Gauntlet

by MaryE

Story originally written for Hercules: the Legendary Journeys by: Robert Bielak

The tavern was almost cave-like with stone walls and a hard-packed dirt floor. It was darkly lit. Torch light, candle light and firelight from the huge hearth did not quite make it into the corners of the large room.

The tables were of rough-hewn wood as were the sturdy chairs, which made the large man who shared the table closest to the door very grateful for the thick, braided leather pants he wore.

However dark and crude the tavern might be, it’s decor didn’t discourage the patrons from coming in droves. The best meal this side of Athens could be had at this place, which was why two hungry and road-weary heroes couldn’t pass up the chance to eat like kings for this one night. The food was spectacular.

The dinner conversation, however, left much to be desired.

“Don’t speak to me as if I were a child, Hercules,” the annoyed blond said, slapping his tankard of ale down on the table for emphasis.

“Well then, stop acting like one and I might,” the demigod growled back at his partner over the dinner plates.

“Is it childish of me to want to track Xena down and prevent her from joining up with the rest of her army or from doing any more damage to innocent people? I NEED to stop her,” Iolaus said, raising the same argument he’d been having with his friend since they’d left the warrior princess’s compound five days earlier.

“And that’s precisely why you shouldn’t be doing it. You’re never at your best when your emotions are high. You could be putting yourself into more danger than it’s worth. Your anger…”

“My hate, you mean,” Iolaus corrected his friend. And as if to show the demigod just how hate-filled he was, Iolaus stabbed his fork down into the tabletop next to his plate.

“Whatever it is…anger…hate…it can be self-destructive in the type of fight this is bound to be. Xena can, and will, use your emotions against you,” Hercules pointed out a little more quietly hoping not to rile the other dinner patrons in the tavern more than they already had.

“There you go again thinking I’m a child who would let my emotions get in the way of the battle. I’d be at your back. What could go wrong?”

Visions of them fighting back-to-back in Gargarencia flashed through Hercules head. Memories of Iolaus running off after the Amazon who’d nicked him on the cheek came immediately to mind along with feelings of deep sadness and regret that distrustful thoughts such as these were resurrecting themselves.

“You were blinded by her treachery. She was able to trick you…”

“And that’s what I don’t understand. No one has ever tricked me. I would have sworn with my last breath that she was genuinely good.”

“Well, you’re not the first man in the world who’s ever been fooled by a beautiful woman…”

“What! Did you just call me a fool, Hercules?” Iolaus demanded.

“See…there you go again, acting all childish. I did not call you a fool. You’ve got to control yourself and stop being so hot-headed,” Hercules replied.

Just then, in an interruption welcomed by the demigod, the innkeeper passed by their table to see if the heroes needed refills on the ales, or seconds on the dinner.

“Hercules…Iolaus, how are you enjoying the meal?” The man asked, seriously interested in the opinion of the well-traveled pair.

“Oh-- wonderful, Ipicles, absolutely wonderful. It’s a four-star meal for sure,” Hercules assured him.

“Why four stars?” the innkeeper asked.

“Uh, that’s just a manner of speaking. It’s something I picked up from an epicurean friend of mine,” Hercules replied with a smile.

“Well, why not five stars? Or-- or, a constellation of stars?” the innkeeper asked, a bit annoyed that the demigod would give him so few stars out of the infinite possibility of the heavens.

“Yeah, Herc. Why only four?” Iolaus asked, purposefully adding to the demigod’s discomfort. “I’d give him a whole constellation for this culinary masterpiece.”

“Uh-- a constellation it is,” Hercules agreed, wondering how the conversation had deteriorated so rapidly. The innkeeper turned his attention to another table and the demigod breathed a heavy sigh. ‘Why is everyone so touchy around me today? First Iolaus…now the innkeeper,’ he thought.

The tavern door opened and a young man, who looked to be in his late teens, walked in. As his eyes adjusted to the dim lights, Hercules and Iolaus checked the newcomer over. Seeing no threat, Iolaus turned his attention back to the meal. Hercules, however, took in the teen’s curly, sandy blond hair and the somewhat familiar features on the boy’s bright face. He wasn’t surprised when those blue eyes settled on him in immediate recognition.

“Hercules?” the young man called to him excitedly.

“Iloran!” the demigod called back with genuine delight.

“Hello, cousin. It’s been too long,” the young man said, offering his arm in greeting.

“Ah, it must be five years. Come! Sit down! How have you been?” asked Hercules as he grasped Iloran’s outstretched arm.

The young man caught the older, blond warrior’s eye before taking the seat Hercules proffered him. “You don’t mind if I join you?”

“Nah, not at all. You’re a welcome diversion. Make yourself comfortable,” Iolaus replied.

“Um, Iloran, this is Iolaus, my best friend.”

“You’re Iolaus!?!” Iloran greeted the hero enthusiastically, offering his arm to the older man. “This is Great! I’ve always wanted to meet you. I’ve heard so many good things about you from my cousin.”

“Well then, it has been a while since you’ve seen your cousin. You might want to remind him about those good things he said. He’s getting older now and you know how old people tend to forget things,” Iolaus said with a grin as he grabbed the young man’s gauntleted arm.

“Can I offer you an ale? Have you eaten?” Hercules asked his cousin. He was desperate to take charge of the conversation.

“No thanks, Hercules. I’ve already eaten and I don’t have much time. We’ve got big problems in the Parthian province,” Iloran said, getting down to business immediately.

“What sort of problems?” Hercules anxiously asked.

“Marauders. And they’re merciless. Last week, they attacked a village near us-- killed every last man.”

Iloran dropped to one knee next to the heroes’ table and drew a rough map of the peninsula in the dirt floor.

“Look here,” he said to his cousin and Iolaus as he pinpointed the towns in question with the tip of his knife. “On my way here, I found out that six more villages have been destroyed in the last week. And they’re bold ones. They travel the main roads like they own them.”

“Looks like they’re intent on overrunning the whole peninsula,” Iolaus commented while surveying the picture Iloran had just drawn for them.

“And Parthus, my mother’s village, will be right in their path,” the young man pressed his cause.

“Then we don’t have any time to waste,” Hercules declared. He pushed his chair back and made ready to leave.

“Iolaus, I’m sorry for this change in plan. I’m going to have to go with Iloran. I need you to get back to Thebes as quickly as possible.”

“No, Herc. I go with you,” Iolaus insisted testily.

“Please, Iolaus. Now is not the time for more arguments. Listen. I promised mother that we’d both be back and I’m sure she’s counting the days. You know as well as I do, if she doesn’t see at least one of us with her own eyes after a few more days she’ll set out on her own to find us.”

“Let Iloran go to your mother,” Iolaus argued.

“I need Iloran with me to show me all the shortcuts and back ways. I’m not familiar with the peninsula, and neither are you,” Hercules said. When he caught the look of an impending argument on his partner’s face he added, “Iolaus, it’s not just mother. After you check in with her, I need you to go to Corinth and check with the security forces on the whereabouts of the rest of Xena’s men. They’ve been trying to keep track of them. Tell the captain that you’re going to need ten of his best guardsmen to travel with you to meet me in Parthus. With the roads full of marauders, Iloran and I will be sticking to the forests and fields. You’ll be able to pick up our trail and lead the guards right to us. By the time we meet up again, I should have a plan to take out these bandits.”

“I don’t like the idea of you doing this alone, Partner,” Iolaus said, pointedly throwing the demigod’s recent words back at him. Hercules hadn’t gotten off of his back for one moment about his going off to Xena’s compound without him.

“Point taken, buddy. But I’m afraid it’s necessary this time and you’ll be joining me soon. First we take care of this problem then we can both go for Xena. I promise. Besides, it’s not as if this is an open-ended ‘Bye…I’ll see you whenever I get back from Arcadia’ kind of deal.”

Iolaus rose from the table. He drained his tankard of ale, picked up his knife and his sword then turned to Hercules with his arm extended. “That was a low blow, pal. But the point goes to you. Just understand...we’ve got to get past this verbal sparring match we’ve been having before something very precious gets hurt. After the marauders, Herc…” he trailed off as he turned and walked out of the tavern.

Hercules got up, dropped a few coins on the table and departed with his cousin.

In a well-protected valley, under the heavy cover of trees, Xena’s tired, rag-tag group met up with the rest of her army. The warriors, under the temporary command of Xena’s lieutenant Darphus, had set up camp in this pre-arranged, secluded location, several days before the warrior princess arrived. It was a well-established settlement next to a cool, fast running stream. There were several cooking fires going at the same time and the air was full of the tantalizing aromas of roasts and stews thanks to the plentiful stock of game in the woods.

Xena rode into the camp and took care to settle her horse first before she retreated to her tent. There she met with Darphus and his right hand man Cretus.

For the next two days the three of them scouted the immediate area and began to strategize their plan of action for the conquering of all Greece.

While the warrior princess focused her attention on maps and logistics, her warriors had time to rest and relax themselves after their long journey and to prepare for the next skirmish. During this idle time, the men’s talk turned to the recent defeat they’d been dealt by the demigod Hercules and his friend Iolaus. They talked of how Xena’s seduction of the blond mortal failed, and how the two friends had taken out almost one third of their force.

The warriors who had traveled with Darphus spoke of their discontent over the lack of riches and plunder. Xena had promised that, one day, they would be wealthy beyond their dreams, that each would be governor of his own territory in Greece, and that she would be their Empress. Yet, since they’d crossed the eastern Grecian border, they had only taken plunder and food supplies from the northern villages of Cirra and Philius. They were restless, and now, with this perceived weakness that Xena had shown, they were bordering on mutinous.

Word of the warriors’ discontent made it’s way to Darphus’ ears-Darphus, the enterprising and ambitious. He shared Xena’s vision of new leadership in Greece. He knew they had the skills and the strategy to make it happen - but in his vision, it was he who occupied the Emperor’s throne - not Xena. With the setback Hercules had dealt to Xena, the winds of Fate had changed and Darphus felt them strongly blowing in his direction now.

On the third evening after Xena’s return, she stood at her war table and debriefed her top men about their recent meeting with the elders of a nearby village…

“Darphus gave them your demands -- just enough crops to feed our men; only the buildings needed to quarter them for a day or two,” Cretus reported.

“Their answer?” Xena asked the grizzled warrior.

“They’ve decided to defend themselves,” Darphus answered for his lieutenant.

“Stupid. We’ll give them the night to reconsider,” Xena decided.

“Give them nothing! I say, we attack now, and wipe them all out! Let the gods sort out the women and children.” Darphus growled, grabbing the hilt of his sword and giving it a good shake for emphasis.

“We are warriors, NOT barbarians,” Xena growled back at him making certain that he knew she would not waiver in her stance. “Cretus, you made it clear that anyone who raises a sword against us will die?”

“They said they’d rather die, defending the fruits of their labor, than give it to renegades,” Cretus told her.

“Then tomorrow, they’ll get their wish,” she said, dismissing them both with a wave of her hand.

She removed her armor and fell, exhausted, into the furs on her cot. She hadn’t been able to get a good night’s rest since the day she rode off from her compound after Hercules’ arrival and Iolaus’ treachery.

She had never been so wrong about someone. She would have sworn with her last breath that Iolaus loved her. He was so transparent. She could read it in his eyes. And she couldn’t believe that she’d enjoyed his love - welcomed it - desired it so much that she’d allowed it to momentarily cloud her judgment back at the compound. What had she missed about him? What treachery and tricks had that son of a Bacchae used on her?

Her restless mind continued questioning, but she already knew the answer.

During that ideal week she’d spent with Iolaus in Thebes, she had let him talk away to his heart’s content and she had listened. True, sometimes it was only with half an ear - but she had listened.

She should have known that, as good and true as his love for her had been, his love for the demigod ran deeper and stronger.

As Xena lay there on the cot, pulling the furs about her, she tried to put herself into Hercules shoes. What was so different between them? She’d slain monsters too, she thought. But there was a niggling voice, with a hint of the East in it, that spoke to her spirit. ‘You killed monsters in self interest, not in self defense nor in the defense of others. You killed them for your own purposes in this quest of yours for power or to obtain treasure.’

Xena argued with this voice in her head that would not leave her to sleep in peace. ‘I kill monsters and men who are monsters because I need the power. When I rule this country, my men and I will crush any warlords or bandits who dare to do -- to any town or village in Greece -- what they did to Amphipolis. The people who now rule Greece allowed that to happen to my village, my people, my family. When I rule, it will never happen to anyone again.’

And again the voice in her head responded calmly and compellingly ‘Yes, Xena. You have brought their cure…yet the cure itself is killing them.’

The warrior princess faded into the light doze that ensnared those on the edge of Morpheus’ realm. She conjured visions of Hercules and Iolaus fighting her warriors and she realized with her last coherent thought that she wanted what they had.

She had witnessed it with her own eyes. There was a transformation when the two of them were together, working in unison. It was as if a magical third being was created from the sum of their parts and this being was stronger than them both, enabling them to be fearless, confident, capable of super-heroic, death-defying feats. It protected them both and fueled their selfless bravery.

She jealously wanted what they had, what these men shared - that love - that bond. She wouldn’t need an army then. A power, like the one these two heroes shared, in her hands, would be enough to change everything. She wouldn’t have to associate with Darphus or any others like him ever again.

Content for the moment, she fell into a deeper sleep.

Flashes of faces, near and far, some dark, some tanned some paler shades, some earthly forms some other-worldly shades passed her on this dreamscape. Iolaus - then Hercules - a blend of both -- and then the blonde again. She reached for him and pulled this vision to her, holding on for dear life. For somewhere in this mix was hidden the answer key to all her questions -- the Spark to illuminate her Path.

Iolaus’ voice -- co-mingled -- blended with the loving voices of clean spirits from the East who had left pieces of themselves in her heart for safekeeping - whispered to her - called her to remembrance.

The touch of hands, though ghostly in this somnolent realm, directed her to focus on the passion’s heat elicited by Iolaus’ touch - forge-callused - masterful -- tendered by love -- sure of purpose - driving her to peaks at a fevered pitch that begged to be sustained - to forever feel this loved -- yet screamed for fulfillment all at once. She wrapped her fingers in his hair and pressed her spectre-lover on… ‘oh, more…oh, more…don’t stop…’

She moaned and called out in her need. An almost agonized sound escaped her throat.

A young warrior who’d been assigned the job of night watchman for her tent ran to Xena’s assistance. He gently called her name to wake her from this nightmare but it was not enough. He dared to touch her cheek and called to her once more. That did the trick.

Xena woke with a start. Her fingers ached, so tightly entwined were they in the fur coverlet that pressed against her breast.

“Are you okay, Xena?” the young warrior spoke with a trembling voice that was scarce above a whisper.

She looked about her wildly almost expecting to see Iolaus’ laughing face peek out at her from under the fur coverlet and set things right again. ‘That’s not going to happen,’ her inner voice spoke.

Her eyes settled on the warrior’s worried face then focused on his soft, full lips. She ached for fulfillment.

“Yes…yes I’m fine. Stop looking at me as if you thought I was going to break. Just kiss me…” she seductively ordered the young man.

He looked into her eyes for confirmation. He’d hate to be wrong now and wind up in chains for his indiscretion. Xena, seeing his hesitation, put one hand on either side of his face and pulled him down to her, taking what she wanted.

She closed her eyes and threw her arms around his neck, trying to conjure up her recent dream at the point where it had left off -- this substitute of real flesh to help her on her way. Striving, striving for the key…the prize. The kiss, too tentative on his part -- too brutal on hers. No even match of give and take here. The touch wasn’t right either - no sparks -- no goose-bump, hair raising tingles teased along by feather-light finger tips- no sizzle. These hands too big and awkward - not right - not right…

“Enough…just get out of here,” she spat out disappointedly. Throwing the young man’s head away from her face, she turned over on her side giving him her back.

Disappointed and confused, the young warrior left her tent and resumed his watch.

Irritable from lack of sleep, Xena waited on the crest of the hill that overlooked the village. Her horse’s skittishness a reflection of the state of her own nerves.

“No word?” she asked Cretus as he rode up the hill to join her. Xena really hoped that the elders would send word that they were capitulating to her demands. She really didn’t feel like fighting anyone this day.

“Their only activity has been to fortify,” the warrior replied.

“We should’ve attacked yesterday,” Darphus complained.

“It won’t affect the outcome-- only make it more interesting. Let’s go!” Xena ordered.

Pulling her sword from it’s sheath she spurred her mount down the hill with a click of her heels and a piercing war cry.

Her army of mercenary-warriors followed her down the hill, whooping and cheering in a frenzy of bloodlust.

Their horses easily jumped the barricades the villagers had set up but two of Xena’s men didn’t even make it to that makeshift wall. Archer’s, firing their arrows from the roof of the inn, took them out. Their rider-less horses making the jump alone.

The warriors dismounted and began to fight the villagers in earnest. Many of the town’s men were armed with swords and spears, remainders from their own time spent with various armies - pulled out of retirement. They’d had the night to oil and sharpen their weapons in preparation for the battle. Other farmers had reconditioned tools and farming equipment to use as weapons in defense of their town.

It was a difficult battle. The clang of metal on metal resounded throughout the streets and in the village square. The smell of blood and burning things filled the air. Bodies of the dead and wounded littered the ground and not all of them were villagers.

“Surrender, or die!” Xena shouted at the well-dressed merchant that she held at sword-point. Assuming, correctly that he was one of the village elders.

“Never!” the man replied defiantly.

She almost cut him in half with a mighty swing of her sword before running off to engage the next opponent.

In a momentary lull between opponents, Xena spotted Darphus threatening an elderly couple. The man leant against his wife as she nursed his injuries in the shelter of a broken wagon. They were obviously unarmed. Darphus decided to drive his point home with Xena about the worthlessness of human lives in their quest. With an evil grin, never taking his eyes off of Xena’s, Darphus drove his sword into the man’s heart even as he begged for mercy. Darphus pulled his gorey sword from the man’s gaping wound. He laughed and turned away from the kill he’d just made, leaving his victim’s wife to weep over her husband’s broken corpse.

Xena was appalled by the senseless bloodletting and waste of time that she’d just witnessed but this was neither the time nor the place for a reprimand.

Her attention was called back to the business at hand when she heard nearby shouts of “There she is! Kill her! Destroy the witch! Destroy her!”

Xena released her chakrum from her belt and let it fly at her attackers, taking down six men in one shot before it returned to her waiting hand. ‘The good thing about a chakrum,’ she thought as she settled the steel circle of death back on her belt, ‘is that it’s so fast. The death blow is dealt and it’s back in my hand to use again before the victim’s even had time to bleed on the blade.’

In the end, the villagers were no match for Xena’s superior forces. The take-over of the village was short work.

In sharp contrast to the shabby look that most of the houses wore, the marketplace was large and richly stocked. The warriors looted the place to their hearts content shouting slogans of “Victory!” and “Long live Xena!”

The warrior princess stood in the market square watching her men take everything that wasn’t nailed down. They stuffed the dinars and smaller valuables into their carry sacks, then loaded the rest of the spoils into donkey carts along with the bodies of their dead comrades. They had lost five good men this day.

She turned to face Darphus as she caught sight of him and Cretus coming out of the stables. They dragged between them the most homely gypsy woman Xena had ever seen.

“I’m a modest woman. Please don’t touch me there,” the gypsy begged in a groveling whine.

“Look at what we found hiding in the feed-bin,” Cretus said laughingly as he grabbed the gypsy’s multi-colored dress by the neckline and shoved it’s cowering owner to it’s knees before the warrior princess.

“Ow! Ow!” the gypsy howled in pain.

“Well, what’ve we got here?” growled Darphus as he yanked the veil from the gypsy’s face only to reveal the full, graying beard of a man.

“No, no. I work in the circus. Please, don’t kill me! Please! I beg you!” the man pleaded with Xena, still trying to keep his masquerade going and figuring he had the best chance of clemency with the woman. The sweat that comes from deep fear began to run down his face and neck. He grabbed a colorful handkerchief that had been giving shape to the bodice of his costume and began mopping his face with it.

“Give me one good reason,” Xena drawled in response.

“It would be very unpleasant for me! We haven’t even been introduced! My mother will cry?!” the bearded one begged, stalling for time.

“Take him away,” Xena ordered, the amusement value of this diversion having worn off quickly.

“Wait a minute! Wait a minute! I’m not even supposed to be here! I’m a traveling salesman! I can get you a great deal on some clay dinnerware. I’ve got this walnut utensil-- opens--” the man rambled on - grabbing at straws in his fright.

“Kill him!” Darphus ordered.

Cretus was about to execute the order when the funny gypsy-man took one last shot in hopes of sparing his life.

“Hold it! You’re very quick with the ‘Kill him!’. Wait a second-- please! I know people in high places! Uh, I-- I-I know Hercules!” he wailed.

And those were the magic words.

“What do you know about Hercules?” Xena asked as she turned back to face the whimpering man.

“He knows nothing!” Darphus barked in disgust at the warrior woman’s hesitation.

“I do too! I-- we-- oh, oh, wee-- I’m his best friend! We’re like this! ” he said crossing his fingers and holding them up for all to see. When he saw the interest in Xena’s eyes immediately begin to fade away he added quickly, “well, not like that-- kinda’-- kinda’ like th-- Kind-- it’s platonic. It-- we’re like-- that!” He finally said, contorting his arms about to shake his own hand.

“Come here, little man. You amuse me,” Xena almost crooned as she grabbed the man away from Darphus’ hold, bringing him to her side.

“Amusing? You like amusing? A guy goes into a bar walking a duck. Owner says, what’re you doing with that pig?!” the enterprising salesman launched into a joke trying to amuse his savior further.

“Cease!” Xena sternly ordered. “I’ll let you know when I wanna be amused again,” she advised the bearded prisoner. Then turning to Cretus she ordered, “Bring him along.”

The prisoner smiled at her gratefully and began to rip the dress from his body to make walking easier.

“Leave it. It becomes you,” Xena ordered him, her lip curled in a sadistic grin.

“Right! Certainly. You’ve got excellent taste,” the prisoner replied, laughing nervously at his predicament. He was alive! Anything could happen. Fortune was definitely on his side this day.

A few hours after Xena and her men cleaned out the village and left to plunder the next, the demigod and Iloran walked into what remained of the market square. They’d left the safe cover of the woodland trail to investigate the source of the smoke that wafted to them on the warm afternoon breeze.

“Who could’ve done such a thing?” Iloran said with a gasp as he took in the total devastation before him.

Hercules pointed to the body of a man who had received a mortal blow to his back. In mud mixed with blood, the man had tried to leave a message for anyone who came after. “I think he was trying to tell us. Those marks are the Macedonian symbols for ‘warrior’-- and ‘woman.’ ”

“May the gods help us,” Iloran uttered, his voice barely above a whisper.

“I wouldn’t count on it,” Hercules responded derisively.

A little girl passed them, obviously in shock calling out, “Mommy? Mommy? Where’s Daddy?”

“Not a man alive. Curse her the harlot!” cried an elderly man as he bent over the body of a young man who was obviously of his blood.

“Who did this?” Hercules asked. The old man, lost in his thoughts did not respond. Instead a woman nearby, who cradled the body of her dead son, replied, “Marauders.”

“Did you see their leader?” Hercules asked her.

“She was like-- a demon from Hades,” the woman answered and her eyes lit up with reckless anger as she recalled the leader’s face.

“A woman?” Hercules pondered.

“Do you know who did this?” Iloran asked his cousin.

“I’ve got an idea,” Hercules replied. “Listen, let’s help these people bury their dead and get themselves settled before night fall. Then we’ll continue on to Parthus.

In a tavern three towns away from where they staged their morning raid, Xena and her men celebrated the day’s victories with a feast.

“That meat is for warriors,” Darphus growled at the prisoner as he grabbed the lamb shank out of the man’s hand and threw it back on the silver serving platter.

The bearded man wasn’t being allowed any of the food at this feast, nor was he being allowed to find any of his own. He hungrily searched the room and spotted a whole roasted chicken on the bar next to the warrior princess. She had been his savior back in the village and had at least seemed to take an interest in him. His stomach rumbled again and he decided to take a chance with her once more.

“Ah. Um, uh-- there’s more than one way to wage a war, you know,” he said as he sidled up to her at the bar, hungrily eyeing the chicken as he spoke to her.

“Oh? Tell me about it,” she replied. Fed and relaxed, she was now in the mood for amusement.

“Well-- an army such as yours, with such a beautiful leader like you-- you need publicity-- public relations,” the man said with the air of a master salesman.

“Hah! I prefer my relations to be private,” she told him, misunderstanding his meaning.

The bearded man laughed and explained what he meant as if to a young child “No-- you need something to trumpet your victories. But you don’t wanna seem overbearing or merciless. You need a theme song. Wait a second.”

He searched the bar for something to assist him with his demonstration. Finding a bowl of walnuts handy, he picked two of them up and began to tap them together in a primitive beat. Then he sang… “Xe-ena, coming to your town. Xe-ena, don’t you wear a frown.” Ever the professional, he read the dislike of this idea in her facial expressions and he changed his tactics with lightning speed. “Don’t talk about destruction. Talk about ‘collateral damage.’ Uh, be like a tax collector. Tell people you’re doing it for their own good.”

“You know, for such a wretched little man, you are mildly entertaining. Tell me more,” she said, finding herself truly amused by the man’s banter.

“OK, uh-- can I just--?” he tentatively dared to reach out and motion her to move her head from side to side. “Yeah. Always address your troops from your right side. It’s your best side-- not that you have a bad side. It-- You’ve got beautiful eyes -- you’ve got great cheek structure. Smile more. Show off your cheeks. See? Ahh. Uh-huh.”

“Don’t stop amusing me, now,” Xena said as she got into the simple enjoyment of the moment. She rewarded him for the welcomed diversion by stabbing the chicken and tossing it to him whole.

“No, your Highness-- your Worship-- your, your-- what is your titular? Um-- wh-- uh, uh-- How do you like to be undressed? Addressed? Hmm? Ahhhh…let me try that again. Hi, my name’s Salmoneus…what can I call you?”

Iolaus hadn’t stopped on his trek back to Thebes for more than a couple of hours here and there to eat and catch a couple of winks of sleep. The sooner he assured Alcmene that they were all right, finished up the few chores he’d left undone in Thebes, and made his way to Corinth for the reinforcements, he could get back to Hercules side and exact his revenge on Xena.

It was almost midnight when he finally made it to Alcmene’s home. Everything was dark and locked up for the night and Iolaus didn’t feel like disturbing her sleep. Anyway, he was too tired to be answering any questions she might have - and, knowing ‘Mene as he did, she would have questions - lots of them.

Iolaus headed straight for the barn. He took his carry sack, his belts and his vest and hung them on a hook next to the door just to let her know that she had company if she happened to come out to the barn before he woke. He climbed to the loft and fell into a soft pile of hay, too tired to even spread a blanket for himself.

Just as he had thought, Hercules’ mother came out to the barn shortly after sunrise to milk the cow and check for eggs in the chicken coop. She spotted his vest and couldn’t contain her cry of relief. She had been deeply worried about both her boys and the effect that the interloper, Xena, would have on their relationship. Love was such a delicate thing.

She had no doubt of Iolaus’ feelings for her son and never questioned his loyalty for even one moment. Rather, she was more concerned about her son’s reaction to Iolaus’ uncharacteristic and untimely romantic escapade. When Iolaus popped his head over the edge of the loft to peer down at her blearily, her concern doubled since Hercules’ was nowhere to be seen.

She swallowed her fears and put a smile on her face to greet this man who was the son of her heart. Her cheery voice finally roused him from his sleepy stupor and he clambered down the ladder from the loft to get an enthusiastic hug and kiss on the cheek.

“Before you ask, I’m okay. And Herc’s okay, too. He promised that he’d bring me home so you could see I’m not damaged, nor am I any the worse for wear.” Iolaus reported. “Am I?” he asked with a grin spinning himself around slowly for her inspection.

Alcmene laughed at his stalling antics. She knew what he was doing - and he knew that she knew what he was doing. It made it all okay though. She had gotten the most important basic message - no physical damage had been sustained by the heroic pair. The psychic damage could be seen in the hard edges and sadness around Iolaus’ eyes. That information she would have to dig for later, when the messenger was more amenable.

Iolaus washed quickly, donned his vest and belts and called ‘good bye’ to Alcmene. She tried to get him to stay for breakfast but he insisted that he had early business in Thebes to take care of. She finally made him promise to be back in time for dinner and he agreed. Iolaus grabbed two apples off of the tree in Alcmene’s garden and headed down the road.

He was lucky to find everyone he needed to complete his business in one day. He went to his house to make sure that everything there was closed up. He was now officially clear of any responsibilities in the town of Thebes. He was free to travel uninterruptedly by Herc’s side.

He took a shortcut back to Alcmene’s home and arrived late in the afternoon. It was early enough to have dinner with her as he’d promised, but late enough that she was too busy cooking to be able to engage him in conversation. Iolaus greeted her with a kiss on the cheek as he passed by her in the kitchen.

“What’s for dinner, ‘Mene,’ Iolaus asked, sneaking his arm around her to steal a carrot from the market basket in front of her.

“I’m not going to warn you about spoiling your appetite. I know better. Just leave enough for the dinner,” she joked with him.

“Never fear, this is the only appetizer I’ll be pilfering from you. I wanted to get washed up before dinner, I’m still kinda dusty from the road,” he said. “The stream isn’t too cold these days, is it?”

“No, it’s still pretty good. You go have a good wash. There are some towels and clean pants on the chair next to the back door. Dinner should be ready by the time you return,” she told him.

He took his time down at the stream. He washed, changed his clothes and picked some berries to bring back with him for their dessert. Still far away from the house, he spotted horsemen entering Alcmene’s garden. Bracing himself for trouble, he made for the tree line behind her home and he approached the house that way. He saw Alcmene, in her brightly colored dress, emerge from the house to address the men, who he now recognized to be a contingent of soldiers from Jason’s Corinthian Guard.

“We’ve come to arrest Iolaus of Thebes for consorting with Xena, an enemy of Greece, and to take him into Corinth for questioning,” the Captain of the guard unit told the demigod’s mother. When Iolaus heard this he concealed himself better between a large tree and a thick bush that stood at the edge of the tree line, closest to the back door of the house. He could still see everything from this position and would come out to defend Alcmene if he found it necessary.

“Iolaus? You’re too late. He’s not here. He left this afternoon,” Alcmene told the soldiers.

“We’ll ma’am, we’ve had reports that he was seen headed for these parts as recently as this afternoon,” the Captain informed her in a tone that clearly meant he did not believe her.

“Yes. He was here a while ago but only briefly to bring a greeting from my son and to share lunch with me. He left several hours ago,” she answered in a stern voice.

“Where was he going when he left here?” the Captain questioned her.

“I understand he was headed for Corinth. You’ll probably pass him on your way back,” she answered.

“The blacksmith told us that this Iolaus was talking with him about going to Corinth, too,” one of the young soldiers chimed in.

The Captain took in this information and changed his line of questioning.

“And your son, where is he?” the Captain demanded.

“He’s traveling about on his father’s business, if you must know,” Alcmene answered defiantly. She hoped her allusion to Zeus would strike a little bit of fear into this rude Captain.

“Our sources have told us he’s been spotted on a track that would lead him straight to the warlord Xena’s army in the Parthian Province. Why would he be interested in meeting with enemies of the Grecian people such as her and her lieutenant, Darphus?” the Captain asked her snottily.

“Well, your sources seem to be better informed than his own mother on his whereabouts. Perhaps you could tell me what he’s up to,” she replied snappishly. “And why are you and your soldiers just spying on this Xena instead of attacking and defeating her army if they’re invading Greece? Have your ranks been reduced to a bunch of spies and snitches? Is that why my son and his partner have to infiltrate and destroy this group on their own and put their own lives in jeopardy, because Greece’s soldiers are out of an afternoon horseback riding and harassing innocent women?”

The Captain ignored her outburst. He turned his horse about and signaled his men to ride out with him. The dust their horses raised showed that they were headed back towards the road to Corinth.

Alcmene returned to the house and went straight to the back door. The sky was darkening with the setting of the sun and she anxiously scoured the trees for signs of Iolaus so she could signal him that it was safe to return. She was sure he was out there somewhere keeping himself out of sight.

He emerged from behind the bush and cautiously made his way to the rear door.

“I better get out of here in case they come back,” Iolaus said seeing this as a way of not having to have that ‘conversation’ with Alcmene at all on this trip.

“You’ll do no such thing. They won’t be back. They’ll assume you had a horse and that you’ve already made it to Corinth before them. It will take them a day to get there, at least a day to look around the city for you and by that time they’ll realize that you’re long gone from here and it’s not even worth it to come back and look for you,” Alcmene informed him. “Now, let’s have dinner.”

Over their meal, Iolaus gave her the bare-bones basics of what had happened at Xena’s compound and their eventual encounter with Iloran.

He apologized to Alcmene as soon as he’d finished her delicious dessert, his contribution of berries having been dumped under the bush he’d taken cover behind. He would be heading straight for bed since he needed to be on his way to the Parthian Province by dawn. He pushed back his chair, gave her a kiss on the cheek goodnight and headed straight to his bedroom without another word.

Alcmene waited about three minutes, just enough time for him to get settled then she gathered up the wooden box that she kept with the healing potions, unguents, herbs and bandages. On top of it she placed a basin of warm water, carried it to his room and knocked on the door.

She heard the bed shift under his weight and the padding of his bare feet as he came to the door to answer her knock.

“What’s all this?” he asked when he saw what she was carrying.

“You’ve been wounded and I need to take care of you,” she answered as she looked him square in the eyes, daring him to evade her once more.

He held her eyes for what seemed to him an eternity then he bowed his head and gave in to both their needs. He did need to speak to another, sympathetic human being. He needed to be heard, to be understood. He felt confident that Alcmene wouldn’t hate him too much for what he’d done.

And so, he took the kit and the basin from Alcmene’s hands and placed them on the bedside table. He lit the candles and they sat together for the next couple of hours. Iolaus did all the talking. Alcmene listened. He started with the day he’d met Xena. He told her of how he thought she’d be perfect for Herc, just his type. He told of that night at the tavern and of the idyllic week he’d spent with her in and around Thebes. He told her what they’d talked about and how it was that he came to fall in love with that woman. He told Alcmene of his trip to the Arcadian Highlands with Xena, of their first taste of battle and of his arrival at her compound.

He included every detail of his initial ‘fight’ with Hercules, watching her face closely as he did. He saw her wince when he told her of the punch he’d landed on her son’s jaw. She nodded as he told her about how he’d become enlightened about Xena’s true character. He saw her wince once more when he told her of Xena’s speech to her men right before Herc showed up the second time. He told her about their eventual rout of Xena’s army from the compound and how they had traveled to Arcadia, with the arguments and all, and how they were headed back home when they’d met up with Iloran.

At this point, Iolaus stopped, afraid to hear what she thought of his seeming betrayal of her son’s friendship.

When he looked up at her, he could see the tears shining in her eyes and he hated himself for being the cause.

“She really must be evil if your love didn’t touch her,” she said as she looked at him through the haze of tears and reached for his hand.

This affirmation of Alcmene’s unconditional love for him brought tears to his eyes and he drew her hand to his lips, kissing it earnestly in thanks and gratitude.

“I have to get back to Hercules quickly. It sounds like those marauders Iloran was talking about are Xena’s men. Going to Corinth for help now is out of the question. Herc and I will have to pay Jason a visit sometime after we finish up with Xena. These new security men that he’s brought in since…you know, the death of his family. I don’t like them…” Iolaus said, trying to get off the subject before she asked the really tough questions.

“Not so fast, Iolaus,” Alcmene admonished him.

‘Uh, oh…’ Iolaus thought. ‘Caught.’

“Have you worked this all out with Hercules or were things between you unresolved when Iloran showed up?” she asked him.

“Look, Alcmene. I…I’ve tried to talk to Herc. Spent the better part of five days trying to get him to. He just keeps saying everything is okay because we’re together…that it’ll all work out. But it’s not okay. He’s lost his trust in me. I can feel it. He feels it too, because it’s even in his eyes sometimes.”

“Do you still trust yourself, Iolaus?” she asked. And there it was. The question he’d been trying to avoid since he left Xena’s compound in the Arcadian Heights.

He thought a few minutes before he answered this question needing to satisfy both himself and Alcmene with his response.

“Trust myself to devote everything I have to Herc and our partnership? Yeah, I do. Trust myself not to make the same mistake of thinking I can have some kind of real relationship with a woman ever again? Yeah, I do. Trust myself not to want that? I don’t think so.”

“If you trust yourself, Hercules will see that in you and all will be right again soon. He wants to be with you again so much. He’s talked on and on about it with me. He’s so happy you’ll both be traveling together, fulfilling your duty to mankind, adventuring, and just enjoying life once more.”

“Thank you for that, Alcmene,” Iolaus said. He felt her confidence in her words and it made him feel less anxious about the situation. If he could tell Hercules the same thing he just told Alcmene he was sure he could fix everything between them.

“Now, what about this Xena?” she asked the last, difficult question.

“I hate her and I’ll destroy her the same way she wanted to destroy Hercules and me,” Iolaus told her. The mention of Xena’s name evoking barely controlled anger in him.

“For betraying your love?” Alcmene softly asked.

It was her turn to watch Iolaus closely. She could see the emotions flashing behind his eyes, in his posture, in the minute trembling of his lips. It took him a minute to compose himself enough to be able to speak. Drawing a deep breath he replied truthfully. “Just a little. But mostly for being made to look less in Herc’s eyes…for that look of distrust that shows on his face from time to time.”

“Your heart saw some good in her…”

“No! that was another woman…another Xena…not Xena the warlord,” Iolaus replied adamantly.

“Good night, Iolaus. I’m sorry for keeping you up so late when you have to travel in the morning,” Alcmene told him as she rose from her seat on the bed.

“It’s okay -- you know me --I only need a few hours to get by,” Iolaus assured her with a smile. He rose to see her out the door when she turned on him and grabbed his arms for emphasis.

“Iolaus, I trust you to watch over my son, the greatest gift I have. I trust you to take care of yourself, the second greatest gift I have. I trust your loyalty, your integrity, your good judgment and, most of all, I trust your heart. You should too.” She left him to his bed and she went to the pantry to put together a parcel of food to sustain him on his journey back to her son’s side.

They’d successfully sacked several more villages over the next couple of days and Xena and her men were deciding on the next steps. They’d added several new recruits to replace the ones who’d died and Darphus was charged with bringing them up to speed with the rest of the men.

Tensions brewed as they poured over the maps on Xena’s war table.

“I say we go here,” Darphus said pointing to a village on the western coast of the peninsula.

“The western villages?” Xena questioned, seeing an immediate flaw in his strategy.

“Lightly defended. We wipe them from the map-- an easy victory,” Darphus reasoned.

“Easy victories make for weak soldiers,” Xena told him.

“As long as the men get what they want…” Darphus began to argue which was the way things always seemed to go these days.

“I don’t want soldiers following me out of greed. I demand loyalty,” Xena snapped.

“Loyalty, greed, fear-- what does it matter? As long as they obey orders,” Darphus growled back.

“It matters to me,” Xena said, slapping her hand on the table for emphasis.

“Maybe, one day, we’ll find out whose strategy is best -- yours or mine,” Darphus challenged, waiting to see how far this argument escalated today.

“I’ll go north with my scouts. I’ll see for myself. And when I return, we attack,” Xena said, making her decision final. She pointed to three of the men who were in attendance and motioned them to follow her to the horses.

After two days of waiting for Xena to return from the north, Darphus and Cretus sat with the men at their campfire, sharing their evening meal.

“Still no sign of Xena and the scouts?” Darphus asked Cretus. “ The men are ready for a night attack; I don’t wanna lose the element of surprise. I won’t wait any longer.”

“Uh, excuse me?” the prisoner Salmoneus dared to interrupt, feeling he owed a little bit of loyalty to his savior. “Wouldn’t Xena be upset if you don’t…uh, wait?”

“You know, little man, you don’t amuse me at all.” Darphus threatened, baring his teeth and pulling his knife on the man for emphasis. “We go now. I don’t wanna see a living thing when you’re through-- not a man, woman, or child-- understood?”

“Don’t you think that Xena--- ?” Cretus tried to reason with the fierce, scarred warrior.

“Forget Xena! I want that village destroyed! The men can take what they want,” Darphus ordered.

“Yes, sir,” Cretus replied then turned away from the fires to get the attack party organized.

In a matter of minutes all of the warriors were mounted on their horses and charging at full speed towards the unprotected village. The only lights appeared to be coming from the inn, in the center of the town. The rest of the villagers had apparently retired for the night.

A horn sounded and Cretus cried “Attack!” as the warriors rode into the village, hacking and slashing their way from house to house killing anything that moved. Hunting down every man, woman and child and killing them in cold blood.

It was utter devastation. The warriors went crazy with the bloodlust. They tore through the houses looting anything of value, they stripped the bodies of the dead and even cut off fingers if rings couldn’t be easily removed from hands.

Shortly before dawn the raid was complete. There was nothing left to take, no one left to kill. Darphus called Cretus to his side and ordered him to begin burning all of the houses and structures in the village. He had a message to send.

Cretus took some of the men with him to carry out Darphus’ orders. They started at the far end of the village.

Xena rode into camp and found it abandoned except for Salmoneus who had been tied to a tree to keep him from running off.

“Where are they?” she demanded as she cut the ropes that held him bound.

“The village you told them not to touch,” Salmoneus replied, pointing in the general direction.

Xena immediately re-mounted her horse and she yelled at the two men who returned with her to follow suit. She took off in the direction of the village as if all the demons of Hades were after her. Half way to her destination she spotted the fires and pressed on even faster.

“What have you done?!” Xena screamed at Darphus as she jumped off her horse and ran to confront him, taking in the total destruction as she passed down the street.

“A message, to those who defy us,” Darphus bragged, looking around him and smiling wickedly.

“You killed women and children?” she asked unbelievingly, yet seeing the evidence right before her eyes.

“If this doesn’t strike fear into the hearts of the northern villages, nothing will,” Darphus replied with a smirk.

“You’re a butcher. Your disobedience will not go unpunished!” Xena screamed as she grabbed him by his breastplate and shook him threateningly.

“I expected as much,” Darphus said, arrogantly brushing her off.

The sound of a baby crying somewhere nearby interrupted the confrontation.

“I thought I killed them both,” Cretus said, anxiously looking from Darphus to Xena and back.

Xena ran to the source of the crying and found a baby bundled up under a blanket, lying next to its dead mother.

“Kill it!” Darphus cried the order.

“Stop! You kill this baby, you die next,” Xena commanded. “Contrary to what some might think, I still lead this army.”

She wrapped the baby in it’s swaddling, carried it to her horse and rode back to the camp, her mind racing a mile-a-minute. Darphus was out of control. He’d gone to far. She’d have to act.

Just after dawn, in the wooded area that had sheltered them for the night, Hercules stood next to a tree, looking up into it’s branches.

“Any sign of trouble?” he called up to his cousin who had been using that vantage point to scout the area.

“Not that I can see! We’re making good time. I can see the hills of Parthian province,” he called down to the demigod before dropping back down to the ground. “Also, I-- think we’re being followed,” he added quietly.

“I know. I saw him by the river,” Hercules said, confirming the presence of someone on their tail.

After watching the interloper for a while, Hercules figured the man to be a mercenary, possibly connected to Xena’s army and he devised a plan with Iloran to catch the man and question him.

Iloran stayed out in the open, pretending to be unaware of the man’s presence. Hercules was up in the trees above the path the man would be taking. He saw the mercenary notice his cousin and prepare to attack the young man. Hercules took this as his cue.

“Looking for me?” he called to the man before swinging down from the tree branch he’d been perched on. Hercules swept the mercenary off of his horse and knocked him out.

When the man came to, he found that his hands had been tied together over his head by a length of his own sturdy rope and that the rope was then attached to a low hanging tree branch, holding him imprisoned at the mercy of the two men pacing before him.

“We can do this the easy way-or we can go back to that village you destroyed and let the orphans and widows decide what to do with you,” Hercules told the man as soon as he saw him regain consciousness.

“Women and children don’t scare me,” he recklessly responded, sneering at his captors. He recognized the larger man as he’d seen Hercules twice before in Xena’s Arcadian compound. The younger man was unfamiliar but didn’t appear to be threatening.

“Don’t they?!” Hercules barked back at him then began the interrogation in earnest. “Who commands you barbarians? It’s a woman, isn’t it?”

“We’re not barbarians. We’re soldiers,” he replied defiantly.

“Soldiers-- killing unarmed people-- I guess that qualifies you as a soldier, doesn’t it? So, where is your leader -- Xena?” Hercules demanded.

“When she finds out I’m missing, she’ll have you two for breakfast,” the captive mercenary bragged, giving away the fact that his leader was, indeed, that woman.

“Where is she?” Hercules asked, pleased at the man’s inadvertent admission because it let him know he was on the right track and that Xena’s army and the marauders were one and the same.

“Doesn’t matter. You’re too late, anyway,” the mercenary smirked again and motioned with his head towards the Parthian Hills which he could clearly see over his captors’ shoulders.

Hercules and Iloran turned to see a vast blanket of black smoke rising above the trees on the far off hills.

“Get out of my sight,” Hercules said with barely contained anger at the devastation he knew they would find beneath that dark cloud. He picked up Iloran’s knife and threw it at the mercenary, cutting cleanly through the ropes that bound the man to the tree.

“I wouldn’t,” Hercules threatened when he saw the man attempt to make a grab for the knife that was embedded in the tree above his head. Taking a hint, the man ran off to find his horse and get back to Xena with the information that Hercules was coming for her.

Hercules and Iloran ran as fast as they could towards the smoke and the occasional flash of fire on the hillside.

“What’s over there?” Hercules questioned his cousin as they ran.

“A village…market town…I passed through it…on my way…to find you,” Iloran told him, panting deeply in his effort to keep up with his demigodly relative.

They slowed to a walk when they rounded the last curve and saw the road end in a twisted, charred mess of wood and ashes. The smell of roasted flesh hung heavy on the air, almost choking Hercules, causing Iloran to wretch and vomit.

When they gathered their wits, and steeled their stomachs, they entered what was left of the village. They split up, taking different paths around the town in a desperate search for survivors. After a few minutes they met up next to the charred stones of the village well.

“No one’s alive-- not even a child,” Iloran muttered softly, barely able to think coherently after what he’d seen in the past few minutes.

“They killed children?” Hercules asked in disbelief. He had taken the path through the marketplace and commercial streets.

“They killed everyone -- women, children, babies,” his cousin replied with an edge to his voice that was laced with tears.

“I swear by my mother-- this won’t happen again!” Hercules vowed.

Iloran showed the demigod the way towards the houses where most of the dead were to be found. Hercules entered one of the homes and saw the bodies of an entire family - father, mother and four children -- burnt and still huddled together on the parent’s smoldering bed.

Tears ran freely down the demigod’s cheeks. The cruelty of the gods against mortals he’d lived with all his life and almost came to expect it, but the cruelty of mortal against mortal continually shocked him. He would never understand the senselessness of it all.

Unbeknownst to Hercules, he was being observed by a man who kept himself hidden behind a pile of smoking beams.

“Murderers!” the man whispered as Hercules walked away to find his cousin so they could give a proper burial to the dead.

Just after dawn in Xena’s camp, the warrior princess finally made it back to her private tent. She’d been in her war tent and walking around the camp with the crying baby to keep the men awake and pique their consciences about what Darphus had just ordered them to do.

She was exhausted after the two day scouting trip and her horrifying discovery of the previous night. She needed sleep and hoped the baby would remain quiet for a while. When she’d gotten a little bit of rest, she’d find a caretaker for it.

“What are you doing here?” Xena asked. She was clearly annoyed that Salmoneus and a strange woman were waiting for her in her private area.

“I thought you might need some help taking care of the baby, so I found this shepherdess,” the salesman explained, careful not to rile her any more than she already was.

“I’ve got no intention of taking care of this infant. I merely saved him,” she growled at him, and at the same time wondered why she would even be trying to explain herself to this annoying little man. “No, of course not.” Salmoneus said laughingly. “If you had any maternal instinct, you wouldn’t-- not that you don’t have maternal instinct, but with all the fighting, it gets--” he continued nervously.

The shepherdess, who had been eyeing the man with amusement, reached around him and took the baby from Xena’s arms.

“I have some milk for the baby,” she told the warrior woman.

Xena was relieved and turned to go to her bed without another word to either of them.

“Oh, proud warriorress? Can I talk to you for a moment?” Salmoneus called after her.

“About what?” Xena asked clearly annoyed.

“It’s Darphus. He scares me,” Salmoneus said, voicing his fear for their lives.

Xena spun around, grabbed him on either side of his mouth with her strong right hand and squeezed to shut him up.

“Everyone scares you,” she hissed at the quaking man in her grip. Then she roughly released his face.

“Very observant. But in this case, I don’t think he’s exactly in your corner, either,” he pointed out, unable to stop talking now that he’d started.

“You mean, his insubordination,” she said, fishing for any information he might have picked up while she had been out scouting.

“Yes, that -- and he’s been stirring up the men about things while you were gone. He told the men that if you’d listened to him those five warriors who died in the attack on the village where you found me - he told them they’d still be alive. He told them your strategies are a danger to your men. He incites them by making fun of the men who were with you in Arcadia, saying that you ran away and let Hercules beat you all - even though Hercules, by himself is like 10 or 20 other men. Oh, and he says you’re getting soft because you saved the baby.”

“I’ve got no reason to doubt my soldiers’ loyalty.” She snapped at Salmoneus. “And I’ll deal with Darphus,” she assured him.

“Yes, I’m sure. But, but, but-- the best course of action, given that you and Darphus are at odds--” Salmoneus kept going in nervous fear. He just couldn’t seem to stop himself.

“I don’t run from my problems. I confront them! And I’ll deal with Darphus!” She shouted at him then turned to her bed.

“Excellent choice. It was just a thought, thank you,” as he bowed out of her presence and went to help the shepherdess with the baby.

After about three hours of sleep, approximately about the same time that Hercules began burying the dead in the nearby town, Xena roused her army and moved on. She headed north, pressing her men and the horses hard, to put as much distance as possible between them and the burnt village.

She had brought the shepherdess and the baby along with her to make certain that Darphus didn’t have them killed ‘just to send a message.’ About an hour before they stopped to set up camp, Xena spotted a line of caves in the rocky face of the hills to their east. She began to formulate a plan to assure the baby’s continued safety. It had become a personal matter for her now.

They set up camp in a densely wooded area, far off of the main road just before sunset. A quick dinner was prepared and the men sat at their campfires sharing the fine wine they had looted from the village they’d destroyed the night before.

Xena didn’t join them. She spent the time in her tent instructing the shepherdess on how to find the caves she had spotted earlier and giving her supplies and enough dinars to keep them both well until she could come and take the baby to an adoptive family. While the men were occupied with their meals, Xena, with Salmoneus’ help, brought one of the horses behind her tent, helped the shepherdess secure the supplies to it then handed her the baby and led them back to the road.

When she was certain that the shepherdess was well on her way to safety, she returned to her war tent and sent for Darphus.

“You defied me,” Xena said when he finally decided to stroll into her tent.

“You wanted the village destroyed; we destroyed it,” he challenged her loudly. He knew that all of the men in the camp had gathered around the war tent to hear the proceedings.

“I didn’t order you to burn it, or to slaughter every living thing,” she shouted at him, fuming at his insolence.

“I gave you my reasons,” he drawled.

Xena pulled her sword and placed the tip of the blade on Darphus’ neck daring him with her eyes to make a move.

“I’m relieving you of your command!” she shouted.

“My men won’t allow that-- yes-- my men.” Darphus shouted back at her as the tent filled with armed men, all pointing their weapons at her.

“You’re the one who’s stepping down,” he informed her as he took her sword. “And you’ll leave the only way a warrior can,” he added with a self-satisfied smirk on his scarred face.

“The gauntlet?” Xena whispered to herself.

“There’s not a man here who’ll raise a hand against me,” she said, so certain of herself.

But the men surprised her. The pushed her into a chair in the corner of the tent and bound her to it. They kept her under heavily armed guard until preparations could be made for her to walk the gauntlet.

After a quarter of an hour, men prepared and drums ready to count the beat, Xena was untied from the chair and brought out of the tent at sword point.

“Take off her armor,” Darphus ordered, laughing at her impotence.

“I’ll bury you and your new leader,” Xena shouted to her mutinous men.

“Can she really make it through that?” Salmoneus asked one of the men near the end of the line.

“No one ever has,” he said, almost sadly.

“Begin!” Darphus shouted the order and Xena was shoved roughly towards the starting line of the gauntlet.

Xena started walking. Heavily armed men on each side of her formed an aisle that she had to navigate. If she were lucky and made it to the line at the other end of the aisle alive, she would be allowed to live but would be exiled from her army for life.

Blows from fists and clubs rained down on her. The men were holding nothing back in the beating they administered to their fallen warrior princess. She was only able to avoid some of the hits. About half way through she was so hurt and disoriented that she couldn’t avoid any of them.

“Go, Xena, go!” Salmoneus shouted his encouragement. She put up a good fight but towards the end she was almost knocked unconscious by several blows to the head. She was finally knocked to the ground and forced to crawl, ultimately collapsing with her body half way across the finish line.

“She’s dead,” observed a few of the men standing closest to the finish line. They all turned their backs on her, waiting to see who Darphus would assign to the burial detail- all, that is, except for Salmoneus -- the only one in the camp who mourned her passing.

He stood protectively over the crumpled beauty at his feet. Crying tears of sorrow for his own protectoress and tears of fear for his own safety now.

He didn’t believe his own eyes at first. It was just a twitch and he knew that the newly-dead sometimes did that. Then he heard the light moan and couldn’t contain his joy.

“Xena,” he quietly exclaimed. But that was enough to catch the attention of the warriors.

“She survived!” they exclaimed as they turned back to watch Xena pull herself to her feet and walk defiantly across the finish line.

“Kill her!” Darphus ordered.

“But she made it through,” said the young warrior who had been guarding her tent when she had that most unusual nightmare. He dared to voice his opposition to their new leader.

“Good for her! Now, finish it!” Darphus screamed.

“She fought by the rules,” another warrior dared to speak out, emboldened by the young one.

“Right!” several more of the men agreed.

“I won’t cross that line,” one of the warriors called out.

“Me neither,” they all echoed.

Faced with the universal disapproval of his men, Darphus decided that this one time - and just this one time - he would weigh-in on the side of democracy.

“Enjoy your exile,” he sneered at her.

Xena didn’t reply with words. She let her mouth fill with blood and spat it straight at the scarred usurper.

“The bitch is gone! Now we celebrate!” Darphus shouted to his men, directing their attention to the skins of wine and barrels of ale back at the campfires and away from Xena’s retreating figure.

Salmoneus tried to follow the warrior woman but Cretus clapped him firmly on the shoulder and steered him towards the feast. He would be serving the men this night.

For several hours, Salmoneus wended his way through the celebrating warriors, keeping their goblets full and handing over full wine skins and pitchers of ale to those men who had no patience to wait for their cups to be replenished. Soon, the ground was littered with the bodies of the drunken warriors who hadn’t the steam left to crawl back to their tents.

He checked to see where Darphus had disappeared to and found the man still on his feet, swaying over the war table in a trance-like drunken state. He was totally oblivious to the salesman’s presence in the tent and didn’t even move a finger when Salmoneus stole behind him and removed Xena’s chakrum and sword from the pile of her effects.

He made his way to Xena’s private tent and filled two carry sacks with some of her leathers, a suit of her armor, a couple of expensive and rare knives and daggers he’d spotted and her money pouch. He also found, among her effects, a set of armor for a man and thought it would be a good disguise for himself as well as a change from the smelly garments he’d been wearing since his capture.

He would leave Xena’s things with the shepherdess, sure that the warrioress would eventually show up there to check on the baby. ‘She might even be grateful.’ he thought as he made his way around the camp trying not to be heard. ‘She might even be so grateful that she’ll track me down and give me a reward for salvaging her stuff and her money pouch. Which is really heavy, by the way. So maybe she won’t miss the 100 dinars that I took in compensation for the cookware I lost when they took me prisoner.’

And Salmoneus was right about Xena heading to the caves. So stiff and in such pain from the beating she received in the gauntlet, it took her more than three hours to make it to that safe haven.

The shepherdess was awake and tending to the baby when Xena dragged herself into the inviting warmth and light of the cave. Seeing the blood and bruises, she moved to help Xena to the bedroll. But the warrior woman refused to be tended to.

“I can take care of myself!” she said, warning the woman away from her.

“One of your men came here, he asked me if I’d seen you or heard of your passing this way,” she told Xena.

“I have no men,” Xena growled.

“He was a scout named Daros. He’d been walking through the trees at the base of the hill when he saw the light from my torch. I told him that you’d been spotted in this area. He left a message for you if I saw you pass again,” the shepherdess told her.

“What did he want?” Xena asked, curious now. Daros was one of the scouts she’d taken north with her, but he’d taken a different route home.

“He said he needed to warn you that Hercules was on your trail,” the shepherdess reported.

“Hercules?” Xena wondered. She was in such pain that she couldn’t quite process why Hercules would be following her. After she’d left the compound in the Arcadian Heights, her scouts assured her that he was headed back to Thebes with Iolaus.

She cleaned the worst of the cuts, bound her bruised ribs with strips of the shepherdess’ underskirt then she carefully positioned herself on the woman’s bedroll. She stared blankly at the wall until she drifted off into a dead sleep.

Salmoneus arrived shortly before sunrise, pleased to see that Xena had made it to the caves alive. He left her effects with the shepherdess, checked that she would be all right then he set out south as quickly as his legs would carry him to put as much distance as possible between himself and Darphus.

On a road near the edge of the woods they’d been traveling through, Hercules spotted relatively fresh horse manure and knew that they were not too far behind Xena’s army. He urged his cousin into a brisk run to close the distance even more. He wanted to catch up with them before the warriors had the chance to destroy another village.

“Hercules? How about a break?” Iloran pleaded after miles of running at Hercules’ pace.

“We’ll rest when we find ‘em,” Hercules urged his cousin.

“We won’t be in any shape to fight if we don’t stop soon,” the young man tried to reason.

“When we find ‘em,” Hercules insisted.

A low whoosh was all the warning they had. An arrow struck Iloran in his upper chest, right below the shoulder, knocking him to the ground. Stunned and in pain he called for his cousin.

Hercules ran back and dragged Iloran to safety behind a tree.

“Come on. You’ll be all right. Stay here,” he assured his cousin.

Then taking Iloran’s sword, he watched carefully for the attacker but saw no one.

“Who are you?! Who are you?! Why are you attacking us?!” he called trying to lure the attacker out of hiding.

When he stepped into a clearing, a trap was sprung and a heavy rock tied to the end of a rope swung down from one of the trees and caught the demigod in the back of the head. A blow that would have killed an ordinary man, only stunned him temporarily.

The attacker took this as his chance to charge at the demigod with a spear to finish him off. Hercules reacted and used the man’s own momentum to flip him over and pin the attacker in the dirt.

“Go on, kill me. I have nothing to live for, anymore,” the man said defiantly.

“Who are you?” Hercules asked. He wondered if this man, who was dressed as a simple farmer and wore the blank stare of one in shock, could be one of Xena’s men.

“Spiros. You killed my wife and son,” he accused the demigod.

“I’m Hercules-- and I didn’t kill anyone.”

“Hercules? But I saw you looting the bodies in the village,” Spiros said, shaking his head in confusion.

“We were burying them. They were already dead when we got there. You must have seen us looking for things we could use to identify the graves with,” Hercules told him. A deep sadness appeared on the demigod’s face as memories of that grim task flashed through his mind.

“My wife and child were in that village,” Spiros told the demigod in a flat voice.

“You have my sympathy. Come on. Let’s see how much damage you’ve done to my cousin.” Hercules led the way back to the tree where he’d left Iloran. Spiros sat on a large rock, nearby, staring blankly at the ground beneath his feet.

The demigod examined his cousin’s wound then asked Spiros if he had any supplies with him. Without lifting his head, Spiros pointed to some bushes where Hercules found a well-stocked carry sack and a water skin. He tore up one of the shirts in the sack to use for bandages, then he expertly removed the arrow from Iloran’s shoulder.

“You’ll live,” Hercules assured his cousin with a smile of relief.

“Thanks,” Iloran replied gratefully.

“I should never have left. I should never have left,” Spiros said to no one in particular. Hercules rose from beside his cousin and went to sit on the rock with this man. He knew that Spiros wounds were going to be a lot harder to deal with than Iloran’s.

“Why did you?” Hercules asked with honest curiosity.

“No one wanted to leave their families. But we knew someone had to go for help, so we-- drew straws. I drew the short one,” Spiros replied.

“You shouldn’t feel guilty. You did what you could.” Hercules said the words, all the while knowing they’d be no comfort to this man.

“But everyone I loved-- they’re gone now-dead,” Spiros uttered in horror as the realization hit him once again.

“I once lost my family, too,” Hercules told him. Sharing his own pain might help him reach this man.

“Then you’ll know there’s nothing you can say that’ll make me feel better.”

“Yeah,” Hercules said, confirming Spiros words. “But we will find Xena and her army. I promise you.” Hercules said, knowing well that thoughts of revenge could be a great motivator for one to go on living.

“I can be your scout. I know this countryside well,” Spiros replied with a spark of life.

“Done,” Hercules accepted the man’s offer with a confirming handshake.

Back in Darphus’ camp, the men went about their usual business of dismantling the camp a little slower this morning. Some suffered from severe hangovers, but most of the men were still more than a little drunk.

Darphus and Cretus, looking far worse than they normally did, stayed to talk with each other after the returning scout had been dismissed.

“So-- the great Hercules is on our trail,” Darphus mused.

“Maybe it’s time to change our plans,” Cretus suggested, a little fearful at hearing the powerful demigod was after them.

“No,” the scarred warlord barked.

“But Hercules--” Cretus started,wanting to remind Darphus of just who they’d be dealing with.

“-- can be defeated like any other man!” Darphus insisted. “He doesn’t know we know he’s on our track. That gives us an edge.”

Then pointing to a place on the map a few days travel away, Darphus made his decision. “Here-outside Parthus, where the road splits-- that’s where we spring our trap.”

“But suppose he’s waiting?” Cretus asked.

“We’ll crush him like a bug!” Darphus snarled at Cretus, then dismissed him with a wave of his hand.

Salmoneus walked at a rapid pace away from the caves and through the woods that ringed the road. As he walked, he nervously chattered to himself.

“All right. All right. You’re safe. You found some armor. You don’t know where you’re going, but you’re making really good time. Let’s hear it for me! Hip- hip-- hooray!” he said. And, with his very next step, he triggered a hunter’s snare. Before he could finish saying the word ‘hooray!’ he found himself dangling upside down from the limb of a tree. He tried every thing he could think of to set himself loose but nothing worked and he was too out of shape to try anything overly athletic. He decided to save his energy and wait for the hunter who’d set the trap to come and free him. About an hour had passed when he heard people nearby.

“Please, somebody help me, if you can hear me! Help me! Please, somebody help me!” he called out.

Hercules, Iloran and Spiros heard the cry for help and ran towards the sound.

“Salmoneus?” Hercules asked.

“Hercules?!” the upside-down salesman squealed in joy and relief.

The demigod continued walking and motioned to his companions to follow suit. But he couldn’t contain the big smile that crossed his face so he kept his back to Salmoneus when he said, “It’s nothing, just-- someone hanging upside-down. Come on.”

“Hey! You can’t leave me like this!” Salmoneus shouted anxiously.

“I know. I know,” chuckled as he turned back to cut the salesman down.

“You know him?” Spiros asked the demigod.

“Unfortunately,” Hercules said with a smile that belied what he spoke.

“Does he know me?!” Salmoneus exclaimed as he brushed himself off.

“I fought a Cyclops with this guy! And a lunatic Centaur. And what about the fifty randy daughters of King Thespius, huh?” he said nudging the demigod in the ribs with his elbow.

“Can we reminisce some other time?” Hercules said, calling them all back to purpose.

“I had to help the big guy out,” Salmoneus said with a grin.

“Yeah. I-- should know better than to ask, but, how did you get up there?”

“I have no idea. I was escaping this band of murderous thugs-- led by this fierce, beautiful woman with great--” Salmoneus told the demigod, adding hand gestures to make his point, wanting to explain his recent predicament in great detail.

“You were with Xena?” Hercules asked. He wondered just how this little man always seemed to get himself involved in the strangest situations.

“You know her?” Salmoneus answered the demigod’s question with one of his own.

“Yes, I do,” Hercules replied.

“They humiliated me. They starved me. They took my entire line of kitchenware,” Salmoneus rambled excitedly.

“Salmoneus,” Hercules said trying to get his attention.

“I’ve got this great utensil. It cracks a walnut into two smooth halves,” the eternal salesman went on.

“Salmoneus.”

“Protects the nut, and there are no splinters,” the sales pitch continued.

“Salmoneus!” Hercules finally had to shout to get the man to focus.

“Yes.”

“Just tell me where they are, Salmoneus.”

“They’re on their way to Parthus,” he told the demigod what he’d overheard in the camp the night before. “And if it’s anything like the last time, there won’t be any Parthus left!”

“Let’s go,” Hercules urged them all onward.

After several hours of traveling back the way he’d just come, Salmoneus was tiring rapidly.

“Can we take a break?” he asked the demigod. “I’m hungry. I don’t know how I get myself in these messes.”

“You might try staying away from killers like Xena,” Hercules replied, not really knowing the man’s whole story.

“I wasn’t with her by choice!” Salmoneus exclaimed. He was shocked that the demigod would think that he’d associate with killers. “And I’ll tell you something -- she’s not as evil as you think she is.”

“Of course not-- she only kills people for sport,” Hercules said, remembering his own encounters with the warrior princess.

“Well, at least she allows them to surrender before massacring ‘em,” Salmoneus shot back.

“She’s all heart,” the demigod responded sarcastically.

“She’s got some heart. She’s not into that-- scorched-Earth policy like Darphus,” Salmoneus continued in defense of his protectoress.

“You’re serious-- that she’s not a cold-hearted evil bitch,” Hercules continued to probe for information, not quite believing what he was hearing.

“Believe me. Compared with Darphus, she looks like the goddess of love and light,” Salmoneus told him.

“Ah, Darphus. He’s Xena lieutenant?” Hercules asked. But before he could get the salesman’s response his cousin called to him and gestured towards the top of the next hill.

It was Xena - and she held the struggling Spiros at knifepoint.

“Looks like we’ll get the chance to see which one of us is right,” Hercules said to Salmoneus before acknowledging her.

“Hello, Xena.”

“Hello, Hercules. Looks like you’re losing your touch! Your scout would never make it in my army!” she called back to the demigod.

“You’re right. He’s not a baby-killer,” Hercules called back, taking up her verbal sparring match.

“Don’t tell me you’re gonna spoil it by bringing your friends into it,” she challenged him.

“No, Xena. I think I can handle this one on my own,” Hercules said as he began climbing the hill towards her.

Xena threw Spiros away from her. His head landed on a boulder and he was struck unconscious by the blow.

“We’ve been down this road before. The last time, you almost cost me a friendship,” Hercules continued talking. Finally being able to express his anger at her for daring to tamper with the most important part of his life.

“This time-- it’ll cost you a life!” she shouted.

“Xena, why are you doing this?!” Salmoneus shouted to her. He was surprised to see her looking as well as she did considering the beating she had taken the night before. He knew she must be hurting badly. It was like suicide for her to be challenging the son of Zeus.

“If I can bring back the head of Hercules, I can get back my army!” she exclaimed.

“So you can murder more women and children?” Hercules asked derisively.

“That was not my idea! I never murdered women and children!” Xena bristled.

“You shouldn’t be fighting each other! Darphus is the enemy! You should be on the same side fighting him! On second thought, maybe you should work it out between you!” Salmoneus called to her, trying to sell her on his brilliant new idea.

The tension was too great between the two people on the top of the hill. Xena blamed Hercules for so much that was wrong in her life. Hercules blamed her for her wrong way of life and what it had cost so many innocent people…what it had cost him personally.

Swords clashed and the two great warriors fought fiercely. Hercules found that he didn’t have to hold back his strength so much. Xena was skilled beyond any warrior he’d ever fought, except maybe for Iolaus.

“I’ve got you now, Hercules!” Xena shouted. One of her moves had knocked the demigod onto his back and she stood over him with her sword poised to strike a death blow.

“Xena!” Iloran screamed as he charged at her, sword drawn, ready to protect his cousin. She knocked the sword out of his hand with a well placed kick then knocked him back down the hill with another. But it was enough to give Hercules the chance to get up and fight again.

He was finished playing with this woman.

Hercules quickly took control of the fight, pressing her back and knocking her to the ground with his powerful swordplay. In seconds he had his blade pressed firmly against her throat.

“Go on, finish it. Prove you’re the greatest warrior,” she fearlessly dared him.

Hercules looked her directly in the eyes. It helped him draw himself back from the edge of his own uncontrolled rage.

“Killing isn’t the only way of proving you’re a warrior, Xena. And I think you know that,” he told her as he removed the blade from her throat. His withdrawal confused her more than anything else she’d experienced yet.

“What do you intend to do?” she asked him warily.

“We’re going after your army. Why don’t you join us?” he asked, never taking his eyes away from hers.

“No.” she answered abruptly.

“Coward! You can make war on a defenseless village, kill women and children, but you can’t fight a worthy opponent,” Spiros called to her. He’d regained consciousness only seconds before.

Xena turned and ran back towards the caves unsuccessfully trying to put distance between herself and the piercing eyes of the demigod.

“Let her go! She has a fight of her own to deal with,” Hercules told the others as they made ready to follow Xena into the hills.

Hercules could clearly see that Spiros and Salmoneus had had enough for one day. He suggested that they set up camp for the night not too far from where they’d encountered Xena.

She kept herself hidden so she could observe them and try to pick up any clues about their next moves. She knew they would go after Darphus but ‘how’ they went after him would help her formulate her own next moves.

Xena returned to the cave after sunset and gratefully ate some rabbit stew that the resourceful shepherdess had thrown together from the meager supplies taken from the warrior woman’s camp the night before. It stung the cuts on the inside of her mouth. Swallowing and breathing weren’t easy with the damage done to her ribs but it had been days since she’d eaten and she’d need to keep up her energy if she were to reclaim her position as warlord.

She re-bandaged her ribs, changed her leathers and armor then hid the rest of her things under a rock towards the rear of the cave.

She set her sword, chakrum and whip next to the cave’s entrance so she could slip out quietly before dawn then she called the shepherdess to join her at the fire.

“I want you to take this money and keep it with you,” she said, emptying half of the dinars from her money pouch into the shepherdess’ skirt. “I’ll be leaving before sunrise. If I don’t return to you after the course of two moons, take this money and find the boy a good family to care for him, unless you want him for yourself. When I return you will be rewarded for your trouble.”

“It’s been no trouble, Xena. I will be here when you return,” the woman assured her.

“Thank you,” Xena replied then she left the cave to check the perimeter before turning in for the night.

She walked down the hill to scour the woods for any traces of Darphus’ men. It would be just like him to change his mind and send warriors out to track her down and finish the job of killing her. Her thoughts were in a turmoil. She couldn’t understand why Hercules had spared her life. She had lost, fair and square, and part of her demanded an honorable warrior’s death. She had been disgraced the night before, her army taken away from her by force. She had been bested in a one-on-one fight and that was something that had never happened to her ever before,. Part of her felt she deserved to die. Part of her was glad to be alive. All of her was confused.

And Hercules -- she couldn’t understand him or why his eyes effected her so, why she felt he could look inside of her and read deep into her soul. She thought it must be part of his godly heritage.

Her thoughts turned to the god of war. Ares was the only other god she knew and his allure was almost irresistible. As she remembered their last conversation, right after she and her army had sacked the villages of Cirra and Philius, Xena felt her anger rise. He had promised her power, he had promised her that all Greece would fall at her feet, he had promised her his undying gratitude and favor. All she had to do was remove Hercules from the picture so he couldn’t interfere with Ares plans, to kill him if she had to. And she had tried but she knew she was doing it without any support from the god of war. He made no move to help her, he never came to her assistance when she called, it even seemed that every obstacle was being put in her path to make her fail.

“Ares! Where are you when I need you?!? I’m trying to keep my part of the bargain but if you don’t at least give me a clue as to what’s going on, all bets are off! Do you hear me Ares!” Xena shouted to the night sky and there was no response. “All right, play it your way. I’ll do what I have to do. I don’t need your help.” Then she turned on her heel and stalked back up to the cave.

She followed Hercules and his companions the entire next day. There were few travelers on the road, only an occasional wagon loaded with people who were fleeing inland for safety after they’d received reports of the marauders

As she trailed along the road, hidden from their sight, she witnessed the joy, the comfort and relief that the demigod’s presence brought to these people. He gave them hope. She remembered having had hope in the demigod once, a long time ago. He never showed up for her and she lost all hope. The gods never lived up to their reputations or their promises.

After traveling hard all day, every muscle in Xena’s body was sore and aching. She found some herbs that she could use to alleviate the pain so she could get a decent night’s sleep and be ready to follow the men again the next day.

She fell into a dozing state, half way between waking and sleeping. She called up the familiar faces of her brothers, smiling and happy faces as youngsters, grim and solemn as young men. Snatches of memories came to her, watching first her older, much loved and admired brother fall to the stroke of a warlord’s sword - the younger falling, pierced by a mercenary’s arrows. She remembered, and could almost feel, the knife that very same mercenary held to her own throat in order to obtain her mother’s cooperation with his demands. Then the vision of the man holding the knife on her turned into Hercules. She stared into this vision’s eyes as he removed the blade from her throat giving her life and hope - not death.

What was it about Hercules?

Iolaus’ voice played in the back of her head. She had asked him that same question one day - what was it about him -- why he’d tied up most of his life with Hercules and he said, “Hercules has this vision of the world. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good place, it’s a fair place and that’s why I’ll be with him for as long as I have life - because his world is where I want to live. And I would give my life defending it to ensure that others can secure that world for themselves.”

Although her physical pain had faded, Xena still didn’t get much sleep and she had to push herself to the limits to follow Hercules and his companions the next day.

Three days after their encounter with Xena, the demigod and company made it to the crossroads that led to Parthus.

“Let’s wipe ‘em out. Come on, we can handle them,” Iloran urged his cousin.

“No. That’s what they expect us to do,” Hercules explained. Then pointing to the low lying branches of some trees that lined the road, he showed his companions the warriors hidden behind their thick leaves. “That’s their surprise.”

“An ambush? For us?” Iloran asked.

“So, what do we do?” Spiros asked the demigod.

“We even the odds. And we get to Parthus before they do,” Hercules said as he pulled them further off of the road to explain his plans.

Salmoneus was a familiar figure to the horses since he had been given the task of feeding and grooming them during his time as Xena’s prisoner. They wouldn’t be skittish around him or raise an alarm, so the salesman was given the task of releasing them and chasing them off when Hercules gave the signal.

The others circled around the warriors who waited in ambush for them then they quietly and systematically neutralized them all. Energized and encouraged by the success of their operation, Hercules and his companions snuck past Darphus’ camp and headed straight for Parthus at a running pace.

“We’ve been ambushed, and our horses are gone,” Darphus angrily observed as he surveyed the confusion in his camp.

“But how? Hercules was never here!” Cretus exclaimed with the shocked realization that his finest men had been bested by one man.

“He was here, all right! Fools! He’s long gone now,” Darphus shouted.

“But wh…where?” Cretus stammered.

“Parthus,” Darphus said. He was sure that was where Hercules was headed and he was determined to take up the demigod’s obvious challenge.

“Women and children all evacuated,” Hercules told his companions as they stood in the village square of Parthus surveying their handiwork.

“And the old men and the boys. I still say we should’ve kept some,” Salmoneus said, throwing his two cents into the mix.

“No, they’re no match for that army out there,” Hercules assured him.

“Yeah, and we are? All four of us?” Salmoneus asked sarcastically

“Well, the villagers cooked up some surprises. That’ll help,” said the ever-optimistic demigod.

“Yeah? Well, what happens when the surprises run out?” Salmoneus asked. Because he really wanted the demigod’s answer to that one.

“Looks like we’ll find out soon enough. You better get to your post,” Hercules urged the other three as he heard the unmistakable sounds of Darphus and his men.

Hercules waited, tense and ready to meet and take on the warriors who made it through the gates first. Thinking out loud he muttered, “Okay, buddy. I’m putting my trust in your heart. If you saw some good in Xena…then I’ve gotta believe there’s some good inside her still. You’ve never led me wrong yet.”

“Ready! Attack!” Darphus ordered, rushing Parthus’ city gate.

The warriors charged at the lone figure of Hercules and he fought them off with the power and skill of ten men. Those men who chose to find other targets to kill or homes to loot were met by traps and obstacles set up by the townsfolk before they went into hiding. Large rocks and huge wooden beams fell out of nowhere on the warriors heads as Iloran and Salmoneus triggered the release mechanisms at Hercules’ signal. Iloran and Spiros let themselves be chased down darkened streets, avoiding the deep pits that had been dug in the middle of road. Several warriors who’d chased after them were trapped in each one.

Through the last part of the preparations of Parthus’ defenses and through the first minutes of Darphus’ attack, Xena sat perched on top of the city wall watching all of the proceedings. She had still been debating whether she should take Hercules’ head and try to win back her army - or - if she should throw her immediate ambitions to the wind and join the fray on the side of the demigod. Hearing Hercules’ little impromptu speech to his partner helped her decide.

Hercules believed in Iolaus -- and at one time Iolaus had believed in her. Maybe there was another way to go about affecting change in Greece. Perhaps Hercules might let her in on this vision he had of the world. Maybe he could teach her so she’d be able to experience the kind of bond for herself that Hercules had with Iolaus. That kind of power would be greater than an army’s and more alluring than anything she’d been offered by Ares.

She made up her mind. Using her whip as a rope, she swung down into the middle of the fracas and engaged her former warriors in battle, taking the demigod’s side.

“I don’t believe it; she’s come back!” Salmoneus rejoiced, finally believing that their side had a chance to win this battle. He picked up the rocks that were given to him as ammunition and he began flinging them at the warriors who ran through the street below his position.

“That bracelet belonged to my wife!” shouted Spiros who recognized the silver band on Cretus’ gauntlet as the two engaged in hand-to-hand combat .

“Retreat!” shouted one of the warriors who had paused just long enough after he saw Cretus die, to take in the large number of their own dead and wounded

“Fight!” Darphus shouted, standing his ground.

“Let’s get out of here!” the remaning warriors shouted to each other.

“Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight!” Darphus shouted in impotent rage as he watched his men run away in retreat.

Xena approached her former lieutenant, summoning all the thoughts of vengeance that had passed through her mind these past few days. It added strength to her arms and fuel to the fire of her hatred for this man.

They fought, swords flashing, skills being tested.

Hercules stood on the sidelines with his companions letting Xena take the revenge she wanted but ready to come to her assistance if she needed it.

With one lightening fast blow, Darphus knocked Xena to her knees but she was ready for his move. Before he could complete the swing to bring his sword down on her head, she stabbed upward, driving her sword through his chest and twisting it a couple of times for emphasis.

Hercules and the others sorted through the bodies that littered the ground in the village square and in the streets of the village, separating the dead from the injured. The dead were left in the village square for burial when they had Parthus’ men-folk back to help them. The injured were led away to the stables where they were tied up for safe keeping until the magistrate arrived.

They cleaned themselves up at the village well then regrouped outside the gate to discuss their next steps. Iloran, Hercules and Xena waited for Salmoneus and Spiros to finish up.

“I’m glad you came back,” Hercules said as way of thanks for Xena’s help.

“I had to. They weren’t true warriors. They had to be stopped,” she replied, fooling with her gauntlets so she wouldn’t have to meet the demigod’s eyes.

“Is it over now? All of it?” he asked.

“Yes, it is,” she said, confirming her change of heart for herself as well as for the demigod.

“Well, I’m not making any promises,” Salmoneus was heard to say as he approached them with Spiros in tow.

“What is it?” Hercules asked the salesman.

“Salmoneus told me that Xena saved a baby boy at my village,” Spiros told the demigod with a small light of hope in his shining eyes.

“Is that true?” he asked Xena who nodded in affirmation as he turned his face towards her.

“Was he, uh-- Did he have a birthmark on his left leg?” Spiros asked, almost afraid to hear her response.

Xena again nodded her head in the affirmative.

“That’s my son. That’s my son. Oh, gods above, thank you. I don’t know how to--” Spiros gushed nearly breathless in his relief.

“Suppose I don’t wanna give him up. I’m the one who put my life on the line for him. Would you?” Xena said in challenge. She was not a trusting person and needed to assure herself that this man was indeed the baby’s father.

“Yes, and I’ll fight you if I have to,” Spiros said, standing up to this fierce warrioress.

“You’d lose,” she pointed out arrogantly.

“Doesn’t matter. He’s my blood,” the man said daringly, taking up the challenge.

“Xena, why are you doing this?” Hercules said, intervening before things went too far.

“You’ve shown me all I need to know,” Xena told Spiros, having heard enough from this man to satisfy her. “Just raise your son to be as brave as you. Salmoneus will take you to him.”

“You sure you don’t wanna join us? You know, for old times’ sake? I just don’t want to fall into any more traps,” Salmoneus asked. He was a bit worried about leaving this place without the demigod’s protection.

“Yeah, I’m not sure how many people could stand the sight of you upside down,” Hercules chuckled as he called to mind the condition they’d originally found the salesman in.

“I happen to think I have nice legs,” Salmoneus replied, with just a little bit of his feelings hurt.

“Salmoneus, Spiros will keep you safe,” the demigod assured his friend. Now that Spiros knew his son lived he was anxious to get to him and pulled Salmoneus off towards the road.

“Thank you, cousin,” Iloran said, next to take his leave of the demigod. He had to go let the men and the boys know it was okay to come back to Parthus. They had a lot of bodies to bury and a lot of cleaning up to do before they could let the women and children come back into town.

“You’re welcome. Let’s not wait five years to see each other again,” he said as he took his cousin’s arm in a warm gesture of leave-taking.

“Not a chance,” Iloran assured the demigod, then he turned away from the gates and made his way towards the Parthian Hills.

“Take care,” Hercules called after his cousin. Then turning back to Xena he asked, “So-- what now?”

He could see her uncharacteristic hesitation and waited for her to put voice to her thoughts.

“I’ve heard stories about your vision of the world and I was wondering if you would show me what it’s like,” she finally said. “What do you say we go find out together?”

For a brief moment Hercules thought that he caught a glimpse of what Iolaus had originally seen in this woman and it was enough for him that he dared to take the chance.

“Yeah,” he answered her with a small smile and they walked off towards the road that Salmoneus and Spiros had taken a few minutes before.

“Ah Ha Ha Ha Ha…are you sure you want to go the full one hundred days, Bro?” Aphrodite laughed in glee as she turned away from the portal to face her brother. “I think you’re gonna need one hundred years before you turn warrior woman back to your side.”

“That’s it! Gloat all you want…all of you. You’ll see. SHE HASN’T LEFT MY SIDE!,” Ares screamed as he spun around and pointed his finger at the chuckling and tittering gods who had gathered to watch the drama play out. “My Xena is just luring Jerkules into a sense of false security. Then…Wham! His head’s gonna roll. Maybe she’ll whack him tonight when he’s sleeping…or maybe she’ll want to toy with him a bit first to get the revenge that she so richly deserves before she snuffs out his life.”

“Oh, yeah. Whatever! I’m all for watching a leather-clad, whip wielding woman as she plays with her toys, just so long as you understand, Ares, it’s not for one second over the hundred-day limit,” Aphrodite said with a huff, throwing her perfectly curled hair over her shoulder as she turned back to view the portal.

“Oh, I understand only too well, Sis,” Ares seethed as he glared daggers at Aphrodite’s back. His thoughts were already one step ahead. ‘Damn the rules! If I could have seen her just once…spoken to her. But NO…that’s counted as interfering in Zeus’ book. One way or the other, sometime during the next forty days, Hercules is gonna die. Xena can do it for me…or I can do it myself. Either way…with Hercules out of the picture…Greece will be mine and Xena will follow.’

In the dark and silent streets of Parthus -- in the hour before Iloran returned with the townsfolk from their hiding place to bury the dead and cart the prisoners off to justice - a terrible and frightening emissary from the lowest levels of Tartarus had been freed to do a god’s bidding.

The creature (or so it seemed, for no human had ever looked so monstrous) stretched forth its green-scaled, taloned hand above the scarred and lifeless body that had once been the warlord Darphus.

An evil energy flowed from the creature, that shocked the muscles and caused the rigor to release it’s hold on the flesh. A whispered word from the monster’s reptilian lips called the spirit of the warlord from the banks of the Styx back to the body that Xena had so recently torn it from.

Darphus’ eyes flew open and settled on the cloaked creature standing over him. He half wondered if this was Charon and if the boatman would accept his sword as payment for the crossing, having left his money pouch back at the camp.

“Feeling better?” the creature addressed him in humorous tones as he helped the warlord to his feet.

It took a moment, but Darphus began to realize that he was no longer on the other side, but was in fact standing in Parthus’ market square.

“Who are you?” the puzzled warlord asked.

“Call me-- an emissary of Ares,” the creature offered as an introduction.

“Ares, the god of war. What does he want with me?” Darphus asked with a mixture of awe and fear in his voice.

“He wants to give you your revenge against Xena. But first, you must do something for him. You must kill Hercules,” the emissary answered.

“Hercules-- how? He destroyed my army,” Darphus growled as the seed of vengeance took root in the pit of his stomach and grew to fill the empty space in his chest where his heart used to beat.

“You’ll need help. Those of your army who were not killed are being held prisoner in the stables near the village tavern,” Ares messenger informed him. “It will be easy to round up those who retreated upon your perceived death. They will be hiding in the forests hereabout. But my master believes you will need more help than any army can give you. This beast can give you that help. Under your control, it can destroy Hercules once and for all.”

An enormous, snarling beast of a dog, that stood at least ten-feet from ground to shoulder, skulked in to the market square. It growled and sniffed at the bodies of the dead marauders that littered the ground, drooling on their carcasses before snapping them up into it’s terrible jaws, crushing their bones and swallowing them whole.

Darphus’ eyes, which initially lit with fear at the sight of Graegus, began to glow with pleasure, joy and immediately recognition of what a powerful weapon Ares, the god of all warriors, had entrusted to him. Visions of his future victory over the demigod and the bitch Xena danced through his head and he laughed with the evil, soulless tones of the criminally insane.

The End of Part 2 of a Trilogy



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