The Guard Captain, Dimitrius, had been riding ahead and saw them first. He'd gone back to alert King Jason and the other guards, though there was little point in it by then. The slaughter was long over, the killers gone.
They counted five bodies at first -- a young merchant, his wife, and three hired guards. The merchant's throat had been slit. The woman... Jason tried not to think about what had been done to the woman. Their wagon had been stripped, and left abandoned in the ditch by the side of the road. Jason had no idea what prompted him to climb into the wagon for a look. Some vague hope of finding a clue to the killers' identities, perhaps. What he'd found was a baby's tiny corpse, wrapped in bloody sheets, still tucked away in its little basket.
Jason straightened up slowly, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. His skin felt clammy, and his stomach cramped every time he inhaled. Dimitrius handed him a water bottle, and he drank gratefully. It was lukewarm, and a bit stale, but it helped wash the bitter taste from his mouth. The guards milled about in the road, grim-faced and silent, and carefully ignoring the fact that their king had just spent several minutes on his knees in the dirt, throwing up.
"Who did this?" Jason demanded, knowing that the question was stupid, unable to hold back the words. His voice sounded harsh and savage to his own ears. "How could this happen in my kingdom?"
"I've heard reports of bandits in the area." Even Dimitrius, a soldier with over twenty years' service, sounded shaken. "But I had no idea it was anything this bad..."
"My Lord!" One of the guards came running up them. He saluted Jason, and snapped to attention in front of Dimitrius. "Captain. We have a survivor."
One of the merchant's guards was still alive. He had a lump the size of an apple on the back of his head and an ugly, jagged gash across his forehead, and he lay as still as the others, but he was breathing. Dimitrius cradled the wounded man's head in his lap, and gently wiped the blood away from his face.
"Just a boy," he muttered.
Jason did not comment. The still, pale face under the blood did not look much younger than his own. But then, he had a suspicion that Dimitrius considered him just a boy too, royalty or not.
"Will he make it?" he asked. "That's a nasty-looking wound."
"Actually, it's not that bad," Dimitrius told him. "I know it looks like a lot of blood, but it's really just an ugly scratch. I'm a lot more worried about that bump on the back of his skull. We'll need to make a litter and move him very gently."
Jason supervised the construction of the litter, grateful to have something to do. Anything to keep his mind from flashing on the images of that murdered infant in the wagon. He was going to dream about it, he just knew it. Well, maybe it would make a nice change from dreaming about the Parthan War.
"Do you think we'll ever find who did this?" he asked Dimitrius.
"I don't know." Dimitrius did not look too optimistic as he gazed at the thick growth of trees that bordered the road on either side. "There's a lot of ground to cover here. A lot of places where a small band of men could hide."
Jason watched the guards carefully lift the unconscious man onto the litter. "Maybe he'll tell us something useful. Take him to the palace."
* * * * *
Somebody was pounding Iphicles's head with a hammer, over and over. Or several somebodies, maybe. He tried to fling his arms up to fend them off, but something soft and shapeless held him down, smothering his movements. He tried to throw it off, and only got himself further entangled. He fought harder, confusion edging into panic.
"Shh." Strong hands gripped his arms and held him down. An unfamiliar man's voice spoke to him, low and soothing. "It's all right. You're safe. Stop thrashing around, you'll fall off the bed."
Bed? Iphicles held still, trying to assimilate his surroundings. After a few moments, he concluded that the soft weight on top of him was a blanket, and the pounding in his head was coming from the inside. Other discomforts were beginning to intrude, too. He felt feverish, and weak as a day-old kitten. His throat was parched. It took several tries to get his voice to work.
"I can't see."
"Opening your eyes might help." A hint of amusement crept into the unknown voice.
"Oh." Were his eyes closed? Iphicles concentrated for a moment. Yes, apparently they were. He opened them, slowly. His eyelids seemed to weigh a ton. At first, all he saw was a blurred mosaic of muted colors. After a while, the blurs came into focus.
He was, indeed, lying in a bed in an unfamiliar room. There was a window to his left, with the curtains partially drawn, admitting just enough light to see by. An elderly man he'd never seen before sat in a chair by his side. He met Iphicles's questioning gaze with a reassuring smile.
"How do you feel?"
Iphicles frowned, trying to decide which complaint to voice first.
"I'm not surprised. You've been unconscious for three days. Can you sit up?"
"I'll try." Iphicles lifted his head a couple of inches off the pillow. The room promptly tilted sideways and spun like a top. He fell back again. "No."
"Sure you can. Here, let me give you a hand."
It took a few tries, but they managed it eventually. The older man propped a pillow under Iphicles's back, handed him a cup, helped steady his hand while he drank.
"Much. Thank you, uh..."
"My name is Leonidas. I'm King Jason's personal physician."
"The King?" Iphicles blinked in shock. Previously unnoticed details began to claim his attention. Silk sheets. Velvet drapes. Fine carving on the furniture. "I'm in the Royal Palace? How did I get here?"
"What do you remember?" Leonidas asked gently.
"I--" Iphicles pressed one hand against his forehead, trying to think through the throbbing pain in his head. His fingers encountered cloth rather than skin -- a bandage, obviously. "I was escoring a trader from Attica. There were three of us riding with the wagon... someone shouted... oh, gods..." Memory flooded back, full of blood and pain and fear. Iphicles closed his eyes, trying in vain to shut out the images. He could feel himself starting to shake.
"It's all right," Leonidas said quickly. "You don't have to talk about it now. The King will want to see you later, but not until you're stronger." He pushed lightly against Iphicles's shoulder, encouraging him to lie down again. "Rest now."
"They're all dead, aren't they?" Iphicles said hopelessly. "Aren't they?"
"Rest," Leonidas repeated. "Don't worry about it now. It'll be all right."
No, it won't, Iphicles thought as he let his aching head fall back on the pillow. It was as far from all right as it could possibly be.
* * * * *
The day seemed to last forever. Leonidas left the room, only to return a few minutes later, accompanied by a servant carrying a laden tray. There was bread and soup, more water, and some vile-tasting tea that was supposed to help his headache. Iphicles obediently sipped the tea, but the smell of the food made him ill and he couldn't get more than a few spoonfulls down.
After the meal he was left alone to watch the shadows creep across the walls. The room grew darker as the sun sank lower in the sky. Iphicles was just beginning to wonder if he had enough strength to get up and light the candles, when another servant appeared to do it for him. Iphicles tried to thank him, but the man merely bowed and glided out again, silent.
A few minutes later Leonidas came in again, bearing more tea. He checked Iphicles's pulse, felt his face for signs of fever, changed the bandage on his head, and pronounced himself satisfied.
"Do you think you're ready to talk to the King? He seems pretty anxious."
Iphicles didn't want to speak to anyone, but it was probably a bad idea to keep a king waiting, particularly a king whose hospitality he'd been imposing on for three days. He nodded, trying not to wince.
"I'll get him, then." Leonidas hurried out.
Iphicles had spent most of the day wondering what King Jason would be like. He had left home during Aeson's reign, and been back only a couple of times since, so the opportunity to see the new king hadn't presented itself. Iphicles wasn't sure what he was expecting, but the smiling young man who came in definitely wasn't it.
"Hello." The King pulled up a chair and sat. "I'm Jason. Leonidas has given me a long and detailed rundown of your medical condition, but neglected to mention your name."
"That's because he neglected to ask it. I'm Iphicles, uhm... Your Majesty."
The King rolled his eyes. "Please, call me Jason. I get enough of this 'Your Majesty' crap from my advisors." His smile faded. He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "Iphicles, I know this must be hard for you, but I need to know what happened to you that day on the road. Any details you might give us about the men who attacked you--"
"I'm sorry." Iphicles shook his head, unable to meet Jason's eyes. "I wish I could help. But I didn't see a thing. I was unconscious the whole time." Even without looking up, he could sense Jason's disappointment. If he could've sunk right through the floor and into Tartarus at that moment, he would've done it. But all he could do was to keep his eyes down as he gave Jason his story. "We were riding. Everything seemed fine. There'd been no trouble the whole trip, we were almost there, no one was really paying attention..." He shivered as the memories crowded in again. "Somebody shouted, I turned... something hit me on the forehead, and sent me flying off my horse. I must've hit my head when I landed, because the next thing I remember is waking up here."
"Leonidas thinks you were grazed by an arrow," Jason told him. "And Dimitrius -- my Captain of the Guard -- agrees. It probably saved your life, you know. The bandits must've seen you lying there with blood all over your face, and left you for dead."
"Lucky me," Iphicles said dully.
Jason sighed. "I'm sorry. I know it must seem like small comfort now, but it wasn't your fault. And we'll catch the bastards one way or another, I promise. I've got trackers out all over that part of the countryside, and soldiers patroling the road. We'll find them."
Iphicles made himself to look up and meet Jason's eyes. "I hope you do," he muttered through clenched teeth. "And I hope you kill every last one of them."
"They'll be brought to justice," Jason said in a neutral voice. "I'd better go now, before Leonidas throws me out. But I'll let you know if there's news."
"Thanks," Iphicles muttered.
"Get some rest now." Jason patted his arm, and got up to leave. He stopped when he reached the door, and turned to give Iphicles a final sympathetic look. "It wasn't your fault, Iphicles. Remember that."
Iphicles had never felt more like pondscum in his entire life.
* * * * *
Jason and Dimitrius stood in a shaded corner of the exercise yard, and watched Iphicles pound a straw-filled punching bag into submission. They'd been there for almost half an hour now, and he still showed no sign of slowing down.
He had joined Dimitrius's men in their morning exercise drills -- the first time Leonidas had approved him for such activity -- and done pretty well for a man who'd spent most of the past two weeks confined to bed. But practice was long over now, the guards dispersed to go about their duties, and Iphicles was still there, throwing punch after punch with mindless, clockwork rhythm. Sweat streamed down his back and dripped from his hair. It had to be getting into his eyes, but he did not appear to notice. Jason could hear his ragged breathing from twenty paces away, punctuated by the steady beat of fists against leather. The bag was beginning to come apart at the seams, little bits of straw dropping to the ground at Iphicles's feet. Iphicles didn't seem to notice that, either.
"There's a punching bag that will never bother anyone again," Jason muttered. He kept his voice to a whisper, though he suspected he could've shouted to wake the dead, and Iphicles would not hear.
Dimitrius smiled, but his eyes were worried. "Maybe we should stop him. Leonidas will be pissed if he collapses."
Iphicles was beginning to look a bit wobbly. Jason sighed.
"I suppose we'd better."
They made no effort to be silent as they crossed the yard, but Iphicles showed no awareness of their approach. Jason cleared his throat.
Iphicles spun around, wild-eyed, and swung a well-aimed fist at Jason's face. Jason just barely managed to duck under the blow.
"Whoa! Iphicles, it's me, Jason! Back off, Dimitrius, it's all right."
Iphicles stood frozen between them, still trembling like a startled horse, but no longer attacking. Dimitrius sheathed his sword, but kept his hand on the hilt.
"Shit!" Iphicles rubbed one hand across his eyes as if trying to clear his vision. "Did I just-- I'm sorry, My Lord, I didn't--"
"No harm done," Jason said cheerfully. "And I thought I'd told you to call me Jason."
"Yeah, well." Iphicles gave a shaky smile. "Having just come within a half-inch of commiting treason, I thought it might be good to show some respect. What's the penalty for socking your king in the jaw, anyway?"
"Being socked right back." Jason took Iphicles's elbow and steered him toward a nearby bench. "Have a seat, will you? I think you've had enough exercise for one morning."
Iphicles sat down heavily and slumped forward, resting his elbows on his knees. Dimitrius handed him a towel, and he stared at it for a few moments as if trying to remember what it was for, before using it to wipe down his face and arms.
"Thanks," he muttered.
"You shouldn't push yourself so hard, so soon," Dimitrius told him. "Take it easy."
Iphicles glowered at him. "I've been taking it easy for two weeks. It's not doing anyone any good." He turned to Jason. "Have you found them yet?"
No need to ask who "they" were. Jason sighed and shook his head.
"Not yet. They know we're looking for them, they're probably lying low. Sooner or later, they'll get careless and we'll have them." He hoped that was true. For all he knew, the outlaws might've fled Corinth by now, and resumed their murdering ways someplace else. The border patrols hadn't reported any suspicious-looking strangers trying to cross, but then the border patrols were not infallible.
Iphicles must've been thinking along similar lines, if his dark expression was any indication.
"They could be anywhere by now! The more time passes, the less likely you are to find them."
"I know!" Jason said sharply. "And I've got every man I can spare out there looking. What else do you suggest I do?"
"Nothing." Iphicles rubbed his eyes again, looking dejected. "I'm sorry. I know you're doing all that can be done. It's just that... they can't be allowed to get away with this."
"They won't. I promise." Jason clapped him on the back. "Now go get some rest"
"I don't need--"
"Iphicles. Your king has spoken. Go to your room."
Iphicles gave him a resentful look, and marched off in the direction of the guest quarters, looking a bit unsteady on his feet. Jason waited until he was out of earshot before he spoke.
"He's angry," Dimitrius said softly. "He wants revenge."
"I don't blame him," Jason muttered.
He had dreamed of the baby, just as he'd known he would. Her name, according to Iphicles, had been Phoebe. Her parents had been Lukos and Nysa. All three were buried ten days ago, along with the two dead guards. Jason had paid for the funerals, but did not actually attend the services. Dimitrius had argued that the victims' families did not need the stifling presence of royalty intruding on their grief, and Jason had let himself be convinced by the argument, but the truth was, he hadn't wanted to go. He felt bad enough already, without the images of weeping parents and children to haunt him.
"My Lord." Dimitrius laid one hand lightly on Jason's shoulder, an uncharactersitically familiar gesture. "It wasn't your fault, anymore than it was Iphicles's. We live in a violent world. These things happen."
"But it's my job to make sure they don't, isn't it? I'm the King. The protector of the people." Jason laughed bitterly. "A fine job I've been doing, huh?"
Dimitrius looked as if he was about to argue, but Jason raised one hand to forestall him.
"Enough. I don't want to talk about it now. Let's go, I believe I have a council meeting."
* * * * *
Jason hit the floor with a resounding thud, rolled over twice, and started to sit up only to find the point of a sword pressed against his throat.
"Yield?" Iphicles demanded
Jason held up his hands, laughing. "I yield. Give me a hand up, will you?"
The two of them had been sparring every day for a week now, and Jason was enjoying it tremendously. One of the things he missed the most about his days at Cheiron's Academy was having sparring partners who weren't intimidated by his royal status. Being trounced by Hercules, Iolaus or Lilith was not necessarily fun, but it had kept him in good fighting shape, and he'd appreciated being treated as just one of the guys. At the palace, though, everything was different. The only man willing to give him a proper fight without holding back was Dimitrius, and Dimitrius was too busy most of the time.
Which is why it was so nice to have Iphicles around. Iphicles had no compunction about knocking his king on his royal ass. He did not have the polished fighting style that came from formal training, but he had a lot of rough-and-ready moves that Jason did not know how to counter. Iolaus sometimes fought in a similar fashion, particularly when he lost his temper, but Jason knew most of Iolaus's moves.
"I think this is a good time to break for lunch." Jason grasped Iphicles's outstretched hand and pulled himself to his feet. "Provided, of course--" he rubbed the sore spot on his jaw where Iphicles's elbow had connected a minute ago-- "that I can actually chew. And to think, just a few days ago, Leonidas was trying to convince me that you're not well enough to spar. I think he's been worrying about the wrong guy."
He meant it as a joke, but Iphicles did not laugh. He fidgeted, looking suddenly uncomfortable. Jason frowned at him in concern.
"Did I say something wrong?"
"No." Iphicles stared at the floor. "I know I've been imposing on your hospitality. I should be moving on now that I'm well enough..."
"Hello? Iphicles, that's not what I meant at all! You're welcome to stay as long as you want, you know that."
"I know. You've been very generous. But I--"
"Your Majesty!" Dimitrius' urgent voice made both men turn toward the door.
"What is it?" Jason demanded.
"Elpenor is back."
"I'll be right there." Jason turned to Iphicles. "Better take a rain check on that lunch. Elpenor is one of the scouts I'd sent out to look for the men who attacked you. If he's back, it means he found something, and Dimitrius and I will need to start getting ready."
"Jason." Iphicles gripped Jason's arm. "Let me come with you."
"When we attack, you mean?" Jason hesitated. "I don't know. I'm not sure you're well enough to--"
"I'm well enough to fight, you just said so yourself. Those bastards killed my friends, Jason. Not to mention Lukos and Nysa, who'd paid me to protect them. I can't just sit back and let someone else take them down, I have to do something!"
There was tight anger in his voice and fierce determination in his eyes. Jason suspected he'd have to lock him in a dungeon cell to keep him from coming.
"All right," he sighed. "You'd better join us for the meeting then."
* * * * *
Elpenor had tracked the bandits to the western edge of the forest, where the flat, grassy terrain began to give way to rockier, hillier ground.
"There's a clearing as you approach the from the East," he explained, "with a river bordering in on the west side, and a steep hill to the north. They've set up a camp there, eight men, at least three standing guard at any given time. I think they must be ex-soldiers, or maybe out-of-work mercenaries -- everyone has a sword and bow, and they seem to know how to use them. Still, they're set up to fight off foresters and scouting parties, not a proper attack. Twelve men should take them out, no problem."
"We'll take thirty, then," Dimitrius said firmly. "No harm in being over-prepared."
Jason had no argument with that.
They crossed the forest on horseback, but dismounted half a mile before they reached their destination, leaving three of the youngest soldiers to guard the horses while the rest of the party continued on foot. When the trees began to thin out, Jason waved his men to a stop and crept ahead to the edge of the clearing, accompanied only by Dimitrius and Elpenor.
The clearing was about thirty yards across, with the outlaws' camp all the way on the far side. They had built a crude wall of mud and stone around the site, an effective cover for archers. The Corinthian men would be visible as soon as they emerged from the trees, perfect targets on the flat ground.
Jason frowned as he considered his alternatives. He and Dimitrius had discussed several possible attack plans before they left, eventually deciding to see for themselves before making the final choice. Now they had seen, and it was Jason's job to make the decision. His first instinct was to send in most of his men at once, spread out, with a small number of archers left behind to cover their approach. But a show of overwhelming force would probably send the bandits running for the hills long before the soldiers could reach them. Jason wanted them to stay and fight.
"I want... twelve volunteers," he whispered to Dimitrius. "Let them go in first and engage. Once the fighting starts, everyone else moves in."
Dimitri nodded, his face showing neither approval nor disapproval. "Archers?"
"No. Not until the second attack. Let them think the first party is all there is."
Dimitri nodded again, though his eyes were grim. Jason was feeling pretty grim himself. Even with their shields for cover, those first twelve men were going to be hit hard. But he could think of no better way to approach in this terrain, and if he started waffling on tactics now he'd only demoralize his soldiers and increase the chance of being spotted before the attack began.
They went back, and Jason spoke to his men, ending with the call for volunteers. He wished he could think of something inspiring to say, something that would engender confidence and give those first attackers an extra edge. He'd been told that his father used to give brilliant speeches in situations like this, but Jason didn't seem to have the knack. So he simply outlined the plan in terse detail, and waited to see who would come forward.
Eighteen men volunteered. Jason was not the least bit surprised to see Iphicles among them. He was half-tempted to hold him back -- an all-out battle was not the same thing as a sparring session, and Iphicles might not be as recovered as he thought -- but decided it was probably a bad idea. The look on Iphicles's face could only be described as mulish, suggesting that any attempt to leave him behind would result in exactly the sort of protracted argument they most needed to avoid. Jason gave a resigned sigh, and counted him in.
The arrows started flying as soon the first man left the forest's protective cover. The soldiers moved quickly, crouching behind their shields. One man went down with cry, a feathered shaft protruding from his leg. Another staggered back from the impact of arrow against shield, dropped his guard for less than a second, and was shot in throat. Jason gripped the hilt of his sword with a white-knuckled grip. He understood the need for waiting, knew all the reasons why the King of Corinth could not afford to take foolish risks, but it still took all his self-control to keep from rushing forward as more men went down. They were about half-way across now, and he could no longer tell who was still moving. It was time to get ready. Jason tore his eyes away from the field, and went to get his shield and helmet.
Angry shouts and the clash of metal against metal signalled the start of hand-to-hand fighting in the bandits' camp. Jason drew his sword.
"Now!" he shouted.
It was hard to keep track of details after that. Jason remembered running across the clearing, remembered vaulting over the wall into the camp. A wild-faced man in battered armor sprang in his way, swinging a sword. Jason blocked the blow with his shield and returned the attack. He was aware of the rest of the soldiers storming into the space around him, but he had no attention to spare for them, or for anything other than the feel of the sword in his hand and the darting movements of the man he was fighting.
And then, in what seemed like an instant, it was finished. Jason's opponent suddenly stumbled, gasped, and fell to his knees, dropping his sword from lifeless fingers. It took Jason several moments of blinking confusion to realize that someone else had stabbed the man. He whirled around, looking for another target, but the fight was over. The bandits, overwhelmed by superior numbers and disheartened by the second attack, had either died or surrendered.
Jason lowered his sword and stood gulping air, waiting for his heartbeat to slow down. He felt dizzy and light-headed, shaking with a killing rage that no longer had a target. There was nothing to do but stand there and wait for it to dissipate.
A commotion on the other side of the camp caught his attention and he went to investigate, grateful for something outside of himself to focus on. One of the bandits was cowering on the ground, arms raised to shield his head.
"Keep him off me!" he was wailing. "He's crazy! Keep that maniac away from me!"
The maniac in question was Iphicles, now being forcibly and not-quite-successfully restrained by two soldiers. They were holding his arms, trying to drag him back, but he kept throwing himself forward, growling curses and aiming vicious kicks at the fallen man.
"Enough!" Jason grabbed a fistful of Iphicles's shirt and gave him a shake. "Back off, Iphicles, it's over."
"It won't be over till he's dead!" Iphicles snarled. "Fucking baby-killer, I'll break his neck--"
Jason took a step back. For a moment, all he could do was stand and stare in confusion while the implication of Iphicles's words sank in. Then the confusion receded and anger took its place -- not the earlier battle-rage, but a cold, focused fury.
"Stand aside," he snapped at the two soldiers. They gave him near-identical startled looks, but obeyed. Jason shifted his grip from Iphicles's shirtfront to his arm, and hauled him across the campsite, away from the other men.
Iphicles tried to dig his heels in a couple of times, but the fight seemed to be draining out of him. Jason kept going until they were out of earshot, and hidden from sight by several large boulders that lay scattered at the foot of the hill.
"What in Tartarus was that about?" he demanded.
"You know damn well what!" Iphicles was nearly screaming. "That bastard murdered a baby in cold blood, you think I'm going to--"
"Did he now?" Jason's eyes narrowed. He slammed Iphicles backwards against a boulder and pinned him there, one arm pressed against the other man's throat. "How would you know?"
Iphicles froze. The color drained from his face. "I--"
"You were unconscious the whole time, right?" Jason's voice was so soft it was almost a whisper. "Out like a light from the very beginning, didn't see a thing, isn't that what you said? So how do you know who killed who?"
Iphicles said nothing. He wasn't fighting back. Wasn't shaking anymore. He barely even seemed to be breathing. Jason pulled back slightly and tried to maintain control. There had to be an explanation for this. He liked Iphicles, dammit. But the silence kept stretching, and the look of stricken guilt in Iphicles's eyes was unmistakable. Taking a deep breath, Jason made himself step back.
"Talk to me, Iphicles. I want the truth."
Iphicles's legs buckled. He slid down to the ground and rested his head against his knees. His shoulders shook.
"I could've saved her..." The words came out in a strangled sob. "Gods forgive me, I could've saved the baby..."
* * * * *
It had all happened so quickly. One moment he'd been riding along, relaxed, sharing a joke with one of the other guards. The next moment -- a shout, a sudden pain in his head, and then the earth was rushing up to meet him.
The fall must've stunned him for some time, because the next thing he knew he was face-down in the dirt, his head ringing, his face caked with blood. Iphicles cautiously opened one eye, and found himself caught in the glassy stare of a corpse.
It was Tobias, the same guard he'd been joking with only moments before. Now his face was ashen, his mouth hanging open. A crossbow bolt protruded from his forehead, the feathers stirring lightly in the breeze. There was surprisingly little blood, just a single dark-red trickle running down his face and into the slack mouth.
Iphicles bit back a whimper. He wanted desperately to move, to get as far away from that empty gaze as he could, but some small remnant of rational thought held him still. Men were moving around him, their shadows shifting on the ground, and he was slowly beginning to make out their voices past the ringing in his ears.
"Hurry up with that wagon, will you?"
"Please, take whatever you want, just let us--"
"Let the fucking horses loose, what are we gonna do with them in the middle of a forest..."
"Nah, let's take a couple, maybe we can sell them..."
"Hey, asshole, I saw that first!"
"No, please, don't... oh gods, please... nooo..."
Iphicles dug his fingers into the dirt to keep himself from trembling. He still had his sword. He wasn't that badly hurt. But if he moved, they'd know he wasn't dead, and they'd kill him. He knew that with absolute, unshakeable certainty.
He didn't move.
The voices continued. The outlaws' rough banter. Lukos's anguished pleading. Grunts, laughter, Nysa's screams fading to broken moans. And cutting through it all, the endless, high-pitched wailing of a terrified infant. Phoebe. Iphicles could tell by the noise that she was close to him, so very close, no more that four or five feet away...
He didn't move.
He had no idea how long it lasted. It was a relief when Nysa's groans abruptly silenced, though he knew it meant she was dead. Suddenly, the whole world seemed silent, except for Phoebe's unabated crying. It went on for maybe a minute, and then someone swore and muttered "shut that fucking brat up, will you?"
He didn't move.
Before they left, the bandits unhitched the horses from the wagon and sent them cantering back in the direction they'd come from, away from Corinth. One of them kicked Iphicles in the head on its way past. That was the last thing he remembered.
* * * * *
Iphicles fell silent and leaned his head back against the boulder, eyes closed. He looked completely wrung out, as if the confession had sapped whatever strength he'd had left after the battle. The last traces of Jason's anger evaporated at the sight. He shifted from foot to foot, trying desperately to think of something comforting to say. Finally he sat down and put one hand on Iphicles's shoulder. Iphicles tensed at the contact, and tried to pull away, but Jason held on.
"You had it right the first time, you know," he said softly. "They would've killed you if you'd moved."
Iphicles shook his head without opening his eyes. "They were all the way at the front of the wagon. I was at the back. And they were occupied with--" he broke off and swallowed, looking ill. "With Nysa. I could've gone into the wagon, grabbed Phoebe and made a run for it. I could've lost them in the woods. I had the whole thing worked out in my head. But I was too afraid."
"Oh, come on! One wounded man carrying a baby? Do you really think you stood a chance?"
"Yes," Iphicles said in a flat voice. "I wasn't really hurt, not untill that damn horse kicked me at the end. It was a very small chance, maybe, but it was there. Are you going to tell me I shouldn't have tried?"
Jason hesitated for a long time, mulling over all the possible answers in his head. In the end, none of them felt right.
"I don't know," he said.
Iphicles finally opened his eyes. A bitter smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.
"Yes, you do." He pushed himself up to his feet, and walked back toward the campsite. He didn't look back when Jason called his name.
* * * * *
By the time they got back to Corinth it was almost dark. Iphicles was so tired he could barely move, though the exhaustion was more mental than physical. Confession, he'd always heard, was supposed to alleviate guilt, but it hadn't done a thing for him.
Jason tried to speak to him at one point, shortly after they re-entered the palace, but it was easy enough to avoid him. There were too many other people around, wanting to speak to the King, so when Iphicles simply said "good night" and walked away, Jason was in no position to follow. Iphicles returned to his room, bolted the door, and collapsed on the bed. He barely managed the strength to blow out the candles and undress before falling into a deep, thankfully dreamless sleep.
He woke up feeling stiff and achy and suprisingly hungry. He knew he could probably get breakfast if he asked, along with pretty much anything else he could think of. But he also knew that he'd already overstayed his welcome by at least one night. He had no right or reason to be hanging about the palace any longer.
He was considering how he might get away without being drawn into awkward good-byes, when there was a knock on his door.
"Iphicles? It's Jason."
The one person he didn't want to see, and the one person he couldn't possibly tell to go away. Iphicles sighed and opened the door.
"Good morning, My Lord."
"Are we back to that again?" Jason rolled his eyes. "Sit down. I want to tell you something."
Iphicles sat down on the edge of the bed. Jason pulled over a chair and sat facing him.
"I was up most of the night thinking," he said, and gave a small, awkward laugh. "An unusual activity for me, as all my tutors will tell you. But I kept going over what you told me yesterday, trying to figure out what you should've done, what I might've done if I'd been in your place. And you know what I came up with?"
"What?" Iphicles prompted dutifully.
"Nothing. I still don't know. And if I can't figure it out, sitting here safe in my palace, with a whole night to think about it, then I can't imagine how you were supposed to do it. You were in an impossible situation. You did what seemed right."
"No, I did what seemed safe." Iphicles could hear the contempt in his own voice, and hoped Jason would figure out it wasn't directed at him. "I'm sorry, Jason, I know you're trying to help. But I knew exactly what I needed to do. I was just too much of a coward to do it."
Jason's response was a distinctly un-royal snort. "I've met a few cowards in my life, Iphicles. Enough to know what they're like, anyway. You're not it." He leaned forward, looking suddenly earnest, and more than a little uncomfortable. "Look... can I tell you a story?"
"Can I stop you?"
"No. Shut up and listen. You know Corinth went to war with the Parthans a few months back?"
Iphicles wasn't sure what that had to do with anything, but he nodded. "I'd heard."
"I'd never fought in a war before. I was... I know it sounds ridiculous now, but I was excited about it. I thought it would a grand adventure. So I marched off to the front, happy as pig in shit and about as smart, dragging two of my best friends along." Jason shook his head, as if unable to quite believe his own stupidity. "We were ambushed on our way to the front. Most of the men with us were killed. And I--" he broke off, and looked away for a moment before continuing. "I panicked. But I couldn't admit I'd panicked, not even to myself, so I got angry to cover it up. There I was, ranting and raving about all the Parthans I was going to kill, when what I really wanted to do was crawl into a hole and hide."
"But you didn't," Iphicles said gently, "did you?"
"No. I did something worse. I insisted we keep fighting. I wanted the war to go on, even though there was no point, even though I was in no shape either to fight or to lead. I was ready to get myself, my friends, and my people killed, just to punish the Parthans for making me afraid." Jason slumped in the chair, as if weighed down by his own words. His face had a tired, dejected look that Iphicles was intimately familiar with. He'd faced it in the mirror often enough over the past few weeks.
"So what happened?" he asked.
"Oh, not much. One of my friends talked sense to me, and I finally listened. The Parthans agreed to a truce. I suppose you might call it a happy ending -- except for all the people who didn't come back."
"You did the right thing in the end, though."
"Yeah. But I had time to think, and friends to support me, and quite a bit of luck on my side. None of it changes the fact that I screwed up. If Hercules hadn't--"
"Hercules?" Iphicles burst out before he could help himself. "That's who your friend is?"
"Yes." Jason gave him a startled look. "Why, do you know him?"
Iphicles could've kicked himself. He considered claiming ignorance, or only a casual acquaintance, then decided he'd done enough lying lately.
"He's my brother."
"You're kidding!" Jason stared at him in open-mouthed amazement. "Wow. Your brother. That's... unbelievable. I had no idea Hercules ha-- was your brother. Why didn't you tell me?"
"I didn't know you knew him." If I knew, I would've kept my big mouth shut. " And the subject didn't come up."
"But... but you didn't even say you had family near Corinth! I could've sent word to Alcmene that you--"
"No!" Iphicles interruped, a bit more vehemently than he'd meant to. Jason's expression changed from delighted surprise to puzzlement. "Please. Don't tell Mother, or Hercules, or-- or anyone who might tell them. It would... it would only make Mother worry, and it's not like I died or anything, is it?"
"It's your call," Jason said, though he still looked puzzled. "If you don't want them to know..."
"I don't. Definitely."
"Then they won't find out from me. But... wow. Herc's your brother, huh? He saved my life in the Parthan war, you know. Saved Corinth, probably."
Figures. Iphicles tried to feel proud and pleased, or at least to look proud and pleased, but he could feel all the old resentments bubbling up to the surface.
"Yeah," he muttered. "I bet he would've saved the baby, too."
Jason shrugged. "Knowing Herc, he would've wiped the floor with all eight bandits without breaking a sweat, so the point would've been moot. But that's just him. We ordinary mortals have to stumble through the best we can."
"Is that supposed to be comforting?"
"It's supposed to be true. Look, Iphicles, maybe you screwed up. Maybe I screwed up. Beating yourself up about it won't do anyone any good. All you can do is try to do better next time."
Iphicles frowned at him. "You sound like Hercules."
"That's a compliment in my book. You should listen."
"Now you're annoying me like Hercules, too."
"I'm a king, I'm allowed to annoy people."
Jason grinned, and Iphicles reluctantly found himself smiling in return. It was hard to work up a good sulk with Jason around, he was too damn good-natured about everything.
"What are you planning to do with yourself now?" he asked.
"I'm not sure," Iphicles admitted. "Go on to Athens, maybe. There's usually work to be had there."
"There's work to be had here," Jason told him. "Dimitrius likes you. The men say you did well in the fighting yesterday. If you wanted a place in the army, or the Palace Guard..." he trailed off, looking at Iphicles hopefully.
For a moment, Iphicles was tempted. It was a chance to belong someplace, to make something more of himself than a hired sword. He liked Dimitrius, and had already begun to think of Jason as a friend. But Corinth was too close to home, in more ways than one. Regretfully, Iphicles shook his head.
"I'm sorry. It's a generous offer, but... it's not what I'm looking for right now."
Jason looked disappointed, but did not argue. "All right. In that case, there's a trade caravan heading out to Pylos in three days. Ten wagons, fifty guards. They're still hiring, I had Dimitrius check."
A group that large pretty much guaranteed there would be no ambushes on the way. It also implied a valuable cargo, which meant wealthy sponsors, which meant good pay. It was as close to an ideal job as Iphicles could hope for.
"Thank you, Jason. I mean it. You're being very--"
"I'm doing a small favor for a good friend. You can thank me by staying in touch."
"I will," Iphicles promised.
"Good. Now, since you're staying another three days, how about some breakfast and then another sparring session? You can show me that move with the elbow..."
This story takes place a few months after the flashback in the Hercules episode "Twilight," which chronicled the Parthan War.
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