Unchained Heart

by MaryE

Story originally written for Hercules: the Legendary Journeys by: John Schulian

In a farmers’ exchange market on the outskirts of the Parthian border town of Lathos business was being conducted at a brisk pace. One lean but sturdy farmer wore a look of frustration on his weather-beaten face. He had finished his transaction early and was in a hurry to get back to his chores. His donkey was not cooperating, however. The animal had parked it’s rear end in the middle of the road and refused to budge. It had carried a heavy load from the farm to the market, now it would take the rest it had earned.

"Bathsheeba! Bathsheeba! You're not getting any dinner if you don't move! Right now! Move! Move!"

A good-natured, well-fed merchant, seeing the difficulty the farmer was having with his animal, came to the man’s assistance.

" Greetings. A good harvest this year. Your fields have flourished. May next year bring you more. Look, friend, instead of all that vinegar, why don't you try a little honey? And, uh, if you don't have any honey, well, a carrot usually does the trick.” The jolly merchant pulled a carrot out of his pocket and offered it to the weary donkey, enticing the animal to stand. With a rich laugh and a warm smile for the farmer, the good merchant said, “See! Works every time, my friend."

The merchant didn’t even have a chance to utter another word, nor to receive his thanks from the grateful farmer. An arrow, shot from somewhere behind them, entered the man’s back and pierced his good heart. It was the first volley of many in the senseless slaughter of unarmed farmers and merchants by vicious mercenaries.

The massacre was quick. A few of the farmers who had survived the attack were rounded up and held prisoner at sword-point to await the arrival of the leader of this band of killers. And he came to them, like a demon out of Tartarus. Scars criss-crossed his monstrously cold and sneering face. His eyes, by contrast, glowed red with the fires of hatred and damnation.

“Take them to Elysia, except that one," he growled, pointing to the lean and trembling farmer whose donkey now lay at his feet, its body riddled with arrows.

"No! No! Please don't kill me!" the farmer begged.

“Only if you obey my commands. Now, find Hercules. Tell him that Darphus rides again. And if he doesn't believe you, say you saw this-- the scar that the traitorous bitch, Xena, left me.” The demon leader ripped open his leather vest to expose a foot-long, bloody, gaping wound in the center of his chest, the sight of which sent chills of horror and revulsion through all who saw it.

“What are you waiting for?” Darphus screamed at the farmer. “Go!"

Two men, one large and muscular with long honey-colored hair, one shorter, well fed with graying hair and beard walked into the bustling town at midday in the company of a woman. She was tall, almost as tall as the honey-haired man. She had long black hair, blazing blue eyes and she dressed in the leather and metal of a true warrior - unusual garb for a woman. The shining hilt of her sword, which rested in the scabbard slung across her back, sparkled against the rich darkness of her hair.

This trio had been traveling since before dawn and they were hungry, so they headed straight for the first tavern they could find.

The smaller man chattered away to his two companions, seemingly without even taking a breath.

“Salmoneus, you haven’t stopped talking since we met up with you back at the cave,” the larger man interrupted.

“Well, that’s because I have a lot to say. By the way, did you know…” he continued but the larger man cut him off.

“Tell me something. Spiros left with the baby more than two weeks ago, right?” Hercules asked him.

“Right.” Salmoneus confirmed.

“Whatever were you doing in that cave with the shepherdess for all that time before we showed up?” he asked with the hint of a smile.

“Hey…that’s none… She gets lonely, you see, spending all that time alone with her sheep. She just wanted some company so she taught me a new game called ‘Checkers.’”

“Checkers isn’t a new game, it’s been around for years,” the woman said in an amused drawl.

“Heh…heh…heh… Not the way she plays it. Crown me!” the smaller man replied with a lecherous laugh. “And then…I had this great idea and I knew you two would eventually show up to collect Xena’s stuff, so I waited.”

“Okay, I know I’m gonna regret this but, what’s the great idea of yours,” the taller man asked as they all settled into seats at the first table they came to right outside the tavern door.

"It'll be the first celebrity biography in history. And it'll be about you…Hercules! Come on, the public's begging for it," Salmoneus, in best salesman’s mode, pitched his new idea to the demigod.

"Sorry, I don't think of myself as a celebrity," Hercules replied, trying to put a quick end to the spiel.

"Trust me, we'll get rich," Salmoneus urged, practically seeing the dinars piling up right before his eyes.

"We?" Hercules questioned, although he already knew the answer.

"Of course. Salmoneus has to do the writing. All you have to do is take the risks," Xena pointed out.

"I'll make you the same 60:40 deal when I write your bio,” Salmoneus offered the warrior woman.

And then another bright idea occurred to him. “Or maybe it can be a two-parter…or a trilogy. Hey, why didn’t I think of that before! Get ‘em interested with the first scroll and keep them hanging on for two more scrolls until you get to the end of the story. And, Hercules, you could be immortal so just think of the possible sequels and spin offs. What do you think? Wait! Wait…I just thought…you two make good partners. You’ve already traveled all over this area wiping out or capturing the rest of Darphus’ warriors. And you did it all in those two weeks I was back at the cave. You two are naturals at this hero business - not to mention it could give me some great material for Scroll Three.”

Turning to Hercules he asked, “Have you ever thought of taking on a partner?”

“Well, actually…” the demigod tried to answer him but Salmoneus was off on another tangent before he could get the words out of his mouth.

“Good, then it’s settled. We can start with a scroll about Hercules life, then the second scroll will be about Xena unless you want it to be ladies first…but I think the protocol in this case is demigods before ladies…”

“Salmoneus…Salmoneus…” Xena tried to interrupt the salesman this time.

Then, without paying attention to Xena, he turned back to Hercules and asked, “So-- 60:40-- sound good?"

The demigod chuckled at the idea and began to shake his head ‘no’ when a tall, nervous man ran up to their table and interrupted.

“Hercules!"

"Excuse me. We're conducting business here," Salmoneus told the man, trying to brush him off and return the demigod’s attention to his latest scheme.

"Hercules, you gotta go to Elysia," the man begged.

"What's wrong?" the demigod asked, seeing the man was in some kind of distress.

"Invaders-- led by a warrior called Darphus," he blurted out.

"Darphus?" Salmoneus breathed the name with confusion.

The man looked at them all and gave a brief nod of his head in confirmation.

"Can't be. He's dead," Xena told the man.

"By your hand, if you're Xena. He showed me his scar," the man replied.

"What scar?" Xena asked.

"A huge, gaping hole right in the middle of his chest! He should've been dead!" the man responded, confirming their worst fears.

"Only the gods have the power to bring Darphus back from the dead. I can bet which one it is," Hercules commented.

"Ares? That means nothing to me. I'm still going to Elysia to stop Darphus. I won't fail this time," Xena vowed as she stood and made ready to leave.

"No. We're going to stop him.," Hercules assured her.

"And I'm gonna come watch-- for strictly literary reasons,” Salmoneus said throwing in his lot with the demigod and warrior woman. Then turning to the man he asked, “You gonna come join us?"

"Absolutely not. You don't know what you're up against," the man replied, looking frightened at the mere mention of seeing that scarred demon again.

"Hey! No problem,” Salmoneus told him. Then having second thoughts about that he turned to Hercules and asked, “Is there?"

The only thing rich about the little farming village of Elysia was it’s soil.

With only one exception, mud huts with thatched roofs made up the main construction of the place. The exception being a large stone edifice with thick wooden doors that stood dead in the center of town. The farmers had deserted the place because all that could be seen were heavily armed warriors milling about the place.

A sentry called from his post atop the village gate, "It's Darphus! He's back!" "Darphus returns!"

The fearsome warlord rode into the village at the head of his returning troops.

"Another victory!" his men shouted as they gathered to greet him.

Darphus dismounted. He pointed to the prisoners, selected one from among them and ordered, "Lock the others up. Take that one to the temple."

"Why are you taking me to the temple?" the prisoner-select asked in a fearful voice.

"I want you to get religion," the scarred warlord told him.

"You know nothing of religion! You're gonna sacrifice me!" the prisoner cried out as he guessed the worst.

"Don't jump to conclusions. Throw him in," Darphus ordered.

"Oh! Oh, please! Oh! No!" the man screamed as they dragged him up the stairs of the temple.

The warriors opened the door and threw the prisoner inside, quickly slamming the door shut behind him. They counted to three then braced themselves for what they knew would be coming.

A blood-curdling scream issued from the depths of the temple and announced that another sacrifice had been successfully received. A dead silence followed.

"Come and get it, Hercules," Darphus said, speaking his dare into the sudden quiet of the village square.

"Hey! Wait for me! Wait, wait. Hold it! This ground is a little tricky. Hold on. Hold on," Salmoneus urged his traveling companions after several hours of trying to keep up with the urgent pace they were setting.

“Xena, I think we should start looking around for a good place to camp for the night,” Hercules suggested, with a kind eye towards the lagging energies of the salesman.

“I’ll go ahead and find something near a stream. We can refill the water skins and catch some fish for dinner,” she responded then immediately took off at double the pace to find the perfect spot. A half an hour later she summoned them to a quiet, easily protected area off the main road, then she took Hercules to the stream to show him the lay of the land.

Salmoneus, already feeling the early rumblings of an empty stomach, pulled a decorative cloth out of his carry sack, and spread it on the ground. Then, digging around just a bit more in his carry sack, he pulled out tin plates and goblets and set them picnic style on top of the cloth.

"Well-- doesn't really have an outdoorsy motif-- but it'll do,” Salmoneus told the two as he pointed to his set up.

"Salmoneus, can I ask you a couple of questions?"

"At your service, Hercules," Salmoneus replied.

"Number one, do you think we're on a picnic?" Hercules asked, trying as politely as possible to point out that their journey was deadly serious and not some nature hike.

"A picnic? No. But I don't think one should deny one’s self creature comforts just 'cause you're in the-- ." Salmoneus said in his own defense. He’d spent weeks with Darphus. He knew just how deadly the man could be.

"And number two,” Hercules said, cutting in before Salmoneus could continue the thought. “What do you think you're gonna put on those plates?"

"Roast quail?" Salmoneus suggested.

"If you want quail, you'll have to catch it yourself," Hercules told him, much preferring to dine on something simple like the bread, cheese and olives they’d picked up in the village earlier that day.

"Fine. I'll do it!" Salmoneus volunteered.

"You will?" Xena and Hercules both chimed in disbelief.

"Hah-hah-hah! Yeah! I happen to come from a family of fine quail catchers. But somebody else is gonna have to cook it. Great hunters don't cook," the salesman informed them.

"Don't look at me," Xena advised them.

"Fine. I'll-- do the cooking," Hercules agreed, still only half believing that Salmoneus could actually catch the quail. He’d spent more than two weeks with Xena rounding up the stragglers of her former army and the only hot meals they ate during that time were in taverns, so he figured she wasn’t much of a cook.

"I guess that leaves the scouting to me," Xena said with a smile.

"No, wait. I think I should do the scouting," Hercules said.

"Oh, no. You're cooking," Xena reminded him.

"Cooking," the demigod muttered, not too happy about how he’d gotten stuck with that chore.

Salmoneus wandered off to hunt quail and the demigod settled down on a rock by the side of the stream. As he waited for the salesman to return with the birds it would give him time to mull over this situation with Darphus.

When Xena had summoned them from the road to the camp site, Salmoneus had noted several tell-tale signs of an abundance of quail in the vicinity. As he stealthily made his way back towards an area that was thick with bushes, he began with the bird calls that he hoped would lure his dinner to him. His calls caused movement in one of the bushes and Salmoneus zeroed in on it, with his sack at the ready, to bag up the little birdies.

Instead of the little hens he expected, one large human jumped out of the bush, knocked him, face first, to the ground and sat on him, pinning him so he couldn’t move.

"Oh, you made a big mistake, buster! I happen to be Hercules' best friend! And if you don't get…” the salesman began to say with great indignation.

“What's so funny?" he asked when his attacker began to chuckle.

"You," the man replied.

"I'm a lot funnier, if you stop using my back as a couch! Now, get off me, or I'm gonna call Hercules! Come on!" Salmoneus continued bravely because he knew if he yelled the demigod would come running.

"Oh, like you actually know him?" the man said, amusement still clearly in his voice.

"Know him?! I-- I happen to be his official biographer!" the salesman proclaimed.

"Well, that's funny-- because I don't think of Hercules as the kind of hero who wants to sound his own horn," the man said, offering Salmoneus his personal opinion.

"I happen to think I know him a little better than you. In fact, he's right back there. If you get off me, I'll take you to him!" Salmoneus bragged.

"Sure, why not?" his attacker agreed, hopping off the salesman’s back and offering him a hand up.

Salmoneus was surprised to see that his attacker wasn’t a big man. The strength in the arms that had kept him pinned to the ground had given him a much different impression.

They walked towards the clearing near the banks of the stream, Salmoneus instructing the new-comer on the finer points of dealing with the demigod.

"All right, now when you meet him, whatever you do, don't say, 'You're Hercules?!' like it's a big surprise, 'cause frankly, he's not that much different than other men. Ah--he's bigger, and he's got more muscles."

"Yeah, gotcha," the man nodded in understanding.

"But, otherwise, he's about just the same. All right? You'll see. All right. All right. Now, there he is," Salmoneus said as he pointed to the figure of a man who was sitting next to the stream.

The blond stranger walked a few paces towards the demigod and smiled, then taking a deep breath he exclaimed, "You're Hercules?!"

"I can't believe you said that! I told you not to!" Salmoneus yelled, upset that the man had ignored his warnings.

"Yes I am. And you are?" the demigod said as he rose to his feet and made his way towards the two men.

"They call me-Iolaus," the stranger answered, trying to keep the smile off of his face and out of his voice.

"You're Iolaus," the demigod acknowledged, keeping up the charade.

"Yeah-- last time I checked," the blond man said, finally cracking a smile.

"That's good enough for me," Hercules replied with a genuine laugh and warm handshake for his buddy.

"I don't believe this!" Salmoneus shouted, finally realizing that he’d been had.

"Iolaus is my best friend," Hercules said by way of introduction.

"You never mentioned him to me!" the salesman complained. Hercules wasn’t taking this biography quite as seriously as he was. A best friend is an important piece of information and this guy Iolaus looked a lot more important to the demigod than to be just a footnote.

"Oh! Holding out on your official biographer, huh?" Iolaus joked.

“Iolaus is the friend in Thebes I had you send for when we were up against the centaurs in Nespa. Don’t you remember?” Hercules reminded Salmoneus.

Then turning to Iolaus he asked, “how did you catch up with me so fast and where are the reinforcements?"

“Well, I made good time back to Thebes, stayed by your mother’s place, (she’s glad you’re all right, by the way), finished my business in town, (it only took a couple of hours. I’m officially free and clear of all responsibilities), and went back to your mom’s house to spend the night before going to Corinth, which is where I found out that Corinth had decided to come to me instead. Are you following me so far Herc?”

“Yeah, I think so. How did…” Hercules started to ask but Iolaus plowed on with his story.

“Good, ‘cause then it gets funny. Jason’s new guards came to arrest me and to find out information about you so they could pick you up for questioning. Crazy, huh? They’ve actually been monitoring Xena’s movements and the movements of the rest of her army. They think I was ‘consorting with the enemy of Greece.’ And they wanted to know why you were on your way to join her. Can you believe it? Oh, and Herc, I wish you could have seen the way your mom lit into them when they rode into her garden spouting all this nonsense. Well, that put an end to bringing any reinforcements with me. I thought we might be able to round up some help from around here but after passing through so many destroyed villages on my way here I guess that idea is out of the question.” Iolaus paused. His face turned grim as he remembered the smoking wooden beams and the charred toys he’d almost stepped on in one of those villages. He took a deep breath and let it out with a big sigh before adding, “and I guess it also means that Xena’s on the loose again."

"Xena? No, actually, she…” Salmoneus said, trying to get in on the heroes’ conversation.

"Don't you have quail to catch?” Hercules reminded the salesman a bit abruptly, effectively cutting him off. Then turning his attention back to Iolaus he said, “it's not Xena we have to worry about. Our real problem is with a warrior named Darphus. He's slaughtering everyone in sight for the greater good of Ares."

"Darphus? Wasn’t he was the guy leading the rest of Xena’s army?” Iolaus asked. “Why don't we get 'em both?” he suggested. He was eager to resume his adventures with the demigod and stopping these two evil warlords would be a good start. So when he next said, “It's good to be with you again, Hercules,” the sentiment behind the words came straight from his heart.

“Yeah, it is, isn't it?" replied Hercules.

"Um…I hear tummies rumbling.” Salmoneus said, finally taking the hint. “I better catch some Xena-- ah-- quail."

"Who is that guy?" Iolaus asked. He knew there must be a good reason why the demigod was traveling around with the man, but for the life of him, he couldn’t figure out what it could possibly be.

"My biographer," Hercules told him. “Come take a rest before dinner and you can tell me all about my mother and Jason’s new guardsmen.

Several miles down the road from where the two heroes were enjoying their reunion a small contingent of Darphus’ men attacked a lone farmstead. They chased down and killed all of it’s inhabitants, all for a few chickens and some wheels of cheese.

Xena had been scouting in the area when she heard the commotion and went to check. She saw the warriors ransacking the place. She heard them shouting to each other, things like, ‘Tear down that house!’ and ‘Look at this bracelet. That'll be worth a few dinars.’

"Vultures," she muttered, drawing her sword in preparation.

"Nothing under here!" one of the warriors reported after he’d knocked over a couple of barrels beside the barn. Then he tensed as he heard the familiar ululation and war cry of his former leader.

"It's Xena! She’s attacking!” he yelled in alert.

She fought them with a fury, putting sword and chakrum to bloody good use. She killed all the warriors except for one who had run to his horse, deserting his mates in the midst of battle. She recognized the coward. It was Quintus. He was the one who struck the first blow when she’d been made to walk the Gauntlet. She would have liked to have added his body to the day’s toll, but that would have to wait for another time.

"Tell Darphus I'm coming for him!" she yelled after him, then she turned away to see if any of the farmers had survived.

The lone rider made it back to Elysia before sunset. He jumped off of his horse and excitedly called for Darphus. The warlord and several of the other men assembled in the village square to hear the man’s news.

“We were procuring supplies at a small farm about four days’ ride from here and the idiots offered resistance. We killed ‘em all and began to take what we’d come for when we were ambushed. It was Xena, and she said to tell you that she’s coming for you,” Quintus told the warlord, sure that his news would win him favor with the scarred warlord.

"Your message pleases me so much, that I may spare your life, Quintus," Darphus said as he paced back and forth before the man.

"Why would you think of killing me?" Quintus asked, both frightened and puzzled - disbelieving that his loyalty to the warlord would be rewarded with death.

"You abandoned your comrades when they were fighting Xena," Darphus reasoned. He knew Xena well. He knew she would never have left this man alive. Therefore, the only explanation that there could be is that he’d run.

"I had no choice. You needed to know that Xena was near," Quintus said, not realizing that his response had just sealed his own fate

“Yes, and probably Hercules as well. But there is still the matter of loyalty," Darphus taunted him.

"I was always loyal to you, Darphus, you know that," Quintus cried in his own defense, finally realizing the seriousness of the matter.

"All I know, is that you ran once in battle. You could run again,” he told Qintus, then he turned to the rest of the men and ordered, “feed him to Graegus."

It was a peaceful evening around a warm and inviting campfire. The three men sat in easy conversation as they polished off the last bits of a magnificent meal of roasted quail.

"You know-- Salmoneus, to look at you-- you'd never think you were a quail hunter," Iolaus said in honest admiration of the man’s talent. When he’d returned from the hunt and they opened the salesman’s sack, they found nine of the birds waiting to become dinner.

"Life's full of surprises-- isn't it?" Salmoneus replied to Iolaus’ underhanded compliment but aimed it’s double message straight at Hercules

"Yeah-- it is,” Hercules said, taking the hint. “You know, there's something I've been meaning to tell you, Iolaus…."

"Oh, no -- we've gotta play 'rock, parchment, dagger' for the last quail,” he joked with the demigod.

"Ah, no. It's um-- it's about-- it's about--" Hercules stammered, not quite knowing how to begin this particular conversation with his partner, although he’d been thinking about nothing else all afternoon.

"What?" Iolaus asked, no longer joking since he’d felt that things had taken a serious turn.

"It's about Xena.," Hercules told him.

"What about her?" Iolaus prompted. It was serious.

"Well--" Hercules hesitated, still looking for the right words.

"Hello, Iolaus," came the familiar sultry voice of his betrayer. They all looked up to find Xena, returned from her scouting trip, waiting for Iolaus’ reaction.

Iolaus jumped up from his place near the campfire, pulled his knife and prepared to launch an attack on the warrior woman, all in one fluid movement.

"Wait-- hold on; hold on," Hercules shouted, restraining his friend from attempting to do Xena harm.

"What's she doing here?" Iolaus demanded.

"We're on the same side," Hercules told him, firm both in voice and in the hold he had on Iolaus’ arm.

"Look. Darphus knows we're coming. I ran into a band of his warriors, but one of 'em got away," Xena told them with an apologetic glance at the demigod for her untimely intrusion.

"Are you crazy? She tried to kill us!" Iolaus shouted at the demigod as he struggled, trying to pull away from the demigod’s grip to get to Xena.

"No. You don't understand," Hercules told his friend. Iolaus turned to take a good look at the demigod. He felt as if he were caught in the threads of a waking nightmare and one look into his best friend’s eyes confirmed the truth for him. Hercules loosened his hold on Iolaus’ arm and he shrugged the demigod’s hand off, no longer burning with an immediate need to attack Xena. Now, his fear for the demigod’s safety mixed with anger that was directed wholly at his friend.

"Oh, yeah, I understand all right. You're falling into the same trap that I fell into. And I will burn in Hades before I stick around here to see you do it," Iolaus shouted, then he turned away from the campfire and bolted into the forest.

"Iolaus, would you…Great. Iolaus, wait!" Hercules called after his friend, but getting no response he turned to follow.

"Would you wait!" Hercules pleaded as he finally caught up with him. He reached his hand to put it on Iolaus’ shoulder but the blond shrugged it off.

"Just let me get out of here, Hercules," he demanded angrily. “I should have known something was up when I tracked three sets of footprints this past week to find you, but only found two of you in the camp.” The hurt he felt in his own heart, and the anger he felt towards the demigod at that moment, were just about choking him.

He wanted to flee. He wanted to go away from this place and come back later to find it had all been some horrible joke. But the steady look in the demigod’s eyes told him that wasn’t going to happen.

“I won’t let you go, Iolaus. Not before I tell you how Xena has changed," Hercules told him.

"Come on. Listen to yourself! You're talking about a woman who wanted to make history by trying to kill you!" Iolaus exclaimed. His emotions were tumbling out of control. Hercules, the being he most trusted in this world, had turned on him. And if Hercules could do this about-face with Xena, then maybe he could kiss Hera on the lips.

These thoughts turned Iolaus’ world upside down. Plus, his own reaction to Xena, and how badly he wanted to punish her with his own hands, shocked him with it’s intensity.

"That part of her life is over!" Hercules told him, trying to make him understand.

"Oh, yeah. Is that what she tells you when the both of you are rolling around in bed together?!" Iolaus shouted the only excuse he could come up with for Hercules’ seemingly irrational defense of the murderous warrior woman.

"I do not roll around in bed with her! Now, would you just hear me out?! Darphus used to be Xena's chief lieutenant. She wouldn't let him murder women and children. She saved Salmoneus from certain death and when she saved a baby, Darphus turned her own men against her then he tried to kill her by making her walk a Gauntlet."

"So, you took pity on her, huh?" Iolaus said, shaking his head in disbelief that his best friend could be so deceived.

"Xena doesn't accept pity. She's a warrior in the truest sense of the word. That's why she's going after Darphus, again. Look. I'm going too. And I want you with us."

"Nothing I say is gonna make you change your mind, is it?" Iolaus asked.

"No-- it's the right thing to do." Hercules said with conviction.

"Okay. Count me in. But let me tell you something, Hercules. Both of us better watch our backs," Iolaus told his friend, with bitter conviction of his own.

The road would have been the perfect place for a late afternoon, pastoral stroll The great trees formed a rustic pattern of ordered greenery. The sun, obscured by soft clouds, barely filtered through the boughs. But the beauty and peace of their surroundings didn’t have an effect on the travelers. The seriousness of their mission sapped all but the darkest thoughts from their minds -- well, maybe with the exception of Salmoneus.

"To get a message to Iolaus, you need a carrier pigeon,” Salmoneus muttered as he looked over his shoulder, into the distance, to check on the whereabouts of Hercules’ best friend. “It's not me, is it?” he asked taking a quick sniff of his clothes. “It can't be you,” he told Xena in a most flirtatious manner. “All I smell on you is hyacinth and cinnamon."

"Are you a biographer or a bad comedian? Or, have you dreamed up some other get-rich-quick scheme?" Xena asked in mock annoyance at his blatant come-on lines.

“How about love-slave? I'm versatile," the salesman continued, oblivious to the absurdity of that offer.

"You're deluded," Xena told him, not pulling any punches.

“Iolaus is walking at a measured distance behind us. He’s got all our backs. It’s a strategy we learned many years ago when we were both in the Academy,” Hercules told his two companions feeling he had to say something in defense of his friend.

“That’s a centaur strategy. You studied with centaurs?” Xena asked.

“Yeah, the best, in fact,” Hercules told her. He was going to elaborate for them, just to hear somebody other than Salmoneus talk, but a small noise from up ahead caught his attention.

"Hold on," he said, quietly stopping Xena and Salmoneus from proceeding.

"Is something wrong?" Xena asked, taking in the concern on the demigod’s face.

"Let's-- wait for Iolaus to catch up," Hercules told them.

"What's the problem?" Iolaus asked as he approached Hercules’ side.

"The canyon up ahead looks like a perfect place for an ambush. And I think I heard something, so, let's stay close together and keep quiet," Hercules said, looking straight at the salesman to emphasize his point.

"Why are you looking at me! I can keep quiet. I know when it's time to stop talking. I know discretion's the better part of valor," Salmoneus babbled nervously.

"Hey! Shush!" Iolaus told him one last time making certain he got the message.

The proceeded with extreme caution between the two steep rock faces -- Hercules in the lead - Iolaus, with sword drawn, bringing up the rear. After they’d made their way several yards into the canyon a rockslide was triggered. Boulders, and large stones fell all about them. Hercules grabbed Xena, pulled her against the rock wall and shielded her from the worst of it. Iolaus did the same for Salmoneus.

"Look out! Get down! Get down!" Hercules shouted to his companions.

The last thing the demigod saw before the pile of rocks and boulders obscured his vision, was a jagged rock glance off of Iolaus’ head.

“Iolaus!” he screamed as he felt the adrenalin shooting through his system, giving an extra boost of energy to his god-bestowed strength. The rocks shifted and the largest and heaviest boulder moved, threatening to crush them all into the dirt. Hercules got beneath it and, planting his iron-like legs firmly into the dirt, he braced the boulder on his strong back.

The unearthly laughter of Darphus rained down on them with the last of the rocks. The rubble settled then - silence.

"Can you go any faster?" Hercules asked Iolaus and Xena who were carefully digging their way out from under the pile of rocks that had buried them.

"What's the matter? Aren't you enjoying yourself?" Iolaus asked, trying to keep his buddy’s spirits and strength up. Hercules muscles were the only thing keeping them all from certain death.

"Well-- my back hurts a little bit," Hercules told his friend, letting the blond know that he was holding up okay and that they still had time to dig.

"Iolaus, your head is bleeding," Xena said as she turned to hand him a large stone and a little chink of sunlight coming from between two of the rocks fell across his face.

"Yeah,” he said in bare recognition. Then he turned to the salesman and said “Salmoneus-- you coming along?"

"Salmoneus-- give them a hand," Hercules said, urging the salesman to get closer to where their exit would soon be.

"Come on. It'll take your mind off things," Iolaus said, thinking that an extra pair or hands could move things along more quickly.

But Salmoneus wouldn’t budge. He sat on one of the large stones, rocking back and forth in shock.

"Salmoneus!" Hercules shouted, but his voice didn’t get through to him either.

Darphus and his men rode into the nearby town whooping and hollering at the townsfolk in celebration of their victory over the demigod. They commandeered the tavern and helped themselves to food and drinks.

Darphus hit the neck of his wine bottle against the edge of the bar, purposefully breaking it off in his haste to get at the contents. Then he offered a toast.

"Drink deeply. Drink well. Hercules is dead! Do you hear that? Soon, Graegus will be too big to stop. And we will join with him to fulfill the mighty Ares' destiny. The god of war will rule the world! To Ares!"

"To Ares!" the warriors and the barmaids shouted in reply.

"This-- isn't getting any lighter," Hercules said, so Iolaus and Xena would know they’d have to work a lot faster at digging them out.

"We're almost through," Iolaus assured his mighty friend.

"Hang on, Salmoneus,” Hercules in turn assured the salesman. “How much longer?" He asked Iolaus.

"We're there!" Xena shouted as she removed the last rock from the exit and handed it to Iolaus.

"Get out of here!" Hercules ordered them. He had just felt something shift and knew he wouldn’t be able to hold the giant bolder much longer.

"What about you?!" Iolaus cried in concern.

"Just go!" Hercules ordered again.

"OK." Iolaus said. Letting Hercules know he could do whatever he had to do without having to worry about him.

The sturdy log that the warriors had used to lever the rocks off the cliff face had fallen at his feet. Hercules maneuvered it with his foot so he could pick it up and brace it under the bolder. He reached for Salmoneus, took him by the hand and said gently "Come on. We're going."

Salmoneus nodded and took the few steps with the demigod towards the light and life.

"Go! Go, Salmoneus! Go! Go!" Hercules urged the salesman as they climbed out into the sunlight.

"Take it easy. You'll be all right.” The demigod told him as he eased the still frightened man towards a large rock where he could sit for a moment to gather his senses. “Iolaus, give him some water."

"Sure," his friend said as he unhooked his water skin from his carry sack and handed it to the salesman.

"That was the most courageous thing I have ever seen," Xena told Hercules as he stood back and watched Salmoneus drink.

"Everybody helped," Hercules modestly responded.

"Everybody except me. All I did is prove what a coward I am," Salmoneus finally spoke.

"You are nothing of the sort, Salmoneus. I remember how you stuck by me when I had to battle the Centaurs without my sight," Hercules told him, trying to make him realize that this one moment of fear did not make him a coward.

"Save your breath. Why should they believe you?" Salmoneus said. He was too ashamed of himself to be seen by any human eyes at that moment. He stood up, walked briskly towards the trees and disappeared from their sight.

Xena made to chase after the salesman but Hercules restrained her with a hand on her shoulder.

"No. Let him go. He'll be all right," the demigod told her.

Xena nodded then she turned to Iolaus. "What about you? Want me to bandage that head?" she asked.

"No," he replied coldly. Then he picked up his water skin and left to follow Salmoneus.

Xena watched him go then she walked off in a different direction, leaving Hercules standing all alone.

"Should be a lot of laughs around the campfire tonight," he muttered dryly to himself.

Iolaus knew they wouldn’t be making any more progress that day so after he refused Xena’s offer to care for his wound, he walked off to find Salmoneus, set up a camp and do some hunting for their dinner.

He found Salmoneus sitting on a tree stump next to a stream. The salesman was still rocking back and forth, just not as pronounced as when they were still buried under the rocks. He was using a small cloth to wash the dust off of his head and out of his beard muttering the word ‘coward’ over and over to himself.

“You’re no coward, Salmoneus,” Iolaus told the salesman as he knelt at the stream, first trying to get a look at his reflection to tell him how bad his wound was and then to clean it. The salesman offered Iolaus another small cloth to dry himself and blot the blood on his forehead.

“A coward is someone who runs away at the first sign of trouble. Trouble follows Hercules like a bloodhound and instead of running you’ve stayed by his side. That tells me a lot about your character even if I hadn’t already heard stories of your bravery from Hercules. He told me how you took his side against the villagers when he was dealing with that Cyclops in Trachis, and he told me how you helped him at Penelope’s wedding when he was blind and the centaurs attacked. The fact that you watched Hercules’ back when he needed it makes you a hero in my book. Hey, I just thought of something. If it’s heroes you’re writing about, maybe one of those scrolls should be an autobiography.”

Salmoneus finally raised his eyes from the ground and took a good look at the blond man standing next to him. “Thank you,” he whispered when he saw only honesty and kindness in Iolaus’ eyes.

Iolaus nodded once. He asked Salmoneus if he felt up to making a fire and setting up camp while he did the hunting. The salesman indicated that he would take care of it and Iolaus disappeared into the trees.

The rockslide scared off most of the small game in the area so it took a couple of hours before Iolaus returned with pheasant for their evening meal. Hercules and Salmoneus cooked and Xena dug out the rest of the bread and cheese and olives from her carry sack, setting them out on the salesman’s picnic cloth. The group worked and ate together in uneasy silence.

Salmoneus retired to his bed roll immediately after eating. He couldn’t stand to see the concern in the demigod’s eyes, nor the cold contempt for his cowardice that he imagined to be in Xena’s eyes every time they came to rest on him.

Iolaus couldn’t stand to be this close to Xena and not deliver some kind of punishment for what she had put him through…what she had put Hercules through too, although Hercules was too caught up in her perceived metamorphosis into one of the good guys to see it. She should at least be going to prison for all the destruction she was responsible for. It was making him sick. What was also making him sick was the realization that he still had some kind of feelings for this warrior woman. When they were trapped and working together in such close proximity to each other he saw an almost child-like resignation in her eyes, a look that conveyed no hope - just a determination to go down fighting. He found himself wanting to reach out, touch her - hold her in his arms and assure her that Hercules would save them. Right then, he felt more trapped by his conflicting emotions than he had under that landslide. He had to get out.

"I'm gonna check the perimeter-- see if everything's all right," he said, as he picked up his sword. Then, without a glance at either Hercules or Xena, he stalked off into the trees.

"Every time Iolaus looks at me, I feel his hate. He acts as if I'm trying to drive a wedge between you again," Xena told the demigod as he studied the flames of their campfire.

Hercules thought he knew how much it was hurting his partner to be around Xena after how she’d used him. And he would never have put him through this torture except for the fact that he really did want Iolaus at his back in this fight with Darphus. They were dealing with Ares and Iolaus had seen him successfully through many battles with his half brother before. He needed his partner’s experience and confidence in dealing with the gods once more.

"Trust me. When the time comes, the only thing he'll worry about is Darphus," Hercules assured her.

"And what about you? Could you go back to hating me? To thinking of me as the enemy?" she asked, pressing him for an answer to see exactly where she stood in his eyes.

"No. I don't think that's possible," he told her truthfully.

"I have done terrible things. I've killed so many men, that I'll never wash their blood from my hands," she said, wanting to make sure he took everything about her into account before he made up his mind about her.

"You've already started. You saved Salmoneus and that baby," Hercules reminded her. He didn’t want her dwelling on her past but, instead, looking to her future goodness.

"But when you help people, you honor the wife and children that Hera stole from you. There is nothing in my whole life that moves me that way," she told him.

"You're wrong. There's the goodness in your heart.," Hercules assured her with conviction

"You really believe that?" she asked, searching his eyes.

"I wouldn't say it if I didn't," he replied with a sincere smile.

She returned the smile, nodded to him in gratitude and went to her bed roll to think, not to sleep.

She had always prided herself on being able to read people. That’s why Xena had watched the demigod closely as they spoke. She found that he spoke the truth, as he saw it, and that his words had come from his heart.

He apparently had no ulterior motives for wanting to win her trust as far as she was concerned. He was an honorable man, too, unusual for one with the blood of a god in them. They’d been traveling together for three weeks now and he hadn’t made a move on her the whole time. He was half god and who knows what powers he might have to read what was in her mind and soul.

She had been harboring bad feelings for Hercules all the years since her village had been destroyed by raiders. In hindsight, she realized that the villagers should have been more organized and they should have armed themselves and made themselves strong enough to resist the assault. They hadn’t, and it was a fatal error on their part. It was foolish to have left themselves open to attack and then think that they could rely on the strength of one man to come save them.

She had been annoyed by Iolaus’ stories and enthusiastic support for Hercules when he’d told her tales about the demigod during their week together in Thebes. But now she recognized him for the hero he was and wished she had listened more. She understood why Iolaus wanted to be a part of all this, why he shared the demigod’s vision of the world as it could be. Hercules had spared her life when she had only desperately wanted to take his life and the life of his best friend. She watched him save people’s lives for no other reason than it was the right thing to do.

Once again, she had the same feeling that she did when she watched this man and Iolaus fight her warriors together. She wanted what they had. She wanted it for herself. The difference this time, she wanted it not from jealousy, nor for power, she wanted it because it was the right thing for her to do.

Not many people were given a second chance so she was not about to waste this one. She wouldn’t let Ares dictate her life any longer. She would be taking charge of her own destiny. And for the time being, her destiny lay entwined with Hercules. She had to let him know just how grateful she was for his trust.

Hercules watched Xena settle down for the night on her bedroll. She had her back to him, and they were alone for the moment, so he could feast his eyes. He took in her sleeping form, from the shiny veil of her hair - soft curvy flesh over muscles of steel - the curve of her back and the allure of her hips that swayed ever so provocatively when she walked - and those legs…oh, those legs.

There it was. He was physically attracted to this woman and could deny it no longer. She was so beautiful, strong yet she had trusted him enough to have shown him her vulnerable side. And he was so pleased with himself that his influence had helped turn her to the good side. The whole package made his loins ache. He knew what he was feeling wasn’t love, yet his longing for a physical connection was strong. He hadn’t experienced sexual arousal since Deianeira died. He would still honor their bond as best he could by not making the first move. But he wouldn’t refuse if Xena were to initiate things. In fact, he thought something might have happened between them tonight if they’d been alone. He was sure of it.

He was glad Xena was traveling with him for so many reasons. He knew that his influence could keep her on the right path, and Iolaus would eventually come around and shed his piss-poor mood. He always did.

Hercules threw another log onto the fire, stirred the embers with a long stick and thought, ‘Salmoneus was right. She does smell of hyacinth and cinnamon.’

Salmoneus felt as if he were eavesdropping as Hercules and Xena were wrapped up in their after-dinner conversation around the campfire.

He was a man who lived by his wits. His livelihood, and at times his very survival, depended heavily on his ability to read people. So, when he sensed a change in the dynamic between the two, he studied them more closely and realized that Xena was developing a softness, almost an air of femininity when she looked at or talked with the demigod.

He thought to give them some privacy so, while the two were wrapped up in conversation he, followed Iolaus. He didn’t have to walk too long. The blond appeared to be deep in thought as he sat on a rock that jutted out into the stream about a hundred yards away from the campsite. Iolaus heard someone approach so he rose quietly, drew his sword and held it at the ready. When he saw Salmoneus emerge from the trees he lowered the sword and dropped back to his place on the rock. He was really hoping that it had been Hercules who’d come to talk with him. He hadn’t had a word alone with his partner since he’d caught up with him a few days ago and found that he’d been traveling with Xena.

“Um…Iolaus?” Salmoneus asked, venturing to interrupt the hero’s reverie.

“Yeah,” he replied.

“I wanted to thank you for what you said earlier. You didn’t have to…I…uh…I just think it was good of you,” the salesman told him.

“I meant it,” Iolaus replied quietly as he stared into the stream watching the bubbling waters run past them.

“I’d like to return the favor, so to speak. Um…while you were…uh…you know, walking way, way behind us these past couple of days…uh, watching out for our backs, Xena told us of how she finally made up her mind to join us in the fight against Darphus - what it was that turned her away from her bad side.”

“When the four of us were in Parthus, Hercules and me and Spiros and Iloran, we were all in our stations waiting for the warriors to attack the village. Hercules was standing right in front of the village gate to meet them head-on and he was talking out loud to himself -- talking about you and how your heart had never steered him wrong. He said that you had seen some good in Xena and it was time that he put his trust one-hundred percent in you. All of our lives and the fate of the village rested on the big guy’s belief in you and it saved us. Xena said that she was perched up on one of the walls behind a tree deciding whose side to take in the upcoming battle. When she heard Hercules saying those words, she said they went straight to her heart and made the decision for her. You had found the good that was buried deep inside her and Hercules was willing to bet it all on your being right.”

“Thank you for that,” Iolaus said, his heart swelling with the emotional impact of knowing that Hercules hadn’t lost faith in him. He needed time to reflect -- to sort out all the things he was thinking and feeling - and he hoped that Salmoneus would return to the campsite and give him some privacy.

“Um…you know… If you don’t mind, that is…I have a bit of friendly advice for you,” Salmoneus said. When Iolaus didn’t respond, he took it to mean that he had free rein to speak his mind. “If I were you, I would forget those bad feelings you have for Xena. Hercules and Xena are going to be partners from now on and since you’re such good friends with him, you’ll probably be seeing a lot of each other.”

Iolaus jumped up with lightening speed, grabbed the salesman by the front of his tunic and pulled him in close until they were almost nose to nose. He was shocked and inflamed by what he’d just heard.

“What did you just say?” he growled at Salmoneus. “I am Hercules’ partner! Got it! And we’ve been partners since we were kids. Hercules doesn’t need another partner, much less one who, until three weeks ago, hacked and burned her way across half of Greece. So, go back to camp and write that in your little notebook.”

Salmoneus jerked away from Iolaus and straightened his tunic. He was shocked that his good-intentioned advice could have been so ill-received.

“Well, I’ve been traveling with those two for the past week or so and you haven’t. I’ll have you know it was talked about and settled on the very morning before we met up with you. So you’d better get used to it,” Salmoneus said before he turned away from Iolaus to make his way back to camp. Behind him, he could hear Iolaus pulling his sword from its scabbard again and, without looking back, he ran.

Iolaus held the sword up before him. Moonlight glinted off of the highly polished blade. He swung it once in an arc before him, then turning slowly and gracefully on the balls of his feet, he swung the blade again in an insanely structured dance of one who is driven. Faster and faster he went, relentlessly swinging and dancing until he’d broken into a sweat. The moonlight on his blade reflected the light off of the steel, the same moonlight on his damp body lit it, making him look as if he, too, were made of steel. Faster and faster he danced until at last he sunk the blade into the hard packed dirt next to the rock that was his stage. Exhausted, he fell to one knee, rested his head against the hilt and grieved.

Knowing that Hercules still trusted him didn’t do anything to assuage his anger over the fact that the demigod hadn’t waited to talk things over with him before making such a major, life altering decision for both of them. He couldn’t believe that Xena, who’d apparently changing for the good, could effect everything…could change everything in his relationship with Hercules.

Back in Elysia, Darphus made plans for his triumphant take-over of Greece. He would rule, unopposed with Ares’ backing. All tribute and all honor and all glory would be for the mighty god of war.

He called his men together after their evening meal to announce his plans for the following day and to get them pumped for the anticipated battle.

"The diamond mine is waiting to be pillaged. We'll use the stones to pay tribute to Ares, and we'll feed the bodies of the miners to Graegus. When Graegus is finished, he'll be at full size-- an enormity to guarantee that Ares' will is fulfilled. Death to all who stand before us!"

"To Ares!" the warriors shouted, visions of rich rewards from their god dancing before their greedy eyes.

Hercules rolled over, opened his eyes and realized that it was almost dawn. His partner should have woken him up hours before to take over the watch.. He looked about and saw his friend sitting next to the fire adding some sticks and stirring the embers. He saw Salmoneus still sleeping and Xena emerging from the bushes drying her hair on one of Sal’s cloths.

“Iolaus, you haven’t slept?” Hercules asked.

“I slept some,” he replied. “What’s the matter? All of a sudden you’re concerned about how I feel?” he added sarcastically.

“Maybe you should have gotten more than just ‘some’ sleep,” the demigod responded testily.

Not sure exactly what was wrong between these two old friends, Xena knew she’d have to play conciliator. They had to be working together as one in order to defeat Darphus and whatever godly hand was behind him.

“Iolaus…Hercules…listen. I’ve been through these parts before and I recognize some of the landmarks. There’s a diamond mine not more than three or four miles from this camp. The warriors that Darphus now leads were complaining about how I wouldn’t let them take more booty than we needed. These men are greedy for any plunder they can get their hands on. I can guarantee you that Darphus is planning an attack on the miners’ encampment, if they haven’t done it already,” she told them.

Iolaus looked at her long and hard before he responded.

“I’ve got to agree, Herc. I spent some time with those goons and it’s like Xena says. If there’s a diamond mine in the area they’ll hit that first so they can pay a small tribute to Ares and keep the rest for themselves.”

“But first, they’ll slaughter every living soul in the encampment,” Salmoneus said, adding his two dinars to the mix.

“Okay,” Hercules said, taking their counsel. “We grab a quick breakfast, break camp and head straight for the mines.”

"Who do you think you are, walking in here, telling us we gotta leave?!" the grizzled old miner demanded.

"He's Hercules," Iolaus said. He was short-tempered and not in the mood to deal with this mule-headed foreman. His men were in danger and he was questioning the help they’d come to offer.

"That's a fancy name you're throwing around. But you still can't make me forget the diamonds we're digging out of the land. So save your breath," he said, turning his back on the demigod’s offer to help them evacuate.

"Maybe I ought to pound some sense into that thick skull of yours!" Iolaus snapped at the foreman.

"Take it easy, Iolaus," Hercules said, trying to calm the uncharacteristic belligerence his friend was exhibiting towards the miner.

"Ooo-kay," Iolaus reluctantly agreed, turning his back on the man.

"If Darphus' name doesn't scare you, maybe Ares' will," Hercules said, trying a more diplomatic approach with the man.

"Ares? There's not one man in this camp that hasn't paid tribute to him by fighting in a war somewhere along the line. He bears us no ill will," the minor assured the demigod.

A faint ‘Thwap’ could be heard. They all looked up just in time to see Hercules catch an arrow in mid-flight. It had been aimed squarely at the miner’s heart. The man looked in disbelief at the demigod’s hand.

"You were saying?" Hercules asked.

The man couldn’t speak. He just picked up his pail and ran back towards the adit to the mine but he never made it to safety. Warriors sprang out from behind the trees and charged down the hills towards the mine.

"Look Hercules, it IS Darphus," Xena cried.

One of the warriors flew at Hercules, his blood-tainted sword ready for more. As the demigod braced himself to take care of the attacker, Xena moved into place to guard his back. Iolaus, who had only turned away for one second to determine Salmoneus’ location and to see if he were safe, was shocked to find his place at Herc’s side already taken. “It is true,” he whispered to himself as he saw evidence of the new partnership dynamic right before his very eyes.

On his own now, he turned his attention to picking off as many of the warriors as he could before they completely overran the encampment and killed the innocent miners.

Iolaus had taken out several warriors on his own until he became disarmed. Before he could reach for his hunting knife, three warriors were on him, two of them pinning his arms to his sides and one of them delivering a punishing beating.

Xena caught the flash of metal out of the corner of her eye and that was all it took. The warrior who had been administering the beating, pulled his knife and was ready to slit Iolaus’ throat when his hand snapped backward and the knife went flying into the dirt several yards behind him.

"Thanks, Herc--" Iolaus called out as he shook the hair, the blood and the sweat from his eyes, not realizing it was Xena who had snapped the knife out of the warrior’s hand with her whip.

Iolaus was taken aback momentarily when he looked up and saw that it wasn’t Hercules who had saved his life. Xena re-wound her whip, nodded to him with a small tight smile on her lips then she left Hercules on his own and joined the fight at Iolaus’ back for the rest of the battle. Her concern and cover went straight to his heart, tearing away at the shield he’d constructed around it. Fighting with her, this way again, felt good -- exhilarating. It reminded him of when they’d taken out the mercenaries together on their way to the Arcadian Highlands.

When he had a moment to think, he spun around to get a fix on Hercules’ position and caught sight of the demigod on the other side of the encampment, too engrossed in what he was doing to pay him any thought. Xena had watched out for him. Xena had been his cover. When he re-engaged in the battle, he edged towards Darphus with her and fiercely guarded her back as she went one-on-one with the warlord.

She sunk her sword into the center of Darphus’ chest, exactly as she had almost a month before in Parthus and he didn’t even flinch. He looked down at the blade protruding from his chest and smiled wickedly as he slowly pulled it out.

"Don't you know you can't kill me? Ares is on my side," he told her. He looked around at the battlefield and saw that Hercules and Iolaus had wiped out most of his warriors. They would have to do this another time, in Elysia, when he had the backing of Graegus who would kill the demigod, his partner, and the traitorous bitch Xena.

"Retreat!" Darphus ordered.

"Retreat!" his warriors called to their comrades as they turned tail and ran back into the trees.

"We're coming after you, Darphus!" Hercules shouted after the warlord who had mounted his horse.

"I'll be waiting for you," he taunted them before riding off to join his men.

Xena held her sword in her hand, turning it over and over in her palm, still not quite believing what she had just witnessed.

"If a knife in the heart won't kill Darphus, what will?" she asked as she turned to Hercules who walked over to join her. She noticed that the demigod had taken quite a beating himself in the skirmish.

"We'll find something,” he assured her. “Is everyone all right?" he asked, as he took in the damage. That’s when she noticed that he had a rather nasty looking, jagged flesh wound on his right shoulder blade. ‘That wouldn’t have happened if Iolaus or I had his back,’ she thought.

"Yeah-- but there's a problem,” Iolaus answered Hercules’ question as he walked toward them. “Salmoneus is missing."

“Stay here with Xena and help the wounded. I’ll take a look for him. He was probably just hiding someplace safe until the fighting ended. I’ll let him know it’s safe to come back,” Hercules said.

He quickly found the salesman’s footprints and tracked them back towards the road where they were lost amid wagon tracks and hoof prints. They didn’t reappear on the far side of the road either. It looked as if their friend had hitched a ride away from danger.

As he turned to make his way back to Iolaus and Xena he spotted Salmoneus’ notebook laying in the grass near the side of the road. He bent to retrieve it and saw that it had fallen open to a page with a recent entry. Curious to see what kind of notes the man had been keeping, he read, ‘As warriors, Hercules and Xena have always been a perfect match. I find myself wondering about them falling in love; getting married; having children; hiring me to handle their finances.’

"My friend, I hope your imagination is the only thing that ran away with you," Hercules murmured. Then tucking the notebook into the waistband of his pants, he returned to the miners’ encampment to help Iolaus bury the dead.

"There you go,” Iolaus said to one of the injured miners as he secured the bandage on the man’s head.

“That should do it. Anyone else?" he asked as he turned to Xena who was wiping the blood off of her hands after tending to a particularly nasty wound on another miner’s leg.

"I think everybody who didn't die has already been taken care of," she replied with her eyes still on her hands as she continued to wipe them, avoiding eye contact with her former lover.

"Good. So we can get going as soon as we bury the dead," he told her.

"I hope Hercules finds Salmoneus soon," she added, wanting to keep the conversation going and choosing the salesman as a safe subject.

Iolaus could read her like a book. He wanted to talk to her too, but he wasn’t in the mood for any small talk so he got straight to the point.

"You know, the only person who's ever saved my life before was Hercules. Why did you do it?" he asked, catching her eyes with his own, seeing what he could read in them.

"We're on the same side," she replied honestly after about a hundred thoughts ran through her head until she found one that rang with truth and conviction.

"That's it?" he asked. Something perverse inside him needed to know if there were any personal feelings that motivated her to come to his rescue.

"According to the code I live by, it is," she assured him.

"Because it wasn't so long ago-- that you wanted to kill me to get to Hercules," he said, pressing her once more to see for himself if she really had changed for the good.

"I'll go to my grave regretting that. I was all too set up by hate-- probably the same feeling you have towards me,” she told him.

“Not any more,” he said, acknowledging for both of them that he’d accepted her conversion.

“There are no words to tell you how sorry I am," she said, knowing an apology wouldn’t even cover what she’d done to destroy his life.

“Those words will do just fine,” he assured her with a nod and a tight-lipped smile.

"Thank you," she whispered, with a small catch in her voice.

Iolaus looked up at her and saw tears welling in her eyes. He knew she wouldn’t let them fall, she was too much the warrior to let that happen. It was enough to let him know that he had managed to touch her heart somewhere along the way.

He stretched his arm towards her offering his hand as one warrior to another. Xena took it in gratitude, knowing this was just the first step in repairing some of the damage she’d done.

"Now, there's an encouraging sign," Hercules said as he interrupted their little tableaux.

"Did you find Salmoneus?" she asked anxiously. She had become fond of the amusing salesman over the past several weeks. She did not forget that, at one point, he had been her only friend in the world.

"Afraid not," Hercules answered.

"Nothing?" she asked, certain that the salesman must have left some sort of trail.

"Well, just…” Hercules began to reply, reaching for the notebook in his waistband. Then thinking better of letting the contents come to light at this delicate moment he continued, “just some-- footprints that might have been his."

"Where were they headed?" Iolaus asked.

"To Elysia," the demigod replied grimly.

"The rage you hear in Graegus is a measure of how badly you have failed Ares. Graegus needs flesh and blood that my twelve best warriors didn't get him-- because they ran from Hercules and Xena like craven cowards!" Darphus berated his warriors when they arrived back in Elysia right before dusk.

"But you fled with us," one of the warriors said in an attempt to justify their own flight.

The knife appeared in Darphus’ hand faster than the eye could see and he sunk it deep into the chest of the warrior who had dared to point that out.

"I never flee. I only live to fight another day,” Darphus growled at the men as they watched their comrade fall to the ground at their feet.

“Feed him to Graegus,” Darphus ordered. “The rest of you, prepare for the arrival of Hercules and Xena. Kill them, and you regain your honor. Fail, and Graegus awaits you."

The heroes finished helping the survivors at the miner’s camp then used the rest of the daylight hours to make some headway in their journey towards Elysia.

Now that Iolaus had begun to work at coming to terms with his feelings for Xena, and the fact that she would be their new traveling companion, things were much less tense around the campfire that night.

Also, now that Hercules discovered Xena would cook if all it involved was roasting fish over an open fire, he was much more relaxed himself.

Xena, however, who roasted the fish, joined in the conversation and even joked and swapped tales of adventure with the two heroes, was inwardly unsettled.

Things appeared to be fine on the surface. Iolaus seemed to be okay with her now. Hercules was overly pleasant towards her. But Hercules and Iolaus were not fine with each other. It wasn’t anything that a casual observer would pick up on either. It was very subtle. Things were just a tad ‘off’ - not making sense.

In her camp, back in the Arcadian Highlands, the two heroes had fought back-to-back, zealously guarding each other like true sword brothers were wont to do. The two of them, working together as they did, could have massacred every man in that camp. They stood as one; they fought as one; and they seemed to be able to read each other’s minds.

She contrasted that picture of the two heroes with the events in the miners’ encampment. Hercules and Iolaus were nowhere near each other. Iolaus almost had his throat slashed and Hercules hadn’t even noticed. She had seen Iolaus checking on the demigod once or twice during the fracas but he stuck by her side instead of covering Hercules. That was why the demigod had taken the wound to his shoulder.

She ran over the whole situation with Hercules and Iolaus in her mind, from the moment she met Iolaus on the road to Thebes until this morning’s battle with Darphus. She figured correctly that there was no way the two men could have had time to talk with each other and straighten out matters between them. Tensions, that she had caused, were driving a wedge between these two old friends and she would have to get them to talk and resolve matters before they attempted to do battle with Darphus again. Ares’ warlord would have the home advantage in the next match.

When they awoke the next morning, the demigod and Iolaus appeared to have slept fine. It was Xena who was not rested today. She was unable to find respite from her thoughts about her traveling companions. She was determined to give them some time alone during the day so they could sort things out with each other. It was urgent that they did it this day because the next day would see them in Elysia.

After the first hour of walking they came to a crossroads. Iolaus bent to examine the tracks.

"The only people around here with wagons are peddlers. They're everywhere," he observed.

"Well, whoever made these tracks is heading for big trouble. The wagon was going west towards the ocean, and then it veered towards the north-- to Elysia," Xena told them.

"Maybe Darphus is bringing in weapons or reinforcements," Iolaus suggested.

"Either that, or somebody made a terrible mistake," Hercules said as he looked down the road that veered off towards Elysia. He hoped that Salmoneus hadn’t come this way, but knowing well the salesman’s penchant for getting into trouble, he wouldn’t be surprised if he showed up.

"Ow! I'm glad I don't have hemorrhoids," Salmoneus complained.

"Don't be so sensitive, sonny-boy!" the driver chided him.

"Cut that out, Enos," he scolded the old man as he seemed to purposefully steer the wagon over uneven ground making the ride even more jolting.

"Yeah! You need ocean air. That's what you need. Improve your sense of humor," the elderly driver advised him.

"Enos, there's no ocean around here," Salmoneus said, pointing to the thick brush and trees that surrounded them on this wagon track that was so poorly defined it couldn’t even be called a road.

"Whoa. There's not? Of course, there is!" the driver said adamantly.

"You can't see past your reins, can you? I knew it! I'm being driven straight to Hades," the salesman moaned. He was miserable - tired, sore, hungry and definitely going in the wrong direction.

"Oh, don't be such a worry-wart! My eyes may not be so hot, but my animal's eyes are just fine," Enos growled at his complaining passenger.

"That's the price I pay for my cowardice, isn't it?" Salmoneus wondered out loud to himself.

"Or maybe, you're not cut out for hitchhiking in the middle of nowhere,” the elderly driver said with a laugh at the salesman’s misfortune.

After another half hour of driving along the lonely track, listening to his passenger complain every inch of the way, the driver squinted and tried to look at his surroundings. Then all of a sudden he called a halt. "Whoa. Oh, smell that ocean. That'll cure your blues for ya," he told Salmoneus.

"Enos! Since when does the ocean smell of goats?” the exasperated salesman asked him.

"Goats? What goats?! There are no goats here. Fish! That's what you have in a fishing village!" the old man insisted.

"This isn't a fishing village. It's Elysia," Salmoneus moaned loudly.

"Is not," Enos said.

"Is," Salmoneus told him.

"Is not!" Enos reiterated.

"Is," Salmoneus argued.

"Is not!" the old man exclaimed emphatically.

A young warrior, who’d snuck up behind them when they argued, suddenly appeared at their side and said, "sorry, old man-- it is. Darphus'll be happy to see you."

It was barely noon but they were all hungry. They’d broken camp before dawn and hadn’t stopped to eat yet.

"Not much farther now. I'll go scout ahead," Xena offered. She wanted to give the two friends plenty of time and privacy to take care of any unfinished business between them. This would be the perfect occasion for them.

"No, I think it's my turn," Iolaus said. He was still too angry with his partner to have a productive talk with him and didn’t want to be left alone with him until he had his thoughts together enough to give them voice.

"Wait a minute. I know this territory," Xena told them.

"Come on. I'm full of old hunters' tricks," Iolaus insisted.

"That's not all you're full of," Hercules said lightly, although the words were heavily loaded with truth the way he saw it.

"Hey. Flattery will get you nowhere,” Iolaus said, mostly for Xena’s benefit. He knew what his partner meant.

“Make a camp, and, uh-- keep a light burning in the window," Iolaus told them as he adjusted the scabbard strap across his back and walked off down the road.

"You heard the man," Hercules said to Xena as he ushered her off the road into the trees where they could rest and break their fast.

"I'll go get some wood,” she told the demigod. “But I'm still not going to cook," she added with a teasing smile

Hercules gathered some kindling and began a small fire, Xena brought some wood and two slow rabbits that she managed to catch nearby. They ate, wrapped the leftovers in some leaves for Iolaus to eat when he returned, and sat and talked as they waited.

Xena was disappointed that the men had missed this opportunity to straighten things out between them but she wasn’t going to let her time alone with the demigod to go to waste If she couldn’t get Hercules and Iolaus to talk about their feelings, then she’d use this time to let the demigod know about hers.

"You know, I've been in a hundred other battles, and the only thing that's ever come over me before them, is a cold rage. But now…. Is this what it feels like to be you, Hercules?" Xena asked.

"I think you're just finding out how good it feels to challenge the forces of evil," He replied. He was enjoying this respite before battle. He shifted in his seat on the ground and felt the deep tear on the back of his shoulder rub against the inside of his shirt. It was healing but still quite sore. Sitting so close to Xena, alone at last, was a marvelous distraction from the pain.

"I wouldn't be doing it if you hadn't given me the chance," She told him, her eyes and words both filled with sincerity.

"Whatever I did doesn't count,” he assured her. “You made the decision on your own."

"There's another decision I've made," she said as she leant in a little closer to his side.

"What's that?" he asked. His nostrils filled with her feminine scent that bridged the small gap that remained between them and he shifted, once again, in his seat in order to ease the sudden discomfort of his leathers.

"To let you how I feel about you-- in case I die fighting Darphus," she told him as she looked deeply into his eyes, making a silent but unmistakable offer.

Her hair cascaded loosely over her shoulders and she seemed to glow in the dim light under the leafy boughs. He drew a deep, sighing breath as he felt himself stir in his codpiece.

Xena closed the distance between them, melting into Hercules strong arms, losing herself in his warm caress. She raised her hand, ran it behind the demigod’s neck and pulled him down into a passionate kiss. When the demigod broke their kiss, he held her at arms length wanting to see her face, study her features and imprint this moment in his memory forever.

Her skin was pale and clear. Her ruddy cheekbones turned scarlet now that she was aroused. Her mouth, though proud, was warm and inviting. Her mahogany-colored hair reached to the middle of her back, glistening with a luster that seemed to catch the highlights of the midday sun. The white column of her throat rising proudly from her marble shoulders, was strong and supple, giving her the carriage of a goddess…erasing forever his memory of the fierce warrior woman who’d crossed swords with him only a month earlier and replacing it with this divine embodiment of powerful, magnetic female sexuality.

She urged him onto his back in the grass then she sensually dropped down beside him. “Slow and easy, Hercules. I’ll be slow and easy with you,” she promised with breathless lust.

He pulled her back into his arms and allowed her to have her way. Slow and easy, just as she’d promised. When he was finally drained, no longer able to lift his head off the perfumed grass to accept Xena’s kiss, he slept.

Iolaus eased himself into position so he could get a closer look over the wall and into the village of Elysia. He saw the poor mud huts, the large, imposing temple to Ares and a line of tables laden with every rich food a person could ever dream of eating. His stomach rumbled and he tried to stifle it. All he’d had to eat that day were two apples that he’d picked off of a tree as he scouted the area.

"Eat up." "Go on." "Try some of these steaks; they're delicious." He heard the warriors calling to each other as they crowded around the tables.

"Here's what you want," said deep, commanding voice that carried to him over the voices of the others. "Eat up! Have some more," the voice was urging someone to partake of the feast.

"Yes, thank you…thank,” another, very familiar voice answered.

Iolaus peaked over the wall again and had a good clear look at the proceedings. He recognized some of the warriors. They had been with him in Xena’s camp. He recognized Salmoneus who was sitting at the head table, gnawing on a roasted lamb shank. He did not recognize the scarred warrior who stood next to Salmoneus with his hand on the salesman’s shoulder. He assumed him to be Darphus.

“Eat up. And if you think this meal is good wait until the feast we have prepared for tomorrow. You’ll be the guest of honor,” Darphus said, slapping the salesman on the back.

"Traitor," Iolaus muttered softly to himself.

"Delicious. My compliments," Salmoneus told the warlord.

Iolaus had no way of knowing that the salesman was shaking so badly in fear that the only thing holding him in his seat was the warlord’s hand on his shoulder.

Just then, everyone’s attention was caught by an enormously loud growl that came from the bowels of Ares temple.

"Oh, no. Now, we've really got trouble," Iolaus said as he recognized the familiar sound. He’d seen and heard enough. He had to get back to warn Hercules of the treachery and the danger that waited for them in Elysia.

The welcome aroma of roasted rabbit filled the air and he followed the delicious smell to their camp. He was ready to greet his companions with a happy quip before he laid the bad news on them. But all happy thoughts left his mind and all words froze on his lips when he took in the scene before him.

Xena sat on a large flat rock with her bare legs dangling over the side. She was only half dressed and was occupied with brushing grass and leaves out of her rumpled hair. Hercules sat on the ground at her feet. His leathers had been pulled on but were still unfastened as was his under shirt. He hadn’t bothered with his own hair yet. It was so obvious what they had been doing. Iolaus was certain that if he had returned three minutes earlier he would have interrupted them in the act.

"Hello, Iolaus," Hercules said a bit sheepishly as he picked himself up off of the ground at Xena’s feet and straightened his clothes up a little.

"Did I get back too soon? I mean, uh-- I, uh-- didn't think I'd get back so soon." Iolaus stammered. His breath caught in his chest as he felt his heart tear into pieces all over again. His lips turned up in a frozen grimace to keep the tears in his eyes from falling onto his cheeks. He gave them his back to hide his face from them both.

"What did you find?" Xena asked, trying to be nonchalant about the picture she and the demigod presented.

"Salmoneus-- but it's not what you think. He and Darphus were eating together. It seemed like they were having a great time," he said, his voice deep with emotion still being barely able to breath.

"Salmoneus is a lot of things, but I have a hard time believing that a traitor is one of them," Hercules argued in the salesman’s defense.

“Traitors can take even the friendliest of forms, Hercules. Believe me. I know,” Iolaus angrily spat back at the demigod as he spun around and fixed his partner with an accusing look. Then he shook his head in disgust and ran off into the woods.

Hercules turned to Xena with an apology on his lips but she stopped him.

“Go! Hurry!” she said.

The demigod gave her a nod, grateful for her understanding. He turned from her and sprinted off after Iolaus.

Iolaus really bolted but Hercules put on an extra burst of speed and caught up with his friend before he was too far away from the camp.

“Iolaus! Wait! Talk to me,” Hercules shouted after him in an attempt to make him stop.

“Talk? Now you want to talk? I’ve got just one word for you, Pal…Medea,” Iolaus said as he turned to confront his friend. This was met by absolute silence from the demigod although Iolaus could clearly see that his one word had hit it’s mark. He vividly remembered that day so long ago when Jason had done almost this same thing to Hercules. He could almost see the thoughts and remembrances running through the demigod’s mind too, so he added, “You’re the last person I’d have believed could do something like this to me.”

“Iolaus, the last time we spoke you said you hated Xena,” Hercules said in his own defense.

“Ah ha! Now you’ve gotten to the point. The last time we spoke…I mean really, really spoke. When was that exactly, Hercules? You don’t remember? I’ll tell you. It was over three months ago in Thebes when we had our last honest-to-goodness conversation. Since the last time we spoke, a lot has happened. So much has changed and there’s been no talk, no explanations, no apologies, no sharing of information…important, life-changing information!”

“What are you going on about? We’ve talked since then,” Hercules said.

“Not about anything important, not about stuff that counts, unless you mean those times when you were telling me what to do and discounting how I felt about things,” Iolaus continued to argue.

“That’s ridiculous!” Hercules exclaimed. “And it doesn’t change the fact that you said you hated her. That was the information I was working with.”

“Xena can change her mind but I can’t? Is that it?” Iolaus pushed.

“She took your back in one skirmish and all of a sudden you’re in love with her again?” Hercules asked incredulously. He didn’t realize that he’d hit a nerve because Iolaus kept his features schooled, but the thought had actually crossed his partner’s mind. Hercules caught himself before he responded further. He needed to restore the peace and it was apparent that Iolaus wasn’t going to help. He looked at his friend with fresh eyes. It was obvious that Iolaus was hurting. He’d done an unconscionable thing by sleeping with the woman who’d been his best friend’s lover, and his betrayer. He realized that now.

“Iolaus, I’m sorry if…I though you’d be okay with… Look, it’s been almost a year and I haven’t felt this way since Deiniera…”

“Dei? Don’t Herc…don’t you dare mention her now! Xena is no Deiniera. The only blood Dei ever had on her hands was from helping to bring life into this world. Xena’s are still dripping with the blood of people she’s taken out,” Iolaus shouted.

“Iolaus, that’s not what I meant. I don’t love Xena…”

“Yeah, well I do…did… And that’s supposed to make me feel better?” he asked with a grimace then, not being able to look at the demigod for another minute, he hung his head and shook it in disbelief. “Besides, whether you slept with her or not - that’s not the point I’m trying to make here.”

“Well then what could it possibly be? You’re acting like a crazy man all of a sudden and it’s all supposed to me my fault?” Hercules shouted back. He was rapidly being pushed beyond his limits of patience with Iolaus. He tried to be the peacemaker. He was ashamed enough of himself for letting his hormones get the better of his judgment he didn’t need his friend rubbing his face in it right now.

As they argued, Hercules approached his friend. He felt if he could make some physical contact -- put his hand on his friend’s shoulder - touch his arm - anything that he could start re-establishing their link of communication. But Iolaus wouldn’t even look at him.

“I’m acting like a crazy man,” Iolaus repeated what the demigod had just told him. He took a deep breath and looked directly at his friend. His sadness and heartbreak clearly etched in the lines of pain around his eyes and mouth.

“You finally asked me to travel with you as your partner. It was something I’d waited for…hoped…for the longest time. The deepest convictions in my heart and soul have always told me that’s where I’m supposed to be…by your side…at your back. So I cut all the strings that tied me to my old life and came to join you as your partner. That’s what you promised me, Herc…‘partners forever. Those were your exact words, weren’t they?”

“Yes, Iolaus. Those were my exact words,” Hercules admitted.

“So I came here to meet you and what do I find? I find that you’ve taken on a new partner. And do you tell me about it? Nooooo. I got to hear the news that I’ve been replaced from your old friend Salmoneus. I didn’t believe it at first but then I saw the proof play out right before my own eyes, back in the miners’ camp. Your new partner jumped to your back and I was left on my own.”

“You’re a great one to talk about the partnership thing when you abandoned me to guard her back just like you abandoned me when you ran off with her in the first place. You left me first! You’re the one who decided follow your libido to Arcadia instead of following your brain. You promised to be at my back always and look what happened,” he said, flashing Iolaus a glimpse of his wound, which was still seeping blood. “Besides, Salmoneus would never say something like that because it’s not true. Xena and I never agreed to be partners.”

“Are you calling me a liar!” Iolaus shouted. He rounded on the demigod and hit him with a powerful uppercut to the jaw. Hercules wasn’t prepared for the punch and it staggered him. Iolaus was on him in a flash. “You can’t do that to people…treat them like chess pieces in your game.”

Hercules pushed him off but Iolaus came at him again. Another push by the demigod landed Iolaus on his back so he swung his legs around and toppled Hercules to the ground. Iolaus jumped on top and began wrestling the demigod. Hercules braced his arms and pushed off the ground, spinning them around in mid air and landing with Iolaus on the ground, both grunting and panting in their efforts.

“You didn’t look for me once in the fight,” Hercules growled accusingly at his friend when a move the demigod made brought his injured shoulder into sharp contact with a rock.

“Did too, I spotted you several times,” Iolaus said with effort as Hercules pushed at him, trying to dislodge his hold.

“Oh yeah! Where were you when I got stabbed?” Hercules demanded as he pressed down hard on the blond’s shoulders.

Whoosh!

The circle of metal flew over them, whirring past their heads in a blur and clanging loudly each time it caromed off a boulder. The accompanying ululation and war cry froze them in their spot.

“Do I have your attention, now?” Xena asked looking quite furiously at the two men. They let go of each other and sprang apart like two little boys who’d been caught doing something wrong by the school mistress.

“Okay, guys, cut the song and dance. We’ve got more important things to deal with than your egos,” she said, when she saw that they were giving her their undivided attention. “Although I guess I should be flattered to have the two greatest heroes in Greece fighting over me,” she added with an unmistakable tone of sarcasm in her voice.

“Now listen to me, both of you. I helped create this situation, so I’m gonna try to help fix it. But only you two can fix the underlying problems and weaknesses that were already there.

“One…I’ve already apologized to Iolaus for what I did. I’m sorry he fell in love with me but I’m not sorry for having felt his love. It’s part of what saved me and I’m grateful.

“Two…What Hercules and I just shared was my way of saying ‘thank you’ for his believing in me and trusting me. I felt that I needed to show him in more than words how I felt and, since I know he’s wanted me since we first met back at the tavern in Thebes, well…”

At her words, Iolaus’ head snapped back to look at his friend only to see Hercules blushing and hanging his head in shame.

“Three…Hercules and I are not partners. It was Salmoneus’ idea. He talked about it but Hercules and I never agreed to anything. Although I know that each of you has been thinking about how things would be if I joined you in your travels.”

At this point, both of the heroes bowed their heads and stared at the ground.

“What it all boils down to is that you’re men…under all those muscles and heroic trappings…you’re still just men. And you know as well as I do that all men have weaknesses and failings. I wouldn’t have gotten as far as I did if I hadn’t been able to exploit those in the both of you and in countless others. So…

“Four…You’d both better get your acts together if we’re gonna deal with Darphus tomorrow. Since Ares is involved, it’s not gonna be a walk in the park.” Then before they could open their mouths to say anything she decided to remind them of how good they were when they worked together.

“Back in my camp, in Arcadia, I watched as the two of you took on all the warriors in my compound. And I wouldn’t have believed it unless I’d witnessed it with my own eyes. There was a transformation when the two of you were together, working in unison. It was as if a magical third being was created from the sum of your parts and this being was stronger than the both of you, enabling you to be fearless, confident, capable of super-heroic, death-defying feats. It protected you both and fueled your selfless bravery. I don’t know what else to call it except maybe the ‘spirit of true heroism.’

“I wanted what the two of you had, what you shared - that love - that bond. I knew I wouldn’t need an army then. A power, like the one you two heroes shared, in my hands, would be enough to change everything…to change the whole world.

“That spirit wasn’t there in the miners’ camp and you two have got to put away your differences. Start talking with each other again and get that spirit back before tomorrow. Don’t you get it? That’s why you were injured, Hercules. That’s why you were almost killed, Iolaus…”

Hercules’ eyes opened wide at Xena’s words and he looked wildly back and forth at his friend and the warrior woman.

“Iolaus…almost killed?” he whispered in horror then, without another word, he turned and walked away from them.

“I wish you hadn’t told him that,” Iolaus told Xena.

“What?” she asked innocently, not understanding what just happened.

“Come on. We’ve got to find him fast,” Iolaus urged her.

They tracked the demigod to the banks of the stream. He had thrown himself down on the ground next to a large willow, his back against the trunk, his head in his hands.

“Wait here,” Iolaus told Xena. “I need to speak with him alone.”

She nodded, and moved out of the way to let Iolaus proceed. She saw Iolaus approach the demigod then drop down on the ground next to him, their legs touching and Iolaus’ hand on the demigod’s shoulder. Although she couldn’t hear what they said, she could see the demigod nodding every once in a while and knew they were finally starting to open their lines of communication once more.

“It’s okay, Herc. Xena was there to save me. It wasn’t my time,” Iolaus began, getting right to the crux of the matter that had so upset his friend.

“It’s not okay, Iolaus. I didn’t even know…” Hercules said. “I was angry that you went off alone with Xena and how easily you seemed to put our partnership to the side…that you didn’t give me a chance to help out in any way. And then I let my hard feelings get in the way of your safety. It’s unforgivable.”

“No! It isn’t. Nothing between us is unforgivable. You know how I feel about you, Herc. And those feelings are unconditional and unchangeable -- even if you killed me with your own hand. Look…sometimes I get angry and frustrated with you too. I’ve told you before that it’s not easy being your friend at times but I’m a better person for knowing you. Besides, I wasn’t at your back in that fight either and you actually got injured. I’m sorry,” Iolaus said.

“It’s okay, buddy,” Hercules whispered. “I deserved it. It’s a wake-up call.”

“Well then, it’s a good thing we made all our mistakes in the very beginning of this partnership gig. Everything should be perfect from now on. Right, Herc?” Iolaus looked into his friend’s face, hoping to see the worries and fears melt away.

“Right,” Hercules replied with a smile.

“I never thought we could be distanced by anything, but especially not by our own doing.” Hercules said.

“Yeah, well, I’m never gonna let anything like this happen ever again. You can be sure of that,” Iolaus promised his best friend. “I can’t believe I thought that if I had a strong, independent woman like Xena to love - someone who didn’t go for all the marriage, cottage and children stuff -- that I’d be able to get around Hera’s curse. Now that I know it’s impossible, I won’t be looking for it ever again. Come on. Let’s get back to the camp. I need to take a look at that shoulder…get you in fighting shape for tomorrow.” Iolaus stood and offered Hercules a hand up. The demigod rested his hand on his partner’s shoulder for a moment and gave it a squeeze to let Iolaus know that everything was all right, then they walked back to where Xena waited for them.

“We need to get some sleep. Tomorrow we’ve got business to settle with Ares and Darphus in Elysia,” Xena said. Then, with a hand on each of their arms, she steered the heroes back towards the waning light of their campfire.

"Elysia…Oh yeah, Hercules” Iolaus said as if finally coming out of a fog. “You’ve got to know… Graegus is there."

"Who's Graegus?" Xena asked, her concern triggered by the tone of Iolaus’ voice as he uttered that name.

"Ares' pet,” Hercules answered. “He'll feed on Darphus' victims until he's the biggest creature that ever walked."

"And if that happens-- Ares will rule the world," Iolaus added.

"So what are we gonna do to stop them?" she asked.

"Sometimes-- you can only defeat evil…with evil," Hercules cryptically replied.

On a sunny hillside road, not too far from the gates of Elysia, Hercules and Iolaus approached an abandoned wagon. They stayed by the wagon, discussing their plans in order to lure to them any warriors who were guarding the perimeter.

"It'd be better if we attacked from the front," Hercules said, a little louder than was necessary.

"No, if we attack from the fron…" Iolaus began to argue.

"Stop right there!" A warrior shouted as he came at them from the rear.

"Uh-oh," the demigod muttered, pretending to be caught.

"The mighty Hercules. How does it feel to be fi--", the warrior said, but any further thoughts of his got cut off when Xena snuck up behind him and conked him with the hilt of her sword.

"How does it feel to be unconscious?" Xena asked as she watched the warrior fall in a heap at her feet.

"Look out!" Iolaus shouted in warning to Xena. He saw another warrior come out of the tall grasses by the side of the wagon and attempt to skewer her with his spear. The blond hero whipped out his knife and sent it flying at her attacker in one fluid movement. The knife whizzed past Xena’s ear and stopped the attacker in his tracks.

"Show off," Hercules said with a big smile and a pat on the back for his partner.

"Any closer, and my ear would've been stuck to his chest," Xena complained

"You’re welcome. Besides, you didn't give me a very good angle," Iolaus told her.

"I knew you could handle it," she grumbled her compliments which caused a big grin to cross the hero’s face.

"Come on-- we need to move fast,” Hercules urged them. “Iolaus-- you know what to do."

"Yeah-- burning wagon coming up," he replied, then he quickly gathered together all of the things he needed to start a fire while Hercules and Xena snuck down to the wall to wait for Iolaus’ diversion so they could enter the village of Elysia undetected.

At a heavily laden banquet table inside the walls of Elysia Salmoneus sat amid a pack of hungry warriors. Darphus hovered right behind him watching every morsel that the salesman picked at.

"You've lost weight since we last met," the warlord observed

"Huh?" Salmoneus responded. He was almost too scared to think straight.

"Come on, open up-eat," Darphus growled at him as he shoved a chicken leg into the salesman’s mouth. "How many times do I have to tell you, I want you nice and plump, so Graegus will have lots to chew on."

"Mmph-mmph," Salmoneus choked. He’d been awake all night listening to the ungodly howling of the creature they called Graegus.

"Eat!" Darphus ordered.

"Please!" the salesman pleaded when he was able to clear his mouth but the warlord shoved another drumstick into his mouth.

"Don't make me kill you before I feed you to Graegus. I want you kicking and screaming, so Hercules and Xena can watch,” Darphus told him.

Salmoneus spit the food out of his mouth and began to gag.

"It's time to teach you some manners," Darphus growled at him as he grabbed the salesman by the collar.

"No!” Salmoneus pleaded, trying to buy himself more time. He was praying that the Hercules would come to his rescue. “Don't-- don't get me wrong! You're food is great. If you get me a nice sorbet, I could work through six or seven more courses."

"Time's up. Maybe your screams will convince Hercules and Xena to come out of hiding," he told the frightened man as he dragged him out of his seat.

"Take him to the temple!" Darphus ordered his warriors as he threw Salmoneus towards them.

The monster in the depths of Ares temple growled loudly. It made the salesman quake and his knees buckle under him. It made Darphus smile

"Graegus is hungry," he told his men and signaled them to hurry with the next meal for Ares’ pet.

"There's plenty of roast left! Let me get him some!" Salmoneus screamed as he struggled to get away from the warriors.

"After he's finished with you, he'll be big enough to obliterate anyone who stands in Ares' path! He smells your fear. Take him inside," Darphus told the salesman with wicked delight.

"That's not fear! It's gas!" the salesman moaned as he was dragged up the temple stairs. "Stop! Oh! No! No! Please! Don't leave me here!” He screamed as they chained him in leg irons to the first column right inside the heavy wooden door.

Iolaus, failed to light the wagon on fire, try as he might. He knew he was running out of time so he gave the wagon a shove to set it off down the hill towards Elysia’s gate then he jumped on board and hid among the baskets in the back.

The wagon rumbled through the gate and came to an abrupt stop when it smashed into the well. It startled the warriors who had gathered in the temple square to listen to this new sacrifice to Ares pet.

Hercules and Xena took advantage of the distraction to jump over the wall behind the temple and make their way around to it’s front.

Darphus’ attention, however, never left the temple door. The minute the demigod and Xena appeared he was aware of their presence.

"So, the son of Zeus has finally arrived. Get him!" the warlord shouted to his men.

"I thought the wagon was supposed to be on fire!" Xena whispered to Hercules right before they entered the temple.

"Old hunters' tricks don't always work!" Hercules replied with a shrug of his good shoulder. “Now, stay behind me until we see the setup inside.

As Hercules and Xena entered the temple, Iolaus jumped out from his hiding place among the baskets in the back of the wagon. Some of the warriors who had been with Xena in her camp in the Arcadian Highlands, took off running when they realized the two heroes were back together again. They remembered the beating they’d taken that day two months before and they weren’t going to stick around for another serving. The warriors who remained to fight attempted to take down the compact blond hero and found it almost impossible to do. He moved so fast and hit them so hard with a skillful ease that they couldn’t keep up.

Iolaus used his sword -- his knife when the sword became lost - then anything that came to hand (like heavy iron frying pans) to help him defeat his opponents.

There were only a few warriors left to oppose him and he needed to make quick work of them. It was urgent that he make it into the temple to cover Hercules’ back. His partner was still hurting from the wound he’d received in the miner’s encampment and would need him by his side to help defeat Graegus. He knew Xena would be too occupied to help Hercules. He had just seen the scarred warlord follow her up the stairs to the temple. Besides, Xena would have to be a hero for a lot longer than two days before he would trust her at Herc’s back.

As Iolaus fought those last few warriors he could hear happy shouts coming from inside the temple that almost drowned out Graegus’ growls.

"This is great! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!" Salmoneus shouted in pure, unadulterated relief when he looked back and saw Hercules and Xena descending the stairs into the temple.

"We're not out of this yet," Hercules told the salesman.

"Thank you!" Salmoneus shouted again. The demigod was with him, all would be right with his world, if only he could get the chains off. The thought had barely crossed his mind when a mighty swing of Xena’s sword bit through the shackles on his legs, freeing him from the column.

"Nice cut!" he screamed, almost in hysterics from the initial fright it had given him to see that sword descending towards him.

"Salmoneus! Get out of here! Come on! Get out! Go! Run!" Hercules cried as Graegus emerged from the shadows, growling and baring his teeth at the humans.

"I wonder if he knows how to play fetch," Hercules said as he spotted a giant-sized shield hanging on the wall. He ripped it down and threw it discus-style at the monster’s gaping jaws.

Graegus struggled with the shield for just one moment before he spit it to the ground and stalked the demigod once again.

Xena turned from watching the demigod and the monster when she heard a heavy foot fall on the stairs. It was her despised enemy.

"I'll make sure you stay dead this time, Darphus!" she shouted at him, letting the demigod know at the same time that the warlord had arrived.

"It's you who dies this time!" Darphus taunted the warrior woman as he pulled his sword and prepared to strike. His skill with a sword was masterful but Xena’s was more so. She met him every thrust and countered with powerful strokes and swipes of her own.

"Come on. Don't you ever get full?" Hercules grunted as Graegus pushed him back towards the wall, the only thing separating them the thin metal of the shield.

Outside the temple, Iolaus inched his way towards the steps to the temple. There were only two or three more warriors left standing, who hadn’t yet taken a punishment from the blond whirlwind.

Salmoneus came running down the temple stairs and saw his chance to help. He picked up a heavy iron pot by it’s handle and swung it once or twice to get a feel for it. He whistled to Iolaus to catch his attention, motioning for the hero to press his assault on the attacker. When Iolaus had the man at the bottom of the stairs, Salmoneus swung the pot with all his strength hitting the warrior on the back of his head, knocking him out.

"Thanks,” Iolaus said with a big grin for the salesman.

"My pleasure!" Salmoneus beamed. He was so happy to have been saved from Graegus that fighting warriors with Iolaus became a celebration for him. They took down the last two warriors in the same manner and Iolaus was free to join his partner in the temple.

He ran up the stairs then turned to call Salmoneus. "Come on. Our friends need our help."

"Right!" the salesman called back. Then, swinging his iron pot a few times for effect, Salmoneus bravely followed Iolaus back into the temple.

Iolaus skidded past Xena who was still keeping Darphus busy with the swordplay. He saw his partner being brutally pushed into the wall by Ares giant dog. He threw his knife at Graegus’ neck but it bounced right off the monster’s leathery skin. However, it was just enough to distract it’s attention from Hercules for the time being.

Graegus lunged for Iolaus who did a back flip that landed him momentary protection behind a column.

The demigod moved away from the wall clutching his shoulder. He turned back and forth, searching the floor for Iolaus’ knife. When he spotted it and bent to retrieve it, Iolaus could see that the back of his partner’s shirt had been soaked through with blood. Hercules’ wound had re-opened.

“Do you see the shield,” he shouted to Iolaus.

The blond looked about and found the shield right behind him. He picked it up and prepared to toss it to the demigod.

Hercules signaled his partner that he was going to switch the knife for the shield.

“On the count of three. One…two…three….” The demigod counted. They made the switch and Hercules immediately started calling to Graegus, hoping to get the monster’s full attention. Iolaus ran behind the dog, prodding it in it’s rear legs with the knife to urge it on towards the demigod’s position.

He was pressing the shield into the monster-dog’s mouth protecting himself from it’s deadly fangs while maneuvering it into position for the kill. Then, just as his strength was beginning to give out, Ares’ pet was finally situated perfectly.

"Xena! Iolaus! Let's put evil in its place. Now!" Hercules shouted and his two companions reacted instantly. Xena applied her full strength behind her sword and drove Darphus into position on the bottom step. Iolaus ran from behind the monster, somersaulted once, hit the ground and rolled into place behind Darphus legs. With one final mighty swing of her sword she knocked the warlord backwards. He tripped over Iolaus who was on the ground behind him and wound up sprawled on the temple floor, his sword flying off into a dark corner.

At that very moment Hercules snatched the shield out of Graegus’ mouth and stepped swiftly out of the monster’s path of vision. Darphus was now the sole focus of the beast’s ravenous appetite. The warlord didn’t have time to react. He turned at the sound of snarling behind him, looked up, saw the terrible jaws only inches from him, and he screamed as the monster chomped on his body once before swallowing him whole.

The very walls of the temple vibrated and resonated with the thunderous rumbling noise that emanated from within the monster Graegus. As the heroes watched in horror, a look of fierce desperation and pain appeared in the war dog’s eyes as his rough leather skin crawled and quivered uncontrollably over his massive frame. Flames shot out of his eyes, ears and nostrils. The smell of it’s burning flesh was strong as it melted off the bones. Then with one last hopeless roar, the beast imploded -- consumed by the fire - leaving only wisps of smoke rising from the charred stone floor.

"I've never seen anything like that. What happened?" Iolaus asked his partner.

"Bad diet," the demigod joked.

Iolaus chuckled but Xena still didn’t quite get what had just happened.

“But Darphus had Ares on his side," she said, remembering that not too long ago Ares had promised to be on her side forever. She knew then that she was right not to have trusted the god of war.

"Didn't matter. Evil defeated itself," Hercules told her. Then putting his arm around Iolaus’ shoulder he led their way out of the temple and into the sunlight.

The village square and streets of Elysia were empty. All of the warriors who had regained consciousness, decided to flee rather than face further punishment.

They cleaned up and Iolaus searched the huts to find the one belonging to the village healer. He took what he needed to care for the demigod’s wound then returned to find the others sitting around the banquet table. Iolaus tended to Hercules before joining them in quiet celebration of their victory over both Darphus and Graegus which was, in effect, a victory over Ares.

Salmoneus, Iolaus and Xena packed up extra food to take with them in their carry sacks. Iolaus also took the herbs and bandages he’d found so he could care for his partner. Xena went to check out the stables, Salmoneus went to check out the marketplace and he went to join Hercules who was sitting on the temple steps.

“So, Hercules, what’s next?” Iolaus asked. The pain that he still felt in his knuckles from where they connected with Herc’s jaw reminded him that they still had some small issues to settle between them before things would be back to normal.

“I don’t know, Iolaus. I was going to ask you the same question,” Hercules replied with a sincere grin letting his partner know that he’d gotten the message out of their previous night’s argument.

"Boom!” exclaimed Salmoneus as he rounded the side of the temple and approached the heroes. He was sporting shiny new sandals and a colorful cloak. “You should've seen those soldiers fall when I conked them. I dropped those turkeys like a bad habit. Right Iolaus? Did you tell Hercules about how I helped you take out some of the bad guys? I'd write about it if-- if only I had my--"

"You looking for this?" Hercules asked the salesman as he pulled the man’s notebook out of his waist band.

"You found it! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!" Salmoneus gushed as he grabbed the book

"You know, that is the thing about Salmoneus. You never can tell how he feels about anything,” Iolaus said with a chuckle.

"Yeah, he'll have to work on that," Hercules responded with a deep chuckle of his own.

"Yeah. Go ahead and laugh. You two are gonna miss me," Salmoneus told them.

"Where are you going?" Hercules asked him.

"I'm going to Athens-- to work on your celebrity biography. And, if it doesn't work out, I can always sell obedience training for dogs,” he replied with a chuckle of his own. “I’ve already said my goodbyes to Xena and now I’ll say goodbye to you too, my friends," he said as he shook the heroes’ hands.

"Take care, Salmoneus," Iolaus called after the salesman who was whistling a jaunty tune as he walked off towards the gate and away from the bad memories this town held for him.

"Well, I guess we should be on our way home to let Alcmene know we’re still in one piece and then it’s off to wherever the Fates take us. What do you think, Herc?" Iolaus asked his partner.

"I think there's someone we need to talk to first," the demigod replied as he motioned for Iolaus to turn around and look at something.

They stood and walked across the square towards the stables where Xena was adjusting the saddle on a broad-chested, golden colored stallion

"You're leaving?" Hercules asked.

"You two are going to make this tougher on me than it already is, aren't you?" she replied with a small, tight voice as she struggled to keep her emotions in check.

"It doesn't have to be that way," Iolaus assured her as he approached her side.

‘Oh, but it does,’ she thought. ‘You two were magnificent -- together again - just like it’s supposed to be.’

"Please, don't. You're gonna make me cry. I haven't done that since I was a child," she said turning away from Iolaus only to bump straight into the demigod.

"Xena," he said, trying to think of something he could say to make her stay…even for a little while.

"Let me go.” She pleaded with them. “There's so much in my life I have to make amends for. I've got to get started."

"I wish you'd let us help," Iolaus said.

"The both of you already have…more than you’ll ever know. You’ve unchained my heart.” Xena hugged the demigod first. “Goodbye, Hercules,” she whispered in his ear. Then she turned and, before he could object, she hugged Iolaus so tightly that he could feel her silent sob. “Goodbye, Iolaus,” she said as she released him and hurriedly mounted her horse.

She took one last look at the heroes who had saved her from herself, saved her from Ares, and who had salvaged her heart in the process. Then she rode off through the gate and off into the hills.

"You all right?" Hercules asked. He watched Iolaus closely as his partner watched Xena ride away.

"Yeah. I think so,” Iolaus replied with a tight smile for his best friend. “At least the good guys won."

“And that would still be us? Right, partner?” Hercules asked.

Iolaus looked up at his best friend…his partner. He opened his arms wide and said, “for always, Herc.”

The demigod gratefully stepped into the warm circle of his best friend’s arms and returned the hug that, in his mind, sealed their pact.

They picked up their bed rolls and carry sacks then, without looking back, they walked side-by-side out of the village gate. When they reached the crest of the hill, they scanned the area to get their bearings and saw Xena on the crest of another, near-by hill, sitting regally upon her horse and looking every bit like a true warrior princess.

“She actually said that she sensed a third ‘being’ around us when we’re together? Like some spirit formed by the sum of our parts that’s greater and more powerful than either of us?” Iolaus asked his partner without taking his eyes off of the far away figure of the heroic woman who had defeated her own demons as well as Ares’.

“Yup, that’s what she said - the ‘spirit of heroism’ I think she called it,” Hercules replied, not looking at his partner either but focused on the powerful picture that Xena made just at that moment.

“You…uh…think he wants to be with her too?” Iolaus asked, finally tearing his eyes away from Xena and focusing them on his partner.

“Oh yeah,” the demigod replied.

Two sighs were heaved. The demigod’s arm found it’s familiar way across his partner’s shoulder and they turned, as one, towards their next adventure.

In the splendid halls of Zeus’ palace on Mount Olympus the gods stood in rapt attention before the portal that now showed Hercules and Iolaus engaged in emotionally healing communication.

Zeus waved his hand before the portal, scrambling the view.

“Let’s afford them some privacy. The action’s obviously over,” the king of the gods observed.

“Looks to me as if it’s just beginning,” Hesita whispered close to Hades’ ear, eliciting a chuckle from the usually somber god.

“We won!!! We won!!!” Aphrodite squealed. She grabbed Zeus by the hands and bounced up and down in uncontrolled pleasure.

“No, sis, you haven’t won yet. As you keep reminding me…we’ve all agreed on 100 days. By my calculations, that means I still have nine days left to make Greece mine. And by that time my lovely Xena will be arriving in Amphipolis, only to be lured back into my employ by one of my very able and ruthless warlords, Draco.”

“She’s still your ‘lovely’ even after she helped destroy your favorite pet? I wonder…” Zeus asked his dark son.

“I’ll think of a way she can pay me back for his loss,” Ares replied with a smirk.

“Very well, Ares. This thing will be decided one way or the other at the end of the 100th day,” Zeus agreed.

“Have Ganeymede polish your throne for me, will ya Dad? Tell him I like it nice and shiny for my omnipotent hiney.” Ares laughter boomed in the otherwise quiet of Zeus palace before he turned his back on them and walked out with a cocky stride.

“You’re confident that he has no chance to win Xena back to his side, Daughter?” Zeus asked as he studied Aphrodite for any signs of weakness.

“Pops, chill out! It’s in the bag,” ‘Dite assured her father.

“And how can you be so certain? The lure of Ares power is strong and she’ll be away from the influence of Hercules and Iolaus,” Zeus sternly reminded his sometimes flighty daughter.

“Well, duh! I’m certain because… If she’s going to Amphipolis, she’s gonna have to get past Potedia first! Later, Dad.…”

Aphrodite threw back her luxurious curls and giggled prettily before popping out in a shower of pink and gold sparkles.

End of Part 3 of Trilogy

“Tyrants Stand In Awe Of Friends.”
-Plato



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