It was a beautiful morning and the weather promised to be just as lovely during the rest of the day. Flora, many varieties, were in bloom and living scenery - deer, rabbit and quail - were plentiful. It was too bad the two men, a demigod and hunter-warrior, could not find it within themselves to appreciate the weather, flowers or bountiful nature about them.
They were too preoccupied to take notice. They were men on a mission. They ran.
"Only another half mile, Iolaus!" Hercules shouted, somewhat out of breath, just behind his friend. If the situation werent so serious he might have been amused at the idea that he, a halfgod with the blood of Zeus in his veins, was having a difficult time keeping up with his swift friend, what the gods would call a mere mortal.
When they reached the village Iolaus slowed his gait and stood in the middle of the dusty street, which was the central route into and out of the small community. He looked about, trying to recall what he was told. Hed been here before, stopping off in a tavern and inn, but it was months ago and she never really told him where she lived ...
Unanticipated, a young man who had been staring at Iolaus from across the street, approached him. "Are you here to see Kithia?" he asked, lifting a hand to nervously scratch his own tousled hair. He looked as if hed been crying.
Hercules trotted up behind Iolaus and studied the doleful boy. He reminded him of a slightly older version of his own departed son, Aseon.
"You want to go to that house over there and you better hurry." he said, urgency in his tone. He pointed a finger to a small but relatively charming home away from the main hubbub of the village square. Shes waiting for you. They both are.
"Thanks, son. Hercules said but the boy was away from him almost as quickly as Iolaus. There was something strange about that but he didnt have time to speculate.
Without knocking and in a rush, Iolaus barged into the house. The first human being he saw was vaguely familiar. She looked much like her sister.
"Iolaus?" the woman asked, standing from her chair near what appeared a dinner table. At his nod she crossed to him, whisps of her light brown hair spilling from a bun at the back of her head. "Thank the gods you've come."
"Wheres Kithia?" Iolaus asked, noting the distraught expressions on the faces of the two men who were sitting with the woman.
"Have you been told ...?" she started.
"Yes," Iolaus spoke impatiently, "Where is she?"
Hercules came in at the end of his question and watched with an appraising eye as a burly male near the table stood, his fists clenched. He appeared giant of a man, possibly a woodsman, and looked as if he wanted to beat Iolaus to death. He might even have taken a step to do so if it wasnt for a smaller chap who stood next to him. He had placed a restraining hand on the giants shoulder and Hercules recognized the mime of now is not the time.
Iolaus was escorted into a small bedroom - a sickroom - where an elderly healer was leaning over her bed, checking the pulse of the woman it occupied. The healer turned and looked at Iolaus then at the woman behind him, "Is he the one?"
She nodded and reluctantly left the room.
Cautiously the healer moved away and allowed Iolaus a better look at his patient. He spoke lowly, into the hunter-warriors ear: "It wont be long now. Some girls just were not meant for this sort of thing. I think shes stayed with us this long because she was waiting for you."
With a sad nod, Iolaus crouched down and gently took the womans fragile hand in his own. He wasnt certain what else to do. "Kithia ..." Iolaus smiled warmly down at her, "Ive missed you." He remembered her being vibrant and quite lovely at one time but now the poor woman was wasting away and weak. Death warmed up. She was too pale, perspiring with fever and her pupils were covered over with a strange, unhealthy glaze.
"Iolaus ..." the dry lips whispered, "I'm so glad you made it ..." Feebly, her head turned. She was looking at something in the corner of the room.
Iolaus followed her gaze and was not really surprised at what he saw. A bassinet.
"Love her, Iolaus, and take her away from here. You're a good, kind man. Keep her well ... You are her father." These were Kithia's last words before she died.
Reaching passed Iolaus, the healer pulled the blanket over Kithias face.
Gently, Iolaus kissed her cool, limp hand then carefully placed it underneath the covering. With a heavily in-draw breath, he stood mournfully.
Then, as he recognized a small sound, Iolaus looked again at the bassinet. He heard gurgling. Iolaus' body, seemingly with a will all its own, moved toward the sound. With careful consideration, he peered into the newborns crib, staring into a small, chubby and very aware expression. He couldnt help a stunned smile of his own. She was beautiful, with fair hair and had his eyes. "My daughter." Iolaus whispered.
"My name is Kreela." the woman told Hercules as he sat at the dining table. She poured him a mug of cool well water, "I'm Kithias older sister." She glanced at the other two men, both who appeared contemplative, "The big guys our brother, Croteus, and this one ..." With her free hand she gently slapped the smaller man on the shoulder, detaching him from his thoughts, "... is my husband, Thaddeus." She smiled gently at him but it faded as her thoughts returned to Hercules and his friend, "Kithia," she spoke as she sat next to the demigod, pushing a plate of warm bread in front of her guest. "She found she was with child months ago but never told anyone who the father was. Our community has rather old fashion morals ... Well, you can imagine what her life has been like. When Kithia could no longer hide her condition people grew particularly nasty." she gulped slightly, recalling. "A few weeks ago, when the pregnancy started to go bad, my sister finally admitted that the child she was carrying belong to Iolaus and told us to find him. She seems to think hell take responsibility ..." The womans hazel eyes met Hercules, "Will he?"
Before Hercules could answer his ears were met by a sarcastic snort from Croteus.
"Kreela," The healer came from the bedroom and sighed, "Im very sorry, dear, but your sister has died."
With a mild sob, for they all knew it would eventually come, Kreela gently fell into her husbands comforting arms as he stood and came to her.
Hercules saw Croteus, obviously strong during every situation except something like this, silently lay his head down on the table, looking away from his family.
Respectfully, he moved from the grieving family and slowly walked to the bedroom. Hercules could see Iolaus standing, a soft nearly beautific smile on his gently lined face as he held a blanketed bundle in his arms
"My daughter." he whispered for Hercules benefit and because he wanted to hear it again..
"She's beautiful." was all Hercules could say, feeling a number of emotions for his friend and suddenly, with a lump in his throat, recalling his own little girl, Ilea.
As the morning turned into afternoon, Iolaus hesitantly relinquished the child to Kreela, who was now feeding her.
He stood outside with Hercules, underneath a large-leafy tree, "I always wanted a family." Iolaus whispered, gently twirling a small twig between his fingers, "But I pictured myself settling down with a pretty wife first ..." Thoughtfully, Iolaus licked his lower lip and continued, "Funny how things happen."
Was it that long ago Hercules had had this familiar conversation with Iolaus, regarding Nemesis and Evander?
"Did you love Kithia?" Hercules asked, looking from where they stood into the bustling village a short distance away. He and Iolaus friendship had progressed over the years into a rhythm that came naturally. They could talk about anything with each other without fear of wounded feelings.
"I barely knew her, Hercules." Iolaus confessed, "I was in the town tavern that night you went off to survey some storm damage to a farmers home. I really didnt have that much to drink but whatever it was they gave me must have been potent beyond imagination because by the time I left I was ... Well, if I wasnt drunk I dont know what I was because one moment I was walking and the next thing I knew I was flat on my back on the ground in the middle of the street." He nearly chuckled at the embarrassing memory, "Then there was Kithia. She was looking down at me, asking me if I needed help. When I got to my feet again she told me she was just coming from a temple, where shed been praying to the gods for a good harvest season." Iolaus unintentionally rolled his eyes, "It was late and the weather was turning bad and she could see I was in no condition to ..." He paused and looked directly at his friend, "Long story short, Herc: We talked, we kissed, I thought I sobered a little, she took me to get a room and stayed all night."
"Just like that? Iolaus, I know you like women but you're usually a little more careful."
"I had been drinking, Herc, and in all honesty I dont remember it clearly. But I do remember waking up the following morning in bed and she was still there, in the last stages of getting dressed. I put two and two together." He looked toward the house for a moment, "And that baby looks just like me, my friend. Shes mine."
Hercules nodded although he still wasn't entirely convinced. "So, what happens now?"
"Part of me says to keep her and bring her up. It was Kithias last wish. But Im not sure Im what she needs in a father." Iolaus appeared worried, "I dont think I can do it, Herc. Maybe it'd be better if I just left her to Kreela and Thaddeus. They seem like good people."
"They are. But neither is her father, Iolaus."
Iolaus nodded, understanding. *In other words, time to grow up and answer for your actions* he thought. "After the funeral," Iolaus hesitated for just a moment, "I'm going to take my daughter home to Thebes. I'm going to settle in with my mother and Pandion for awhile, just until I can find a job, and Ill take care of her. Life on the road is not for a baby."
"You know I will help." Hercules stated.
Again Iolaus nodded but this time it was with a regretful chuckle, "Yes, but I also know you have to keep moving, Hercules. Its your destiny to travel and help people. I wont ever ask you to leave that."
Hercules, with a little less enthusiasm than what he would normally exhibit, slapped his friend affectionately on the shoulder. He was proud of Iolaus, the way he was determined to take responsibility, but also sad at the idea of losing his anchor, brother and his traveling companion. Still, the child had to come first.
Both men turned upon hearing the call.
Croteus, Kithias big brother, was approaching with a few burly companions. Their expressions, hard and inflexible, did not remotely represent men who were in the process of sending well wishes.
"Here comes trouble." Iolaus murmured.
Hercules was immediately on alert, especially when Croteus got near enough where they could see the grief-angry tears in his eyes. The ale stench coming from his mouth was horrible. If Iolaus had told him the truth about the brew this towns tavern served then Croteus had over-did his limit three mugs ago. The man wouldnt be thinking clearly.
"You ... you ... scum!" Croteus shouted at Iolaus, his body shaking with fury and anguish. "You had no business defiling Kithia that way," he went on, "My baby sister was pure before you got your filthy hands on her! You ruined her name and memory for all time!"
Iolaus took in a ragged breath, feeling sorry for the big brute and also ashamed if what Croteus said was more than grief, "You have no idea how terrible I feel. Croteus, I ..."
"You feel nothing! Admit it!" A younger man, possibly in his late teens or early twenties asserted, "I saw you two together in the street that night. It was disgusting! You were all over her!" he insisted. "I saw it!"
"Hey," Hercules put a hand on the young mans shoulder and pushed him back a bit. He knew an agitator when he saw one. "Stay out of it, okay."
"You gonna make me, big guy?" the burly boy-man snarled, obviously not aware of who it was he was picking a fight with.
*Big boy, small brain* Hercules thought but said: "Only if I absolutely have to." His rugged jaw snapped shut when he saw two of the other village thugs raise clubs and rope. Hercules hated when matters got out of control, to the point of violence, but it looked like there was going to be no avoiding it unless Croteus was willing to act civilly, demonstrating some form of understanding.
Croteus dark eyes stared into Iolaus, his bulk hulking above the smaller man. He appeared to be searching for something he could emotionally hold onto, "Tell me something, if Kithia had lived would have married her?"
The question startled Iolaus. He hadnt expected it and honestly did not know how he could truthfully answer.
Unfortunately, he paused for too long.
The hunters silence was all Croteus needed. His fists flew on their own.