Hercules wished he had something more encouraging to tell Kithias family but at least he hadnt left the temple totally without hope.
Still, he had to wonder about a few things. The village temple appeared to be the ruling force over its people. Their laws started and ended inside. In this area of Greece that was common. And certainly this village was filled with many good, hard working people who did their best to make a living for themselves and uphold good, moral values. Every village had good people. But there was just something a little off here. For one thing, what did they do for fun? Oh yes, Hercules recalled, the tavern.
And that suddenly struck Hercules as ironic too.
Kithia was chastised for being what the powers that be thought less than what she should. Yet, why wasnt there an effort to rid this town of its blasphemous tavern, a den of iniquity? Iolaus had already told him it housed some of the most mind altering liquor in the region, but there appeared to be little if no outcry. Frankly, it didnt really bother Hercules if the village had a tavern but the whole thing just seemed a little misleading.
"Hereus! Watch out!!"
Hercules head snapped up when he heard the call. A young boy was walking across the street a short distance from him but he wasnt paying attention to his surroundings. He seemed to be staring straight ahead, unheeding of the chariot and two horses that were galloping in his direction.
The demigod took quick action, running fast and snatching the boy before he was trampled to death. The rider and horses galloped by without ever having realized they almost killed the child. "Are you all right?" Hercules asked and was stunned. When he looked down at the boy in his arms, he recognized the youth that had told he and Iolaus how to get to Kithias house, when they first arrived in town.
"I'm fine." he said, a little lethargic.
Concerned, Hercules steered the boy to a bench near a water trough and sat him down, You just rest here a minute. He told him and sat quietly by the boy for a short period of time. "I wanted to thank you for showing Iolaus Kithias house. She died not long after he got to see her. Without your help he might have missed his chance to say goodbye."
The boy nodded and continued to sit, looking thoughtfully ahead for awhile, "I'm Hypocriticus youngest son." he suddenly said, "I'm sorry he gave you such a hard time in the temple, about Kithia."
"You were there?"
"In the back. I was copying some prayers for Father." Hereus then folded his hands, "I really liked Kithia. She was beautiful and a lot of men wanted to be with her but very few respected her. Not like me."
Hercules almost smiled. The boy was approaching his teens and she must have been his first case of puppy love.
"The way they were talking about her when they found she was going to have a baby ... Its unfair. The people of this town just dont know how evil others can be. They dont look hard enough." Hereus unexpectedly appeared confused, sporting the same deeply troubled expression as when he walked in front of the chariot. The boy then looked up at Hercules, "I have to tell you something. Ive never told anyone this before. Kithia didnt want me to but now shes gone and ..."
"Hey you, Bacchi Breath." An irritating voice broke into their conversation. Jensen advanced on his little brother and snarled, "Youre supposed to be in the temple. When you get home Ill be sure to tell Dad who youve been talking with. You know how he feels about Hercules." The lad smirked, "He's going to beat you blue and I'm gonna watch!"
"Jensen," Hercules rose to his intimidating full height and looked down at the burly young man, "If the next time I see Hereus he so much as has a hair out of place I will *see* you. Do I make myself clear?"
Boldly, Jensen tried to stare Hercules down but after a few moments he looked away, turning completely around and stormed off in the opposite direction.
Hercules then pivoted to tell the boy everything was all right but Hereus was gone, leaving no sign he had been there in the first place, "How does he keep doing that?" the demigod murmured.
"Hercules!" Iolaus unexpectedly approached from a path to the right of his friend. He'd obviously pushed himself away from that little bundle of sweetness in the house long enough to step out and get some exercise. "What's the news?"
Looking the street up and down for any sign of Hereus, Hercules told Iolaus what had happened in the temple. "Its not exactly success but I gave the priest something to think about."
Iolaus allowed a well you tried gesture then crooked a finger, indicating they needed to walk, "I'm off to find a headstone for Kithias grave. It doesnt matter where her ashes are going to be buried, shell still need a marker. Croteus says hed like it carved from stone, not wood. He gave me directions on who to see and where to order."
"You and Croteus are talking?" Hercules asked, astonished and slightly amused.
With a smile, Iolaus lifted a hand to touch his healing lip. "Well, when hes not smashed and trying to kill you he's really not that bad a guy. We sorted it out."
"I knew you would."
Unseen by the two heroes, Jensen stood with two of his hulking friends. They watched the men as they talk and walked to the location of the village stone cutter.
"No one can beat, Hercules." one of the young men said, "Not even Griffin and he's won the Summer Solstice annual wrestling match three seasons in a row."
Annoyed, Jensen smacked his friend across the chest as he looked at Griffin. He was the biggest of their group and he terrified everyone in the village. "That was because we didnt get the jump on Hercules. It will be different this time. Well get em by surprise. Then, I want he and that little blond twerp out of town by tonight. And that brat of Kithia's can go with them, do you understand?
Griffin, although not intimidated, nodded. He did whatever Jensen told him.
Iolaus and Hercules argued with the headstone salesman, over the price of the marker, for over fifteen minutes.
"What youre asking is ridiculous. I can go to Thebes and get three markers for the price youre asking for just one." Iolaus attempted to bargain with the man, just outside of his work shop.
The cutter, a middle aged but well muscled man, looked up and over at his potential customers with an indulgent smirk. He had a good business and just finished carving a design into a young couples marriage-bed headboard. He was not desperate for trade. "Look, you seem like good men and normally I wouldnt be so tough on you but you gotta see where I am. I have a reputation to maintain. Carving a stone for Kithia, when the temple elder has renounced her - especially in a village as wholesome as ours ... Well, you guys should be happy I'm willing to work for you at all."
Hercules said nothing but he wore his disgust openly. "Did all the people of this village have such narrow perimeters?"
"It's highway robbery." Iolaus said but reached for the denar pouch tied to his waist. He had little choice. He thumbed through the coins it contained then, giving up, just tossed the whole sack at the carver, "Knock yourself out." he said, fed up.
"How about if we knock you out?" came a voice behind the three men.
Fists were thrown before either Hercules or Iolaus had a chance to turn around.
The carver, not wanting to get involved and genuinely frightened, took the bed headboard, as well as Iolaus denar pouch, and rushed into his workshop.
Hercules and Iolaus were knocked down right next to each other, both looking up at the advancing half dozen, including Jensen.
"You know what," Iolaus narrowed his eyes and getting to his feet said, "Right now Im really looking forward to this."
"Me too." Hercules confessed and lifted his clenched fists to brawl.
"Won't they ever learn?" Hercules helped Iolaus to stand and smiled as his friend shrugged.
The fight had been brutal but not very long. The young men involved might have been energetic and had visions of glory but they were not warriors. Iolaus had two of the young men down in less than a minute and Hercules cleared the floor of the other three only twenty seconds later. That included Griffin, the muscular bully Jensen was so sure could subdue the demigod.
"Do we have beat me stamped across our foreheads or something?" Iolaus asked.
Hercules put a hand on his friend shoulder and looked out at the street, where the bullies had disappeared, "Iolaus, theres something very strange going on here and I think Hereus knows what it is." He went on to tell Iolaus that the boy was on the verge of telling him a great secret before he was stopped then ran off, "I'm going to go find him and see what it is."
With an exaggerated moan, Iolaus ran hands through his blond hair and came to a decision of his own, "I think I'm going to pay the temple priest another visit. I know you just talked with him but, as a co-conspirator in what this village calls blasphemy, I think I should make an appearance and beg forgiveness. It can only help, particularly if I take all the blame."
"No, its all right, Hercules. I've made up my mind. I have to do it for Lahti. If she ever comes back here she has to know I did my best to get her mother's name cleared of all the charges the temple has leveled against her."
Understanding, Hercules nodded.
The men parted, moving in opposite directions and neither were aware that Kreela had been watching them this time. Sadly, she followed Iolaus.
Hercules moved just past the front of the village stable when he heard a whimper from inside. He wasnt really certain what it was until a sniffle followed. It came from no horse. "Hereus?" he called gently inside and knew it was the boy when the crying stopped, "Its Hercules, are you here?"
"I shouldn't have said anything to you. Go away."
He still could not see the young man but Hercules followed the voice. "I only want to help."
"No one can help. If I just keep quiet until the day I find the courage to leave this place, no one will get hurt."
"You mean you wont get hurt." Hercules countered but not unkindly. The kid was frightened and he didnt blame him. How terrible it must have been, sharing his home with Hypocriticus and Jensen. He suddenly wondered about Hereus mother but didnt ask.
"That's right. I'm a bad person and a coward."
Hercules turned a corner and saw Hereus sitting in the straw strewn corner of the out-building. A butterscotch colored mare was a few meters away and she appeared only mildly interested in their conversation as she ate from an oat bag. Hercules patted her very gently on the nose as he moved to meet the boy, sitting cross-legged in front of him. "You're not a bad person and being afraid does not make you a coward." Hercules looked down when he saw a small glint of light ricochet off an object in the boys hand.
Hereus looked down at it at the same time.
Lightening fast, Hercules took it from the boy, "What did you plan on doing with this?" he asked, quickly. Hercules was horrified. He had no idea.
Hereus said nothing, only looked away.
Hercules got a tight, sick feeling in his stomach and tossed both it and the dagger away. "Something terrible is bothering you, Hereus. You need to talk to someone, me if youd like. What are you hiding from? What do you know?"
Hereus, tears running down his dirt streaked cheeks, looked into Hercules imploring expression and nodded. He had to tell someone and Hercules .... Hercules was his hero.
He allowed the demigod to take him in his arms for a comforting hug.
Part 4 - Epilogue