He was almost there. Another hill to cross and heíd be at the house. He could see it from a distance. It didnít look threatening, but Hercules knew better. It was a prison and it was holding his best friend captive. He felt a droplet of rain against his cheek. Sprinkling. With heavy rain to follow.
"Iolaus." Hercules whispered and picked up the pace.
If it wasnít for Miss Blanchea, his need to protect the woman from her sisterís fury, heíd left long ago. Thoughtfully, Valetese lifted the brush and carefully stroked the horseís mane. Maybe once this was all over, Mavala got what she wanted, he would invite Blanchea to leave this evil place and come with him. With her share of the family fortune the two of them could live comfortably. Heíd even encourage her to paint. She liked to paint but didnít do it often. Not like when they were younger. Heíd remembered how she had looked, a lovely twenty-year old in a light mauve summer toga, painting on a tightly bound piece of parchment -- on the porch of her fatherís grand home.
Valetese had only been fourteen at the time, no more than a stable-boy then, but heíd fallen in love with Blanchea ... and never stopped. Even after all of these years. Valetese heart ached.
He heard a noise behind him.
"I can forgive you, my beloved, even this! Please come back to me!" she watched from her window. He and the girl had entered the stable and she lost sight of them. But she remembered the stable -- what some liked to call the carriage-house. Others called it "the barn". That was where she and Champion had...
"Donít kill him, you fool! He will do us little good if heís dead ..."
Iolaus heard these words while laying flat on his back, looking upward from the straw strewn floor of the stable. Valetese and two other male figures, probably employees - land workers for Miss Mavala and Blanchea - were looking down at him.
One of the men held Lydia in a rough embrace, trying to keep her still. The other held a field-fork and seemed pleased about something, "Hercules gave us a run for our money but this little guy isnít a problem. Not with that shoulder." He smiled widely, showing discolored teeth.
ĎNo,í Iolaus thought absently, trying with great difficulty to remain conscious. ĎHercules would never find himself like this...í
The hunter was amazed at his own inexplicable lack of foresight. He and Lydia, hoping to procure some horses and make their way to Cere City, crept to the barn. If they were lucky, Valetese wouldnít even know they were there until it was too late. They hadnít counted on the other two. Younger men with good eyes who werenít distracted by a horse grooming chore. How often, as a warrior, had Iolaus been told not to let his defenses down for a moment? Especially when he was entering into an area of undetermined danger.
Yet, the blow had come and in his most vulnerable area. The shoulder. Iolaus was down, numbed by suffering, before he even heard Lydia cry out.
"Heís bleeding again."
Iolaus turned his head to take in who it was that spoke and looked at the wound. Miss Mavala and, yes, red was staining the tan shirt shoulder. Dazed, Iolaus thought - ĎLiaís going to have to change the bandage again...í He looked behind Mavala at Blanchea. She appeared concerned and nervous, as always but Mavala was...a stone. Her hands were clenched with determination. The womanís demeanor spoke of business.
"Iím..." Iolaus started but couldnít finish. The mere act of attempted speech was too much.
Mavala ignored him, "Itís too soon but heís left us with little choice."
"Itís too soon..." Blanchea repeated. "And Hercules is on the way." She looked over at Lydia and a strange, nearly forlorn expression was present. It was almost as if she were asking the girl to forgive them. This was the last thing Iolaus heard before losing consciousness.
Mavala made a sharp motion at the two handymen, "Take him up to the room." She watched as the men did as they were told, lifting the oblivious hunter-warrior up between them. She then turned to Lydia, "You stupid little girl." Mavala hissed, "We gave you everything and how do you repay us? Disobedience. We told you to keep him in the house. We knew heíd see Valetese if he went outside and, even worse, she has seen him again."
"I donít understand, Miss Mavala." Lydia sobbed, barely hearing the womanís berating words. She could only watch Iolaus being taken away. "Why are you doing this? Why didnít you send Valetese to get Hercules as you promised?"
"Donít you think youíve asked enough questions?" Mavala spat, "You have been serving Miss Penelope for nearly two years, girl. You know how she can get. You know how she loved a man once who made a horrible mess out of her life...and I suspect you already know that you are her child of sin!"
Startled, Blanchea lifted her hands to her mouth - "Mavala...no." she whispered.
"Itís time she knew, sister!" Mavala lifted an uncompromising hand to but a stop to Blancheaís objection, "Didnít you think our meeting two years ago a bit odd, Lydia? We came to you, asking directions in a city weíve lived near all of our lives. Then we invited you, a common tavern maid, to lunch... and finally asked you to come and live with us. Our sister had grown impossible so we found you, her daughter, and brought you back with us. And we were right. She recognized you immediately, Lydia, even though you had grown into a woman. Didnít you notice how sheís taken to you? Youíve been caring for her all of this time and she calls you Ďdaughterí but it never occurred to you that it was true?"
Blanchea put her hands to her ears, grief stricken. She didnít want to hear was Mavala was telling this poor child. She wasnít giving her a chance.
Stunned, Lydia could only stare at the two women. Her mind raced. "Mother..." she whispered. That vile, lonely creature - a woman sheíd help to feed, clean and talked to - was her mother. Then, another thought struck Lydia and she spoke with contempt, "You brought me here two years ago but never told me why. Was it because you love Penelope and want to make her happy? Forgive me, but I find that hard to believe."
Miss Mavala lifted a hand as if to strike the young woman but she stopped in mid swing. "Our reasons are none of your business." She faltered a bit then looked at a somewhat shaken Valetese, "Take Lydia to the library and lock her in. We will deal with this naughty child at a later time."
Valetese glanced once at Blanchea then did as he was told.
He heard the chain first. A low rustling clank. Then, there was a grunt and shuffle. Something more in the background? Rain. He remembered that sound well from the bedroom. It was on the night he first came here and, through a fever and the darkness, Iolaus had recognized the din ... A horrible clatter. A monster. But then a soft presence had protected him from harm. Gabrielle ...or no...Lydia.
And there was great pain. Then and now. An agony so deep he could barely breath. Echlastil. Infection. Never ending agony...Tartarus for the living...What next? The loss of his senses? Death?
His eyes drifted open, "Lia?" he called. It was almost a whisper. The room was dark. He saw the outline of a figure as she stood, her back to a long, narrow window with bars. The room was lit by the flame of a single candle resting in a metal sconce. To the figureís far left was an open balcony and Iolaus could see the rain as it smacked resolutely against a worn sideboard.
"My love, youíve come back. I knew you would."
Another voice. Broken and somehow antiquated. Iolaus didnít recognize it.
"Yes dear, he has come. We promised you he would." Mavala spoke with an uncommon gentleness from a cut out square in the wall just to the right of Iolaus. It was almost big enough to show both she and Blancheaís heads, but no more. "Your Champion has returned to you and now you can present the dowry to him that Father left you."
Iolaus looked down at himself and all at once realized he was bound tightly to a large oak chair. "Whatís going on here?" he asked but could barely hear his own words. His throat felt constricted as it might during a bad cold or severe bought with laryngitis. He was confused as if waking from a sedated sleep.
"We gave you something to relax you." Blanchea offered in a hushed tone, recognizing the disorientation. "It affects the vocal chords but shouldnít cause any permanent damage."
Mavala looked annoyed with her sister, "Be quiet, Blanchea. Youíll fluster Penelope."
The darkened, ghostly figure took the candle from the sconce and slowly walked over to a wall directly in front of Iolaus. He could hear the chain again.
Then, the silhouette reach upward to grasp a large painting which hung there but had been turned around to face the wall. With little effort, the figure twisted the painting about, floating cobwebs on either side, for all to see.Depicted were a beautiful young girl, just out of her teens, and a man. She was wearing a lavish wedding gown and holding a bouquet of flowers and he...he...looked exactly like Iolaus!
"Are you remembering, My Love? The woman-shadow asked, lifting a hand to tenderly touch the paintingís ornate wooden frame. "Blanchea completed this painting the week before our wedding. That marriage that never ..."
Iolaus pressed himself heavily into the chair. The figure moved closer to him and he, at once, saw that it also wore a wedding dress. The same gown as in the painting -- only this gown was tattered and yellowed with age.
"Father treated you so badly." The figure advanced, "Is that why you ran away? But the dowry...Father presented it to you, promised it would be ours, after the wedding..."
Iolaus listened, connecting pieces to an impossible puzzle.
"We could have been so happy."
"It was Fatherís fault." Mavala called from her window, "He discovered you were going to have a baby. He was viscous and cruel to Champion so he left you."
Looking from one figure to the other, Iolaus attempted to get a foothold on what was happening. Again, he attempted to speak but nothing more than a croak left his lips. Finally, a distraught Penelope pushed the candle back in its holder, then threw herself at his feet.
The feeble light allowed Iolaus to see her now. The face was cragged and pasty white, with thick streaks of red coloring on each mottled cheek. Her mouth was wrinkled and nearly toothless. The womanís wild, silver hair was held back from her face with uneven combs. She smelled of strange herbs, possibly medication. And she was thin. Too thin. Nearly a living skeleton.
But none of this could compare to the sight of her unconventional fingernails. They were long, discolored and reminded Iolaus of something he saw when he was visiting the east -- ceremonial "death knives". He glanced again at the painting. It was hard to believe this was the same woman.
"We shouldnít have told Father." she said, looking sadly up at Iolaus. "If we hadnít, maybe I wouldnít have had to..." she paused, looking away. The leg irons made a sound as she shifted her feet, "But I did it for us!" Penelope spoke with conviction.
Iolaus felt an almost sickening lurch of his stomach as the woman touched one of his immobile hands with her ice-cold, sharp nailed fingers. Gods! If I could just break out of this room! She was mad. He could see it in her vacant yet oddly attractive eyes.
"But heís not here now!" Mavala continued to press, "And now you and your Champion can be happy! Just tell him where the dowry is. Tell him and weíll all go get it together."
That was it. Iolaus took in a ragged breath. Money. Somehow, somewhere, the sistersí father hid a fortune and obviously only Penelope knew where it was. For the last thirty years, theyíd been searching but the youngest sister, having gone mad, could not be persuaded to tell a tale ...not until her fiancťe was here, to wed her and make the dowry their own.
"Itís in a secret place." Penelope whispered to him with a confidential smile, "I was Daddyís favorite, you know. He told me things and showed me things that Mavala and Blanchea were never allowed to hear." She glanced once in her sisters direction and back again at Iolaus, "He didnít trust them." The old woman giggled like a school girl.
"Penelope," Iolaus whispered ever so gently, for it was all he could do, "Untie me, please."
"Why?" She sat straight in front of him, "Donít you want to stay here with me anymore?"
"Of course I do." he spoke quickly, "But I want to put my arms around you...like I did long ago." His mind nearly gagged at the thought. Iolaus had to remind himself that none of this was Penelopeís fault. If her sisters had taken her to a place where she could get some much needed help, instead of indulging in their own selfishness and family pride, the woman might not be the degenerate creature before him. Perhaps she would never have been cured but at least she could be living in dignity -- an option obviously never given to her.
Penelopeís face lit up and she emerged, for a brief moment, as near human. Her shaking hands fumbled with the rope which bound Iolaus wrists but the moment it seemed she was making progress the chain around her ankles was pulled taut from a secret place and the woman was dragged across the floor to the far wall, next to her bed.
Her scream of rage filled the chamber. Iolaus recalled it as the ferocious noise he heard outside his bedroom door the night he arrived.
"No, Penelope!" Mavala reprimanded, "You know the rule. You shant be with Champion until you tell us where the family fortune is hidden!"
"I told you before!" Penelope cried, childlike. "Itís with the daisies!"
Blanchea spoke soothingly, "Now dear, you know itís not true. We dug all through the garden and didnít find a thing."
"But it is!í she wailed, turning to Iolaus - "Tell them, Champion. Tell them! You were there that night. You were there when Daddy..." a brief flash of intelligence momentarily engulfed the face. "You were there the night I showed you what was to be ours. You were there in the carriage house with me, and we began to make love in the loft...and Daddy caught us." Her eyes grew vacant, "And I told him about the baby ...and he had a sword with him..." Penelope closed her eyes. She was awash in mental pain, "And he struck out - your blood was on me! And I screamed!" Her tone arose with the revelation, "Then Daddy slapped me and told his men to take you away! Then Mother came..."
Iolaus glimpsed at the two other sisters as they stood at the window. Blanchea was weeping, as he expected. Mavala was stoic but not entirely unaffected.
"Champion, youíre dead..." Penelope uttered, having turned to look up at the wedding portrait once again. "And you..." She looked again at Iolaus. Furious, she picked up a wooden chair which was beside her and thrust it against the wall beside Iolaus. The antique exploded with the force of her rage, "Youíre an impostor -- JUST LIKE THE REST!"
Iolaus gasped. She was insane and that madness made her strength a force to be reckoned with. Right now she was as dangerous as any army of warlords.
The fate of the visitors Lydia had told Iolaus about - those poor men who were given clothes just like Championís - screamed loud and clear in his head. While Lydia, in a drugged sleep, knew not what was going on -- Penelope was murdering those men her sisters brought to her, hoping she would reveal family secrets to them. And her weapon?
Penelope lifted both of her hands, revealing those razor sharp claws yet again. Strong and out of control, they could kill easily. She pulled on her chain which was the only anchor keeping the woman in place. Iolaus watched in wide-eyed horror as the board, holding the chain in place, began to splinter.
Mavala was so angry a pressure vein had popped out on her already creased forehead.
Blanchea had seen her sister enraged before, verbally and sometimes physically striking out at all who might disagree with her, but this time the fury was so thick it seemed to seep from her pores. The younger sibling feared there would be more than the usual disappointment this time. She saw something in Mavala that sheíd only observed from one other person in her life...Penelope. That look in her eyes just before she killed.
"You stupid, idiotic adulteress!" Mavala screamed at Penelope through the cut-out window between the two rooms. She watched as the silver-haired woman continued to yank on the chain, the painted wood peeling and the baseboard splintering and popping as the crazed creature pulled at the chain and stared, unflinching, at Iolaus. "This is Champion! We brought you Champion this time! Now TELL US! Tell us where Daddy hid that damned money!!"
"Maval--" Blanchea started timidly, reaching out for her older sibling, but quickly backed away when seeing the outright dementia in Mavalaís eyes. "Oh no..." She turned to look at Valetese, who had quietly entered the observation room behind the sisters and was taking in the situation.
Iolaus, breathing heavily in both fear and discomfort, also glanced at Mavala. He saw the aberration too. ĎEveryone in this house is insane!í He thought, trying hard not to panic. He was caught between struggling with the deeply biting ropes tying him to the unmoving chair and watching both Mavala and Penelope fall completely to pieces. If it wasnít for the danger and the fact he was probably going to be dead very soon, Iolaus might have found it, the complete collapse of two lives, interesting. And very sad.
"What did you call me?" Penelope stopped struggling with the chain for a moment and looked at Mavala through the window. "You called me a... Just like when..." The old woman looked up into the rafters. She was recalling, a past time...a time when her handsome golden hero...her lover had come to her and they...and she...
<< Sobbing, she saw her Daddyís men dragging the princely, hurt and unwilling Champion off. Penelope ran from the stable after them, wiping off the droplets of blood that had splattered on her arms against her skirt.
Her darling, brave Champion...
One of his shaking hands held his side, where Daddyís sword had grazed his ribs - "Get your repulsive hands off of me!í Champion shouted as they hauled him along - his long, golden hair lifting and floating through the breeze that was wafting off the lake. Angered and hurt, he was still determined. "I ím going to marry you daughter, Summitse!" he vowed, twisting his small but powerfully built form around in the menís mighty grip, "Sheís going to have my child!"
His anger only made him more endearing to Penelope. Champion was so strong and..."Wait for me, Penny...Iíll find a way!í he continued to call as he was pulled out of sight, behind the barn.
Summitse stared after the man then turned to walk to the house - Iíll think of something..." He murmured, glancing once at his youngest daughter as he walked passed her. She looked over at the porch in front of their beautiful home.
Pretty Mavala, her eldest sister by ten years, was standing there. Her youthful but uncommonly boney arms crossed over a thinly laced bust-line that never really existed. She was...smirking!
"Please make them stop, Mavala! Please!" Penelope wailed child-like, lifting her blood stained hands and looking for sympathy from the wrong human being. "Daddy wants to send him away! But it wasnít his fault! I wanted to...And now..."
Then they heard his screams. A blood chilling sound -- someone in the throes of death. Penelope turned about, looking in the direction of his outcry, and yowled herself.
Mavalaís smirk turned into a chuckle-grin as she looked at her stunned baby sister. She walked up to her, "You stupid, idiotic adulteress..." she whispered, standing next to her, balancing hands on her hips. "Did you really think I didnít know what you two were up to?"
Batias, mother of the three girls, came running from the house, followed by Blanchea. Summitse, upon hearing the manís agonized shout, also turned about. He was confused then enraged. He watched the two land-hands come from around the back of the stable, wiping their bloodied daggers on a cloth.
"What have you done, man?" He spoke to the foreman, "I told you to take him to a healer...not to KILL him!"
The young, scruffy foreman seemed genuinely shocked, "But Miss Mavala said you..." He then gawked at her. Heíd been Mavalaís lover for less than a month and did whatever she told him. She promised him money and power. Lots of both. Then, when she had told he and others about Champion, that pompous ass who thought himself better than the rest, and how he raped Miss Penelope, he believed her. Naturally, Summitse wanted Champion dead for what he did to his baby girl ... What father wouldnít?
"Godsless murderers!" Summitse declared. Then, deliberating further - taking in the big picture - he said, "But we cannot have this ruin our fine family name. Bury him near the lake, where no one can see the grave." He looked down at Penelope who had stopped crying and was now just staring eerily ahead, in a daze. "I shall have this trollop sent away. And the child will go to a good family. No one will ever have to know ..." He glanced over at Mavala, "You had something to do with this! Donít deny it, sinner!"
"Daddy, how ever can you say such a thing?" Blanchea, simple and trusting, stepped up beside Mavala, placing a hand on her sisterís shoulder. "Mavala loves Penelope. She would never do anything to hurt her!"
Summitse took in the sight of all three of his pretty daughters with contempt. "One is as dumb as an ox, the other naive boarding on stupidity and the third is as evil as Echlastil."
"Perhaps." Mavala leaned backward, resting her willowy shoulders on a portion of white railing - "But as the oldest sibling I should get whatís coming to me... Your wealth, these lands... Everything. Not Champion or his..." she waved at her traumatized sister in a dismissing gesture, "...immoral piece of trash."
Summitse slapped his oldest daughter as Batias and Blanchea looked on and wept.
The chain pulled from the wall.
Iolaus braced himself but Penelopeís attention was no longer on him. Standing still, she was staring at Mavala through the mock-window.
"You...it was you..." she murmured. The glimpse of self-discovery disappeared and an intelligence suffused the bland face, "Mavala, forgive me." Penelope inexplicably said, "The family treasure really does belong to you, doesnít it? I know where it is and I will get it for you. But please, come to me, sister. Let me put my arms around you."
A smile of satisfaction came to Mavalaís face. This was all she really ever wanted. Father had robbed her. Perhaps if heíd lived longer there could have been a reconciliation. He might have eventually told her...
"No, Mavala!" Blanchea pleaded, "You canít trust her." and added in an urgent whisper, "Please donít go to her." She made a grab for her sisterís arm as Mavala grasped the brass doorknob between rooms.
With a growl and great force, Mavala pushed her sister off - knocking Blancheaís head hard against a wall. "Itís mine!í she cried, momentarily watching her younger sister slide down the wall in a heap. Then - almost daintily - the eldest adjusted her collar and pulled the ruffled tunic-blouse taut.
Valetese leaned over Blanchea and took her hands. He watched Mavala leave the room - "Destiny." he whispered and sadly touched Blancheaís face.
Iolausí breath was shallow. He knew what was going to happen, "Miss Mavala..." he attempted, but was still unable to make his voice convincing. "Donít do it."
"I have no time for this!" Hercules exclaimed upon walking through an unhinged gate onto the Summitse land and front lawn. The men, rough looking land-workers, came up to the demigod. One held a sharp hooked tool and had rotting teeth. The other held a hard-point rake and wore a red handkerchief around his neck .
"We were told to keep you busy. Kill you if we had to." Said Rotting Teeth man.
"But we know that ain't possible." said the other, "ícause we already tried and no one can beat you, Hercules."
Puzzled and looking for trap, Hercules spoke cautiously: "So, what are you saying?"
Rotting Teeth sighed, "Weíve been thinking. The women in this house are crazy and we donít really care if you get by us or not. Theyíre not worth being beaten up for."
Simultaneously, the men dropped their weapons.
Hercules was stunned. So much for loyalty. He was grateful to whatever god was responsible. Even if it was Echlastil, But he doubted it.
"Weíre getting out of here before things become too scary, Hercules, and think you should do the same." The hankerchiefed man mimed his friend to get moving, "But if youíre going in after your friend you better hurry because weíve been hearing a lot of screaming coming from that room up there." he pointed to the top of the house, "And it isnít natural."
Hercules pushed passed them and ran into the old home. He was ready to leap up the staircase when he heard female shouts coming from another part of the house, behind a locked door. Frustrated, he raced from the stairs to the door and broke it open with one sharp smash from his balled right fist.
"Hercules!" Lydia shouted, startled. "We have to find Iolaus!" she cried, racing from the room.
The girl was familiar and he was sure he knew her as well as she seemed to know him, but heíd have to concentrate on her later. Hercules followed her and prayed they werenít too late.
"Miss Mavala! Get out of here!" Iolaus tried to shout but, again, the drug theyíd given him made his cry sound weak and practically intelligible. "Gods!" He struggled like he never did before, feeling needles of intense pain invade the entire left side of his body. He watched the two women slowly move toward each other, knowing he was to be witness to something horrible. He had to stop it yet knew it impossible, unless...
Then -- an anxious rattle came from the door knob. Not between the two connecting rooms but from the door adjoined to the upstairs hall. The door that was not just double bolted but had several heavy boards nailed crossways against the wall, preventing any normal person from entry.
"Iolaus, are you in there?!"
HERCULES. "Hercules!" Iolaus croaked as loudly as he could.
This distracted Mavala long enough for Penelope to come upon her and wrap the chain sheíd been holding around her sisterís skinny neck. The mad womanís long-nailed fingers did the rest. She slashed at her siblingís face, knocking her always well coifed hair out of its proper bun. Mavala fought valiantly but she was no match for Penelopeís insane strength.
"It was you!!" Penelope screamed over and over again as she grappled with her sister, "You murdered my Champion!"
Iolaus could hear Hercules kicking at the well secured door as the two women fought out onto the balcony. Screams and animal shouts came to his ears and, despite his own pain, Iolaus pulled and pushed against the ropes holding him down. His shoulder was streaming blood down the front of his shirt and he felt suddenly dizzy...but he had to stop this before someone got serious hurt...before someone died. Yet, he couldnít move, he couldnít shout. He could only sit and watch. Iolaus had never felt so obscenely helpless.
At the same moment, Hercules was able to finally crash through the door -- the two sisters, beating at each other mercilessly, fell off of the balcony, plummeting down several floors to their deaths.
Iolaus would never forget Lydiaís scream of anguish as she clung to the door-jam. Nor would he forget the expression of disbelief on Blancheaís face as she stared at the empty balcony, Valetese arms wrapped around her shoulders to comfort.
Sadly, they would both go to prison for their parts in the murders of the two other men but right now, looking at their anguish and obvious love for one another, Iolaus could forgive both for what they had done to him. Hercules ran to the balcony and looked over the side. Both bodies lay below, truly beyond all help.
With a sigh, he turned to his friend, watching as the still grief stricken Lydia attempted to loosen his bonds. Hercules gently pushed her aside and pulled on the rope himself, watching Iolausí entirely exhausted expression and eyeing the horrible crimson stain covering most of the front of his once tan shirt. "Hang on, buddy." he whispered.
"íbout time you got here ..." Iolaus murmured in response and weakly smiled through his misery. "Thought you forgot about me."
"Could never do that." Hercules gently laughed to hide his fear, "You owe me too much."
Iolaus licked his dry lips and the smile disappeared, "Think I need a Healer."
ĎNo, my friend,í Hercules thought, ĎYou're beyond the help of a healer now.' -- "Iíve got something better." He pulled the dagger of Echlastil from a loop on his belt and handed it over to Lydia. He looked at her as he lifted Iolaus into his arms, "The blade on that dagger has to be hot. As hot as we can get it. I need a fire and someplace I can lay him flat -- while I work on his wound."
"You, Hercules?" Lydia questioned.
"Yeah --" He looked down at Iolaus, unconscious now in his arms - "ME."
"Have you ever done this before?" Lydia asked, opening the library doors and indicating the demigod should deposit Iolaus on the carpet in front of an ornate fireplace.
Gently, Hercules lay his friend down and accepted the pillow Lydia passed him for Iolaus head. "I saw Hephestus do it once when I was a boy. But it was different..." Carefully, Hercules opened Iolaus shirt and peeled back the fabric. The bandages were soaked with blood. He discarded them and grimaced at what he saw.
The wide, gapping shoulder gash - never revealing it had ever been stitched by a devoted Lydia - was surrounded by purple, green and yellow streamers imbedded just beneath the surface of the skin. They discoloration extended to the middle of Iolausí chest.
Not just a normal infection. An affliction of the gods that only another god could cure.
"The man being treated had been struck with Echlastilís dagger only hours before the curing ceremony, not days." Hercules voice caught in his throat and he swallowed hard. "And that man didnít have a fever -- and had a full god performing the rejuvenation." He placed a hand to Iolaus' sweat beaded forehead and closed his own eyes. Could he do this?
"You have to." A female voice sounded in his head.
"Here." Lydia passed Hercules the knife, feeling his fear and doubt. "Youíre Iolausí only chance. He canít survive this without you."
Apprehensive, Hercules took a breath and turned to the fire beside he and Iolaus. "Get me some water." he told Lydia. Carefully, Hercules pushed the blade into the flame, allowing the hilt to rest against a protruding log.
Then, considering carefully, the demigod looked down at his sickly best friend and gently attempted to wake Iolaus. He had to let him know what was going to happen. This could be the last time they ever spoke with one another -- "Come on buddy, I need to tell you something." He attempted to sound more cheerful than he felt.
"Hercules?" Iolaus eyes fluttered open and he looked up at the big man. No, it hadnít been a cruel dream. He was here. "Whatís the verdict?" Iolaus asked, taking a labored breath.
He wanted to promise Iolaus that all would be well, but his friend always knew when he was lying. Hercules cleared his throat, "You donít look too good. Infection has set in and Iím going to have to..." Then he looked away from Iolaus and his lower lips trembled ever so slightly, "... cut you. Burn it out. Itís going to hurt, Iolaus."
The hunter-warrior paused but for only a moment. "I understand. Do it."
"No." Hercules shook his head back and forth and almost laughed at the calm certainty of the man laying before him, "Iolaus, this is going to be like Tartarus on Earth. Iíve been told some men donít...survive it." Lydia returned with a bowl of water and set it beside Hercules.
"Do I have a choice?" Iolaus lifted an arm and patted Herculesí clenched fist as it lay against his own hard stomach. "I either take my chances with the only cure available or live with this agony until I die, Herc. A no-brainer, really." and he smiled as only Iolaus would at a time like this, "Besides, I canít die...I owe you too much." He recalled what his friend said to him only minutes earlier in the tower-room and laughed feebly.
Blanchea and Valetese came into the Library and quietly watched what was taking place. They had been outside, covering the bodies of Blancheaís two dead sisters and grieved quietly for a time. Then, the couple recalled Lydia and her friends and thought they better see what was coming to pass inside the house. "Is there anything I can do?" Blanchea asked, anxiously.
Both Hercules and Lydia looked over at her.
"I also would like to help." Valetese offered, appearing less like the pretentious houseman than he ever did in his life.
Hercules nodded, "Hold his legs."
Without being told, Lydia knelt at the head of Iolaus - quickly leaning forward to gently touch his right cheek with her lips - then pressed down on his arms.
Iolaus almost chuckled, "Isnít this the part, Hercules, where you ask me if I want something to bite into?"
"Do you want something?" Hercules reached over and brushed a damp lock of hair away from Iolaus forehead.
"Not if you can stand the screams." He was only half joking.
Hercules reached for the knife, pausing only briefly, then - saying the ancient words that would begin the cure - he initiated the burning.
Lydia had never heard a wound scream before.
No, not Iolaus who - before losing his battle with consciousness - was brave and held back any form of pain induced roar. His expression and the way his body involuntarily convulsed beneath their hands, however, told the tale.
Torture, pure and simple.
Yet, the wound itself screamed -- as if it had a life all its own.
"Iím burning out Echlastil and it knows it." Hercules theorized although he was as mystified as the rest. He sat back on the floor, catching his breath, and stuck the knife into the water bowl, cleaning the blood away as best he could. Then it returned to the fire.
Blanchea relaxed her grip, "Are we done?" she asked, leaning into Valetese extended arms, fatigued.
Glancing at the older woman, Hercules shook his head - "Almost. Weíve burned out the reason for the wound, but now I have to cut out all infection." He took a swipe at a bead of perspiration on his chin and said tiredly, "If I do it right his skin will come together and, after a day or two of healing, there wonít even be a scar."
"If he survives." Lydia added.
Hercules sighed and closed his eyes, "Take a break." he told them. "But be back here in five minutes."
"Lydia," Blanchea arose to her feet, "I need to talk with you, dear."
"About what?" Lydia started, rather hostile, then sighed and let it slide. "Iím sorry, Miss Blanchea. I know how much Mavala meant to you and I understand how you fell victim to her delusions of grandeur."
"Itís no excuse." Blanchea admitted, "But I need to talk to you about something else, dear." She took Lydiaís hand and walked her over to a sofa, leaving Hercules and Valetese to watch over Iolaus, "You see," she started as she sat with the girl - "You really are not Penelopeís daughter."
Lydia looked up at the old woman, "But Miss Mavala said ..."
"I donít know why she said what she did. I think it was out of anger. I donít know." Blanchea shrugged, "But when we saw you that day in Cere I just happened to mention to Mavala how much you looked like Penelope and then...she came up with this idea. How we should tell Penelope that you were her daughter all grown up. I agreed it might be a good thing. Penelope would be happy and..." Again, the old woman shrugged, "I always agreed with Mavala and for that I will always be sorry ..." She opened her closed eyes and looked directly at Lydia, "But I want you to do something. I ... Iím going to prison and I know I will die there. Iím old and what we did was atrocious. There is no way Iíll not be punished for my part and I should be but the house..."
She took in the room they were sitting in, "Itís been in our family for generations and --" Blanchea struggled against tears, "It would mean so much to me if you would take the house as if you really were Penelopeís heir and make it your own."
"Miss Blanchea, I donít think ..."
"Please. Do good with it, Lydia. Use it to help people. Perhaps as a refuge for worn and weary souls who need to rest before they die. Itís up to you...but take it. Make it a happy home again."
"If I did, Iíd have to make some repairs and I just donít have the money for that."
Now Blanchea smiled, "Have you forgotten the family fortune so soon, dear?"
"Does it really exist?"
"Oh, yes. And after all of these years I think I finally know where it is. It came to me suddenly." Her eyes grew vacuous and then disturbed. "Strange, that."
"Where is it?" Lydia asked, genuinely curious.
"Penelope kept saying it was Ďwith the daisiesí and we always thought she meant buried in the garden, but what she was really referring to was the flowers she held in her wedding portrait. They werenít daisies but yellow flowers. I recall painting them and ..." Blanchea faded off for a minute then came back to herself once again, "I think youíll find the treasure there."
"I donít understand."
"When Father found Champion and Penelope in the stable she took him there for a reason -- to show Champion the dowry. It became a bit more intimate once they reached the loft but what she showed him was the wooden frame for their wedding portrait. Daddy imported it from Britannia and was hiding it. A hallow frame -- where a bag of jewels, denars and any number of valuable objects could be stored."
"For thirty years youíve been hunting that treasure and all along itís been with Penelope in her room!?"
"Amazing that I just thought of it -- but true."
"Not so amazing." Gabrielle, unseen, turned from the two women and looked over at Iolaus, where he stood near her, looking down at Hercules who was fussing over his prone body. "Iíve been whispering it into her ear ever since she and Valetese made their way into the house."
Iolaus looked over at her, "Again, Gabrielle? We really have to stop meeting like this."
She laughed, "Iím sorry, Iolaus. I just wanted to make sure you werenít thinking of crossing over." Gabrielle stood beside him, leaning gently on her staff, and also looked down at Hercules, "He loves you and needs you."
"So stay strong and donít go anywhere." Then she grinned, "I want to see those baby blues of yours the next time we meet ... and I mean REALLY meet. No coming to you when I fall asleep, you in danger or that sort of thing."
Something in what she said startled Iolaus, although he suspected it all
along. "It was you, wasnít it, Gabrielle?"
"What do you mean?"
"The night I came here someone was there in the bedroom with me,
calming me, soothing me -- Making me feel less afraid... I thought it was
Lydia but it was YOU."
"What do you mean?"
"The night I came here someone was there in the bedroom with me, calming me, soothing me -- Making me feel less afraid... I thought it was Lydia but it was YOU."He lifted a hand to touch his own chest, recalling her caress. "But you touched me. I felt you. How could I feel you when you were there in a dream?"
"Whenever you were on that brink of crossing over to the other side you could touch me, Iolaus, and I you. Do you remember when you first saw me? We hugged. It makes no sense to me either. No more than why I can come to you and a few other desperate people while I sleep but never recall it when Iíve awakened. Some day weíll have to ask Hades about it or Morpheus." Then something more occurred to Gabrielle, "I came to Hercules while he was on his way here and we couldnít make physical contact because he isnít anywhere near dying...and I donít think he ever will die. I felt that strong in him."
"Heís immortal?" Iolaus stated, somewhat awed yet always knowing the possibility existed. "Iím not sure heíll be happy to know that."
"He wonít for awhile because I wonít remember after I leave here and neither will you."
"We wonít recall any of this? This meeting, I mean?"
"Then I guess this is goodbye."
"Until we get together in the flesh ..." She averted her face, a little embarrassed at the terminology.
Scrupulously, Iolaus took the young womanís chin between his fingers, "Thank you, Gabrielle." He leaned in and gave her a very long and gentle kiss on the lips, "Thank you for everything."
Dazed, opening her eyes and wanting to say more than she should, Gabrielle whispered: "Take care, Iolaus. I miss you." She lifted fingers to touch him but faded out of sight before that connection could be made.
He smiled a little sadly, then turned and looked down again at Hercules. Preparing himself for the challenge that was to follow, Iolaus straightened his shoulders and dove back into his own body.
"Slow down, Iolaus!"
"Are you kidding? I haven't felt this good in over a week." The blond hunter-warrior jumped exuberantly around his companion, striking a boxer's pose and punching out at the air about him. Iolaus was filled with nervous energy and was ready to take on the world. No pain or discomfort of any kind. Not even a scar to remind him of that terrible ordeal. Where were the warlords? He was ready for them.
"Are you sure you don't need to rest? We've walked for miles." Hercules didn't have the heart to tell his friend about the more than possible side effect to his wound's cure. Why spoil his day? First, there'd be a burst of healthy stamina that could last for either hours or days, depending on the individual. Then it would abruptly end, to be replaced by a week of total lethargy. The only thing Iolaus would eventually want to do is sleep. Hercules could do nothing about it except keep an eye on Iolaus, watching for further signs of disorder, and make arrangements for his comfort.
"Maybe just for awhile. If you're tired..." Iolaus chuckled.
They had gone past the mountains of Thresha and were now in a wooded area just outside of Corinth.
Hercules suggested they go see his brother, Iphicles. Nothing special, just a visit, he said when Iolaus asked. He qualified the statement by telling Iolaus he hadn't seen his nephew for awhile and wanted to see how the little Prince was growing.
Iolaus agreed enthusiastically. Free food, entertainment, pretty maidens and that cute little kid. It sounded good to him. A vacation. A nice way to spend a few days.
Hercules also didn't tell Iolaus that he'd sent a messenger ahead of them to let his brother, the king, know they were coming. He made mention in his written missive of Echlastil and what Iolaus had been through - and what they could expect. Hercules knew Iphicles would, no doubt, set up an impressive sickroom for his child's namesake.
Iolaus still laughed when recalling Hercules bringing the information of Iphicles, the demigod's human brother, naming his baby boy after him - Iolaus. The blond hunter was truly honored but a part of him wondered if Iphicles did it to spite Hercules rather than to show respect for a friend. The brothers were united but there would always be - for Iphicles - a sort of competition between the two. In a way, Iolaus could relate but sincerely hoped that wasn't the case.
Hercules sat on a flat boulder and watched his friend as he paced briefly in front of him, eyeing a patch of grass. "You miss Lydia, don't you?"
"Yeah." Iolaus admitted, finding a comfortable spot and sitting cross-legged, leaning his back against the curve of a tree. "But I'm glad she decided stay in Cere and turn something that was tragic into something good."
'A school.' she had said. Lydia was going to convert the Simmitse house into a school for under-privileged children. With the jewelry and gold coins discovered, she could easily have the place fixed up, insure the structure was sound, and convert its many rooms into lodgings and classrooms. Perhaps she could even leave some of the bedrooms alone yet have them readied for a few of the scholars she'd interview for teaching positions... The possibilities were endless.
With a smile, Hercules thought of Arriya. The little girl would benefit and deserved the right to a good education. Iolaus was happy for Lydia but it was hard to say goodbye, even though he knew he had to. There was a gentle kiss and a hug and he promised her that he and Hercules would come for a visit soon. Lydia was grateful for all they'd done but also tearful during Iolaus departure.
"Who is that?" Iolaus, from where he sat, looked down the pathway near where they rested. A young male figure was approaching them at a run. In his hand he held several packages and scrolls and what appeared to be a large, rolled parchment.
When he reached them, the boy panted a few times and held the parchment out straight in front of him - "This is for Hercules and Iolaus!" he gasped and tossed. He then lifted a hand before they could speak. "No time! Got to run!" and turned abruptly ...
"Wait!" Herc called, "Who are you?"
"A one day service messenger!' He called as he ran away, "Federalese Expressus!" and they heard him call as they lost sight of him, "When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight..."
"Strange kid." Iolaus remarked. "Could give Hermes a run for his money."
"Conscientious." Herc replied.
Their attention focused on the parchment and Hercules looked at the sender tag, "It's from Lydia. She says it's a small gift for all of the help we gave her with the house ... and saving her life."
"She didn't have to do that." Iolaus remarked as Hercules unrolled.
Hercules' eyes widened and he suddenly appeared distressed, "It's a painting..." he murmured, unsmiling. "That girl has a strange sense of humor ...and a mean streak."
"No, don't tell me she actually sent us that painting of Champion and Penelope! I don't care how much I look like he did I..."
"No." Hercules turned the parchment around for his friend to get a better look. It was the portrait Blanchea did of Hercules, wrapped in the Nemean Lion skin, "Now, I ask you..." the demigod huffed, "...would I really wear something like that?"
Overcome, Iolaus fell flat on his back in the grass and laughed out loud.
(Disclaimer: No Nemean Lionís or bullies named Jupus were hurt during the production of this fan fiction. However, Federal Express lawyers have been trying to get in contact with the author ... )