dry kindling. As he worked on getting a small cookfire going, I plucked the quail and spitted it on a stick, all the while stealing covert glances at my companion. A slight frown marred his features, and he was unusually quiet, as if something were bothering him.
After Iolaus had died and I'd been mixed up with both his Jester and Dahak counterparts, it had often been my habit, when asked how well I knew him, to respond with the somewhat flippant, "Too well, and not well enough."
Now, looking at the original man, unaccountably returned from death, it occurred to me that I had spoken more truly than I had known: I did indeed know him far too well in some ways, yet in others, I hardly knew him at all.
Judging by the sense of unease and discomfort in his entire posture and expression, I wondered if perhaps he might be thinking something along much the same lines about me just then.
OK, I decided, nothing ever gets resolved by silence. Someone's got to start talking, and I just may have a bigger mouth than he does, judging by the large number of times I've put my foot into it.
"Can I ask you something?"
He got that wary look people usually get when confronted with that particular request. "Yeah," he replied cautiously, turning the quail on its spit.
"How come you're alive? I mean, last I knew, you were dead, after that exorcism business and all." I figured that would be a fairly easy way for this discussion to start, for both of us.
This was apparently a much simpler question than he'd been expecting. As the quail continued to roast, he told me about how the Light had determined to wipe out humankind, then rescinded that decision after what he and Hercules had done.
Well, apparently the doomsayers who'd been claiming it was the end of the world had almost been right after all, I reflected as he told the tale. I was somewhat taken aback by the uncaring attitude toward humanity that had been shown by the Light. It seemed to me that this so-called Light could use a little enlightenment of Its own. But then again, perhaps such a transcendent force isn't necessarily obligated to treat us as we might prefer It to, any more than the Olympian gods did.
Finished with his story, Iolaus took the cooked quail off the flames. "So I ended up banished from the Light, sent back to continue my life on the mortal plane." He grinned. "Some punishment, huh?"
He handed me a hot chunk of meat, dripping with juices. I juggled it from hand to hand, still considering the implications of his story. "What was it like in the Light?" I finally asked.
"I can't quite describe it. I was still myself, but " He shook his head. "In many ways, it was glorious. And yet, there were still things I couldn't agree with."
Yeah. Probably the same things I had been wondering about myself earlier on.
"Anything like the Elysian Fields are supposed to be?" I queried.
"No, not really." He took a bite out of his own chunk of quail.
I nibbled on mine carefully. Quail aren't very big, and I wanted it to last as long as possible. "I find this rather confusing, about the Light and all. What happened to Tartarus, and Hades and Celesta?"
"I'm not really sure, but I have this feeling that the afterlife comes in many forms, for different people with different ideas in different parts of the world. There may even be new ideas in the future, and new varieties of the afterlife as a result." He frowned in frustration at the strangeness of the concept.
I thought about it for a minute, having never approached such a thing from that direction.
"You mean, what you believe is what you get," I hazarded, "so be careful of the forms you create, because you just may have to spend eternity with them?"
He nodded, continuing to devour the roasted bird. "Yeah. That works."
"I read up on that stuff Zarathustra talked about," I went on. "You know, the Urge to Create and the Urge to Destroy, and how they're always there, opposing and balancing each other?" I shrugged, licking my fingers. "Made sense to me."
"Yeah," he agreed. "When I was in the East, they had another way of explaining it, but it wasn't all that different. There was the concept of yin and yang, the opposites which are forever intertwined."
We were getting off into philosophy, which was all very interesting but not one of the questions that was really bothering me. I wasn't entirely sure I wanted to know the answers, but I'm nothing if not terminally curious.
"When you were dead," I began, guiding the conversation in a potentially more dangerous direction, "did you know what was going on down here? I mean, they say the dead can hear it when a person thinks about them. Is that true?"
He smiled wanly. "Uh-huh and you and Herc were both thinking rather loudly about me on a number of occasions."
I digested that information in silence for a moment, then gave a nervous laugh. "There were times when I heard your voice talking to me, but I was never sure if that was for real, or if I was going crazy."
"You weren't crazy. It's difficult to actually get through to the living, but I managed it now and then."
I almost wished he hadn't said that, because then it meant he also knew about that night on the beach, not very long ago. Not to mention a whole lot of other things. I shifted my gaze to the flames before going on. "You know about me and Hercules?"
"You're not mad?"
He studied the remaining slivers of meat on the bone in his hand. "How could I be mad? I was the one who told you to screw him, wasn't I?"
"Uh, yeah." But the tone of his voice carried a meaning that contradicted his casual words. "You told me. But somehow I don't think that's what you really wanted."
"It wasn't," he admitted. "I really wanted to be there to make love to him myself."
"I'm sorry --"
"Nothing to be sorry about." He shrugged. "Neither Herc nor I are usually very jealous. We've each been known to bed others on occasion, usually women, but sometimes men."
"Aren't you afraid one of you will ?"
"What?" he said, a gentle smile on his lips. "Fall in love with someone else? There's always a chance. But that chance exists whether or not you've sworn eternal fidelity. In the final analysis, Hercules and I will stay together because that's how we both want it to be, or not at all. Coerced love isn't worth having. Not to us, anyway."
Now might be a good time to change the subject a bit, I told myself.
"What about the uh other Iolaus?"
"What about him?" he replied cautiously.
It was almost ironic: in many ways, I knew that other Iolaus better than I knew this one. After all, I'd spent a lot more time in the company of the man who had once been the Sovereign's Jester than I'd spent with the man sitting across the fire from me now.
"Well, what did you think of that other version of yourself?"
His smile held more brightness this time. "Oh, I rather liked him. I hope he's happy."
"So do I."
Something in my voice must have alerted him to what I was really thinking about, since he added, "I know about you and him too."
"I kind of figured that."
I sat staring morosely into the fire, not willing to meet his gaze. There was something else I wanted to ask him, but didn't dare. As it was, he answered me anyway.
"Euphonius, I also know what went on between you and uh Dahak. I couldn't do anything about it, but I saw what happened."
"Oh, gods, that too?"
He nodded, but this time he was the one looking into the fire. "I had no choice but to know. Dahak made me watch everything he did with my body. I couldn't stop it. At first, I tried, but every time I did, he punished me. The harder I fought, the worse it got." The look on his face led me to believe that the punishment had been pretty awful. "Besides, it did no good. I couldn't stop him. After a while, I gave up trying, until the end, when Hercules got through to me during the exorcism."
When he finally looked up at me, I saw shadows in the bright blue eyes that had once held only openness and cheer.
Now I felt even worse. Did my very presence remind him of that awful experience? Would he see Dahak, every time he looked at my face? If so, how could he help hating me for that?
"I'm sorry," I began miserably. "I shouldn't have let him --"
He laughed bitterly. "You're sorry? How do you think I feel? It was my body, my own damn fault, for letting him trick me."
Well, maybe it wasn't me Iolaus hated, after all. It sounded as if he were doing a pretty good job on himself instead. And that very fact sent a hot flash of anger through my heart.
This isn't over between us, Dahak, I thought fiercely. Not just because he's back. For the shadows in those once-laughing eyes, and the damage you've done to that gentle soul, I'll hate you forever. I haven't forgotten my vow, nor will I.
But I had damage control to attempt just now, and rage wouldn't help.
"It wasn't your fault," I tried to object. "You didn't know --"
"I should have known!"
"No. It wasn't really you --"
"Oh, but on some level, it was me."
"Not on any level that counts. It doesn't matter. In the end, you were judged acceptable by the uh Light, weren't you?"
"Yeah. But I can't seem to forget that I was tricked so easily. If I screwed up once, I could do it again. I'm just not sure of myself anymore."
His voice trailed off, as he turned his head away again, his shoulders drooping.
"Iolaus," I asked gently, "have you ever heard the voice of the demon who stands behind you and ceaselessly whispers in your ear that you're nothing but a piece of shit?"
Almost imperceptibly, he nodded.
"And have you seen the nightmare shape of that same demon on the wall," I went on, "and felt the hideous fear that it is really only your own shadow?"
Again, he nodded.
"Well, to me, that's one of the many voices of Dahak. The Impulse to Destroy, the darkness in our souls that never truly dies, no matter how often we try to kill it. I'm not a hero, like you are, but I've heard that voice all my life, and I've learned to fight it. I've also learned that the battle's never over."
I paused for a moment, to see if he'd react. He didn't.
"I've also learned that that vicious little voice lies. For deception is the will and the way of Darkness."
He looked up tentatively, a faint smile haunting his lips. "Now, where have I heard that before?"
From Zarathustra, actually. But I didn't say that. Instead, I leaned forward and asked intently, "If you hadn't walked through the darkness, would you ever have reached the Light?"
His eyes brightened a little, but the shadow was still there as he replied, "I know. But it isn't just for myself that I feel bad. I did a lot of damage to other folks when I sold myself out to Dahak. You of all people should understand that."
Now I had to look away, as memories washed through my mind of the time when I'd been the shameless flunky of the creature Dahak had made of him. The times I'd ignored my own conscience in order to do what he told me. How much I'd enjoyed my position as one of his most trusted followers. And how much I'd enjoyed being allowed to share his bed. Oh yeah, I understood what he meant. But I also understood something more.
"Whatever I did was out of my own weakness, and it was my fault, not yours. Dahak only provided the opportunity; it was my choice to take him up on it. And my choice to oppose him, in the end." I met his eyes squarely once again. "It was a valuable learning experience, and I think I'm better for it."
He sighed, and tried to come up with a smile of acceptance, but the shadow still lurked behind his blue gaze. "I don't think it was a very valuable experience for Hercules," he said softly.
"What do you mean?"
"There's been a sort of uneasiness between us, since I've come back from the Light. I'm not sure what the problem is, but I can think of plenty of reasons why he might not love me anymore. I mean, after the way I betrayed everything we'd ever stood for by letting Dahak trick me." He shook his head hopelessly. "Gods, even before that, I died to save Nebula, after making love to her! That had to have hurt him a lot."
"I thought you said you guys weren't jealous about other lovers?"
He grimaced. "We're not, when it's just sex. Nebula and I well, it might have turned into more than that, and I think Herc knew it."
I mulled that over for a bit, then asked, "Have you talked to him about all this?"
"No. I haven't been able to. We've been real busy in the short time since I returned. I've tried to bring it up to him, but I'm afraid." Absently, his fingers drifted to the talisman at his chest. He rubbed the rough edge.
"Afraid of what?"
"Of what his reaction might be. Things have been awkward between us. Maybe he just doesn't care anymore."
As his head drooped in renewed despair, his fingers continued to play with the piece of shattered stone he wore.
It occurred to me that there was nothing I could do to fix the broken talisman, but I could perhaps try to fix something else that seemed to be broken. If I could find the right words.
I reached out to capture his restless fingers as I said softly, "Don't even think it." Taking a breath, I went on, "Iolaus, my dear friend, listen to me. Dahak speaks in the silences we build around our hearts, and in the silent walls we build between ourselves and others. Talk to Hercules about all this."
"I don't know if I can."
"You can. And you will, if you love him."
He nodded. The hand I held twisted around to grasp my fingers and he raised them to his lips and kissed them. "Thanks," he said softly.
I closed my eyes, wincing against the pain in my heart at the touch of those lips that could not be mine.
"Iolaus, I care more about you than I have any right to," I admitted. "Maybe more than I wish I did."
"I know. And you'll always be a special friend."
"But not the one you truly love. I know that. And I can deal with it."
Oh, can you now, Euphonius? Are you so sure?
Yes, I'm sure. Shut up!
It wasn't long after that when Iolaus took off to do some more hunting, since we were both still hungry. Or maybe he just wanted to be alone for a while, to think over the things we had discussed.
I tried to find a comfortable position and settled down as best I could to take a nap.
I must have dropped off for a while, because I awoke with a start when I heard a voice behind me say uncertainly, "Iolaus?"
I turned. Hercules lay on his side, trying to push himself up into a sitting position as his eyes roamed over our small shelter.
I moved over closer to him. "Iolaus is fine. He's out hunting."
The demigod nodded, still trying to rise. I offered him a hand. "Here. Let me help."
As soon as he was sitting cross-legged, he gave a huge sigh and shook his long hair back from his face.
"How you feeling?" I asked.
He thought about that for a moment. "Not bad." Flexing his shoulders and stretching his arms above his head, he twisted experimentally from side to side. "Not bad at all," he concluded with a smile. "We been here long?"
"Almost a day now. Between my injured leg and you being pretty well out of it, we couldn't leave, even when the rain finally stopped."
A shadow crossed his face. "Iolaus' arm?"
"Stitch up, bandaged, healing well," I affirmed succinctly. "Any other questions?"
"Not really." Then he changed his mind. "Uh yeah. We got anything to eat? I'm starving!"
A good appetite is a good sign, or at least that's what my mother used to tell me. Iolaus must be right about the demigod's ability to heal quickly. Either that or Katelin's herbs can work miracles. By rights, he should have been dead.
"Well, we made short work of the quail, but I've probably got a few strips of dried meat in my saddlebags. Let me take a look." Limping over to my small pile of belongings, I produced a bit of dried lamb, which was somewhat the worse for wear but perfectly edible, if you've got a strong jaw.
"Thanks," Herc said, gnawing on it as if he were indeed starving.
"No problem. With luck, Iolaus will be back soon with something a bit more tender."
The big man sighed again as he continued to chew, and a slight frown furrowed his forehead. "Uh Euphonius?"
"That's my name," I replied lightly.
"About that uh night on the beach?"
I just nodded and said encouragingly, "Uh-huh?"
"Does Iolaus uh I mean --?"
"He knows about it. He knows about everything that went on while he was dead, not to mention while he was uh Dahak."
Hercules grimaced and made a noise that sounded rather as if he were choking on his mouthful of meat.
"Don't worry," I hastened to assure him. "He's not mad or anything."
"How do you know?"
"We spent a bit of time talking it over earlier today and comparing notes, okay? Trust me, it's not a problem." Then I really noticed the unhappy look on his face and added, "Or at least it isn't a problem if you don't turn it into one."
He shook his head. "I can imagine how he must feel about me. After all, I spent all that time with Morrigan. Then I wanted the other Iolaus so badly, even if I never did anything about it. Even you and I, that night on the beach --" He stopped, then tried again. "I mean, we --"
"Yeah, we screwed around under the stars that night. So what?" I shrugged, trying to make light of it. "Iolaus told me you two aren't exactly married. And besides, he was dead. You're not required to remain faithful all your life to a dead man, you know."
"Um," he agreed reluctantly.
"And he was dead those other times with Morrigan too, as far as you knew, wasn't he?"
The demigod nodded, but still seemed far from convinced. "I feel so guilty. I must have hurt him so much by doing all that. And Morrigan and I, we were getting pretty serious, for a while there. It wasn't just playing around."
By the gods! Hadn't I just heard this same conversation a short time ago, but in reverse?
The demigod shook his head miserably. "He must hate me."
"He doesn't," I said firmly. "But you've got to talk it over with him, get it out in the open so you can settle this."
I rolled my eyes in exasperation, knowing he couldn't see me. Not again! I groaned to myself, then started in on another round of reassurance and comfort, this time aimed at the worried demigod instead of his gorgeous sidekick.
In the end, I used the same line on him that I had used on Iolaus, about Dahak and the walls that silence builds. But even as Hercules' spirit lightened at my words, my heart grew dark. Why did I have to be the one to try to convince them to resolve their problems, while all I really wanted was for them to split up, so I'd have a chance at Iolaus?
Lose the conscience, Euphonius, old boy, and you could have a whole lot more fun, I told myself sadly as Iolaus came striding jauntily into the cave, carrying a couple of rabbits in his hand.
His face blazed with sudden sunshine as he caught sight of Hercules sitting up.
"Herc!" he exclaimed, dropping the rabbits. At first, I thought he was going to run over and throw himself at his partner, but he didn't. A wariness came into his eyes, overlaying the joy that was there.
Leaning heavily on my staff, I pulled myself to my feet. "Now that you're back," I told our mighty hunter, "I'm going outside for a while. I need a little sunlight and fresh air."
Iolaus gave me a puzzled look. "But your leg --" he began.
I took a few steps. I couldn't walk very well, and putting much of my weight on my foot was out of the question. I winced. Oh yes, my injured leg still hurt a lot but my wounded heart hurt a lot worse.
"I won't go far," I said with a forced smile. "Don't think I could if I wanted to, and besides, I'm looking forward to a chunk of those rabbits, once you've got them cooked."
"Oh. Yeah. Okay," was the distracted reply as I limped out of our little cave.
There. You've got your privacy. Now talk to each other, damn it!
The fresh air and sunshine did feel nice, after being cramped into the dank dimness of the cave for so long, but it did nothing to lighten the darkness inside my head. I sank down against a tree just a short way from the entrance and did my best to appreciate the warmth of the afternoon sun, determined to stay right there until I could smell roasting rabbit and had an excuse to go back inside. I might have dozed off for a little while, because the shadows had shifted a bit next time I looked around, and a faint aroma of roasting meat came to my nose. I also noticed that my bladder was once again full, so I dragged myself to my feet and started pissing against the tree, prior to heading back to the cave for some dinner.
"Well, well. Look who's here," came a harsh voice from behind me.
I barely had time to get my dripping dick back into my pants and grab my staff before a hand grabbed my shoulder and swung me around.
Lycus and his bunch of outlaws formed a semi-circle, weapons drawn and smug grins on their faces.
"Hello, little merchant," the bandit leader greeted me. The dirty bandage around his head did nothing whatsoever to improve his appearance.
"Uh hello," I replied, leaning ostentatiously on my staff to show it was a crutch, not a weapon. "It seems that we meet again, huh?"
"Yeah. And this time, you're not going to get off so easily." He pushed me around to face the cave. "All right, tell your friends to get their sorry asses out here."
"Friends?" I replied ingenuously. "What makes you think there's anyone else around?"
"Cut the shit, merchant," the one I'd dubbed Handsome cut in. "I spotted the little blond guy a few hours ago, out hunting. I followed him back here, then went to get the others."
Well, so much for lying. Guess I'd have to try something else.
"Iolaus!" I shouted at the top of my voice. "Watch out! The bandits !"
That was as far as I got before Lycus jabbed me in the gut with his fist and I collapsed, gasping. Before I had even gotten my breath back, I found myself hauled to my feet.
"You, in the cave!" Lycus announced loudly. "Come out, or your pal here dies real quick!"
I'd like to believe that I'd have told Herc and Iolaus not to do it, but I could barely breathe, much less say anything. It was all I could do to stand up, nearly doubled over and clutching my staff for support.
I could just make out movement in the shadows beneath the rocky overhang, then Iolaus stepped out into the light, with Hercules leaning on his shoulder. Iolaus didn't have his sword with him, and I couldn't help wondering about that.
They were immediately surrounded and herded back against the rock wall next to the cave entrance. At a gesture from Lycus, two of his men stationed themselves next to each of my friends, swords close against their necks. Herc and Iolaus didn't say a thing, just stood there looking sick, weak, and helpless.
The leader turned his attention back to me. "All right, merchant. I know you've got more valuables than we took from you last time. Give them to me, or your buddies are history."
Drawing a deep and heartfelt sigh, I said only, "You win."
I removed my sash, pulling both ends free of the wooden circlet that normally held them fast. The circlet was carved in the semblance of a wreath of olive leaves, with several oversized leaves in a bunch on the part that was most visible. Carefully, I drew the tip of my finger across the inside surface of the leafy part, feeling for the barely visible slit in the smooth wood. When I found it, I caught the edge with my fingernail and slid open the lid of a small compartment. I dumped a pair of elaborate earrings into my palm and held them out to Lycus, who inspected them closely and smiled.
"Nice," he remarked. "Don't run across such good quality opals too often."
"Yeah," I agreed glumly. "The Romans say opals bring good fortune." I shrugged. "Guess they were wrong, in this case."
"Oh, they'll bring you good fortune, all right. You and your pals just might be fortunate enough to live through this little episode, if you've got more stuff like this to contribute. I'd call that pretty lucky, at this point."
Briefly, I debated telling him that was all I had, but decided against it. I doubted they'd believe that I had tried so hard to preserve my cache of truly valuable items at our first meeting, if all I had was a pair of earrings, however nice they might be.
Pulling the neck of my tunic around to where I could see the embroidered design that edged the collar, I found the bit of loose thread that seemed to have frayed off. A strong tug, and the end of the collar unraveled, allowing me to slip a pearl necklace from its hiding place inside.
Without a word, I placed it in Lycus' outstretched hand.
I didn't figure they were satisfied just yet, so I reached for my boot, in all innocence. Imagine my surprise when I felt myself grabbed roughly by several hands and pulled upright, to find Lycus' sword pointed at my chest.
"Uh is there a problem here?" I asked carefully.
"You keep a knife in your boot. I saw you skewer one of my men with it," the outlaw leader grated.
I gave a short laugh. "I'm afraid you overestimate my prowess as a fighter if you think I could take on all of you with nothing but a throwing knife. Besides, that wasn't my intention at all. I was merely attempting to get you more of my valuables."
"And why should I believe that?"
"First off, because I never got my knife back after our earlier disagreement, so how could I have it now?"
"Might have one in the other boot though," Eyepatch suggested sourly, rubbing the bandage around his thigh where I had nailed him in our earlier fight.
"Might, but don't. Check and see," I suggested. "And while you're at it, take off the left one, would you? That's what I was trying to do when I was so rudely interrupted. There's something inside it that I know you'll like." I raised my foot off the ground, lifting my eyebrows and staring down at it significantly. "Be careful, okay? This leg doesn't feel too good right now."
Eyepatch took the hint, searching inside the top of my right boot first and not finding a weapon. Then he pulled off the other boot, not too roughly, turning it over and shaking it, as if he expected something to fall out. When nothing happened, he scowled at me, then stuck a hand into the boot, only to withdraw it empty.
The swordpoint pressed even harder against my chest, as Lycus demanded, "Thought you said there was something in there. You think we're stupid or something?"
"No," I assured him, squelching the smartass rejoinder I was sorely tempted to make. "Give it to me and I'll show you."
I was abruptly set free, with the boot shoved into my hands. Carefully, I reached inside, forcing my fingers all the way to the end and pulling down the flap of leather that formed a false toe, then pressing it down so it laid on the sole instead. Withdrawing my hand, I shook a large ruby into my palm and held it up for inspection.
Lycus grabbed the ruby, then took my boot, sticking his own hand inside. "Clever," he replied with a smile. "Check the other one also," he ordered his men.
"Oh come now. Do you really think I'd use the same place twice?" I objected mildly, but put up no show of resistance when they pushed me down and removed my remaining boot, then searched it thoroughly, with no success.
I sat there, glad to have the weight off my injured leg, and gave an innocent shrug of the shoulders.
"What else have you got?" Lycus demanded.
"Nothing. You've cleaned me out." Once again, I had no trouble sounding miserable when I told him that. "You can let us go now."
The raucous laughter that greeted my statement wasn't entirely a surprise, but I had hoped perhaps I'd be proven wrong.
"You really think we're gonna just let you and your friends walk away, after the big guy over there roughed us up with his bare hands and Blondie killed one of my men?" He moved closer, glowering down at me. "Besides, I don't like you much either, you tricky little smartass. I think we'll enjoy sending all of you to meet Hades. Let's see how well your tricks work on him, shall we?"
"But you promised --" I began, pushing myself up onto my knees.
"All I can recall promising is that you'd die if your friends didn't give themselves up. Never said anything about not killing you all anyway." He grinned nastily as he kicked my left leg with the toe of his boot. I screamed and wrapped myself around the pain. "And never said anything about making it nice and easy either," he added.
"Boss, how about we have a little fun with him first?" Handsome suggested. "I'd be glad to take the first crack at him. Or maybe the pretty little blond guy who killed Alexis."
The chorus of lascivious agreement from the rest of the outlaws was enough to snap my mind back into action, despite the agony in my leg. The situation was clearly hopeless now, so I did the only thing I could think of to try to get out of this mess.
"No, please!" I begged desperately. "I lied! I've still got one more piece of jewelry. I don't care what you do to the others, but if you'll spare my life, I'll get it for you."
As Lycus hesitated, I kept my eyes averted and away from Hercules and Iolaus, not wanting to see the look of hurt and betrayal I was sure would be on their faces.
The bandit leader took the bait, but was clearly skeptical. "Why should I let you live?" he demanded. "If I take you apart piece by piece, I'll find anything else you've got anyway."
"Uh-uh," I replied, shaking my head. "Trust me, you won't find it that way."
"I don't believe you."
I shrugged. "Okay. But are you really willing to toss away your chance to have something that will make all this other stuff look like small change?"
It didn't take him long to decide he wasn't that much of a gambler.
"All right. You come up with something that good, and you're free."
Now it was my turn to play hard to get. "Why should I believe you?"
"I swear, by --" he frowned, evidently thinking hard about how he could impress me with his sincerity. "By uh by Hermes, the God of Thieves." Smiling in satisfaction, he declared, "You don't think I'd go back on that, do you?"
Actually, I had little hope that he'd honor any oath, whether he made it to Hermes, Eros, or Zeus himself, but I gave him a look that said he'd convinced me against my better judgement and nodded. "Hand me my saddlebags," I requested, motioning towards the pile of gear with my chin. At the same time, I glanced sideways at Iolaus, trying to catch his attention. He looked every bit as disgusted with me as I had feared, his lips drawn into a thin line and his forehead furrowed in a frown. Slowly, as if accidentally, I lowered one eyelid in a wink, hoping to alert him to the fact that this situation wasn't entirely what he thought it to be.
Did I see a slight lessening of the tension around his mouth and a sudden gleam in his eyes, or was that just wishful thinking?
I took the saddlebags and went down on one knee, setting them on the ground so I was facing Herc and Iolaus, but most of the others had to shift around with their backs to my friends if they wanted to see what I was doing.
I rummaged through the loose clothing and assorted items, then triumphantly withdrew the jar of healing paste, pulled out the brooch, wiped it clean on the edge of my tunic, then stood up, holding it out to my fascinated audience.
Turning it this way and that to catch the light, I pointed out all the wonders of this lovely piece of jewelry: the fine quality and varying hues of the inset diamonds, the detailed carving, and whatever else I could think of to keep everyone's attention firmly on me. Meanwhile, I shot a glance at Iolaus. He seemed alert and ready, so I had hopes that he had caught on to what I was doing. In fact, he seemed just a bit too ready. In order to keep him from acting too soon, I caught his eye and shook my head slightly from side to side, while everyone else was focussed on the jewelry in my hands.
Finally, I gave the brooch to Lycus. Before he could react, I said tentatively, "There's more." Squatting down and once again rummaging through the leather bags, I gestured with my other hand that they should all come closer. Obligingly and unsuspectingly, they did, a few even squatting down to get a better view, while Lycus leaned over in front of me.
Meanwhile, I had gotten a firm hold on my little bottle of concentrated lavender oil and had worked the top off with a finger while covering the opening with my thumb, still keeping it hidden from sight. I wasn't at all sure the oil would have the desired effect, but Katelin had warned me about using it full strength. Besides, what more did I have to lose?
All eyes were focussed expectantly on the saddlebags. Even the men guarding Herc and Iolaus were looking my way, instead of at their prisoners. I gave the guards a quick smile, which was really meant to tip off my friends.
Drawing the small vial slowly and dramatically from the pouch, I dashed the stinging oil first into Lycus' eyes, then into the faces of anyone else nearby. At the same time, I screeched like an enraged harpy, lurched to my feet, and rammed my head into the nearest stomach I could reach.
Hercules and Iolaus took full advantage of the distraction I had created. By the time I looked in their direction, they had overcome the guards and were wading into the midst of the rest of the ruffians, most of whom had turned away from me at the commotion. Iolaus now had his sword, so he must have left it nearby, just inside the cave entrance. I had barely a moment to admire how smoothly the two heroes fought together, even injured as they were, each relying instinctively on the other and coordinating their moves to the best possible effect, before I realized that I could be in danger and began scuttling backwards.
Lycus scrubbed at his burning eyes, swearing fiercely. He managed to blink them open just as I was trying to reach the doubtful shelter of our little cave. Raising his sword, he stumbled towards me, uttering some vile imprecations.
I deemed it prudent to retreat more rapidly into the darkness beneath the rocky overhang, hoping my two warrior friends would get around to dealing with the outlaw leader before he could catch me.
My hopes were quickly dashed as Lycus followed me into the cave, cursing even more viciously as his head struck the low ceiling. He crouched, still trying to clear his eyes.
"I've got you now, merchant. You're cornered like the little rat that you are," he said.
Cornered I might be, but he had to be just about blind, what with the oil and then going from bright daylight into the dim cave. I scuttled backwards on hands and knees, keeping low and reaching behind me to feel for the tumbled pile of rocks that I knew was there. When my hand encountered rough stone, I pulled myself up as straight as I could using my staff and deliberately scuffed my foot on the floor.
Lycus turned towards the noise, declaring triumphantly, "Gotcha now!"
"No way, asshole!" I retorted rudely, making even more noise as I appeared to scramble away.
Furious, Lycus charged across the remaining distance between us. I dropped flat to the floor just before he would have bowled into me, using my staff to catch his legs and trip him forward and over my body. His momentum carried him over the rocks and beyond. The next thing I heard was a long scream of terror, ending in a dull thud and then a splash. After that, there was only silence in the cave, except for the sounds of the battle still raging outside.
As soon as my heart stopped pounding and I could breathe again, I crawled over to the entrance and peeked out. Things were about over by then, with several of the bandits lying unconscious, while the rest had clearly surrendered.
Herc leaned against a tree, pale and breathing hard. Iolaus still held his sword pointed in the direction of his prisoners, but blood had soaked the bandage on his arm and was liberally dripping from his elbow. He had to have torn out the stitches, I realized ruefully.
Then he caught sight of me. "Euphonius," he said with a calm he could hardly have felt, "get over here and tie these men up."
Before they realize just how close I am to collapsing and attack me! I automatically finished the rest of his request to myself as I hurried to comply with it. Despite the fierce determination on his face, I knew he had to be in bad shape.
Fortunately, the danger of the situation kept my mind off my throbbing leg for a while longer. I managed to secure our prisoners reasonably well before the world began turning black and I had to lie down. By then, Iolaus had gotten Hercules into a sitting position, and had bound more cloth around his own injured arm, stopping the bleeding.
"Now what?" I asked faintly as the blackness started to clear away from my vision.
Iolaus looked around, thought for a moment, then said grimly, "Now we find where these bastards have left their horses and we head for town with our prisoners."
"Sounds like a plan," I agreed. "Just let me catch my breath, and I'll be right with you."
"I can handle it." He stood up, still a bit white around the lips. "Herc, you still with us?"
The demigod opened his eyes. "Yeah. Don't worry about me. You find the horses while I check on our prisoners and tie up the unconscious ones."
Hercules rose to his feet, shaking the hair out of his face. "Yeah. No problem."
"I'll uh get the rest of our stuff together," I volunteered, by now somewhat recovered.
Iolaus nodded and started off into the woods, as Hercules headed for the bandits lying scattered around the clearing.
I pulled myself up with my staff and limped around, searching the trampled grass and brush of the erstwhile battlefield for any signs of my stolen jewelry. The necklace and even the earrings were relatively easy to find, but the ruby was a bit more difficult. Finally, Hercules came over to me and held out his hand, the red jewel in the center of his big palm. "This what you're looking for?"
"Yeah," I admitted, somewhat shamefaced. "Thanks. You uh haven't found the diamond brooch, have you?"
He shook his head. "Last I saw, Lycus was holding it."
I winced. That was the last I'd seen of it too, but I had been hoping I'd been wrong. I limped painfully towards the cave, planning to get the rest of our few belongings together.
As I stuffed everything into my saddlebags, I glanced deeper into the darkness, at the abyss where Lycus had fallen. I figured I knew pretty well where my brooch had gone. The irony was that I had even sent it there myself.
I gave a sigh. Oh well, guess you can't win 'em all, can you? At least we were all alive and reasonably well.
Much later, long after that day had become that evening, the three of us sat in the common room of the little inn where I had originally expected to spend the previous night. The bandits had been turned over to the local magistrate, we'd all been to see the village healer and had been freshly cleaned up, patched up, and bandaged, and we were now hungrily attacking a succulent lamb stew and downing our first tankards of ale.
Thanks to the excellent care I'd received, my leg hurt a lot less, and I was able to walk short distances without leaning on the staff. However, standing for any length of time made it ache abominably and it was very tender to the touch. Even sitting down, I propped it up as high as I could whenever possible. Just now I was sitting sideways on the bench, in order to keep my foot up off the floor.
Hercules and Iolaus were across the table from me, and I could tell from the way they were talking and joking around together that they had pretty well resolved the issues that had hung between them. It was also very clear from the way they were looking at each other that they'd be getting a room for the night pretty damn soon also.
Although I was trying to put on a good show of cheer and conviviality, I was less than happy inside. Wasn't I the one who had encouraged them to talk, to work things out? So why did I now have to fight back tears, seeing that my advice had been so successful?
And why did my heart, not to mention the rest of my uncooperative body, burn with jealousy and desire at the mere thought of them making love to each other? Who was I, after all, to even dare to want someone like Iolaus? And it was Iolaus I chiefly wanted, despite Hercules' all too obvious good looks. But they were warriors and heroes. I was nothing but a wimp.
And yet, I wanted him so much I could taste it, so much that I dared not even stand up to make a graceful exit because they'd see the evidence of my desire all too clearly.
Get a grip, Euphonius, I chided myself. You have no right: not to the body, that you knew so well when it belonged to Dahak; not to the heart, that has always belonged to Hercules. You have no claim on him, and you know it. So smile and swallow the tears, and be only what you can be to him: a good friend.
That's when I noticed the object of my affection and desire glance sharply at me. Then he leaned close to Hercules and whispered in his ear. They held a brief discussion, none of which I could hear over the general hubbub of the tavern. Nevertheless, I was pretty sure they were planning to retire for the night, so I plastered a carefree and falsely drunken smile across my face as Hercules nodded and Iolaus turned to me.
"You slept with us last night, Euphonius," he said with a mischievous grin. "Wanna do it again?"
I had to catch my mouth before it fell open. Then I reminded myself that it was probably just an invitation to sleep and nothing more, since we were all still recovering from our various wounds.
I managed to nod and say, "Sure. Love to."
"All right!" Iolaus rose. "I'll go arrange things with the innkeeper."
We must have ended up in the best room in the place, because it was certainly of a far better quality than I had expected, in such a small village. Perhaps the innkeeper was glad to have the famous Hercules as a customer. At any rate, our room was exceptionally clean, warm, and generously lit with a number of candles.
It was also furnished with one nice, large, comfortable-looking bed.
Still not sure exactly what the invitation to share their room included, I kept my eyes and thoughts as far from that bed as possible, even when my two friends pulled off their boots and reclined on top of it. Iolaus had apparently gotten an extra wineskin before coming to the room. He held it up to his partner, his eyes sparkling. Hercules opened his mouth. Laughing, Iolaus poured so much wine between the other man's lips that it ran down his broad chest. Then, of course, he had to take Herc's shirt off and lick up the spilled liquid.
That was too much for me. I strolled casually over to the window and made a show of looking out at the sky. The stars shone brightly, and a full moon floated overhead. I suppose it would have been a beautiful sight, if I hadn't been totally preoccupied with something else.
Euphonius, you asshole, I berated myself. Isn't this the very same situation you wished for last night, complete with bed, inn, and your wished-for partners? So what's the problem?
The problem is they're lovers, I answered miserably. And you're not part of that equation.
"Hey, Euphonius," Hercules voice said softly, breaking into the argument I was having with myself. "Aren't you going to drink some of this wine? If you don't, we'll have to finish it all ourselves, and Iolaus would get disgustingly drunk, if he isn't already."
"Me, drunk?" I heard Iolaus protest. "Never! No way! And certainly not in a disgusting manner."
"See?" Hercules continued. "He's already soused. Come on over here and help us out."
What could I do? I turned away from the safety of the window and perched on the edge of the bed next to Iolaus, taking the offered wineskin and downing as much of the sweet wine as I could manage in one long gulp.
No, I just couldn't do this. Much as I wanted to screw them both, I didn't want to come between them in any way. And I certainly didn't want either of them to wake up tomorrow morning and hate me for it, as could well happen, considering they were both less than cold sober right now.
I made to get up, but Iolaus grabbed my hand, keeping me there. I shook my head and tried to give him back the wineskin, but he wouldn't take it. As I gave in and took another swallow, the fingers holding onto my hand slid up my arm to my shoulder and he tried to pull me down to lie next to him.
"Uh guys are you sure?" I asked, as I resisted that not-so-subtle pressure.
"Yeah," Hercules replied, propping himself up on one elbow and looking me square in the eye. Suddenly he sounded perfectly serious and not very drunk at all. "It's okay. Really."
I shook my head, but my resolve was wavering badly. "Nah. This is between the two of you. I'm not --"
"Euphonius?" Iolaus interrupted me.
"Has anyone ever told you that you talk too much?"
"Well, yes, now that you mention it."
"Okay, then. Shut up."
He pulled my head down and kissed me soundly. I shut up.
As he continued kissing me, his fingers traced trails of fire over my skin, moving across my shoulder and along the nape of my neck. Then he wrapped his arm around my waist and turned over, pulling me down on top of him and then across his chest so that I ended up in the middle of the bed, between him and Hercules.
Unfortunately, even though he had done it slowly and carefully, my wounded leg still managed to land rather too hard on the mattress. The resulting stab of sudden pain made me break off our kiss in order to gasp. I was also fairly certain that my weight had come down on his right arm as I rolled over him, even though he didn't react quite as noticeably as I did.
"I don't want to be a wimp," I said, "but are you sure that we're in good enough shape to be doing this sort of thing?"
"Thought I told you to shut up," Iolaus murmured, just before his lips claimed mine once again. As our tongues explored each other's wine-sweetened mouths, I felt Hercules snuggle up close behind me.
"Don't worry," he whispered. "We're not exactly planning to swing from any chandeliers. It'll be okay."
I relaxed a little at his words, but even more at the touch of his hands rubbing the back of my neck and shoulders. My objections dissolved along with the tension in my muscles.
They were both expert at touching and caressing, but I discovered that Iolaus had a lighter, more teasing style. I joined in the action also, running one hand down his chest, underneath his vest. Pressed together front to front as we were, I could feel his cock twitch even through the warm leather of his codpiece. As my own fingers slid over his body, I took a poignant delight in his response to my touch. There was no hurry, no driving urgency, at least not just yet.
Oh gods, how long had it been since I'd done anything like this? Simply touching someone can be glorious. I sometimes think we humans are meant to touch each other far more often than we do. We need that sort of contact, to keep us sane and happy.
Iolaus finally broke off the kiss but no sooner had he done so than Hercules' lips replaced his. As I squirmed carefully around to face the other man, I felt those big hands reach under my tunic. Obligingly, I unfastened my sash and tossed it aside, allowing him easier access to my chest and stomach.
The view of Herc's hair with the candlelight shining behind it was something I couldn't resist. I played with it tentatively and felt it slide through my fingers like strands of silk. Over and over our lips came together with a tenderness we hadn't shared that other time on the beach.
Iolaus reached around from behind me and trailed his hand up my leg to touch my hard shaft through the thin cotton of my pants. Then Hercules
pushed my tunic up almost to my shoulders and pulled me tightly against the front of his body. I could feel the rough fabric of the bandage around his chest and briefly worried that this might be hurting him, but considering that he didn't let go, I figured it didn't bother him too much.
The sensations of our warm, hot flesh rubbing together, combined with Iolaus' hand cupping my genitals were enough to make me want to finish this now. I lifted myself to that stroking hand only to have it suddenly disappear.
Before either Herc or I realized what he was doing, Iolaus had bounced off his side of the bed and was down by my feet. He took hold of one of my boots and started pulling it off.
"I really hate shoes in bed," he said. "They ruin the mood." He waved negligently at us as he finished removing the offending piece of footwear. "Go back to what you were doing, guys."
I looked over to see the demigod arch a stern eyebrow at his lover. "Watch out for his injured leg."
"Hercules, has anyone ever told you that you talk too much?" I asked archly, pulling his lips once more to mine and kissing him as Iolaus went on to the other boot. Gentle as he was trying to be, it still hurt. I must have winced, because Hercules drew back and chuckled gently. "Just poke his arm and then ask him if it hurts, Euphonius. That's what he does to me all the time."
"I do not!"
"Do too!" Hercules replied good-naturedly, retrieving the wineskin from the floor and taking another swig. With a somewhat shy grin, he proceeded to work his heavy woven trousers down over his hips and off his legs. At the same time, Iolaus removed his own vest and pants, with considerably less trouble than his partner was having.
I've died and gone to the Elysian Fields, I thought, seeing both of them finally stark naked.
"Your turn to strip," Iolaus said.
They might be gorgeous, but I knew full well that I was rather ordinary in comparison, not to mention about ten years older. Still, it would appear that I had no other choice, and I'm not in such bad shape for a man of my age. Sitting up, I pulled my tunic over my head, then started on my pants, with Iolaus helping me work the left leg carefully down over my bandaged calf.
Soon we were all tangled together on the bed once again, with me still in the middle. I had to admit it was much nicer without all that leather and cloth in the way.
In some inexplicable manner, the previously random groping and squirming soon began to focus on me. I wasn't complaining, especially when Hercules' hand started to get really serious with my cock. I felt the familiar tightening in my groin, but I didn't want it to be over so fast. I tried to pull back, to slow down, but Iolaus said softly, "Relax. Go with it."
His breath tickled my ear, as his teeth nibbled on my earlobe. All right, if that's how he wanted it. I thrust enthusiastically into the hand now steadily milking my cock, as Iolaus' fingers played with my nipples and his voice whispered encouragingly in my ear. But despite the incredible pleasure of their combined ministrations, something stirred uncomfortably on the edges of my awareness. Something about that voice, and the words he was using.
I was teetering on the edge of orgasm, when he said softly, "Oh, yes. Come for me."
I froze. Those particular words sent a shiver of terror down my spine. For a split second, I wondered why. And then I knew.
Sometimes, when he had been Dahak, he'd said the very same thing to me, in just that same tone of voice, under very similar circumstances. My eyes flew open and I turned to look at him, afraid of what I'd see.
Alarmed blue eyes met mine. "What is it? What's wrong?" he asked urgently.
This wasn't the demon, I told myself, trying to banish the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. This was truly Iolaus, the Iolaus I knew and loved. Yes, and the same Iolaus who had also the knowledge of what had happened between me and the creature who had possessed him, and who therefore knew just how I responded to certain things.
"Dahak," I tried to explain. "He --"
Iolaus pressed his lips together, and the shadows gathered in his eyes as he realized what he'd done. "Oh, no! I'm sorry. I just automatically oh, shit!"
He tried to turn away, but I grabbed him. "No, it's all right. Just took me by surprise, that's all."
Hercules, meanwhile, had stopped what he had been doing and was just holding my aching cock in his hand.
Iolaus allowed me to turn his face to mine. "It's okay," I insisted. "I love to hear you talk like that. Your voice haunts my dreams and fantasies." I grinned and gave him a quick kiss. "Let's get back to what we were doing, shall we?"
With a nod, he relaxed beside me once again. But he had very little to say now. No matter. I was so close that it took very little more encouragement from anyone for me to fall over that delicious edge.
I had barely recovered my senses when something amusing occurred to me. I couldn't help it. I started to laugh. Okay, I have an inappropriate sense of humor sometimes. But after that little incident with Iolaus, I wanted to lighten things up a bit.
"What's so funny?" Hercules inquired, a quizzical look on his face.
"Well, before all this started, I was thinking how I didn't want to do anything to come between you two. And uh I just did."
Iolaus giggled, but the demigod still didn't get it. "You know, come?" I prompted, drawing one finger ostentatiously through the blob of gooey liquid on my stomach. "Between you?"
"Oh." Comprehension dawned. "Oh, yeah."
Iolaus once again bounced abruptly off the bed, circled around to the other side, then lay down next to his partner, announcing merrily, "Okay, Herc, your turn to be in the middle."
With a lazy smile, the demigod obligingly scooted over and spread himself on the bed between the two of us. Iolaus promptly plastered his entire body to his partner's left side and kissed him.
Now, I've had a bit of experience with orgies and multiple partners, but this was different. This time I cared deeply about both of these men, and I have to say I was somewhat nervous as a result. I let Iolaus take the lead, merely using my fingers to explore Hercules' chest, carefully skirting the bandage wrapped around his body.
Eventually, Iolaus broke off the kiss, groped for the almost empty wineskin and poured a small amount in Hercules' navel, lapping it out with his tongue.
Noticing the direction in which Iolaus was inexorably travelling, I allowed my hands to follow him, teasingly tracing a path down the big man's side and hip then coming up inside his thigh. With some misgiving, I realized that Hercules' erect cock would never fit comfortably into my mouth, but perhaps Iolaus had had more experience with it. I watched as he licked its glistening length, then drew the already partially retracted foreskin carefully back and ran his tongue over the slit.
Hercules drew in a hissing breath and threw his head back against the pillow.
Since Iolaus seemed to have all the action on the bottom pretty well in hand, or perhaps mouth, I moved up to kiss and nibble on Herc's shoulders, neck, and face, running my fingers through his hair as I did so.
Soon enough, we had the big man twisting and squirming.
"Harder, Iolaus. Harder," he urged. Then his entire body arched to the orgasm as it raced through him.
Even before he'd fully caught his breath, the big man abruptly pulled Iolaus into his arms.
"I love you. I was lost without you," he said gently.
I could see the tension in Iolaus' face relax as he heard his partner's words. The shadows faded from his eyes for a brief moment as he whispered, "I love you too, Herc," then leaned down for a tender kiss.
I just lay there watching as the kiss went on to grow deeper and more passionate. They were beautiful together. My cock stirred to life once again, even as I also noticed the sharpened ache in my injured leg as a result of all the moving around I'd been doing. But the pain faded out of my mind as I became more caught up in watching my two friends kissing.
Then Hercules did much the same thing to Iolaus that Iolaus had done earlier to me, except that he didn't roll him over quite as far. Breaking off the kiss, he pulled Iolaus up and over so that the smaller man lay face up on top of his own body. With Iolaus in that position, the entire front of his body was accessible to the demigod's hands. Hercules proceeded to stroke and caress his partner, returning repeatedly to his groin but never quite touching the hard shaft that jerked and twitched under those wonderful but frustrating ministrations.
Once, as Iolaus' hand strayed down to his crotch, Hercules pulled it firmly away and whispered, "No."
By now, I was yearning to touch that tempting cock myself, but I got the definite feeling that my assistance was not wanted. There was more than merely pleasure going on here. This was for real, and it was meant to be just between them. I could hardly get up and leave the room without breaking the mood, so I just kept still where I was and kept on watching them. I couldn't help reaching for my own erect cock though, stroking gently and slowly.
Then Hercules shifted around so that Iolaus was once again on the mattress, still lying on his back. The demigod rolled over so that his upper body was partially covering the smaller man, while his left leg came down across Iolaus' thighs, pressing in between them until they spread apart. Meanwhile, he kissed Iolaus hard, while his free hand played with one nipple, squeezing and pulling.
As Hercules moved against him slowly, Iolaus tried to rub his straining cock against Hercules' leg, but it didn't work. Frustrated, his hand moved once again to his groin.
The demigod saw what he was doing. "Hands," he said gently.
"Aw please, Herc!"
"Patience, buddy. Patience," the big man said with a low chuckle.
And he continued to thrust against his partner, keeping him pinned down. The top of his thigh just touched the side of Iolaus' balls, putting pressure on them with each stroke but never once making contact with his shaft.
Iolaus squirmed desperately against the man who covered him. By now, I was thrusting into my own hand in time with his frantic strokes. Hercules was clearly aroused himself, his own cock trapped tightly between their bodies and rubbing against Iolaus' hip.
Then Iolaus sucked in his breath with a shivery sigh, arched his body hard against his lover, and came with enough force to splatter his seed into the thick hair on the demigod's chest. Hercules responded by hugging himself even tighter up against Iolaus as his own climax overtook him.
"Whew!" Iolaus exclaimed when they finally broke their embrace. "I never did it that way before. You didn't even touch me!"
Hercules smiled lazily in acknowledgement, his eyes devouring his lover's face as he relaxed back against the pillows.
Then they seemed to remember my presence. They turned to me in unison, just as I was jerking myself off. I smiled somewhat shamefacedly, not entirely sure how they'd react.
A seriously wicked grin spread across Iolaus' face and he said softly, "Come for me."
"Oh, gods!" I gasped unoriginally. Then, after a brief pause to catch my breath and grinning at Hercules, "Or half-gods, as the case may be."
As the laughter died away, we all just lay there in silence for a moment. Once again, I wasn't sure what I should do next. I shifted slightly, trying to get my leg, which once more insisted on reminding me of its displeasure, into a more comfortable position.
Hercules planted a gentle kiss on the top of Iolaus' head, and Iolaus snuggled closer up against him. I could see that the big man's eyes were already drifting closed. Sleepytime, I concluded, and was about to turn over and curl up by myself when Hercules glanced at me and then gestured with his free hand for me to come closer.
More than happy to oblige, I fitted myself against Iolaus' back and settled down to sleep with my arm around his waist.
As Morpheus drew his heavy curtain over us all, I was well content. I could have died then and there, and I'd have been satisfied with my life.
For the second time in as many days, I awoke with Iolaus lying beside me, facing me, and Hercules behind him, facing away from us both. I grinned to myself at the position. Not only did they fight back to back, but they also slept that way.
As I lay there waiting for the dawn, I reflected ruefully that my business trip certainly hadn't gone exactly as planned, and I was poorer by the amount the bandits had stolen from me. Then I glanced over at Hercules and Iolaus, and knew that I had ended up richer in other and far more important ways.
I closed my eyes again, determined to make the moment last just as long as I could. I knew full well that when the sun came up, the two of them would be going on their way once more, and I wouldn't be a part of that, despite last night's fun and games.
I had barely begun to indulge my incipient self-pity when Iolaus shifted position next to me. I almost thought he'd wakened up, but then he sighed softly and settled down again, one arm draped across my chest.
It felt really, really good to have him snuggled up beside me. I couldn't help but think how nice it would be to have him always there. Still half asleep, I started spinning a wistful fantasy of him leaving Hercules and travelling around with me. I guess I must have dozed off then, as my daydream began to take on a life of its own.
I saw myself walking down the road toward my home, chatting happily with Iolaus, who was by my side. Even as I smiled and talked, I was wondering, now that I've got him, what will I do with him? Keep him in my house, with my housekeeper and her daughter, while I travel around earning dinars?
Absurd image here of Iolaus in an apron, his face smeared with flour as he helped Ysabel bake bread.
Nope, that wouldn't work. Perhaps the former Jester would have enjoyed that sort of life, but this Iolaus certainly wouldn't.
Well then, have him tag along on my business trips, helping me buy and sell jewelry?
Another picture of Iolaus, this time wearing a fancy tunic and holding up a dangly red carnelian earring to a giggling courtesan, who had eyes only for the yummy little man, rather than the bit of finery he was trying to sell.
"Here you are, my dear," he said. "This one is absolutely you. It goes so well with your coloring, and picks up the red highlights in your hair."
No, that was so dreadful as to be almost funny.
Meanwhile, what was happening to Hercules, since Iolaus had dropped him in order to be with me?
I saw the demigod wandering around aimlessly by himself, alone and dispirited. This was even more devastating than when Iolaus was dead, because now his beloved was alive, but didn't want him. Oh yes, Hercules still tried to be a hero, but his heart wasn't in it. Over the years, he grew sad and hopeless, and then bitter. Then one day, fighting something monsters, bandits, gods it didn't matter what he got careless and died from a sneak attack, because he forgot there was no one there guarding his back.
Iolaus, hearing about Hercules' death, went into a fit of guilt and depression and hanged himself from the ceiling of my home with a heavy gold chain.
I woke up with a start, the innocent dream having turned itself into a nightmare. With a sigh of relief, I saw Iolaus curled up next to me, still slumbering peacefully. Hercules lay on his side behind him, one muscular arm resting over the smaller man's waist.
I smiled. Yeah, they'd be leaving me soon enough and that hurt. But that was how it should be, after all. They were warriors and heroes, and they belonged together.
As the light of a new day crept slowly through the window, my smile grew wider and the pain in my heart dissolved. Iolaus was alive again, and he was still my friend. More than my friend, actually, considering last night. In the final analysis though, I knew he belonged to Hercules.
But still, he was alive.
And somehow just that simple little fact was enough to make me feel more truly alive also.
Continue on to the sequel Remembered a Hero