The Sword of Veracity

by Melisande

Story originally written for Hercules: the Legendary Journeys by: Steven Baum

The lamps and candles of Pluribus were washing the streets with brandy-colored light as Tallis, a merchant of the town, crossed the town square and came to his own door. He entered to find the candles alight and the delicious smells of the evening meal filling the rooms. He smiled, and knew that his beautiful wife, Sheera, had been busy preparing for his return from the agora.

“Sheera!” he called, walking through the atrium into the dining room. His nodded with pleasure as he saw the evening meal ready and waiting on the table, with candles adding a warm and welcoming light. Sheera’s attention to his comfort was, as always, a gratifying joy to him.

He saw no sign of his wife, however, and so he walked on through the house, calling her name. He came to their bedchamber and saw through the partially drawn hangings his wife’s lithe figure lying gracefully on their bed. His smile grew as he approached, wondering if Sheera was preparing to attend to his comfort in other pleasurable ways.

However, his warm feelings of pleasurable anticipation were suddenly shocked by the cold shock of devastating reality. As he stepped into the room past the obscuring hangings, he was abruptly aware of the brilliant scarlet color and the metallic smell of blood. Blood trickled from his wife’s well-shaped mouth, half open in the rictus of death. Blood covered her upper body from a terrible travesty of a smile cut into her throat.

Tallis stopped short, gaping in horror and shock, unable to comprehend what he was seeing.

“Sheera?” he whispered, feeling as though all the air had been suddenly sucked from the room.

He had almost no time to assimilate the ghastly sight, however. A movement in the shadows behind the bed resolved into a cloaked and hooded figure that swept towards him.

In his shock, Tallis thought at first that it was Thanatos, the personification of Death, bearing his wife’s soul away, for it was clear from her still rosy skin that she had not been dead long. In the next second he recognized the face, and knew that it was the face of Death for him, as the figure’s still bloody, wicked curved knife plunged directly into his heart. And as he fell, he knew no more.

The cloaked assassin regarded the bodies briefly, and then stepped over the man’s corpse to walk into the dining room where the meal waited for those who now would never come. The dark figure transferred the crimson-stained dagger to his right hand, and then reached out with bloody fingers to catch up an expensive brass goblet full of a rich, dark wine. The assassin put the cup to unseen lips and drank a long swallow, then held it up to behold, as though with great satisfaction, the startling effect of the ruby red bloodstains on the gleaming bronze …

In the brilliant early morning light, the town appeared to be a warm, honey-brown collection of high walls and square buildings as Hercules and Iolaus approached it. The setting was certainly striking, with the town perched on a long, green arm of one of the many long-dormant volcanic mountains of the area.

As the two men walked the climbing road, Hercules observed, “That must be Pluribus.”

Iolaus nodded. “It certainly looks inviting from here,” he said. “And especially with an old friend there. Won’t it be good to see Amphion again?”

Before Hercules could answer, Iolaus started laughing. “What?” the demigod asked his chuckling friend.

“Well, I was just remembering that battle with the Macedonians,” Iolaus replied, enthusiastically. “We must have been outnumbered twenty to one --”

Hercules laughed, holding up a restraining hand. “Iolaus, wait! It was much more like ten to one!”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” Iolaus said, dismissively. “That Amphion - he didn’t want anything to slow him up. He just jumped on his horse and charged right in. By the end of the day, he must’ve dropped as much as - I don’t know - fifty men.”

Hercules nodded. “Now that’s no exaggeration. He was one of the greatest warriors I have ever seen - and easily the most reckless.”

“Yeah.” The two men stopped at a bend in the road, and looked up at the city. After a moment, Iolaus pondered aloud, “I wonder what a man like that does in peacetime?”

Hercules nodded. “I guess we’ll see.”

And the two men strode on toward the town …

In the town square, a small crowd was gathered around a handsome, bearded man who was speaking passionately.

“There’s no reason to fight,” he was saying. “You’ve got to seek a peaceful solution.”

An older, heavier-set man in a long robe shook his head. “How can we, Amphion? Since Trachis has taken everything we’ve got,” he replied, heatedly, “the only thing his tax collectors will understand is a good beating!”

A scattered muttering of agreement brushed through the group gathered around the two men. Amphion gestured earnestly between the man he addressed and the onlookers.

“Look Lycus,” he said, soothingly, “It means a lot that you’re not alone.” Amphion’s gaze and gestures included all of his listeners. “When we know in our hearts that something is unjust, we owe it to ourselves to do something about it. And nowhere is it written that we must abide the cruelty of tyrants!”

Before Lycus could reply, a deep voice spoke from the entrance to the square. “In my experience, the best way to deal with tyrants is to get rid of them!”

Heads turned throughout the crowd to see Hercules - the speaker - and Iolaus. The listeners parted as Amphion laughed delightedly, recognizing the newcomers.

“As usual, my friend, we agree,” he cried, as the two men made their way through the crowded square. “The trouble is - violence breeds violence.”

Hercules and Iolaus exchanged a look that expressed agreement and some surprise.

Amphion continued, “Justice can’t be won by the sword alone, because our fight is not for power but for peace and brotherhood.”

Just as Hercules and Iolaus reached their friend, a group of black armored guards came shouldering through the growing crowd.

The Captain of the Guard shouted, “All right - that’s enough! Break it up - move along!”

The Captain and his men stopped in front of Amphion. “I’d watch it if I were you,” he warned.

Amphion smiled guilelessly. “I appreciate the warning,” he answered. The former soldier picked a flower from a passing woman’s basket and held it out to the Captain. “Flower?”

The leader of the guard slapped Amphion’s hand away, growling, and walked away.

Amphion looked at Hercules and Iolaus, shaking his head. “Some people have no sense of humor.”

Suddenly, the three men burst into laughter. “Amphion!” Hercules cried, and caught the bearded man’s arm in a warrior’s forearm clasp.

“Hercules!” Amphion replied, and then turned to the blond hunter with an equally enthusiastic greeting. “Iolaus!”

“It’s good to see you both!” the former soldier said, grinning.

“You, too, “Hercules answered. “Still causing trouble, I see.”

Amphion shook his head, laughing. “Trying not to, actually,” he said. “Come - you must be hungry after your journey.”

Amphion gestured them towards one of the streets leading out of the square, but the three friends had barely started walking when there was a sudden shout.

“You there - halt!”

The cry had originated from an oncoming group of uniformed men, led by a tall, fat man in a long robe and dark armor. A helmet with a crest of a snarling dragon covered the leader’s head, and long braids from beneath the helmet were gathered together to fall in two long strands that came down over the fat man’s shoulders. A thin mustache curved around the man’s petulant, thick-lipped mouth and fell below his chin. The stylized face of Hera on the pointed brim of his helmet proclaimed him as one of her priests.

The group stopped n front of Amphion, now flanked by Hercules and Iolaus.

“Your name is Amphion, is it not?” the leader barked.

Amphion smiled grimly. “You know I am, Trachis.”

Trachis smiled, but the expression did not reach his small, fat-pouched, dark eyes. “You’re under arrest!”

Amphion laughed. “For what? Speaking the truth?”

“For murder!” the fat leader replied, exultantly. “Tallis and his wife Sheera were robbed and killed last night.” He gestured to his men. “Take him!”

The guards advanced on Amphion, who stood still, frowning now, and watching Trachis unwaveringly. “I had no reason to kill Tallis and Sheera!”

Hercules stepped forward. “Wait a minute --” he began, threateningly.

Amphion held an arm out to block the son of Zeus from going further. “No, Hercules.”

The guards surrounded Amphion; two of them caught his arms and marched him away. Hercules and Iolaus, frustrated and confused, watched as Amphion walked off with the soldiers without a struggle. Trachis observed the two strangers arrogantly, taking their measure and laughing at their thwarted concern. He wheeled around and followed the soldiers deeper into the city.

Hercules and Iolaus exchanged worried, angry glances and strode after the group.

They came upon the soldiers in front of Amphion’s house. Several were inside, obviously conducting a loud and destructive search of the premises. Two more of the guards stood with Amphion and Trachis just outside.

“Search it well!” Trachis called to the men inside, just as Hercules and Iolaus stepped forward through the crowd.

Hercules called, sternly, “What’s going on here?”

Amphion forestalled him. “No need for you to get mixed up in this, Hercules, Iolaus.”

Trachis gestured angrily at Amphion. “Get him out of here!” he called to the guards.

As Amphion was led away, accompanied by mutters from the crowd and dark looks from Hercules and Iolaus, Trachis turned to the two heroes with an oily smile.

“So - you’re the great Hercules,” he said, as though surprised.

“Yeah, he is,” Iolaus replied. “And they call me Iolaus. I’m with him,” the hunter gestured with a thumb over his shoulder at the demigod.

Trachis looked the smaller man over with a sneer. “Good for you!” the black-clad leader responded. “I am Trachis. As Hera’s servant and magistrate, I am responsible for keeping the peace.”

“Peace - of course.” Hercules and Iolaus exchanged disbelieving glances, and then the demigod looked back at Trachis to continue, in a sardonic tone. “And Hera’s always been big on that.”

Trachis’ sneering smile lessened. “You should remember that you and your friend are guests here.”

“Good for us,” Hercules replied, mockingly. “But you didn’t answer my original question.”

Trachis snorted. “What - this?” He gestured back over his shoulder with a fisted thumb, and laughed. “I have a murderer to find! He either can’t or won’t recall his whereabouts at the time, and I have witnesses who saw him at the scene.”

Iolaus rolled his eyes, considering the possibility of objectivity in any witness Trachis would bring forward, and dismissing any possibility immediately. “And which witnesses could those be?”

“Two of my men!” the dark-robed priest stated, turning and walking to the doorway of the house.

Iolaus glanced up at Hercules. “This whole thing stinks!” he said, in disgust.

Hercules nodded. “Tell me about it!”

They watch Trachis pause in the doorway, and receive something from one of the searchers. The dark priest turned triumphantly and stepped forward, bearing a tall bronze goblet in his hand.

“This goblet was found hidden in Amphion’s house,” he announced to the courtyard at large, and the crowd pushed in eagerly to see the artifact. “I believe it to have belonged to Tallis.” He thrust the cup high into the air so all could see its finish dulled by red stains.

“The stains of blood cover its surface!” Trachis continued, melodramatically.

Hercules and Iolaus glanced at each other, disbelieving as they watched the jaws of Trachis’ obvious trap begin to close around their friend …

Amphion was brought before Trachis in the courtyard of the temple of Hera, while the people of Pluribus -- and Hercules and Iolaus - looked on. Trachis, flanked by other priests, sat on a high stage, which was reached from the courtyard by two curving staircases. Between the two staircases on the courtyard level was the dark entrance to the rooms of the inner sanctum. The backdrop of the stage, formed by rounded lanterns and the curves of Trachis’ throne was made to resemble a stylized, leering skull. Torches and lanterns gave a smoky illumination to the gloomy interior.

Amphion stood on the courtyard floor in front of the throne ringed by guards, while the onlookers watched from behind him. Trachis rose from the throne and began to declaim.

“Amphion would have you believe he’s a man of peace. He wants you to believe that so you will forget your debts to Hera, and follow him instead,” Trachis paused and paced the dais. “A soldier who’s killed countless times before - even innocent women and children!”

Trachis began descending the staircase to his left, listening to the growing muttering of the crowd, gauging both their disbelief and their bewilderment at Amphion’s lack of defense.

Listening to those same mutters, Hercules couldn’t stand it any longer, and stepped forward.

“It’s a lie!” he shouted. “I know this man, and he is not a murderer! He is a soldier, yes - but those he has killed have been the enemies of Greece, in clean battle!”

Trachis’ attention snapped up to Hercules. He stayed on the stairs where he could look down on the demigod sneeringly. Amphion turned and regarded Hercules, and Iolaus could not decipher his enigmatic expression.

“If it isn’t true,” Trachis responded, turning to Amphion, “then deny it! You have their ears!” his arm swept out to indicate the waiting audience.

Amphion turned back so that he faced away from the crowd, his head bowed, and he remained totally silent.

Hercules and Iolaus glanced at each other in growing concern as they heard the crowd’s mutters became more and more questioning of Amphion’s silence. Trachis’ arrogant smile grew, and finally Hercules couldn’t stand it any longer.

“Amphion! Say something!” he urged.

The accused man turned to Hercules and spoke vehemently, “I told you to stay out of this!”

Hercules and Iolaus regarded him in dumbstruck surprise.

In a tone rich with satisfaction, Trachis continued, “Very well, let us proceed to the truth of this matter! Did Amphion kill two innocent people because they discovered him stealing a goblet - or did he kill them because they had discovered his secret - that all he really craves is power - that he had killed before to achieve it, and will kill again?”

Iolaus looked up at Hercules and saw his own deep concern mirrored in his friend’s eyes. The cunning trap that Trachis was weaving around Amphion was getting stronger, and more inescapable - especially without Amphion’s own self defense.

Trachis gazed down at Amphion implacably. “If you wish to save yourself, now’s the time!” he cried.

Amphion looked up at Trachis with a burning expression of distaste, but remained silent. When, out of the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of Hercules stepping forward again, Amphion turned and shook his head at his friend. Hercules stopped, completely bewildered.

Trachis called out, “So be it!” he turned and mounted the stairs back to the dais. Facing the skull-like features of the back wall, he raised his arms in invocation.

“In the name of Hera, I sentence you!” he cried. Turning to the accused man, Trachis continued, triumphantly, “Amphion, your sentence is death by fire by the light of the full moon, two days hence!”

The crowd reacted with a confused babble of conflicting voices and opinions. Hercules and Iolaus could only watch in stunned surprise as their friend bowed his head, and was lead away …

Sometime later, Hercules and Iolaus were allowed to visit Amphion in a rock-walled cell within the inner sanctum of the temple. The accused man at first did not even lift his head to watch them enter. Hercules stood back, watching, but Iolaus approached the silent, seated man.

“Amphion - why did you just stand there and let him say those things about you?” Iolaus asked with quiet passion.

Amphion remained silent, staring at the floor. Iolaus turned to look at Hercules, puzzled and frustrated. The son of Zeus responded by stepping forward to stand in front of Amphion and regard him for a moment.

“Amphion - if you don’t tell us what’s going on, we can’t help you!”

Amphion stood and paced away from them and then back. “I never asked for help!” he said, with desperate control.

He paced away again, and paused, his back to the other two men. And then as though the words were pulled from him, Amphion sighed deeply and slowly began to speak.

“The siege of Carthage was coming to an end. We were ordered to take this little town. The men there knew they were outnumbered, so they started using the women and children as shields.”

He did not see the faces of Hercules and Iolaus behind him, but both men reacted with shock, and their own remembered horror of other such battlefield atrocities.

Amphion went on, replaying his memories with a voice that began to shake. “I was supposed to lead the attack, but my leg was wounded, and I fell behind briefly, getting it tended. By the time I got there …”

There was a long pause, and Hercules and Iolaus saw his head bow.

Quietly, Iolaus asked, “The women and children?”

Amphion sighed deeply, and in a broken voice replied, “Slaughtered - everyone of them.”

Hercules sighed and shook his head, and moved as though he could not stay still, Iolaus glanced up at his friend, his eyes haunted.

After a moment, Amphion turned, and the tragic legacy of that experience was etched on his face. “That was my last campaign,” he finished, his words breathless.

Iolaus stepped closer to him, and spoke gently but urgently, “It wasn’t your fault!”

Amphion ran a hand over his short-cropped, silvering hair. “I should have stopped it!”

“What could you have done?” Iolaus countered. He recognized this train of thought from personal experience, and knew it led nowhere.

Amphion shook his head, silently, locked in his grief and self-judgment.

Hercules stepped to his smaller friend’s side. “Iolaus is right. I know you, Amphion.” He placed his hand on the bearded man’s shoulder. “You would have stopped it if you could.”

Amphion regarded the floor, still silent, unconvinced.

Hercules dropped his arm, and paced away, then turned back. “Tell me something,” he asked fierce in his concern for his friend, “do you really think that you becoming a martyr will put Trachis out of power?”

Amphion was silent for a long moment, but then quietly replied, “Since the day I beheld the bodies of those women and children in that place, I haven’t - I couldn’t - touch a weapon. I won’t do so now, and my conscience won’t let me deny what I see as my part in that massacre.”

He looked up at Hercules, and his eyes were just as fierce as the demigod’s. “If the only force I can use to save my people is martyrdom, then I will use it. Maybe it won’t make a difference right away, but yes, I think it will help give them the courage to put Trachis out of power.”

And Hercules and Iolaus had nothing left to say in the face of Amphion’s truth and courage.

Trachis reclined on a dining couch in his lavishly appointed chamber on the upper levels of the temple complex. Beautifully dressed women servants brought more dishes and a goblet of wine, set them with the rest of the rich repast on a low table in front of their master’s couch, then silently slipped out past the guards at the door.

Suddenly, the guards’ crossed spears were knocked away by a negligent brush of two powerful, gauntleted arms, and Hercules strode into the room, followed by Iolaus. The two men came to stand before Trachis, and regarded him disdainfully, as they saw the man surrounded by every luxury and rich food, while his people suffered.

“Trachis - we need to talk,” Hercules snapped.

Trachis waved an arm to the banquet of delicacies spread before him. “This is all delicious,” he said, unctuously. “Are you sure I can’t tempt you?”

The two heroes exchanged a disgusted glance at Trachis poorly disguised attempt at bribery. The tyrant shrugged, careless of their obvious disdain.

“In that case, I take it you’ve come on your friend’s behalf,” he said, placing a grape in his mouth and savoring its tartness.

Hercules’ jaw clenched. “We just want to get at the bottom of this,” he replied, his voice tight with anger.

In the shadows of the chamber, a dark haired young woman in the rich livery of the temple servants slipped unnoticed behind a decorative screen from one of the inner rooms of the chamber. She watched through the grillwork of the screen and listened with rapt attention.

“Given his refusal to defend himself, I fail to see what we have to discuss,” Trachis replied, negligently, his attention more on the grapes he was eating.

“Why don’t we start with the truth?” Hercules replied.

Trachis laughed with a harsh heartiness. “What is truth?” he asked them, still chuckling. “Your truth, great Hercules? Or Amphion’s? Or mine?”

The sarcastic mockery made Iolaus’ fists clench, and he felt Hercules shift his weight from foot to foot as though longing to attack the villainous priest. However, Hercules’ control was as massive as his strength, and he mastered the urge, as Iolaus knew he would.

After a brief moment of fierce consideration, Hercules asked, “Have you ever heard of the Sword of Veracity?”

Trachis’ smile faded, and the girl in the shadows startled.

“Of course I have,” the tyrant snapped. He rose and took up the carved goblet, and swallowed a gulp of wine quickly. “According to legend, exposure to its blade renders one incapable of lying.” Trachis chuckled. “If you happen to believe in that sort of thing!”

Hercules folded his arms. “It’s not just a legend - it’s real. And it’s hidden in the Thallian caves, not too far from here.”

Trachis’ laughter returned. “Are you aware that there are hundreds of them? It is said that they were cut by the fiery wrath of Hephaestus that once broke forth and created these mountains. They cut through the central part of the range like countless air bubbles in Parthian cheese!”

Something in Hercules expression made the tyrant now he had struck a nerve, and he laughed again. “I thought you were unaware of their number,” he said, sipping his wine, “You’d better get going - you don’t have much time!”

Hercules replied with the growling tone that gave away to Iolaus the difficulty he was having controlling his anger. “We’ll see you tomorrow, Trachis --” he snapped, and added, over another bark of the man’s harsh laughter, “- with the Sword!”

The girl in the shadows turned and vanished noiselessly into the inner sanctum. Hercules and Iolaus turned and strode away, with Trachis’ mocking laughter following them.

“Hundreds of them?” Iolaus whispered to his friend as they walked through the doorway. “You never told me that!”

Hercules shrugged. “Slipped my mind,” he replied ruefully.

Trachis’ shout reached them as they walked out. “It’s sad, really, to see the great Hercules blinded by loyalty - trying to save a man who won’t save himself!”

Hercules and Iolaus strode away in frustrated anger.

Back within the chamber, the Captain of the guard was asking Trachis, “What do you want us to do?”

Trachis handed the man his goblet, and walked past him, pensively. He stopped, then turned to the man, and said, “Even if the Sword exists, they’ll never find it in time in that maze of caverns. And if they happen to get lucky - kill them!”

The Captain and his lieutenant nodded, and strode out…

The sun had not yet reached its zenith when Hercules and Iolaus set out from Pluribus. They had not gone far when Iolaus burst out, “Okay - how’re we going to find the right cave? Are we going to go there and say, ‘Hey, here we are!’ - and expect it to pop up right in front of us?”

Hercules smiled, and felt some of the tension of his neck and shoulders release, and the ugly beast of anger uncoil within him. “We could try that,” he replied.

Iolaus noticed the signs that his strategy had worked. He went on, very intentionally, acting out. “Oh, wait, better yet - we spin a stick and go in the direction it points!”

The demigod’s smile became a grin. “Sounds even better!”

Iolaus, playing his role to the hilt, but also honestly wondering, stopped in his tracks. “Hercules - you do have a plan, don’t you?”

Hercules laughed, then turned and came back to his friend’s side. “What if we just … follow the light?”

Iolaus, now truly puzzled, answered, “What light?”

“At noon every day,” Hercules gestured and Iolaus watched his hand intently, “a beam of sunlight reflects off the other mountains and shines on the cavern where the Sword of Veracity lies.

Iolaus cocked his head to look up at his friend, stunned. “How do you know that?”

Hercules smiled, with a bit of embarrassed superiority, then turned and walked on without a word.

Iolaus’ face changed into exasperated comprehension, and he slapped his forehead. “Oh, what am I thinking? He’s a half-god! Iolaus, sometimes …”

As they traveled on, climbing higher into the ancient, volcanic landscape, they talked more about the Sword. At one point, when they were crossing a river over mossy stones, Iolaus thought to ask, “Hey, Herc-what if it’s cloudy? What’ll we do?”

Hercules considered it, and answered, “Maybe we’ll run into a Hestial Virgin.”

“You mean, one of the priestesses of the goddess Hestia?”

Hercules nodded. “That’s right.”

Later, skirting past a brace of waterfalls, Iolaus asked, “Well, what do the Hestial Virgins have to do with the Sword?”

“They guard the toys of the gods, like the Sword of Veracity and the Shield of Forgetfulness.”

Iolaus sighed, “So I guess -unless we find one of them - we’ll have to just search all those caves.”

Hercules laughed. “Or unless she finds us first - yes, we will!”

Gloomily, Iolaus said, “That’s what I was afraid you’d say…”

Back in Pluribus, Trachis watched with satisfaction as his men finished strapping Amphion, now clad only in his breechclout, to a rack that hung from the ceiling of an inner chamber. It had stretched his back into a torturous curve, and, since it left his head hanging down, this posture made the curve even tighter and more painful. As the guardsmen left the chamber, Trachis sauntered over to the side of the anguished former soldier.

“Now, Amphion, we’re men of the world. You know my position, and I know that you didn’t kill those people. I can help you - if you’ll let me. All you have to do is go out there and admit you were wrong. Tell them to pay their tribute, and to respect my authority. If you’ll do that, I’m sure the real killer will turn up - somewhere-and you’ll go free.”

Amphion lifted his head painfully. “Another person framed by you? The price is still too high, Trachis!”

Trachis leaned over and jerked Amphion’s neck up, causing the men’s neck muscles to spasm excruciatingly. “Perhaps,” he snarled. “But if you don’t, it’s just as well, because your naïve ideas of peace and brotherhood will die with you!”

Trachis released his support of Amphion’s neck abruptly, and his head fell back, the pain forcing a gasp from Amphion’s parched lips. Trachis whirled and left him hanging in agony …

High on a precipice overlooking a narrow valley, the Captain of Trachis’ guards and several of his men watched Iolaus and Hercules walk rapidly on a rough road below.

“It will take a week to search all those caves,” the Captain observed, as they watched the pair walk on, talking animatedly.

The men laughed, as he went on. “But, if they find it, we’ll be waiting!”

Iolaus stood on a rocky hillside, looking up reflectively at the high mountainside pockmarked with caves. He was eating a handful of dates and wishing they could have taken time to lay in more supplies as they left Pluribus, but of course their time was too short. So they had each bought a meat pasty and handful of dried dates and figs that they could carry in their belt pouches.

As he finished the last date, his head came up like a hunting hound’s, and he stiffened, as though sensing some danger. He turned and strode back to the cave Hercules was checking, just as he heard his friend’s voice coming from the entrance. “Hercules -“

The tall man’s eyes riveted on his friend’s face at the warning tone of his voice. He noticed his own senses and replied, “Yeah, I feel it, too. We’re being watched.”

They walked on cautiously, every sense on alert. Just around the next curve in the path, they saw a hooded female figure stepping carefully down the hillside, fastening her billowing, silver-gray robe. A silver headband and the beads that hung from it framed a heart-shaped face of elfin beauty. Intent on her task, the woman did not seem to notice them.

They waited on the path until the woman turned toward them, looked up, and gasped, startled to see them so close, and watching her so suspiciously.

“Who are you?” Hercules asked sternly.

The woman pushed back her hood, and - had they but known it - it was the same dark-haired woman who had watched from the shadows in Trachis’ chamber.

“I’m Leah, “ she replied, a bit breathlessly.

Iolaus’ face was not at all suspicious any more - in fact it looked as though he had been hit with a ton of marble.

“Oh - ah - hi! I’m Iolaus,” he said to her, his smile dreamy. Hercules, hearing his tone, glanced down at his friend’s face.

*Oh, no! Iolaus!* The demigod chuckled inwardly and rolled his eyes. He knew That Look. It was a bit concerning that it was in response to a Hestial Virgin, however.

“Oh -- and this is my friend, Hercules,” Iolaus stammered, almost forgetting his manners.

Leah nodded. “I know.”

Hercules’ suspicions leaped higher. “You do? How?” he demanded.

Leah stammered. “Ah - H-Hestia told me.”

“Then you’re a Virgin?” Iolaus asked eagerly. He suddenly winced when he noticed that Leah appeared taken aback, and realized how his words sounded. Hercules could not help but smile.

“Uh, I mean - you’re a -a --” Iolaus floundered for the right word.

Hercules leaned forward and spoke gently into his friend’s ear. “Hestial,” he said, trying not to laugh.

“Yeah, that’s what I meant - a Hestial Virgin!”

Leah appeared relieved. “Yes, I am.”

Hercules turned his attention back to her, and his smile faded. “Good,” he said, briskly. “Then you can lead us to the cave where the Sword of Veracity is hidden.”

Leah appeared confused, and looked away from Hercules’ searching gaze.

“Is there a problem?” Hercules asked, frowning.

“Well,” Leah replied slowly. “It’s not that simple. I can’t just lead you to it.”

“Why not?”

“Um …” Leah’s gaze flickered in several directions before she answered. “Hestia made us promise not to reveal its location. We can only accompany those who seek it.”

“Uh-huh,” Hercules said, skeptically. Iolaus just nodded, watching her wistfully.

Leah went on, and her words came faster now, and with more assurance. “If she decides their cause is worthy, she’ll lead them to the right cave.”

A bit testily, Hercules replied, “Well, our cause is worthy, so it shouldn’t be any problem.” He paused, studying her with the sixth sense he had always attributed to that portion of godhood within himself.

“You know, it’s funny,” he continued, watching her with misgiving. “When I needed the Shield of Forgetfulness, a Hestial Virgin led me straight to it.”

Leah regarded him steadily. “Since it was the Shield of Forgetfulness you were going after, are you sure you remember it all?” she inquired, tartly.

Hercules acknowledged the hit, but his suspicions were unchanged. “I remember enough,” he answered.

Leah shrugged. “Things change,” she said vaguely, with a laugh.

Iolaus laughed with her, and Hercules glanced down at him, irritated.

“They sure do,” he grumbled, but led the way up the hill toward the next section of caves. “Come on.”

Iolaus was left facing Leah, and her expectant look awoke him from his daydream. “Oh - here - let me help you!” And he began to help the girl up the hill following Hercules.

Hercules, turning to see them, muttered to himself sotto voce, in exasperation, “Iolaus!”

The three of them searched through the next group of caves, and Hercules despaired at how quickly the middle part of the day seemed to pass, and yet there were still caves in this section to search, and no doubt more further on. He and Iolaus met about halfway up the hillside and stopped to check in together.

“Any luck?” Hercules asked, as Iolaus reached him.

“Only broken wine jugs and love letters all over the walls,” Iolaus replied, in disgust. “What’s wrong with kids these days?”

Hercules looked at him, crystal-blue eyes dancing. “Too long ago to remember, huh?”

Iolaus sighed. “Y’ know, I expect better of you, Hercules. I don’t know why, but I do.”

“Sorry - I couldn’t help myself.” He laughed and looked around. “Where’s Leah?”

Iolaus pointed well downhill, to where Leah sat on a large stone, pulling one shoe off. She looked up and smiled at the blond hunter, and he beamed a smile and waved.

Hercules regarded her critically, as the Hestial Virgin shook her shoe, and a shower of small stones fell out. “She doesn’t know the area well, does she?”

Iolaus’ smile faded as he looked up at the demigod in irritation. “She’s a Virgin, not a mountain goat!”

Hercules laughed in spite of himself.

Iolaus smiled, but it fled his face as he stepped closer to his friend. “Uh, Herc,” he began awkwardly, “I - I - uh …”

Something in his face made Hercules’ laughter fade as well, and he prompted the smaller man quietly, “What is it, Iolaus?”

“Actually, I - I’m having feelings for Leah, and… well, I don’t know … with her being a Virgin priestess and all …”

Hercules groaned, irritated and disquieted at the same time. “Oh, Iolaus - just get over it.”

Iolaus stepped away from his friend, slapping himself on the forehead, “I’m trying, I’m trying. It’s just …” he looked back at Hercules, “it’s not that easy, you know.”

“Why?” Hercules asked, feeling the concern replace the irritation as he watched emotions flicker over Iolaus’ face. “You just met her, after all.”

“I know,” he smiled briefly, as their understanding of his love for the lady of the moment flashed between them. But then the smile was chased from his face by a nostalgic sadness, and a bit of hope.

Hercules found himself taking an inadvertent step toward his friend, as Iolaus averted his face, so that the taller man could only glimpse his profile. “What, Iolaus?” he asked gently.

“Something about her … about Leah … reminds me of Ania.”

The pathos in the quiet voice made Hercules’ heart lurch suddenly, as his memory supplied the gentle face and tender voice of Iolaus’ long-dead wife.

“Oh,” he replied, breathlessly, uselessly. “Yeah?”

Iolaus nodded, still not looking at him. His voice shook just a bit as he went on. “Yeah. I’m not sure what it is. Well, of course they’re both small, dark-haired, and fair-skinned and-and beautiful.”

When Iolaus didn’t seem to be able to go on, Hercules swallowed convulsively, and spoke. “Yeah, I can see that.” And she’s not at all like Xena, Hercules thought, mercifully.

“Yeah, you do?” Iolaus glanced up at him, so briefly. “I know their features aren’t much the same, but it was more than that.” He paused for a moment, and Hercules could see him catching a quick breath.

“I think it’s their purity, and sweetness,” Iolaus finally said, quietly. “Ania was so sweet, and she was pure - so pure, Herc.”

Hercules had to look away from his friend, finding his vision obscured by the jewelling lenses of tears.

“I remember … I was almost afraid to touch her … wondering how she could want someone like me - a former thief, and …” he laughed, a strangled, broken sound, “and not pure at all …”

His voice trailed off. Hercules replied gently, “I don’t know much about how you measure purity, Iolaus --” here Iolaus laughed a bit more naturally - “But I do know that Ania loved you with all her heart and soul, and - and I think it was because her purity responded to your pure, true heart, and your pure love for her.”

There was a much longer pause at this point, and Hercules saw Iolaus dash his gauntlet across his eyes before he finally spoke.

“Yeah?” he answered, gratefully, in a thread of a voice. “Thanks, Herc.” He took a deep breath, and his hand found Hercules’ arm, squeezed quickly, and fell away.

“Anyway,” he went on, after a moment, “I know … I know I’ve been interested in a lot of women since then …”

With the specter of Xena hanging over them, the thoughts flew like birds through Hercules’ mind, Not like that - they’ve never been the same for you as Ania … And Xena - she wasn’t love, not like Ania - just lust and animal magnetism…

Hercules dragged his attention back to Iolaus as he spoke again, “…but, with Leah today - she’s made me feel the way I felt when Ania and I first met, and I guess it may be because she’s, well, a Virgin, and pure, you know…”

“Yeah, I understand,” Hercules replied, slowly. “I can see how that would attract you to Leah. But, you know, Iolaus,” Hercules stepped closer, put his arm around his friend, and hugged him close for a moment, “I think your feelings may be coming from your memories of Ania, the ones that Leah brings up for you.”

Iolaus appeared struck by that thought. “Yeah, that makes sense, Herc. Thanks,” he said, meeting his friend’s eyes in a brief warm glance. His arm came up around his friend’s waist, his head rested against the broad chest, and he hugged Hercules hard, quickly.

After a moment, they moved apart, and Iolaus was able to speak more normally. “So, Herc, you - you don’t think these feelings can go anywhere, do you?”

Hercules shook his head. “No, I mean, look at it like this - if she’s a Hestial Virgin, she’s given herself to Hestia, and she’s celibate for life. And if she isn’t -“

“What do you mean, if she isn’t?” Iolaus bristled suddenly.

Hercules held his hands out to placate to his friend. “Hear me out, okay? I’ve been having feelings for Leah, too, but they’re more about suspicion and distrust.”

Iolaus frowned, looking down at the young woman who putting on her shoe. “You think she’s evil?”

Hercules shook his head. “No, nothing like that, I just don’t think she’s being entirely honest with us, and I don’t know why. So, for that reason, I … well, I just think you need to be careful of her.”

Iolaus sighed, as he watched Leah check her other shoe. “Well, that makes sense to my mind, Herc, but I’m not sure if it will matter to the rest of me.”

Hercules glanced between his friend and the young woman, sighed and smiled slightly. “Okay - if nothing else works, here’s what you do --”

Iolaus nodded, his eyes and ears intently on his friend. Hercules went on, “First, you find a lake or a river, but it can’t be just any lake or river.”

“No?”

“No, it’s got to be really cold - the colder the better. In fact, the water should be freezing.”

Iolaus nodded seriously. He checked to see Leah’s position; she had just risen from the rock, and was beginning to make her way up the high hill to them. “Oh, okay. Then what?”

Hercules motioned, his hands pushing forward. “You jump in.”

“Just like that?”

“Just like that.”

Iolaus frowned, considering the ramifications. “What - and that works?”

Hercules laughed, a bit awkwardly. “Every time.” He cleared his throat. “A … a lot of things just - just go away.”

Light dawned on the smaller man’s face, but then he looked at Hercules a bit searchingly. “How do you know?”

Hercules shuffled his feet and didn’t meet his friend’s eyes. “I’ve, uh, I’ve had reason to employ the method once or twice in my life.”

“Oh,” Iolaus’ eyes twinkled, but mostly his face revealed his grateful love for his friend. “Hey, Herc --”

Hercules looked up, and his face revealed the same laughter, the same love. “Yeah, Iolaus?”

“Thanks - for everything.”

Hercules smiled. “No problem.”

They turned to watch Leah climb the last few steps to their position.

“Hi, “ Iolaus greeted her, and though his voice was warmly welcoming, Hercules was glad to see that it was not - quite - as caressing as before. “You all right?”

“Yes, sorry - I fell behind,” she said, brightly.

Hercules, not so kindly, replied, “Um, yeah.” He looked up and marked the sun’s position. “Well, there’s some daylight left, so we can search a few more caves,” and he looked at Leah with a bit of frustrated supplication, “with your help, of course.”

Hercules turned and walked off, Iolaus shrugged apologetically and followed. Leah smiled ruefully and walked after them.

Over the hills, in Pluribus, a hooded figure slipped past a sleeping guard into the temple cell where Amphion lay stretched on the rack. The figure pushed the hood back to reveal the concerned face of Lycus, Amphion’s merchant friend.

He stepped closer to Amphion’s side and whispered, “Oh, Amphion - what have they done to you?”

The racked man did not hear him, or was unconscious. Lycus looked around, and saw a cup, which he quietly dipped into the guard’s water casket, and returned to his friend’s side. He gently, slowly lifted Amphion’s head and put the cup to his lips.

“Here, my friend, wake up and have some water.”

Amphion’s eyes, now sunk in deep, black bruises, blinked open slowly. His mouth opened and Lycus carefully helped him drink.

“Not too much now,” Lycus said, moving the cup aside.

Amphion’s voice was horse and thready. “Lycus - how did you get in here?”

Lycus shook his head. “Never mind that. Oh, my friend, “he sighed, “I know you’re not a murderer. But - even if you have to deny everything you believe in to save yourself, then do it! Please - it isn’t worth it - we need you!”

Amphion shook his head even as Lycus still held it up. “I can’t - I’m sorry, Lycus, but I can’t. I - I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but .. what good would I be if I turn my back on everything I believe in?” He gasped, but continued, looking up at his friend. “All it would do is make Trachis stronger. Can’t you see that? At least, this way .. my-my death may do some good.”

Lycus shook his head, but before he could speak further, there was a sudden birdcall from outside - obviously a signal. “Amphion, I’m sorry - I must go! Think of what I’ve said.”

Amphion smiled and shook his head. “Good-bye, my friend.”

Lycus carefully let the suffering man’s head down slowly, then turned and slipped out of the cell, leaving him behind with a heavy heart…

Night had fallen, forcing Hercules, Iolaus, and Leah to stop their search and make camp. Iolaus had been able to snare some quail, which they had plucked and roasted over the fire. Now they were sitting silently, watching the flames. Hercules poked at the fire absently with a stick.

He glanced up at Leah, as she sat on a stone to his left, and asked, suddenly, “So, Leah, is Hestia going to guide us to the cave or not?”

She glanced up at him enigmatically, and finally said, “It’s hard to tell. I hope so,” she replied.

“Me, too,” Hercules agreed. He glanced at his blond friend, who sat beside him on an old log. Iolaus was staring silently into the fire. “Amphion is a good man.”

Iolaus nodded absently, and Leah said, “Yes, he is.”

Hercules was about to ask how she knew whom he meant, but she hurriedly added, with a quick smile, “I mean, I’m sure he must be, from the way you’ve described him.”

Hercules watched her for a moment. Leah gazed into his eyes guilelessly. He threw the stick into the fire and stood up. “Okay, I’ll take the first watch,” he said.

Iolaus suddenly roused, and looked up at Hercules, his blue eyes filling with anxiety at being left alone with Leah.

“Herc?” he said, and Hercules heard, Don’t go!

Hercules smiled down at his friend. “Oh, Iolaus, why don’t you tell Leah about how Amphion led the charge against the Macedonians when we fought them together?”

Iolaus couldn’t quite frame a reply, but without waiting for one, Hercules looked over at Leah. “It’s quite a story - especially the way he tells it!”

The son of Zeus walked off into the darkness. Iolaus and Leah were left alone. Leah was looking invitingly at Iolaus, who laughed awkwardly, and slowly scooted over on the log, closer to her position.

“Well, Hercules is exaggerating a -- a little,” Iolaus stammered, glancing up into her eyes, and trying not to get lost in them. Hers are blue, and Ania’s were brown, but they’re both beautiful. “Amphion didn’t defeat them all by himself. You see, Herc was there, and I was the one who --”

“He doesn’t like me very much, does he?” Leah interrupted, indicating the direction that Hercules had taken with a bend of her head.

Iolaus looked away, and replied awkwardly, “Well, no, no - he just doesn’t know you.”

“And you do?” she asked with a bit of an impish grin.

Iolaus looked back at her, a bit taken aback, and replied, quickly, “Uh, no … that is … uh, no, but …” he looked into her eyes, smiled, and leaned closer, “…but I’d like to.”

Leah gazed at Iolaus, her smile unwavering, but with her expression a bit uncertain, as though she was not quite sure of what was happening.

Iolaus looked away after a moment, and, scratching his head, asked in puzzlement, “Uh, I don’t mean to pry, but…” he cleared his throat, “…how does a woman like you come to be a Virgin, anyway?”

Just as the words left his mouth, he realized how the sounds, and Iolaus grimaced. Leah’s smile vanished.

“What do you mean, a woman like me?” she asked, a bit tartly.

“Well you’re not exactly the type,” Iolaus replied, quickly, trying to make up for his lapse. “For one thing, you’re - you’re pretty.”

Leah smiled again, but a faraway look came into her eyes. She turned away from him as she began her story.

“Bandits killed my parents when I was very young,” she recounted, gazing off into the darkness, unaware that Iolaus was edging closer and closer to her on his log. “I was captured and sold into slavery.”

Suddenly, Iolaus reached the gap between the log on which he sat, and the stone that was Leah’s seat, and he fell backwards into the gap. Leah, pulled from her story, and began to turn, but Iolaus’ quick reflexes helped him pull himself up quickly, and perch on the edge of the log. When she turned, he was very close, regarding her soulfully.

“That’s terrible!” he said, responding to her tale.

Leah nodded, but regarded him with a bit of a confused look. “Yeah, it was,” she said, turning back, and resuming her story. “Well, then, one night, like magic, I got my calling. When the sun came up the next day, I ran away and, well …”

She turned to find him almost nose-to-nose with her, but she smiled, and continued, “…here I am.”

Iolaus, totally drawn by his study of her beautiful features, replied absently, “Yeah, here I am.” His gaze fastened on her lips, and he leaned in closer, but suddenly, just before his lips touched hers, he seemed to realize what he was doing.

Iolaus jumped up, as if scalded, and turned away from her. “I’m sorry! I, uh, I didn’t mean to - uh --”

Leah looked up at him, as if torn by his actions, “Iolaus, what is it? Where are you going? Did I say something?”

Iolaus glanced back at her briefly. “Oh, no! Um --” He turned away again, fidgeting, restless, not knowing what to do. He began to babble, his voice a bit high pitched, “It’s okay, I …um … Good night!”

He dashed off into the darkness, leaving her looking bewildered -- and a bit guilty - behind him.

And a little way from the camp, where Hercules had paused as he walked the perimeter, the demigod heard the sound of running footsteps, and suddenly, a great splash.

Immediately, his partner’s voice called out in a loud, high whoop. “W-o-o-o! That’s cold!”

Hercules grinned, although there was just a touch of worry and sadness in his expression. “Ah, Iolaus,” he said, with a sigh, a smile, and a shake of his head. “What am I gonna do with you?”

In the depth of the night in Pluribus, after most of the lamps were long extinguished, Trachis entered the innermost shrine of the temple. The gloom was barely kept at bay by two lamps on the altar. Trachis moved to the high table, and bowed before a wooden box that was inset just above the center of the table on the wall. He removed the lid and uncovered a gruesome relic that was the most sacred object of the temple.

Inside the reliquary was a grinning skull, a thing of power from ancient times. It was decorated with beads of lapis lazuli and had glowing tourmaline stones set in the empty eye sockets. It was said to be the skull of a powerful, long-ago priest of the Temple, who had been a great favorite of the goddess Hera, and his power was so great that petitions to Hera made there would almost always be granted.

Trachis bowed again, and spoke solemnly. “Hera - I call upon your help! Hercules seeks the Sword of Veracity to destroy all we’ve built! As your servant - and partner - I beseech you, make sure he does NOT succeed, and together we can continue to prosper!”

Away in the distance in the night sky, had anyone looked up from the volcanic peaks above Pluribus, they would have seen the terrible peacock eyes of Hera appearing in the night sky. Suddenly from those eyes, clouds began to boil, filling the skies over the mountains, not far from where Hercules, Iolaus, and Leah camped. Lightning began to flash within the clouds, and suddenly flashed to earth.

This was no ordinary lightning, however, because it struck inside the cave that was the destination of the heroes. The first bolt scintillated around a carved projection of stones within the cave. It caused the stones to glow with an unearthly radiance, which suddenly begin to transmute the rock into a moving shape that finally coalesced into … a Minotaur. The bestial creature roared, as the lightning struck again, and again …

Leah watched from the entrance to one of the small caves as the strange lightning zigzagged across the dark sky. She shivered as she heard the bolts crack through the air and strike the earth not far away, and wondered about the suddenness and strangeness of this storm. She had moved away from their camp, and brought wood and a burning brand to restart the fire the cave that was just behind their camp, concerned that they would need shelter, but there did not seem to be any rain accompanying this unusual tempest.

She startled as she heard footsteps, but breathed easier as she saw Hercules’ large form loom out the darkness into the light of the fire.

“Leah, are you all right?” he asked.

She nodded, sitting back down by the fire and leaning up against the cave wall. “I’m fine. The lightning woke me, and I thought it might be best to move here.”

“Good idea,” he replied, looking out at the strangely moving clouds and the bursts of illumination.

“Are you all right?” At his nod, she added, “What about Iolaus? Is he okay?”

“Yes he’s fine,” Hercules replied with a bit of a smile. “He’s taking his turn at watch now.”

She gazed out of the cave with a worried expression. “In this?”

Hercules nodded, as he prepared a place on the other side of the fire. As he tossed away small stones and twigs, and smoothed the sand to make an easier bed, he told her, “The lightning is still a little distance away, and if any rain comes, Iolaus will come here. But, oddly enough,” and he too glanced outside, “there doesn’t seem to be any rain with this storm, and no scent or sign of it coming.”

Hercules finished his preparations and sat down. “He’ll be all right,” he added, glancing over at her. Then he looked away with a small private smile, and went on, “Besides, he’s already a bit wet.”

“He is?” she asked, puzzled. “Why?”

“Long story. Anyway, go back to sleep.”

He was about to lie down when Leah said, “Hercules, I have this feeling you don’t believe that I want to help you find the Sword of Veracity.”

Hercules paused, and leaned on one arm, his biceps and triceps tensing with power, his brown skin shimmering in the firelight. He regarded her steadily, and finally spoke.

“To be truthful with you, Leah, you’re right. I’m not very certain about why you’re here.”

She leaned forward, her face and voice earnest. “How can I convince you that I’m serious about this quest being successful?”

“Tell me where the Sword is, right now,” he answered immediately, watching her face.

She looked away, frowning. “I’ve told you why I can’t do that.”

He nodded. “And I’ve told you why I have problems with that answer.”

She was silent for a long moment, her thoughts obviously racing, while Hercules waited and watched her intently. At last she looked back at him.

“Hestia is the goddess of the hearth, of the family, of the community. She wants any family or community or town to prosper, and if that is not happening in Pluribus, she would want to change it,” she spoke eagerly, hopefully. “When you take the Sword back, you can clear Amphion’s name and help save the town from this tyrant Trachis you have told me about. I want to help that to happen.”

Hercules met her eyes, and she found it difficult to hold his penetrating, crystal blue stare. After a moment, he replied more slowly, “Somehow, I don’t doubt that,” he said, his eyes never leaving her face, “but … I’m not sure what your motivation is, or what lengths you’ll go to in order to achieve it.”

“What do you mean by that?” she asked frostily.

“I’m not sure I know,” he replied, “And I may be dead wrong, but you haven’t acted like any other Hestial Virgin I’ve ever been around.”

“I’ll have you know that Hestia --”

Hercules raised a hand to stop her. “Save it. I’m too tired to listen right now, although I’m sure it would be a very exciting story,” he said wearily. “But there’s one thing you should know.”

He paused, and she saw his handsome face grow grim, and his blue eyes become icy. His voice was quiet, but very deliberate, as he said, “If you hurt Iolaus by anything you do or say, I swear to you, lady, I’ll not let it pass. If you hurt him, I’ll hurt you.” He watched her a moment longer, his eyes pitiless.

“Just so you know.” Hercules brushed the sand from his hands, and lay down. “Good night,” he told her, politely, and turned to face the wall.

Leah stared at his still form for a moment, her eyes wide, as a chill ran down her back. The she leaned back against the cave wall and stared out into the night with a serious, thoughtful frown …

The rising sun found Iolaus seated on a stone at their original campsite, slumped over with his head propped on his supporting arm, the elbow resting on his knee. His eyes were closed, and to all appearances he seemed to be asleep sitting up.

Hercules walked quietly towards him, and sat down on a stone that was behind and to one side of the one Iolaus perched on. Hercules sat watching his friend, azure eyes twinkling, and eating a fig. After a moment he spoke quietly.

“Sleep well?”

The reaction was immediate and startling. Iolaus jumped, realized it was Hercules, and relaxed into a stretch.

“Yeah - yeah,” Iolaus replied, wiping his mouth and glancing over at his shoulder at Hercules. Noting his friend’s grin, Iolaus grinned back ruefully. “Fine.”

Then, as if remembering an important fact, he added, “Oh, by the way - it worked.”

As Hercules eyebrows went up questioningly, Iolaus went on, “The - the - you know - jumping in the water.”

Hercules nodded. Calmly, he replied, “Ah, so this thing with Leah is over now?”

Iolaus shook his head. “Yeah, yeah - absolutely!”

Hercules appeared absorbed in studying his half-eaten fig. “Really?”

“Yeah!” Iolaus answered, definitely. “As far as I am concerned, she could be a tree.”

“Is that right?” Hercules replied, with apparent acceptance.

“Yep!”

From behind then, Leah walked out of the cave she had sheltered in during the lightning. “Good morning,” she greeted them.

Iolaus leaped up, and turned to face her, eagerly. “Sleep well?”

She smiled at him, though her eyes cut briefly to where Hercules stood behind him, regarding her steadily.

“Yes, thank you,” she said, and before Iolaus could answer, walked around him.

“That’s good,” he said, turning as she went past. “You look … rested.”

He followed her, a gentle smile lighting his face.

Hercules watched them go by, with a smile and a shake of his head for his friend, but with a thread of concern in his eyes.

“A tree, huh?” he repeated, to no one in particular. And with a sigh and a bit of a laugh, he stood and followed them …

The three travelers followed the rugged trail past the section of caves that they had searched the day before, and around a long spur of rock, past which the valley curved. As they came around the rock spur, they were suddenly faced with an even larger mountainside, thoroughly pockmarked with the dark openings of cave mouths.

Hercules sighed, and Iolaus exclaimed,” Oh, no! What now?”

Hercules looked down at Leah, who stood regarding the scene with doubtful eyes. “If it’s not too much trouble,” he said to her, impatiently, “do you think you could get Hestia to at least point us in the right direction?”

Leah darted a quick glance up at the demigod’s face and replied, dramatically, “Hestia works in mysterious ways!”

Hercules put his hands on his hips and regarded her silently, eyes narrowed. Leah swallowed, and added, “But I guess it wouldn’t hurt to try.”

Hercules lifted his arms and bowed. “Thank you!” he said, sardonically.

Leah walked to a large, flat-topped stone that faced the cave-infested mountainside almost directly. She boosted herself up onto the stone, and tucked her legs in, tailor-fashion, and spread her long, silvery gray robes over all, and then bowed her head over her clasped hands.

After a moment, she raised her arms out to the sides and began to hum a long note, “E-e-e-e-e.”

Hercules became aware of the note also coming from beside him. He looked down to see Iolaus watching with rapt fascination and humming along. Hercules rolled his eyes, and then whacked his friend’s shoulder with a quick backhanded blow to shut him up.

Iolaus looked up, stung, but then his attention was recalled by Leah, who was now singing “Hestia!” on the same long note as before. Her arms rose up high again as she ended the call.

She looked toward the mountainside, and Hercules wasn’t sure if her face held inspiration or desperation, but nonetheless, Leah reached out and pointed at a cave about a quarter of the way up the hillside, on the far right.

“There - that one!” she said.

Hercules looked at the cave, and then back at her. “Are you sure? It doesn’t look any different from the others.”

Leah hopped off the stone, and walked back toward them. “When I was a novice, Hestia tested me by asking me to find a small stone at the bottom of a huge quarry.”

Iolaus nodded, listening seriously. Hercules sighed and replied, “Uh-huh,” in a tone that said Give me a break!

Leah continued, very dramatically. “I searched for days, ceaselessly, until I finally gave up. When I sat down, the stone was right in front of me.”

Iolaus nodded, as though her story had answered a deep question. Hercules just shook his head with a sigh.

“So what you’re saying is -- we should just shut up and trust you,” Hercules stated, curtly.

“Not me,” Leah replied, coolly. “Hestia!”

“Well, for Amphion’s sake, I hope you and Hestia are right,” Hercules said, walking past her.

“Yeah - me too,” she said, wistfully, sincerely.

Iolaus had been looking at the cave to judge their path, and he suddenly shouted, “Look!”

The others followed his pointing finger to see a beam of brilliant noonday sunshine bouncing off the snowcap on one of the mountains on the other side of the valley, and arrowing down on the mouth of the cave that Leah had chosen.

Iolaus’ look of amazement was replaced by a delighted grin. “She did it!”

Hercules was dumbstruck for a moment, looking from the resplendent light and back to Leah. After a moment, he stammered, “I guess … I owe you an apology.”

Leah smiled. “Don’t worry about it.” As Hercules and Iolaus began to stride down the hill, she blew out a quick breath, and then ran to catch up.

It was a bit of a climb to get to the cave, especially the last hundred yards or so. The trail had diminished to a path more suited to a mountain goat, and the way to the Cave of Hestia was, at the end, a narrow ledge that just reached the opening, and then disappeared into sheer precipices.

The cave entrance was small, so that even Iolaus and Leah had to duck their heads, but the low-ceilinged entrance corridor widened up and out suddenly into a large cavern.

They began to look around, and noticed to their left a dark, tall opening into a corridor that led deeper. They had just started toward it, when there was a scrabbling of rocks in the shadows to their right.

Suddenly, a Minotaur leaped out into the broader cave, and roared a challenge.

Hercules, his eyes never leaving the bellowing creature, simply called over his shoulder, “Iolaus!”

Iolaus, so attuned to his friend, read Hercules’ every thought in the one word alone. “Yeah, okay!” he called, and, turning to Leah, took her arm, and began to move quickly for the opening into the depths of the cavern.

“C’mon - it’ll be okay!” he said, tersely.

The Minotaur growled, bent down and easily lifted a giant boulder, and then tossed it at the fleeing pair with a huge roar.

Hercules’ breath caught in his throat as the stone soared toward his companions, but another rock outcrop was in the way. Iolaus and Leah stepped back, and the boulder struck the outcrop with a resounding crash.

Iolaus jumped forward and met Hercules’ eyes across the distance. The demigod waved them forward impatiently.

“GO!” he shouted. “Get the Sword!”

Iolaus pushed Leah in front of him, and said, “Okay - let’s go!”

Leah balked, and protested, “Aren’t you going to help Hercules?”

Iolaus glanced back over his shoulder, watching his big friend striding purposefully toward the Minotaur, replied, “Nah!” and then he pushed her gently onward.

Hercules breathed a sigh of relief as Iolaus and Leah escaped into the corridor. He turned and faced the Minotaur, his body dropping naturally into battle stance.

The Minotaur bent and picked up a long, thick tree trunk that had somehow found its way into the cave. The creature brandished it clumsily at Hercules, still roaring.

Hercules lifted his arms and waved the Minotaur forward. “Anytime!” he invited.

The beast awkwardly but powerfully swung the long trunk at Hercules’ legs. Hercules leaped over it, and at the same time scissored a kick with one long leg. The Minotaur fell back, stunned, but shook its head and stayed on its feet.

Hercules, dancing back out of the way, said, “Come on - that had to hurt a little bit!”

The monster stepped forward and again swung his “club”, this time faster, and at Hercules’ head. Hercules jumped back, but the heavy wooden trunk caught him in the jaw, and knocked him back. He was still trying to regain his balance when the beast swung the trunk forward and caught him in the ribs.

Hercules leaned forward, as his breath was driven from his lungs. The Minotaur used his own momentum to whirl around and drive the tree trunk into Hercules’ legs from behind, and sweep his feet out from under him.

The demigod fell heavily to the sandy floor. He barely caught his breath before he looked up to see the monstrous creature bringing the tree trunk high up over his head, the way a man would swing an axe chopped wood. Hercules glimpsed the heavy wooden trunk flying down toward his head.

He dodged to the side, sat up quickly, and caught the end of the trunk as it hit the floor. Clutching the trunk like a club, he used all of his massive strength to fling the Minotaur - who kept hold of the other end - into an arc above his head, and down onto the cave floor face first. Since the beast was too stupid to let go, Hercules lifted it on the end of the tree trunk again and flung the creature over his head again and to crash down on its back on the hard floor.

Meanwhile, Iolaus and Leah picked their way carefully through the rocky passageway. Iolaus decided that the mountains around them must be mostly hollow, because openings at frequent intervals brought enough light glittering down from the surface to be able to see clearly enough to walk. It was evident that many explorers and treasure hunters must have attempted to trek through this cave before, because many old, rusted shields, knives, and not a few bones littered the passage floor.

Leah, walking behind and to one side of Iolaus discovered this fact very uncomfortably. As she stepped around a pillar of stone that blocked her way, she almost stumbled into a desiccated skeleton that was seated against the cave wall.

She screamed, and Iolaus jumped, whirled and caught her. “What?!” he shouted. She pointed with a shaking finger, and he looked down to find the skeleton grinning up at him.

“Okay - it’s okay!” he said, patting her shoulder. He immediately saw the cause of death of the late owner of the bones, because a long sword protruded from the ribcage of the skeleton.

Iolaus glanced up at Leah, who had now regained her composure. “Is that it?”

Leah shook her head, morbidly fascinated by the remains. “I can’t tell you, remember?”

“Okay - well …” Iolaus wiped his mouth and hitched his vest into place with a deep breath. “There’s only one way to find out!”

He wrapped his hands around the sword’s grip and pulled it carefully from its bony prison. “Excuse me,” he said to the skeleton.

He held the sword out in front of him, and intoned, “You’re the ugliest woman I’ve ever seen!”

“What?” Leah sputtered, totally bewildered.

“Just testing,” Iolaus assured her. “If the Sword makes you tell the truth - well …” he looked at her and grinned. “… this can’t be it!”

He replaced the sword gently as she nodded. “Hercules says if you hold the Sword of Veracity, or point it at someone, it’s impossible for either of you to lie.”

They stepped gingerly past the lonely remains, and began to walk onward, when, all of a sudden, a tremendous quaking rocked their surroundings, and nearly knocked them from their feet. Dust and some bits of rock rained down on them, but the rumbling stopped almost as soon as it started.

“What was that?” Leah asked, shakily.

Iolaus, hearing a frustrated roaring in the distance behind them, laughed, and replied proudly, “Hercules!”

They moved forward on their quest with renewed confidence …

The battle between Hercules and the Minotaur was certainly powerful enough to rock the walls of the caverns. At that moment they were trading massive blows, and the Minotaur was gaining the advantage.

A series of well-aimed blows and kicks had flung Hercules off balance, and the Minotaur took advantage of it. The creature grabbed the son of Zeus by the throat and began to lift his not inconsiderable weight off the cave floor.

Hercules brought one muscled arm around in a windmilling motion and struck the beast’s arm at a pressure point and cause the creature to scream with pain and drop him.

The Minotaur staggered back, clutching its spasming elbow, Hercules stepped forward and drove a formidable elbow into the creature’s snout.

The monster, enraged with pain, swung its good arm in a roundhouse blow, and knocked Hercules soaring across the cave to land with a breath-stealing sprawl on his back.

“Damn, I hate these things!” he wheezed, as he dragged himself up …

Iolaus and Leah were stumbling through a darker section of the passageway, with only a little light filtering down from above. Iolaus was leading with Leah close behind him. At that moment, she put one foot down and felt a lump that crunched slightly beneath her weight.

“Iolaus!!” she squeaked.

Iolaus spun to find her frozen, staring at him a bit wildly.

“Was that your foot I just stepped on?”

Iolaus, a bit confused, replied, “No.”

They both looked down and saw that she had trod on the foot of another skeleton. Their eyes traveled quickly up its ghastly length and saw it was suspended by manacles to the wall. Worst of all it appeared to still have rags of flesh clinging to the bony frame.

Leah’s step had apparently dislodged it somewhat, because the horrid thing fell towards her with a grisly shower of hair wafting from its rotting head.

With a shrill scream, Leah leaped away from the falling skeleton into Iolaus’ arms. The chains held, and the macabre remains hung silent and still again.

Iolaus, almost as startled, remembered to breathe, and said, his cheek next to hers, “It’s okay … um … I’ll protect you!”

Leah smiled gratefully.

At that very point in the battle raging some distance away, the Minotaur hit the wall with a tremendous crash. It fell forward a step, shook its massive head, and lunged at Hercules again. The demigod, who had fallen on his back doing a flying kick, brought both feet up to strike the creature with immense force in the groin.

This part of the Minotaur’s anatomy was apparently as sensitive as a human male’s, because the creature bellowed with agony, bent over, and clutched itself, incapacitated for the moment at least.

Hercules kicked upwards against the beast’s jaw so hard and so high that the Minotaur was flung through the air over Hercules’ head to land behind him. Hercules whirled and ran back into the fray …

Meanwhile, the other two seekers had just reached the inner sanctum of the Cave of Hestia. Torches illumined the large oval cave, and at first Iolaus wondered who could keep them alight. Of course it didn’t take long to figure out that the goddess of the hearth would easily be able to keep flames burning eternally wherever she wished.

More flames burned before the altar in a sunken hearth, and a large skylight also sent sunlight pouring in a beam that fell directly on the altar. Behind the altar, a tall sculpture of Hestia, with closed eyes, a serene face, and outstretched arms, rose majestically. The altar itself was shaped like a large scalloped shell, and its was filled to overflowing with swords - swords of every style throughout the known world, and perhaps beyond, Iolaus imagined glumly.

“There must be dozens of swords here,” he said, in frustration, as he paused at the foot of the altar. “This could take a really long time!”

He looked up when Leah did not answer, and saw her approaching the statue of the goddess. And now he noticed that there was writing carved in the stone representation of the cloak that flowed down from her open arms.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“It’s about the Sword!” Leah replied, excitedly. “Listen - it says: ‘Welcome to the Cave of Hestia, goddess of the Hearth. The Sword of Veracity is a powerful weapon. Once removed from the Cave it must be used with caution, then returned when its purpose has been fulfilled.’”

“Well,” Iolaus remarked, studying the large cache of weapons. “We don’t have time to check them one by one. Let’s take them all, and we can check them on the way back.”

He was bending to gather up an armful, when Leah called out, “No - wait! It says that only one sword can be removed from the cave. If we take any other we’ll never get out alive.”

Iolaus sighed. “I guess that’s what happened to our friends in the passageway, huh? And that’s our only choice?”

“That’s what it says.”

“Okay then - come on!” he said, with determination. “Let’s dive in. Grab one and hold it, and see if you can lie.”

He picked up a sword from the pile and demonstrated. “My name is Hercules and I love Hera!”

He looked over at Leah and they both laughed. “That’s not the one!” He tossed the sword aside, while Leah retrieved one from the cache.

She looked at the sword and said, very seriously, “I had a frog for breakfast!”

Hercules at that moment was dodging another large boulder that the Minotaur threw at him.

“Okay,” he huffed. “I have had enough of this!”

As the Minotaur charged, Hercules spun to one side and threw a walloping kick to the creature’s chest, then allowed his momentum to spin him around, adding force to the brutal punches he threw at the Minotaur’s face - left, right, left, right.

The last blow was so powerful that it knocked the beast around, and Hercules grabbed its nose ring and threw it forward. The creature sailed through the air and landed on the floor, face down in the sand near the cave entrance.

It was struggling dizzily to rise, when Hercules came running up behind and leaped into a flying kick to the monster’s backside that sent it soaring out of the cave entrance with a screaming bellow.

Hercules ran to the cave opening and saw that the Minotaur had overshot the narrow ledge in front of the cave and had flown headfirst over the steep precipice that dropped away for several hundred feet.

The son of Zeus did not even wait to see the beast crash on the rocky scree far below. Instead, he turned and started running through the passage into the depths of the cavern, hoping with his heart in his mouth that Leah and Iolaus had found no other such dangers in their path …

In actual fact, Hercules’ companions were beginning to enjoy their onerous task. They were having fun with the lies they were telling and trying to cap each other’s outrageous fibs.

Leah was at that moment holding a Persian shamshir, and declaiming, “This is a rutabaga!”

Iolaus giggled, and then remarked, holding up a Spartan machera, “I have two heads!”

Hercules was negotiating the passageway as fast as possible. He paused at one point, and not far way heard the clang of swords. With a muttered curse, he started running …

Iolaus was just about to tell his next whopper when they heard pounding footsteps, and suddenly Hercules burst from the passageway into the firelit chamber. He stopped short when he saw Iolaus and Leah, obviously not in danger and looking at him in surprise. He trotted over to them, shaking his head.

“There you are!” he said, reaching Iolaus’ side in front of the altar, and stopping to breathe for a moment. “I thought you were in trouble!”

Iolaus regarded him in some surprise. “Well, I was beginning to think you were, too.”

Hercules looked up at him and shook his head. “What on earth is taking you so long?”

Iolaus swept an arm out at the huge cache of swords before the altar in mute answer. “I was going to ask you the same thing!” he retorted.

Hercules shot back, “Well, I’ve been a bit busy!”

Iolaus looked at the sword in his hand and said, “Well, we’ve been taking a nap!”

He looked up and grinned at Hercules dumbfounded expression, and said, “Nah - we’ve just been ‘lying’ here for the last sunwidth - trying to find the right sword!”

Understanding dawned for Hercules as he noticed the piles of swords on the floor by their feet. “Oh, gotcha.”

He was bending down to grab one himself, when Iolaus declared, “Hercules - I hate your guts!” At the demigod’s confused glance, Iolaus laughed his head, “Oh, no offense, Herc!”

Leah was holding a Phoenician herebra, its bronze, leaf-shaped blade glowing in the firelight. “I can fly!” she stated firmly, and then giggled.

As her sword clanged down onto the pile of rejects, Hercules had caught up a blade that appeared to be a Dacian falx, and said conversationally, “This reminds me of the time I went after the Shield of Forgetfulness - which I never did,” he said, the falsehood easily spoken.

He threw the sword down and looked at Iolaus. “Turned out to be thousands of them. When I found the right one, I forgot why I came.”

Iolaus chuckled. “Oh, yeah - what did you do?” To the Roman gladius in his hand he intoned, “Look, a flying pig!”

Hercules grinned at Iolaus’ fib, but continued as he chose another sword. “I had it written on my hand ...” And as he picked up an Egyptian kopsh, he added, “…which fell off!”

Leah suddenly gasped. They looked up at her, and saw her holding another sword, still in a scabbard. “Look out! Two hairy monsters right behind you!” she cried, pointing.

Both men laughed. “Good one!” Iolaus commented, chuckling.

“No - really!” she cried, pointing more adamantly.

Hercules and Iolaus only had time to glance at each other when there was a terrible roaring behind them. The men whirled to see two Minotaurs with swords only about ten feet away.

Hercules took off running, with Iolaus right behind him, to keep from being trapped in the narrow area around the altar. Leah ducked behind the statue of Hestia, and watched anxiously as the two men skidded into the more open center of the cave. The Minotaurs divided forces and came at them from two different directions.

Leah noticed how fluidly the two warriors moved into position, back to back, each facing one of their enemies. She also saw Hercules reaching back, without taking his eyes off his oncoming foe, to touch Iolaus’ back, as though to reassure himself that his friend was with him, and okay.

She could not know the chain of memories that filled Hercules’ mind in bright, quick flashes of the Minotaur that had been his own half brother, and how that terrible creature had taken Iolaus away from Hercules side - almost forever.

But there was little time for him to ruminate. The creature facing him swept his sword in a deadly arc low, and he leaped it, while he sensed that the one facing Iolaus had attacked with a flashing cut high, and his friend had ducked it.

Over his shoulder, Iolaus complained, as he danced in front of the howling beast. “I thought you took care of this!”

Hercules, equally busy, snapped, “I thought I did!”

“Where did they come from then?”

“How should I know - why don’t you ask them?”

They both ducked blows simultaneously, and swung around, exchanging places. The two men ducked another blow, and Iolaus panted, “Somehow I don’t think this is the right time!”

“Why in Tartarus did we drop those swords?” Hercules wanted to know, as they each leaped another low, sweeping cut.

“So - Herc - how do you want to handle this?” Iolaus asked. “Not that I’m not having fun or anything …”

Hercules looked around, rapidly cataloguing their options. He glanced up and then back to his opponent. “Sometimes you have to improvise --”

Both men blocked a cut from their respective foes by jumping inside the swing, bringing their knees up so that they stopped the swinging blades at the hilts, then they each elbowed their opponents in the face to knock the grunting monsters back, both stunned. Leah, her eyes wide, was amazed at the mirror image fighting styles of the partners.

“Remember what we did against those two giants in Kardassus?” Hercules went on.

Iolaus’ face brightened. “Oh yeah,” he glanced up, fast, and then his gaze flew back to his opponent. “I gotcha!”

Another couple of sweeping attacks from the Minotaurs sent Hercules leaping and Iolaus whirling and scooting under Hercules before he landed. Just as his feet touched down, Hercules saw their chance.

“Now!” he shouted. At that precise moment, Iolaus, who had gathered his strong legs beneath him in a squat, sprang upwards. Hercules, his superhuman strength powering his long leg muscles, did the same, but he also caught his friend’s vest, and gave him a mighty boost.

The two friends soared upward and caught hold of two of the stalactites that hung from the cavern’s ceiling. At the same exact second, the two Minotaurs lunged forward, and each beast’s sword sank deeply into its counterpart’s belly. The monsters screamed in agony and rage as the bloody blades penetrated their bodies and erupted from their backs.

With a howling wind, a booming roar, and a scintillation of sparks, the two bellowing creatures evaporated and vanished. The two heroes saw their battle won, dropped from their perch, and landed on their feet, their breath heaving.

They looked at each other with a nod that said everything, and added, in unison, “Minotaurs!”

Leah, meanwhile, was wasting no time. She darted from behind the statue to the altar, and took up another sword. This one was in a leather scabbard, and as she removed the covering, a metallic tone seemed to be struck from the blade and linger in the air.

It was a long sword, a “hand and a half” sword. In style it appeared to be an ancient Mycenean Xiphos with a straight blade chased with gold. Ancient symbols of power embellished the blade near the hilt, and the gleaming metal seemed to bear no sign of its great age.

As Leah held the sword, curiously unable to think of another lie, Iolaus had tuned to join her and found the blade pointing directly at him. Hercules was just behind his friend and heard Iolaus sigh deeply.

Regarding Leah soulfully, Iolaus declared, passionately, “You are, far and away, the most beautiful woman I have ever seen! I think I’m falling in love with you!”

Hercules quickly stepped up behind Iolaus, whether to support his friend or shield him, he wasn’t sure, but quickly realized it was much too late for that.

Leah, for all the flirting of which Hercules felt she had been guilty, appeared genuinely stunned, and remorseful. “Iolaus!” she gasped.

Hercules stepped around Iolaus, pressing a hand quickly to one broad shoulder as he passed, both amused and concerned. He could see, from his friend’s horrified expression, that Iolaus was just realizing that he had made that statement aloud.

The demigod laughed a bit awkwardly as he came forward to Leah’s side. He gently took the Sword - for obviously it was the Sword of Veracity indeed - from her nerveless fingers.

“You’d … better let me have that!” he said, and slid the blade carefully into the leather scabbard. As soon as it was covered, Iolaus stepped toward Leah convulsively.

“Oh - I’m sorry!” he stammered, breathlessly. “I didn’t mean - I --”

As he broke off unintelligibly, Leah recovered enough to try to lighten the moment. “Well, at least we know it works!” she said, in a valiant attempt at brightness.

Hercules, his eyes on his friend’s scarlet face, replied quickly, “Yeah - shall we go?”

As they passed him, Iolaus smacked his hand to his face remorsefully. As Hercules walked by him, he said in a quiet aside to his friend, “This thing really is dangerous!”

Leah paused briefly, and held Iolaus’ eyes, but appeared to express as much apology as disdain. He didn’t understand that look, but was too consumed by his own embarrassment to ask for explanations. The moment passed, and Iolaus slowly followed the others out of the cavern …

In Pluribus at that moment, Trachis’ men were bursting into homes and shops all over town. Men, women, children, elders -- townspeople of all ages were being rounded up by the guardsmen and herded into the courtyard of Hera’s temple.

Among them was Amphion’s friend, Lycus. Like many of the others, he kept asking, “Where are you taking us? What have we done?”

From a grilled window that looked out from the inner sanctum onto the courtyard, Trachis stood, watching the milling, frightened group of villagers, and laughing. He motioned to the guards behind him to bring Amphion, now freed from the rack, forward to the window.

Trachis pulled Amphion the final few steps forward by the neck to stand at the window beside him. “Like lambs to the slaughter!” he observed, chuckling.

Amphion looked out on the scene, and whatever color had returned to his face drained abruptly.

“You preached your high ideals, Amphion,” Trachis went on, “but that’s over now.” Trachis looked at Amphion’s profile, one hand still on his neck. “I know about Carthage. That’s why you’re doing this, isn’t it?”

Trachis laughed gleefully. “As if your martyrdom will bring them back!” He moved around to Amphion’s other side and watched his face as he continued. “Those poor innocent women and children! I think you should reconsider my offer, because if you don’t cooperate, history might just repeat itself!”

Hercules and Leah trudged down the last slope to the trail in the valley. Iolaus was about twenty paces behind, still obviously dispirited.

Leah stopped, and turned, waiting for him. Hercules paused as well, watching his friend’s face intently.

“Iolaus?” she asked gently.

Iolaus shrugged, his face flushed. “I just feel so - so …”

Leah forestalled him. “Don’t worry about it,” she pleaded. “If you want to know the truth, I was flattered!”

Hercules could tell his partner was still writhing under the lash of his own self-judgment, and tried to divert the spotlight. “Leah - now that we’ve found the Sword, why are you coming back with us?”

“Uh, why?” Leah stuttered.

“Yeah,” Hercules nodded.

Leah began slowly, “Well, because…” and then that faraway look entered her eyes, and she went on more forcefully, “Hestia wanted me to! She came to me in a vision …”

“Uh-huh,” Hercules cut her off. He exchanged glances with Iolaus, and saw that this time Iolaus didn’t seem to be buying her story as much either. “I see,” he added, his disbelief patent.

Leah raised her chin defiantly and began to arrange the hood of her robe back over her head. “You know, I care about what happens in Pluribus, just like Hestia. Trachis has to be stopped!”

Hercules watched her, but Iolaus, looking away, noticed a new problem. “Uh-oh - we’ve got company!”

Hercules and Leah turned to see about a dozen of Trachis’ men, led by their Captain, melt out of the underbrush near the trail.

“Looks like Trachis wants to stop us,” Hercules observed, grimly. He turned, took a few steps toward the guards, and spoke pleasantly, “If you wouldn’t mind stepping aside, we have a long day ahead of us - much to do!”

The Captain cried, “Take them!”

In the melee that followed, Leah’s heart was in her mouth with twelve men against two. But a thread of hope began when she saw Hercules and Iolaus jump into action like a well-oiled machine. Without any signal, the two of them charged forward to meet the soldiers on the ground of their choosing, and at the same time, led them away from her.

And though both men were fighting several adversaries at once, their lightning speed, their amazing power, and their incredible skill seemed to even the odds immensely. She watched Iolaus vanquish several opponents with swords, and watched Hercules batter several oncoming soldiers with the helmeted head and the booted feet of a third he held easily thrown behind his back.

It wasn’t long before Iolaus defeated all the swordsmen he faced, and Hercules knocked down four men in a row with a flying battering ram of a punch. The smaller man ran to his friend in time to laugh at his work. Iolaus spun to look for other foes and caught his breath.

“Herc!” he cried. Hercules whipped his head around to look over his shoulder, and saw Leah held by the Captain of the Guard with a knife to her throat. His Lieutenant stood next to them, watching the heroes warily.

The heroes leaped forward, but the Captain stopped them with a motion of the knife towards Leah. Hercules and Iolaus froze, angry and watchful.

“That’s far enough!” The Captain ordered. “Move and I’ll kill her!” The man laughed as he saw the two heroes reluctantly obey.

“Now - who do we have here?” He inquired, and pulled the hood back. His eyes widened as he saw one of Trachis’ own house servants beneath the hood.

“Leah!” he gasped.

The girl felt his arm around her throat slacken briefly, and seized her chance. She punched her elbow back with all her might into his solar plexus and knocked him backward with a wheezing gasp. When the lieutenant lunged for her, she danced back, pulling her arm back, and then driving it forward in a pile-driving blow that had all her weight behind it. She walloped the lieutenant so hard he fell.

Hercules and Iolaus looked on with their jaws dropping in surprise.

Leah whirled to pick up the Sword of Veracity from where Hercules had dropped it. She batted the lieutenant across the face with the hilt as he was trying to rise and toppled him again. Then, as the recovering Captain leaped for her, she used the pommel as a club and struck him in the face with it. The captain fell heavily on to his back, clutching his battered nose.

With a jerk of her hand, Leah flung the scabbard off the Sword and whipped the point to the Captain’s armored chest, just above his heart. Hercules and Iolaus exchanged a quick look of amazement, but they were even more amazed when the big, bullying Captain began to babble from the power of the Sword.

“Don’t hurt me! I -- I’m a coward! Honest! I - I just work for Trachis because it pays well and - and girls like the uniform!” He ended with a sickly smile.

Leah watched him with disdainful, narrowed eyes. She pushed him back against the ground with the sword’s point pressing against the armor plating just above his heart. Iolaus felt Hercules move anxiously as if to protest, but the smaller man reached out an arm to still his friend’s movement.

“Wait for it,” he whispered, without taking his eyes from Leah’s face.

The Captain, feeling the pressure of the Sword’s tip against his chest, squeaked, “I’ll do anything - please! Please let me go!”

Disgustedly, Leah lifted the blade. “Get out of here! And don’t go back to Pluribus!” she snapped, with a jerk of his head. The man leaped up and ran off - in the opposite direction from Pluribus, as directed.

Leah whirled on the chief lieutenant, who stood, still in shock at his Captain’s truthful confessions. With the Sword of Veracity to his throat, the man stammered, “M-my Father beat me when I was a kid! Being a bully is all I know!”

“Well, it’s never too late to change.” Hercules interpolated.

The soldier’s face brightened. “I always liked working with my hands,” he told Leah. Then he turned to Hercules and Iolaus. “I could make pottery!” he exclaimed, excitedly.

Hercules and Iolaus looked at each other in amused surprise. “Sure,” Hercules replied, nodding and swallowing a laugh.

The man looked back at Leah hopefully. She gestured over her shoulder with a flash of the bright blade. The man went running off and they heard him babble happily, “Bruce and I can open that interior decorating business we’ve always dreamed about!”

Hercules bore down on Leah purposefully, with Iolaus right behind. As they reached her, Hercules regarded her with a penetrating stare, and asked in a voice that brooked no diversions, “So - who are you, Leah? No Hestial Virgin could handle herself like you just did.”

Leah, holding the Sword of Veracity, was compelled both by it and Hercules’ urging to finally speak the truth.

“Three years ago,” she replied, in a low voice, staring at the Sword in her hands, “Trachis killed my parents in Thrace.”

Hercules and Iolaus exchanged a look of dawning comprehension.

Leah went on, speaking quickly from the force of a secret held too long. “I followed him to Pluribus and, since he had never seen me, got a position as one of his servants, so I could get close enough to kill him. I - I didn’t care what happened to me. I swore on my parents’ graves that I would avenge them.”

Hercules frowned, watching her. “But it’s been three years. You must have had plenty of chances.”

Leah still faced the Sword, but both men could see that a warm, soft light suffused her features, dispelling the dark, cold expression just before.

“I met Amphion,” she answered, simply. “He taught me a better way.” She looked up at them, and smiled radiantly. “He’s not just my teacher. We’re - we’re going to be married.”

Hercules glanced down at Iolaus, with a sudden concern. His friend was smiling, but Hercules could tell that the smile attempted to hide his mortification.

“Great!” Iolaus said, his jauntiness a bit forced. “Congratulations!”

Leah glanced at Iolaus, but her cheeks grew red and she could not meet his eyes. She handed the Sword to Hercules with a quietly voiced, “Here.”

Hercules asked, sternly, “Why didn’t you tell us before?”

“Would you have taken me along?” she inquired, her chin coming up challengingly.

Hercules regarded her unwaveringly, “If you told us the truth about being Amphion’s fiancée and about your fighting abilities - very possibly,” he replied, equally challenging.

“Well, I didn’t know that,” she retorted. “Most men I’ve known - except for Amphion -- wouldn’t have respected my abilities.” Her voice lost some of its defensiveness and became more pleading. “And I couldn’t just wait around - I had to do something for him. I - I thought I could help.”

Hercules, considering the cave choice she made, replied, grudgingly, “Well, maybe you did …” Glancing down at Iolaus trying to put a brave face on his confusion and embarrassment, he added, with a hint of accusation, “… and maybe you didn’t.”

Leah felt condemnation from his words and her own conscience. “She turned to Iolaus with a deep breath and said, contritely, “Iolaus - I’m so sorry. I - I didn’t mean to mislead you. It’s just … I was ready to do anything to make sure you took me along - for Amphion’s sake.”

Iolaus smiled, and shrugged, and spoke with a voice that held a hint of shakiness. “You did what you had to do for love,” he replied, with a quick glance up at Hercules that communicated many things. “I can understand that, and I think Hercules can, too, if he thinks back a bit.”

Hercules met Iolaus’ eyes and smiled slightly, with a bit of a nod.

“Besides which,” Iolaus added, with a laugh that tried hard to be lighthearted, “if you look at the bright side, Leah - at least I won’t burn in Tartarus for having fantasies about a Virgin priestess!”

Leah giggled, both flattered and relieved, and Hercules clapped his friend’s shoulder briefly.

“Well, I hate to interrupt, but if she’s getting married, I think we’d better go rescue the groom!” He picked up the leather scabbard, inserted the Sword, and began to walk away. Leah smiled uncertainly at Iolaus, and started to follow.

Iolaus motioned and stopped her. “Leah - the story about the rocks in the quarry - you made it up, right?” he asked.

“Yeah,” she answered. She folded her arms and looked a bit smug, and a bit shamefaced. “Pretty good, huh?’

Iolaus nodded, but then with a puzzled expression, stated, “But you still picked the right cave!”

“Yeah, I know,” she answered, equally bewildered. She glanced around at the caves, and then back at him. “I’ve been wondering about that myself!”

The sun was sinking in molten glory over the Thallian Mountains, which rose above Pluribus just to the west. In the Eastern sky, the full moon was already rising in a wash of reflected silver. In the town, the pulsing sounds of drumming filled the air with an ominous, throbbing anticipation.

The drumming and the susurration of many anxious voices filled Hera’s temple courtyard. The drummers, with faces painted barbarically, stood on the steps of the dais. Their pulsing beat washed over many anxious faces that viewed the sight of several of their neighbors, including Amphion’s friend Lycus, a young girl and her mother, and an elderly man, straining at the ropes that held them bound to a stake piled high with firewood. A line of guards separated the anxious, angry crowd from the staked victims.

A flicker of movement brought everyone’s attention to the dark doorway into the inner sanctum beneath the dais. As the drumbeats reached a furious peak, Trachis sauntered out of that doorway, followed by Amphion and flanked by guards. As Amphion stumbled out, fatigued and in pain from the ordeal he had undergone for the last day and night, he startled at the sight of the stake, and his friends and neighbors who were bound there.

Trachis held up a hand and the drums came to a pounding conclusion. In the silence that followed, Trachis took a torch from one of the guardsmen in the line between him and the crowd, and then stepped to Amphion’s side.

“Beautiful sunset, isn’t it?” Trachis asked Amphion conversationally, gesturing up to where the chariot of Helios drove into the darkness of the underworld, leaving only a wash of brilliant rose and heliotrope in the sky. These colors were reflected in the huge, glowing disk of the rising moon, climbing in the East.

“Ah, well,” the tyrant went on, briskly. “Time for this foolishness to end!”

Trachis nodded to a bowman who nocked an arrow to the bowstring and pointed it high into the darkening sky.

Trachis addressed Amphion, but his voice carried to the whole crow. “At my command, he will release that arrow. If you still refuse to cooperate by the time it hits the ground, your friends will burn!”

Amphion regarded Trachis furiously out of dark-ringed eyes. Though a muscle jumped in his well-cut jaw, he was silent.

Trachis shrugged. “It’s your choice.” He turned and addressed the crowd, his deep harsh voice booming. “If Amphion was just a murderer he’d die alone. But he’s commanded you to steal from the great goddess Hera while infecting you with his false message of love and brotherhood.”

He smiled, then, but the wavering glitter of torchlight turned his black dragon helmet, black armor, and the shifting shadows of his face into a macabre grimace of Thanatos himself.

The priest of Hera continued, in an oily voice of pretended charity. “Fortunately, Hera is forgiving. She has commanded me to give Amphion one last chance to retract his lies - before the rest of you pay the price!”

A woman in the crowd, no doubt kin to one of the victims, shouted desperately. “Save them! Kill Amphion instead!”

Trachis quelled the growing muttering. “Enough!” He nodded to the waiting archer who released the arrow. The faces of the throng lifted, following the missile’s flight against the backdrop of the enormous full moon. The arrow reached the peak of its high, tight arc, looped over, and started speeding back to earth. With a whizzing rush, it landed quivering in the hard-packed earth between the flagstones of the courtyard.

All eyes turned to Amphion, who stood staring at the arrow with anguished eyes. He looked up at the staked victims, his grief and indecision palpable.

Trachis growled, “You fool!” He turned and walked to the mound of brush carrying the torch. He slowly held out the brand of hungry flames, bending inexorably closer to the dry wood.

“Wait!” Amphion shouted desperately. Everyone gasped and snapped their attention to the former soldier.

Trachis slowly and casually looked over his shoulder. “What did you say?”

Amphion replied, quietly, hopelessly. “I’ll do anything you say - just don’t hurt them!”

Trachis turned fully toward Amphion, his laughter gloating, his piggish features alight with triumph.

Suddenly, the crowd gasped as the massive locks and bolts of the heavy wooden gates of the temple were shattered by a resounding blow, and the gates crashed open, banging against the stone gateway on either side with a shower of splinters.

Striding in through the gates, Hercules appeared to be an avenging deity, beautiful, golden, and angry. Iolaus, flanking him on the left looked equally beautiful and powerful, gleaming bronze in the torchlight. Leah, flanking him on the right, seemed to be a silver moon-goddess, cold, beautiful and terrible.

“Trachis!” Hercules roared.

The tyrant, startled and furious, but no to be outdone, cried, “Hercules! You’re too late! Amphion was just about to confess. The will of Hera must be done!”

“Hera’s will,” Hercules asked, dangerously quiet, “or yours?”

“This is no time for troublemakers!,” Trachis bellowed. “Stop them!”

The line of guardsmen began to surge forward, but Hercules halted them by drawing the glittering Sword of the gods and lifting it high into the air.

“This is the Sword of Veracity!” he called out, his voice rich and resonant.

The crowd sighed in a chorus of wonder as all eyes gazed on the fire-bright weapon that gleamed of gold, silver and bronze.

“In its presence, no one can tell a lie!” he went on. Hercules lowered his arm and pointed the Sword toward Trachis, who had turned and begun to edge toward the stairs.

“Trachis!” the demigod shouted. “Trachis - look at me!”

The dark-clad priest whirled as if compelled by the power of Hercules’ voice or the magic of the Sword.

With the sword held out toward Trachis by the taut, muscled length of his arm, Hercules stated, implacably, “You killed Tallis and Sheera, didn’t you?”

Trachis snarled like a rabid animal. “So, what if I did?” he roared. “It was a small price to pay! Amphion’s a fool -- can’t you see that? Peace and brotherhood! They’re just words - they don’t work, not in this world!” He surveyed the crowd, enraged. “You wanted law and order, and I gave it to you!”

“And all that tribute you collected,” Hercules continued relentlessly. “It went into your own pockets, didn’t it?”

“And what difference does it make?” the tyrant sneered. “I earned it!” He whirled to address the guards. “What are you standing there for? Kill them!”

The guards charged as the townspeople fled, in a flurry of screams and cries. Hercules, Iolaus, and Leah sprang to meet the attacking soldiers with fierce battle.

Hercules quickly subdued two guards as though they were children and used one of the dazed men as a club to batter two more attackers.

Iolaus battled three soldiers armed with very different weapons - Egyptian sickle swords, Chin numchucks, and a Macedonian longsword. Iolaus fought brilliantly, with the grace and fluidity of a dancer and the power of a young lion. He leapt sweeps of both sickles and numchucks, then blocked a cut of the longsword, and threw a stunning elbow into the swordsman’s face.

The man’s nose shattered with a brittle crunch of breaking bone. He fell backward, screaming and releasing the sword. Iolaus caught the sword and whirled to block blows from the other weapons. Ripping the weapons away from the attackers’ hands, Iolaus leapt into the air and kicked both men in the jaw with more sounds of breaking bones. Those men fell heavily and would not be rising soon.

Iolaus whirled, and checked for his counterparts. Hercules was mowing down most of the rest of the soldiers using his living weapon as a giant would use a club. Leah fought two of the guardsmen in a row, both much bigger than her and both who seriously underestimated her strength, skill, and absolute ferocity. She punched, kicked, and flipped both men one after the other, using their own strength and slower reflexes against them. Both went down heavily.

Trachis, seeing his forces dwindle alarmingly, looked around for any possible aid. His eyes fell on the victims struggling at the stake, and he saw a way to get back at Hercules, Amphion and his other enemies, as well as provide a diversion that would allow his escape.

“No one can save you now!” he cried to the unfortunates. “Burn for Hera!”

He dropped his torch on the tinder-dry firewood around the stake. The greedy flames spread like the wind, and he laughed at the screams of the victims, then turned and fled into the shadows.

Iolaus and Hercules plowed through the remainder of the guards, and ran for the burning pyre, as did all of the townsfolk brave enough to stay nearby. Amphion, too, despite his bound hands, was doing his best to kick some of the burning wood away from the prisoners.

In the midst of the melee, Leah called out, “Where’s Trachis?” even as she was frantically untying ropes.

“Never mind him!” Hercules shouted, as he beat at the flames with someone’s cape.

Between them all, the fire was doused and the prisoners were freed. In the joyous hubbub that followed, Lycus made his way through the throng to Amphion’s side. He reached out and took Amphion’s bound hands into his own.

Amphion met his friend’s gaze contritely. “Lycus - I’m sorry I gave in!”

Lycus shook his head. “You were trying to save lives, as always!”

Iolaus had stepped to Hercules’ side and exchanged a relieved glance with him. “That was close!” Iolaus remarked.

“Too close!” Hercules agreed.

Iolaus alertly glanced past Hercules, his attention caught by movement near the gates. “Hercules!” he cried, pointing.

Hercules whirled and his eyes met the arrogant, gleeful glance of Trachis, as the tyrant slipped from the shadows towards the ruined gate of the temple. The dark priest laughed as he met Hercules gaze, thinking that he could get away into the night before the son of Zeus could cross the wide courtyard. He turned and ran for the gateway.

Hercules, his body and mind quicker than most mortals, observed the problem, saw the solution, and acted. He raced forward several paces, tucked and rolled, and came up with a bolo that one of the vanquished guardsmen had dropped. Using his own momentum coming up from the roll, Hercules hurled one end of the weapon, and the weighted, lithe rope flew across the courtyard and twined around the neck of the fleeing man.

Hercules pulled with all of his mighty power, jerking Trachis off his feet and dragging the heavy man across the wide, flagged courtyard as easily as though he was made of feathers. The force of his arms was so strong, that Trachis’ momentum carried him up several of the stairs of the dais, bashing his face into the stone steps as he hit them.

Hercules stepped over to the dazed, groaning man and asked, conversationally, “Going somewhere?”

Suddenly, the point of the Sword of Veracity touched Trachis’ throat. The tyrant and Hercules both looked up to see Leah holding the weapon with an expression of grim, absolute determination.

Trachis was stunned to see one of his servants in such a position. “His eyes widened and he gobbled, hoarsely, “You!”

Leah nodded. “Yes, it’s me, but we haven’t truly been properly introduced,” she replied, her eyes never leaving his. “Remember Thrace? That was my mother and father you killed!”

Amphion, now free of his bonds, stepped up to stand beside Leah. “Wait, Leah - what are you doing?”

Leah turned the sword in her hands, so that she could use it like a stake, and thrust through Trachis’ throat in seconds.

“I’m keeping a promise!” she replied, her voice shaking with passion and anguish, still not meeting her fiancée’s eyes.

“Killing him won’t bring them back!” Amphion declared urgently. “Have you forgotten everything we’ve believed in?”

“I don’t care anymore, “ she said, her teeth clenching. She refined her grip on the Sword preparing to stab downward into the fat man’s chest.

“Don’t say that! You know it’s not true,” Amphion responded, vehemently. “You will care later, and you will never get over it! Trust me, Leah!”

Hercules put a hand out to Amphion. “No! Don’t stop her!” Hercules interceded. He jerked the now blathering priest up by the rope he still held around the man’s throat.

Trachis babbled, “I don’t w-want to d-die!” His whole body was shaking as he saw the wild determined light in Leah’s eyes. “I was just doing my job!”

Leah raised the Sword up over her head. Her eyes widened, and her breath came faster and faster.

“Go ahead,” Hercules said quietly. “If it’s what you really want - do it!” His crystal-blue eyes regarded her gravely. “But remember that you have to live with a very hard truth afterward!”

Leah wrenched her eyes from Trachis’ face, and looked up at Hercules. Their eyes met in wordless communication for a long moment. In the silence the only sounds were the sighing of the wind and the sobbing of Trachis. Iolaus and Amphion, next to Hercules, watched breathlessly.

Finally, Leah sighed, and lowered her arms slowly. Trachis slumped against the steps, sobbing harder in relief. Amphion grabbed her and hugged her, and they laughed. Hercules and Iolaus exchanged relieved glances, and the demigod gingerly relieved the Sword from Leah’s clasp without the girl really noticing.

Hercules retrieved the scabbard and slid the Sword back inside. As he and Iolaus watched the townspeople creep out of hiding and begin to gather happily around the betrothed couple, the demigod turned to his friend with a smile.

“All’s well that ends well, I guess,” Hercules said, as they watched a deputation of townspeople herd Trachis off to the cells inside the temple.

Iolaus nodded, with a grin. “And that’s the truth!”

Hercules rolled his eyes, but he couldn’t help but smile. “Iolaus, I expect better of you. I don’t know why, but I do!”

And their laughter joined the general chorus that began to fill a free Pluribus …

Two days later, on a beautiful, clear morning, there was a festive crowd in the town square, just outside the temple of Hestia. A holiday spirit was evident and there were flowers and banners in abundance.

Suddenly, someone in the crowd called, “Here come the newlyweds - Amphion and Leah!”

From the interior of the temple, Amphion, and Leah, beautifully dressed and wearing finery of white and silver, walked hand in hand, their faces radiant with happiness. People on both sides of the doorway showered them with white flower petals, and the crowd cheered.

The pair walked through the pathway made by the throng of friends and neighbors, and made their way to where Hercules and Iolaus stood waiting for them, with glad smiles.

“Congratulations, you two,” Hercules greeted them warmly. “It was a beautiful ceremony!”

Amphion beamed as he gazed at his new wife happily. “Thanks, Hercules,” he said, turning back to the two men. He noticed the Sword of Veracity bound in its scabbard and a small packet of supplies on Iolaus back. “Hey - are you going so soon? Surely you’re staying for the party!”

Hercules glanced down at the smaller man, and though Iolaus’ lips still smiled, his eyes communicated a definitely negative response, easily read by his best friend’s searching gaze.

Hercules smiled slightly, then looked back at Amphion apologetically. “Well, we’d better get the Sword back before it causes any more trouble!”

Amphion looked at bit puzzled, but smiled warmly at both men and replied, “Well, thanks for all that you did to bring it to my aid, old friends!”

Hercules smile broadened as Amphion held out his arm, and they exchanged a warrior’s armclasp. “Anyone so devoted to the cause of peace and brotherhood deserves our support!” he replied.

As they released their grip, Amphion looked at both heroes. “I teach it, Hercules, but you and Iolaus live it. Thanks for the example for all of us.”

Leah leaned over to Iolaus and kissed him gently on the cheek. “Good-bye Iolaus,” she said. “Happiness in everything you do!”

Iolaus’ cheeks flushed slightly under his tan, but he smiled steadily at her. “So long, Leah.” With a glance at Amphion, he added, “I’ll return that wish, although it looks like you’re well on your way.”

Iolaus then turned to Amphion. “Amphion, you’d better take care of her - I’ve seen how she can fight!” The two men laughed and exchanged a hearty armclasp.

“Iolaus - thanks for everything!”

Hercules briefly took Leah’s hand. “Leah, we’ve had our differences, but I wish you every happiness. Be safe.”

Leah smiled up at him. “No hard feelings, Hercules,” she replied, with a bit of a challenging light in her eyes. “ We were both following our hearts, protecting those we love.”

Hercules smiled thoughtfully, gave a quick nod, as if acknowledging a hit, and dropped her hand. Cheers and farewells followed the two men as they began to walk from the town square.

Iolaus couldn’t wait longer. “What was that last bit about?” he asked, curiously.

“Ah, nothing,” Hercules replied, dismissively. “Just a little discussion Leah and I had while you were on watch that night.”

Iolaus regarded him expectantly, but Hercules said no more. “Well? What about?”

Hercules just smiled and shrugged.

“I hate it when you get that look,” Iolaus grumbled. “You’re not gonna tell me, are you?”

“I told you the truth,” Hercules answered, his eyes dancing as they shouldered through the crowd toward the town gate. He ever so slightly emphasized the last word. “It really was nothing.”

“Truth,” Iolaus echoed, shaking his head with a rueful grin. “Such an important thing, but you gotta be careful with it.”

Hercules chuckled. “That’s for sure.”

Iolaus asked, “Hey - speaking of which - can I see the Sword? In all the busyness, I never got a good chance to look at it.”

They paused at the edge of the busy market and Hercules handed him the Sword. Iolaus pulled the weapon from the leather scabbard and looked at it closely. He turned the blade so he could examine the ancient symbols etched into the blade near the hilt.

“Boy, it’s hard to believe such a simple thing could be so powerful,” he said.

Suddenly, two women’s voices behind them became more strident in their discussion, and the two men could hear them clearly.

The older of the pair said, “You want to know what I do with those fruitcakes you make every year? I feed them to the goats!”

Iolaus and Hercules looked at each other in guilty amazement, then looked over their shoulder. The older woman was nodding at the younger, her arms folded. The younger woman, whom both men recognized as one of Amphion’s friends who had been bound to the stake, stood with her hands on her hips, her little daughter beside her.

She looked at the older woman, and replied angrily, “Oh, yeah? Well, I only put up with you because you’re married to my brother. I never liked you anyway!”

She caught her daughter’s hand, said, “Come on!” and flounced away.

Iolaus was grimacing as he quickly handed the Sword to Hercules. “Uh, I guess that’s a case n point, huh?”

Hercules rapidly slipped the Sword under cover, and said, with a shake of his head, “As I guess you’ve found out a couple of times now on this adventure, hey, Iolaus?”

Iolaus laughed. “Oh, yeah - ouch!”

Hercules chuckled and threw a comforting arm around him as they walked out of the gate of Pluribus. “Iolaus, my friend, I think we need to find you a nice, safe, happy little festival!”

Iolaus’ face lit up and he did a quick dance step, dislodging his friend’s arm. “Oh, yeah, now that’s what I’m talking about! But wait - what do you mean ‘little’? We should go for big - really big! Hey - how about that big Harvest Festival they have down on the coast, at Tiryns? It should be starting soon. They do games and dances - and they do contests -- pie-eating contests! Whaddya say, Herc? Herc …?”

And the companionable sounds of their laughter and banter filled the morning air with brotherhood and peace …

-- Finis --

Melisande
April, 2004



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