Child of a Son.
Iolaus was woken by the screaming of an infant. He groaned as he sat up, rubbing his eyes. "What is that?" He looked around, seeing the small platform bed next to the other side of the bed. He noticed between it and him was a lump with dark hair. He nudged it, thinking it was the mother. "I think your baby's crying," he said at the grunt.
"Don't have kids," a disgruntled and male voice complained. He sat up, giving Iolaus the shock of his life.
"Very," he agreed, rubbing his head. He looked at the screaming infant, a look of confusion on his face. Then he looked at Iolaus. "Can't you shut him up?"
"He's not mine! I don't know anything about babies!"
"Well, it's not like *I* had him," Autolycus pointed out. "He's got to be yours, I haven't had any fertile women in a while, like over a year."
Iolaus huffed as he got up to grab the baby, sticking a finger in his mouth. "First we've got to figure out what is going on. I was with Hercules the last I knew and I heard you were in Sparta breaking out of the jail."
Autolycus frowned. "I had just done that and went to an inn outside of town for the night. I had an ale, then nothing until I woke up." He looked around the small room. "This looks comfy, but it's not really my style. I mean, quilts?"
Iolaus shrugged. "Herc and I were in Pylia the last thing I remembered and this isn't my decorating. I prefer more empty vases and paintings. Brighter colors on the walls."
Autolycus looked at him, one eyebrow going up. "In other words, you like to live in a brothel and I'd rather have a palace."
"No!" Iolaus retorted. "I just like bright colors. They're...cheerier. It's like the sunlight glows better. It also happens to make you want less candle or lamp light."
Autolycus shook his head, groaning. "What is going on!" he called.
"Shut up!" an unamused voice called from nowhere, until the body zipped in the window. "It took all of us a lot of energy to fix Xena's fuckup and you're going to deal with it whether or not you like it!" Autolycus looked stunned.
Iolaus blinked a few times. "What screwup, Hermes? I hadn't heard anything."
"Xena lost control of her pet and her pet killed Joxer, which nearly killed Ares and Strife."
"Which is a bad thing?" Autolycus asked. His father swatted him. "Sorry." He flinched when Hermes glared at him again. His father had never been like this with him. "So, what's that got to do with this very homey home and the baby? Or even us?"
Iolaus was not as dumb as he looked. "This is Joxer?"
Hermes gave him a smug look. "Give the boy a prize, he caught a clue," he agreed. "That is Joxer. And Jace. And Jett. We managed to get them all together again since they all died at the same moment from Joxer dying." Iolaus sat down, looking at him.
"What does this have to do with us? I don't know anything about kids. I don't even have any that I know of," Autolycus complained.
"Auto, shut up," Iolaus told him. "How long?"
"He's to have a nice, normal, *happy* childhood," Hermes instructed. "Everything's taken care of. You've got this nice farm. You've got your past treasures, Auto, everything you'll need will be here. Discord has even promised not to pop in and kill you both."
"Why would she?" Auto asked.
"Because Joxer was Strife's high priest," Iolaus told him. Hermes shook his head. "Are you sure?"
"Definitely. Strife's highest priest is actually a girl who wants to be a boy." He sat on the dresser, looking at them. "We can't tell you why this is so important."
"Hold on, you said Ares and Strife nearly died when he did. Is that a clue?" Auto asked.
Hermes looked at him. "Nice to know that your brains do work sometimes. Yes, it is something very important. Let's just say that this is important and leave it there. Even Hera and Zeus agreed on this solution. Got it?"
"We have to raise him until he's ready to take on his former roles?" Iolaus asked. "Fifteen years?"
Hermes rolled his eyes. "You're to be his parents, guys, that doesn't end when they walk out to find adventure."
"But I'm not a parent," Auto complained.
Hermes looked at him. "Do you ever want to break into someplace again?" Auto looked scared and nodded. "Iolaus, do you want to be able to win bar brawls?" His eyes were wide but he nodded as well. "Then do a good job. Consider this your Elysian Fields. He's to be a happy baby and he's to be well taken care of. The crops will come up if you plant. There's about two months of stored food if you want it. We've given you a small yearly allowance in advance in case we've forgotten something that a mortal needs." They nodded, mostly in unison, one's head going up as the other's went down. "'Dite says that if you two want to make a go of it, it's fine by her. Ares pledged that no wars will come near the local village. We'll give you the advantages we can, but you're still going to have to do some stuff for yourself." He looked at his son. "Like plant crops and harvest them." Auto shuddered at the thought of manual labor.
"What about a goat for milk?" Iolaus asked. "He'll need some."
"She. We couldn't bring him back as a boy. His new name is now Josette. It's the best we could come up with contained parts of his former names. He shouldn't remember anything. If he does, then it should be as a dream. He may want to be a warrior. He may want to be a thief. He may want to be an entertainer. Or he might, possibly, and we think this is only if he's treated crappily, want to be an assassin. You guys are now his parents."
Auto raised a hand. "Which one of us is the mother?"
"Fuck if we care," Hermes snorted. "You two can fight over who gets to be on the bottom in this 'ship. I'll be watching over you and so will everyone else. Try and do good, it'll make what comes as your reward nicer." He zipped off, back through the window.
Iolaus looked down at the baby girl. "Okay," he decided. "You're a very nice young lady," he told her. "But you need a bottle because my fingers going to wrinkle soon and it's not very nourishing unless you're going to become a cannibal." He stood up, going through the door and out into the main part of the house. There were three other doors. One led to a pantry. One led to an underground pantry with a pull-rope on a pully. He could see a few milk skins so he pulled one up, heaving by hand.
"Give me her," Auto said in disgust, taking her to hold. He even took the milk skin and looked at it before popping the open part into her mouth.
"You've got to tip it up a bit probably, but not too much," Iolaus told him. "Shall we look?" he asked after recovering the cold pantry.
"Sure." They looked in the other door, which led to a small room with a few trunks. "What's that stuff?" Auto asked. He kicked open the nearest one and frowned. "I had more than that."
"It's probably buried so no one realizes," Iolaus told him, heading outside to look at the surrounding area. He could barely see a house in the distance. The fields were plowed. There was an ox grazing on a tether beside the house. A shiny plow was resting beside him. He looked the other way and saw a lot of pre-cut wood. Obviously someone had worn out their frustration on the pile. He walked around to the back of the house, noticing the setup to get water into the house through the small door in the pantry. He noticed some pipes running from the roof, looking up to find a cistern to catch rain water. He looked at the back of their house and saw nothing unusual. The woods behind it probably had some excellent hunting by the marks he could see. He could see stag rubbings on a few trees. He went around the side with the ox, sidestepping it when it tried to snort him. "Not now, boy." He went inside. "Okay, it's a pretty basic setup. We've got woods, a well, a cistern, fields, an ox, and a plow."
"I don't know how to plant anything," Auto told him.
"I do, so I'll teach you, that way I'm not doing it alone," Iolaus told him. He looked outside again, looking at the trees. "We've got an apple tree in bloom. We should be able to plant tomorrow."
"What about her?"
"There are ways," Iolaus assured him. He closed the door and watched his new baby girl suck on the skin. "Give." She was gladly handed over and he tipped the milk up again so she quit sucking on the leather. She cooed as she sucked, flailing in his arms. "Whoa, not too much," he said with a smile. "If you make me drop you I'll never get out of here." He sat down, resting her in his lap while he looked at Auto. "So?"
"We can do this if we have to," Auto told him. "But I still need to be able to practice my art."
"There's a good looking wood in the back. You can string up ropes in the back for now."
Auto sat down to think about it. "I was going for a specific item, it was on commission."
"By the people you were stealing it from," Iolaus told him. "Rumor has it that they wanted to capture you to punish you for an earlier job." He shrugged at the hurt look. "That's what Herc and I heard from Jace actually." He looked at their daughter. "This isn't as bad of a punishment as either of us deserve."
"I know, but it still sucks," Auto told him.
Iolaus glanced at him. "Tell me when you're getting itchy to go out and break into places. We'll arrange for you to go farther away so nothing happens in town and no one suspects."
Autolycus looked impressed. "I can live with that idea," he agreed. "What do we still need? I've never lived this rurally."
"We'll need a goat for milk. I'm pretty sure our ox is male and they don't produce milk." Auto nodded. "If we can, I'd like some chickens and other meat beasts if we're staying. Buying three pigs now means we can breed and we won't have to buy another for about five years to keep the blood moving clearly." Auto nodded again, making a short list on the table. "Maybe ten chickens, hens for laying and one rooster?" He considered the outside. "If we do that, we'll need to build an enclosure so they can't escape. One for the pigs too."
Auto looked up. "What about a horse?"
"That would make us look really prosperous," Iolaus reminded him. "It's nice, but you can rent one of those for long trips. And I do mean rent, we can't vandalize the village at all or they'll turn on us and then we're dead and so is this one."
Auto swallowed. "This is for real, isn't it?" Iolaus nodded, looking grimly at their daughter. "What about for her?"
"We'll need some soap to do laundry, and we'll need to see if we have the necessary tubs to do that. She'll be going through a lot of diapers. We'll need to start a compost heap and a small herb garden as well as the other sort. I didn't check to see if we had seeds either." Auto nodded and made a note on his list. "If we don't have at least fifty diapers, we'll need that many. The only mother I saw who had one this young said she went through ten a day." Auto shuddered. "That means we'll also need stuff to bathe her and us, plus clean her up between times."
"Got it." Auto leaned back, looking at the long list. "If we do have seeds?"
"Then I can start working on planting tomorrow and show you the basics. We've got a decent sized field but not extensive." Auto nodded. "We will need to buy flour because I don't think that much ground will make that much flour. And you know I mean the stuff you cook with, right?"
Autolycus gave him a look. "Okay. So tomorrow, I go into town, price flour, pigs, chickens, goats, baby stuff. Cleaning stuff. Anything else?"
"That depends on what form our allowance takes," Iolaus pointed out. "If there's someone in town who can fence one gem it'd be a lot easier."
"Good point," Auto agreed grimly. "I don't want to give up on my treasures."
"We might have to," Iolaus said patiently. "Just one won't hurt."
"But they're mine and I got them fair and square." Iolaus snorted. "Okay, so I got them by being my stunning self."
"That's another thing," Discord said as she appeared, tossing Auto a small bag. "You can't brag in town, kids. No one here's ever heard of Hercules except as a myth. You're on the borders of Greece. It's the only safe place we could put Josette." She snatched the baby and helped her eat more since she had been sucking on the leather again. "You two need parenting classes."
"Neither of us have ever done more than admire kids in the market," Iolaus pointed out. "I know very few people with babies."
Discord scowled. "Fine. I'll have Hestia pop around and teach you all that tomorrow." She picked up Auto's list, then nodded. "Doable." She looked at Iolaus. "You do know about this?"
"I grew up like this," Iolaus reminded her.
"Like I paid attention," she snorted.
"Okay, I grew up in like Herc did at his mother's." He grinned. "Better?"
"Much." She frowned at him. "Fine. We can do that. What are diapers?"
"The things that they wet into," Iolaus said calmly. Auto went to look in their bedroom. "Is it going to be left to me?" he asked.
She shrugged. "He'd better hope not."
Iolaus sighed. "Fine. But I'm not taking orders. And I'm not the wife."
"Deal," she said with another shrug. "Again, like I care?" She handed back the baby, watching as it burped as soon as he took hold of her. "Good. They need to do that. Strife's used to make Ares laugh."
"How is he?" Iolaus asked quietly. "I know you were really happy to get him back."
She crossed her arms. "They're living, they're sane again. That's what's important."
"It is," Iolaus agreed. "Tell them I'm sorry, for whatever happened. I kinda liked Strife now and then, when he wasn't plaguing us." She nodded and disappeared, their list going with her.
Auto came out holding up two pieces of fabric. "Which is a diaper?"
"The bigger one," Iolaus said, looking at them. "You wrap them around the hips and between the legs, then pin them." He lifted the shirt-like gown Josette was wearing to show him. "Like that." He stood up, bringing her back to her sleeping platform. "Here we go," he soothed, laying her down and making sure the padded edges would keep her in place. "That should be fine until she's older. By then I can make a crib." He turned to find Auto looking at him. "What?"
"You're too damn calm."
"Sometimes you can't fight everything," Iolaus pointed out. "I have no idea where we are. I also have no idea how we would get back to our old lives. Doing so with a baby would be really hard and I believed Hermes when he said they'd kill us horribly and torture us for eternity if something happened to her." Josette hiccuped so he picked her up and patted her on the back, making her belch again.
"That's obviously your side of the family," Auto said bitterly, sitting on the bed again. "You're just going to accept this?" Iolaus nodded. "How?"
"Because I can't do much else at the moment," Iolaus pointed out calmly. "The Gods set us tasks sometimes that seem totally unreasonable but usually have a point somewhere. This time, the task is taking care of something that we have no idea about. It could be much worse. Trust me, it can me." He sat down with her, letting her snuggle into his chest. "Besides, she's adorable."
"She may be, but she's going to become some wailing, crying, wetting machine soon," Auto pointed out. "All children are like that sometimes."
"Then you have to learn to control your patience and not let it get to you. Or you go find something to take the anger out on while we pass her back and forth between us."
"You're too calm," Auto declared, getting up to pace. "How could they do this to us!"
"Would you really trust anyone else among our friends to reraise someone like Joxer?" Iolaus asked dryly. "Xena let him die. Herc would probably get him killed. Salmoneus? Please, he'd be selling memorabilia with the girl's picture on it. I wouldn't trust him going to an ordinary couple either," Iolaus pointed out when Auto opened his mouth, knowing what he was going to say. "Joxer's got to be really special. Why let him face the Fates again with a family that could have crop damage, or even have more kids w ho wouldn't understand what they've got. We've got one very special little girl here and it's obviously important. And if you want to go, then leave. I can do this alone. I've seen mothers do it after their husbands were killed in wars."
"I doubt they'd let that happen," Autolycus said bitterly, sitting down again. "We could start traveling again."
"She's got to have a constant food source. Even stealing I bet there were nights when you went hungry." Auto slumped. Iolaus nudged him with his shoulder. "I understand, Auto, you're not the most domesticated creature in the world. You never grew up in a setting like this. Leave. I'll handle it." Auto gave him a hopeful look. "Go. Just leave the trunks in case something happens."
"I can always steal more," Auto pointed out. "That can be my contribution." He stood up and checked his clothes, then went to where his usual outfit was hanging. He put it on and waved, heading out the door.
Iolaus looked up. "Leave him alone," he prayed. "He'll come back or he won't. I'll deal." He looked down at the little girl, then carefully laid her back down. "There you go, Josette. You nap for me and I'll figure out how to feed you more nummies tomorrow." She shifted in her sleep and he smiled, sliding down under the covers and laying beside her. He heard Auto sneaking back into the other room and then he left but he wasn't walking funny so he obviously only took a few things to cover his expenses. Iolaus laid there and considered his plans. What would he tell the villagers when they asked?
He decided Josette was his sister's child. He was a childless business man from just over the borders, he came back here to claim her and found a good spot to settle with her because this was his only heir. That should be good enough and would explain why he had expensive stuff in the house if he had to use it. He had saved up and carried it with him. It was portable wealth. Not that he wouldn't be hiding it soon, but they'd figure that out as well.
"No one's going to steal it, they'll think nothing of it," Strife said as he appeared, touching the baby's head gently. He noticed Iolaus looking up at him. "You sure? I can get him right now."
"Nah, let him go. If he's suddenly in trouble, he'll blame me anyway. If he wants, he'll come back. If he doesn't then he won't." He shrugged. "Kids are tough but after that first year it's better."
Strife nodded. "So I've noticed." He sat on the edge of the bed. "My mom took the list and she's arranging it. Auto took a few jewels with him."
"There's plenty more there, Strife," Iolaus said, giving him a pat on the arm. "Are you okay now?"
"Better," he admitted with a smile.
That's when Iolaus noticed that Strife didn't have his usual accent. "You really did change."
"Yeah, it happens," Strife told him, giving him a wink. "We'll get everything finished settin' up tomorrow. We had to get you guys a day early because she was ready to come back." Iolaus nodded. "That's a good list by the way."
"Thanks. I tried to think about the necessities."
"Oh, you did. We're also bringin' more diapers. Don't you worry about those. Hesty said she'd be up in the morning so you get some sleep."
"Come visit anytime, Strife. I realize she's important somehow and I'm not going to stop you or Ares, as long as he's calm." Strife grinned and nodded, disappearing. "And you, little one, go to sleep now. No more calling your admirers." He firmly put his head down and closed his eyes. It felt odd being in a bed. Especially being alone, but he could learn to like this not sleeping on the ground thing again.
Hestia appeared just after dawn and lit the hearth, smiling at the happy baby noises from the bedroom. She walked that way, tapping on the door. Iolaus blinked up at her. "I think she beat you up."
"She didn't go back to sleep after her last time an hour ago," he said, sliding out of bed. "Let me use the outhouse?" She nodded and he went to do that while she fussed over the baby. When he came back, she was changing the diaper. "How did I do?"
"Very well. A little loose, but I figured you learned after it fell off." He made a face and nodded. "What do you need help with?"
"I can't get the hang of the milkskin. She keeps sucking the leather."
Hestia laughed and handed her over. "Come, I'll show you. Let me pull up a fresh one since you left that one sitting out too long." She let him sit at the table while she pulled one up for the baby, turning to find him nodding off. "This is why we wanted two of you," she said patiently.
Iolaus looked at her. "Auto is scared by domesticity. Settling down is a fate worse than old age and impotence for him." He took the milk skin and tried to tip it up but it came out too fast.
"Ah!" she said, getting him something from the sink. She held it up. "This is a fake nipple. You put this over the opening so you don't drown the poor dear and we don't have to do it again." He gave her a sheepish look as he slid it on and tried again. "There, much better." She sat across from him. "For someone who's only seen people with children, you're doing all right."
"I pick up on things like that as I watch people," he reminded her, looking at her. "How much of this does she eat?"
"As much as she wants, then she'll spit some of it back up." She patted his hand. "Come, I know you can cook, but I left stuff to make yourself some mash for the day." He smiled and laid her in his chair, letting her suck on the milkskin as he went to help her. He had only done this years ago. "In the future, you'll want to get her a place to rest on the table. She'll soon want to wiggle around." He nodded. "It shouldn't be that hard to carve a cradle for the table, even just a hollowed out piece of tree."
"Did my pack come with me? I had a small hand axe in there." She nodded, pointing at the panty. "Thanks." He gave her a hug. "I'm glad it's you showing me this stuff."
"You're welcome, Iolaus. Stop her from shifting." Iolaus ran over and put her onto the table, getting a few pillows from the bedroom to support her sides. "Excellent," she praised. "Soon we'll have you washing diapers."
"Don't I do them like shirts?"
"The stains will never come out that way," she told him. "First, you scrape them off then you soak with some of the soap. You'll be doing diapers about every other day so you won't have to worry about midewing them except in the summer months." He nodded. "You can either clean them into the outhouse or into a hole outside. Bury it deeply if possible, with layers of dirt between." He nodded again, giving her his full attention. That's how she stopped him from chopping off his finger. "Pay attention to what you're doing, young man."
"Is there anything I'm supposed to train her to do? Will she want to farm? Or fight? Or anything like that?"
"We're not sure yet," Hestia admitted. "Whatever she wants, within reason, you should be able to teach her. That story you concocted about being an inn owner who gave it up to raise your only heir is acceptable and would go well enough with what we've told the people. Hera's local priestess said you were coming and they were to welcome you with the baby. So you may even get visitors now and then." She kissed him on the cheek. "Behave with the local ladies."
"I know not to foul my own doorstep," he told her. She laughed and nodded. He heard a belch and looked over. "Wow. You already do that part very well," he congratulated, coming over to clean up the stuff that had come out at the same time. "There we are, clean again." The baby was asleep, both fists up by her mouth. "Oooh."
"Babies are cute so their parents don't kill them when they're troublesome," Hestia reminded him. She handed him the pot. "There you are." He stuck it over the fire and grinned at her. "Very nicely done." She sat down again and he sat across from her. "The only thing we know you *must* do is to raise her with love. Even if she has Jett's attitude with Jace's nature and Joxer's clumsiness, you must love her and raise her as your own."
"I think I can," he told her. "I'll do my best. I'm fairly even tempered most of the time." She nodded and smiled at him, making him feel much better about this. "Will Herc come through now and again?"
"He may," she admitted. "No one told him where you were. I'd expect Jason more often than not really." Iolaus grinned brightly at that. "You should do fine here. Even if Demeter might forget, or some of the others who don't like Ares."
"If it gets that bad, do I pray to him?" She nodded quickly. "Should I dedicate her?"
"No, let her make her own decision. Bring her up on the stories of us, the true ones and without the bitterness if possible, but the true ones please."
"Sure, I can do that. Should I tell her about Herc and my adventures?"
"The locals know nothing of him. When she goes to the temples for her basic education the others may look at her funny if she does know. Wait until she's old enough to understand discretion," she offered.
"Okay." He looked at the mash, then at the baby. "I need to get her a carryable cradle so I can do the fields as well."
"Hmm. Yes, remember to make all prayers to Demeter, my boy." He nodded quickly and she created a calendar. "Here, for you. All the important dates are marked. Of course, if you want to do extra to Ares or Strife, they're also on there." He nodded again. "Good man. "Remember all of Demeter's though. She was the one who didn't want this to happen."
"Yes, Hestia. Thank you," he told her.
"Of course." She smiled at him. "The major offerings for a household are in the back. The way, the methods, all of that. Including to me if you need me." She reached over and pinched him on the cheek. "You behave and take care of our most special one." She disappeared.
Iolaus looked at Josette then smiled. "Sure, that's not a problem either. She's very adorable and loving so far," he told Hestia's seat. He went out to look at the wood pile, picking out five or six good pieces of wood, then brought them back inside to work on the carrying cradle. He even put a sheet under the mess so he could clean it up easier later. He knew how to wash sheets. His head popped up when he heard a bleating outside, going out to check on what was going on. His pigs were resting in the shade, his chickens were in a wire fenced area. His ox was joined by two things with horns. A big bag of seeds was against the wall. "Thank you, Discord," he whispered. Two goats and a few bags appeared on the other side of the door, which he heaved inside immediately with the seeds. She appeared and he smiled at her. "Thank you."
"Eeh, I want her to grow up okay. Is she okay?"
"She's napping on the table while I make her cradle to move her in. That way I can lay her on the table when I'm in the house or off to the side while I'm working in the fields. I'll be sure to shade it," he said when she started to open her mouth.
"Where did the other one go?"
"You guys found a punishment worse than death, aging, and impotence combined," he said dryly. "Domestication."
She blew out some air, it was more disgusted-sounding than a snort and not quite a sigh. "Fine. We'll let him go for now. What do you need first? I'm allowed to make you some stuff but not everything."
"A pen of the pigs and an area they can crawl up into, a hen house, and what are those?" he asked, pointing at the hairy, horned beasts.
"Cows from the colder areas up north." She shrugged. "They use them for meat and milk. Plus, their fur can be used like the goats."
"Okay." She made everything and he looked around. "Cool. I can build a smoke house this summer while we're waiting on the plants to finish growing. Um, can you build a bigger root cellar?" She nodded, giving him a patient look as she snapped her fingers. A small cover with two doors appeared beside the house. "Thank you. I'd hug you for this but you'd probably kill me."
She nodded, trying not to smile. "Probably." She walked closer. "Anything else?"
"I think I'm okay," he told her. "Hestia taught me the secret to the milk skins and how to make a hearty mash that could sit most of the day."
"Buckets? Laundry tubs?"
"We'll definitely need those," he agreed with a smile. "And a broom and scrub brush? Please?"
"Sure. We don't want the little one living in filth." She walked in, putting everything in a corner while she checked on the baby. Josette was still napping and even she had to smile at that. Iolaus came in from moving the easier animals around. "Anything else?"
"Not a bit," he told her. "I can build a barn, it'll give me something to do between diapers."
"For the cows?" He shrugged and grinned again. "Like I said, I need *something* to do sometimes."
"Good point. You're one very resourceful mortal."
"I've helped Herc rebuild *how* many towns?" he asked facetiously. She laughed, watching as he stirred the mash. "Can you think of anything, Discord?"
"Nah, not at the moment," she admitted. "Most mortals live about like this from what I've seen." He nodded. "You take good care of her or else, Iolaus."
"I plan on it, Discord, but if you want to come give me tips on mothering, you're more than welcome to," he said, turning to find empty space. "The offers still stands," he called out. He saw someone coming up the path from the direction of the next house and went to hunt down bowls. He smirked when he didn't find any. "Okay, that's right after the cradle. He did find spoons and a few knives. In his pack he had a few bowls, which he quickly cleaned. Someone tapped on his door. "Come in." She smiled and walked in. "Thank you for coming to greet me personally," he said formally, bowing to the priestess of Hera's.
"My Queen sent me to look in on you," she said, smiling at him. "You are quite the talk of the town."
"I usually am," he agreed with a rakish grin. "Iolaus." She shook his hand. "Sit. Would you like some mash? I've just put some on."
"No, that's all right." She looked at the child. "She is very precious to my Queen."
"She's precious all around when she's not screaming her head off," Iolaus countered. The woman laughed, slapping him on the arm. "This isn't what I planned for my life, but the Gods set us tasks to make us grow and reach beyond our comfortable existences." He went to stir the pot again but the oats hadn't softened any. He turned to find her still staring at the child. "Is something wrong?"
"No, Hera just granted me a sight of the future," she said, looking at him. "If there is an attack on us, sometime in the future, you are to bring her to the temple and we will protect her with the other children while you fight." He nodded, looking serious. "It was far in the future, she was walking and asking many questions on the way."
"I'll remember that," he told her, pulling out a chair for her. "Sit, please."
"No, I had best move on. There are children who are old enough to learn the basics and I come to tell their parents when to bring them." She stroked his face. "This was not your life, but you will live it," she assured him. "You will do fine. Even by yourself." She turned and hurried out.
"Wow," Iolaus said, looking down at his daughter. "That was very nice of her." He noticed she had shifted so he moved her back again and went out to move all the animals into their new homes. Pigs were stubborn, it was a law of the universe. Like the one that said chickens were hard to catch.
*** Five Years Old. ***
Iolaus looked at his daughter, marveling that he had survived this long. Also that she had survived this long. She had fallen into a pond that she wasn't allowed to go near and had found out how to swim. She was still grounded though. He shook his head as he went to get the vegetables for tonight's dinner from the garden. She was definitely Joxer, though he hadn't seen much of Jace or Jett in her yet. He saw someone riding his way. "Josette, into your room," he called as he walked up to the house. He grabbed his sword, marveling how his grip hadn't lost any strength. For some reason, the Gods were keeping him young and firm. Or maybe it was all the work he was doing. He walked back to the door, frowning at the man standing there. "Who are you?" he demanded.
"I am a messenger from Corinth," he said. "Are you Iolaus?"
"Probably. Why?" The messenger got down and handed him a scroll. "Wait here. There's a well in the back." The messenger nodded as Iolaus took it inside to read it by the firelight. Jason had died. He took a deep breath and wrote out a note on the bottom telling them how sorry he was and if he could he'd be there for the funeral but he didn't think he could make it in time. He went back to hand it to the messenger. "I wish I could make it."
"The former King's will stated everything went to you, sir. What should I tell them." He saw the look inside and noticed the young girl. He nodded. "I understand," he said when Iolaus looked conflicted.
"Give it to Hercules. I don't need anything, but I would like a memento if possible, you can tell Herc I said that. What I have here is more important."
"Yes, sir. I understand." He looked at the crooked barn roof then at him. "Tired?" Iolaus gave him a nod and a tolerant smile. "Then I will tell him such. Your former friend is in Corinth now."
"Hold on," Iolaus asked. He looked up. "Strife? Ares? Either one?" Ares appeared, looking at him. "Should I take Josette to Corinth for Jason's funeral?"
"It's not safe on the roads," Ares told him. "There's a battle between you." He looked at the messenger. "Take the south road. It'll add two days but you'll live." The messenger nodded, looking scared out of his wits." He looked at Iolaus again. "Did you want to go?"
"I can mourn my friend here as well I can staring at his body. I'll see his grave someday, but she is only five."
"Good." Ares smirked at him. "I knew we made the right choice." He looked at the messenger. "Tell the idiot half-brother that he's busy."
"Tell him that I've got something so important here that I can't leave," Iolaus told him. "I'll mourn Jason here. Thank him for sending you."
"You're very nice. It's much better than my usual one. Thank you, Lord Ares, for the advice." He walked his horse away, heading back at a slower pace.
Iolaus nodded inside. "Come see Josette?"
"Sure," he agreed, smiling at him. "Josette?" She came running and squealing out of the house, clutching his legs as she gave him the biggest smile. "Have you been a good girl today?"
"No, while I was working in the garden, she took off to go for a dip in the pond," Iolaus said dryly. "She learned how to swim though."
Ares scowled at him, then down at the little girl. "You shouldn't worry your father that way, little girl. He might cry."
"Sorry, daddy," Josette said, smiling at him, then up at Ares again. "I swimmed."
"I heard." He picked her up and carried her inside, sitting her in her special chair. Then he dished up some of the stew, adding a muffin for her with a wink. She clapped for that minor show of divinity, very happy to have some of her favorite people with her. "Daddy, come eat."
"I'm going to get some more veggies. You spend some time with your uncle," he called, heading down there to give Ares some time alone with her. He respected that Ares had some plan for her and that she was important to him. He also knew he'd never hurt her. She was more than safe with him.
The High Priestess for Hera came back a few months later and he smiled and waved from where he was picking. "Give me a second," he called, extricating himself from the melons. He walked over and shook her hand. "She's old enough?"
"She is," the woman agreed happily. "She'll be in a class with four others her age." She walked him up to the house."
"Are the melons ready yet?" Josette asked from the doorway.
"Another few days, but I think I found one for dinner," he said, messing up her dark hair. "This is Acrane. She's the High Priestess for Hera's temple, in the village."
"Wow," Josette said, letting her inside. "Why did you come see daddy, do you need something done?"
"No, not really. I came to see you," she said, smiling at the girl. "All the other boys and girls your age take a year's lessons with me, more if their parents want them to."
"What are lessons?" Josette asked. She saw the woman's look at her father. "Are they fun?"
"They're like what you've been doing with those scrolls I got you," he told her.
"Ooh." She went to get her tales, showing them off. "These?" She laid them on the couch between her and the lady. "Daddy teaches me to read at night."
"That's very good of him," Acrane told her. This time she smiled at Iolaus, who shrugged. "We'll be teaching you how to write too."
"I do okay with that," Josette said, looking at her feet. "But sometimes my handwriting is really bad according to daddy."
"With practice comes perfection," she assured the girl. She looked at Iolaus. "May we?"
"How many days a week, and at what time each morning?"
"We'll need her about mid-morning to mid-afternoon. After morning prayers and before the sunset group." He nodded. "Mostly we take them at this age so their parents don't have to worry about them sneaking off to the pond in the woods." Josette looked sheepish. "There will be others with you and you'll have other kids to play with."
"Will they want to play with me?"
"I'm sure they will," Iolaus told her. "While you're here," he said to the High Priestess. "There is one rule, Josette." She looked very attentive. "You may not tell any of your new friends about what's in the trunk in your room or about any of your aunts and uncles. Got it?" She nodded. "Not one word because it's a big, huge secret."
"Okay, daddy." She looked at the High Priestess, who nodded she agreed. "How would I get there?"
"Well, the first day parents usually walk their kids."
"I'd probably be doing that every day. Most of the time the fields don't take that much work."
"That's nearly an hour each way from your day."
"It's either that or get her a pony," Iolaus told her.
"Ah." Acrane nodded. "Understood." She looked at the little girl. "Would you like to start tomorrow?"
"Can it be next week? I'm doing laundry tomorrow," he offered.
"Sure," she agreed. "That's fine. She'll also need shoes."
"She has them, she refuses to wear them," Iolaus said as he stood up. "Would you like some water, Acrane?"
"No, that's all right, you're my furthest gathering today." She patted the girl on the head. "Will you come and show the other kids how it's done?"
"Sure. As long as you think they'll like me."
"Of course they will." She stood up and smiled at Iolaus, who was chugging some water. "Next week is fine. We usually hold classes Monday and Tuesday." He nodded. "She won't need her scrolls, we have some for them to learn from."
"Sure. She's a pretty good reader with the smaller words. Though, like she said, her handwriting might as well be in code sometimes." She chuckled a bit. "Don't worry, we'll be there. If I forget just send me a note or something. Sometimes I forget what day it is out here."
"Is that what's holding up the melons? Because you gave Auntie Demeter her offering a day late, daddy?" Josette asked.
"No, things take their own time to grow," Iolaus told her. "If your Aunt Demeter was really mad at us, we wouldn't have any vegetables at all." Josette grinned and picked up one of her tales, starting on the words again.
Acrane walked closer to him. "She'll be fine. Hera will watch over her. The villagers will watch out for her on her treks back and forth, as they do for all children."
"A few of them were giving her looks the last time we went to the market," he told her quietly. "I'm not sure why."
"There are a few people in town that I wouldn't want her near. Picking her up that first day would be for the best. I'm not sure what I can tell you to make you feel better."
"I'll do my shopping that day," he said with a wink. "It won't bother me at all." She laughed and left him alone. He put down the jug of cool water. "I'm going to go find that melon again, you stay in here."
"Yes, daddy. What's this word?" she asked, pointing at it.
He looked down. "Mighty." He patted her on the head and left, going to find her a melon. His princess wanted a melon and he had found one ripe one. He tracked his footprints from earlier and found the melon he had been cutting, finishing the freeing process so it could go inside. He turned and found Strife behind him. "Hey. She's reading Discord's tale about the mighty elephant." He hefted the melon up to show it off. "It's really nice."
"It is," Strife agreed, walking him back. "Did I hear you wish for a pony for her?"
"She's going to start her official lessons at Hera's temple. I was going to go to our neighbors who have a pony that their children have outgrown and ask them how much they wanted."
Strife pouted. "That's taking all our fun away, Iolaus."
"Yes, but she shouldn't learn that she can simply beg the Gods and it happens," he pointed out. He rolled the melon inside, watching as she squealed and chased after it. "Put it in the sink basin." She rolled it that way and carefully up the wall until it hit the counter, then pulled a chair over and put it into the sink for him. "Good girl." He turned to look at Strife. "That's what I wanted to see her do."
"Okay, good point," Strife agreed, still pouting. "But you're takin' all our fun away."
"So come play with her or help her learn to read better," Iolaus said, giving him a shoulder squeeze. "She could use that. And a playmate sometimes."
"Can she have a puppy? On'a the bitches of war just had a litter."
"If she's ready to take care of it," he said firmly. "So I don't have to."
"It'd be a protective thing," Strife pointed out. "It'd follow her to class and all that."
Ares appeared, a wiggling black and tan mass in his arms. "I think that's a wonderful idea," he said, daring Iolaus to disagree.
"As long as *she* takes care of it," Iolaus agreed, smirking at him. "You two are so transparent."
"If we were, we'd have gotten her a warhorse by now," Strife reminded him smugly.
"The neighbors will settle on a food trade," Ares told him. "One of their daughters is getting married."
"Food we've got stored," Iolaus pointed out, heading off. "You guys play with the new puppy."
"Puppy?" Josette asked. She stuck her head out the door. "Daddy, where you go?"
"To the neighbors for a moment. Their daughter is getting married."
"Ooh, like with the cakes and stuff?"
"Yes, and they're the one with the pony you like to go pet," he told her. "Play with your uncles. I'll be right back."
"I think it's very nice of him to give us unfettered time," Strife pointed out as he walked her inside.
"It is," Ares agreed. "It shows he's learned to trust something besides big, dumb, and blond." He set the puppy down and watched as Josette squealed high enough to break glass and pounce on it. "Be gentle," he warned. She nodded, grinning at him. "That's Amphitron. Can you say that?" He got down to look at her.
"Ampytron!" she said happily. "Hi, Ampy!" She played with the dog's ears, making him one happy puppy of war. "What does he eat? Does he like melon?"
"Well, he's more a meat eater," Strife noted, sitting down to help her as well. "But I'm sure he'd eat whatever you feed him."
"He'll have to eat soft stuff for right now," Ares told her. "I'll show your daddy how to make it for him." She launched herself at him, giving him a hug. "Thank you, little one." When she was done with him, she launched herself at Strife, hugging him as well.
"Thanks, short stuff."
Iolaus looked at his neighbor's wife, smiling at her. "I heard some very good news."
She laughed and tossed a clod of dirt at him over her fence. "Yes, she agreed to marry Joseph." She looked back at him. "Did you want to help make streamers?"
"No, but I was thinking that I had a lot of canned food and you had a pony that you guys can't really use anymore....."
She stood up. "I'd have to see them."
"Sure, I'd never make a deal otherwise, especially not for canned food," he agreed. "Come over tonight?"
"All right. After dinner."
"Deal," he agreed, holding out a hand. "I'll have Josette actually cleaned up by then," he said as she shook his hand.
She laughed. "My youngest took that same pony to school in the winter. She knows the way." She whistled, making her husband look up. "Iolaus wants to trade some of his canned stuff for the pony so we've got extra for the wedding. That okay with you?"
"That depends on the canned stuff," he called.
"Come over after dinner and look," Iolaus called back. "I'm fair minded. She's starting school next week."
"Ah." The husband nodded. "Now I know why. After dinner. Leave a light on."
"Sure." He waved. "Thanks." He trotted back to the house, finding his daughter already had managed to break into the melon and was eating some of it while her puppy was nibbling at something in a bowl. "What's that?"
"Uncle Ares left it for him," she said, smiling at him. "He and Strife had to deal with some big, dumb, blond idiot."
"They can call someone that because they're adults, you may not," he reminded her.
"Just repeating," she said innocently.
"Good. After you're done, get cleaned up. We're having the neighbors over to look at the root cellar after dinner." She nodded, reaching over to pet her dog with her sticky fingers. "Don't complain when you eat dog fur either."
"I won't," she promised. "His named Ampytron."
"Amphitron?" She nodded. "Okay." He went back to pick some more food. He'd be canning again tonight after she went to bed.
The first day of school was a bit of a struggle. She really didn't like her shoes. But she'd wear them because she could ride the pony into town while he walked beside the cart it was pulling. Their canned goods had gotten them both the cart and the pony, but it had left the cellar nearly bare. That was fine because harvest was coming soon. Ampy was sitting in the back of the cart, watching the world go by. He dropped her off at the temple with a warning about listening to the Priestesses and a reminder to not tell about her relatives. Then he and the puppy went to do some minor shopping. Some fish, some flour. Some herbs that he couldn't grow for the life of him. More jars for canning. Some honey so he could smoke more meat this year. By the time his daughter got out of school, he had broken up two fights in the market and had made the person who had been watching his daughter rather sorry. The local constables had asked him why and the man had nicely repeated what he had said, with Strife's hand on the back of his head, but only Iolaus could see that. The man was drug off and the constables said Iolaus had a very effortless style of fighting. Must have been dealing with the drunks at his inn. They were done nearly an hour before school let out so Iolaus went looking at the scrolls. The merchant looked at him funny when he saw he was browsing in the kid's section.
"I've got a daughter," Iolaus told him. "She just started school today."
"Most of those are pretty advanced."
Iolaus looked at him. "Yes, but she's heard all of hers and I don't consider her wanting to be able to do more than read the basic alphabet a bad thing."
"You hoping she becomes a priestess herself?"
"I'm letting her choose that herself. If she wants, I wouldn't be against it. But I've always felt that a smart woman makes a better wife."
"Then why haven't you married?" he laughed.
Iolaus smiled at him. "Because I haven't found anyone who puts up with me yet," he said honestly. The trader laughed and pointed out a few of the easier ones for her daughter. By the time he got back to the school, she was waiting on him and had a fat lip. "What happened?"
"One of the boys hit me," she said glumly, glaring at the doorway. "The Priestess paddled him."
"Good." He looked up as a priestess came down to meet him. "Hi, I'm Iolaus, her guardian," he said, shaking her hand.
"I've heard. Hera appeared and told us about her. She was mostly a usual student, if a bit more smart. The boy in question thought it was a bad thing for her to be smarter."
"Huh. Then he'll really hate the fact that I got her some new scrolls today," he said kindly, smiling at her. The priestess laughed. "Does she have homework?"
"No, she's doing fine right now. We did a lot of handwriting today with her."
"It's nearly in code," Iolaus agreed. He pulled something out of the back. "I'm going to make an offering to the temple, you get in the cart and keep your puppy from eating the honey." She hopped up with his help. "Can she bring him?"
"She wouldn't be the only one. Some other parents have trained their hunting dogs to take their wayward children to class, nipping them if they go to play instead."
"I can see how that might happen," he agreed. "Walk me that way?"
"Of course." She looked at the big chicken. "That's a very nice bird."
"I thought it might be appreciated." He waited until they were out of sight. "Should I teach her how to defend herself?"
"We do ask that she not fight in class, but how to block a punch or how to put the boys onto the ground would be most helpful. Most of the other children are younger siblings."
"I remember being one of those," Iolaus quipped. He walked into the temple itself, bowing at the altar before placing the cage with the chicken onto it. "Hera, thank you for watching for my daughter," he prayed. "Thank you for the patience of your priestesses with her handwriting." He looked up at the laughter, seeing the pair of eyes. "Hi."
"Good morning." She appeared, walking up to him. "You had a question?"
"Taking up a small matter of opinion. Should I teach her self defense? Or should I leave it alone and just buy her more books and make her a bard?"
Hera laughed. "Even bards have to fight, young man." She looked out the door, smiling at the young escapee and her puppy. "I have no problem with her learning self defense, as long as she learns to not strike the first blow and never to hit in my temple."
"I can do that," Iolaus agreed. Athena appeared and he nodded at her. "Did you want to offer an opinion about her and self defense? Being female and a warrior and all."
Athena looked at the girl, then back at Iolaus. "Her former life was full of that. Would she want it?"
"She got hit today by a jealous boy."
"Ah." Athena nodded. "I would teach her, self defense is often very useful in life. I would not, however, teach her the art of war unless and until she asks for such."
"Wasn't going to go there," Iolaus assured her. "Not unless she asks me after she's thirteen." Both women nodded at that wisdom. "I know you're busy Goddesses, thank you for telling me your opinion."
"I will be down to watch over her tomorrow," Athena told him.
"She's got school tomorrow, Athena. Come in as a priestess of yours," Hera told her.
"I don't care," Iolaus said with a shrug. "I think it's just fine if you guys want to come talk to her. Ares brought her a puppy the other day." He nodded at them again, heading out to gather his daughter and take her home. That night, after dinner and everything had been unpacked, he was helping her with her handwriting on some wood.
"Daddy, what's the art of war?" she asked.
He looked at her. "War is when warriors fight each other." He crossed his hands. "The art part comes from learning it."
"Did you ever fight?"
"A few times," he admitted. He felt someone appear and glanced back at Athena. "This is your Auntie Athena, Josette."
"Hi." She waved. "Do you know about that stuff?"
"I do," Athena agreed. "I am the Goddess..." Iolaus glared at her. "She does not know?"
"She knows, but she doesn't *know*!" he hissed. "She's only five and you guys said a normal childhood."
"A good point." She sat down across from the girl. "I am a strategist and a warrior in my own right."
"Wow. Girls can fight?"
She nodded. "Girls can fight, though many do not. If any boys ever tell you girls cannot, then you ask them to explain the Amazons." Josette giggled. "Good girl. Would you like to learn how to defend yourself against the bullies?"
"It hurt when he hit me," she said, starting to pout. "I pushed him and he laughed, called me a dumb girl who'd never do anything but have babies."
"No, I believe the Fates have a more important task set for you," Iolaus assured. "Never doubt, you are a girl, but you are very special. You'll only have babies if you want to have babies."
"Okay." She grinned at the her new auntie. "Can you teach me how to make his nose bloody? One of the other boys said his should be."
"I can, but there are rules for fighting." Josette leaned closer and Athena removed the wood with the ink on it and the pen. "There, now your father doesn't have to figure out how to remove ink."
"Immediate soaking with a pretreat of the soap," Iolaus told her.
"Very good," she said, smirking at him. "You are quite the homemaker."
"Yeah, but it suits me. I haven't had to get in a fight in *years*."
"Hmm. Good thing too," she noted, turning back to the little girl. "One of the main rules in fighting is that you do not attack an unarmed person unless they mean you harm and you are defending yourself." Josette looked confused.
"You never attack and you only protect yourself," Iolaus told her. She nodded at that. "That's a lot like never picking on someone smaller."
"I can do that," she agreed. She looked at Athena again. "Are these rules really hard?"
"No, they are not. Not once you learn them," Athena pointed out. She looked at Iolaus. "I believe she's a bit young for more than the physical training."
"I was going to teach her how to block this week, before next week's class."
"Good enough. That is an acceptable thing at her age," Ares agreed as he appeared. The dog barked at him. "Hello, Amphy." He smiled at Josette. "Did you push him?" She nodded. "Good. The only thing you may ever do is defend yourself. At least until you are old enough to decide for yourself what you want to do with your life. At fifteen, not thirteen, Iolaus."
"I was going to let her decide to do some of the more physical training and more of the leaping stuff, she'll be awkward and it'll teach her balance," Iolaus told him. "That's the way I was trained."
"Good point." He sat down on Iolaus's other side, taking an end of the table. He patted her on the hand. "If the boy tries to punch you again, you duck, making him fall over. Or you block his punch. You never, ever hit someone while they're in their holy place, and that does include the temple's back rooms."
"Such as your schoolroom," Athena noted for her clarification.
Josette nodded. "So if it comes at me for a punch, I duck, or I knock his arm out of the way?"
"Yes, exactly," Ares agreed. "And you never do it in a holy place like a temple."
"And never in the temple do I hit someone," she agreed firmly, nodding to show she understood. Her puppy jumped and her concentration was broken as she petted him. "Hi, Amphy. Did you have a good nap in front of the fireplace?" He barked and let her get down to play with him.
"I think she's a bit young yet," Athena noted. She looked at the bark, then at Iolaus, showing it to him and Ares.
"I know. Her handwriting is terrible," he said with a smile.
"Hey, I could use that, it's nearly a code," Ares pointed out, taking the bark to look at it. "She'll get better. Hopefully." He looked at Iolaus. "I know you're concerned, but all kids get picked on."
"Yeah, but I don't want her to *have* to defend herself," Iolaus pointed out. "And if she looks weak to the other students they'll pick on her."
"Which is an excellent point," Athena agreed. "It's why Strife picked on Deimos until he retaliated."
"Exactly," Iolaus agreed. "I want her able to protect herself without feeling the need to escalate it. The boy told her she was only good for having babies," he said in disgust.
"And for it, his rear got tanned," Athena reminded him. "As it should be. The priestesses were not amused by him today." She grimaced at Ares. "Giving her self defense is a good thing, I would say. It does not mean she'll pick up the art of war."
"Is there some sort of problem if she does?" Iolaus asked. "Should I worry about her wanting to?"
"No," Ares assured him. "There's no problem with it. We want her able to pick her own future. The Fates are staying out of it for now." Josette tugged on his pants leg, making him look at her. "Yes?"
"Does that mean I won't do great things, like daddy said I would?"
"No, you will," Ares promised her, picking her and the dog up since she grabbed him, and sat them on his lap. "You will do many great things, but the Fates have not said what you will do them as."
"So I can be anything?" Ares nodded. "Can I be Xena, like the boys were talking about?"
Iolaus snorted. "I know her. Maybe we should bring just her?" He gave them a mean smile. "Make the boys see that she's not to be worshiped?"
"She's been doing better since Gabrielle died," Athena told him. "She's sane again."
"Good," Ares agreed, giving her a fake smile. "Is she still with the Amazons?" Athena nodded. "Then how about we make her teach this little one self defense?"
"No," Iolaus said, shaking his head at the shocked look. "I want her to learn *defense* and that has never been Xena's best subject."
Ares laughed, great, long, loud laughs. "That is very true," he agreed. "She has always been an offensive warrior." He looked at Athena. "Do you have anyone?"
"Most of mine are for offensive or for strategy." She looked at Iolaus. "You do know your defense."
"I do," he agreed. "Especially how to block a punch. I got plenty of practice in my youth." The Gods laughed and he grinned at his daughter. "After school ends for the week, I'll teach you how to stop a punch, all right?" She nodded. "Good girl. Now sit down and work on your alphabet some more." Ares set her in her seat, letting the dog go. "He's out of food," Iolaus told Ares. "He had stew for dinner."
Ares nodded. "I'll send some more down. He looks very healthy." He looked at Iolaus. "Remember to teach her how to cook. That chicken incident is still told around some campfires."
Iolaus laughed, shaking his head. When he looked back up, they were gone. "One more line then you and Amphy go to bed," he ordered. She nodded because she knew the rules.
*** Ten Years Old ***
Iolaus was following some boys around the market, not intentionally just because they were in his way.
"I think all girls should have to go to Aphrodite's temple for a year of service," one of them said. His friends laughed. "That way they have some clue what to do when they're married."
"Nah, I'd rather have a virgin for my wife, that way I know she isn't comparing," another guy pointed out. He nodded at a pretty brunette by the scroll stall. "I'd do her in a heartbeat if she was only a few years older."
"Five," Iolaus said. They turned and got that instant 'oh-shit-it's-her-father' look on their faces. "Five years. The legal age in Greece is fifteen and none of you boys had better even think about touching her before then. Got it?" They nodded. "Good, go away." They scrambled to the other end of the market. The nearest seller laughed and Iolaus shrugged. "She's my only daughter, like I want one of *them* to touch her." It was fortunately one he needed to buy something off of anyway so he did and joined his daughter, helping her pick out scrolls. "Ready to go?"
"Ready. Amphy!" He barked and shot up, trotting after them. "Daddy, did you scare off the boys staring at me?"
"Yup, sure did," he said proudly.
"Daddy, some day I'm going to have to know what to do with boys."
"That's why you can call down your Aunt 'Dite or Uncle Cupid anytime you want," he promised quietly, glancing around. She swatted him and he looked at her. "Really, you can."
"Fine. Can't I ask Uncle Ares? He's pretty neat."
"If you want, but I think he'll be embarrassed." He led her out of the town, taking her home. Over the years, her school had gotten a great many 'guest' priestesses and priests from the other faiths, all supposedly looking over the candidates but everyone had noticed that they paid a lot of attention to that girl. Strife had even had to rescue her from a bully one openly so the townspeople decided that Iolaus was obviously very generous to all the temples in his home giftings and that's why they paid more attention to her. Hera hadn't minded at all when her tithes picked up. She had even appeared more often, making the residents of the small village very happy. When they got home, Ares was waiting on them and he didn't look happy. "Problems?" Iolaus asked.
"A small warlord who won't take orders," he said, grimacing. "If I kill him, no one can take over that army and I need them." He looked at Iolaus. "They're heading this way. They should be here in five or six days."
"Want me to warn the village?"
"Hera would never forgive me if I let her temple fall," Ares said dryly. "There's a smaller one coming to the rescue but I can't judge when they'll get here. They've got those woods to go through and even though Athena and Artemis have told the Amazons in it to leave them alone, they haven't."
"Fine. Let me go back and warn them, you watch her. Tell her where to hide, Ares. Josette, feel free to ask him that question now so it'll take his mind off it. He always does better when he's distracted." Iolaus jogged off, heading back to the town, to the elder. He knocked politely on the door, panting hard as he was admitted. "Army, heading this way, five or six days. There's another force coming to stop them but no one's sure if they'll get here in time," he said.
The elder blinked a few times. "Come sit and repeat that slower, preferably with your source." He led Iolaus into the sitting room and left to get some others while his wife got the poor boy some water.
Ares looked at Josette. "I know you've been practicing your self-defense. You are not good enough for this."
She nodded, agreeing totally. "I know I'm not ready," she said honestly. He smiled and gave her a short hug. "Daddy drove off boys who were staring at me, Ares, and he suggested I ask Cupid or 'Dite, but I thought I'd rather have it from you." He looked stunned. His mouth hung open and he was barely breathing. "You're a hip young God and you're supposed to be pretty hot, so you'd know what boys liked. What am I doing wrong?"
"You're too young," he said firmly. He gave her a kiss on the forehead. "In two years, come ask me that, after you start your womanly cycle. We'll have a long talk about boys and why you don't need one." She grimaced and swatted at him. "Trust me, you don't. Boys won't appreciate you."
"So? I don't like girls."
Ares looked stunned. "How did you hear about that?"
"The scroll merchant let me buy one with boys and girls, and girls and girls, and boys and boys," she said honestly. "I've asked dad a few things but I don't think he's ready for me to date yet."
"No, and you're not either. Not until you've started your cycle." She pouted. "Tough. Two more years, then I and Aphrodite will gladly sit down and tell you everything you need to know. If I can't get out of it," he said with a grin. She hugged him again and he mentally groaned. "Okay, here's the plan," he said, having a sudden idea. "If they come." She nodded. "I want you to go into the root cellar. The old one, the one under the kitchen floor. There's a bolt on the inside of it and it'll hold. Got it?" She nodded. "When you go down, you take the dog, you take a few knives, just in case. You lay in a store of food beforehand." She nodded again. "You do not come up until I, Strife, or your father say so. Got it?" She nodded. He kissed her on the forehead again, noticing she smelled like sweat and leather. "Good girl. Now, figure out what you need down there with you and start laying it in. I may send some little kids your way." She nodded and he disappeared, heading to where Iolaus was, startling the village elders. "She'll be hiding, I may send kids to her. I want you to guard the temple, Iolaus. Hera will skin me if something happens to it." He nodded. "Good. I'm going to find big, dumb, and stupid." He disappeared, heading to Amphiboles. His temple there shook when he appeared. "Bring me Xena and bring me Hercules, and anyone they pick as their helpers," he ordered. "Otherwise their best friend will die. They're to travel to help him if they get snotty." His priest ran out, knowing they were both in town somewhere. Hercules had pulled Xena from her isolation to come to her mother's funerals. The heros and Hercules' new sidekick were quickly drug in. "Leave." The priests left and he looked at them. "There is an army that is going to attack where Iolaus is hiding with his special burden. The army I'm sending may not make it in time to stop it. It's one of Hera's main temples, and you're not to bother Iolaus to join you. Got it?" They nodded. "Good, wait here. I'll be bringing someone....." Hermes dropped his son, fully restored to the heath he had lost when he had left Iolaus, onto the floor in front of the throne. "Thanks, Hermes."
"Always happy to help the pretty little one," he said with a grin. "How is she?"
"Curious. Remind me later to talk to Dite about her." Hermes smirked and floated off. "Good, Autolycus, you're going to defend the little girl you should have been guarding all this time."
Auto looked stricken and then nodded quickly, falling to his knees. "Please, let me make up for that, Ares. Even if it wasn't for the lesson, I realize how selfish I was."
"Good. Get up." Auto stood up. "I'm getting a ship. It'll be a day's sail and then a day inland from there. Can you make it?"
"Horses?" Xena asked quietly.
"Fine," Ares agreed. "That and supplies. That town is to be supported and saved at all costs. Do you understand?" They nodded. "And I repeat, you are not to bother Iolaus about his burden," he said, glaring at Hercules. "He took it on willingly and seems to like it now."
"It's been ten years," Hercules pointed out.
"Yes, it has," Autolycus said, glaring at him. "Don't ask, it's important. I've been making sure that other things go right for him." He looked at Ares. "When do we leave?"
"As soon as I can get the boat. Sit, eat, bathe." He pointed at the door. "Use the facilities." He walked down and Xena caught his arm, looking into his eyes. He blinked at her, nothing more.
"Is it him?" she whispered.
He got his arm free. "That's none of your business, Xena." He walked out, going to tell his people to get a boat for them.
Everyone looked at Xena and Auto, but they both shook their heads and went to follow orders. This was too important to mess up.
Hercules walked into the town, not looking at Hera's temple. Xena had told him, well nagged him, on the ride up to leave this one alone. It was too important to destroy this time and they *had* to protect this town, no matter what. Not that she would explain the reasons why.... He noticed a familiar and long-missed head of blond hair and walked that way, tapping the man on the shoulder. Iolaus looked at him and he gave him a bland look. "You called for help?"
"Hercules," Iolaus said, hugging him. "Where is she? Josette?" he called. She came around the corner, heading for the scroll stall again apparently. "Come here, now." She trotted back to him and gave his friend a polite look. "This is Hercules. You've heard some stories."
"Why does Aunt Athena call you big, dumb, and blond?" she asked.
Iolaus groaned and swatted at his daughter. "Don't say such things."
"Sorry, dad." She shrugged. "Dad says my mouth is twenty years ahead of my brain sometimes. Can I get a new scroll?"
"As long as it's one I'll approve of," he said dryly.
"Yes, father," she agreed patiently, heading that way.
"Daughter?" Hercules asked.
Iolaus looked up at him. "Yeah, daughter." He noticed the rest of the people coming toward him. "Hi. Come this way, I'll introduce you to the elder leading the village forces."
"You're not?" Xena asked.
"I live a good fifteen minute's run outside of town. I'll be here, but I'm not leading," Iolaus told her. "He's a former priest of Ares." He led the way to the room the elders had taken above the inn, waving at the bartender. "Ares sent them," he called.
"We've only got two rooms and the barn left," he called back. "Tell me how much later."
"Sure." He walked them up the stairs, heading to the meeting area. He tapped gently then opened it. "Morning. Ares sent you more help." He got out of Hercules' way. "This is Hercules, Xena, Autolycus, and a few others."
"Hmm. Welcome. Any papers?"
"A second line of defense, in case that other army won't get here in time," Hercules said, sitting down across from him without being asked. "What can we do to help?"
"Our orders were to guard the town and the temple," the warrior who was following Hercules around now noted. "Ares didn't say anything else."
Autolycus nudged Iolaus, taking him back into the hall. "How is she?"
"That was her talking to Herc," Iolaus told him. "Come up for dinner tonight. Just you for now." Auto nodded and Iolaus skipped out. "You'll have to ask them. I'll be back tomorrow in time for my watch. Is anyone coming out?"
"There's the four littles in town, but the priestesses are saying they'll protect them. Thank you though."
"Hey, I appreciate good hiding spots sometimes," Iolaus reminded him, heading back to his shopping. He picked up extra for their visitors because he knew at least one of them would be following Auto out tonight and then gathered his daughter. "No smut," he said firmly.
"It's a romance, father. Nothing more." She paid for her selections and took his arm, following him back to the house. "I'm sorry I embarrassed your friend."
"Why? I'm not," Iolaus told her. "The only problem you may have is if you talk about Uncles Ares or Strife. He doesn't exactly get along with them sometimes."
"That's fine. Who was that man with the dark hair? The handsome one?"
"He was the man who was supposed to have helped me raise you." She scowled, looking every bit like Jett when she did so. "Shh, princess. Having a house scared him, I *let* him leave. It wasn't worth the stress. Besides, I got you all to myself," he said, kissing her on the cheek. "Now, we're having him for dinner and probably a few others as well. What should we fix?"
"Some of the pork," she said instantly. "That way it will stretch in case others follow him. We've got extra honey from the last smoking time and all those herbs. We can roast one a whole loin before dark and I wouldn't mind taking some down with me into the cellar." He nodded. "Daddy, can I have your special knife? The old one?"
"Sure, Princess, I've got a wonderful few to take with me. You can have that one," he promised. They walked up the road to their house, visually checking on the animals. "Go milk and feed everything while I get the pork started. Beans or vegetables?"
"Both," she said with a shrug. "I'll eat the other tomorrow." She pointed. "My trap caught a rabbit," she said proudly.
"Congratulations!" he said, giving her a real hug. "Your first hunt successfully done. We'll have that tonight for dinner. Stew?" She nodded, smug in her accomplishment. "Do you remember how to skin and fix it?" She nodded. "Then you do that, wash your hands, then get the cows and everything." She nodded, hurrying to do that while he put on some beans and pulled out a few jars of pickled vegetables. And one of salt pork fat. It'd help the rabbit's taste some. When she brought it in, it was very well cleaned and he gave her a smile, letting her chop it up for the stew before making her wash her hands and shooing her back to her chores. He looked down the road, seeing the lone person walking. "Xena came before Auto, interesting," he told himself as he went back to fixing the stew. When she knocked on the doorframe he nodded her inside, he was measuring salt. He tipped his spoon into the pot then looked at her. "Hey, Xena. How's it going?"
"Better," she admitted. "I've been doing better. Is she?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," Iolaus told her. "I was asked to raise Josette as my own and I have."
Iolaus nodded, moving to his vegetables. That got the pork fat since the rabbit had smelled fairly not-gamey. "Want to help? We're having Auto over for dinner."
"I wouldn't mind, not that I'm doing so much that's not over a fire." She came over to help with the beans, those she knew how to do. "Have you drained these?"
"Yeah, that's the second water." He handed her the small jar of pork fat. "Toss in a few slabs, that's how she likes it." He went back to mixing his vegetables, then put them into a heavy cooking pot and onto the edges of the fire itself. He looked over as Auto walked in, giving him a small smile. "She made her first kill today with a trap so we're having rabbit stew."
"Then I guess she got all your hunting skills," Auto said, smiling at him. "Where is she?"
"It'll make her strong later when she starts to hunt or fight for real," Xena told him.
"I'm not sure what she wants to do," Iolaus told her. "I'm trying for the practical right now. Getting her mind off the boys." He looked at Auto. "She knows who you are. You can go see her." He nodded and went to the barn, with the newly fixed roof. He had waited until it sprung a leak before fixing it. It had been good enough. "Sit, Xena, tell me how you've been."
"You seem so different, very calm," she told him, sitting at the small table.
"I try," he said with a shrug. "Getting upset with a ten-year-old isn't usually useful. They just give it back to you." She laughed at that. "Before you say anything, you're not bringing her home with you to the Amazons," he said quietly. "She's going to finish her childhood in a normal fashion, hiding from this war and all of it." She nodded. "Thank you."
"You're welcome. I assume you have your reasons."
"I want her to be happy and you guys don't have a lot of scrolls out that way," he pointed out, getting up to toss the beans and the vegetables a bit. Then he came back. "Dinner should be ready in an hour if you wanted to look around. We've only got the two bedrooms. Unless you want to sleep in our barn."
She smiled. "That's all right. The inn's has better facilities." She stood up. "I'm going to check on Auto, make sure he's not bragging about himself." She walked out, not hearing him groan and put his head down. She also didn't see Strife show up with Discord.
"She'll be fine," Strife told him quietly, patting him on the back.
"That's right, you've raised her to have some sense," Discord agreed. She gave him a look. "She really asked Ares about sex?"
"Yeah, she did," Iolaus agreed. "Apparently she didn't want to go to Cupid or Aphrodite." He stood up. "She caught her first rabbit today in a trap."
"Wow, and only ten," Discord said proudly. "That's really good considering she doesn't have to hunt for the table."
Strife beamed proudly. "That's my girl." He hugged Iolaus. "We're slowing up the other army if possible. It shouldn't be much a fight, even if they make it here. They're already down by thirty men." Iolaus smiled at them. "Just hold on. They'll be gone soon."
"I'm afraid she's going to ask uncomfortable questions," Iolaus pointed out. "Or that I'll start missing it."
"Nah, take her huntin' for real," Strife told him, winking at him. "Some hiking, some huntin'. She'll learn herself."
"Yeah, she's almost old enough for that," Iolaus agreed. "Thanks, guys."
"Hey, that's what I'm here for. Unc says I'm great comic relief," Strife said.
"I'd say you're more than that," Iolaus snorted. "You're one damn dangerous God, Strife, nearly as dangerous as your mother."
Discord put a cake on the table and kissed his cheek. "And don't you forget it."
"That won't poison us, right?" Iolaus asked.
"I'd never do that to her, Iolaus."
"Yeah, but the rest of them are usually fair game," Strife taunted.
"Not until after the battle is mopped up," she reminded him. "Then they're fair game." They winked out just before Auto walked in.
"Hey, give me a minute. I've got to stir." He walked over to the fireplace to stir everything, then looked at his near-helper. "Did she tell you off?"
"Yeah," he agreed, nodding, not bothering to lie. "I noticed you told her the truth."
"She deserved to know, especially after she noticed that I was blond and she was not." He stood up, bringing the vegetables to the table. "Can you move the cake?" The cake was moved for him. "Thanks." He put the pot down onto the table on a stone he had chipped to hold hot pots. He went to check on the stew and the beans. "Maybe another half an hour. Josette, get cleaned up," she called.
Iolaus looked at him. "So?"
"I think you did a better job than I ever could have," Auto admitted. "You made her into a stunning young woman who has no idea that the world is a very nasty place sometimes."
"Oh, she knows," Iolaus told him. "Even this village has it's share of bullies. Her first day of lessons, she was picked on by one of them who told her she'd never be good for anything but having babies."
Auto grimaced. "Did she hit him?"
"No, he hit her, once. By the next time, she had learned how to duck and block. He fell on his face and cried about it while the other students laughed. The priestess praised her for her gentle handling of the situation. And she still needs some balance work."
"I was thinking that she could use some," Auto admitted, scratching his head. "I can do that, Iolaus."
"We've only got the two rooms, Auto, and you still can't steal from the town."
"I won't. Strife came to see me, he wanted me to see what she was good at physically. They're trying to see where she'll end up so they can prepare her a spot."
"So far, she reads a lot, she's very studious, she's still got very bad handwriting, and she's really decent with a dagger." Xena escorted the young girl in. "Auto was asked to give you a few tests to see where you might fit in, to help you solidify your choices."
"I heard. I was listening outside." She looked at him. "What makes you think I'd want you here after you abandoned me and dad?"
"Because you scared me, kid. All little, screaming things who need help scare the shit out of me," he said honestly. She shrugged. "I'm not suited to doing that sort of thing. You probably would have ended up dead by my cooking alone."
"Yes, but you could have been here and helped. Dad could have used a lot of it at times. Like that time he threw his back out for nearly a month and wouldn't let me call a healer out. Or even that time he cut himself by accident with the axe and it got infected from some of the sap that had been on the blade, he nearly died from that. And where were you?"
"Being miserable," Xena told her. "The Gods punished him because he ran from the task they had set him. Now they're giving him another chance."
"I'm not," Josette said firmly, turning away to clean up. "Who brought the cake?"
"Cool." She sniffed it. "That dark chocolate too."
"What's chocolate?" Xena asked.
"A peculiar bean they get from somewhere else," Iolaus told her. "Clean up. The stew's only got a few minutes so we can start with the veggies." He went to clean up as well, giving his daughter a nudge and a look. She pouted at him and they shared a silent conversation. "At least let him test you," he whispered.
"Fine, daddy, for you I will. Do you think Ares would like to have me as one of his?"
Iolaus shrugged, but inside he knew this was Joxer's past talking. "I don't know, sweetie. You'll have to ask him. Where is Amphy?"
"Napping in the barn on the warm straw from earlier. His back legs are bothering him again. Can I ask his other daddy to look at him?"
"Sure, after the battle, sweetheart."
"Okay." She sat down in her usual spot, making Xena plan on taking another seat. She opened the pot and sniffed. "The vinegar batch," she said, smiling at her father.
"And who made me spill the vinegar?"
"I did," she said impishly. She dished herself some and handed it on, sliding the pot down the table so they didn't have to try and pick it up. It was still really hot. "Aren't the beans ready? They're partially cooked and I like to mix them."
"You can check," Iolaus told her. She got up and went to check. "Leave the stew alone for another five minutes," he said before she could check that one.
"Yes, daddy." She pulled up a bean and pressed on it. "These are still rock hard, dad."
"Then we'll have them tomorrow." He looked at his old friends and shrugged. "Sorry, I thought I used the pre-cooked and dried stuff."
"That's all right," Xena told him, giving him a smile. Which she turned on the young girl. "Did I hear you say you wanted to be a priestess of Ares?"
"I don't know," Josette noted, tasting some of her vegetables. "I know he's a really caring and nice guy sometimes and I know he thinks I might be good in his area. I know I don't want to go to Aphrodite and while I appreciate Aunt Athena, I don't like to weave that much."
"The muses and those guys keep a large library," Auto told her. "Maybe they could use someone who likes to read."
"Being reasonable, if I worked in a library I'd stop to read everything," she said, staying polite.
"And she still can't copy," Iolaus pointed out. "Her handwriting has never gotten better."
"Yes, I know, it might as well be a code," she said, giving him a glare. "Not in front of your friends, please?"
"Fine," he said, grinning at her. She rolled her eyes and went to check on her stew. "Skim off the fat before bringing it over," he ordered.
"Yes, daddy, I remember." She got a bowl and skimmed the fat into it, then brought bowls over for everyone. "My very first capture on my own."
"Very good job," Xena told her. She tasted it. "A bit salty but very good," she agreed, adding some of the vegetables to it. "That works well, cuts both problems," she said with a grin for Iolaus.
"I've gotten better but even *I* make mistakes. I'm not Hestia," Iolaus reminded them.
"Daddy, Aunt Hesty said she'd like me to come to her for some teaching," Josette told him. "Homemaking stuff," she said at his quizzical look. "Cooking, laundry, things like that. Stuff that you do very well but she said I should be able to do as well."
"You cook pretty good," Iolaus told her. "Your bread making is excellent."
"Thanks, dad. Can I go?"
"Sure. Just make sure I know when you're going so I don't get upset." She nodded, digging into her own stew. Like Xena, her veggies went in. "There's bread in the box," he reminded her. She went to get it for everyone, handing it out. "Sorry about the salt."
"Not a problem, I do it all the time myself," Auto told him. "It's pitiful when you realize Falafel cooks better than you do."
"Yup," Iolaus told him, smirking at him. He heard barking and looked outside, noticing the lights. "More people. Lots more people." He got up to look out the door. People heading to town. "Shit. Ares! They're taking the back way past the house!" he called. He grabbed his sword. "You, downstairs," he ordered, pointing. She went that way and he went out to stop them once he heard the latch hitch. He and Xena were side-by-side as they ran out. "Halt," he called. "Who are you!"
One of the people with the lantern lifted it and looked at him. "And you are?"
"The owner of this land you're tresspassing on. Who are you," Iolaus asked again.
"Chill, they're Dementrian's army," Auto said, pointing at the design.
"No they're not," Xena told him. "Unless they've flipped it backwards." The nearest warriors looked alarmed. "I am Xena, here visiting. Explain yourself. Now."
The person at the head of the line trotted back on his horse. "You are who?" he asked.
"Xena," She said, looking up at him. "And you? Since I know you're not Dementrian."
"Hmm. Formidable foes. Take them," he ordered.
"Like hell," Strife said, appearing. He already had a bloody sword in his hand. "They came via a few roads, Curly."
"Not a prob. Ares didn't see anyone on this army earlier." He looked at the warlord, who was not looking pleased. "Surrender to them or die."
"There's only three of them," he snorted.
"And a God," Strife pointed out, wiggling his fingers. "You're a pesky mortal and Ares said I could have some fun."
"Burn the house, take everyone hostage, kill these three, and the God," the warlord offered.
"Like Tartarus," Iolaus said, stopping one of them from moving. He was a quick kill and the rest of them stood there. "Come on, I'm more than ready for a fight."
"You were Hercules' little friend," the warlord said smugly. "I remember you."
Iolaus pulled out a knife and threw it at his throat, catching him. "I always hated that phrase." The army lost its cohesion and its sense at that point. Some of them tried to get past them but they were surrounded by a stacked-stone fence that fell whenever you tried to climb over it. As they were getting tired, Iolaus could hear reinforcements. "I hear Herc," he panted to Xena.
"Good, I'm getting too old for this," she agreed grimly, breathing hard herself. "What I wouldn't give for a few more Amazons right now." She caught a spear and pulled the owner closer, hitting him in the face with the hilt of her sword and the fist wrapped around it. "Hercules, can you please hurry up!" she yelled.
"Of course," he called back, making his way to them through the mass of fighters. A few of them went flying and Auto went to stop them before they could do anything.
One nearly made it to the door but he was met with a dagger coming at his eye. "You're supposed to be hiding," he called into the house. "Men like these will hurt you and laugh."
"I can't not fight this time," she pointed out as she walked out. She picked up her father's bow and took out some people from the doorway, letting this stranger protect her.
When she ran out of arrows, he hauled her back into the house and shoved her back down the trap, standing on top of it while she tried to open it. He put the kettle of beans on top and then went back out to help. "She's some spitfire, Iolaus, I put the beans on top of the door this time."
"Good job," Xena told him, hitting another one with her fist/sword. They got tossed aside by Hercules. "Hi. Nice save. Welcome to the fight."
"We had a small one in the village ourselves," he told her, watching as Iolaus went and chased a few more down to kill them. "They threatened his daughter?"
"She came out to help," Auto told him. "She was the archer from the doorway." Iolaus came back, glaring at him. "I put her back down there."
"Next time, shove her faster," he said as he went up to the house and slammed the door, removing the pot of beans and kicking aside the stuff that had spilled. "Get your ass up here now, Josette." She opened the door and gave him a big-eyed look. "I told you to wait down there, not come out and help!" he shouted. "You are too damn young to fight, daughter, and I will not have it!"
"Yes, daddy," she said, sounding really scared.
He realized he never yelled at her and calmed himself. "Come out of there. You and Strife, or you and Discord, or even you and Ares, are going to have one hell of a talk about the consequences of fighting." He drug her out by her arm and presented her to Strife. "She fought."
Strife looked at her. "Did ya like the killin'?" She shook her head quickly. "Did ya want ta experience it from the other side perhaps?" She shook her head again, still looking scared. "Then you and Unc are gonna have one *long* talk, little girl." He nodded at Iolaus. "I'll bring her back in the morning." He drug her off, taking her with him to face down Ares. "Guess who not only can throw knives, but did so at one of the misbegotten warriors?" he demanded, planting her in front of him. "Then she took up her dad's bow and used it very well."
Ares looked at her. "Were you trying to die!" he shouted. "We've been protecting you for years and you do this?"
She started to cry. "I couldn't not help!" she screamed back. "My dad was out there with only two other mortals and Strife!"
Ares hugged her to calm her down. "It was still stupid, little one. We will be having a long talk after I mop this shit up." He handed her to Strife. "Sit her down, get her calm, then we're going to talk. All three of us and her father if he's finally calmed down."
"He screamed at me," she said miserably.
"You're ten, of course he did," Strife pointed out. He drug her into the inn and got her seated, getting her some water and a piece of bread to nibble on so she wouldn't get sick.
"I had to help, Uncle Strife. You know that."
"I know you were supposed ta stay in the cellar and hide there," he countered. "Your dad has a lot of experience with this sorta stuff."
"He does?" Strife nodded at her. "But he's never said he did."
"We was waitin' until you were old enough to understand what he was talkin' about," Strife pointed out patiently. "You're ten; like boys, fighting can wait a few more years." She laughed nervously. "Oh, really?" he asked. "Got a crush?"
She blushed and ducked her head. "Maybe. But I'm not gonna tell because then you'd spoil it for me." She sipped her water, looking at the bartender watching them. "Hi." He turned away quickly. "I think he was listening," she whispered. Strife nodded, giving her a look. "Won't that hurt daddy?"
"Not really. He gave up that shit ta take care of you." He pinched her on the ear. "You are in such deep shit, little girl."
"I know," she sighed, putting her head down. "Sorry, Uncle Strife."
"You're not forgiven yet," he told her. "Not until after Unc deals with ya."
Athena appeared, glaring at the little girl. "What did you think you were doing?"
Josette gave her a pitiful look. "Protecting daddy."
"Not you, I meant Strife," she said, glaring at him. Then she looked at the little girl. "You did what?"
"Came up outta the basement, threw a knife and killed someone very nicely, then shot about a dozen arrows from the doorway at the road to get about ten more kills," Strife told her. "She's damn good. I'm keepin' her here for Ares." Josette got up and ran to get sick in the ash bucket. "See, told ya it wasn't over yet," he called. "More water for her," he told the barkeep. He looked at Athena. "I told Deimos to handle the contests to figure out who lives and who doesn't."
"Hmm. Fine," Athena noted. She looked at Josette, then back at Strife. "Blood will tell?"
"I think so," he agreed quietly, glancing her way himself. "She has been wonderin'." He shrugged. "I'm letting Ares make that announcement. No one yells at him."
"True," Athena agreed. "I think I'll follow suit. That way has less risk for me." She disappeared, going to help sort out those warriors who could be put into another army and those who had went along knowing their warlord had disobeyed Ares. There were plenty who were claiming they had wanted to dessert but couldn't due to their families being held hostage.
Josette came back, accepting the new glass of water, and sat down again. "What blood?"
"You're natural dad, he was kinda one of Ares," Strife said honestly.
"Oh. Then what was my natural mom?"
Strife smiled at her. "When you're older, kiddo, we'll tell you all of it."
"Strife!" Ares' voice rang out.
"C'mon, I think he's ready for you." He stood up and walked her out, finding Ares actually in a battle with five warriors. He handed her a knife. "Toss it at the sucker behind him."
"I only hit my target half the time," she warned.
"Then hit one on this side," he said, jumping onto someone's back to distract them. It worked very well. It distracted him and kicking the guy next to him got him as well. Josette's knife hit one of the guys in the thigh, and Ares got to stab them all. "You tired, Unc? Usually five don't do nothin' against you."
"I'm very tired," Ares agreed, looking at Josette, who was looking vaguely green again. "Go get sick," he told her. He swatted his nephew. "Did you have to?"
"Yeah, I did," he pointed out. "Now we know she won't go down one's path."
"Good point," he said grimly. "She won't be Jett." He looked over as Josette came back and rested against his side. "Are you all right?"
"I hate killing," she told him quietly, hiding her face against his chest. "I'm sorry, Ares."
"Not a problem," he told her. "A good warrior knows that there are ways past the killing. Killing is only as a last resort. Having the might and having to use it at every turn means that you're mentally incapable of finding another way." He patted her gently. "Do you feel better?"
"I think I'm going to be sick again," she noted.
"Suck it in, kid. It only gets worse from here. There's funerals to go to too."
"How many?" she asked.
"Only a few townspeople," Strife assured her. "That's why there are professional armies, so that regular folks don't have to fight."
"Good." She looked up at him. "Since I outed myself as being able to do this, does that mean I have to take lessons?" Ares and Strife both gave her smug smiles. "Fine, I'll learn. Is this where I learn the art of war instead of just war?"
"Definitely," Ares agreed. "The art of war is that you learn all the facets, when to and not to fight. Also, you'll get to learn different styles and all that too."
"Cool. But I'm still pretty tiny."
"Little one, you've got muscles, that's more than most of the girls your age can say," Strife pointed out. "C'mon, we'd better get you home. Your dad was lookin' pretty depressed."
"I'll take her," Ares told him.
"Xena and Auto were there originally and Herc went to save them."
"Yay." He took her firmly and popped her back, landing them outside the door. "Ready?"
"Yeah, daddy's gonna give me hurt looks," she sighed, letting him walk her back inside. "Hi," she said weakly.
Iolaus looked at her, then at Ares. "Did she do more?"
"Yup. Strife showed off her amazing talent to not hit the person she was aiming for." He let her go.
"You're going to train her?" Iolaus asked.
"No, for now *you're* going to train her," Ares countered. "Auto, I want you to gauge her balance and work on that. Iolaus, she's great with a dagger, start her on that and move up to stave and then sword." Iolaus nodded.
"You're taking orders from him?" Hercules spluttered.
"He put me here," Josette said firmly. "He left your side to come raise me for my original parents." She looked up at Ares. "What happened to them?"
"They died, Princess," Iolaus told her gently. She simply nodded. So he turned to look at his former best friend. "Auto and I woke up in this house when she was barely a few weeks old. We talked and I noticed Auto was having a panic fit so I let him run off. I've been raising her ever since."
"To be part of an army?" Xena asked.
"I'm letting her choose that and she seems to have chosen to study how to fight for right now," Iolaus told her calmly. "I have no idea if she'll continue it after she learns better defense skills. Plus, I still think she's too young to be devoting her life to anything yet. She'll make her decision when she's fifteen and no sooner."
"Good, that's what we wanted her to have," Ares agreed.
"Was her mother a priestess?" the warrior following Hercules these days asked.
"No, her father was a follower. A very devout follower who's last wish was that his child be taken care of and allowed to be herself. We set the task to those two."
"But...but Auto left, and he didn't get punished," Hercules pointed out.
"Didn't I?" Autolycus asked. "Would that non-punishment include my aching joints, the suspicious rashes, lack of performance with the ladies, my ability to poison myself with my cooking, or my inability to hide anywhere or steal anything?"
Hercules looked at him, then at Iolaus, who shrugged. "You like this life?"
"I've raised her since she was a baby, Hercules, she is my daughter. She has been since the first time she kept me up for six days straight. Even before Hestia had to come save her because I was having hallucinations from lack of sleep." He sipped his water. "Go to bed, Princess, you've got an early day tomorrow."
"Yes, daddy. Good night, everyone." She went into her room and locked her door.
"Smart girl," Auto noted.
"She doesn't like strange men," Iolaus told him, looking at Hercules' present partner. "I see you replaced me."
"We thought you were dead," Hercules said stiffly. "It has been ten years."
Iolaus looked at the young warrior. "How many years have you two been together?"
"Nine." He gave him a sheepish grin. "He was in my village and couldn't figure out how to work the water pump."
"He gets like that some days," Iolaus noted. "Watch out for the days when his shoelaces attack him too."
"We've had one of those," the young man agreed. He swallowed. "I know you don't want to hear it, but your daughter did do very well, Iolaus. Even with only teaching her hunting she did manage to make it stretch to cover defensive abilities. She's a strong little girl and if this is her path I'm sure it will be a long and glorious one."
"Yeah, but I'd almost rather have her sitting in some nice, cozy home somewhere surrounded by kids," Iolaus said glumly. "There's less risk of death that way."
Ares smirked at him. "If she decides on war, then she'll be protected. You'll have my word and my seal on it." He disappeared.
"I don't think that's a good idea," Hercules noted.
Iolaus looked at him. "Shut up." Hercules looked stunned. "If she *wants* to be a warrior then she will. I'd rather have her well trained anyway, even if she only becomes a wife. And if Ares wants to protect her if she makes the cut, or tell her doesn't make the cut, then that's his decision. Not mine, and not hers."
"You're different," Hercules accused.
"Yeah, because I've been here for ten years raising my daughter and taking care of her. I've learned to narrow my focus from the world in general to the inhabitants of this house. I don't even get involved in the village's things most of the time. I'm living at peace with myself and with my daughter."
"Peace is precious, especially with yourself and your past," Xena agreed. "I'm going to head back to town. Coming?" Hercules nodded, standing up. "We'll see you tomorrow."
"I'll be rebuilding the walls with Josette if Auto doesn't need her," he said, smiling as they left. He noticed Auto had stayed. "You wanted to sleep in our barn?"
"Better than hearing them argue," Auto said once they were out of hearing range. He looked at him. "I can easily start with what you've got. How is she on balance?"
"She's in the middle of a growth spurt," Iolaus said honestly. "That age where her feet are bigger than everything else."
"Daddy!" Josette complained from her room.
"Sleep," he ordered.
"I'll have nightmares."
"Then put your dog inside with you," Auto suggested.
"I couldn't find him," Josette called.
"Amphy!" Iolaus called. No bark. "Josette, he probably chased after a few warriors and we'll see him tomorrow," he called, nodding Auto outside while he grabbed a lamp. They went outside and searched for her dog, finding it in the barn, impaled on a spear. "Shit," he worried. "We'll have to hide this."
Strife reappeared. "Give." He watched as Iolaus carefully removed the spear and handed him the dog. "He ran after a few of the warriors and kept going because he smelled something." He disappeared, taking the dog with him. All dogs of war were buried in the same place. It was tradition. Ares gave him a look as he appeared with this one. "Spear. He was in the barn."
"It'll save her some grief," he agreed, opening up a spot for this puppy. "Poor guy. If she asks, I'll try to find her another one."
"We need to add in some new blood. She said his joints were achin' recently," Strife noted as he laid the dog in the hole. He covered it back up and stepped back, creating a small headstone for it, like the most favored and honored had. "There." He looked at his Uncle. "She's in a growth spurt."
"Fun. I remember when you had yours. You seemed to trip a lot." He patted Strife on the back. "Come on, let's finish this so we can rest for a few days."
"I'm still gonna watch over her. There's so much that can cause problems at that age."
"Hmm. True," Ares agreed. He went to finish mopping it up, then went to make a report to his mother. Who simply hugged him for the Fates working his way this time.
*** Five Years Later ***
Josette got dressed in her best outfit and looked out her door. "This doesn't fit," she called. "I look like I'm offering more than my arm, daddy."
He walked in and looked at the dress. "That fit last month."
"Well, apparently I've grown more chest since then," she pointed out. "And this one is over a year old."
"Then wear the newest one."
"I look cute in it, dad, I'm not going to Ares' temple looking cute. The wannabe warriors will try to rape me and Ares would get really pissed if I killed them."
"Good point. Put it on anyway and wear the armor over it."
"I can't put on my armor until I'm accepted, Uncle Ares said so, daddy."
"Fine, then go in that. Those are the only two outfits I'm letting you out of this house in."
"Uncle Strife gave me a pair of pants," she suggested. He gave her a look, obviously he had seen her when she had tried them on. "Please? It's only a day's ride."
"No." He walked away. "You'll wear a dress to this function and then you can wear the leathers. Like your armor, only warriors need to wear leather pants." He went to finish getting dressed himself. Ares had sent them horses. "And hurry up, we're going to be late."
"Yes, daddy." She pulled off the dress and put on the other one. She did look cute, but then again Auntie Aphrodite had helped her pick it out. Why she was supposed to look cute she wasn't sure. She was sure everyone would underestimate her until she actually pulled a sword but still. She shifted, making the dress sit correctly. It still showed a lot of chest. She shrugged and put on her special sword and her special daggers. Then she packed her other outfit and her armor carefully, meeting her father out at the horses. She picked the big black stallion, knowing it was for her. If Auntie Athena had sent it it would have been grey. She put her bag on her saddle and mounted up, shifting until she was comfortable. Her father looked at her. "Riding side saddle all that way will make me walk funny," she reminded him, turning her horse around and trotting out to the road. "I'll change right before we get there." She kicked her stallion into a harder canter, moving easily with him. This was wonderful fun. "I love riding," she told her father when he caught up.
"That's because you don't do it every day and your butt isn't numb," he told her. He let it go, they weren't going to be going through any villages until they reached Ares' main temple. By then, she could change back.
Ares looked out as the parents presented their children in their finery. He noticed one spot was open and looked outside as the horses pulled up. Just in time. She was still riding astride the horse instead of side saddle he noted. What a hellion she could be. He sat up straighter as Iolaus walked her inside and let her bag drop behind her. He smiled at the candidates. "Who pledges themselves to my service?" he asked.
"We do," most of the candidates yelled. One didn't speak and one swallowed hard. Interesting. He stood up and the one who swallowed fainted. "I will see them later, see if *they* want it," he told the mother. She grimaced but nodded, dragging her son off. "Strife, go check on that one," he called quietly. He felt his nephew leave. He went to the other that did not speak. "Open." The boy opened his mouth and no sound came out. "You're mute?" He nodded. "Can you fight?" He presented Ares with a dagger, hilt first. "Then you shall have a trial," he noted. He walked down the line, seeing the determination and the lives the Fates had laid out among them. He stopped in front of his little princess. "You? In that dress?"
"I didn't make me wear it, my father did," she said dryly. "Would you like my weapon as well?" He smirked so she pulled the sword and presented it to him the correct way, leaning on her arm and hilt first.
"Very nice," he noted, moving on. He saw her put it up and make sure it was hitched. Very good indeed. The last one on the end nearly passed out but she wanted it just as bad as Joxer had at one point in time. He'd give her a month. He walked back to his throne and looked on them again. "Whomever dares, pledge yourself to me with blood." One by one those who wanted it that bad stepped forward and slit their palms, pressing it onto his altar. He noticed a few of them had their own knives. He noticed the ones who had to be nudged. At the end of that, they were back in a line. "Very well, go change. You shall have a one month trial. Then those who are not suitable will be sent home." They grabbed their armor and clothes, heading back to change. Josette was the second one back, after the mute boy. Hmm, two warriors used to their armor already. At least he'd be getting two good warriors out of this lot instead of the usual lot of all foot soldiers. The rest traipsed out in what they were calling armor. That one girl had a mismatched collection that reminded him even more of Joxer. He'd make sure she got excellent training, just in case she was worth it. He smirked at Josette's outfit. He had wondered why Strife had been making leather pants for a girl. And that emerald top went very well with her skin as well. "Pledge," he demanded.
"Hail Ares, God of War," most of them shouted. A few more were trembling this time.
He nodded, it was a beautiful site. "Say goodbye to your parents, you will be seeing them in a month, no matter what." He disappeared, heading to wait for Iolaus. The poor guy was nearly in tears. Iolaus came to him a few minutes later and he gave him a good Eire beer. "Here, you'll want it."
"Thanks." He gulped it and sat down as it went to his head. "Will you tell me now what's going on?"
Ares silenced the room then sat down across from him. "You know who she was?" Iolaus nodded. "Did you know that Strife was their father?" Iolaus shook his head and Ares nodded. "He was."
"That's why she got brought back?" Ares nodded again. "I remember you were affected. I thought at the time one of them may have been some sort of lover."
"Jace. She was a deadly bitch when she wanted to be. So much more feral than Jett when the mood took her, and Hera liked her so I didn't complain. Joxer was always one of my favorites though. If I could have stood Jett, I would have had all three as mine."
"Now, she's yours again. That's why she had to choose?"
"The Fates gave her a choice to be whatever she wanted. They thought she'd be miserable with me." He gave him a catty smile. "I think they're wrong."
Iolaus put down his glass. "I will threaten you now to treat my little girl good, Ares. I don't care that you're a god."
"Or that she's a Goddess?"
"No." Iolaus shrugged. "If you hurt her, you'll be seeing me and I'll go dig up Serena if I have to take some of her blood. Got it?" Ares nodded. "Good. Did you guys want the farm back?"
"No, it's yours if you want it, Iolaus. Full of the same Godly protections as always. And you don't have to tithe to Demeter anymore either. Gaia said so." Iolaus nodded. "Strife wanted to talk to you as well."
"He knows where I live," Iolaus pointed out. "Am I suddenly going to age?"
"No, you'll stay like this for a while," Ares told him. "Start aging from here. We needed you at your peek to deal with her." He stood up. "Have a good trip and call if you need anything."
Iolaus nodded. They clasped hands and Iolaus went out, taking his horse home. When he got there, the horse seemed inclined to stay so he let it. During the night, that horse turned back into Strife and he snuck into the house. He pounced Iolaus. "Hi, lover," he purred.
"You're my reward?" Iolaus asked sleepily.
"You don't want it?"
"Strife, it's been fifteen years since I had a woman," Iolaus reminded him. He really had been too busy that first year and after that it kinda got easier each year. He rolled Strife down next to him. "If you're staying, you're doing dishes in the morning," he said as he snuggled down. "Body ornaments off, leather boy. They're uncomfortable to sleep on."
"Yes, sir," Strife said cockily, removing his clothes. He smiled as Iolaus snuggled in. "Did you forget what to do with one of those?"
"Give me an hours, Strife, then wake me again, 'kay? I just lost my little girl to Ares."
"I know, we both did," Strife soothed, patting him on the back. Iolaus shifted against him, rubbing against him gently. Strife shifted until they were rubbing against each other's cocks, taking the pleasure from that for now. There would be enough time later to tell Iolaus that he had earned a spot under Hestia as the eternal babysitter for Olympus. Plenty of time for that and sex, Strife reminded himself so he wouldn't take him while he slept. Poor guy, fifteen years? He'd have to cure that dry spell soon, before it became infectious.