With each labored breath a strong metallic tang filled his sinuses and hit the back of his throat, coating his tongue with bitterness. On some level he knew he should slow his breathing down but he was just too lost in his thoughts, and too hypnotized by his rhythmic workings of the bellows to care.
A gust of scorching heat blew against his chest and face like the foul breath of Cerberus out of the fiery depths of Tartarus. He felt the sweat drip towards his chin but didn’t even pause to shake the drops off. He couldn’t concentrate today and was grateful that he was working the bellows instead of the iron. It was the kind of day that mistakes could be made and he could be hurt.
He used to love working his forge. It cleansed his soul. Let him sweat out all his frustrations and any ill feelings. He remembered a time when he could enter his barn feeling troubled and drained but when he was finished for the day he’d be renewed and energized. He would run into the house to Ania and expend his newfound vitality with her.
The first time he’d approached her in this sweat-slicked, muscle-pumped way she’d started out complaining of his ‘dampness’ and his ‘pungent aroma.’ The disagreeable words faded quickly from her tongue when she found herself caught up in the spontaneity and driving passion of the moment.
Ania…sweet, shy Ania…losing herself in the moment. He loved watching her as her inhibitions flew away like so many spores of a dandelion on a strong wind. She could match him passion for passion…Ania. Even when she was heavy with child…sometimes even more so when she was with child.
He remembered the softness of her limbs, neck and back and the contrasting hard roundness of her belly.
Spending so much time lately with Oi Lan in her current condition had brought Ania’s pregnant image frequently to his mind. Oi Lan could still kick him on his ass even in her current condition. Ania’s sensuality when she was in that condition would knock him on his ass too.
He loved Alcmene like a mother, but damn her for constantly mentioning his current unattached status…Herc’s too. Like either of them needed constant reminders of their losses, of the big gaping holes in their lives and the complications involved in making new relationships. And damn Hera to the Pit of Tartarus for her evil, vengeful…
Hercules watched as his partner became so engrossed in his thoughts that he handled the bellows with a driven rhythm. He wondered which demons were chasing this friend this day.
The demigod had finished work on the nails and ties that Iolaus needed to complete the roof on Cyrus’ barn almost a half an hour earlier but Iolaus hadn’t even noticed. Hercules kept working, taking advantage of the glowing coals and his partner’s distraction to begin fashioning a hunting knife. He’d intended to fashion a knife for himself for the longest time, but never seemed to find time lately to make it to Iolaus’ forge.
“Hey…hey! Slow down Iolaus,” Hercules cautioned good-naturedly. “You’ll waste a good fire with so much air. Are you okay, buddy?” he asked with concern.
“Sorry, Herc. Yeah, I’m okay just a bit distracted. It must be all this work. You know…all work and no play makes Iolaus a bit stir crazy,” the blond replied with a sheepish grin.
“Well then, before you go back to finish Cyrus’ barn, how about joining me for lunch at the tavern. You can flirt with the pretty new barmaid while you have an ale. It’ll be on me,” Hercules offered figuring that if he could get his friend loosened up a bit he might be able to find out what was bothering him.
“On you? Say no more. You talked me into it, Herc,” Iolaus readily agreed to the demigod’s offer. Then he added only half jokingly, “there’s a new barmaid at the tavern and you knew about her before me? I must be slipping.”
“Maybe you’re just too lost in your daydreams, buddy,” Hercules responded. “I finished your fasteners and I’m almost finished with this new knife and you didn’t even laugh at me when I nicked my thumb with the mallet.”
Iolaus knew that Hercules was fishing for information, and knew it was coming from his friendly concern but he really didn’t feel like putting his thoughts to words so he just ignored the opening his friend had given him and concentrated on the bellows again.
Hercules let the moment pass. Picking up the knife and mallet he concentrated on finishing the blade, judging the balance as he turned the hilt in his hand.
Finished, Iolaus released the bellows and Hercules held the blade up so they could admire his work.
“It sure is a beauty,” Iolaus said.
“It’s all yours, Iolaus,” Hercules said as he offered the knife to his friend with a big grin.
“What are you talking about? We both worked on it,” Iolaus protested.
“No, I’ll get the next one we make. How’s that sound?” Hercules insisted.
“Well, to tell you the truth - it’s one of the best ideas you ever had,” he said with the first hint of pure mirth the demigod had heard coming from his friend in the longest time.
Weighing the blade’s balance in his hand, Iolaus took aim at a low-hanging beam and let the knife fly. “It’s perfect, Herc. Thanks!”
“You’re welcome,” the demigod replied as he put his hand on his partner’s shoulder and admired the knife which was embedded half way to the hilt in the beam.
“Let’s get washed up and head for the tavern,” Hercules said. And with a pat on Iolaus’ shoulder he turned to the water barrel.
“Um, Herc?” Iolaus interrupted his friend’s ablutions.
“Yeah buddy?” he asked, shaking his wet hair out of his eyes.
“Uh…could you…you know?” Iolaus said as he gestured upwards towards the beam.
“Oh…yeah,” Hercules replied with a broad grin. “You want me to give you a boost up?”
“Very funny, just get it down for me,” he said trying to sound gruff on top of a giggle.
Iolaus was getting used to the feel of the new hunting knife as they walked into town and headed for the tavern. They passed by an abandoned house and Iolaus let the knife fly at a knothole on one of the porch supports. With a loud ‘Thwack’ the blade found it’s mark and the hunter grinned happily.
“That was pretty good,” Hercules told his friend.
“Thanks,” Iolaus replied then added a little facetiously “You know, all it takes is a little practice, nerves of steel and a knife so perfectly forged…”
As Iolaus spoke, the front door of the ‘abandoned’ property flew open and a familiar figure with long flowing auburn hair emerged in a bit of a snit.
“What in the name of Hades do you think you’re doing?” she asked.
“Syreena?” Iolaus questioned. Not understanding what his beautiful friend was doing inside the run down house.
“Iolaus, did you do that?” the redhead asked as she pointed to the hunting knife.
“Yeah, I was, uh…practicing with my new knife. Hercules and I…” Iolaus started to say.
“This is my house,” she said abruptly cutting him off.
“Your house? I thought it was abandoned,” Iolaus said with quite a bit of confusion.
“We moved in yesterday,” Syreena informed him in such a way that Iolaus figured he should have already known that she’d be here.
“We?” Iolaus asked.
“You haven’t heard? I’m married now,” Syreena told him as she caught onto the fact that he really didn’t know about her wedding.
“Oh,” Iolaus mumbled, unable to keep the look of disappointment off of his expressive face. Then, realizing that wasn’t exactly the proper reaction to have when someone tells you their happy news he added, “great! Um, who’s the lucky guy?”
“Tremulus,” the redhead added with a smile that lit up her beautiful face.
“Syreena, are you going to help me or not,” came a man’s voice from inside the house.
“I’ve got to go. He’s so cute when he needs me,” Syreena said as she headed back into the house. “Bye Iolaus. Just…take it easy on my house. Okay?”
Iolaus yanked the knife out of the porch and turned to see Hercules looking at him with all of his demi-godly compassion in his eyes.
“Maybe I should use this knife to slit my wrists,” Iolaus joked trying to make light of the encounter with his old girlfriend.
“Come on, Iolaus. Haven’t you heard the old saying? There’s plenty of fish in the sea,” Hercules said as he put his arm around his friend’s shoulder and herded him towards the tavern.
“Yeah, I guess you’re right. But Herc, do me a favor. Stow the clichés for a while. At least until I can wash them down with some ale,” Iolaus grumbled.
“Uh, yeah. I will…I promise. But” he added as he waived his free arm in an arc that encompassed the whole road before them, “you’ve got to realize that somewhere out there, the perfect woman is waiting for you.”
Two ales and a hearty lunch hadn’t done anything to lift Iolaus’ spirits although Hercules could tell his friend was putting on a nice façade for his benefit. He even flirted outrageously with the barmaid. Outrageously but not seriously.
Iolaus left his partner at the crossroads with the promise that he would finish up at Cyrus’ fast and come to Alcmene’s house to help the demigod work on the security wall for his mother’s property. Then they would head back into town for a late supper and some more ale.
Three hours later and up to his elbows in mortar dust, Hercules began to wonder what was keeping his friend. He chuckled to himself as the thought came to him that Iolaus was probably staying at Oi Lan’s to share a second lunch with the couple. Ever since they found out that Cyrus was an excellent cook, the two of them had been frequent guests at their table.
He wiped the sweat from his forehead with a rag that he kept tucked in his waistband and looked around as he heard someone approach.
It was his mother bearing a wicker basket over one arm. In the crook of her other arm rested a delicate hand-painted jug which most likely contained some of her famous lemonade, and not a moment too soon. The sight of the lightly sweating earthenware jug triggered a strong thirst that he’d been ignoring for the past half-hour as he waited for Iolaus to show up.
“Hercules, Hercules, you’re working too hard,” Alcmene said with a concerned look on her beautiful face.
“Mother, I’ve got to do something to make up for never being around here,” Hercules replied as he relieved his mother of the basket and jug.
“Well, how about stopping long enough for a picnic? I’d rather have your company than this wall you want to build,” she cajoled.
Hercules smiled at his mother but wouldn’t allow her to sidetrack his resolve. “Well, what if I give you both?”
“Oh, you certainly know how to make your mother happy,” she laughed. “I really do think you spend too much time worrying about me. I mean, this wall…”
“If it keeps you from being hurt or robbed just once, it’s worth every drop of sweat I put into it,” Hercules replied earnestly.
“I still don’t think the world is that bad a place, Hercules. Besides, Iolaus looks in on me whenever he can, and if he’s off somewhere with you, he’s arranged for the butcher’s twins to stop by here two or three times a week to help out. They’re two strapping lads, both of them almost as big as you are and they tease each other unmercifully just like you and Iolaus used to years ago.”
“What do you mean ‘used to’? Iolaus has never stopped,” Hercules said with a big grin.
“Oh, and I suppose you have?” Alcmene countered with a knowing grin of her own. “Look, Hercules. You’re needed out in the world. I know that, and I’ve come to accept it and be very proud of your good deeds and heroism. And like I said, Iolaus looks in on me. He’s a good man.”
“Yes, he is a good man. The best…” Hercules said. He was going to elaborate when his mother cut him off.
“But a lonely one, I’m afraid,” she said.
His mother’s words caused Hercules’ eyes to roll towards the heavens and his thoughts to race. ‘Oh boy, here we go. I was hoping I could avoid the ‘lonely men in need of good women’ lecture. Why is she always trying to push the issue. I don’t want to be harsh with her . Put a smile on your face, Herc. Smile at her and assure her you’re thinking about it. Get the conversation off of you and focus it on…I don’t know…Iolaus. Yeah, that’s it. Focus her on Iolaus and you can escape the lecture.”
“Hmmm, Iolaus has been lonely. You see it too?” Hercules asked, steering the conversation on a, hopefully, safer track.
“It’s his eyes that touch my heart. There’s no joy in them.” Alcmene stated.
“And, instead of something simple like changing his routine or getting out of Thebes a bit more often, you think he needs a woman in his life?” Hercules asked.
“Do you disagree?” Alcmene searched her son’s face, wanting to see if her words had any impact on him for his own situation.
“Disagree? With you? No, I’m too smart for that. Besides, I’m on top if it already, Mother. Thebes is a medium -sized village, right?” When his mother nodded her agreement, Hercules continued. “But even though it’s a good size, the numbers of available women pretty much stay the same. Now, by my figuring, Iolaus has probably made his way through the best of them and has found nothing to match the high standards of wifedom that Ania set in his mind. That’s why I’ve asked Iolaus to be my partner in the hero business. He’ll travel with me…broaden his horizons. We’ll be companions to each other in the meantime…and, you’ve got to admit that somewhere out there, as we travel through Greece together, we’re bound to meet a woman who will sweep Iolaus off of his feet and make him lose his mind again.”
Then, before Alcmene could continue the conversation, Hercules grabbed the wicker basket, pulled back the cloth covering and said, “So, what did you bring for us to snack on?”
As Hercules shared small talk with his mother and chomped on the sweet pastries she had packed in her basket for him, another scene, not so sweet, was taking place just minutes down the road from Alcmene’s home.
A proud young mercenary who sported a flashy mish-mosh of various purloined uniforms sat on his horse and appeared to be deep in conversation with a beautiful woman who stood by the side of the road next to her own mount. The woman was tall and well built with dark hair like flowing mahogany which framed the sweetest face in Zeus’ creation. Deep, sapphire-blue eyes, full, pouty, coral-colored lips and a healthy outdoors look to her smooth skin. Her body had curves in all the right places that belied the strength of the sinew and muscles beneath. Her voice was low and seductive.
“I won’t be far away, Xena,” the young man said as he ardently stared into the woman’s eyes.
“Do you doubt that I can take care of myself?” She asked, glaring at him with annoyance flaring in her blue eyes.
“No, of course not. I would be a fool to question you. But what if…” he trailed off as he caught the warning that was now clearly in her eyes.
“You’ll know when I need you Theodorus. I don’t want to see you before then,” the young woman said.
“Very well,” he uttered in quiet defeat. He took off down the road, looking back at her over his shoulder every once in a while with desperate longing.
When he was finally out of range, Xena picked up a club and hit her horse’s leg with it. “There, there,” she muttered to the horse, patting it’s flank, “it’s not so bad. You’ll be okay.” Then she stayed in position waiting for the man she knew would be on his way to this turnoff in the road shortly. As she waited, she remembered a day several weeks before when she had finally made up her mind to take action by herself.
She’d found the perfect place to camp with her men, a long-abandoned village with reinforced walls and a storage building that she could convert to her quarters.
She had only meant to step out of her office long enough to get water from the well for her personal use when her men decided to pull a readiness drill on her. She could sense the change in the air. An almost tangible wave of tension flowed quickly towards her, raising the hair on her arms and the back of her neck in alert. Her ultra acute hearing picked up the low whisper of one man to another “There she is. Let’s go. Let’s do it.”
They attacked her, singly and in pairs, with fists and with weapons. After a few seconds in which her body adjusted to the raised levels of adrenalin, she began to defend herself in earnest, almost angry and disgusted that they weren’t making it more difficult for her. Before long, she stood in the center of the village square, amid the bodies of her fallen men - some who were down for the count - some who were struggling to rise.
“Pathetic!” she shouted, as she turned with her hands on her hips to survey the damage she’d inflicted. “If you can’t learn to fight better than that, then you’re never gonna defeat Hercules. AND I WANT HIM DEAD!”
Xena’s mind returned to the present when the soft sound of boots hitting the packed-dirt road made it to her ears. ‘Showtime,’ she thought as she schooled her beautiful face into a look of mixed surprise and fear. She looked up at the man who approached. She instantly recognized Hercules’ partner from the many descriptions she’d had of him. He instantly recognized the look of fear on the woman’s face and so kept a reassuring distance between them as he spoke to her.
“Need any help?” Iolaus asked.
“Stay away,” she called out to him. Then as a look of remembrance passed across her face, she pulled a knife from her belt and brandished it half heartedly at him.
“Hey, take it easy,” he said with his hands up showing that he was unarmed.
“Give me a reason to,” she warily replied.
“Come on. Do I look dangerous?” Iolaus said giving her his biggest smile and ‘Hey, I’m a good guy’ look.
“Looks can be very deceiving,” she stated.
“If you want to stay here and threaten every good Samaritan who comes along, be my guest. But I’ll be glad to help you get any assistance you need.” Iolaus said; trying to appeal to her with humor in order to gain her trust
“Are you sure that’s what you really want to do?” she asked, still questioning his motives.
“Put down the knife, and I’ll be glad to,” he reminded her, seeing he’d won her trust for the moment. He was now more worried that she’d hurt either herself or her horse before she’d hurt him.
“Oh…sorry,” she said a bit sheepishly as she tucked the knife back into it’s sheath.
Xena let him check out the horse’s leg so he could have time to come to one of the two possible solutions to her apparent plight. She knew that he could either show her the way to Hercules’ mother’s house where they could let both her and her horse rest, or take her the short way into the village of Thebes where she could stable the horse and have the farrier look after it while she rested in the tavern. Either scenario would work to her advantage.
As Iolaus checked out the horse’s leg, he realized he was also in a perfect position to check out the woman’s legs too. From her almost dainty, sandle-laced ankle - all the way, all the way, all the way up.
‘Oh boy,’ he thought as he almost forced himself to lower his eyes to the horse’s leg again. “Wait until Herc gets a look at this one. She’s perfect. Just his type, too. Tall, beautiful, feisty, brunette with legs that just seem to go on forever… I’ll help her into town and invite her to the tavern for an ale or two while Cretus looks after her horse. That way I’ll be able to tell if she’s smart too before I introduce them. Herc always falls for the ones who are as smart as they are beautiful.’
Later that same evening, the door of the tavern swung open and Hercules entered.
One of the villagers looked up to see the demigod enter, surprised to see him around so much lately. “What’s the matter Hercules? Running out of monsters to slay?”
“Not if my mother’s wall counts.” He retorted with a grin and a handshake for the old timer.
“Is it tougher than the Nemean Lion?” the old man asked.
“Well, the blisters on my hands say it is.” Hercules replied. At that moment he spotted Iolaus picking up two tankards of ale at the bar and, returning with them to a table at which sat one of the most breathtakingly beautiful women Hercules had ever seen.
Hormones triggered and set on stand-by, Hercules thought, ‘Iolaus…Iolaus…Iolaus! What treats have you hunted up for our dining pleasure? Hmmmmm…down boy! At least wait until you’ve been introduced.’
As he approached the table where his friend and this woman sat, Hercules overheard Iolaus say to her “All right. Here you go. Say, how about a toast to Fate for bringing us together, huh?”
Before Xena could reply, Hercules arrived at the table and interrupted.
“Excuse me,” the demigod said with polite amusement.
“Uh-huh. Look what the cat dragged in,” Iolaus said as he turned and looked up at his partner.
“I thought you were gonna help me with my mother’s wall today?” Hercules teased his partner.
“Oh, yeah,” Iolaus replied. He had honestly forgotten the promise he’d made to Hercules earlier that day.
“Yeah,” said Hercules as he fished for an introduction.
“I’m sorry. I forgot,” Iolaus finally said. “Something came up.”
“I’m sure it did,” the demigod responded with an eye towards Xena.
“I’m Xena,” she said as she extended her hand to the demigod in introduction.
“Hello, Xena I’m…” Hercules began to say as he shook her hand.
“This is my best friend in all the world, that’s who he is,” Iolaus quickly interjected before the demigod could say his name.
“But does he have a name?” Xena asked, a bit puzzled and pleased by Iolaus’ reaction.
“What? Oh, yeah, yeah. This is Hercules,” Iolaus said as he gave in and completed the introduction; then he waited for the inevitable ‘You’re Hercules!’ reaction that always came when they found out who his friend really was.
“Is everyone you know so famous?” Xena said as she craftily brought the conversation back to focus on Iolaus.
“Famous? Him? What are you talking about?” Iolaus now joked, relieved at the way the conversation was going.
“Iolaus, you are such a comedian.” Xena chuckled flirting heavily with the blond.
“He certainly is. Until it’s time to get down to business, and then I wouldn’t want anyone else on my side,” Hercules said as he took a seat on the bench next to his partner.
“I had a feeling he was like that. My horse had gone lame out in the countryside when Iolaus found me, and he made sure I got here without anyone else bothering me,” Xena explained to Hercules
“Uh-hun. He never lets you down,” Hercules teased.
“I’ll have to remember that,” Xena said with another earnest and admiring look at Iolaus.
“Don’t worry, he won’t let you forget,” Hercules joked.
“Hey…” Iolaus began to protest but only mildly as he was glowing from the attention of both his companions.
“So, uh, if he’s gonna talk about himself all night, should we do it over a nice dinner? Are you interested?” Hercules asked.
“Yeah,” Iolaus replied thinking this would be the perfect time for this wonderful woman and his best friend to become more closely acquainted. But Xena shocked him with her reply.
“Oh, I think I’d be better off trying to look for a soft, warm bed. Think you could help me one last time?”
Caught a bit off guard, so sure that the moment Xena got a good look at Hercules she’d be all over him, Iolaus managed to say, “Well, yeah, uh…I think that can be arranged. See ya.”
“Uh, huh.” Hercules replied with a grin that made it’s way from one cheek to the other, but it wasn’t heartfelt. He was, in truth, a bit amazed at Iolaus’ great good luck. Also, in truth, he was a bit ashamed at himself for the small twinge of jealousy he felt as his friend walked away with Xena towards the inn portion of the tavern.
It was obvious that Hercules had made some really good progress on the wall at his mother’s place. The front was finished and the side closest to the barn was almost three-quarters complete. Alcmene was by her son’s side, proffering the water skin commenting once again on Iolaus’ absence.
“The last time I saw him, he was walking out of the inn with a big dumb smile on his face. That was a week ago. What’s he doing anyway?”
Alcmene chuckled then replied “Hercules, you fathered three children. You shouldn’t have to ask.”
“Mother!” the demigod exclaimed, a bit taken aback by her allusion to Iolaus’ extracurricular activities. “That’s not what I’m talking about. It’s just that, for a long time with all the traveling I was doing, the labors and all, I didn’t get to see much of him anymore. That’s one reason why I was glad that he’d agreed to be my partner and travel with me again. And now, now that we’ve got some down time before someone comes for our help, I was hoping we could do something normal, relaxing. You know, like - I don’t know, hunt, fish, whatever, talk…”
“I know how much you enjoy spending time with Iolaus, but where love and humans are involved, you never know what to expect.”
“But Iolaus doesn’t know anything about this Xena. I mean, what if she’s got a jealous husband?”
“What if she’s the best possible cure for his loneliness? I think until you find out otherwise, you should just be happy for him.”
“Okay, okay,” Hercules agreed almost too quickly in an attempt to cut his mother off before she started in on his own lonely bachelor existence. “You’re right…again. I’ll just be here building the wall by myself.” It hurt him to think that someday he would have to lay the whole truth in front of his mother and hurt her with it. That a new daughter-in-law and grandkids were completely out of the question with the threat that Hera hung over his head. And that it wasn’t just him…that the same curse of Hera’s hung over Iolaus’ head too.
Iolaus’ head was spinning with the rapidity of it all. This beautiful, talented, loving and sexy woman was dropped into his life by the Fates and he was shocked to realize after the third or forth day that he had fallen in love.
The immediacy and urgency they had discovered with each other in bed needed to be tempered by time-outs. Iolaus suggested walks in the forests and meadows of Thebes. He suggested that she might like to come and watch him hunt or fish and he was tickled to learn that Xena enjoyed these sports almost as much as he did. He found himself being delighted that he was able to share some of his old hunter’s tricks with her.
She blew him away one day by sharing some hunting skills of her own. They had decided on quail for lunch. Iolaus took her to the area near the lake where birds liked to nest and they began to hunt some out. They heard the telltale noises of the birds in a large bush. Xena motioned for Iolaus to flush them out so she could catch them. He could see that she wasn’t prepared with a net or cloth so he waited. She impatiently motioned again for him to flush them out. This time, with a shrug of his shoulders and a big question in his mind, he played along with her. It happened quickly, almost too quickly for him to grasp what had just happened. He picked up a stick and rattled the bushes to scare the birds. The quail took flight and, faster than lightning, Xena’s hands shot out and grabbed two birds from mid-air. Stunned, Iolaus fell back onto his rear end and stared up at Xena then he began to laugh.
“You know, the only time I’ve ever seen anything that could possibly compare to that is when Herc and I go fishing. He has this way of shooting his hands into the water and pulling out a fish. No lines…no hooks… You’re amazing!” Iolaus marveled.
“I bet Hercules couldn’t do it with birds though, fish are easy - the friction through the water slows them down. How would you like me to teach you how to do it?” Xena asked.
“You think I could learn to do that? Whooooo boy, I can’t wait to see the look on Herc’s face when he sees me pull his dinner out of thin air.” And just the thought of it delighted him so much he fell onto his back and laughed until tears rolled down his face.
He tried not to compare, but this woman was so different from Ania he began to wonder if that was why he found her attractive. Someone else to love but not a replacement for the irreplaceable.
Xena was the kind of woman who could be counted on to take care of herself if he were out traveling with Hercules. And he didn’t think she was the kind of woman who stood on much ceremony. If she weren’t his wife she wouldn’t have to come to the attention of Hera so fast, in fact, maybe not at all.
Xena, for her part, was taking this week to be a much needed vacation. She hadn’t really had a moment’s peace since the day she’d left home almost eight years before. Ensnaring Iolaus was fun and almost too easy. She was enjoying the charade…enjoying the sex and was a bit surprised at herself to find that she was enjoying the man’s company.
During their days Xena tried to keep the conversations focused on Iolaus, asking more about his life but giving away little about hers. As a result, Iolaus regaled her with tales of his adventures with Hercules, the monsters they’d fought, battles they’d won. For the first time in her life Xena felt something akin to a twinge of jealousy. She had every material thing a woman could want, and if she found something else that she wanted, she could take it by force if need be. But the tales of back-to-back heroism forced her to focus on a need in her life that force couldn’t fill. She had no one to willingly, unselfishly guard her back.
As the days passed, the stories of Iolaus’ life with Hercules began to annoy and grate on her nerves. Enough was enough!
“Can we talk about something else besides Hercules?” Xena asked curtly one afternoon as they were relaxing by the lake.
Iolaus looked a bit taken aback by her reaction to his storytelling and then something dawned on him.
“You know, you should have said something before. Here you’ve let me monopolize the conversations and I don’t know near as much about you as I want to.”
“You know I have feelings for you, Iolaus. Isn’t that enough?” Xena said trying to redirect his attention.
“No, it’s not because I have feelings for you too and I want to know as much about you as I can. Everything I learn about you makes you even more wonderful to my eyes. Why, I don’t even know where you’re from.” Iolaus said.
“Amphipolis,” Xena said, figuring it was a small enough place on the map and Iolaus would probably never have heard of it. She could tell him anything about it.
“Amphipolis…Amphipolis… Oh, didn’t they have a problem with a warlord seven or eight years back. Word had it that city was pretty much left a ghost town,” Iolaus said concernedly.
“No, they’re strong people, they’ve rebuilt. They sent someone to ask for Hercules’ help but he never showed,” she said matter-of-factly but not being able to hide the bitterness in her voice.
“He was married, with children at that time,” Iolaus said as way of explanation. “He’d retired.”
“Warlords don’t retire, heroes shouldn’t,” Xena stated flatly.
“But…” Iolaus began to reason with her.
“No buts, Iolaus. The people sent for him in their innocence and they died in disappointment when he didn’t show up. They should never have put their trust in him. He’s of the gods and gods can never be trusted. As for me, I put my faith in men. Mortals are the real heroes. You’re the real hero to me. And I don’t want to talk about it anymore, please Iolaus. I’m afraid I’ll lose your love if I continue with my thoughts on Hercules.”
“If you knew him like I do, I’m sure you wouldn’t feel that way, Xena. But we’ll talk about anything you want if you’re not comfortable,” Iolaus said, but thought that, given enough time, he could get her to like and understand the demigod as much as he did.
The very next day, a lazy afternoon spent in acts of passion and tender budding love played itself out in Xena’s room at the inn. Kiss after kiss, kindled warmth inside Iolaus and the desire to melt into this beautiful woman’s soft flesh. With a whispered groan, Xena pulled away from him, cooling his ardor for the moment.
“What’s wrong?” he asked with concern.
“I don’t want you to fall in love with me,” Xena said with a nice touch of anguish in her voice.
“It may be too late. Have you thought about that?” Iolaus asked earnestly.
“I was hoping I’d be the only one to go away from this with a broken heart,” Xena replied as she sat on the bed in a dejected pose, hands in her lap, eyes down.
“You don’t have to go away. I want you here.” Iolaus assured her.
“I know you do…and I’d stay…if it didn’t mean I was letting somebody else down,” Xena said, knowing that she would shock him with those words.
“You never spoke about another man,” Iolaus said, feeling as if an icy hand had just gripped his entrails and twisted them.
“Not one man, many of them…and women and children, too. They’re under siege by a warlord named Petrakis. He’s trying to drive them out of the Arcadian Highlands. I’m building an army to defend them,” Xena explained herself quickly, instantly releasing Iolaus from the pain she had just inflicted.
“That’s why you were traveling with so many weapons; you’re a warrior,” Iolaus guessed.
“I used to think I was, but now I know that no matter how hard I fight, I can’t beat Petrakis by myself. I need help,” Xena responded quite earnestly.
“You came to get Hercules, didn’t you? Why didn’t you say something to him in the tavern last week?” Iolaus asked, his voice a bit harsh, not really wanting to hear her answer.
“Yes, I came to get Hercules…but I FOUND you,” Xena replied with just the right answer.
“Then I should be the one you ask for help,” Iolaus urged her.
“I can’t do that,” Xena flatly stated.
“Why? ‘Cause Hercules is better than me? Is that it? He’s the big, strong demigod and I’m some meaningless jester?” Iolaus asked, emotionally charged by the old flashes of jealousy and pride that he thought were long gone.
“No! It’s because it wouldn’t turn my life upside down if he got hurt…or even killed. But if something happened to you…” again, Xena uttered just the right words to soothe Iolaus’ heart and to increase the love.
“Nothing is gonna happen to me,” Iolaus assured her, fully appeased by her care and concern for him.
“You’re not going to take ‘no’ for an answer, are you?” she asked as she finally allowed herself to be taken into the refuge of his arms.
“No. I’m afraid you’re stuck with me,” he reassured his beautiful lover.
“I like it like that,” she replied seductively then leant forward to rekindle the afternoon’s passion with a kiss.
Another deep kiss, then another and another before Xena pushed back and freed herself from the warrior’s arms. A warrior, yes…but not Iolaus.
“I was beginning to wonder when you were going to call for me again. You asked me to wait, but the waiting has almost made me crazy with worry,” The young man complained.
He dove for her mouth with his own once again, but she firmly pushed herself away. “Enough!”
“But it’s been so long,” he groaned.
“Better to go without than to have to share a bed with Hercules’ best friend,” she said. Cruelly taunting him with confirmation of her recent activities.
“I’ll kill any man who touches you!” the young man declared vehemently.
“No, Theodorus. Kill Hercules,” Xena ordered.
“You’d let me have that honor?” the young mercenary asked incredulously.
“If you think you’re worthy?” Xena teasingly answered his question with a question.
“You know I am,” Theodorus replied enthusiastically, more than up to the task if it earned Xena’s respect and love.
“Then take this. It’ll make you strong in battle and return you safely back to me,” Xena said as she removed her jeweled locket from around her neck and fastened it around Theodorus’.
“Xena…” Theodorus said longingly as she gently pushed him away from her again.
“Hush now, my love and listen. I’ll need a couple of hours to put some distance between myself and this trash heap of a village before you strike. Go! Scout the area and devise your plan. Make me proud.” Xena urged the young mercenary.
“I will. I swear it,” Theodorus said as he obeyed her orders. She had called him her ‘love’. He could conquer the whole world for her.
A few minutes after Theodorus took his leave of Xena, Iolaus rode up to the inn on his own newly purchased stallion with Xena’s fully- healed horse in tow. They had agreed the night before to stop by Hercules’ place and let him know they’d be gone for a couple of weeks, figuring that’s how long it would take them to deal with Petrakis and free the people of the Arcadian Highlands from the warlord’s hold.
They sauntered up to the part of the wall that Hercules was working on and Iolaus called out to his friend, “Hey, looking good,” as he pointed to the wall.
“I wish it was looking finished,” Hercules said. A verbal jab at Iolaus for forgetting his promise to help with the wall. Then taking in the full saddlebags and stuffed packs the demigod added, “Where are you going?”
“We’re going to rid my people of the warlord Petrakis,” Xena replied for them both.
“I’ve never heard of him,” Hercules said in mild puzzlement.
“Well, from what Xena says, you and the whole world will if he isn’t stopped in Arcadia,” Iolaus assured the demigod.
“Is there anything I can do?” Hercules asked in concern.
“No!” Xena snapped at him, a little rudely.
“I’m just offering my help,” Hercules said, feeling totally rebuffed and baffled that someone would need help and not be looking for HIS help.
“Iolaus is all the help I need,” Xena assured the demigod.
“Well, you know how I feel about him; he’s the best,” Hercules told her with just the littlest bit of jealously in his voice letting on that he didn’t like it that his friend had gotten the girl…and the adventure…and he was going to be the one left behind this time. Being left behind was definitely a first for Hercules and it was not a nice feeling. He’d have to remember to tell Iolaus that he understood now, but he wouldn’t do it until after Iolaus returned.
“That’s why he’s with me,” Xena called over her shoulder. “Yah!” she shouted as she urged her horse to turn around and head back for the road, leaving Iolaus to complete his goodbyes.
“If it turns out that you do need me, I’ll be there for you. Just send word.” Hercules said, not wanting to impose himself in Iolaus’ new love life.
“Yeah Herc, I know you will. But, I don’t want you to get the wrong idea about Xena. She’s worth whatever risk it takes,” Iolaus said and Hercules could see the truth of the matter in his best friend’s eyes.
“Then you’re lucky she’s in your life,” Hercules said as he swallowed hard, yet wanting to be reassuring for his friend.
“Come on, Iolaus.” Xena called to him from the road.
“Come on, come on. Yah, ” Iolaus said as he turned his own horse towards the road.
“Good luck my friend” Hercules called after Iolaus and waved.
This wasn’t right. They were partners. They had agreed. He should be going with Iolaus. Well, maybe not in the same camp. He wouldn’t want to put a crimp in his friend’s… um…spontaneity. But he could have asked him to follow, to scout, to help. They were going to have to talk about this when Iolaus returned. This wasn’t Hercules’ idea of partnership.
After another hour or two with the wall, Hercules had to stop work. He was distracted -- fighting an internal battle with himself. He and Iolaus had recently discussed the dangers they both faced in getting involved with women and families again. ‘How could it be possible for Iolaus to forget so soon. A beautiful woman, indeed, but maybe Iolaus would have to be reminded that he couldn’t put another human being in danger that way, especially if he loved that being. And giving his heart away so quickly? What did they know about this Xena?’ Hercules thought, almost forgetting how rapidly he’d become infatuated with his Deianeira.
He returned to the barn with his tools. He’d get cleaned up, have lunch with his mother, then take a quick swing up to Corinth to see if there was any news he could find there of a warlord named Petrakis. Someone in Jason’s security forces would be sure to have a handle on any potential threats to the region.
A shadowy figure in the rear of the barn lifted a knife from it’s belt and, taking careful aim, threw it at the demigod’s head. As a matter of pure luck, Hercules ducked; the knife just barely missed the top of his head. He stood, looked around him and spotted the shadowy figure of Theodorus at the back of the barn.
“You know, a true warrior attacks from the front,” Hercules said to the young warrior.
“My commander says you attack from whatever side suits your purpose,” the young man responded.
“So, he’s a coward too,” Hercules said as he egged the man on, trying to buy some time before the next attack.
The demigod’s words, however, did not elicit more conversation from the man. What he got was another knife thrown at this head. It missed but was immediately followed by hand-to-hand combat as Theodorus approached him with drawn sword.
After a couple of punches, drop kicks and swings of the sword, Theodorus wound up on his back in the hay.
“Uh…better try something else,” Hercules taunted the young man when his last attempt to skewer the demigod failed.
“With pleasure,” Theodorus hissed as he dragged himself back to his feet.
“Me and my big mouth,” Hercules muttered as he fixed his position for the next attack.
A few more swings of Theodorus’ sword had Hercules dancing around the barn trying to keep out of it’s reach.
“Enjoy this while you can,” Hercules again taunted the young mercenary. He was trying to get the man to make a mistake so he could take him down without hurting him too much. He wanted to question this man to find out the reason for his rage.
“I’m still enjoying it, Hercules. Disappointed?” Theodorus bravely threw back his own taunts at the demigod.
“As a matter of fact, yes.” The demigod replied annoyedly.
Just then Theodorus took a wild swing and overreached his mark. He lost his balance and fell off the ladder hard onto a rake, it’s metal prongs impaling him.
“Why did you attack me?” asked the demigod. Disappointment that he couldn’t have prevented this accident was written all over his face.
“Love,” was the young man’s response, which visibly shocked the demigod.
“Whose love?” he asked, almost afraid to hear the answer.
“Xena. I’m sorry I failed you,” said Theodorus with his last breaths, as he looked at something far beyond the demigod’s shoulder. He relaxed his head back into the dirt and hay on the floor of the barn, and he died.
Hercules examined the man’s body, looking for some form of identification. He reached for the man’s neck and removed Xena’s locket from the folds of his collar.
“Xena?” Hercules whispered with full realization dawning on his face.
Hercules rolled the assassin over onto his stomach and removed the rake from the man’s back then he covered the body with a horse blanket. He went up to the house to get something to drink before digging a grave for the stranger who had just tried to kill him. He also needed to warn his mother about the body in the barn before she stumbled across it unknowingly.
Alcmene listened to Hercules as he told her about Iolaus and Xena and then about the attack on him in the barn. She poured her son a tall glass of grape juice and watched him as he drank.
“I don’t understand why you think it’s her. There must be lots of other Xenas in the world,” Alcmene questioned her son.
“I’d agree with you if the warrior who attacked me hadn’t been wearing Xena’s locket,” Hercules answered his mother while dangling the shining piece of jewelry before her.
“That still doesn’t explain him trying to kill you, Hercules,” she insisted.
“He loved her, and he wanted to prove it,” Hercules told her.
“Are you sure that’s why he died?” she asked.
Hercules rose from the table and paced nervously between dining room and kitchen as he tried to come to terms with the implications himself.
“He didn’t just die, Mother. Xena sent him on a suicide mission,” he insisted.
“But there’s no reason for that,” Alcmene tried to reason with her son.
“Yes, there is. He was the bait. Now Xena expects me to go after Iolaus and walk right into whatever trap she’s laying,” Hercules explained.
“And that’s what you’re going to do, isn’t it?” Alcmene asked, her voice filled with concern.
“I have to!” Hercules stated emphatically.
“Iolaus will think you’re coming to steal his glory. If she’s as evil as you believe she might be, this woman will make sure of that. You’ll destroy your friendship with Iolaus,” Alcmene said in warning. She needed her son to think this through just a little better before he went rushing off into the unknown.
“Saving his life is more important to me, Mother. And our friendship is deep. It’s survived so many tests and trials over the years and it only gets stronger…like forged metal. You know that. I don’t think I could ever live with myself again knowing what I know and not trying to save his life. I hope I’m wrong about this. I have to make sure,” Hercules assured her.
“Promise me you’ll come back in one piece?” said Alcmene, knowing she’d done her best. Now it was time to let him go.
“In one piece, Mother. I promise…AND with Iolaus,” Hercules said with conviction.
“Will you stay here tonight and let me pack you some supplies for your journey?” his mother asked.
“No, Mother. There’s no time for that. I need to make a quick stop in Corinth to gather some information before I head out to the Arcadian Highlands. Besides, if I show up too soon Iolaus won’t have a chance to come to his own conclusions about his new love” said Hercules, sincerely hoping that Iolaus would be able to see past Xena’s beauty and false sincerity before anything happened.
Late in the afternoon during their first day of traveling to Arcadia, Xena and Iolaus dismounted to give their horses a much needed break. They ambled quietly, each to their own thoughts. Xena could almost read the emotions that were criss-crossing the blond warrior’s face. He was thinking about his partner, their tie, their shared adventures and wondering, for everything that he was worth, why Xena would choose him as champion over Hercules who was his own hero.
“In case you’re still wondering,” she interrupted his train of thought. “I really would rather go into battle with you.”
“You don’t have to make me feel good,” Iolaus told her.
“You don’t have to treat me like I’m a hypocrite. Believe it or not, I don’t give a fig for Hercules or his reputation,” said Xena with a tinge of hurt in her voice.
“Then you’re the only one, Xena,” Iolaus assured her.
“Maybe you and the rest of his adoring legions should take a closer look at him. What’s Hercules really fighting for? Go ahead, Iolaus. Tell me,” Xena said, forcing the issue.
“He fights to help people. I thought everybody knew that. He wants to stop slavery and injustice,” Iolaus told her.
“No! Stop! You’re a grown man. You’re an honored warrior, and yet you’re still taken in by the same lies that school children cling to,” she said.
“They’re not lies. I’ve seen the good that Hercules can do. I’ve been there with him,” he insisted.
“Then you should know better than anybody that all Hercules is fighting for is to prove that he can succeed without Zeus…and to get revenge on Hera for killing his family. He’s selfish, Iolaus. He’s selfish right to the bone,” she said, prodding him, testing him to see how much headway the love he bore her had made in his resolve to defend his friend.
“I don’t need to hear this…” Iolaus replied irritably.
“And I don’t need to hear that Hercules should be here instead of you. Fact is…I think you’re a better man than he will ever be…or…” she trailed off, gazing into his eyes with a type of hero worship that Iolaus hadn’t seen in a woman’s eyes for him since his Ania passed. He succumbed to her charming naiviety He would explain to her about Hercules, through tales of their lives together so she could get to know and like him as much as Iolaus did. He assumed that she was resentful that Hercules hadn’t come to save Amphipolis and that those feelings ran deep. It would definitely take some time and fancy talking on his part but he was sure he could charm her over to his way of looking at the demigod.
“Come on,” he said to her and they resumed their journey.
A few days later as Xena and Iolaus rode over one more hill, taking them ever closer to Xena’s camp, they halted on the crest to take in the spectacular view presented to them from this vantage.
“This is beautiful country. I can see why you’re fighting to keep it,” Iolaus said.
“You’re gonna do more than see. There. They’re part of Petrakis’ legion.” Xena said as she pointed down the slope to a band of mercenaries who accompanied a wagon loaded with weapons.
“What do you want to do?” Iolaus asked
“I want to wipe them off the face of the earth,” Xena called back to him, spurring her horse into a gallop.
“I can’t sit this one out.” He said as he whooped down the hill after Xena.
“It’s that murdering warrior, Xena.” Shouted one soldier in warning to the rest.
“Watch out! It’s Xena. Let’s go. Quickly!” the men shouted to each other readying their weapons. But it was to no avail, because in seconds Xena, in all her rage, was upon them; her sword flashing silver in the strong sunlight before slashing and running red with the soldiers’ blood.
“Is this the best you’ve got! Bring it on!” Xena shouted over the clash of swords.
“Boy, you know how to show a guy a good time.” Iolaus shouted out to her over his shoulder. He was in a familiar position, fighting back-to-back with a skilled warrior and, if he weren’t so busy being in the middle of a good fight of his own, he would be shaking his head in wonder that this woman, his Xena, was as masterful a warrior as both Hercules and himself. Somehow it just didn’t seem right.
“Don’t talk. Fight!” Xena remonstrated him.
“Okay.” Iolaus replied, tucking away a reminder to himself that he’d have to get her to loosen up. He and Herc could carry on a whole conversation while they fought the bad guys. It was a bit disarming to the enemy he’d been told.
“Don’t let him get away!” Xena yelled at Iolaus as he watched the last of the mercenaries he’d beaten run away.
“Ah, it’s over, Xena. Let him go,” Iolaus said, grabbing her arm and pulling her back as she made to chase after the straggler.
“What do you think you’re doing,” she rounded on him when he prevented her from killing the man.
“No! We’ve won. He’s not coming back.” Iolaus said to her softly as if she were a school child and he was teaching her a lesson in battle etiquette.
“Yeah, I guess not.” Xena said, remembering in the midst of her blood lust that she was dealing with a ‘noble’ hero in Iolaus.
“You were great! No…better than that. You were amazing!” Iolaus said, trying to take her mind off of the escaping mercenary yet meaning every word of it.
“You don’t have to say that,” Xena said with false modesty.
“But it’s true. The only warrior I’ve seen who is as magnificent as you are, is Hercules,” Iolaus said, putting words to his recent thoughts. He was truly impressed by her performance.
“I’m honored,” she said without a blush.
“You deserve to be,” Iolaus replied earnestly.
“Well, if you mean that, you won’t try to stop me burning the wagon,” Xena said as she pulled away from the grip he still had on her arm. Xena’s movement caused the knife he’d forged with Hercules to drop unnoticed from his vest.
The next day after some hard riding Iolaus and Xena made it to her camp.
“It’s Xena!” shouted the guard on the watchtower.
“We were worried about you,” said one of the soldiers who ran to meet her as she rode into the compound.
“Give us some room,” she ordered the men as she threw one of them the reins and dismounted.
“We thought something had happened,” another of her men called to her.
“Act like warriors,” she admonished them all.
“Who’s this?” asked a large warrior, obviously one of the commanders, as he pointed at Iolaus and glared at him with suspicion written all over his face.
“This is the man who gives us the power to defeat Petrakis.” Xena answered proudly.
“I’m Iolaus,” said the blond warrior as he sized up the men in Xena’s makeshift ‘army,’ then offered the commander his hand.
“He’s Hercules’ best friend, Stragon,” Xena answered the large warrior. “I’ve never seen a man better with a sword.” Then turning to Iolaus she practically gushed with admiration as she said, “I want you to show me that move you used when you knocked the sword out of that soldier’s hand.”
“Even though I didn’t kill him with it?” Iolaus teased lightly.
“I can fix that. So can you,” she said to Iolaus. Then she turned to her men and said, “you’ve all got things to do. We’ll never defeat Petrakis if you just stand around.”
“All right!” Shouted Stragon to the troops. “Back to work.”
“As for you,” Xena said as she flirted openly with Iolaus in front of her men. “Come with me.”
Hercules had picked up some information from the security forces in Corinth that made his journey to Arcadia more urgent than he’d originally thought. He left the city abruptly, without taking the time to call on Jason. Niceties would have to be left for another time. He pushed himself in an attempt to catch up with his partner, barely stopping to eat or rest for almost a week, until he was less than a day behind Iolaus and Xena.
In the early afternoon of the seventh day of his journey from Thebes, the demigod was following a relatively fresh trail left by two horses when he came upon the smoking remnants of a wagon. He approached warily but realized that this extra caution wasn’t necessary as all of the bodies strewn about were dead.
His relief at not finding his partner among the dead was short lived when he spotted the knife he and Iolaus had forged laying in the grass next to the smoldering wagon.
“What could have happened to make you leave this behind, my friend,” the demigod muttered to himself as he picked the knife up and tucked it into his belt. Scanning the hills for any trace of his partner and Xena, Hercules picked up their trail again and pressed on more quickly than before.
A fine early dinner was waiting for them after a debriefing in Xena’s office about the current situation with Petrakis. Iolaus was surprised and pleased to discover that the cook had used some spices from the East that he’d been missing and secretly craving for the longest time. When he expressed his pleasure and amazement, Xena was truly glad he liked them and told him the spices were something she’d picked up in her travels.
Iolaus filed that information away for discussion at a later time. Maybe he could regale her with stories of his time in the East. Those tales would have to wait for happier, more relaxed times however. The business with Petrakis would be at the forefront of everything until it was taken care of.
They retired to Xena’s quarters. It was only late afternoon but after the battle of the previous day and the fact that they had put in several days of hard travel, they were in need of some rest.
Here again, to Iolaus’ surprise and pleasure, there was a hot bath awaiting them. Scented soaps and oils, warm soft towels and flickering candle light created an atmosphere of opulent sensuality that contrasted with the dirt-encrusted harshness of the army camp right outside the door.
At Xena’s urging, Iolaus stripped off his clothes and eased himself into the hot bath first. She slipped into the bedchamber and emerged wearing a dark blue, see-through robe made of the finest silk from Chin. It complimented her beauty in every way, especially the way it accented her eyes. She knew what she was doing to him…Iolaus was melting from the overload of physical sensations…from the slow burn of passion mixed with love and she was there to mold him, while he was soft and vulnerable to her charms. She would bend him to her will.
“I wasn’t expecting this from somebody whose warriors treat her like a hero,” Iolaus fairly purred in contentment.
“You deserve what you get. I deserve what I get,” she replied.
“I’m not gonna argue with you. I saw the way you handled yourself in that fight,” Iolaus joked with her.
“Did I impress you?” she coyly asked.
“Well, when a woman asks me for help, I don’t expect her to be so…” Iolaus trailed off looking for the most complimentary but diplomatic word, yet feeling too mellow to make much of an effort to find it.
“Independent? Violent?” Xena suggested.
“Yeah, and fearless too.” Iolaus told her, trying to put a better spin on what he perceived to be her bravery in battle. In fact, this Xena didn’t match the almost frightened, timidly knife-wielding Xena he’d met on the road back in Thebes. What was wrong with this picture. What could have frightened this brave woman so much on that normally peaceful road. This is another story he’d have to pursue with her when time permitted.
“Hard times breed hard people, Iolaus. There’s no avoiding that. My father was killed in battle and so were all three of my brothers.” Xena confided in him. “I won’t be,” she added with bravado.
“I admire your goal. But somewhere out there, there’s a warlord who’ll wade through an ocean of blood to keep you from achieving it. If not Petrakis, then the next one who comes along.” Iolaus said with deep concern for her as he turned around in the bath so he could watch her pour a goblet of wine for them.
“You sound like you’re worried about me,” Xena said, softening her voice to more sensual tones as she approached him in the bath.
“Well, I am. It’s not every day I meet a beautiful woman that wants to wash my back,” Iolaus joked taking the cue from Xena to lighten up the conversation.
“Oh, I will do more for you than that, Iolaus…much more,” she said as she stood next to the bath. She loosened the ties of her robe and let it sensually slide off of her shoulders and onto the floor as she climbed into the bath with him.
“You do this for all your warriors?” he asked flirtatiously.
“Only special ones,” she played along.
“Oh! I hope there aren’t too many of those,” Iolaus said, trying to look concerned but failing miserably.
“Right now, there’s just you,” she told him truthfully. For indeed, by this time she fully expected Theodorus to be dead.
Before they could get any further along than one kiss into their foreplay, there was an urgent knock on the door of Xena’s chambers.
“Come back later!” Xena commanded.
“But Hercules is here.” The soldier replied uncertainly.
“Hercules?” Iolaus questioned, a bit startled that his friend would just show up in Xena’s camp.
“He must have followed us.” Xena spat out.
“Why would he do that?” Iolaus questioned. It was totally uncharacteristic of his partner to do something like this. He knew it must be an urgent matter for Hercules to show up like this.
“Perhaps he doesn’t trust me with you,” Xena said cattily.
“He shouldn’t,” Iolaus said half jokingly but still deeply concerned.
“Or maybe he doesn’t think you’re man enough to help me,” Xena said, watering the seeds of self-doubt in Iolaus’ mind.
“I better go see what he wants,” Iolaus said, not quite accepting what Xena was trying to imply.
Iolaus dressed with speed, fueled by curiousity. He went outside Xena’s quarters just in time to hear one of Xena’s men say, “You’re a long way from home, Hercules.”
‘That’s a disrespectful way to greet a visitor,’ Iolaus thought. ‘Xena’s feelings about Herc must have spread to her men.’
“Hello, Iolaus.” Hercules greeted his best friend.
“I didn’t expect to see you here, Hercules,” Iolaus replied, letting his own suspicions of the demigod’s motives find their way into his voice.
“I didn’t expect to come,” Hercules said, letting Iolaus take the lead in the converation.
“Well, you didn’t have to. I thought we agreed on that,” Iolaus said.
“Well, that was before your warrior princess sent someone to kill me,” finally recognizing Iolaus ignorance of Xena’s true nature and trying to shock his friend out of his apparent annoyance with him.
“I don’t like the way you’re talking about a brave woman,” Iolaus said angrily, shocked at the lengths his friend would go to in order to discredit Xena.
“Since when is there anything brave about sneak attacks or the people behind them?” Hercules shot back, resentful of the fact that Iolaus chose not to believe him.
If Hercules could have heard Iolaus’ thoughts at that moment in time, he would have been amazed at the rapidity of the process. True he was angry that the demigod would come here and maliciously accuse Xena of a deed so horrible it was unthinkable. But he knew Hercules too well to discount all that he was saying. If an attempt was made on the demigod’s life, and Hercules thought it originated with Xena, it could have been one of these disrespectful men that performed the treachery in Xena’s name without her knowledge, believing that the bloody deed would gain her favor. In that case, Hercules’ life would still be in danger and he had to get out of here fast. If the men trusted him as much as Xena did, maybe he could find out what was going on. If a madman were threatening Hercules’ life, then he could also turn on Xena when she rejected him
“I think you better turn around and go home now, Hercules,” Iolaus told him.
“I was hoping you’d go with me,” Hercules offered, certain with all his heart that Iolaus would choose him and their friendship over his fling with Xena.
“No,” Iolaus replied abruptly.
No…Iolaus told him ‘No’ and that one simple word turned Hercules world completely upside down. He felt something tear in the vicinity of his heart. It allowed every bad thought and feeling -long ago forgiven and glossed over things that come up in any friendship - to come rushing into his mind. He couldn’t believe this…he couldn’t…
“Even though she wants me dead?” Hercules shouted at Iolaus now, unable to control himself.
“Where’s your proof?” Iolaus shot back.
“My words should be enough for you,” Hercules tried to remind his friend.
“It isn’t,” Iolaus said, gazing into his friend’s eyes, trying to get him to understand how important it was for him to leave.
Hercules was in too much of a state of disbelief and hurt to catch on to Iolaus’ unspoken message.
“I guess that means friendship doesn’t count?” he asked.
“Not when you poison it by coming here,” Iolaus said, exasperated with his friend for not catching on and desperately egging him on to leave.
“Iolaus, what are you talking about? You’ve got it all wrong. I need to talk to you in private,” Hercules said giving one more shot at rescuing the friendship.
“Just get out of here, Hercules. We’re through talking,” Iolaus said. Hating himself for having to be so cruel. His own words tore at his gut as they came across his lips. He prayed that someday Hercules would find it in his heart to forgive him. But at least he’d be alive and there’d be a chance at forgiveness.
“Why? Are you afraid of what you’ll hear?” Hercules said, not able to let his love for this man go without a fight.
“Get out of here!” Iolaus shouted. Unable to take any more of this himself.
“You haven’t answered my question,” Hercules said flatly.
That was it. Iolaus had to act fast as some of Xena’s warriors were crowding them, getting too close for comfort. He threw his best punch at Hercules praying that that would be the final straw and enough to chase him off. He was frustrated that his friend wouldn’t take the hint.
Hercules was caught off guard by the punch. He reeled a bit before catching himself and turning to confront Iolaus one last time.
“I think you lost this,” Hercules said as he tossed Iolaus’ knife, the tangible symbol of their partnership, to the ground.
“Goodbye, Iolaus,” were his last words before he turned and practically ran from the compound.
Hercules walked all night and well into the next day without pause. He knew he was headed in the general direction of Arcadia but didn’t know how close he was until he heard sounds of increasing traffic and realized he was on the outskirts of a town that had more the appearance of a military fort.
He hadn’t stopped to eat or drink. He had no appetite. Only the knowledge that he needed nourishment to sustain himself so he’d be able to deal with this Petrakis caused him to stop at the first tavern he came to inside the gates. He ordered a simple meal of lamb stew and flat bread then he found himself a seat at one of the only empty tables inside the place.
Villagers who recognized him urged one of their leaders to confront Hercules about the warrior woman who threatened them. “It’s him, I tell you. I can tell from behind. Why don’t you go ask him. Go on, what are you afraid of? Ask him.”
Hercules looked up from his bowl as the lead villager approached.
“Uh…Have you…taken care of her yet?” the man asked optimistically.
“I don’t know who you’re talking about?” Hercules said, not really wanting to discuss anything right now.
“Xena…the warrior princess, who else?” the man asked, not taking the hint.
“She just wants to write her name across history in big bloody letters. She won’t rest until she’s wiped out everybody and everything that’s stopping her from conquering Arcadia,” another villager piped up now that the ice was broken with the hero.
Still another villager chipped in “If we don’t give her all our crops and our wares, she kills every man in sight.”
Not getting a response from the demigod, the lead villager added, “We’re ordinary people, farmers and mill hands, not warriors. You have to help us, Hercules.”
“Come on Hercules, what do you say?” the villagers urged him. “Please Hercules, Help us, Don’t go. We need your help.”
“I’m sorry,” Hercules replied wearily. “I just don’t have the strength right now. Excuse me.”
One called after him, “Please, don’t desert us, Hercules,” and the demigod found that he didn’t even have the energy to care.
“Look, there’s nothing more to talk about,” Hercules said as he picked up his bowl of stew and headed for the door. He’d find a quiet place to sit outside under the stars where he could be alone with his thoughts.
An older man with tired but kind eyes stopped him by the door. “Oh, yes there is. Why don’t we start with whatever it is you lost? You want to tell me what it was?”
“It wasn’t a ‘what’; it was a ‘who’. Best friend I ever had. Xena got him to fall in love with her and now she’s turned him against me,” Hercules replied, figuring if they knew a bit about what was going on with him they’d all leave him alone.
“If your friend took the trouble to look into her past, he’d know that she was using him to get you here. Once she has your head hanging on her wall, she doesn’t expect anybody to stand in her way,” the old man told him.
“Well, somebody else will have to be her trophy. I’m going home,” Hercules decided.
“I see. A night’s rest would do you good. I…I could put you up at my place, if you like,” the kind old man offered.
“Are you sure it’s no trouble?” Hercules asked, grateful for a chance to rest someplace away from this tavern.
“If it were, I wouldn’t have invited you. The name’s Petrakis,” the old man said as he offered the demigod his hand in welcome.
“The warlord?” Hercules asked, not quite believing what he was hearing.
“Take a closer look at me, son. Do I look like a warlord to you?” Petrakis asked.
“No, you don’t,” the demigod admitted.
“No, of course not. I’m a farmer…and an old one at that. Xena doesn’t care anything for the truth when she’s trying to get someone into her clutches. She takes my name and applies it to some imaginary madman who rose from Hades, robbing shrines and murdering innocent people.”
“It sounds like she’ll do anything to get what she wants,” Hercules surmised.
“And she wants everything. And if she kills you, there’ll be nothing to stop her,” Petrakis said confirming Hercules’ own thoughts.
‘Time,’ Iolaus thought. ‘I just need enough time to sort this all out. I can’t confront Xena about this. She’ll think I don’t trust her and nothing will kill a relationship quicker than lack of trust.’ Then with a derisive little laugh he thought, ‘Just ask Herc.’ Iolaus spent a good part of that evening and the next day fraternizing with the troops. He felt that he would need to gain their confidence and acceptance if he were to fight beside them at some point and he also wanted to be in a position where they could trust him. He wanted to dig for information about this threat on Hercules’ life. He took lunch in the men’s quarters and picked up a bit of talk about their experiences. He caught a good look at some of their trappings and realized just how far and wide these warriors had traveled to collect their booty: rugs, chests and prayer books from Chin; weapons and bedding from Indus; porcelain and spice boxes from Persia.
He also caught on that this was only about one third of the full complement of Xena’s forces. The other portion led by someone named Darphus would be joining them before too long.
The men were eager to hear the tales of his adventures with Hercules. He spent the evening trading sword tricks and fighting techniques and stories. Then he retired to Xena’s quarters where he was welcomed eagerly with heady wine, sweets and other treats.
By the evening of the second day after his fight with Hercules, he started to put two-and-two together in earnest. He realized that Xena was the female warlord from the East that they’d been hearing rumors about for so long. Yet no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t reconcile the facts in his own mind. The Xena he loved was not that woman. She was a sweet, passionate woman with a good sense of humor and she was a brave warrior. It could not all be an act. He would know.
He tried to believe that she was only a figurehead, someone for the barbarous mercenaries to rally around. But he knew he’d only be fooling himself. Again, it boiled down to the fact that he’d need time to sort it all out, time to extricate the both of them from this situation. Time to send to Corinth for an army to come and take care of the mercenaries before the other, larger part of the army caught up with them.
Yes, with just a little more time he’d be able to fix everything -- and it was the one thing he knew he wouldn’t have.
Iolaus realized, almost immediately after their fight, that Hercules would never give up on him. It was probably the only thing he could count on in this world, the only thing that he really needed to know.
This time was different though. He was afraid he’d damaged their friendship beyond fixing. He had done the unimaginable. He felt as if he betrayed the love and trust of the demigod…the basis for his life…the core of their partnership. He didn’t think he deserved to live right now and he couldn’t bear to see Xena come to harm. He really couldn’t even begin to think of how to go about fixing it. No time…no time…
The only thing left for him was to be ready to do the right thing.
He sat outside sharpening his sword under the stars after the evening meal. The rhythmic grind of stone on steel helped him focus his thoughts.
“If Hercules was really your friend, he wouldn’t have come here and tried to interfere,” Xena said, aggravated by his emotional distance, deliberately trying to rile him.
“Well I guess you’re right, Xena. It’s just…I’ve never been on a different side to Hercules before,” Iolaus replied sadly.
“You didn’t let that stop you from standing up to him. You were a true warrior,” she praised him.
“If I was anything less, you wouldn’t want me here,” he said, speaking the words she’d want to hear.
“You’ve turned out to be everything I thought Hercules would be. But Hercules…I can be fierce and violent, Iolaus you’ve seen that for yourself. But to hear Hercules say what he said…it was like having a dagger plunged through my heart,” she said in feigned innocence.
‘After it passed through my heart first,’ Iolaus thought, but the words he spoke to her were “I’ve ended my friendship with him.”
“Then you must be in pain, too,” Xena sympathized.
“Not so much…not as long as I’m with you,” he tried to reassure her.
“Come to bed when you’re finished with your sword. I’ll be waiting,” she said as she left him to put aside his bond with the demigod. Then, she thought, she’d spend the rest of the night trying to cement her own bond with Iolaus - maybe make him some promises she never intend to keep. It was all coming together so nicely according to plan.
Iolaus finished sharpening his sword and went for a walk. He had one last thing to do before he turned in for the night. He found the scar-faced warrior who was so interested that afternoon in seeing his sword moves. Iolaus told him that he figured out why he was having so much trouble with the relatively easy move. It was simple, Iolaus had the better sword, more perfectly balanced. He showed him a couple of more times and stood back to watch the man swing the sword himself.
“Hey, why don’t you keep my sword to practice with, you’ll see the difference immediately. I’ll take yours in the meantime. Just remember, when I ask you for it back, you’ve got to return it, okay?”
The mercenary was secretly pleased that Xena’s current favorite was taking the time to single him out for this special treatment. No one had paid that much attention to him since he’d signed up with the warrior woman’s army.
Iolaus returned to the spot under the stars that he had occupied earlier and began carefully sharpening the mercenary’s sword. With each scrape against the steel he braced himself for the confrontation he knew would be coming soon.
Iolaus retired to Xena’s bed and treated her to an extra loving and sensuous session, almost as a punishment both to her, and to himself. He would have given her his all. He needed her to know that. Besides, if this was to be his last night on earth he was going to make the most of it. He called on all the tricks he’d picked up in the East.
By the time the moon was high enough to peep through her window, Xena was floating on a level she hadn’t been on in years. By the time two moon widths had passed, Xena was like clay in the master sculptor’s hands. When he gave her a chance to think, which wasn’t often, she wondered if there were a way that she could get to keep Iolaus…loving her honestly…guarding her back willingly…filling her nights with splendor. She could have what she wanted if Hercules were permanently out of the way…if he were killed…but not by her hand. Stragon would do for the sacrifice…
Xena was unnerved. He’d taken her body and soul places she hadn’t allowed since her days in Chin. His stories of back-to-back heroism…of lay-down-your-life friendship… She knew it would be bad luck to break that special charm and lose the man who was touching her so. By the time she quit her bed in the early hours of the morning, she felt she would kill Hercules with her own two hands in order to keep Iolaus for herself.
In the morning, shortly before dawn, Iolaus was still sleeping. He was emotionally exhausted and physically drained.
Xena woke, dressed quietly, and met Stragon in her office.
“He turns into a whimpering dog every time I mention Hercules,” Xena craftily complained to get the sympathy of her leutenant.
“Then he must be taught to heel,” Stragon advised, jealously seeing Iolaus as a danger to his own feelings for Xena.
“He’ll be just fine if Hercules is out of the picture,” Xena said, feeling him out about the change in plans.
“But Hercules is gone already,” Estragon noted.
“Then it’s our job to find him and finish him. That is, if you think you’re brave enough to ride with me,” Xena said, driving in the nail that would get him to follow her or brand himself a coward.
“You know I am. But your strategy, I…” Stragon tried to get her to reconsider.
“A true warrior would understand…” Xena said authoritatively and that stopped Stragon from questioning her further.
“When do we go after him?”
“Right after dawn Be ready,” Xena ordered.
“And until then?” He looked at her hoping for a quick sexual reward.
“Save your strength,” Xena said, disgusted by his puppy dog-like eagerness.
Shortly after dawn, Hercules finished the breakfast that Petrakis left for him then he went to say good buy to the kind farmer. The demigod spotted the older man kneeling by a grave in the corner of an overgrown garden. He waited in silence for Petrakis to finish his visit.
“The most painful thing a parent can do is bury a child. My only son lies in that grave. He was barely twenty when he died at the hands of a Spartan. But it was really Xena who killed him.”
“You mean he fell into the same trap my friend is in?” Hercules asked.
“I warned him. Begged, pleaded, argued. I even ran down the road after him the day he road off, begging him…the one thing I didn’t do was give up,” Petrakis said pointedly.
“Is that what you think I’m doing, Petrakis? Giving up?”
“You tell me,” the older man challenged the demigod.
“Your son was a very young man. Iolaus is an adult, capable of living his own life, making his own decisions,” Hercules tried to reason coldly.
“And it’s all right if those decisions kill him?” Petrakis persisted, trying to break through the demigod’s hurt.
“You know it’s not,” Hercules snapped back.
“Then why are you letting him stay with that murdering harlot? She’s a monster, just like the Hydra and the Nemean Lion and the Stymphalian Bird. You didn’t walk away from fighting them, Hercules, and you can’t walk away from fighting her. Save him first and then you can both make the decision to walk away from the love you’ve shared or to make the effort to save that too.”
Faced with the quiet logic and persistence of the older man, Hercules had to reevaluate his own reaction to the anger and hurt he felt over Iolaus’ recent actions. They swore to watch each other’s back. He’d always honor that vow and the friendship behind it whether Iolaus did or not.
“You’re right, I can’t leave him there,” he finally told Petrakis. “Thank you.”
Iolaus woke up alone in bed. He pulled the silken covers around his waist and went to the window just in time to see Xena and Stragon ride out of the compound.
“Xena?” he whispered. “What could she be up to now?”
He washed, dressed quickly and joined the men for breakfast to try to glean any news from them that he could.
Xena and Stragon spotted Hercules in a valley that skirted the edge of the forest about two miles or so from Xena’s compound. They watched as the demigod kicked boulders the size of cows in his anger and sent them flying to the other side of the valley. Then they almost gasped in amazement as he picked up a melon-sized stone and sent it rocketing into the clouds.
Xena realized that she had grossly underestimated the demigod’s strength. She didn’t know if he was immortal or if he could be killed. She didn’t know what other powers he might have. She’d have to rely on trickery. As Hercules concentrated on killing Stragon she’d try to strike his death blow herself. If she failed she knew she could get away swiftly.
Hercules was lost in his own thoughts, upset that his partner had put them both in this dangerous position. He needed time to sort this all out with Iolaus and that was the one thing Xena wasn’t going to give them - especially not with the news he’d heard in Corinth about the rest of her army.
He plodded along through the grassy field up towards the forest, all the while kicking stones in his distraction.
Xena and Stragon took cover in the trees.
“There he is.” Stragon whispered.
“Shhhh, get back.” Xena cautioned him but Stragon, the big clutz, made a noise.
“Who’s there?” Hercules shouted. He scoured the area and found a suitable weapon in a fallen tree branch, then shouted again, “if you don’t show your face, I’m coming in there after you.”
“That won’t be necessary,” Stragon replied, in an attempt to shield his princess from the harm he caused.
“Did your warrior princess have a previous engagement?” Hercules asked him, surprised it was the lieutenant and not Xena herself out to get him.
“Even the mighty Hercules should show more respect than that.”
“For what? A murderer? A crazy woman whose only purpose in life is to kill and conquer?”
“That’s it! You’re dead!” Stragon shouted then charged the demigod.
“I’m not dead yet,” Hercules shouted back.
Stragon struck the first blow, opening a cut on the demigod’s upper arm.
‘So, he does bleed,’ Xena thought with interest.
Stragon was large, a formidable presence under normal circumstances, but he was awkward and clumsy in the fight with Hercules. The demigod had him on the ground in less than half a minute.
“No more,” Stragon said as he conceded defeat.
“What did you say?” Hercules asked, not quite believing it would be that simple. The ease of the defeat put Hercules on his guard and he constantly checked around him for another attack. Xena couldn’t get a clean shot at him. He was slowly wrecking her plans to kill the demigod and have Iolaus all to herself.
Xena could see that Hercules wasn’t going to be an easy kill, and that previous fight with Iolaus wasn’t enough to demoralize him and send him packing. ‘Sorry, Iolaus’ she thought. ‘I’m gonna have to fall back on my first plan…demoralize Hercules when he’s forced to kill you with his own hands. You see, in a way you will have my back. You’ll be helping me defeat Hercules. Then Greece will be mine!’
“I said I surrender. Please don’t kill me. I’m begging you, Hercules,” Stragon’s pleading voice broke into her thoughts.
“I’m not going to kill you. Stand up,” Hercules assured the man.
“What are you gonna do to me?” Stragon asked.
“Stragon!” Xena called to get his attention then she flung her Chakrum at him. It whirred through the air with speed and accuracy, slicing Stragon’s throat, killing him instantly.
Hercules had never seen anything like it. He gasped as the blood spurted from the man’s wound onto the ground at his feet.
“Is this what you do to all your warriors, Xena?” Hercules yelled, angered at the senseless killing.
“Only those who don’t follow my code,” She shouted back. Then putting her hands to her lips, she whistled for her horse.
“How about Iolaus? He won’t follow your code. Will you kill him too?”
“He doesn’t have to follow my code…but he is following my plan Hercules, even if he doesn’t realize it yet. I think it’s written in the stars that the one who loves Iolaus will be the one who kills Iolaus. You wanna do it? Or should I?” Xena asked, making sure the demigod would follow her back to her compound instead of taking the larger road back towards Thebes.
She mounted her horse in one smooth move and galloped off towards the road. When she figured she was at a safe distance, she dismounted and ground dirt into her skin and clothing, she mussed her hair and tore her outer garments. Then she rode back to the camp.
Iolaus was brooding, playing with the knife that he and Hercules forged. It was the only tangible evidence of the connection he still had with his friend, helping him reconnect with the beautiful memories of their time together, eliciting sad thoughts that Hercules will always remember him and their partnership in a bad light. But they had to stop Xena’s army, and he would do whatever it took, even if it meant his death. He would go down fighting at Herc’s back…right where he belonged.
His thoughts were interrupted when the lookout cried “It’s Xena! What’s happened to her?!?”
Iolaus ran to meet her as she rode through the gate, hunched over and appearing to be in pain.
“Are you all right?” he called up to her, then he helped her dismount.
“Xena, what happened?” he asked again when she failed to respond.
“He killed Stragon, and he tried to kill me,” she finally muttered as if she were coming out of a fog.
“Who did?” Iolaus pressed her for an answer.
Iolaus rushed Xena inside to her quarters and cleaned her up while fishing for information regarding his friend.
“He caught us by surprise, Iolaus. I thought I was going to die.”
“Ambushing people? Attacking first? That’s not the Hercules I know. He must have gone crazy or something.”
“You’d know that he had if you saw what he did to Stragon,” Xena told him.
“Stragon shouldn’t have been there with you; I should have,” Iolaus admonished her.
“But then, Hercules would have killed you,” she stated flatly.
“You think I’m the type to run away?” Iolaus asked her seriously.
“Other men would,” she answered him.
“Other men couldn’t love the way I have,” he stated a bit cryptically.
“Do you mean that? Could you really put me in your life before Hercules?” she eagerly asked him.
“I did once,” he said and hoped that would be enough for her.
“But this time is different. You’ve got to know that,” she told him.
“Yeah, I know. If Hercules comes for you, I may have to…um…fight,” Iolaus said as he dabbed a bit of blood off of her knuckles, trying not to let her see his eyes. He didn’t think he could keep the truth out of them right now.
“Can you do that?” she probed.
“Only for you,” He finally answered.
“Iolaus, I know you can defeat Hercules. I know it in my soul. You know the way Hercules fights; you know all his moves; you know all of his tricks; you know all of his weaknesses.”
He nodded in answer. He knew all of the demigod’s strengths and his honorable ways, too. He would help Hercules take out Xena’s army. He would help him hunt down and defeat the rest of the mercenaries who were on their way to the Arcadian Highlands…but he would also try to prevent any harm to Xena. He still couldn’t believe he was so wrong about her.
Xena hopped off the table and threw her arms around Iolaus in a warm embrace before leaving her quarters to talk with her men and prepare them for Hercules’ approach.
Iolaus cleaned up the bandages and went to the bedside to pick up his knife when he heard Xena’s voice coming to him through the window. He paused to listen.
“The only one to do battle with Hercules when he arrives is Iolaus, do you understand? Make sure everyone understands this point very well. I don’t care how quickly my little man dies, and I don’t care how painfully he does it, no one is to be out there until Iolaus is dead and Hercules is standing, staggered by the weight of what he’s done to his best friend. Then, and only then, do we move in to rid the world of the Son of Zeus. Do I make myself clear? Good. And not a word about this to Iolaus. If he knew what a sacrifice he was going to make, he might have second thoughts.”
Iolaus leant back against the wall, head down, arms loose at his side. He was trying to catch his breath. The first blow of the battle hadn’t been struck , yet his heart had already suffered two mortal wounds.
Xena’s words…how could he have been so wrong about her? He could hardly stand up from the shame he felt at that moment. How could she, after what they’d shared? Was she some new type of monster from the gods? And Herc -- Oh gods! His heart’s brother! Again the shame made him sink a little bit more into himself. Herc’s a miracle worker but even he couldn’t take all of these men ,and Xena, and survive. He would inadvertently be responsible for Herc’s death. ‘NOoooooo!!! His brain screamed inside his skull. He needed more time.
Xena was tipped off to the demigod’s approach by the watch tower guard. She returned to her office to alert Iolaus.
“He’s here,.” She said softly and he took his cue.
Hercules walked through the gate and headed straight for Iolaus
Iolaus stared straight into the demigod’s eyes and said, “I can’t believe you’d show your face here.” Then he whispered just loud enough for his partner’s acute hearing, “it’s too dangerous.”
Their eyes met and there was no anger in either of them, only a yearning to communicate and a joy that this, their silent connection could still be so easily understood.
Hercules let Iolaus know that they were both on the same side.
Hercules’ understanding washed over his soul like a healing balm.
“Stay out of this Iolaus. My fight’s with Xena, not you,” the demigod shouted at his friend, hoping to buy himself enough time to check out his surroundings.
“Don’t push me aside! You’re the one that attacked Xena and killed the warrior with her,” Iolaus said, playing along with his partner.
“Is that what she told you?”
“Get a weapon, Hercules,” Iolaus urged the demigod.
“She’s using you to get to me,” Hercules taunted his partner. The truth of this accusation ripped straight through him. His partner was still angry for being put in this position and his message was completely understood by Iolaus. But now was not the time he needed to hear this.
“Quit talking and get a weapon! I’m giving you the fair chance you never gave Xena,” he taunted back because he still believed that together they could have changed her. He’d had a glimpse at what was under her skin.
“And what if I don’t want it?” Hercules yelled back, still evaluating his surroundings.
“You don’t get off that easy,” Iolaus shouted then he approached the mercenary - the one he’d entrusted his sword to the night before -- and he asked for it back. The man was eager to serve Iolaus and he presented it quickly. Iolaus, in turn, tossed it to Hercules.
Hercules recognized the sword and realized that Iolaus had just armed him with the best weapon in the place. He was ready now and he made a motion to Iolaus letting him know as much.
They took a few practice swings with each other. Hercules, who didn’t normally use a weapon, appreciated the warm-up.
“What are you doing?!” Xena screamed at Iolaus. “Just kill him!”
“Come on! Let’s fight! ” Iolaus smiled as he egged his best friend on. “One more time…back-to-back!”
Xena immediately realized what was happening.
“Get them!” Xena screamed the order to her men.
We’ll continue this talk later,” Hercules said over his shoulder as he braced himself for the attack.
“Sure,” Iolaus replied sadly, dreading that confrontation almost more than dying in battle.
“I want them both dead!” Xena screamed again..
Her army attacked en masse. Hercules and Iolaus fought valiantly in their usual manner, taking the men out one by one, two by two and in one fine moment Hercules knocked out six with one massive sweep of his right hand.
The mercenary Iolaus was friendly with turned and was helping them out in the fight by slowing his former cohorts down, keeping them from joining in the fight all at once.
Xena watched the magic as the two men fought her army. They were like one being with two sets of hands. It was fantastic and she was envious of this thing they shared...this thing that she had lost.
“Hercules! Behind you!” Iolaus shouted. The warning was enough to save the demigod from what would have been a fatal blow to his head.
Coming out of the spin he used to escape the blow, Hercules knocked Iolaus to the ground by accident. Iolaus didn’t know who it was who’d knocked him down and he pulled out his knife on reflex, brandishing it up at the demigod.
“Are you going to use it?” Hercules asked. He was sorry to be unsure of his friend and couldn’t stop the flash of mistrust that appeared in his eyes.
Iolaus caught the look in his friend’s eyes and was stricken that he had caused that doubt.
“No. This knife wasn’t meant to draw your blood. Come on, let’s get it over with,” Iolaus answered.
Xena took a tally of her losses and decided it would be better to regroup with the rest of her army and destroy the demigod on another day.
“Let’s get out of here…Come on! Move!” she shouted the order to the men who remained fighting. She was mentally kicking herself for being unprepared with archers.
“Hercules! Hercules!” Iolaus shouted . He had managed to get himself slung over the back of a horse where three of Xena’s men were pounding him about the body, trying to break his ribs and spine.
Hercules grabbed the men off of his partner and helped him to the ground, making certain he was able to stand before turning again to fight.
“Let’s go…Let’s get out of here!” Xena’s soldiers shouted to one another as they followed their leader’s orders.
“Aren’t you even gonna say goodbye?” Hercules shouted across the compound to Xena who had already mounted her horse for a quick escape.
“Ha! You haven’t heard the last of me, Hercules! Yah!” Xena called back to him and she and her army rode off.
“You know…you could have caught her…if you hadn’t saved me from those three guys,” said Iolaus as he checked himself for broken ribs.
“You’re a little more important than she is,” Hercules assured his partner. He knew he’d been less than kind with him before and wanted Iolaus to know how things really stood.
“I don’t know which hurts more…my head…or knowing how stupid I was,” Iolaus admitted.
“It always helps to know what you’re fighting for before you start fighting,” Hercules told him.
“Is this where the lecture starts?” Iolaus asked with a roll of his eyes.
“It could be…but it won’t,” Hercules said while slipping his arm around his partner’s shoulders. He was just glad they were both alive and both on the same side.
As they walk away back to Arcadia, Iolaus felt the need to break the silence that had fallen between them.
“You know, if you really want to lecture me, it should be about the kind of woman I’m attracted to,” he started off the conversation on a light note.
‘You and me both, buddy,’ Hercules thought but didn’t bring to voice.
“After Xena, you’d be better off falling in love with a black widow,” was the response he made to Iolaus statement.
“Maybe I’ll just give up women altogether. What do you think?”
“I think it would be a good idea,” Hercules answered him with a straight face but with humor in his tone.
“Yeah…wait a minute!” Iolaus exclaimed.
“Iolaus, it seems like an awful lot for a red-blooded man like you to be walking away from,” Hercules said, stating what he saw as the simple truth.
“Yeah, you’re right. Only next time, give me a woman who wants to kill me with kisses,” Iolaus stated, then he looked around at the countryside and asked, “where are we going, Herc?”
“First we’re going to see Petrakis,” the demigod told his friend.
“Petrakis the warlord?” Iolaus asked disbelievingly.
“No, Petrakis the farmer. There never was a warlord except for Xena. Then we’ll be headed back to Thebes for a little while. I promised Mother I’d be home in one piece...and I’d bring you back with me,” he told his partner.
“Thanks, Herc,” Iolaus said quietly with feeling.
“Yeah, it’s okay buddy. Then I’ll be heading to Corinth to check in with Jason’s security forces before going after Xena. She’s not finished. I’m sure of it. Those men with her, Iolaus...well, according to Corinth’s security forces...”
“Jason’s spies, you mean,” Iolaus said.
Hercules took a deep breath and continued. “According to their information, this was only about one-third of her forces. The rest of them are on their way and they were to be joining up with each other soon.”
“I could have told you that, if you’d asked,” Iolaus said, somewhat hurt that Hercules hadn’t believed in him. “But I’ll be with you all the way. I can help you defeat Xena. Don’t think that just because she and I had something between us that I’m not capable of doing the right thing.”
“It’s not that, Iolaus. It’s just that I need you to finish putting your things in Thebes in order quickly then come to join me on the road as fast as you can,” Hercules told his partner.
“Ah, I see. You can’t leave me alone for a minute, can you. I just get into so much trouble. Is that what you mean?” Iolaus challenged the demigod.
“You said it, not me,” Hercules snapped back before catching himself. he didn’t want this to escalate into an argument. He knew Iolaus was hurting and that he was rightfully embarrassed.
“Iolaus, I didn’t mean... It’s just that there’s so much evil out there, I don’t think we should be sitting around waiting for someone to come and tell us about it anymore,” Hercules tried to explain his motives.
“Yeah, I suppose you’re right Hercules. Okay, we’ll do this your way,” Iolaus told his partner. They continued on in complete silence to Arcadia.
In a palace on Mount Olympus a portal was opened up so that the gods could follow the action on the Arcadian Heights. It was one more battle in the millennium-old struggle to decide if Zeus would retain total control of Greece or if he would have to step aside in favor of one of the other gods of the Pantheon.
On one side stood the challenger - Ares, god of war. On the other side stood Zeus’ chosen champion - Aphrodite, goddess of love.
“HA HA! I told you! Love doesn’t conquer all. XENA conquers all!!!,” Ares laugh-filled voice resounded through the hallowed halls of Zeus palace. “In fact, the only love involved here is Xena’s love for me and her love of power. You lose, Sis. Pay up Zeus.”
“It’s not over yet Ares,” Aphrodite reminded her brother. “We agreed…One Hundred Days. It’s only been thirty-one.”
“Oh, it’s over. You can be certain of that. What? Did you think that pathetic blond annoyance had any chance with my Xena? HaHaHa… That’s rich!” Ares hooted with glee. “Oh, no…no… Don’t tell me you think my goodie, goodie half-brother can change my leopard’s spots? HaHaHa… Come on, get real!”
“It ain’t over, ‘til it’s over, Bro…and love’s got sixty-nine more days to prove you’re wrong. Don’t bet against me. That’s my lucky number,” Aphrodite warned her brother and anyone else who might be thinking to help him in his planned take-over.
“Take your best shot, Sis. Xena’s all mine and pretty soon Greece will be too,” Ares growled as he turned back once more to look through the portal at his warrior princess.
The End of Part 1 of a Trilogy.
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