Pride Comes Before A Brawl

by Sandman

Story originally written for Hercules: the Legendary Journeys by: Steve Roberts

Lydia ran through the forest with her long raven dark hair streaming behind like a kite tail on a windy day. She had been so sure that her quest for Hercules’s help would go without a hitch. What had she been thinking? She had been thinking with her heart and not her brain she now realized. These woods were infested with Satyrs, evil ugly ones who beat and robbed travelers. What ever had made her think she could come alone, without a bodyguard or escort? Now the Satyrs were after her!

Lydia’s legs burned as she pushed herself forward harder and faster than she had ever done before. Tree limbs slapped at her and the odor of crushed grasses rose around her, but Lydia paid them no heed. She plunged forward through the freckling of sunlight peeking through the canopy above without even seeing the checkerboard of light and dark beneath her feet. She had to escape, to get help for her villagers. Gasping with fiery lungs she glimpsed a large broken tree bough, old and weathered hard and smooth, a good weapon she realized, knowing she couldn’t run much longer. Her legs were beginning to wobble beneath her and she stopped suddenly, pressing her slim frame against the huge trunk of a tree.

Maybe she could hide from them she thought as she wound up her arm and got the heavy branch in position for a strike. She gasped for air and tried to steady herself, to slow the syncopation of her heart. She could hear them crashing through the woods and laughing, as if taking her life was nothing more than a game to them. Lydia shivered and decided it was now or never. As the first Satyr came upon her she swung hard, catching him right in the head. He fell with a thud and Lydia turned to run again.

It was too late. There were simply too many of them. Lydia stood horrified at the sight of the ugly Satyrs smirking at her and screamed.

Iolaus was in a hurry to get to the festival in Thrace. He loved festivals, he loved the food, he loved the ale, he loved the contests and mostly he loved the girls. And girls liked him too. He never had any trouble finding a willing partner for a mixed event, and often times he could convince her to sup with him and maybe later…

“Uh, Iolaus,” Hercules said as they approached the river. “Looks like the bridge to Thrace is not happening today.”

Iolaus glanced up and saw the men. There was a crowd of them too, all waiting at the bridge, looking like they were ready for a good fight. They stood guarding the road across the bridge, the closest one to Thrace, the only one that wouldn’t take them out of their way and make them late for the festival.

“You pay or you don’t cross!” a burly bearded behemoth called out, standing before the raised segment with his substantial arms crossed.

Iolaus shook his head, and then observed the river beneath flowing with heavy currents. The water was an icy blue and the soft rippling on top belied the strong pull just below the surface. The only way for anyone to cross would be to pay the toll or travel further. Iolaus was miffed. This put a kink in his plans. He stood staring back at the men, crossing his own arms and spreading his legs, trying his best to become an intimidating solid wall.

Hercules turned to Iolaus. “We’ll cross further down,” he spoke with a conciliatory tone, as he turned to leave.

“No!” Iolaus shot back, then seeing Herc’s warning glance softened his stance. “Aw come on, Herc, we can take ‘em,” Iolaus cajoled. He hated when Hercules backed down too quickly. And he hated when Herc presumed to make the decisions without his input too. There’d been more than enough of that going on lately. Besides, others might want to use the bridge and someone had to get rid of these guys so they could.

Iolaus stood firm, legs wide in a fighting stance and shot the heckling crowd his fiercest look.

“Ooh, look, the little guy wants to fight, come on,” voices from the crowd teased. “Oh the big guy wants to take his little brother away. What’s the matter, scared?” The bullies erupted in laughter, hoarse and crude and belittling and all aimed at Iolaus.

Herc had left him behind on too many adventures, especially lately, and deep inside Iolaus wondered if it was because Hercules didn’t think he was capable. Well, Iolaus thought, he’d show all of them! What was with Hercules anyway? Didn’t he want to get to the festival on time?

Iolaus couldn’t understand Herc’s reticence. HE was going to cross the bridge to Thrace no matter what it took. And he’d clear it for others as well. He grabbed his bow and snatched an arrow from the quiver slung across his back, setting it in the tightly strung cord and drawing back, taking careful aim.

“Drop it Iolaus, we don’t have anything to prove,” Hercules warned in a soft voice, waiting with his arms crossed as if Iolaus would obey his every command. But Iolaus took no heed.

Sighting the weight system that held the bridge’s main span up preventing access, he let his arrow fly. Too late he noticed that the feather at the end of the arrow’s shaft was broken and skewed to the left. This arrow would not fly true.

“Oh! He groaned in humiliation and dropped his bow at his side as he missed. Now would come the fight, and he hadn’t been able to prove himself as he had hoped. Iolaus tossed away his bow and quiver, readying for the fight he knew would ensue. He could hear Hercules’s heavy sigh of disapproval, but he did what he needed to do and as the group came towards him he propelled himself forward.

Iolaus was an excellent fighter, not only had he learned much from attending Cheiron’s Academy, but during the time he spent in the East getting over the deaths of his family he had learned many new techniques which allowed a smaller man to easily beat one or many larger men. It had worked on Hercules and he knew it would work here. These were simply brutes with no finesse, ‘rock ‘em sock ‘em guys’ who could be taken out without Iolaus even having to break a sweat.

Iolaus headed into the fray like a small tornado of flesh and muscle and golden hair. He flipped and kicked and tossed the heavier men around with a vengeance borne of frustration. Iolaus didn’t like being teased, at least not in a mean way. And he certainly didn’t like bullies. And right now he wanted to get to the festival as quickly as possible, even if it meant walking right through these men.

Hercules leaned back and watched Iolaus fight. He knew Iolaus could handle the thugs and to tell the truth, he liked to watch his compact friend fight with determination and fury. He liked to see him implement the new moves he practiced nightly and mostly he knew that Iolaus needed to do this himself.

Hercules ducked as a large dirty body flew in his direction off the foot of the now rolling Iolaus. He waved away the cloud of dust that arose as the big man hit the dirt at his feet and watched as Iolaus kicked, punched and flipped his way through the entire throng of angry men dispatching them so quickly even Hercules was stunned.

Iolaus was down and facing the bridge, seemingly unaware of a new threat behind him. Hercules saw the man who’d landed at his feet rising again, heading towards Iolaus’s back.

“Iolaus, watch out!” he called as he dashed to cover Iolaus. Hercules pushed Iolaus away roughly and with a forcefully aimed back fist rapidly dispatched the guy over the side of the bridge and into the water.

Iolaus turned to him with a sigh of frustration, his eyes flashing in anger. How could his friend have pushed him away like that? Didn’t he trust Iolaus’ senses? Why couldn’t he just let him fight his own battle! He felt foolish enough for having missed the shot, but to have Hercules jump in like this was demeaning. “I had him cold!” Iolaus snapped.

“Yeah, well, now he’s cold and wet.” Hercules clapped his friend on the shoulder dismissively and grabbed his wrist, pulling him up. “Come on.”

Behind the two heroes the thugs were regaining their senses, standing and shaking their heads and suddenly realizing that there was no way for Hercules and Iolaus to escape except over the now rising bridge.

Hercules and Iolaus came to the same conclusion. Staring at each other they didn’t even need to speak. All the years of working and fighting side to side and back to back left them with the singular ability of knowing exactly what the other would do. Iolaus grabbed his bow and quiver and tossed them up onto the rising edge of the bridge as Hercules jumped with strength and ease over the widening gap and slid down the other side to safety.

Iolaus looked to the bridge with concern. The height was rising and the gap growing larger every second. Behind him the angry throng of men charged and Iolaus knew it would take one mighty big jump from his small legs to make it to safety. But it was something he had to do. With a burst of power he pushed him self forward and up, stretching catlike to reach the rim of the wooden bridge, now risen to its maximum height. He tried to imagine himself actually taking flight, but for the second time today he failed.

Iolaus grabbed the edge of the bridge, holding on by simple will power with only the tips of his fingers. Above the men, he couldn’t be pummeled but his position was too awkward to allow him to pull up over the top as quickly as he needed to. He hung like a target over the cold treacherous water as one of the men drew forth a bow.

Iolaus readied himself to do a flip over the edge of the bridge, thinking that if he failed in that at least would present a moving target, one a little harder to hit. But suddenly he felt Hercules powerful hands grabbing his wrists. He heard a grunt and with a mighty haul he found himself pulled just as he was preparing to execute his flip over the bridge to safety.

As he landed back to boards he heard the heavy thunk of an arrow striking the underside of the bridge, right where he had been hanging. He laid his head back against the warm wood to catch his breath and slow his heart thinking he probably should thank Herc when he heard it. Hercules was laughing at him.

“So when’s the last time you shot an arrow,” Hercules laughed smugly.

“Hey, you know I can shoot. Who got you breakfast this morning anyway? And the feather was off the shaft so of course it wouldn’t track right!” Iolaus found himself justifying his skill to Hercules and it made him angry. He shouldn’t have to do that. He was tired of always having to prove himself. He was tired of Hercules thinking he had to take care of him. He was tired not getting credit for his skill and, most of all, his feelings were hurt by both the arrow’s miss and Hercules’s humiliating remark. That’s the way it had always been even since he was a child, people trying to humiliate him. He’d thought those days were over now, but guessed that there would always be times like this.

“Come on,” Iolaus said standing with a shake of his head. He tried not to be mad at Hercules for long. Their friendship had endured too many years to be tossed away over a foolish spat. He swallowed yet another humiliation but walked off with his back to Hercules.

“Let’s get going to Thrace,” he called over his shoulder.

The road to Thrace had been quiet after the bridge incident. Hercules had noticed that Iolaus had also been unusually silent and wondered if his best friend was still stewing about missing the shot at the bridge. Well, there’d be plenty of contests at the festival he reasoned and Iolaus usually won his fair share of them. Perhaps there would be an archery contest where Iolaus could publicly redeem himself. Not that he had to for Hercules. Iolaus was the best hunter that Herc had ever seen and certainly had nothing to prove to him.

The road ahead forked and a crudely written sign was hanging roughly on a tree pointing to the left path for Thrace.

“We must be close. Come on, I’ll race you.” Hercules called excitedly. “It’ll be good practice for the games.”

“No!” Iolaus practically shouted as he glared over at Hercules. “You’re going the wrong way!”

“I am not. The sign says Thrace is this way” Hercules looked at Iolaus puzzled. Iolaus could read as well as him, what was the problem?

Iolaus stood with his arms across his chest and stubbornly asserted, “Well the sign is wrong. Someone must have put it there to fool travelers.”

“Iolaus look at the road,” Hercules sighed. “It’s obvious everyone uses it.” He gestured broadly at the path on the left, wide and dusty as Iolaus stared at the thin and twisted path on the right, the one that lead through the woods.

“I can’t believe you don’t recognize a trap when you see one.” Iolaus shook his head in disgust as he stood stubbornly glaring across at Hercules.

“You have to be joking.” Hercules shook his head in frustration and rubbed his hand wearily over his mouth.

“You want to walk into a trap any kid could see, go ahead,’ Iolaus said haughtily, standing his ground. Was Hercules even questioning his ability to find his way to their destination? It might seem like a joke to Hercules, but it stuck in Iolaus’ craw like a wad of mistakenly swallowed gum.

“Iolaus you’ll be lucky to get there before the games are over. I’ll bet you I arrive long before you.” Hercules shook his head in wonder. Iolaus was so stubborn. Why wouldn’t he listen to him?

“That’s a bet! One hundred dinars.” Iolaus shot Hercules a cocky half smile, sure of himself.

“You haven’t got one hundred dinars,” Hercules reminded him.

“Like I should worry. You’re the one who’s going to have to pay.” Iolaus taunted.

“Fine!” Hercules retorted and turned to the path on the left.

Iolaus followed the narrow twisting path through the woods. Tree boughs hung low and slapped at him with impudence while under his feet dry pine needles slipped and made the walk rough. The smell of pine oil rose around him, pleasant and comforting to the hunter. Iolaus didn’t mind that the path was hard to navigate though. He was used to the woods and when he wanted to he could walk through them without even leaving tracks. Today however was not one of those times. He simply wanted to get to Thrace. Iolaus was troubled. As he walked the twisting path he let his mind wander to the humiliation he’d felt earlier.

“Iolaus this, Iolaus that. He thinks that because he’s the son of a god he knows everything. He doesn’t give me the credit I deserve sometimes,” Iolaus groused to himself. “Always in his shadow, always playing second lute to him, people always thinking I’m his kid brother that doesn’t know how to look after himself, well I’ll reach Thrace long before him! You bet I will.” Iolaus trudged angrily along the twisting path, placing each worn boot sole carefully down to avoid a misstep. Beside him the there was a gully to a stream, and the fall would be deep and decidedly uncomfortable along the rocky bank and landing in mud of the stream bed.

“What did he think I did all those years he didn’t spend with me? Hang around waiting? No, I had adventures of my own, and I’m still here to tell about them so that must mean something. And I’ve traveled this road before, too. I KNOW this is the way to Thrace.” Iolaus continued pushing his way through the low undergrowth, determined to reach the town in record time, determined to finally prove himself to the one person he most respected, Hercules.

Meanwhile Hercules was on a journey of his own. The wider path led over a hill and almost straight to a ferry at the edge of a calm segment of the wide river. The river flowed placidly here, glinting turquoise under the warmth of a sunlit sky. The calls of birds beckoned and the scent of the stagnant edge water drew Hercules down the path to where the water lapped gently at the shore like a tame dog.

“A ferry,” Hercules muttered to himself. Then thinking about Iolaus on the tangled wooded path just behind him he hoped his friend hadn’t gone far. He turned and shouted. “Iolaus!” But there was no answer, even to Hercules’s powerful voice. Hercules shook his head. Maybe the time alone will help, he thought. “Certainly the walk should burn off his bad mood,” Hercules muttered as he turned and approached the ferryman before him.

The ferryman was tall and lean and sported a wicked grin and for a moment Hercules wondered if Iolaus had been right about this way being a trap, but he smiled and nodded at the man anyway.

“Morning traveler, going to the games at Thrace?” The ferryman turned assessing eyes on the business prospect before him.

“Yes,” Hercules answered simply. “Can you take me there?”

The ferryman stared business like into Hercules’s eyes. “I’m expecting a lot of trade for the games. You’ll have to wait until I have a boatful.”

Hercules paused and stared past the ferryman. “I don’t have time to wait,” he stated. “How much to go now?”

“One hundred dinars,” answered the man, knowing that for that amount of money he could well afford to skip the other customers for now. He waited, staring at Hercules and bouncing on his toes.

Hercules was not the best barterer, but he knew when he was being fleeced. Besides if Iolaus beat him he’d need the 100 dinars. He stared up at the sky and watched the puffy white clouds race by as if he was actually considering it. “I’ll swim,” he finally replied.

The ferryman grinned wickedly now, knowing that he had Hercules on his hook. “I wouldn’t do that traveler,” he warned. “Place is infested with monsters, sea serpents and piranha. Saw a man your size go in once. Picked his bones clean in 20 seconds. I lie, 10.” He raised his eyebrows to Hercules challengingly.

“Hmm, looks like your boat is the only way,” Hercules’s commented dryly. “Did you put the sign there to get business?”

“No traveler. I put that there as a warning to strangers. None return who go the other way.”

This had Hercules’ interest. Either the man was a good liar, or Iolaus may have bitten off more than he could chew.

“Don’t tell me,” Hercules ventured. “More serpents?”

“No,” the ferry man shook his head knowingly. “Ghouls, eels, giant fiends that suck you down, monsters in caves and…satyrs! The woods are full of them.”

Hercules sighed. This was almost amusing, certainly too much to be true. Wouldn’t he have heard about it before if the woods this close to Thrace were this dangerous? He let his eyes wander to the magnificent boat the ferryman had been working on when he arrived. The ship was large and heavy and laboriously carved. It certainly appeared finished and he could smell the sealing wax that the man had been industriously rubbing in when he first arrived.

“Maybe I could, uh, borrow this boat?” he asked, an eyebrow cocked upward and his head tipped ever so slightly to the side.

The ferryman laughed at the ludicrous suggestion. “This boat won’t be ready to launch for a week. I’ve hired 10 men to launch it and that’s when they’ll be here.”

Hercules saw his opening. “If I launch it for free, can I borrow it?”

“You won’t find 10 men to work for free,” the ferryman advised, hands across his chest, daring Hercules.

Now it was Hercules’ turn to grin. “I won’t have to,” he answered simply. Then without further discussion he picked the boat up as easily as if the heavy wood was nothing more than balsa and carried it to the river.

Iolaus picked his way carefully along the twisting forest path. In areas, the litter of dead branches, dried pine needles and leaves made for slippery footing and if Iolaus meant to beat Hercules to Thrace, he had to make good time. But this wasn’t difficult for him, he’d been alone in the woods for months at a time at some points in his life and the lessons he’d learned were never to be forgotten.

So it was that when the path widened and split Iolaus looked down with caution. Surely if this road was traveled he’d have seen some tracks, broken sticks, shuffled leaves. And where would anyone go but Thrace? Yet he saw none. Iolaus was disconcerted.

“Uh, oh, this way or that? Oh great,” he groaned. “ Okay, well…west is the night side of east and the sun is...” he squinted up and searched for some bearings. “Okay, this way,” he decided.

Looking back down at the road Iolaus was suddenly aware of the glint of metal. Curious, he stooped, picked it up carefully and examined it.

“A traveler’s coin?” he puzzled. “Strange. I haven’t seen a single foot print between the edge of the woods and here, yet the coin isn’t dirty or tarnished. A new coin, not weathered, yet no sign of a man coming through.” Iolaus stepped back a bit, carefully widening his stance. ‘I smell a trap,’ he thought to himself. ‘No travelers, an obstructed path, and a shiny coin right exactly where a person might stop and look.’ Iolaus had learned to trust his instincts and that’s exactly what he did. He secreted away his bow and arrows, no good in close quarters, and checked his sword.

Standing in a crouch he was ready when they came.

Around him swarmed a multitude of creatures unlike any he’d seen before. They vaguely resembled satyrs but not the playful creatures he had known. These were almost an abomination and for an instant Iolaus wondered if they were of the gods. They surrounded him in silent unity, circling as if he was prey, trying to push him forward…to what?

Iolaus saw it. A net, covered with leaves, but poorly concealed. Well, there certainly were a lot of these creatures but he was determined not to go down without a fight, especially in such a primitive trap as a net! Iolaus spun around, throwing out a leg and bracing it as he hit the first of the creatures. His leg connected with a solid thump across the creature’s groin and it went down like a sack. He turned, facing two others, a quick straight punch to its chest, followed by a back fist to the face of the second and as the first doubled over he grabbed a fur clad arm and bending, tossed the creature into the group approaching from behind. They went down like logs with the bottom pulled out.

Iolaus turned, fists up at chest level and bellowed out a cry of fury to inspire terror as he launched himself against the splintering group. He charged in, spinning like a tornado and although he felt his fist connect solidly with the furry torso of one of the creatures, he suddenly felt a stabbing pain in his side as a clawed paw raked his ribs, pulling the purple vest aside and leaving four long bleeding tracks after it.

“Hey!” he yelled, as he caught a heavy stick across his temple and his vision blurred momentarily as blood trickled into his eyes. He lashed back with a snap kick to the knee of the closest creature hearing the crack as the ball of his foot hit the kneecap, and then bent as another charged him, causing it to fly over his back directly into a few of its friends. His head was spinning with pain, which Iolaus tried to ignore, but they still came at him.

Iolaus fought valiantly. The trickle of blood from his temple became a stream with the repeated strikes of the satyrs left standing and interfered with his vision. His belly ached from the repeated blows and he staggered to stand, but still kept fighting. He might have won even against the three left standing were it not for the plaintive and fearful cry that distracted him.

“Help me! They’re men, not satyrs!”

Iolaus didn’t know where the voice came from, but he recognized panic when he heard it. A female voice.

“Help me, please!”

Caught off guard, he never felt the rock’s blow. All he felt was the sudden enveloping darkness and silence deeper than any he’d known in a long time as his body fell limp, no longer under his own control. Then there was nothing but the echo of the woman’s terrified voice.

“Help me!”

Iolaus felt the darkness lifting and saw the world in shades of gray, gradually becoming leaf green and sky blue. He felt his body, aching already in more places than his foggy mind wanted to acknowledge, being lifted unceremoniously by his legs and arms and suddenly he was aware of a flying sensation and the sounds of men grunting. As he fought the throbbing of his head and opened his eyes, the whole way he saw the quick movement of leaves, branches and clouds growing smaller. Then the ground met his body with hard smack that left his flanks smarting. Iolaus closed his eyes again and sighed.

His head hurt worse than the night last month when he drank way too many ales and Hercules had to carry him home to the forge. He could feel the trickle of dried blood congealing and rubbed it away, feeling his temple and finding only a small cut there. Head wounds bled far more for their size than most others did, and Iolaus was thankful that his injuries were actually so few. He didn’t know for sure yet if any bones were broken, but he thought not. What he did know was that he must find that place inside himself where he could store the pain as he had been taught in the East, or he’d never get away.

Iolaus kept his eyes closed and lay silent and still, pushing away the pain. He breathed deeply and made his aching muscles relax. Finally he reached a point where he felt he could wholly function, and it was then that he finally opened his eyes.

He was in a pit, he realized, and a deep one at that. He stood cautiously on wobbly legs turning to scan his surroundings. He’d need a plan to get out, find the girl calling for help. Then he saw her.

Lydia stood staring at Iolaus with her hands on her hips over near the dirt wall of the pit. At first she’d thought he was dead, but when she heard the deep breaths and watched him relax she knew he was alive. How healthy was anyone’s guess though. She watched in wonder as he rose shakily to his feet and began examining this new prison. A fellow captive, she thought. She nodded at the ground near Iolaus’ boots and as he stooped to pick up the furry-clawed mitt she spoke.

“One of them dropped it. They’re not monsters, they’re men!”

Iolaus shook his head, trying to finally clear it as he assessed the piece of costume. Men. ‘What was it with bullies today?’ he thought with disgust. Well if they were men and not of the gods, they’d certainly be easier to fight when he got out.

He looked up at the bedraggled young woman standing before him, so brave in her righteousness and felt immediately attracted to her. He dress was dirty and her long dark hair tangled with leaves. That she had struggled with the satyrs was clearly evident, though she, too, had lost. This must the woman whose call so distracted him that he ended up in this pit.

“Hi, I’m Iolaus,” he extended his hand to her, taking a step forward.

“Lydia,” she answered simply with her head held high, taking his hand.

“So what are you doing here, Lydia?” Iolaus asked curiously.

“Trying not to be scared. I think they’re going to kill me,” she answered. Her lips grew tight but she kept her eyes on Iolaus’ steady gaze.

“Over my dead body,” Iolaus answered, feeling deep in his bones that this day was just going to be one long string of fights and that he would be losing 100 dinars.

“You’re probably right. They’re bound to kill us both,” Lydia answered tartly.

If they both sat quietly they could hear the men talking. The voices weren’t close, but they were definitely loud, unafraid.

Is this all?!” a loud voice shouted. Iolaus thought he could hear the jangle of metal, money and probably the sword they’d taken from him.

“He had nothing else, Rankor!” a voice shouted back challengingly.

“Then kill him,” Rankor answered. “He won’t miss his life.”

Iolaus raised his eyebrow. Yep, another fight, but this one was coming to him. Time to start planning; he had Lydia to worry about now. He could hear the men fighting over the loot, calling out, fighting and dividing the bounty they’d stolen. Good. It gave him a little more time. Above him, Iolaus heard the twang of a bow string and thunk of an arrow hitting something solid but not fleshy, as Rankor joined the squabble, taking control.

“Give me your arrows!” he commanded, as the men apologized.

Iolaus leaned toward the hole straining his ears to listen. “What about the girl?” he heard a quiet voice ask.

“Kill her, too,” Rankor answered. “She’s seen who we are. Give ‘em the usual treatment.”

Iolaus turned to Lydia. “Who are these guys?” he asked as he paced in small circles below the hole.

Lydia watched the sunlight glancing off his hair, making it shine like threads of gold framing a strong jaw and kind eyes, and thought that this man was certainly handsome and strong. Brave too, and hopefully smart enough to get them both out of this mess.

“They’re bandits,” she answered. “They’ve been terrorizing the road for months now. Travelers can’t get to the village and we can’t get out.”

“Well, aren’t there any men who could band together and flush them out?” Iolaus queried, puzzled.

“No, the men are convinced the bandits are satyrs so they’re too frightened.” Lydia snorted in contempt and crossed her arms on her chest as she stared at the only man she’d known who dared to take them on.

Iolaus rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Uh, these bandits, do they raid the town?”

“They don’t have to,” Lydia laughed sadly. “This is the only good road into Thrace.”

Iolaus stood straight in spite of his aching back and legs. Hah! Just as he thought. “Then this IS the way to Thrace!” he spoke triumphantly.

“Well it used to be,” Lydia cocked her head, staring at him, wondering exactly what this man was thinking.

“Where does the other road go?” Iolaus asked curiously. ‘100 Dinars’, he thought. Even trapped in this pit he might still be able to beat him. Maybe he’d let Herc off the hook …then again maybe not.

“Dead ends at the river,” Lydia answered.

Iolaus chuckled ironically. He put his face in his hands-so much for those hundred dinars.

“What’s so funny?” Lydia asked suspiciously.

“Come to think of it,” Iolaus replied with a heavy sigh, “not much.”

Above them, Iolaus was suddenly aware of the men fighting again. He heard the scuffling of feet, and thudding of bodies pushing and shoving, maybe a punch or two.

“Go back, she’s mine!” one voice shouted.

“I’ll handle her,” the other voice answered, louder now, closer.

Iolaus looked over at the alarm on Lydia’s face. She cowered back in the dark against the cool damp dirt wall of the pit. Why did she have to come? Her presence only complicated things. Iolaus was all for female company, but not here, and definitely not now.

“I don’t get it,” he whispered. “If this road is so dangerous why did you even come?”

Lydia looked hurt, sensing his displeasure. “We heard that Hercules was coming to town and no one else would do it…”

Iolaus was thinking fast. Could there be anyone else out there he had to find before the men got him or her?

“You alone?”

“No one would come with me and someone had to do it!” She sounded defensive. She pressed tighter into the camouflage of the darkness as steps sounded at the top edge of the hole.

Hercules! ‘Everyone wants Hercules,’ Iolaus thought to himself. To Lydia, he said, “Yeah well, don’t worry. I’ll get us out of this mess. Without Hercules, too.”

“Are you ready for me, girl?” a gruff and obviously excited male voice called from the top of the pit as a thick rope dropped down.

Iolaus turned to Lydia with lightning speed. “Take your dress off!” came the whispered command. He couldn’t see Lydia in the darkness, but heard her whimper.

“Couldn’t that wait until after you’ve rescued us?” she moaned plaintively.

“Take it off!” he urged.

Hercules rowed steadily down the river. The sun gleamed overhead, beating down on his back and shoulders and turning the river into a nothing more than a mass of rippling diamonds. A cool breeze caressed him, lifting his honeyed brown hair off his shoulders and feathering it back across his neck. This was not work for the big man; it was a simple pleasure on a beautiful day. Hercules listened to the rustling of he grasses at the river’s edge, the quiet hum of cicadas and the soft slap of his oars pulling through the water.

He glanced up at the azure sky and watched a bird, so small and graceful, soaring in circles above him. He saw the powerful flap of the wings, the delicate line of its tail and as he thought how beautiful it really was, the bird flew down, lighting on the boats opposite seat. As the bird furled its wings back against its body, Hercules watched in wonder as it transformed into an elegant woman with blonde hair and a mischievous smile. Her bowed head rose as she stretched her slim figure, and shook out the kinks.

“Hello, Hercules,” the woman spoke with a voice as clear and melodious as a songbird’s.

“Nemesis!” Hercules breathed in wonder. “I can’t believe it!”

“Oh, sure you can,” she answered leaning towards him. “As I recall, there’s nothing you can’t believe.” She smiled at him and her eyes danced.

“I thought I’d never see you again.” Hercules stared raptly at the sharply defined face of the woman opposite him.

She smiled, cocking her head and lowering her lids, thinking before answering,” It’s been what…ten years?”

Hercules shook his head in wonderment. ‘Déjà vu,’ he thought. Then, fixing his eyes on hers, he spoke, “Ten years at least! And then you just drop out of the clear blue sky as if it was only yesterday.” And I wish it were, he thought.

“I surprise a lot of people that way,” she retorted.

Hercules chuckled and listened to Nemesis’ laugh tinkling like small bells hung in a gentle wind. The sun glowed warmly, the water flowed peaceful and soft, and the wind seemed just cool enough. Deep inside, Hercules felt a warmth spreading. He stood in the boat, approaching the golden Nemesis and knowing exactly what he needed right now.

“For old time’s sake,” he whispered as he pulled her to his chest, wrapping his arms gently around her. “Come on,” he encouraged softly as he leaned in to kiss her.

Nemesis greeted him sweetly, just as eager for the reunion as Hercules was. As the boat floated slowly down river propelled by the current, Hercules closed his eyes and pulled Nemesis into a firm and welcoming embrace.

On shore, a fisherman slugged down a jug of ale, lying in the sun waiting for the fish to bite, or maybe not. The fish didn’t matter much. Mostly he was just glad to get away. No wife, no kids, no responsibilities, no one to tell him he shouldn’t be drinking so much. But then, he didn’t drink nearly as much as his wife claimed. It was medicinal anyway. He took a long slug and looked across the lazy flowing river.

Was that a man standing on a boat…a big man with his arms wrapped around nothing at all? He looked at his half empty jug. Maybe he DID drink just a little too much. The man on the boat looked like he was kissing the air. “Hmm?” he said dropping the jug and spilling its contents.

Across the water Hercules’ laughing voice spoke to the nothing in front of him, it’s timbre rising and falling in joy and wafting to shore on the gentle breeze. “It’s so good to see you!”

Iolaus was ready when the deep gruff voice hollered down into the pit. “Come here! Let’s see what that pretty smile tastes like!”

Lydia cowered silently against the damp dirt wall of the pit, biting her lip to remain silent. She stared in terror at the fallen rope, hoping beyond hope that that this man Iolaus could stop the satyr coming down the pit for her. “Come on, girl, show me what you’ve got!” the voice demanded and the rope grew taut with the weight of the man in the satyr suit as he descended.

“Anything you say, handsome!” Iolaus called from the edge of the shadow. The man reached for his ankle, but before the man’s eyes had adjusted to the darkness, Iolaus became a small tornado in a lady’s dress.

The man was taken by surprise. The small dressed figure he had dimly seen was not the pretty young woman he had come to have his way with, but instead it was the muscular fighter that had taken a dozen men to fell. The satyr didn’t stand a chance, taken by surprise and in such a confined space, it took only one blow from the powerful blonde to knock him completely out.

Lydia ran for the rope and Iolaus propelled her forward. There was no way to judge how long the satyr would be unconscious, but Iolaus didn’t want to take any chances. He and Lydia had to make tracks, and fast.

“Hurry,” Iolaus urged Lydia as she struggled to climb the rope.

“It’s not so easy in this outfit,” she wailed. “And it’s not like I do this everyday.”

“Just do it now,” Iolaus called out as he held the bottom of the rope taut to make her climb easier.

Lydia struggled, but pulled herself persistently up. Iolaus listened to the grunts of effort and felt his growing admiration for this woman. Not many women would traipse through the woods alone, face satyrs and try to rescue a village single-handedly. And she hadn’t questioned him when he’d asked for her dress. Trust, he realized, she had trusted him. He felt the rope grow slack as Lydia pulled herself up over the pit’s rim.

He glanced up to make sure all was well, garnering the wonderful sight of her long slender legs, under-dress tucked and tied tightly between them. Umm, lucky under-dress, he thought wickedly, and then turned away. That wouldn’t do. There was no time for those thoughts now, he realized suddenly feeling guilty. Instead he jumped up, grabbed the rope and hauled himself up with agility in just two seconds.

Iolaus hopped easily over the edge and dusted himself off. His head still ached and the small bits of crusted blood that had tricked down his face were bothersome. He rubbed them away, clearing his face. His ribs stung where he’d been raked with the claws and his back was stiff from the rough toss down in to the pit. But he’d taken worse in fights at Hercules’ side, he knew and these injuries were not something that he’d let slow him down. He reached for the rope and started coiling it, knowing instinctively that it would be of use in their further escape.

Glancing over at Lydia, he saw her tucking the ugly clawed glove that she’d pulled off the man who put her in the pit into her belt. “What do you want that stinking thing for?” he asked.

“To prove to the townspeople that these are men pretending to be satyrs, and to let Hercules know when we find him; he’ll know exactly what to do,” she answered proudly. She looked over at Iolaus and her mouth quirked up in a silly half smile. He WAS kind of cute, with that naked chest, and his muscles glistening with sweat and outlined with dirt as fingers of sun stretched through the leaves to caress him. But that dress HAD to go. “Oh, can I have my skirt back?” she grinned.

“Yeah, well, don’t think that Hercules knows everything,” Iolaus retorted, miffed that even after saving her, Hercules was still being sought.

He shimmied out of the skirt as Lydia watched in fascination and awe, and well, if she admitted it to herself, maybe even a little desire. He was so compact, so strong and yes, good looking too. There was no fat jiggling on this warrior, he was solid muscle. ‘Stop it Lydia,’ she thought quickly to herself as Iolaus handed back her dress. Keep your mind on things at hand. ‘Well, Iolaus IS at hand…no stop,’ she chided herself and took back the over-skirt, slipping quickly into it and fastening it as Iolaus slipped back into his vest.

“And how do you know?” she asked Iolaus curiously, drawing her mind back to Hercules and Iolaus’ strange comment.

“I just do,” he answered peevishly and turned to leave.

Lydia grabbed his shoulder, stopping him. “Who told you?”

“Nobody told me, I just know him,” Iolaus spun away, turning to the hollow in the tree where he’d secreted his bow. He stretched his arm in and carefully retrieved it. Above him the canopy of tree leaves rustled as if to reveal the secret of their escape.

Lydia was amazed. There was so much she wanted to know from this man. “You know him?! Oh.”

He grabbed her arm and led her away in disgust. Why was it that HE was never enough?

“Personally? I mean, you know him, personally?”

“We travel in the same circles,” Iolaus answered reluctantly. It seemed definitely unfair that when he wanted to do something himself, he somehow found that Hercules was involved, even if involuntarily.

“Well, what’s he like?” Lydia pestered, eager to hear more about the hero.

“Uh, big, you know, tall, shoulders like an ox,” Iolaus answered reluctantly without looking at her. “Has the strength of ten men--like that.” Why couldn’t she be interested in him?

“They say he’s got beautiful eyes,” Lydia sighed, looking far away, imagining what Hercules must really look like.

“Well sure,” Iolaus conceded.

“Is it true he spends his entire life just helping people?”

“Oh yeah, he’s very helpful.” Iolaus rolled his eyes stepping ahead of Lydia as he continued with his rueful sarcasm. “He never stops helping people.” Hercules…it was always about Hercules.

Lydia looked at him skeptically, moving to stand in front of him and stopping his onward progression. “I don’t think you know him at all,” she retorted, placing her hands emphatically on her hips.

Iolaus sighed heavily and, with his hands on his own hips, answered, “It just so happens I’m his best friend.”

“You can’t be!” Lydia laughed in disbelief.

Iolaus turned to her in disgust. “Why not?”

“Well,” she answered, “nobody talks about their best friend that way.” She stared at him challengingly.

Iolaus turned to walk away, surprised by her words and suddenly ashamed. Lydia was right, he realized. He’d let his own feelings of inadequacy come in the way of his friendship.

Iolaus knew the men would come after them. It was inevitable, they simply knew too much, and with Lydia keeping the glove for proof, their profitable scam would be over if they were allowed to return to Thrace. He’d tried to hurry her along, but she wasn’t as fit as he was from his long journeys and he knew he had to slow some, but nevertheless, he kept listening for footsteps from behind.

Iolaus wasn’t surprised when deep in the wood he heard the distant scuffle of many running feet, but what he was surprised about was the loud baying that that accompanied the steps.

“They’ve got hunting dogs,” he told Lydia grimly. Lydia’s eyes opened wide and her jaw dropped. Iolaus thought quickly. They’d been traveling through a low-lying area of forest, and for sometime, he’d caught the light scent of fresh water carried on the breeze. Here and there, he and Lydia had stumbled through muddy spots as they neared the water-that could be of use he realized as he pulled Lydia off the trail and over to a boggy spot.

“Quick! Roll in the mud with me!” Iolaus started smearing the mud on his arms, up his chest as Lydia looked at him in horror.

“Aw, I don’t think so,” she replied, curling up her nose and looking at him like he was crazy.

Iolaus grabbed her with his muddy hands, looking her straight in the eyes. “Listen to me! If those dogs catch our scent we won’t stand a chance! This is the only way.” Iolaus saw her reluctance displayed plainly on her face and felt compelled to elaborate. “Listen to me, if those dogs catch our scent we won’t stand a chance. Now, do what I tell you or we’ll be eaten alive. It’s an old hunter’s trick. An animal can smell a human from a mile away. We’ve gotta get rid of our scent. Do it!”

Lydia looked like she was going to cry, but as the baying grew closer she made her decision. She’d trusted him before and he didn’t let her down. She threw herself into the mud.

There was no time for neat application, Iolaus knew as he jumped in on top of her, smearing a bit of mud over some exposed skin on her face. “Now stay perfectly still and don’t breathe,” he warned.

“We’re out in the open,” Lydia protested in a whisper. “They’ll see us!”

“No, no, no, no…they’ll be too busy beating the bush to look down even if they come over here,” he hastily reassured her.

“That’s what all the boys say,” she groaned.

He placed his face down against Lydia’s chest, wishing this was not a mud hole, but a comfy bed in a nice inn somewhere. He could feel the frantic beating of her heart and wondered if he wrapped his arms around her and gave her a nice little kiss would she feel better, stop worrying about whether or not he could get her to Hercules? Well he’d take what he could get right now, even if it was muddy. He snuggled down close and felt Lydia cover them with the leafy fronds he’d had her hold.

Lydia held her breath. This has to work, she thought. She felt the weight of Iolaus’ compact frame pressed against her. Not an ounce of extra fat, she realized and even though she was frightened she was also grateful. Iolaus WAS smart, and brave too. She felt a growing confidence that he could get them back to Thrace where they could find Hercules. She felt Iolaus’ face press against her muddy chest as her breasts rose in her struggle to hold her breath as long as possible. The dogs were close, right on the path next to them.

Iolaus could feel the mud near his legs slosh against his wet leather pants as the dogs sniffed so close to him he almost couldn’t believe they would escape detection. The men stormed through the woods, slapping at the branches and making no attempt at stealth. He knew he could hold his breath a lot longer than Lydia, his time in the East had taught him that through meditation he could actually go for long periods without air, slow his heart rate and these things would decrease his scent. But Lydia, he could feel her struggling to hold her breath as the dogs sniffed close and the men passed by. He truly felt bad for her, but a small part of him actually enjoyed the soft rise of breast against his cheek, the movements of the muscles…stop it, Iolaus. He shut his eyes tightly and listened as the dogs and men forged ahead.

Lydia felt Iolaus lift his head, look around and she, too, looked up. “You did it!” she cried in delight, and impulsively reached for his face. In one quick movement, she pulled him down and gave him a quick kiss of gratitude right on the lips.

Iolaus was stunned, happy but stunned. ‘Even muddy I guess I still have it,’ he thought to himself, and then chased that thought away, no time. He rose, pulling her up with him.

“Come on,” he said urgently. “Let’s get on the trail to the lake and see if we can plan a way to stop these guys.”

Hercules rowed the long boat lazily down the river. Suddenly, he wasn’t in quite the rush he had been before Nemesis arrived. He enjoyed the brush of the sun against her slim shoulders, the golden glint of her loosely braided hair. And her voice, lilting and melodic brought back memories of past good times. He let his mind wander and visit memories long since forgotten.

“Nemesis,” he smiled. “Remember how long it took me to kiss you?” Now there was a very pleasant thought.

Nemesis laughed that tinkling airy laugh he remembered so fondly and smiled back. “Yeah, you were ten and it took only about three seconds.”

“Uh, yeah,” Hercules admitted, looking away for a moment. He turned back to her and decided to ask the question that had been burning at him for so long. “What have you been doing all these years?”

Nemesis cocked her head and smiled proudly. “I work for the gods.”

Hercules felt a small coolness grow in his previously warm heart. “And what do you do for them?” he ventured, not sure he really wanted to know the answer.

“I deliver divine justice. Whenever some mortal gets too powerful or too arrogant, I deliver his comeuppance.”

“Hercules felt the cool spot starting to really chill. “You ever get the wrong guy?” he asked warily.

Nemesis shrugged her shoulders and gave Hercules a dismissive wave of her hand. “How would I know? I’m just doing my job, kind of like you. Are you still saving maidens and killing monsters?”

“No, he answered sourly. “Mostly I save people from the tyrants you work for.”

“Looks to me like we’re both in the punishment business,” Nemesis observed with a raised eyebrow.

“There’s a difference,” Hercules pointed out.

“Amaze me,” Nemesis smiled and leaned forward as if Hercules was the most fascinating person on Earth.

“I find out whether they deserve it first.” Hercules stared right at her.

Nemesis felt off kilter at first. Was Hercules condemning her because of her job? Did he actually think he was so much different from her? “Come off it, Hercules,” she chided. “That’s a very convenient excuse. You telling me you never made any mistakes?” She cocked her head and her eyes narrowed. The breeze lifted the stray hairs that had fallen loose and curled around her cheeks.

Hercules stared at her in disappointment and wondered how such a sweet girl could have gone so wrong. How could she have changed so much? Didn’t she see that she was simply being used by the gods, no differently than a mortal? “Well, if I do, I don’t try to defend it. What I do is for a purpose, not a career. When did your sense of justice fly away, Nemesis? Or did you just sell out?”

“No,” Nemesis answered with a small laugh. She tried to convey a sense of pride, but suddenly that one redeeming factor of her job seemed unimportant. “I just bought in.”

The lake was a little further than Iolaus thought; either that or the algae smell from it was a little stronger. Either way, he was somewhat disconcerted that they had yet to stumble on it even though he’d doggedly followed his senses.

“Do you see anything you recognize?” he asked.

Lydia paused and stared carefully around. “Well, that looks familiar,” she pointed to a small copse of trees at the edge of a field. “I think I’ve seen it from the river ferry.”

Iolaus stopped, shoulders slumping and stared in dismay at Lydia. “Ferry. There’s a river ferry?” He couldn’t keep the chagrin from his voice.

“Sure,” Lydia answered nonchalantly. People sometimes use it to avoid the old road, but it’s pretty expensive.”

“Where does it start?” Iolaus felt as if a fist had grabbed his stomach. Why did Hercules always win?

“Oh, just back at the fork.” Lydia looked at Iolaus strangely. “It’s only a few hundred yards from the sign.”

“Oh, I don’t believe it!” Iolaus kicked the ground with a muddy boot and slapped his forehead. “He’ll be floating along like a prince!” Iolaus sighed heavily, letting out the frustration that had knotted him.

“Who?” Lydia asked, puzzled.

“Ah, nobody.” Iolaus started walking. He shook his head as he picked up his pace forging ahead of Lydia lest she see his annoyance. “Come on; let’s see if we can make that hill before our imaginary monsters pick up our trail.”

Lydia trotted after him, catching up and reaching for the rope. “Here, let me take the rope for a while,” she suggested, hoping to improve his mood.

“It’s alright. I can manage,” he groused as he tried to turn away from her.

“If you can help me, I can help you,” she said, taking the rope and tossing it across her own shoulders and chest with a smile.

Iolaus laughed as he followed the path of the rope. Maybe she did appreciate him after all.

Idiots!” Rankor screamed, his fetid breath assaulting the cowering men as he leaned heavily over them. “He was right under your feet and you lost him!”

“He’s clever, this one,” a voice from the ranks tried to explain away their failure, but Rankor wouldn’t have it.

“If he gets to town and tells them that we’re men and not monsters we’re done for,” Rankor hissed. “I want him killed.” His eyes narrowed and his jaw set in a tight hard line, muscles bulging. His neck seemed to swell to twice its size and the veins bulged ominously.

Rankor’s men were well aware of his temper, and of what he would do should they fail again. The fact that he had pushed himself right into their faces didn’t bode well either. Rankor was beyond reason.

“Ok, yes sir, we’ll get them,” the concerned men called out. A voice from the group yelled. “They’re headed for the lake!”

Rankor leaned back away from the men. This was good news. “Ah, hah! Not so clever after all.” He nodded his head in understanding. “He doesn’t know what’s waiting for him in there.”

Lydia was tired, dirty and coming to the end of her rope. She’d been attacked by satyrs, tossed in a pit, threatened with rape, forced to climb a rope, hiked, got chased by dogs and covered with mud and now here they were at the lake and she could clearly hear the men and dogs approaching again. Would this never end? And here was Iolaus, yanking on her arm, wanting even more from her.

“Come on,” Iolaus urged, pulling her toward the edge of the dock. “We can hide in here. “Go quietly and don’t cause a ripple. And, oh, hold your breath again.”

“Not the water,” Lydia groaned, but knew she had to do this. Where did Iolaus get all his energy? Didn’t he ever get tired? And couldn’t he think up any neat or clean escape plans? She followed him to the edge of the dock and holding with her fingertips, let herself down beside him, slowly slipping under the glistening surface.

The water was cool and silent and the light from above made the water seem alive with diamonds and ripples. The soft silt barely came off the floor of the pond as Lydia and Iolaus sank lower until they rested just above it, still as stones. The water above darkened with the shadows of the men standing on the edge of the dock, staring across at the surface of the lake, never really looking down beyond the rippling of the small waves created by the breeze.

Lydia’s lungs burned with the effort of holding her breath. Would they never go? Iolaus seemed to be made of iron, so solidly he sat at the bottom as unconcerned about breathing as the tiny fish that brushed against their legs. How did he do that? Was he himself part god, like Hercules? She said a silent prayer that whatever god cared for hunted people would help her to survive this underwater ordeal just a little bit longer.

Lydia’s chest burned and lungs ached, desiring a breath of life-sustaining oxygen as she fought to stay as still as Iolaus. She’d never had to hold her breath this long before and the thought came to her that maybe she would pass out so she wouldn’t be aware that she was drowning. But, just then Iolaus tapped her shoulder and indicated that she should ascend. She popped through the surface gasping for air and watched Iolaus swim strongly to the dock. Looking carefully over the edge he pulled himself up, shaking the water off like dog and turned back, calling out.

“It’s okay, they’ve gone.”

But Lydia didn’t hear. She was treading water, staring in horror at the huge serpent whose head rose from the depths in front of her.

Lydia’s scream caused Iolaus’ head to snap around. What was it with this girl? Everywhere they went a new peril arose. But this time, he could see why she was frightened. Lydia was face to face with a pond serpent bigger than any Iolaus had seen before!

Iolaus dived in with a splash, going under then quickly surfacing and swam over past Lydia. He went directly to the serpent and tossed a rock at it that he had pulled from the bottom of the pond when he dove in to rescue her, momentarily distracting the serpent. “Get out of the lake, Lydia! It’s all right, I can handle it. It’s just a giant water serpent!”

Lydia didn’t argue. She turned and swam to dock so quickly she wondered if she actually had a wake trailing behind. Pulling herself up onto the dock she looked out over the water and hoped Iolaus could get himself, and her, out of yet more trouble. She scanned the surface but Iolaus was nowhere to be found. ‘Please don’t die,’ she thought. Could the gods be so unfair that they would let a courageous and righteous man die? She wondered if it was possible and shuddered at the thought. No, Iolaus would be fine, he had to be, and he hadn’t let her down yet.

Iolaus battled the serpent under water at first, but the serpent was strong and Iolaus found that he was being dragged upward as it swam. Wrestling to hold it down, Iolaus popped out of the water with the beast writhing and trying to coil itself around his body. But he’d have none of it. It may be a water serpent, but it breathed air just as he did and he bet he could hold his breath longer than it, well he hoped so anyway. Down they went again, but the serpent was strong and in its element. Iolaus’ head and shoulders popped through the roiling water of the pond then, with a yell, he forced it to submerge again.

Lydia was holding her breath even though she didn’t need to now. It was just so scary seeing Iolaus fight that monster. And he didn’t even seem frightened. He looked so strong and self-assured, so focused. Perhaps she really didn’t need Hercules, she thought.

Iolaus had been under the water for ‘way too long, in Lydia’s opinion, and when he finally popped to the surface, alive and without the serpent, she felt relief flood every taut muscle in her body. Lydia drew in a deep breath and let it out with a sigh of relief.

“How on earth did you kill it?” she cried in excitement as Iolaus plowed through the water and hauled himself up on the dock gasping for air. He bent over holding his knees as he felt the fire in his muscles dwindle to nothing more than embers, then to simply the warmth of a good workout finished.

Iolaus stood, drawing in a deep breath of welcome fresh air and shook, spraying water from his head. Water streamed off his clothes and he gulped for air.

“I bit its eyes out!”

Lydia was taken aback. “Don’t tell me!” she laughed as she clung to him and they chorused together, “an old hunter’s trick.”

Hercules sat in the boat, not looking at Nemesis. He’d wanted to believe that she still had feelings for him, that perhaps something could bloom, but now, knowing that she worked for the gods, his heart ached rather than thrilled.

Nemesis didn’t seem to notice Hercules’ discomfort. She leaned forward with elbows on her knees and chin cupped in her hands, sensing his discomfort and searching for common ground.

“So, tell me about this friend you’re traveling with.”

Hercules smiled and looked up at the sky before answering. Here was a safe subject. “He’s a great guy, good company, courageous, loyal, fearless, the best friend a man could have.” He smiled at the thought of Iolaus, and Nemesis caught his eye.

“So why’d you split up?” she laughed.

Hercules shook his head, smiling. “Oh, he got mad at me this morning because I helped him out of a brawl. Then we argued about which way to go to Thrace. He got mad and bet a hundred dinars he’d beat me there. He has a lot of pride.”

Nemesis raised a golden eyebrow and quirked a knowing smile at him. “Well you know what they say, pride goes before a fall.”

“Oh, he won’t fall,” Hercules spoke with assurance. “He’s too smart for that. But not smart enough to win a hundred dinars!”

Nemesis laughed knowingly. “Ah. So what’s his name?”

“Iolaus,” Hercules answered, smiling at the thought of his friend and thinking how nice it would be to introduce the two of them. He glanced at Nemesis and saw her smile drop, her eyes cloud. “What’s wrong?” he asked with sudden concern.

Nemesis stared directly at Hercules and answered ruefully, “Iolaus is the name of the man I’ve come to kill.”

Hercules was stunned. He gripped the oars so tightly the wood creaked in protest. He leaned forward no longer smiling. “You’re sure my Iolaus is the right target?”

Nemesis looked down before meeting Hercules’s pained eyes. She swallowed and answered, “Yes, it’s him.”

Hercules felt a lump grow in his throat. Not Iolaus! Not after his wife and children. Would the gods ever allow him happiness? Iolaus was the most important person in his life now and he simply COULDN’T lose him.

“But why?” he asked trying to keep his voice calm when he felt like roaring in rage.

Nemesis raised her head as if she felt she could somehow justify causing the pain she saw etched in Hercules’s face. She pulled out her scroll and unrolled it. “Pride,” she answered reading from the scroll. “Pride, arrogance and ego.”

Hercules snorted in derision. “Among the gods pride, arrogance and ego are virtues.” He paused, trying to push down his anger. “What’s his punishment?” He stared coolly at Nemesis.

Nemesis held his stare and answered simply “The penalty is his life.”

Hercules’ lips grew tight. He felt as if he’d taken a hard blow to the midsection. Never! Not his Iolaus! He wouldn’t let this happen. There must be a mistake!

“What?” was all that came from his tight throat and parched lips.

Nemesis could see his pain so clearly that it hurt even her. She thought she’d grown hardened to this, the telling of the bad news, but with this one person so special to her, the words seemed to stick in her throat as well. “Hercules, it’s not my decision,” she justified outwardly, but inside she felt a growing plume of doubt. .

“Make it your decision!” Hercules declared with passion. “Go back and say you couldn’t find him or something.”

“I can’t. It’s out of my hands.” Nemesis looked torn. Her lips drew tight and eyes turned down, almost as if she was ashamed. Hercules could see her hesitation, the divided loyalties that could be his only wedge.

“What are you talking about, Nemesis?” The Nemesis Hercules had known years before was a very take-charge girl, not one who blindly followed orders.

“Hercules, I only do what they tell me. Do you think that the gods explain their actions or even need to? They act on whims, self-serving and self-pleasuring. Mortals are no more than the insects you step on when you walk. They are of no consequence to the gods, other than amusement and edification.” Nemesis leaned forward and placed a small hand on Hercules’ drooping shoulders.

“They’re doing this because of me,” Hercules answered, almost in a whisper.

Nemesis shook her head. “I don’t know, Hercules. Did you ever think that the gods may be afraid of a man, a simple mortal, who can hold the heart of the great Hercules so tightly? Don’t you think they fear righteous pride, the ability to open the eyes of other mortals to the wrongs of the gods? Perhaps this is the real sin of Iolaus.”

“There is nothing simple about Iolaus!” Hercules shook his head. “Don’t do it, Nemesis!” Hercules begged. “Please.”

“I have to, don’t you see? This is my job and I’m answerable to the gods as well. I don’t judge the mortal, I make sure the sentence is carried out, simply that.” Nemesis paused, searching for the words that might exonerate her in the eyes of her former lover. “My job is to set things up so the mortal brings retribution on himself. Pride comes before a fall. That’s what the brawl on the bridge was about.”

“Well, break the rules then. Nemesis, you can’t do this. Iolaus is a good man and you ARE making a huge mistake here. You’re a goddess, aren’t you, capable of making your own judgments?” Hercules stared into her beautiful and delicate face, trying to will her to change the rules.

“Hercules, it’s too late. It’s already started.” She met his angry stare with a knowing shake of her head, and truly wished she didn’t have to do this.

Lydia ran through the deep woods with Iolaus leading the way. The small branches slapped at them like whips and leaves and pine needles clung to the mud that coated their wet clothing. “Stop!” Lydia called trying to catch her breath. Her side ached and as she looked forward to Iolaus, with his ribs bruised, the lump on his head and the cut and bruise near his temple, she wondered how he kept going at this pace. Surely, he would tire soon; after all, he was only a man.

Iolaus stopped and waited as Lydia approached. Even wet and dirty she was pretty. And she’d really made an effort to keep up. Iolaus had to admit he admired her pluckiness. He liked the way the dress clung to her nicely rounded figure, full where it should be with a slim waist, he thought. ‘Iolaus stop,’ he chided himself. At least wait until we’re not being hunted to let yourself get distracted like this.

Lydia came up to Iolaus, and looking down at his face placed a hand on his shoulder. “What are our chances of getting away from them?” she asked seriously. They had escaped so many times and yet were still being hunted. Lydia felt worried and honestly was getting a little tired of being so brave.

Iolaus turned away, scanning the clearing they had come upon. “We’ll make it,” he answered nonchalantly.

Lydia placed her hands on her hips. Why had he turned away? Couldn’t he face her? “I can take the truth,” she called to him.

“Lydia!” Iolaus was definitely distracted. “Lydia, it’s okay,” he headed to the edge of the clearing and picked up a set of huge antlers, turning them over and examining them carefully. “I think we can beat them,” he declared.

“Nice try, Iolaus, but there are just too many of them.” Lydia answered him as if she thought he was simply trying to humor her.

“Yeah, well, we’ll just pick them off one by one,” Iolaus grinned. He grabbed his bow and to Lydia’s horror snapped it in two over his upraised thigh.

Lydia gasped. “What with only two arrows?” She could feel a small thread of doubt rising in her and pushed it just as quickly away. Iolaus was a good man. He protected her well and had brought them this far. She would trust him.

“Two arrows are all we’re going to need. Any fool can shoot arrows,” he grinned at her. “A smart fighter uses cunning.” Iolaus held up the antlers.

Lydia could see him planning the next moves. He thought like the best combination of warrior and hunter, but she seriously wondered if they shouldn’t just keep moving. After all, the men couldn’t be far behind. They wouldn’t have much time to set up a trap.

“I think we should be running away,” she suggested.

“No,” Iolaus assured her, with a look of disdain. “That’s just what they want us to do. Come on; give me a hand will you?”

Lydia looked at him doubtfully but followed him anyway.

Rankor’s men dashed into the clearing like a herd of wild beasts, smashing the twigs underfoot and crushing the tender grasses. They scanned the area hungrily and one saw the remnants of Iolaus’ broken bow.

“It’s his!” he declared in triumph.

Rankor nodded approval. “Spread out!” he bellowed. “Ten dinars to whoever brings me his head!”

“Fifteen for the girl,” negotiated a voice from the crowd. “If she’s alive!”

Men cheered at the thought of Lydia in their clutches and Rankor seized the momentum. “Let’s GO!”

The hoard crashed away exactly as Iolaus had planned.

Hercules sat, shoulders slumped, staring at Nemesis. “How’s he supposed to die?”

Nemesis shook her head. “I can’t tell you that. You know, the gods certainly aren’t above sending a little divine retribution my way either. And no way am I as strong as Hera!” She raised an eyebrow. “Only the gods are allowed to know.”

“The gods!” Hercules spat out with distain. Iolaus is my friend and so are you. Bend the rules Nemesis. Consider me a half god and give me some information!”

Nemesis rolled the thought around in her mind for a few second. She’d been Hercules’ first love and he hers. They’d been friends and lovers on and off through the years and theirs was a special bond. Besides, he WAS a half god, so maybe bending the rules in this one little way wouldn’t hurt.

“By arrow,” she answered, sounding sad.

“Who ordered it?”

“Uh-uh,” she shook her head. “A good hit man never tells.”

“Fine,” Hercules answered her tightlipped. “Just give me the parchment.” He held out his hand expectantly, but it remained empty. “The parchment, Nemesis.”

Nemesis paused, and then laughed thinly. This decision would cost her a lot. “I never could say ‘no’ to you.” She handed the parchment over.

Hercules unrolled the parchment. He almost didn’t need to look. “Hera,” he said simply as Nemesis cast down her eyes. “She ordered you to kill my best friend because she can’t kill me.” He lifted his eyes and handed the parchment back.

“That’s the kind of tyrant you work for, Nemesis.” Hercules couldn’t keep the hate from spilling into his voice. “Hera, who else!” Hercules gripped the oars and pulled hard on them, turning the boat toward shore. Forget Thrace. Iolaus was far more important.

“You can’t defy the will of the gods Hercules,” Nemesis warned.

“That’s where you’re wrong,” Hercules retorted. As if he’d ever followed their wills. “Iolaus needs my help.”

Nemesis was worried. She wondered if Hercules was letting his hatred for Hera cloud his judgment. “No Hercules,” she warned, hoping he’d listen to what she was trying to tell him, to get him to understand. “Your help is the last thing Iolaus needs.”

Hercules just glared at her and jumped to shore.

Lydia stood in the clearing, nervous as a new bride wondering if she could live up to Iolaus’ faith in her. She tried to shake out her muscles, but instead felt as if she was doing nothing more than shivering in fear. If this plan didn’t work it would be the end of them. And Lydia knew she was the bait.

Iolaus crouched not far from Lydia under the cover of bushes. He stared over at her willing her some of his strength and courage. He knew this would work if Lydia could stay calm. He listened to the crashing as Rankor’s men came rushing through the woods in pursuit, cutting a swath of destruction around their path. Lydia’s moment to shine was arriving.

The first man arrived just as Iolaus had planned and without looking stepped right into the snare of vines, laid naturally on the path and lightly covered with leaves. He swung up with a bellow, hanging by his feet and losing his head- piece.

‘Good‘ Iolaus thought. Without the satyr costume Lydia would be less frightened. Sure she knew he was a man, but Iolaus had observed those costumes freaked her out. Charging behind came another, this one in full costume.

Lydia took a deep breath and stepped forward. Iolaus noticed exactly how enticing she was and knew Rankor’s man would as well.

“Hello,” Lydia purred seductively. The man stepped forward, right into Iolaus’ second trap.

With a snap a large heavy branch suspended by the purloined rope came swinging right at the man, catching him at full power, right in the center of his back and propelling him forward. The man, caught by surprise, couldn’t even plant his feet, instead he was tossed like a sack against the antlers Iolaus had attached to a tree. The antlers pierced the man straight through and, with only a soft whimper, the man died.

Lydia stepped forward as Iolaus stood in the path of the third man coming.

“Hey, buddy,” Iolaus called out to distract the man as Lydia moved in catlike. She pulled back her arm and, before the man even noticed her, swung a punch at him, connecting solidly with his head. The man staggered and fell, but didn’t lose consciousness.

“Sorry,” Lydia apologized as Iolaus turned to meet the next wave of men.

“Next time, try harder,” Iolaus called over his shoulder as Lydia’s man rose unsteadily to his feet.

“Harder,” Lydia answered, nodding her head knowingly. “Right.” She turned to the now standing but still stunned man and this time punched full force, powering herself from the shoulder right down to the fist. She connected with a thud and drew back her hand, cradling it in pain as the man fell unconscious at her feet. Turning proudly, she watched Iolaus ready himself to meet the other oncoming satyrs.

Iolaus stood strong in the clearing, the sun breaking through the branches and making his hair glint like gold. A light breeze lifted some errant curls from the side of his face. With his hands on his hips, Lydia thought he looked as strong and confident as a god did, and it was at this moment that she realized that she didn’t need Hercules, not with Iolaus at her side.

“Looking for me?” Iolaus grinned, as three more men charged into the clearing. Iolaus stood his ground, shooting a cocky smile at them. Infuriated, the satyrs dashed forward never looking down or they would have seen the trip cord. They hit it as a team, starting the slow fall forward and Iolaus noticed his sword at the hip of the closest man. He snatched it back using the trusty blade to cut the final cord, and watched in triumph as they absorbed the blow of the tree he had carefully rigged up to fall heavily on them. He stared in satisfaction at their bodies flattened tightly against the soft dark soil and wished that Hercules was there to see this.

Iolaus turned his grin to Lydia, and Lydia couldn’t stop herself. She stepped forward and pulled him into an embrace, her arms tugging the compact body against her own and enjoyed the feeling of his muscles and the warmth of his strong arms returning her welcoming embrace.

“Wow, that was great!” she praised him.

“I couldn’t have done it without you, Lydia,” Iolaus answered, proud of his accomplishment and proud of Lydia as well.

Iolaus broke reluctantly away from Lydia’s embrace. He cocked his head and listened. Not far from them, he heard the rustle of stealthy footsteps and grabbed Lydia by the arm. With a jerk of his head, he indicated the way and started pulling Lydia along at a run.

Rankor entered the clearing, surveying the damage to his forward party. Not a man left to help, one injured and hanging upside down, one unconscious, one impaled on antlers and three crushed. He reached down and picked up the broken bow. At that moment Rankor realized that he would have to be very clever to capture this golden hunter.

“The broken bow was a trick,” he snorted, biting back his anger. Too many of his men had failed, and badly at that. Well, he would go after this trickster himself if need be. “He wanted to get us too close to use our own bows,” he murmured inhaling the scent of the crushed leaves, pine needles and metallic odor of his own men’s blood. There would be vengeance. “I can play clever games too,” he vowed to his remaining men.

Iolaus and Lydia broke out of the forest and into a field. This could be trouble, Iolaus knew. They were open prey here. He scanned the perimeter of the waving grasses and across the field he caught sight of what looked like the opening of a cave, small but adequate under the circumstances.

“Run, rabbits! You’re going where your tricks won’t do you any good!” Rankor’s voice called from the edge of the forest. “Aim!” he ordered and, as Iolaus and Lydia dashed through the sweet smelling field, the arrows flew at them.

Just out of range, Iolaus tugged Lydia along pointing to the cave. “Up there! I can hold off a whole army from that cave. Come on!”

But Lydia resisted, tugging back at him, but not stopping their forward progression. “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” she whimpered a warning, but Iolaus would have nothing of it.

“Come on, Lydia!” He gave an urgent tug and propelled her forward.

Rankor watched, smiling. He held up a hand to stop the rain of arrows. No sense wasting them. “Easy boys,” he chuckled. “I have them right where I want them.”

Lydia stepped uneasily into the cave. Her steps were small and carefully measured. But Iolaus had charged right in. She’d heard about what lurked there and tried to warn Iolaus, but he wouldn’t listen and now he was deep in the cave and she HAD to go in after him. There were arrows being shot and she was exposed. Besides Iolaus was in danger. She tread softly into the damp and musty cave, the one her mother had always warned her about, the one the people in town said held a monster in its depths.

Iolaus was at the far side of the cave. It was small, shallow and Lydia could almost reach the ceiling. There were no back passages or tunnels, simply a small round hollow about 20-25 feet in diameter and slightly taller than she could reach on the edges, with a sort of pool in the middle, dark and murky so that its depth was unfathomable. It must have a spring as its source, she thought. Certainly no rain would reach in here. She walked around the edge of the small pond to the back of the cave where Iolaus waited, urging her deeper into its safety.

Iolaus saw the fear in Lydia’s eyes, the hesitancy in her step and tried to offer her some consolation. She’d been through a lot today, but today still had plenty of hours left in it. “Your eyes will get used to the dark,” he reassured her.

But Lydia would have nothing of his words. “It’s not the dark I’m afraid of, Iolaus,” she warned. Iolaus interrupted her, pushing her back against the far wall and stepping away, back toward the cave’s entrance to assess the fighting situation.

“Wait here,” he said.

Lydia could feel her heart practically thumping out of her chest. Her breath seemed to catch and she felt as if she couldn’t get quite enough air. This was a bad place, she could feel it. She tried to warn him again. “There’s something you ought to know about this cave…”

But Iolaus was focused almost entirely on the task at hand, Rankor and any remaining men. He didn’t hear her warning, didn’t see the giant snake-like creature that slipped its head above the dark surface of the pond, extending to the ceiling and arching over like an upside down ‘J’, just before it flared out the fins around its face.

But Lydia saw it and knew her mother had been right. Lydia screamed.

Hercules jumped out of the boat as soon as it hit the river’s edge. He would NOT let Iolaus die, not on the whim of a god, not at the hand of a monster or by the arrows of men. Iolaus was his friend. They had played together, fought together and grown up together. They’d raised and lost families. And Hercules had lost Iolaus twice before, at the hands of the Amazons and by the sting of the She-Demon. He knew he couldn’t bear to lose him again. He had been lucky to get his friend back twice; a third time might not be as easy. And now there was Nemesis to consider.

They’d reached an uneasy stand off on the boat. He thought that Nemesis might actually bend the rules and judge Iolaus for herself; that she might see his courage and love and judge him worthy to live. Elysium knew he’d tried hard enough to convince her, but he still had that edge of doubt. He had to find Iolaus. Together they would be fine.

Hercules fought back the deep foreboding in his soul as he tried to think as Iolaus would. He had to find the trail, look for his friend’s boot prints. He stepped quicker and tipped his head. What was that he heard? He ran further. A scream! A woman’s scream…and was that Iolaus yelling at something? Hercules’s heart jumped. No! Not now, when he couldn’t reach him! He bolted faster down the trail.

Iolaus let out a fierce scream, as he had learned to do in the East. It was said that the scream, called by the Easterners a ‘kyai’, united the body and spirit for battle, empowered the fighter and raised him to even greater capabilities. Iolaus stared the hydra in its eyes and let out another kyai.

“I’ve killed a hydra before,” he said as much to the hydra as to keep Lydia calm. “Of course,” he added softly, “I had Hercules with me then.” The beast dove at him and Iolaus parried with his sward, pushing it upward to show he meant business and jumped to the side. The hydra moved with hypnotizing undulations back to Iolaus.

“Don’t talk to it, Iolaus!” Lydia screamed in terror. “Chop its head off!”

Iolaus dove out of the way of a fiercer bite from the hydra, rolling in the dirt and coming up at the side of the beast. “I can’t do that. It’ll grow two more,” he advised Lydia, trying to stay calm. ‘What would Hercules do?’ he thought silently.

Lydia was shaking. This creature was worse than the satyrs were, worse than the eels and ‘way worse than the dogs. This seemed like an unbeatable monster. She cringed as Iolaus jumped out of the hydra’s way once again. “How can you ever win?” she shouted in despair as she pressed back against the damp cave wall.

“You just keep going until something clever occurs to you,” Iolaus shrugged and jumped out of the way yet another time, bobbing and weaving in response to the coiling and striking of its neck. This beast was tireless, and Iolaus knew he’d have to think quickly, because unlike the hydra, he’d had a tough day and was starting to feel it.

“How’d you beat it last time?” Lydia asked.

“Fire!” Iolaus called back as he dropped low and rolled across the musty damp floor of the cave.

Lydia cringed. This wasn’t good. “I don’t see any fire,” she wailed.

“Yeah,” Iolaus gasped. “I know.”

Hercules crashed through the forest uncaring about the number of branches he broke, the grasses he crushed and the obvious trail he left. He’d seen Iolaus’ tracks and those of someone else and he meant to follow them, and quickly too. Iolaus had been running, no time for stealth or covering his trail, and that meant trouble. Suddenly, the woods ended and he found himself in a clearing. Hercules stopped short.

Around him were dead men in satyr costumes, or at least parts of satyr costumes. He inspected the man impaled on the antlers, tipping up the head and looking into lifeless eyes. He turned slowly and saw the three men crushed by the fallen tree. “An old hunter’s trick,” he said to himself, recognizing Iolaus’ handiwork.

Another man lay alive but groggy. He retched in pain and Hercules focused on him. He strode across the clearing and lifted the man’s head up. “Which way did he go?” he demanded, but the man’s eyes rolled back and he fell limp and unconscious to the ground. “Looks like you haven’t lost your touch,” he whispered, thinking about Iolaus. His friend had done an admirable job of dispatching the satyrs, he realized, taking a small measure of comfort in that single fact.

Behind him, Hercules became aware of a noise, running feet. He grabbed the giant log that pinned the three crushed men and swinging around he saw three more of the men rushing recklessly at him.

“Excuse me, could you give me a hand?” he asked as he tossed the log at the men, catching them at chest height, sending them flying and dispatching them to Hades’ realm before they could even answer. ‘Hope that’s the end of them,’ he thought, dusting his hands off as he trotted out of the clearing and followed Iolaus tracks to the field.

Hercules paused as he entered the high grasses, following Iolaus’ trail. Strange, Iolaus wouldn’t leave himself so vulnerable with the satyrs so close to him. Hercules scanned the clearing, looking for the path of bent grass, now waving so freely in the breeze. There it was! He sighted the cave and as he stepped towards it he hear a roar of anger and defense from Iolaus, a woman’s scream and an odd hissing noise that he’d only heard once before.

‘A Hydra,’ he thought in panic! Iolaus was fighting a hydra alone! He moved to reach his friend’s side, but found himself restrained by a gentle but strong hand. Nemesis.

“That’s as far as you go, Hercules,” she warned. “You are not a part of this.” She shook her head with a sad smile. She understood her new role in this plot, but Hercules had yet to understand his.

“That’s my decision,” he growled and tried to push past her.

“Oh no, it isn’t,” Nemesis kept her hand against his chest. He might be strong, but she was a goddess and she could and would stop him. She felt the muscles ripple over his beating heart, his breath coming strong and fast, and wished sadly that she had followed another path, one that led her to Hercules, instead of away from him. But she could learn from her mistakes and it was imperative that Hercules learn from his, as well.

“For once,” she warned, “you can’t interfere with Iolaus’ destiny.”

“Excuse me, will you? I’m too busy to argue right now.” Hercules stared in contained rage at Nemesis. The sounds from inside the cave were not as loud now and Hercules was actually frightened for Iolaus, and for himself. He didn’t just want Iolaus, he suddenly realized, he needed Iolaus.

Nemesis understood not only Hercules’ desire, but also Iolaus’ need to prove himself worthy of Hercules’ friendship and trust, but she needed Hercules to understand this, too. Suddenly, though her battle with Hercules was no longer in the forefront. Behind Hercules, a satyr approached with sword brandished and ready for battle. She turned and saw another Satyr coming up to the front and side of Hercules, with a sword drawn just as Hercules saw it also, circling around to meet him, face to face.

“Don’t turn around,” Nemesis warned as she moved carefully to the side. Hercules stood catlike, waiting for Nemesis’ command. She watched carefully as they positioned themselves for the strike. “Wait for it; wait for it.” The two satyrs rushed Hercules. “Now,” she spoke firmly.

Hercules jumped to the side and ducked low, leaving the men in mid-rush to impale each other on their swords.

Hercules turned to Nemesis, stepping close to her and smiling his appreciation. “Thanks. We make a good team.” He wanted to reach out for her, pull her to him, but resisted. Not with Iolaus in danger-and not until he knew if she would spare his friend. He had priorities here.

“We always did,” she answered with nostalgia.

“I thought you said working for the gods meant you could never interfere?” Hercules quirked an eyebrow up, wondering if in fact she cared enough for him to spare Iolaus in spite of the cost to herself. Was he worth that much to Nemesis?

Nemesis thought about her response for a minute, then turned a quirky smile up to Hercules. “So I free-lance once in a while, okay?” she answered, not ready to tip her hand and unsure herself whether or not she would kill Iolaus or judge him first.

“Hm-mm,” Hercules pondered. Perhaps he really had gotten through to her. He bent his head down and gave her a soft kiss on the forehead, wishing he could do a lot more than that. “I gotta go,” he said.

“Oh no you don’t.” Nemesis reached out to stop him again.

Lydia had never been so scared. Her heart seemed to be beating so fast that it quivered like a sparrow’s wing in flight. She clasped her hand to her mouth in horror and fear as she watched Iolaus thrust and parry with the sword. She saw his power, determination and grace. She also saw that he was tiring. How long could this go on? The Hydra didn’t seem even remotely tired. “I tried to tell you,” she cried in sorrow.

Iolaus yelled again, this time unexpectedly right in the hydra’s face. The hydra slithered back, losing interest in battling an opponent who fought back so valiantly, turning instead to face Lydia.

”Go away!” Lydia screamed, trying desperately to sound courageous, as if the hydra was nothing more than a nasty bee. “Oh, oh,” she gasped softly as the hydra dropped it’s head close to inspect her, hissing its foul breath against her face.

Iolaus was horrified. He never meant to send the hydra to Lydia. He was trying to protect her. This was all wrong. “Lydia!” he screamed in horror and, for the first time today, fear.

Nemesis pressed herself against Hercules. She could feel his fear and smell his sweat. She could use her godly powers to restrain him and maybe succeed, but this was Hercules, her old lover. And if truth be told, she knew if it actually came to using more than her feminine wiles that Hercules would never forgive her, and Hercules’ forgiveness was something she truly wanted.

“Listen to me!” she urged, trying to make him see what was right. “You have to let Iolaus do this for himself. If you help him now he will go to his grave hating you!”

Hercules felt the warmth and sinew of her slender body tight against his. He felt and heard her caring. Letting her words start to sink in, he offered up the only protest he could. “We always help each other. When Iolaus helps me I don’t end up hating him.”

“Hercules, you weren’t under sentence from the gods,” she reminded him softly, the warning still there in her voice.

Hercules looked down at her, saw her pain, her determination. “Nemesis, one way or another, I’m always under sentence by the gods.” He could see her struggle with her own conflicting feelings, and deep inside felt a small kernel of understanding take seed.

Nemesis stared up into those impossibly blue eyes, the steely line of the jaw showing his tension. She reached up, turning his face down to her with a nudge from her fingertips. “Not this one,” she whispered.

Hercules could hear Iolaus’ voice, tight with tension as it carried outside the cave.

“Lydia! Lydia! What are you doing?” He heard a grunt and the clang of Iolaus’ metal sword against the rock wall of the cave. He imagined what the hydra looked like, how Iolaus would fight it. This time he could hear an edge of fear in his partner’s tone.

Hercules looked down at Nemesis. “I spend my life helping strangers, I can’t do any less for my friend,” he pleaded as he stared back into her deep brown eyes, watched the blond hair glisten under the suns rays like corn silks. She was so beautiful, but so deadly, too.

“That’s the problem,” Nemesis spoke with urgency. “You gave Iolaus too much help and his injured pride walked him right into this! Now he’s got to get himself out of it.” She held Hercules’ eyes locked to her own with a fierceness that belied her caring.

“But what if he can’t?” Hercules tried unsuccessfully to cover his pain with gruffness.

“He has to do it.” Nemesis’s voice carried the sorrow and conviction of someone who knows the answers, but can’t give them.

“Why?” Hercules asked a little helplessly, not understanding, turning his stare off to the cave as Nemesis simply disappeared, leaving Hercules to find the answer.

He turned back to find himself alone. If Nemesis had truly meant to kill Iolaus, why had she come to warn Hercules? He could hear Iolaus’ shouts and grunts coming from the cave, but his feet seemed glued into place. The kernel of understanding grew, taking root and sending forth a shoot, to branch and grow.

His friend had always been courageous, a great fighter, innovative. He’d fought many battles, both alone and at Hercules’ back. He’d come though personal adversity to become Hercules’ most trusted friend, a brother of his heart, and it was now that he suddenly realized that he didn’t have to protect Iolaus. Iolaus had done a darn fine job of killing off the satyrs and gods knew what else. Iolaus could save himself. Maybe even from Nemesis. And Nemesis was right. Iolaus would be upset if Hercules interfered. He would feel that Hercules didn’t respect him, didn’t believe that he could take care of himself…always needed to be rescued.

Nemesis was right; Iolaus did need to do this himself.

Hercules stood at the edge of the woods and waited. If worse came to worst, he would rush in, but for now, he’d let Iolaus fight this demon alone.

Iolaus watched Lydia rifling though a pile of discarded human remains, hiking her skirt up and ripping a piece off of it. She grabbed a thick length of bone, wrapped the piece of skirt around it and turned to the wall behind her. At the ceiling a line of webs hung, soft, gray and blowing gently with the movement of air in the cave. She held a piece of flint in her other hand and turned to Iolaus with a grin.

“Lydia, what are you doing?” Iolaus asked, his breath coming in spurts as he dove away from the attacking Hydra yet another time.

Lydia shot him a wicked grin, arched her eyebrows and struck the flint to the wall of the cave. A spark caught the webs and they began to glow with flame. Before the fire could finish consuming the thin strands of delicate web and die down, Lydia put the cloth wrapped bone to it, igniting it as a torch.

“I’m lighting your fire,” she shot back gleefully at Iolaus, her voice low and rough, consciously and teasingly seductive.

Iolaus laughed as he saw her brandishing the torch. Salvation in the form of flames…and Lydia. “I don’t believe it! You’re a genius!” He watched with pleasure as the Hydra, noticing the flames, slipped back quickly under the dark pond’s surface with a final hiss of warning.

Iolaus rushed over to Lydia, putting a hand on her arm. “How did you know how to do that?” he asked as he watched her gasp for breath, obviously more frightened that she was willing to let on to him.

Lydia looked down at him with a huge grin of relief. “From my father.”

Iolaus grabbed her, pulling her closer. “How did he know?” he puzzled.

Lydia drew herself up in triumph. Not many women would be able to tell others they had helped to defeat a hydra.

“He was a hunter,” she laughed with a shake of her head.

Iolaus chuckled and Lydia placed her forehead against his. He pulled her closer, feeling a familiar sense of warmth creeping up his thighs. Perhaps when they had dispatched all the enemies…

“Hah!”

The cry interrupted his thoughts. Iolaus looked over to where it came from. Rankor.

“This is getting to be a very long day,” he sighed with weary complaint and a roll of his head to soothe the stiffness in his neck. Planning quickly, he turned to Lydia. “How long will the torch burn?”

“Not long,” she answered.

“When it goes out, you run for the entrance,” he instructed her.

“I won’t leave you!” Lydia gasped, reaching for him.

“You will,” he answered firmly, “if you want to keep us both alive.” He turned to Rankor. “Hey you, clown! There’s no hydra in here.” Then, in a taunting voice, he called out, “Guess you’re going to have to try and kill us yourself!”

“With pleasure!” Rankor moved toward Iolaus with the lumbering gait of a bear on its hind legs, drawing his sword as he approached.

Iolaus drew his own sword and parried Rankor’s away, striking the blade with a sharp clang.

“Run Lydia!” he commanded.

And Lydia did, but not before dropping the torch into the pond. In the ensuing darkness, Iolaus managed to parry his way toward the door of the cave, pressing Rankor back to the wall. As he saw the Hydra’s head rise silently out of the black water, he turned and ran, leaving only Rankor for the hydra’s attention.

Hercules heard Rankor’s scream echoing from inside the cave just after Lydia shot out of its mouth, and then he saw Iolaus fly out as well, the pair of them tumbling down the grassy hill raising a cloud of dust. From inside the cave, Rankor’s terrified screams rang out, but at the bottom of the hill Hercules saw Iolaus with Lydia, raising his head and laughing.

Iolaus was okay; he’d fought the Hydra and won! Hercules realized that Nemesis was right; Iolaus could more than take care of himself. He was thankful for the valuable lesson she’d taught him and hoped she’d also taken a lesson with her as well.

Iolaus propped himself up on an elbow and gazed down at Lydia’s laughing face. Even dirty, she was beautiful, and more courageous than he’d first given her credit for. He watched her reach a finger to her cheek and brush away some errant strands of raven hair.

“That guy sure is a slow learner,” he chuckled. He leaned closer to her now, grinning and giving her his best come-hither smile. “You gonna keep your promise? You said there’d be something if I rescued us. Well…I rescued us…”

Lydia tried to look puzzled, but in truth she wanted this as much as she could tell he did. And he’d earned it, and her respect.

“But Iolaus, that was a joke!” She watched his face as he tried to decide whether or not to believe her, and then afraid that he might, laughed.

Iolaus leaned forward, laughing in relief and Lydia pulled him down, pressing her lips to his fervently. There most certainly would be a reward, she thought as she pressed he body willingly against his, enjoying the feel of his muscles as she slid off his tattered vest. For both of us.

Hercules watched for a moment, and then slipped silently off down the road to Thrace, and the festival, and to a hundred dinars, leaving Iolaus in Lydia’s arms.

Though Iolaus and Lydia seemed safe, and were thoroughly enjoying their escape from the final satyr, Hercules was still concerned. He’d stayed only briefly after Iolaus got out of the Hydra’s cave, long enough to see his friend embrace the lovely Lydia. Knowing that Iolaus thought that he and Lydia had finally found privacy and sanctuary, and realizing that Iolaus was more than capable of taking care of himself, he slipped silently up the now clear road to Thrace to meet Iolaus there.

Thrace was a busy place come festival time. This was when merchants made most of their money. It was a time when farmers could hawk their produce and seamstresses could sell and tailor clothing. Everyone wanted to be involved. Buildings were decorated. The inns made more ale and hired more servers. Tables were set up for item display and people rushed about to set up their wares. Thrace was alive and bustling with laughter, hope and hard work.

Hercules arrived and found a spot where he could watch the road for Iolaus’ arrival and he peered intently down the road, in the direction from which Iolaus should appear.

Around him men clamored and hammers rung out. Men worked diligently to erect an entryway with ropes and sandbags to steady the structure and allow for various attachments for the contests.

Above the sound of the crowd and the cries of men selling swords and spears, Hercules heard Lydia before he actually saw her or Iolaus. But they were here and he was relieved. What had taken them so long? With a contented knowing grin, Hercules lay his head back and closed his eyes as if he was sleeping, waiting for Iolaus to see him.

“Titus! Camilla!” Lydia called out cheerfully to her friends. People flocked around her and Iolaus, surprised to see Lydia return alive and well. She reached out to touch people, as if to reassure them she was fine as Iolaus progressed down the road, eyes automatically scanning the area, ever the ready hunter and warrior. Iolaus was cautious. He and Hercules had learned over the years that no matter what the situation they needed to know the lay of the land, memorize anything that could be used for defense, or as weaponry, should the need arise. And the need had arisen more times than Iolaus could count.

Satisfied that all was fine, Iolaus progressed further with Lydia at his side still greeting people, now scanning for Hercules, wondering if by some miracle of the gods he had actually beaten him to Thrace. But there the big guy sat, resting comfortably, sitting with his head tilted back against a pole.

Iolaus looked down on Hercules’s sleeping visage, thankful to have made it back to his friend. He assessed Hercules’ posture, knees up and shoulders straight and knew instinctively that Hercules wasn’t really asleep. He stared down with a self-satisfied expression and then nudged the big man with his boot.

Hercules feigned a yawn and the slow weary opening of his eyes. He turned his head as if to investigate whoever had awoken him, shaking a few errant strands of hair away from his face as he focused on Iolaus.

“I was wondering when you’d get here,” he teased as he stretched. “Did you get lost?”

Lydia stared down at the great Hercules with awe, her breath catching in her chest. Finally her chance to meet him! He was impressive but he wasn’t the one who had saved her. She turned her awestruck face to Iolaus instead, shining her appreciation down at him.

Iolaus felt good, proud of his accomplishments and happy to see his best friend again, and a little sorry about the fight they’d had after the bridge incident. But he had to get the inevitable over.

“No, I didn’t get lost. So how long have you been here,” he asked with a wry grin and a shake of his head.

Hercules grinned back and extended his hand to Iolaus for assistance up. “Oh, about a hundred dinars worth,” he answered, as he clasped Iolaus’ forearm and hopped easily to his feet.

Iolaus shook his head as Hercules laughed. He placed a hand across his mouth as he watched Hercules survey Lydia, knowing that Hercules probably had a whole other scenario for why Iolaus was so late.

Iolaus looked over to Lydia, removed his hand and then turned to Hercules. “Lydia, this is my best friend, Hercules. Hercules this is Lydia.”

“Hello, Lydia,” Hercules responded politely.

“I’m very pleased to meet you, Hercules,” Lydia answered, leaning forward to shake his hand. Iolaus bounced on his toes and watched the exchange.

Lydia turned back to Iolaus wide-eyed and then back to Hercules. “Your friend Iolaus and I have had quite a day.”

“Yeah,” Iolaus shuffled a foot and looked into Hercules eyes. “I saved her from a few dozen satyrs, a hydra… that’s why I’m late.”

Lydia turned to Iolaus, pointing her finger at him. “And an eel!” she exclaimed.

Iolaus was starting to feel a little embarrassed now. “Oh, yeah, an eel, too,” he agreed reluctantly.

Hercules stared over at Iolaus, thinking that perhaps Iolaus had every right to be late, and maybe he shouldn’t take the hundred dinars, as if Iolaus even had them. “Really? And how big was it?”

“Oh, not much,” Iolaus disclaimed, but Lydia stretched her arms out as far as they would go, shaking her head at Hercules.

“Yeah, sure,” Hercules retorted, not sure what to believe.

Lydia would not let Hercules off the hook as easily as Iolaus had, though. “Oh, he was amazing! I just wish you’d been there to see it,” Lydia gushed.

“No!” Iolaus practically shouted. “You’d have been in the way,” he scowled, then shrugged and smiled, turning to Lydia with a secret grin.

Hercules understood how important this was to Iolaus. Nemesis had helped him to realize that Iolaus didn’t need Hercules for his strength or power, but for his friendship. “I know…I mean, I know you can handle yourself.” He turned to face Lydia, then turned back to Iolaus to make sure he got the message. “You see, there’s no one else on earth I’d rather face trouble with, Lydia. He’s not only my friend, he’s a great hunter, warrior and…”

“You really mean that?” Iolaus interrupted with a wicked gleam in his eyes.

“Sure,” Hercules leaned forward and grasped Iolaus by the shoulder, maintaining eye contact. “I’d trust you with my life. You know that.”

“That’s what I thought,” Iolaus said, snatching a pomegranate and handing it to Hercules.

“What are you doing?” Hercules asked, stunned.

Iolaus didn’t answer, instead turning to a man behind him. “Hey, can I borrow that?” He asked and the man quickly nodded his assent and handed Iolaus his bow and quiver of arrows.

“Suit yourself,” the man answered and gestured to the others. This looked like fun, maybe a contest.

“Thanks,” Iolaus answered as Lydia pulled a hanky from under her belt and held it out to Hercules.

Hercules stared at the pomegranate, then the bow and arrows and finally the hankie, realizing just what Iolaus intended to do. “Well, that’s very thoughtful of you,” he finally answered.

Iolaus chuckled and shot Hercules another wicked grin. “Oh, it isn’t for you, it’s for me.” Lydia took the hankie and tied it around Iolaus’ eyes, making sure that he couldn’t see at all.

“Oh,” was all Hercules could get out as Iolaus took his hands and ran them over the big man’s face, chest and shoulders as if to orient himself to his friend’s position.

A crowd was beginning to gather. Men huddled in small groups around the area as Hercules backed himself to a wall and stoically placed the pomegranate on top of his head.

“He must be some shot,” Iolaus heard, as Lydia turned him away from Hercules. “Yeah,” the crowd buzzed with interest.

Iolaus wondered if Hercules was sweating, if he doubted his friendship or even believed that Iolaus would do something like this. But Iolaus knew that he loved Hercules too much to take any risk that would hurt him. It was simply a test. How long would Hercules last? How much did he REALLY trust Iolaus?

“One, two, three, four five, six,” Lydia counted off the steps as Iolaus took them.

Iolaus was concentrating intently as he walked, listening to try and hear if Hercules was moving. But instead he heard the unsteady footsteps of someone heavy shuffling up the path from the woods into town. Using his hunter’s senses he sniffed the air testing. There it was, faint but recognizable, the rank odor he’d smelled when the filthy satyrs were close. It was one of them! No one else would be using the woods trail into town this soon.

Iolaus felt alarm growing. His instincts knew this was all wrong, that with his eyes blindfolded he would really have to trust his hunter’s senses and skills to save himself, and Lydia.

“Seven, eight, nine, ten,” Lydia intoned as she stopped Iolaus right on the path.

The giant erection with the sand bags and ropes, Iolaus thought suddenly. The satyr’s steps had stopped at the spot where Iolaus judged it stood. He’d have to make the shot he missed back at the bridge, this time blindfolded. But he had beaten the satyrs before, the eel too, the dogs and the hydra.

Iolaus heard the twang of a bow-string drawn back as the arrow caused it to grow taut. He quickly figured the distance, the arc of his arrow and the general height of the rope holding the sand bag. He swiftly pulled an arrow from the borrowed quiver and feeling its length noted its straightness and perfect feathers. He placed it in his bow-string, drawing back and turning, not to Hercules but to the ropes and bag above the satyr.

Nemesis watched, invisible to all mortals, and Hercules thought he saw her step with grace and determination directly into the satyr’s body just as the man was about to release the arrow directly at Iolaus.

”Iolaus!” he screamed in horror, and Iolaus ripped off his blindfold, knowing it was time to let his arrow fly.

Nemesis turned the satyr toward Hercules just as he released his arrow, intent on killing Iolaus and watched it sail directly into the pomegranate on Hercules’s head, pinning it to the wall and releasing a trickle of red juice down Hercules’s forehead.

Hercules took a gasp of air, closing his eyes as the arrow flew at him, and then opening them as the juice trickled down. He watched as Iolaus let his own arrow soar, and hit the rope dead on, releasing the dangling sandbag.

Under the falling sandbag Nemesis had stepped out of the satyr’s body and the man set another arrow in the bow-string, readying once again to kill Iolaus. But it was too late. The bag fell and landed with a sounding thud onto the satyr and his arrow, so suddenly and unexpectedly shot, soared instead directly up at the sun with enough speed and power to fly all the way to Olympus, taking it away from Iolaus.

Iolaus ran to the fallen satyr. The crowd was murmuring, inspecting both Hercules’ pomegranate and the fallen sand bag, wondering how exactly Iolaus had accomplished both so quickly, having not seen the invisible Nemesis take the shot and turn the man back for Iolaus to finish.

“What a shot,” cried an admirer from the crowd as Iolaus stepped forward. “Rankor,” Iolaus exclaimed in surprise and disgust as he stared down at the hydra-bitten face, the tattered satyr costume and injured leg. Some how, Rankor had survived in the hydra’s cave.

“Iolaus, that was some great shot,” Hercules praised his friend, looking to him with renewed admiration. He grabbed Rankor by the arm, hauling the stunned man to his feet as townspeople ran to capture him.

“Get your hands off me,” Rankor growled to the jostling crowd as the magistrate and some of his very substantial men came to take him. But the protest was to no avail. The path through Thrace threw up clouds of dust as Rancor was dragged off to jail, kicking and screaming.

Lydia wrapped her arms around Iolaus, kissing him and murmuring in his ear, “You are wonderful, Iolaus. I’m so glad I met you.” She beamed a radiant smile across at him and, as the crowd surrounded them, she called out. “Everybody, this is the man who saved my life!”

Cheers rose from the crowd.

“He fought men and monsters with no thought for himself!” she declared, her voice ringing through the town square. “This brave man is Iolaus of Thebes, and he has freed our road of satyrs, and killed the giant eel so we may swim and bathe and seek water in the waters again!”

The crowd cheered again pressing in closer. “Hooray for Iolaus!” voices cried out. “Let’s dedicate our festival to him!” another voice cried to echoes of “Hear! Hear!”

Iolaus was actually somewhat embarrassed. Usually it was Hercules who had the celebrations dedicated to him. He’d done nothing out of the ordinary, at least for him. He looked down at the ground and kicked at the dirt. This was beyond any expectations and as much as a part of him thought this would be nice, another part rejected it-the glamour, the recognition…this was Hercules’ deal. He knew that he would be content to simply be at Herc’s side forever, helping in any way he could.

But Lydia? Now, that was another story. He’d hoped to find a woman at the fair to enjoy it with and here she was, finding him instead, as if the Fates had woven their threads together even if it was only for this one day. He lifted his head to the cheers of the crowd, and Lydia grabbed his face and kissed him right on the mouth in front of everyone.

Iolaus kissed her back, thinking that surely she was a very beautiful woman, attractive to him for both that and her courage, and he knew that he’d take away from this journey a very special and incomparable memory of this incredible woman.

Meanwhile Hercules was occupied by the appearance of Nemesis. As he stood enjoying Iolaus’ embarrassment and noticing how humble he seemed, at least this once, the slim and beautiful archer shimmered into his view.

“Hercules,” she purred, pressing her body close to his.

Hercules looked down at her with appreciation. “It was you,” he spoke softly as he reached out to stroke her hair. “Thanks Nemesis, from both of us.” He pressed his lips to her hair in a soft kiss, then stood back to see her face.

“That’s okay, Iolaus earned his reprieve.” She gave a small chuckle. “You were right Hercules. I’m glad I listened to you, even if it will have its repercussions.” She followed Hercules’ face as he turned his eyes on Iolaus. She watched the pleasure this friendship brought and could see the love for his friend was a driving force in all that Hercules was. To have killed Iolaus would have shattered Hercules and she was glad that she didn’t have to do it, after all.

“It looks like he swallowed his pride,” she observed. She reached up to Hercules face, placed a warm palm on his cheek and turned his eyes towards her own. “You were ready to let him shoot, weren’t you?”

“I had to show him that I trusted him,” he answered simply. “And thank you for helping me understand that.”

Hercules stared down at Nemesis’s solemn brown eyes, his back to the crowd. He could hear Lydia’s voice extolling Iolaus’ courage and skill.

“He’s being modest, friends. This noble warrior has unmasked the satyrs and freed us to use our road again,” Lydia was exclaiming with delighted pride in her hero.

Hercules was vaguely aware of Iolaus’ mumbled protests of humility as Nemesis stroked his cheek.

“He wasn’t going to shoot you, Hercules,” she smiled.

“You knew that?”

“Yes, I’m a full god, remember? It was simply enough for him to know that you were ready to let him do it. He wouldn’t have risked hurting you, he loves you too much,” Nemesis murmured with a fond look at Iolaus.

Hercules nodded. Brothers of the heart, that’s how he’d always seen himself and Iolaus. “What would you have done if his pride had made him take the shot?”

“I’d have killed him,” she whispered seriously.

Hercules pulled Nemesis into an embrace, kissing her deeply and passionately. She had spared Iolaus! She wasn’t really one of the gods, not in Hercules’ heart anyway.

Iolaus had broken free of the crowd and was anxious to get to Hercules’ side. He walked over to where the big man stood, looking like he was kissing the air with passion.

“What are you doing Herc, practicing?” He slapped his friend on the back as Hercules hurriedly straightened up. “So who were you talking to?” he asked curiously.

“Uh, nobody,” Hercules answered somewhat guiltily.

“I heard you talking. Come on, who was it?” Iolaus goaded him.

“Iolaus,” Hercules chuckled, “my crazy irreplaceable friend, you don’t want to know.”

Only Hercules could hear Nemesis’ now disembodied voice calling out to him, “Bye Hercules!”

He slipped his arm around Iolaus’ shoulder, tugging him to his side and turned them both as a team and headed back to the center of the square. Behind them an arrow fell, as if tossed from the angry hand of Hera and landed in the spot they had been standing. Hercules and Iolaus turned as one to regard it.

“You know what you can do with that arrow, Hera,” Hercules muttered as Iolaus simply shook his head and turned back to Hercules.

“Good to be back with you, Herc.”

“Good to have you back.”

END



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