Here we go, with the first of two fics written for this year's smallfandombang.
Title: Poison and Promise (part 1)
Pairing/characters: Pythagoras/Jason (unrequited), Hercules, Jason/Ariadne, The Oracle, Delmos
Disclaimer: Not mine. BBC and Urban Myth Films own them.
Word count: approx 13,960
Summary: Jason has been poisoned by Pasiphae in an attempt to stop him marrying Ariadne and taking the throne. There is only one man with the knowledge, the skill, and the determination to save him, and Jason’s fate lies in the hands of his closest friend. The only question is how far is Pythagoras prepared to go, and how much is he willing to sacrifice to save Jason’s life?
AN: Big thanks to clea2011 and celeste9 for the beta.
AN2: Written for smallfandombang, which has yet again given me an excuse to actually *finish* a nice long fic. Also, fills the 'poisoning' square on my hurt/comfort bingo card.
AN3: Set not long after ep 2.6 – The Grey Sisters, so Jason and Ariadne are to be married and everything is fine, before it all goes to hell with Melas.
fic posted at AO3
Huge thanks to bererjs for all the gorgeous artwork. The artwork appears throughout the story, but please do go and give the artist some love as well over here.
Pythagoras and Hercules drew their swords and raced into the temple ruins where their friend was trying to fight off five Colchean soldiers.
A Colchean turned in time to meet Pythagoras’ charge and they clashed hard and traded blows until Pythagoras got under his defences and sliced his arm. Pythagoras rammed his blade into the soldier’s side and wrenched it free in time to meet a new attack. This soldier was more cautious, and a better fighter, and Pythagoras felt himself being beaten backwards. It was all he could do to keep blocking and parrying. He saw Jason go down to his knees, and his heart lurched.
With a primal roar, Hercules bodily charged the soldier that was about to plunge his sword into Jason’s neck and they both fell backwards in a tangle of limbs and weapons.
Pythagoras couldn’t spare the scene any more attention; he was still desperately trying to defend himself. He was pushed back and back across the ruins. His foot hit a pile of rubble and Pythagoras overbalanced and fell, flailing desperately to keep the soldier off him as he landed hard on his back. The eyes that stared at him from beneath the Colchean’s helmet were triumphant as he raised his sword for a killing blow.
A blade appeared in the middle of the soldier’s chest. He looked down at it, confused. The blade disappeared as abruptly as it had appeared, and the soldier slowly toppled sideways to reveal Hercules, his sword bloody, standing right behind him.
“Are you alright?” Hercules asked.
He held a hand out and Pythagoras grabbed it and hauled himself upright.
“Fine. What about Jason?”
They both turned back to see Jason still on his knees in the middle of a scatter of dead Colcheans. Jason looked at them, and then fell forwards to land face first in the dirt.
Pythagoras swore and scrambled over to him and turned him over onto his back.
He performed a quick visual search, but apart from some superficial cuts and bruises, and a wound to the side of his head that already looked several hours old judging by the dried blood, Pythagoras could see nothing wrong. Nothing that would lead to Jason being barely conscious.
“Jason. What’s wrong?”
Jason forced his eyes open and opened his left hand, the one not holding the sword, to show Pythagoras a small pottery vessel. He shoved the vessel at Pythagoras with what seemed to be the last of his strength and then closed his eyes again.
“Pasiphae,” Jason breathed. “Poison.”
“No,” Pythagoras whispered.
“Look,” Hercules shouted.
Pythagoras looked up where he was indicating and saw Pasiphae and Medea and some more soldiers watching them from high up on the walls of the ruins.
“We have to get him out of here, now,” Pythagoras said.
He had barely finished speaking before Hercules picked Jason up, threw him over his shoulder, and started heading back into the forest.
Pythagoras looked back at Pasiphae, and scanned the ruins, expecting more soldiers to come chasing after them at any moment, but there was no one. Pasiphae watched Hercules and Jason disappear into the trees, and then, with barely a glance at Pythagoras, she turned and disappeared back into the temple.
Pythagoras didn’t wait to see what she would do next. Pausing only long enough to make sure he had the vessel secure in his bag, he ran after his friends.
“Hercules, stop,” he shouted as soon as they were completely out of sight of the ruined temple.
“Are you mad? If we stop they’ll catch up with us.”
“I don’t think they’re even following us,” Pythagoras panted, trying to catch his breath.
“Of course they are. They know he’s hurt, they know we’ll be slowed down carrying him. We’re easy targets.” Hercules was still walking as fast as he could while carrying their friend.
“No they’re not. They’re not following us because Pasiphae knows he’s already a dead man.”
At that, Hercules did stop and spun round to stare at Pythagoras.
“No. No, he can’t-”
“You heard him, she poisoned him. Pasiphae thinks he’s already dying, that’s why she let us take him with so little resistance.”
Much as he didn’t like the thought, it was the only explanation Pythagoras could come up with for why half the Colchean army wasn’t already chasing them down.
“There must be something-”
“There is. Put him down.”
After one last check to make sure they really weren’t being followed, Pythagoras dropped his bag and sword.
Hercules put their friend down and Pythagoras shook him, hard.
“Jason! You need to wake up. I need you to be conscious right bloody now!”
Jason moaned and his eyes flickered. Pythagoras decided it was probably conscious enough for what he planned to do next.
“Help me get him upright.”
Hercules didn’t argue and they both hauled Jason into a sitting position.
“Hold him,” Pythagoras said.
Then he forced Jason’s mouth open and shoved two fingers as far down Jason’s throat as he could physically get them.
The reaction was immediate. Jason choked and gagged, and tried to pull away. Pythagoras grabbed the back of his head and held on, ignoring Hercules’ protests.
Jason gagged again, and then Pythagoras barely managed to get his hand out of the way when Jason threw up.
“That’s it,” Pythagoras encouraged, helping him to lean to the side and thumping his back as he coughed and retched. “Get it out.”
Jason’s fist gripped the front of Pythagoras’ tunic, and he eventually looked up at him. The look in his eyes suggested he was not at all happy.
“What the hell, Pythagoras?”
“You said you were poisoned. That was the fastest way I could think of to get as much of it out as possible, before it gets into your system properly.”
Jason’s eyes widened, but Pythagoras noted that his grip loosened a little, at least.
“I’m sorry,” Pythagoras added. “I know it wasn’t pleasant. I thought it would be preferable to being poisoned, though. Can you tell me exactly what happened?”
Jason seemed rather more conscious now, at least, and Pythagoras needed all the information he could get to know how best to deal with the situation. Making Jason vomit it up might have bought them time, but, depending on what type of poison it was, it might not necessarily be enough to save him.
“Pasiphae forced me to drink whatever was in that cup thing. I knew it was poison. As soon as I’d taken it, I faked a seizure, and then when the soldiers dropped their guard I ran for it.”
“Why on earth did you drink it if you knew it was poison?” Hercules asked, his voice incredulous.
Jason glared at him.
“I didn’t have an option. They were holding a sword to my throat.” He shook his head. “I don’t know, I suppose I thought at least with the poison I might stand a chance if I could escape.” He threw Pythagoras a grateful look. “And I was right.”
Pythagoras eyed the puddle of vomit, and then, ignoring the disgusted looks from his friends, he sniffed it.
“Belladonna. Or some variant of, at least.” He found the vessel Jason had given him and examined what little trace was left in it of the contents. He frowned. “Belladonna, and I think something else as well. We need to get home. I can brew something that will counter the effects, but we must act fast.”
“I thought you’d got it all out already?” Hercules said, waving a hand at the vomit.
“I doubt that was all of it. Come on.”
He shoved the vessel back in his bag and stood up and pulled Jason to his feet. He looked a lot more alert and well now than he had a few minutes ago, but as soon as he was standing Jason wavered, and Pythagoras had to grab him and hold him upright.
“Hercules, help me.”
Pythagoras looped one of Jason’s arms over his shoulders and wrapped an arm around his waist, and Hercules got on Jason’s other side. This was starting to feel worryingly familiar, Pythagoras decided, as they set off back to Atlantis, supporting Jason between them.
The sun was low in the sky by the time they got back to Atlantis. Hercules had spent most of that journey worrying about Jason, although he did his best to hide that fact. A knowing look from Pythagoras when he had cast one too many glances at their friend suggested he hadn’t been entirely successful, but Pythagoras had always known him too well.
Jason was still conscious when they did get home, but he was weak and obviously in some pain. When they deposited him in his own bed he whimpered quietly and curled into a ball.
Pythagoras immediately got to work, first with his scrolls to check what he needed, and then with his herbs and potions. Hercules knew better than to offer to help, as he would just end up getting in the way, so he stayed at Jason’s side watching over him while Pythagoras worked. Soon the table was covered in scrolls and bowls of herbs and bottles of tonics, and the house was filled with all too familiar medicinal scents as Pythagoras mixed ingredients and heated things over the hearth.
Pythagoras talked as he worked, mostly explaining what he was doing to Hercules (as if Hercules actually understood half of what he was on about!), and muttering to himself, and occasionally asking Hercules for an update on Jason’s condition. Ordinarily, Hercules might have simply ignored Pythagoras’ commentary on his work, but as the night wore on he could hear the panic in Pythagoras’ voice becoming ever more noticeable, so Hercules threw in enough answers and comments to ensure that Pythagoras knew he was listening, and to encourage him and keep him calm.
Mostly, though, Hercules sat at Jason’s side and watched him get steadily worse. What started as a pain in his guts that was so bad it made their friend curl into a ball and whimper, gradually turned into something else. He started sweating, but when Hercules tried to offer him water to cool down Jason complained he was cold. His skin became pale and clammy, and his fevered ramblings became ever more incoherent.
Hercules knew Jason was dying right in front of them, and there wasn’t a bloody thing he could do to stop it.
Eventually, long after the sun had set and darkness had closed in, Pythagoras lifted a cooking pot off the hearth and poured the contents into a cup. Then he stood back and closed his eyes and breathed deeply.
It was the first time he had stopped rushing around doing things ever since they had got home.
“Is that it?” Hercules asked.
“Yes. It should be.”
Hercules turned back to Jason and shook him. “Jason, open your eyes, look at me. You need to sit up and drink this.”
Jason whimpered and his eyes flickered but did not open.
Hercules decided to take the direct approach and put an arm round his back, pulling him upright. That got more of a reaction, and Jason grabbed at his tunic and cried out in pain.
Pythagoras sat on the edge of the bed, the cup in his hands.
“Jason, it’s okay. Just drink this. It will help.” He slipped a hand around the back of Jason’s head and held the cup for him, encouraging him to drink.
Jason spluttered at first, but then his free hand closed around Pythagoras’ wrist and he held him, anchoring himself as he drank.
Hercules wasn’t entirely sure what he was expecting to happen. Possibly some miracle instant cure, like the time Jason had been cursed to turn into a dog and they had ended up with a scene remarkably similar to this one, with Pythagoras feeding him a potion that was supposed to fix everything.
Instead, nothing happened for several seconds.
“Jason?” Pythagoras prompted, his voice exuding worry.
Jason doubled over and retched. The hand that was still holding the front of Hercules’ tunic gripped tighter, twisting the fabric so hard Hercules was dragged forwards. By the sudden look of pain on Pythagoras’ face, Jason was holding his wrist just as tightly.
Jason cried out once, and then abruptly let go of both of them and collapsed back onto his bed and lay still.
“Jason?” Pythagoras reached out but stopped short of actually touching their friend.
There was no response, and it began to occur to Hercules that Jason was actually unconscious.
“What just happened, Pythagoras?”
“I’m not entirely sure,” Pythagoras admitted.
At that, Hercules turned his full attention onto Pythagoras.
“You said that was supposed to cure him!”
“I said it should counteract the poison in his system. But honestly, I have never dealt with this specific poison before. I only know what I have read. And the scrolls did not mention this.”
Hercules bit back an angry retort. He knew Pythagoras had done his best; it wasn’t his fault that Hercules had allowed himself to believe their resident genius would be able to fix this easily, like he had done so many other times when one of them was hurt or sick. Apparently there were limits to even Pythagoras’ knowledge. Hercules probably shouldn’t have been quite so surprised by that.
“Perhaps you should go to bed and get some sleep. I will stay with Jason and watch over him,” Pythagoras said.
Between being attacked by Colcheans, rescuing Jason, and their mad dash back to Atlantis, it had been a long day, and truthfully, Hercules wanted nothing more than just to go to bed and sleep. But he hesitated.
“Are you going to be alright on your own?” he asked Pythagoras.
Pythagoras nodded, and made a passable attempt at a reassuring smile.
“I will be fine. I will wake you to take a turn watching him if I catch myself falling asleep. Or if anything happens.”
Hercules wasn’t sure he liked the sound of ‘if anything happens’, but eventually he nodded. If there was nothing more that could be done to help Jason, then there was no point both of them sitting here watching over him.
“Make sure you do,” Hercules warned his friend.
With one last look at Jason, Hercules went to his room and gratefully sank into bed.
Pythagoras had lost track of time. It was some time in the early hours, but the house was unnervingly quiet (save for the occasional loud snore from Hercules’ room, but after all the years they had lived together Pythagoras could tune that out most of the time).
Jason hadn’t woken, had barely even stirred, since they had fed him the hastily concocted potion, and Pythagoras was beginning to worry. Well, that wasn’t strictly true; he had been worrying ever since they had looked round after the Colchean ambush the previous day and realised Jason had disappeared.
He was certain he had followed the notes to the letter; there was no reason why his cure shouldn’t have worked. But the longer Jason remained unconscious the more Pythagoras started to doubt himself. What if there was something else in the poison that he had not accounted for? What if his cure was not potent enough to fully counteract the poison? What if he hadn’t made it in time?
Rationally, he knew there was nothing to be done now. Either it had worked or it hadn’t.
Pythagoras silently prayed to every god of healing he knew of. It had to have worked, because the alternative...
He caught himself drifting to sleep, his eyes slipping shut, and forced himself to wake up. He stood up and walked around the room a couple of times, and got himself a drink of cool water until he was sure he wasn’t going to fall asleep on watch. Despite what he had promised, he dismissed the thought of waking Hercules. Nothing was going to remove him from Jason’s side tonight.
Pythagoras sat down again. After a moment he reached out and gently brushed Jason’s hair back from his face.
“Jason. I don’t know if you can hear me, but you need to live. You cannot let Pasiphae win, not like this. Ariadne-” He broke off, the words sticking in his throat.
Pythagoras let his fingers trail down Jason’s cheek, lingering against the warm skin.
“I need you to live, Jason. Please. I could not bear the thought of losing you.” He hesitated, and then started to speak again. “Jason. I know you love Ariadne. I know you would do anything for her. But just this once I am going to be selfish and I am going to ask you to do something for me. Please, Jason. Come back to us. Come back to me.”
Without really thinking about what he was doing, Pythagoras leaned over and placed a soft kiss on Jason’s forehead.
For the first time in many hours, Jason’s mouth opened and he made a soft sound. Pythagoras jerked back and froze, his eyes fixed on Jason. Jason turned his head slightly, leaning into Pythagoras’ hand where he was still holding his friend’s cheek. Then, as suddenly as it had happened, Jason became still again.
For a long time Pythagoras did not dare to move.
“Jason?” he whispered.
There was no response. However, now that Jason had shifted slightly, the angle of candlelight was falling on his face differently, and Pythagoras began to realise that he no longer looked quite as pale as he had done for most of the day. The skin against his fingers had reached a far more normal temperature, and was no longer fluctuating wildly between hot and cold.
No matter how much he tried to tell himself not to get too excited, Pythagoras couldn’t stop the hope from swelling within him at that.
He sat down at his friend’s side once again, and held his hand, and waited.
When Hercules got up the next day, rather later than he had intended, given how high the sun seemed to be, he was slightly startled to wander into the main room and discover Jason wide awake and Pythagoras slumped over Jason’s bed asleep.
He couldn’t help the huge grin forming at the sight of Jason awake and alert, though.
Jason winced. “Yeah, I appear to be alive.” He indicated Pythagoras with his free hand, since the other appeared to be trapped beneath their sleeping friend. “I woke up a short while ago and found him like this. He looks pretty exhausted. I didn’t want to wake him.”
Hercules had no such reservations, and went over and grabbed Pythagoras’ shoulder and shook him.
“Oi! What happened to, ‘I’ll wake you if I need you to take over’?”
Pythagoras jerked upright and managed several completely inarticulate syllables before he seemed to finally focus.
“Morning,” Jason said, flexing his wrist and hand now it was free.
Pythagoras looked around, finally saw Jason, and a massive grin replaced the confusion.
“Jason!” Of course, this was Pythagoras so before Jason even had chance to respond their resident genius went straight into fussing mother hen mode. “Are you alright? How do you feel? How long have you been conscious?”
“Are you actually going to let him answer any of those, or were you just planning to keep asking questions all morning?” Hercules said.
“I feel a lot better,” Jason interrupted before anyone else could speak. “Actually, I’m pretty hungry.”
“That sounds like an excellent plan,” Hercules said. “What have we got for breakfast?”
And that, it seemed, was that. Pythagoras quickly cleared away all the assorted herbs and bottles and bowls that he had left on the table the previous night, and the three of them sat down to a breakfast of bread and fruit (well, strictly speaking it was more like lunch by that time, but not even Pythagoras could be bothered to argue the distinction, given the circumstances). Jason seemed to become more like his usual self with every passing minute as they ate, and, when Hercules asked the question, he told them the full story of what had happened with Pasiphae.
“There isn’t a lot to tell, really,” Jason said round a mouthful of bread. “When the Colcheans ambushed us, I think they deliberately organised it to split us up, get me away from you two, and as soon as I was out of sight about ten more of them appeared from nowhere. I got bashed over the head and the next thing I knew I woke up in a cell with Pasiphae watching me.”
“Why didn’t she just kill you while you were unconscious?” Hercules felt the need to ask.
Jason shrugged. “Honestly, I have no idea. Maybe she just wanted me to know it was her who did it?”
“Still, poison is pretty inefficient compared to a sword through the chest. See, the fact you’re alive now proves that.”
“Hercules!” Pythagoras protested.
“What? I was just saying.”
“I don’t know,” Jason interrupted, possibly attempting to forestall an argument. “But honestly, I’m just glad she went with that option. Because thanks to you guys I am still alive. I guess Pasiphae still hasn’t worked out how smart Pythagoras is, otherwise she might not have risked it, and just gone with a more guaranteed method of killing me.”
Pythagoras flushed an entertaining shade of pink at the look Jason gave him along with that comment. Hercules just rolled his eyes and carried on eating.
After breakfast, Pythagoras retreated to his room, and Hercules assumed he was intending to catch up on his sleep, but when he popped his head round the door later he found Pythagoras working his way through a pile of scrolls. When Hercules asked what he was doing, the only reply he got was ‘research’, and after the third attempt to find out what he was doing or to coax him out, Hercules gave up and left him to it.
He had to admit he was a little surprised that Pythagoras wasn’t busy fussing over Jason all day. That would have been far more normal behaviour in this type of situation (although Hercules had to admit, the fact that they had been in ‘this kind of situation’ often enough to have recognisable ‘normal behaviour’ was slightly worrying). In fact, the more Hercules watched, the more he began to wonder if Pythagoras was actively avoiding Jason, although he couldn’t for the life of him fathom why.
Still, all was well. Jason had recovered from yet another near death experience, and Pythagoras behaving oddly wasn’t exactly a new occurrence, so as far as Hercules was concerned everything was fine.
That situation lasted until they sat down for their evening meal.
Hercules had decided they should celebrate Jason not being dead with a great big meat pie for dinner. They were halfway through it, laughing at Hercules’ slightly embellished gossip that he had picked up in the market that afternoon, when Jason suddenly started coughing. Hercules barely even noticed at first. He didn’t actually pay any attention until Pythagoras’ worried voice cut across his story.
Hercules looked across. Jason had grabbed the table with both hands and braced himself as the coughing became a lot worse.
Pythagoras jumped to his feet, ran round the table, and thumped Jason hard on the back. When it had no discernable effect, he did it again, harder. Jason abruptly spat out a lump of pie, dragged in a deep breath, and then fell off his chair.
“What the hell?” Hercules stood up as Pythagoras dropped to his knees at Jason’s side.
By the time Hercules had got round the other side of the table to see what had happened, Jason was having some sort of convulsion.
Pythagoras reacted first.
“Help me get him on his side.”
He started trying to shove Jason into the required position, but Jason’s body was spasming so hard it was almost impossible to move him.
“What the hell is going on?” Hercules demanded. “Pythagoras?”
“Don’t just stand there! Help me!”
Hercules did, his strength being more than enough to manage what Pythagoras had been failing to do, and they got Jason onto his side, although Hercules wasn’t entirely certain what that was supposed to achieve.
It seemed like an age before the violent seizure finally stopped. When it did, Jason lay still.
“Jason?” Hercules asked.
Their friend gave a quiet moan, but made no attempt to move or open his eyes.
“Jason, talk to me,” Pythagoras demanded. He tried to pry one of Jason’s eyes open, but Jason flinched away with a whimper and curled in on himself.
“Pythagoras?” Hercules hated how helpless his voice sounded.
“I don’t know,” Pythagoras said, his hands skittering over Jason’s body, searching for... something. “I don’t know what’s going on. I thought he was just choking on some food, but that shouldn’t have caused this.”
“And what is ‘this’?”
“I don’t know!” Pythagoras shouted.
When Hercules looked into his friend’s eyes, all he could see was fear.
“What do we need to do?” Hercules asked as calmly as he could. If Pythagoras was panicking they were all in trouble.
Pythagoras paused, and ran a hand through his hair.
“Let’s get him back to his bed. Better there than on the floor.”
For the second time in as many days Hercules picked Jason up and carried him, although at least this time it was only halfway across the room. Then he stood back and let Pythagoras get on with examining Jason. When he finally stood up and turned to Hercules, the expression on his face was not encouraging.
“What is it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is it the poison?”
“Possibly. Probably. I can’t think of anything else. He has a head injury, but he’s taken far worse than that before and suffered no ill effects, so logic suggests that the poison is the most likely explanation.”
“So what do we do? Can you cook up another potion that will sort him out again?”
Pythagoras shook his head. “I could, but what would be the point? If it hasn’t worked the first time, there’s no reason to believe that simply feeding him more of the same will have a different outcome.”
“So what? We’re just going to stand here and watch him die?”
“Of course not.” Pythagoras closed his eyes for a moment, and Hercules recognised this was probably the time to stay quiet and let him think.
It didn’t take long before Pythagoras nodded to himself, and met Hercules’ gaze again. The fear was still there, but this time Hercules could also see determination.
“Stay with him,” Pythagoras said, and went into his bedroom. He rummaged around on his desk for a short while, and then came back out and headed straight for the door to the house.
“Where are you going?”
“To the only person that I can think of who might be able to help.”
Pythagoras descended the steps into the Oracle’s chamber, his heart pounding. She was waiting for him, and turned as soon as she heard his approach.
Pythagoras nodded. “You know what has happened.” Of course she knew; she was the Oracle.
“I know that he is in great danger. Tell me.”
Pythagoras could see the worry in her eyes, and was struck with the thought that she actually genuinely seemed to care about Jason. He knew Jason visited the Oracle fairly often, but so did many people in the city, and most spoke of her as aloof and inscrutable. Pythagoras had seen another, more human, side to her when Ariadne had been mortally wounded, but Ariadne was the queen. Jason was... well, Jason was apparently the true heir to the throne of Atlantis and the man who was supposed to save the city and defeat Pasiphae, so yes, it made sense that the Oracle might have a vested interest in his wellbeing.
And yet, the look in her eyes right at that moment was not that of pragmatic concern, it was a look that spoke of protectiveness, something almost maternal. It spoke of love.
Pythagoras could understand that.
“He has been poisoned by Pasiphae. I made an antidote to counter the poison, and I believed it had worked; he seemed to be getting better. But now he has suddenly relapsed, and he appears to be getting worse again. I have done everything I can think of. I do not understand what is happening.”
The Oracle held her hand out.
“You have something for me?”
Pythagoras closed the distance between them and gave her the pottery vessel.
“This is what contained the poison. I don’t know if it will help, but...” He met the Oracle’s gaze and hoped she would see what he could not put into words. “Please, help me,” Pythagoras said, his voice breaking a little. “I don’t know how to save him.”
For a moment the Oracle held his hand in her own, and Pythagoras barely dared to breathe. It felt like she was looking into his very soul. He wondered if she would see the truth that he had kept hidden for so long. Right at that moment he no longer cared.
Then she took the vessel and knelt at the ever-present bronze bowl and began to mutter words that even Pythagoras did not recognise. He waited, growing more and more impatient as time passed. He wanted to pace, but was afraid that he might distract her from her divinations. Eventually he had to sit down on floor at the edge of the chamber to prevent himself from interrupting.
After what seemed like hours, but was probably no more than half an hour, she looked up. Pythagoras scrambled to his feet and approached her again. When she didn’t move, he dropped to a crouch beside her.
She turned to face him. Pythagoras did not like her expression at all.
“You have seen something?”
“Pasiphae has enhanced the poison with magic. You cannot counter it with mundane medicine alone.”
It felt like all the breath left his body. No. This couldn’t be. And yet, after what had happened to Ariadne with Medea’s cursed blade, it was a thought that had been lurking at the edges of his mind ever since they found Jason.
“There must be a way,” he said, not even trying to hide the fear in his voice.
“There is,” the Oracle said. “It is blood magic, and can be countered by blood.”
“Pasiphae’s blood?” It was the obvious conclusion, but if it was that, then their hopes of saving Jason were even more impossible.
“No. The opposite. The poison has been enhanced by the blood of Jason’s mortal enemy, someone who wants him dead. The cure can be enhanced by the blood of someone who truly loves him.”
It took a moment to sink in, and then, for the first time since Jason had relapsed, Pythagoras felt a flare of hope. The answer was obvious.
The Oracle gave him a curious half smile, and nodded. “Ariadne would indeed be a good choice.”
She stood up and went to an alcove in the darkness at the edge of the chamber. When she came back she gave him a small glass vial.
“Use this to collect Ariadne’s blood. Blood of such potency will not require much.”
“And then I remake the cure using the blood of his true love.”
The Oracle grasped his hand again, her grip so tight it was almost painful.
“Pythagoras, I did not say his true love. I said someone who truly loves him.”
Her gaze seemed to bore right into him, and Pythagoras nodded.
“I understand,” he whispered.
She squeezed his hand one more time and let go.
“Then go and save him, Pythagoras.”
He nodded again, and then ran up the stairs and to the palace.
Jason was getting worse. Hercules was no physician, but he didn’t need to be; he could see it. Since Pythagoras had left to visit the Oracle, Jason had become ever more incoherent. He was sweating, and burning with fever, and yet complained of being cold. Occasionally he cried out in pain. And through it all, Hercules could do nothing but sit with him and talk, and try to soothe him.
It couldn’t end like this. The Oracle had told him it was their job to protect Jason, but Hercules had never felt so helpless.
He looked round at the sound of Pythagoras coming in. The young man was out of breath, and, if possible, even more panicked than when he had left.
“What did she say?” Hercules asked, meeting him halfway across the room. Pythagoras leaned heavily against the table and caught his breath.
“How is he?” Pythagoras asked, looking across at Jason.
“Getting worse. Pythagoras, what did the Oracle say?”
“Pasiphae has used blood magic to enhance the poison. The only way to save him is to use the blood of someone who loves him to make a cure.”
Hercules leapt to the obvious conclusion. “Ariadne.”
“Yes. But I went to the palace and they would not let me see her. No matter what I tried to tell them, the palace guards would not let me past. They just kept saying to come back tomorrow and she might grant an audience.”
“Did you tell them it was about Jason?”
“Of course I did. I managed to get a note to one of Ariadne’s servants, but whether it will even reach her tonight I do not know.”
Pythagoras finally seemed to have calmed down, and went over to take a closer look at Jason. When he looked up, Hercules could see the same fear in his eyes that Hercules himself had been feeling.
“I do not think Jason can wait until tomorrow,” Pythagoras said in a quiet voice.
Hercules thought for a moment. “Leave it to me.”
“Where are you going?”
“Back to the palace. And I’m not leaving until I’ve spoken to Ariadne.”
“You will need this.” He passed Hercules a small vial. “If Ariadne agrees, she must give enough blood to fill this vial.”
Hercules tucked it safely into a pouch at his belt.
“Just keep him alive until I get back.”
He didn’t wait for Pythagoras to respond.
It was dark by the time Hercules arrived at the palace. There were two guards on the main entrance, and Hercules simply strode straight towards them.
“Halt,” one of the men ordered as he approached.
Their spears crossed in front of him, blocking the doorway.
Hercules sped up and hit the men at a run. He grabbed both spears and wrenched them out of the guards’ hands. Before the guards could react and draw their swords, he slammed the flat of his hand into one’s face, knocking him back, and then turned and grabbed the other one. He caught hold of the first guard, and then bashed both their helmeted heads together.
The guards crumpled with startling ease, and Hercules made a mental note to advise Ariadne to improve her palace security. Then he eased the door open and dragged both guards inside and into the nearest corner.
Realistically, he knew he had five minutes, at most, before the alarm was raised and the entire palace was searching for him. He just hoped he could find Ariadne before then, and that she would overlook his less than conventional entrance, given the situation.
He headed into the palace, ducking into doorways and alcoves and round corners every time he saw someone. There were still plenty of servants around, as well as the inevitable guards, but he managed to make it as far as the atrium with the pool without being discovered. The problem was where to go to find Ariadne. He knew where her room was, they had spent far too many worried hours waiting outside it while Pythagoras and the Oracle tried to save the queen’s life, after all, but now he thought about it, Hercules wasn’t entirely sure whether that truly was the royal bedchamber, or simply the nearest bedroom when they had carried her into the palace, still bleeding.
He was still trying to decide where to go when something that felt far too much like the point of a sword pressed against his back.
“You have ten seconds to tell me who you are, and why I shouldn’t just kill you where you stand.”
He recognised that voice; it was Ariadne’s new general and chief of security, the man who had replaced Dion. Hercules had seen the man around, but had not actually met him yet.
“I’m Hercules,” he said in as steady a voice as he could manage. “I am here to speak to the queen. If I don’t see her as soon as possible, then Jason, the man she intends to marry, is going to die.”
“That doesn’t explain why you’re sneaking around the palace, or why two of my men are unconscious.”
Hercules winced. The general did not sound happy about that fact.
“We tried to ask nicely, and were denied access. I didn’t want to do it this way, but there wasn’t time. Please, you have to let me speak to the queen.”
“We? Who else is here?”
Hercules cursed himself.
“No one. I mean my friend tried to gain access earlier but was turned away.”
“You’re really not very good at this, are you?”
“Look, just let me speak to the queen. She will vouch for me. And then we can get all this sorted out. “
There was a brief pause. Then the man shouted.
“Aristaon, Galen, I need backup here.”
For a split second Hercules considered trying to jump the man before his soldiers arrived. The moment he tensed, the sword pressed even harder into his back.
“Don’t even think it. You’d be dead before you moved a step,” the general growled.
He had quite possibly never been so glad to hear Ariadne’s voice. Hercules looked up and saw the queen heading towards them.
“Your majesty, I can explain. This has all been a huge misunderstanding and I really need to talk to you about Jason.”
“Delmos?” Ariadne addressed the man standing behind Hercules. “Release him.”
“Do it.” She turned her attention to Hercules as she moved closer. “I have just been given a note from Pythagoras but it does not say much, just that Jason is in great danger and that you need to see me. What has happened?”
Hercules breathed as he felt Delmos take the sword away. He heard running footsteps in the corridor behind him, presumably the backup, but ignored them and stepped forward to meet Ariadne.
“I am sorry, your majesty, I would not have done this if there were any other way, but we needed to speak to you as soon as possible, it will not wait until the morning. Jason’s life is in danger.”
Ariadne looked around, and Hercules became aware that there were several guards and servants watching them from around the edges of the atrium.
“Come. We will talk somewhere private.”
Ariadne led the way to a room off the atrium and Hercules followed her, aware of Delmos staying close behind him. As soon as the door was closed, Delmos moved to stand beside Ariadne. His expression was enough to warn Hercules that if he did anything the general didn’t like, he would probably be dead before he could apologise for it.
“Tell me,” Ariadne ordered.
“Pasiphae has poisoned Jason. She has used magic to enhance it, and the Oracle says the only way to cure him is with a potion that contains the blood of someone who loves him.”
“How much blood do you need?”
It was quite impressive how Ariadne didn’t even hesitate.
“Your majesty, you cannot,” Delmos interrupted. “You are still weak from your injury.”
Ariadne ignored him. “Hercules?”
He took the vial out and showed it to her. “Enough to fill this, your majesty.”
It felt strange, standing on ceremony and using titles with Ariadne after their recent adventures together on the journey to Aegina and in the underground necropolis, but he knew that here, in the palace, in front of the likes of Delmos, it was necessary. As far as the rest of the palace and court were concerned, he and Pythagoras were nobodies. Trusted operatives of the queen, yes, but that arrangement was a secret, known only to the inner circle. Their word carried no weight with anyone but Ariadne herself.
No wonder Pythagoras had not been able to get to see her.
Ariadne reached for the vial, and yet again Delmos interrupted.
“Your majesty, I must protest.”
Ariadne rounded on him.
“Delmos, I appreciate your concern, but right now, of the two men in this room, only one has saved my life on multiple occasions, and that man is not you. I know that Hercules would not ask for this if there were any other way. If this is what it takes to save Jason’s life then I will happily give my blood. I have made my decision. Now give me a knife, please. Or do I have to go and find one myself?”
Delmos drew a dagger from his belt and handed it to Ariadne without another word.
Ariadne looked around the room, and then went to sit at a table. She hesitated a moment and then looked to Hercules.
“Come and help me.”
Hercules went over immediately and took the vial and unstoppered it. As soon as he was ready, Ariadne sliced her hand, and they both watched as the blood welled up and dripped into the vial.
Delmos went to the doorway and Hercules heard him speaking with someone outside, but he kept his attention on Ariadne and just hoped that Delmos’ loyalty to his queen overrode his natural suspicion.
Ariadne’s hand began to shake, and she made a fist, her face a picture of concentration. This close, Hercules see that she was exhausted. It was only a couple of weeks since she had been stabbed by Medea, but even so, Hercules suspected she had been performing all the duties of her position as soon as she was capable of standing. Delmos was probably right about her still being weak, but Hercules honestly hadn’t been able to tell until he was right in front of her.
In that moment, his respect for the queen had never been greater.
“Thank you,” he said in a quiet voice.
Ariadne looked up and met his gaze.
“Just make sure Jason lives.” Unexpectedly, she shot him a smile. “And the next time you or Pythagoras need to get an urgent message to me, come to the palace and ask for my maidservant, Irina. You will probably have more success with that than with demanding to see me in the middle of the night. I will let her know that you are to be trusted.”
“I think that’s enough,” he said. The little vial felt heavier in his hand now, and when he looked he could see the dark liquid almost filling it.
As soon as he put the stopper in, a female servant came to Ariadne’s side, carrying a bowl of water and cloths and bandages.
“Thank you,” Hercules said again.
Ariadne nodded, and allowed the servant to treat the cut on her hand.
Hercules felt Delmos at his shoulder.
“I’ll escort you to the palace gates. Wouldn’t want you to be mistaken for a common trespasser,” he said, in a tone that Hercules couldn’t quite tell whether he was joking or not.
He tucked the vial back into his belt pouch and followed Delmos out of the palace.
Away from the palace, the city was still full of activity, mostly around the taverns. A few people called out greetings, and Hercules acknowledged them but did not stop. There had been talk of an unofficial wrestling tournament when he had been in the market earlier, and Hercules guessed that was what had caused the larger, rowdier, crowds. It occurred to him it might have been quicker to go another way. While technically a longer route, a way that utilised quieter backstreets might have been quicker, but it was too late now.
He heard shouting, and a fight abruptly spilled out of a tavern and into the street. Hercules tried to dodge out of the way, but he and several other people were right in the way and were scooped up in the tide of drunken and angry people. Hercules shoved people aside, trying to force his way through by sheer strength alone. He saw a young boy about to be trampled and picked the child up into his arms as two men staggered into him. Hercules was slammed against the wall, using his own body to shield the boy until the two men moved on, still fighting.
Hercules shoved his way through and dodged into the nearest side street before he put the boy down.
“You alright?” he asked.
The boy nodded once, looked up at him with wide eyes, and then took off into the night as fast as he could. Hercules watched him go, and then headed off himself, before the city guard showed up and started indiscriminately arresting people. There were probably only so many times Ariadne could bail him out in one evening.